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


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.