Monday, December 31, 2007

Someone agrees with me!!!

In a previous post I criticized the new Malibu's rear styling, while mentioning that the automotive press does not seem to share this view. Well, someone in the press has finally recognized this fact. Autoblog characterizes the taillights as "something of an after thought" in this post. Vindication!

That is all.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

At Long Last

In an earlier post, I rejoiced at the opportunity that the new M3 has provided to directly compare the engineering abilities of Audi (with the RS 4) and BMW. Well, our favorite British TV import, Top Gear, has finally put these two firecrackers head to head. As expected, they've included the less comparable but finally deserving Mercedes C63 AMG. Take a gander (it's in 3 parts):



Well, I guess the M3 has come out on top once again, which is disappointing, since I've been waiting for a car as beautiful inside and out as the RS 4 to be as devastatingly quick as the M3. Keep working on it, Audi.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Longest Car Ad...EVER!!!

So I can't sleep at all right now, and I've been reduced to watching VH1, which is one of the only channels that isn't running infomercials at 5 am. I just sat through the longest GM ad I've ever seen. It was actually Bon Jovi's Lost Highway video, but it looks as though it was produced entirely by GM's ad agency. The camera even manages to fit the Saturn logo in the shot any time the video's main character has a close-up. The song is also quite banal, fitting for a car ad.

Normally I would applaud a company for creative product placement, but this "vidvert" has gone a little too far. As AutoBlog has put it in the past, citing the overdone GM placement in one of those Matrix sequels, product placement is fine, as long as it's not so obvious as to detract from the plot.

Check it out and see what I mean.

Designa Oscura

I don't recall a time when an automaker has consistently shot itself in the foot in the area of styling quite as much as Ford has lately. Among the company's strategic errors (see also: the slow intro of crossovers, the complete neglect of the sedan game for several years, and the painful deaths of both the once-most popular compact pickup in America and a once-decent minivan contender), Ford's chronic under-redesigning has been one of the most damaging decisions to its brands, especially the Blue Oval.

Over the past few years, Ford has made dramatic improvements to almost its entire existing portfolio, while making every attempt to hide these improvements from the public. Having worked at one of its ad agencies, I was constantly forced to listen to ebullient engineers raving about the amazing leaps forward they'd made, in areas like ride comfort, engine efficiency and especially NVH (noise, vibration and harshness for the uninitiated), while wondering if anyone at all would actually realize the vehicle had been touched.

It started with the '06 Explorer redo, which is probably the best example of this trend, but continued with the Expedition, Escape, Super Duty and the E-Series van, as well as the transformation of the Five Hundred and Freestyle into the Taurus and Taurus X. The Focus is a bit of a different story. While you can certainly tell that it went under the knife beyond simple fascia work, the results are more along the lines of Michael Jackson than Ashlee Simpson.

It's a damn shame that the hard work of so many great engineers is being almost completely invalidated by sloppy management of the design studio. Other carmakers may be strapped for cash (see: GM and Chrysler) but they know how to make a redesign count.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

When Knight Falls

Well, apparently it's official: in the new Knight Rider movie, the part of KITT will be played by a Mustang Shelby GT500KR. Having worked at Ford's ad agency, I know how shrewd they can be when it comes to product placement, and this is quite a coup for the brand. But BOOOOOOOOO!!!

To me, this goes against everything that KITT should be: a sleek, stealthy and futuristic-looking coupe. In fact, when I was growing up, KITT set the standard for me as to what a sports car should look like. It was a classic, wedge-shaped coupe that shared styling cues with the American sports car flagship, the Corvette. Anything that didn't look like that was just...wrong.

So my sense of automotive style has since matured and expanded. But my sense of television right and wrong has remained, and I think this choice is just dumb. Especially when there was a much clearer choice: the Corvette Z06. Sure, there's no Trans Am around currently to carry the torch, but the Z06 is not only a GM product, but it also has the classic wedge shape and, as it happens, a perfect spot for KITT's oscillating strobe. Check out this chop job that illustrates the point beautifully.
Another important aspect, which has been overlooked by many, is the sound. KITT's running shots were always accompanied by that futuristic, mechanical whooshing sound. It was the sound of precision and stealth. The Z06 may not be tuned as quietly, but it's certainly more in line with the original than the all-out rumble that the GT500KR will exhibit. The sound of a Vette engine is precision. The sound of a Mustang engine is testosterone. Sure, Michael Knight and KITT had plenty of both, but they knew when to use them, and the former was the default mode.
I suppose what's done is done, and the decision won't change. I'll still see the movie with enthusiasm. But in the back of my mind I'll always be pining for what could've been.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

When Designers Wing It

Okay, so it seems that a good deal of my blog is dedicated to pointing out unoriginal design. I can't help it if all the pens in the industry came from the same two schools. Well, yet another search for a consistent design language across a company's products has yielded yet another familiar face. Take a look at the new Subaru WRX STI. I've blogged before about the Rex's less-than-original silhouette, but the STI has gone further to illustrate Subaru's new plan for a brand design theme.
In a previous post I pointed out the new Tribeca's resemblance to the Chrysler Town & Country. That is due in no small part to the wing-topped grille theme that Chrysler has been pursuing for some time now. But Subaru is also crossing paths with Saturn. If they were looking for a unique style, this is not it. Sure, they went a bit overboard with the three-nostril concept, but swinging back the other way to completely derivative is not the answer.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Bad Ass, Part III

Okay, so here's another terrible looking car tush. It's the Hyundai Veloster at the LA Auto Show. My friend Nancy took this pic of it. What does that look like to you? You are correct. This car has an asshole. That is all.

MazdaSebring

I guess it's my destiny to forever be blogging about bad auto rear ends. I was looking at some photos of (supposedly) the next generation of the Mazda6. From the front it looks great, and would be a perfect step forward for the brand.But then I caught a glimpse of the rear end, and while I can't say it's not a handsome one, I did have a visceral reaction...a negative one. See if you can tell why:
Any guesses? Okay, I'll give you a hint:
Mazda, spare yourself the humiliation of having your car compared with the (truly awful) Sebring. However you do it, do it, cause there's a chance people like me will gag when they see the rear end, and not even know why!

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Mali-who?

The new Chevy Malibu is being greeted with rave reviews in the motoring press. I've driven the car, and it was indeed impressive, especially for a car sporting a bowtie. The styling is also a hit, and I'm a particularly big fan of the C pillar, which I feel makes it look like a much more expensive car. But there's one big disconnect for me. Have you seen the ass on this thing? It's not enough that it's a big slab of vertical sheet metal. They had to slap a few mismatched shapes on it for good measure.
Here's the strange thing. When I see a car like this, I point it out to others. On the Malibu, everyone seems to agree with me. But no one in the press has yet taken notice. So I see a few possibilities:

1. My compadres are humoring me, and they actually like the rear.

2. I'm very persuasive, and have convinced others to take another look at this heinous posterior.

3. I've articulated what others were thinking, but just didn't have the heart to say.

What does my reading public think? Am I wrong, or does the guy in charge of letting that butt through design sign-off deserve a serious ass kicking?

Monday, November 12, 2007

A moment of silence, please



I can only imagine the feeling of powerlessness watching your beautiful GTI spark a small fire which builds to this crescendo.

New Nissan looking a bit Honda-ish

Here's a pic of the new '09 Murano:

If you ask me, it looks like Nissan's copying a bit of Euro Honda style. Not that that's such a bad thing.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Ugly car...or the ugliest car?

Autoblog just posted shots of the new Dodge Viper SRT10 ACR. It almost made me hurl. Judge for yourself:

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

V steps forward, and VI steps back

If eGMCarTech is to be believed, they have "renderings" of the next Golf/Rabbit/GTI. The GTI they've posted takes cues from the up! concept, but more obviously from the recent W12 650. Okay, so maybe it's attractive, maybe slightly less so than the current generation. I thought VW was developing their own version of the shield grille concept. Out the window?

What really struck me, though, is the picture they had of the supposed next Golf/Rabbit. Where have I seen that grille before? Oh wait, I know. I own it! They've actually just lifted a Mk IV grille and photoshopped the edges. Will VW go this route? I doubt it, but if they do, the designers are on LSD, cause they're clearly having flashbacks.

The rumors of Toyota's death have been greatly exaggerated

I find it hilarious how many commentators are now declaring that Toyota's fortunes have taken a dramatic turn for the worse. Most of these pundits have fixated on the recent reports of quality issues with the Toyota Tundra. There have also been reports of slipping quality on a few other models, such as the Avalon, but the fact is, most of this talk is merely wishful thinking. Bob Lutz of GM recently stated that "they have some quality issues with a lot of their products." A lot? Come on. This is propaganda from the General.

Toyota has been lionized by much of the press for its impressive results and rapid conquest of US market share. The Americans (especially Ford) are in rough shape. This automatically makes the Japanese giant the main target for American car apologists. And much of this criticism has been overzealous. The fact is, while Toyota has had a recent rough patch, you can be damn sure the company won't stand for it long. Those problems will be fixed, and their customers will be treated like royalty during the process.

GM is doing a commendable job of fixing its organization. This is where its concentration should lie, not with trying to pull the wool over the eyes of industry watchers. Oh, and while the Americans were doing that, Toyota just posted its second-largest quarterly profit ever.

The Big Insurance Fraud

I'm getting sick and tired of seeing all these insurance ads on TV that say the exact same thing. "People who switched to us saved money!" Well of course they did. That's why they switched! This rash of copycat ad campaigns is helping to prove that all car insurance is basically the same. Price seems to be the best reason any company can give to make the switch to them, but if everyone is just competing on price, it's now a complete commodity. I hope no one is actually fooled by seeing one of these ads. Sure, it's a good idea to shop around for insurance, but that's just as likely to make you switch away from the company that's running the ad. Those ads give no real reason to go to that specific company's website.

So please, for the good of humanity, stop running these stupid ads, and start talking about the real benefits of your insurance policies. And if there are none, create them! Then have competitive pricing, and features people actually might pay extra for.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Dub City

I am amused to no end by Volkswagen's marketing of the City Golf and Jetta in Canada. They've taken Mk IV models (we're now on Mk V in both the US and Canada) and grafted on new front ends. The result is the following:


You can also check them out here, with another short blog post with more pics here. There are a few things that pique my interest about this. First of all, I don't think I've ever seen this kind of "amortization" technique before. Sure, GM and Ford have done this several times before, such as with the Ford F-150 "Heritage", the Chevy Silverado and the Chevy Classic, née Malibu. But in such cases the vehicles are carried over unchanged. VW has breathed new life into the twins with new styling for the front end. They've actually reworked the taillights, but they're still the same shape. The Canadian website only has pics from the front, though, I'm assuming out of fear that shoppers will see the familiar rear fascias and realize the ploy. You have to check out the Chinese version, the Bora HS, to find this out.

The other source of my amusement is styling of the City Jetta, which takes so much from the last generation Passat, from the grille to the way the headlights dip down at the outside edges. I remember seeing the Bora HS a while ago, which is actually the Golf with the City Jetta front end. Nevermind that the Bora was VW's name for the Mk IV Jetta around the world. Okay, so are you sufficiently lost by now? Then my job is done.

Actually, this is a good example of the complexity of the worldwide auto market, as I've discussed in previous posts, notably The Mercury That Could Be and An aside on the industry for beginners. My education on the industry continues, and this VW strategy is just part of the curriculum.

I'd love to hear what my readers think about this. Does seeing a $15,300 City Golf next to a $20,175 Rabbit in the showroom make the Rabbit seem overpriced? Is this just a great way to further amortize the investment in the Mk IV cars? Does the new front end make it seem as if VW is trying to pull the wool over its customers' eyes? Post a comment with your two cents.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

GTI For Sale

Well, since I finally bought the R32, I'm looking to sell my GTI. Here are the vitals:

2003 Volkswagen GTI VR6, ~71,000 miles

200-hp 2.8L 24v V6, 6-speed manual

Silverstone Gray, Black leather


Fully loaded – Leather heated seats, sunroof/Monsoon stereo package, Technology Package (Climatronic auto climate control, rain-sensing wipers, auto-dimming rearview mirror), CD changer

Lots of extras – Two sets of wheels (both 17” alloys, one with summer tires, one with all-season tires), Monster Mats (original carpet mats in perfect condition), aluminum pedal caps (originals included)

Extended warranty included – Good to 7 yrs/100,000 miles (over 2 yrs/29,000 miles left), VW RealDriver Platinum warranty, fully transferrable, best on the market, covers a ton
Full maintenance records, dealership kept for first year of life, only used synthetic oil and premium unleaded

This is a rare car. I’ve only seen one other gray VR6 on the road. This is one of the most desirable color combinations. The Silverstone Gray is very easy to keep looking clean, and it does not show swirl marks like darker colors. While I have taken it through automatic carwashes, I’ve never let them use those scratchy brushes on it, so the paint is in great shape aside from the typical stone chips and a bumper gash that come with life on the road. Touch-up paint is included.

The interior is very clean. I’ve never let anyone smoke or eat in the car, and it does not show the typical wear and tear that many Mk IV VWs have, such as peeling rubber coating on the door handles. The leather is in excellent shape and I’ve conditioned it to keep it that way. It has a full owner’s manual in very good shape, as well as spare tire and tools.

As far as the typical VW part failure issues, the windows have already fallen and the regulators have been replaced with the higher-quality metal ones that won’t fail. The ignition coils and taillight switch have been replaced under recall. To my knowledge, everything on the car is in good working order.

I'm looking for $14,000 for everything, including the transfer fee for the warranty.

You can call me (Randy) at 516-655-0698 or email me through this post.

Please forward this to anyone you think may be interested.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

My Breaking Point

I am a hypocrite.

After months of complaining to the product planners at Volkswagen that a serious error had occurred, I validated their decision. Let me explain.

I had vowed that, no matter how much I lusted for it, I would not buy an R32 because it had been brought to the US with only one transmission...the wrong one. I am a stick-shift driver, will always be one, and my heart sank as I stood before the car at the Chicago Auto Show and it was announced that all US-spec R32s would come equipped with the paddle-shift DSG, and not a traditional manual.

"I'd buy one right now!" I proclaimed, but only if it had the right powertrain. Why wouldn't you just get a new GTI? Well, if you've been following my posts you know that I can't stand turbo lag. My VR6 just has all the grunt I need in every situation. And the sound? Fantastic.

So that was my cross to bear. To many people this will sound shallow, and in many ways I concede it is. This is a very personal post, though, and it may give you an idea about what makes me tick.

I'm a very happy person. I have almost everything I could ever want in life, and I haven't yet hit 30. I don't have to deal with the hardships that comprise the lower orders of the hierarchy of needs. I have a great job, and wonderful family, fantastic friends, and a beautiful and understanding girlfriend who puts up with my flights of automotive fancy. So in the absence of other things to worry about, this is what has brought me down.

It really started a few weeks ago. My roommate bought a Rabbit earlier this summer. As I sat in the passenger seat one night--a bit drunk actually--I looked around at the interior of his car and admired all the the improvements that have been baked into this fifth generation of C-sized VWs. The way the lock button changes color to tell you its status. The way they've extended the red backlighting even to the sunroof and reading light controls on the headliner. The woven headliner itself. I'm a sucker for good design and aesthetics.

And then an overwhelming sense of sadness came over me. I wanted this car, but in the right form. I wanted an updated version of my car, a VR6 manual. This thought weighed on me for the next two weeks.

A few days ago, I got my new poster frames in the mail. I inserted the two beautiful R GTI posters I'd gotten in Chicago, and they proceeded to stare at me for the rest of the day. They taunted me with their fantastic design. The Mk V Golf/Rabbit/GTI has grown on me steadily since it launched. It was now firmly attached.

Ironically the straw the broke the camel's back was a Mitsubishi Evo. When the latest issue of Car and Driver came, I looked through and found an article about the new Evo GSR. This is the lower of two levels of the hot new Lancer, the other being the MR. The GSR has a 5-speed stick, but the MR has Mitsu's new SST (Sportronic Shift Transmission). It's basically the same idea as VW's DSG. While I applaud Mitsubishi's provision of both transmissions, the fact that the top of the line car is a paddle-shifter made something click in my head.

Am I like those who rejected the fancy new water-cooled engines? Or those who proclaimed that airbags would never be a legitimate auto technology? Was I penning myself in with the automotive nay-sayers who refused to make way for new advances? If Mitsubishi had decided that the new SST was good enough for their most discriminating enthusiasts--hey, it's good enough for F1 drivers--then maybe VW was in the right. Maybe I would get used to shifting without a clutch. If I could get past this hang-up, all that beautiful R32 craftsmanship would be mine!

So I am a hypocrite. Today I bought an R32, and it is fantastic. I'll confess that my 2.8L VR6 sounded great when the windows were closed, but with them open the high frequencies came through and revealed the weak points in its sound. This 3.2L is a pure symphony, especially with the windows cracked. The acceleration is effortless, and it has gobs of power everywhere in the rev range. The chassis is rock-solid. It is a delight in every way. I can't wait to get past the first 5000 miles so I can take it to the track and discover its true abilities.

As for the transmission, it's truly the best automatic out there--if you can really call it that. I'll let you know if buyer's remorse punishes my hypocrisy.


Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Advertent Body Doubles

During my last trip out to California, I was given a new Subaru WRX to tool around in. Since I saw the first picture of it, I was convinced that they had hired some Chinese company to steal the blueprints for the Mazda3. I finally got the chance to see them together, and here's the result. Thanks very much to my good friend Roben Bellomo for his great photography, and to Adrienne for owning the Mazda.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

The Wonders of MySpace

I couldn't resist bringing you this profile from MySpace, under the name "Save Ford Go Vegan":

"I am a company that was founded as Ford Motor Company in Dearborn, Michigan on June 16, 1903 by Henry Ford. I am 104 years old. I have 300,000,000 offspring called automobiles. I am a vegetarian and do not smoke or drink. I am opposed to womanizing and most gambling involving the risk of hard currency. But I thrive on gambles involving new and innovative products however. I believe in giving a man a square deal for a square days work. In 1914 I began paying my workers the then princely sum of $5.00 a day, which was double the going rate at that time. I also reduced the workday from 9 hours a day to 8 hours a day, and reduced the workweek to 40 hours. In 1914 I ran as a peace candidate for congress and traveled to Europe to try to promote peace and forestall WW1, which was then looming on the horizon. I failed in that respect. But I tried. And I was ridiculed for my efforts. In 1942 I patented and built a plastic automobile that was based on soybeans, and was 30% lighter than conventional steel cars of the time. And it also ran on ethanol. In 1938 Ford Motors had a 38% share of the US market. In 2006 it was 14%. And last year Ford lost nearly 13,000,000,000. Yes that's 13 billion dollars. Healthcare costs at Ford add over $1000.00 to the price of each automobile. In Asia the added cost ranges from zero to just a tiny, tiny fraction of that amount. Most Asians are generally vegetarian, and are not burdened by the unhealthy Western diet of meat and dairy products and heavily processed foods. Or the ailments that are endemic to this unfortunate diet. It is a compounded matter of fact that over 70% of our medical difficulties are related to diet. It is an acknowledged fact that veganism or a vegetarian diet can reduce our medical problems by nearly 70%. With that decrease comes an enormous reduction in medical costs. This reduction in healthcare would return Ford to profitability; and restore Ford to a healthy and vital American company. I urge each and everyone of you to join with me in urging that Ford cafeterias prepare only vegan or vegetarian meals. Likewise, all Ford employees and their families and loved ones should be persuaded to adopt a vegan lifestyle. This lean and vital new workforce is what is needed to successfully challenge the competition in the coming decades. Not only will Ford benefit from this arrangement but also the millions of factory farmed animals that suffer in unceasing misery and despair. And this beleaguered planet will also benefit from this scenario, since the production of methane, a byproduct of factory farming, will also be considerably diminished. And the destruction of rainforests will be slowed or halted, benefiting all the inhabitants of this planet. So stand up and be heard, like Mr. Ford himself in 1914."

If only I had known that the solution was so simple, I could've fixed Ford while I was at the agency!

An aside on the industry for beginners

My brother, who is extremely intelligent, yet uninitiated in the ways of the auto biz, asked some very good questions after reading my plan for the glorious resurgence of the Mercury brand. I also got a few comments on the post that declared that people would definitely buy those cars if they were brought here. In the interest of fairness to the other side of the argument, including the many subtleties that industry execs must deal with regularly, it's prudent to post this primer on the industry (or at least the aspects that I've discussed already) for beginners:

Ford, like many other car companies, realized years ago that the auto markets throughout the world have very distinct differences, differences that can make it nearly impossible to market the same car in two different places. They realized, for example, that Australians liked big, rear-wheel drive cars, while Europeans loved small, front-drivers. This is, in part, a function of the differing geographies of the areas, such that Australia is a country that, much like the US, has tons of wide open space, very conducive to smokey burnouts in the middle of the bush. Europe, however, is a network of cramped cities, many of them having been designed back when vehicle speeds were limited to the literal number of horses you had. The Smart car was designed in Europe, where the ability to perpendicular park in a parallel parking spot gained it adoring fans. European drivers also have to deal with heavy gas and engine size taxes, so while one of the most common engine sizes here is 3.5L, they've got 1.3L cars all over the place. I told my British roommates that my car's engine displaced 2.8L, and their jaws dropped.

At the same time, as I mentioned in my post, Americans have had the mentality for years that price equals size. Geo Metros were small, so they had to be cheap. In Europe, that's just not the case. The Focus in the UK starts at £11,695 and goes up to £17,995. With today's conversion that's a range of $23,318 to $35,879. Can you imagine paying around $36K for a Focus…before taxes? That mentality has slowly begun to change in this country, though. You can spend over $30K on a Mini, which is smaller than a Chevy Aveo available for $10,560. The Mini had a fresh start with its brand, which would be a problem for Chevy or Ford in this country. And it's not just the American companies that have acknowledged this. The European Honda Accord is smaller and more upscale than the American one. In fact, Honda does sell it here, but uses the Acura brand to get the kind of asking price that car deserves. It's called the Acura TSX, and it only offers a 4-cylinder engine, something that wouldn't fly in this country as an Accord. The VW Golf is the best-selling car in Europe, and has been for years. But while it's a vastly superior car to the Chevy Cobalt or the Cavalier that preceded it, the Chevys have outsold it handily, since the Golf was always a bit more expensive. Well, that and the fact that Americans love their Chevys.

GM is trying a move-up strategy with Saturn, a brand that was pretty established but, quite frankly, needed a makeover. The current Saturn Ion was one the most hated cars by the US magazines. Car and Driver called it "probably the most disappointing all-new American car in a decade." So they're starting over. The only nameplate they've retained is the reasonably successful Vue. Even that vehicle they've replaced in all but name with the Opel Antara. As far as the Ion is concerned, they've ditched it completely, bringing over the Opel Astra, a car which sells for roughly the same price as the Focus is Europe. The car will be priced lower here, which means that while GM is rebuilding the Saturn brand, it will probably take a bit of a financial hit on that car. But they understand that you can't just take a brand's price point very far north before the brand itself has begun moving in that direction. The correct way to execute a brand turnaround is with improved product at similar prices. Hyundai is well on its way down this path. Once the public realizes that the product is better, you can start charging more. This can be a slow and very painful process. But it's necessary, since brand value is so ingrained.

To answer one of my brother's questions, I think that Ford actually does have more cachet in Europe…ironically. They are about on the level with VW there. I think part of the reason is that they have other cheap brands there that we don't have here, such as Skoda (Czech, owned by VW) and Daihatsu (Japanese, owned by Toyota). So Ford has been slower in Europe to "race to the bottom", looking for pure volume numbers as opposed to profitability. Consequently, last year while Ford North America was bleeding profusely, Ford of Europe made a nice buck.

The fact is though, that our world is always shrinking. A great idea invented and proliferated in Europe, such as the relatively more efficient diesel engine, is finally gaining a foothold here. So ideas should start to flow more freely between continents. As carmakers come up with platforms that are more flexible, and can be marketed in more than one country through more than one brand, we may see a big benefit as consumers. I think GM's off to a good start, in several different areas. But the question will continue to be very complicated, especially with the Koreans and Chinese, and eventually Indian manufacturers that will continue to make cars cheaper and cheaper.

Well, that's it for now. Let it be noted that, while I've absorbed a lot in the past few years of working in the industry, I still have plenty to learn. I'm sure all my adoring fans who stick with me down the road will witness my continuing education. Until then, if you have any more questions about how the industry works, post a comment and I'll be happy to give it a go.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

ALLLLLLLLL RIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIGHT!

My new plate came today. And I've already gotten positive feedback from a random stranger. Check it out:




Oh, and I've decided to rename my car. He is now Glenn.

The Mercury that Could Be, Part II

This would be the natural third product in Mercury's all-new Euro line-up. It's the Ford Kuga, and it may be a bit small, but could probably do battle against the new Vue. Check out the AutoBlog post on it.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Inadvertant Body Doubles, Part II

I'm sorry Jaguar, but I just have to...


The new Jaguar XF (which replaces the S-Type)

The Hyundai Elantra

Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Alphabet Soup Crucible

BMW just lost its lawsuit seeking to enjoin Infiniti from using the standalone letter "M" in marketing for its models, based on the rationale that Infiniti's marketing of its M35/45 dilutes the Motorsports brand at BMW (responsible for the M3, etc.).

When I first read the following on MotiveMagazine.com, I was about to write a scathing critique of BMW:

"Several months after BMW won an injunction against Nissan to prevent the Infiniti brand from badging its cars as 'M', Motor Authority is reporting that a Canadian court has ruled in the latter's favor. BMW had argued that Infiniti was peddling "inferior and more modestly priced" cars and was tarnishing the prestige of its M brand."

But after following this dead link to the Motor Authority website, and then manually searching out the real story (here, by the way), the tune changed. The fact is, this was a gross oversimplification by Motive, which really missed the point of the suit. Badging is not the issue. BMW was fine with the names M30, M35 and M45, as Infiniti has used thus far. The issue was the way Infiniti was advertising the cars, with the solitary letter M, which could be argued lends ambiguity to the message, creating the possibility of confusion with BMW's M division.

I was checking out Motive at the behest of AutoBlog, which proffered it as a new alternative to the more traditionally focused mainline print and online mags, like Car and Driver and Winding Road. This site is aimed at the tech-savvy young-un like myself, who, in AutoBlog's words, "doesn't seem to need the page turning (virtual or not)."

Well, interesting idea, but if in actuality it's run by a bunch of slackers who don't bother to actually read the stories they purport to summarize, then I say, "No, thanks."

Okay, back to the real story. While I think there is legitimate complexity to be considered in this suit, I'm still glad that BMW lost. Had they prevailed, it might have opened the door for infighting among industry players over similar model names. Sure, it might be idiotic for a brand like Lincoln to name a sedan the LS and a crossover the MKX, since this does create some confusion. But it should be up to the industry to police itself on these matters, especially since the party that often ends up "injured" by this foolishness is the unestablished brand that shot itself in the foot in the first place.

Does BMW realistically think that those pining for an M5 would have second thoughts because Infiniti has worn out the letter on its more pedestrian mid-sized sedan? To suggest that a company can lay claim to a letter is as absurd a notion as me trying to buy the rights to...a letter! At the moment, I really can't think of a better example than this.

Sure, if Infiniti made a deliberate attempt to hijack BMW's brand equity, naming one of it's products...I don't know...the M3, this complaint would be supportable in a court of law. But as it stands, BMW's claim needs more evidence that there is demonstrable benefit or harm to one party, and that just isn't forthcoming.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

The Mercury That Could Be

Ever since the 2nd generation Focus launched in Europe, American enthusiasts have pined for it. It's a fantastic car, with refined styling, a high-quality interior and fantastic chassis dynamics. And the ST220 version, with the same 2.5T I-5 found in the Volvo S40, gives the VW GTI a run for its money. Look at it...is that a sweet car, or what?

Anyway, Ford of Europe just came out with another pretty sweet ride that our shores will never see. The new Mondeo (you may have noticed it in the latest Bond movie) is a credible competitor to the VW Passat. While slightly smaller than the US market Fusion, its interior has a level of refinement way past anything sold in this market by the Blue Oval.

Ford tried to bring the Mondeo to the US over a decade ago, as the Contour and Mystique. But the car was a bit small inside and expensive to sell as a Ford product. The fact is, if Ford tried this ploy again, it would probably meet with similar results, as the new car is even higher quality and more expensive.

On the plus side, the new model has grown to the point that American consumers would feel comfortable inside. And that consumer is gradually getting over the notion that price must always have a direct relationship with size. Cars like the Mini Cooper and latest generation GTI are chipping away at this mentality.

Still, Ford's brand image would have a tough time supporting prices like those required to sell the Euro Focus and Mondeo at a profit here. The fact is, Ford would need a clean slate to launch these cars. And as luck would have it, they pretty much have one.

What is Mercury to the American consumer? Well, I think if you ask most people, you'll hear something like, "Well, I guess it's a little more expensive than Ford." Aside from that, people really have no idea what the brand stands for.

The Sword of Damocles has been hanging over Mercury's head for a while. What's the point of this brand? people ask. Well, here's an easy answer. Suggest bringing Euro Fords to the US as Mercurys to a Ford exec and he'll probably come back at you with something like, "Well, it would be too expensive to bring it in line with US regulations." We in the business like to apply a highly technical term to this line of reasoning. It's called bullshit.

Of course General Motors got over this hurdle before Ford, and has begun importing cars from its other divisions around the globe. The Aussie Holden Commodore will be the Pontiac G8, and several Euro Opels will be joining the fun as Saturns.

The Saturn Experiment 2.0 got off to a shaky start last year, though the brand has begun to gain ground. And the real test will be in the form of the new Vue (an Opel Antara) and Astra. The former has arrived here already, with the latter set to check in shortly. These cars are true Opels, unlike the Aura which is simply a classed-up Pontiac G6. Saturn's climb out of the brand doldrums will be slow, but they have the right product, and that is the only right way to execute a brand renaissance.

So will Ford see the light? It's likely that after Saturn has completed its metamorphosis, Ford will take a look and get a severe case of margin envy. By then, though, the Mercury brand may already be 6 feet under. Ford, do yourselves a favor and make a move now, while the gettin's good.

Monday, August 6, 2007

The sky is falling!!! ...and other myths

With apologies to AutoWeek, the automotive apocolypse is not nigh. You will not have to relearn how to drive when you buy your next car. Nor will that car be so ugly that you'll have to use the back door at your country club.

I refer to the email that my friend Michelle forwarded me, in which it was proclaimed:

"This is the new Mercedes Benz SCL600."

It continued by showing pictures of the car and claiming that the really unique thing about the car was its interior:

"No steering wheel, you drive it with a joystick. No pedals either. Can you drive with a joystick? Your kids and grandkids probably can. The influence of video games in our lives has really arrived, wouldn't ya say? SCARY THOUGHT THAT NOW A 7 YEAR OLD COULD STEAL YOUR CAR AND PROBABLY DRIVE IT BETTER THAN YOU."

You've gotta love the alarmist myths that circulate by email. Just go to sites like snopes.com and you'll see how many ridiculous things people will believe.

Okay, so let's set this one straight. Yes, this car existed. No, it's not "the new Mercedes Benz SCL600". In fact this car is the F 200 Imagination concept from the Paris Motor Show back in...wait for it...1996. That's right, 11 years ago. (Thanks to Markus for finding this one.)

What's so bizarre about this is not that emails are circulating trying to scare people into thinking that the days of the steering wheel are over. It's that these pictures started resurfacing in June (according to what I've seen) in posts by "auto enthusiasts" as the SCL600. These are people who claim to actually like cars, and talk as if they know what the hell is going on. But its headlights are dead ringers for the last-gen S-Class and its grille is similar to the one on the SLK concept. This car would never be mistaken for a contemporary concept by anyone who knows anything about auto design. I think it's only fair for the people who posted these pics be punished with the sentence of having to drive around a car with an ass like this for the next year.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

The Wonders of Magnesium

Ugh, enough Mitsubishi! We don't care about your magnesium paddle shifters. Please don't tell me that anyone is truly being swayed by this little product attribute. Sure, BMW uses magnesium for some of its engine blocks, and this light and strong metal has some legitimate benefit in this application. Would these tiny paddles be so heavy if they were made out of another metal; would they be so weak if they were made of plastic? Simple answer: no. The new Lancer looks pretty sweet. We don't need cheap ploys to get excited about it.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Yee haaaaaaaa!!!!

I've got a decent vocabulary. I'm fairly proud of my writing style. I consider myself an effective and engaging communicator. But I've come to a subject for which I have no words. It is the following:


Okay, I lied. Of course I have words, but don't expect them to capture the true essence of what it's like to drive this car.

The Lotus Exige S is...money. While it possesses all of the flaws of the Elise--and then some (the center rearview mirror is 100% for show, as there is no rear window)--that little S stands for a lot. It adds as supercharger to the 4-cylinder that comes standard in the base Elise and Exige, hence the need for the Exige's fastback bodystyle, which raises the rear deck. It bumps the horsepower from 190 to 220, and it brings this car to life. The direct connection to the road is still there, but much moreso than in the non-S version that was in the Elise I drove, the sense of urgency from the gas pedal is utterly addictive. I have never driven a car that, for all its flaws, was so utterly perfect.

And with that I'll leave you with an image of the door sill I had to hurdle to get into these Loti. Bear in mind, we lacked the tool we needed to remove the roof, so the opening I had to squeeze through was much narrower.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Livin' the fantasy...

So as part of my new job, I get to drive some serious metal. Since I started I've been handed the keys to a GTI, a Subaru STI, a Legacy Spec.B, and over the past week a brand new Audi TT, a Lotus Elise and a BMW M6. Let the envy commence. On top of that, they have some serious roads here that beg to be carved. But with great power comes great responsibility, so I feel the obligation to provide a few impressions of some of these cars. All of the pictures I've included are color correct for the cars I drove.

The GTI was a blast on the twisty mountain roads here. It's balance is superior to that of my MkIV VR6, and its limits are higher. But the engine is not as sweet, especially at the low revs. The fact is, this car is clearly more fun in high performance situations, but I would still prefer my car overall, since the day to day satisfaction of my car in around-town driving is higher.

The WRX STI Limited was an absolute joy. In contrast to the GTI's more damped steering, the STI is purely telepathic. Going from one car to another, it takes a few minutes to get used to the fact that once you even think about being somewhere in the Subaru, the car is already there.

Like the GTI, there is the inevitable turbo lag. Sure, the manufacturers and buff books talk a lot about the new generation of turbos having no lag, but I'm here to say IT'S NOT TRUE. The lag may be reduced, but at the end of the day, it's still a 4-cylinder, and the full power is not there until the revs go up. I actually drove an '08 Porsche Cayenne Turbo a few months ago, and it even had substantial lag. Turbos are great technology, but the saying about there being no replacement for displacement is 100% true. If you have any doubt about this, try rolling through a stop sign in 2nd gear with a turbo four, or creeping along in traffic using only the clutch.

Quite honestly, there's not much I can say about the M6 that hasn't already been said by all the buff books. It's powerful and refined, with a great exhaust note. Our car procurer was able to get this car with a stick, and loaded to the gills. When you sit inside, literally every surface you touch is leather, alcantara or carbon fiber. It is so choice. If you have the means, I highly recommend you pick one up. Everything about the Elise is absurd, from the experience of unlocking and getting into the car, to the experience of driving it. First of all, it should be noted that the only engineering Lotus is willing to do involves chassis dynamics. Everything else is outsourced, from the engine (it's a Toyota Celica mill) to the alarm system to the stereo. It's got one of those alarm fobs on which the same button locks and unlocks the doors. This is confusing, and stupid. It also has a separate locking system...even stupider. Getting in is a truly acrobatic act. I can't really fathom how people who are old enough to afford this car--it's a second car, never a primary driver--can possibly be young enough to actually get into it. Once you manage to insert yourself into this contraption, starting it can be a bit confusing. Quite honestly I don't know why it took me so long to start it up, but it clearly has something to do with that damn alarm system. Lean across the cockpit to open the passenger window--there's no switch for that on the driver's door...it's not needed since the car's so damn small.

Once it was cranked, getting it out of the parking spot was slightly more challenging than usual, due to the lack of power steering. In Santa Barbara, the parking lot exits have big dips, which can be a challenge for a car about 4" from the ground. They must be taken on an angle. Hit a manhole cover and you KNOW it. I can imagine events like that in the Elise feel similar to the way they did in a Model T, but with less rebound. Once you're up in the hills, the car is absolutely delicious. At speed, the lack of power steering isn't an issue, and the response is even more telepathic than the STI's...of course. Okay, well, maybe the power steering thing makes it a bit more interesting. In fact, when I was taking some quick hairpins, it was pure armstrength that kept me on line. I could feel the road trying to straighten the wheel, yanking it through my fingers. It was the most direct connection to a road I've ever experienced.

One of the best parts of driving the Elise is the gawks...especially in a bright yellow one. Clearly I'm the kind of person who craves attention, so this is perfect. The Lotus is just the type of car I need to validate my self worth.

Note: We have an Exige S in the parking lot as well. I'm assuming I'll get a chance to drive it this week, so I can give you my impressions when I do.


Last, but not least, is the Audi TT 3.2 quattro. As those of you who regularly read my blog know, I love my engine, and would love to own the 3.2L version. The only car available with this engine and a 6-speed manual is the TT. I've been tossing around the idea of stretching my budget to pick one up, so I relished this opportunity to toss this car around a bit. The only problem was that this model was the DSG version, which is an automated manual with paddle shifters. This transmission is truly better than the other autosticks I've driven, but the fact is that a true manual is still more fun.

Okay, so aside from the letdown with the tranny, what did I think? Well, the handling is fantastic. It's limits aren't as high as cars like the STI or M6, but the handling is neutral, and with the suspension in sport mode, there's basically no roll. The engine is sweetness defined...everything I love about my 2.8L multiplied by 1.14.

Unfortunately the cockpit is a bit cramped. Okay, well "a bit" is an understatement. I don't know how tall people can fit in there, cause I'm pretty short and I didn't have more than a few inches of roof clearance. The seat was also a bit fatiguing. I found myself noticing some discomfort around the same time each time I drove the car. Some other nits to pick include the lack of a center armrest (except for a small pad mounted on top of the parking brake) and cup holders which are strangely small.

Will I buy one? Well, probably not. As you may have noticed, I place a lot of value on the little things, and there are a bit too many negatives that add up in this car, especially one that costs an arm and a leg. But you never know. The ogle factor is pretty strong in this car, obviously in large part because of its newness. But I loved the feeling of seeing four young guys turn in unison and watch me drive by with longing looks in their eyes. It made me feel so much cooler than I actually am.

BOD Camaro


Thanks to Autoblog for this find: The '67 Camaro from the movie Better Off Dead, starring John Cusack, is in good hands. Some guy tracked it down, bought it, restored it, and has now put up a website that chronicles his journey: http://www.betteroffdeadcamaro.com/.

When I was younger I absolutely loved this movie, and of course the car. It's probably one of the best looking Camaros ever made, and the fact that it is now in pristine condition in the hands of a loving owner (and will likely stay that way) brings a tear to my eye. Oh, and of course the restoration of the car in the movie is such a classic '80s movie montage.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Mitsu Redux

The new Lancer is a great looking car, especially in Evo guise. Ironic, then, that this comes as a result of a backtrack in Mitsubishi's styling department. While they don't look exactly the same, the new Lancer shares its stance and shark-nosed front end with the previous generation Galant. Just further proof that stylists looking to make a statement often fail to think through their designs, releasing cars to the market that do not pass the "gag test". Case in point:
And...

'Nuff said.