Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Some Great Americans

As previously alluded to, I'm as bummed about the fate of Detroit as the next guy, and so I thought maybe I could do my small part to help. As anyone who's familiar with this blog knows, I'm a big fan of compact imports, and I've helped my fair share of friends buy Mazda3s and compact VWs. But my import-philia doesn't necessarily mean I'm anti-domestic. Who, then, better to introduce a list of great American iron to you than someone who was raised in the heart of import country?

The fact is that while American cars have been catching up to their import competitors by leaps and bounds in recent years, it takes quite a while for public perception to do the same. So without further ado, I present to you a list, by segment, of American cars you should go out and buy right now. Oh, and as my mother once said, "Do as I say, not as I do." ;-)

Saturn Astra: Although GM has clearly starved its Saturn arm of marketing muscle, the fact is many of its new cars are winners. This is especially true of the Astra, which as brought over pretty much as-is from Europe, where it competes with the top-selling VW Golf and the superb Euro Ford Focus. It's a bit of a step down from those expensive competitors, but a big step up from the compacts the US market is used to. It combines handsome looks with lively handling, high efficiency and great space usage to give compact buyers the total package. 

Chevy Malibu: This car is quite simply one of the best competitors in the midsize segment. It matches or surpasses the Japanese leaders in style, handling and value, and is a major leap forward for the General in this segment. 

Pontiac G8: GM's answer to the Chrysler 300, this one has a more widely appealing style (well, at least it'll age better, I think), and better handling. It's basically a BMW 5-Series on a budget, and is what the Pontiac brand should be all about. Ooh, and soon you can get it with a truck bed out back, a la El Camino. Word.

Pontiac Solstice/Saturn Sky: These roadsters were Bob Lutz's first brainchild when he got to GM, and they're still as exciting as they were then, especially in GXP/Red Line forms. But grab one fast, because GM is not planning to renew their lease on life. 

Chevy Corvette: This is all-around the best sports car value on earth. Coming in flavors varying from awesome to double-awesome Z06, to triple-super-throwdown-awesome ZR1, these cars regularly match the performance of those costing twice as much. Not to mention their beauty and their amazing efficiency (26 highway for a 430-hp pushrod V8?!!).

Saturn Vue: Another rebadged Euro product, this CUV is attractive and upscale. Too bad, once again, that GM has choked off the division's marketing juice. 

Ford Edge: This crossover is handsome, handles well and has Ford's great 3.5L V6, the American answer to the Nissan VQ, but smoother. When I was at the ad agency, I even got to work on claims that it's faster than a BMW X5 or Porsche Cayenne (the V6 models, of course). 

Ford Flex: If that's your style (it's certainly not mine), then this is a great vehicle. The interior package is amazing, despite its lower roofline than competitors like the GMC Acadia and Honda Pilot. The materials they use are fantastic, it has that same 3.5L V6, and it also boasts some really cool features, like the Sync multimedia system and an in-car fridge...and you can get a contrasting white roof, just like on a MINI!

Jeep Wrangler: I recently had the pleasure of taking one of these things off road at Chrysler's Chelsea Proving Grounds, and it was a blast. The thing is so ultimately capable, and it's stayed true to its roots all these years. And now you can get one with four doors. 

Dodge Ram: I haven't driven it myself, but my colleagues tell me it's the best-riding truck out there, thanks to its now coil spring rear setup. Amazingly, they did it without any degradation to the previous truck's capabilities. Add to that the new actually-attractive interior and innovations like the Ram Box bed-side storage, and we have a winner. 

Ford F-Series: These trucks are tougher than a mofo. At the agency I got a chance to hear about the durability testing they put 'em through, and it did more damage to the engineers inside than the truck itself. It's pretty brutal. Their capabilities are unmatched by anything of similar size in the world, and the new generation of Power Stroke diesels is not only brutally torquey, but clean as a whistle. If only they weren't ugly...

Cadillac CTS: I while ago I posted that this was the first American car I'd actually buy myself. The rest of the cars on this list are great cars, but they just don't suit my taste. But this one, well it's got great looks, a phenomenal interior, a powerful direct-injection V6 available with a stick, and a great sport suspension. This is a fantastic car.

Lincoln MKS: This is a perfect example of a great car for other people, but not for me. We drove it back to back with the Lexus GS, and this car blew that one out of the water in several ways. The interior is top notch, and it's got great looks. With the available AWD and 20" wheels, it makes no difference that it's based on the Taurus' front-drive platform. Though that happens to be one of the safest in the world. This is what a Lincoln should be.

Buick Enclave: This is the best value in luxury CUVs, even though many buyers won't give Buick the credit it deserves because of recent history. The Enclave is gorgeous inside and out, and it shares the space efficiency and solid feel of the rest of GM's Lambda large crossovers. It may seem pricey for a Buick, but it's dirt cheap compared to an Audi Q7. Maybe people will chuckle at the country club, but we all know your self esteem is more secure than that. 

Coming soon--the Ford Fiesta: Don't laugh. This isn't your hippy cousin's ratty old Fiesta. This is the most exciting small car on this side of the Atlantic since the Mini Cooper. You may have noticed that my list of cars was dominated by GM, while Ford has the edge (no pun intended) in trucks and CUVs. But Ford is about to unleash a slew of sweet rides, including the Euro Fiesta and Focus. The Fiesta comes first, and it'll blow the Chevy Aveo sky high, with great styling, great handling and a great interior. It's grrrrrrreat!

So get out there and BUY BUY BUY!!!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Keep Calm and Carry On

This explains the reference in the previous post:

Detroit '67

I started listening to a new radio station recently, 93.9 The River, Windsor-Detroit, and they play a really great variety of stuff. One of the new songs I've been introduced to is Detroit '67, by the Sam Roberts Band. Not only is it a great, swingin' song, but it's got a wonderful sense of the city's history, and the video that accompanies it is fantastic. 

Detroit's history makes me both sad and proud, even though I didn't grow up here. The city, and the surrounding region of Southeast Michigan, have an amazing spirit, and I think it's one of the reasons why I feel so at home here, despite my New York roots. 

Anyway, I've looked for the song on iTunes, and it just ain't there, but I did find the video, so I'm happy to share it here. I don't know if it can inspire the kinds of emotions in others that it brought forth in me, but it's definitely worth a look. 

Keep Calm and Carry On, Detroit.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Bigger is Better?

I recently read a snippet about the CEO of Fiat, Sergio Marchionne, proclaiming that the number of global carmakers will eventually shrink to six behemoths. This, from the over 20 companies of significant size that Automotive News lists on its "Guide to global automaker partnerships". I searched further and found this article. Marchionne says that in order to survive, a company with need a sales volume of over 5.5 million cars each year, a number to which his own Fiat does not even come close.

I don't doubt that Fiat may need a merger to survive, as a recent news item claims it may be seeking. But the fact is, this very same statement was made roughly eight years ago. In a paper I wrote in college in 2000, I cited a claim by many industry bigwigs that by 2010, there would be a lot fewer car companies running the show. How many? The generally agreed-upon estimate was six. In fact, they used a very similar line of reasoning to Marchionne's, stating that there would be two for every major continental base, North America, Europe and Asia. Marchionne has also stated his theory in terms of geography: 'As far as mass-producers are concerned, we're going to end up with one American house, one German of size; one French-Japanese, maybe with an extension in the U.S.; one in Japan; one in China and one other potential European player.'

But the fact is, there hasn't been a huge amount of consolidation in the industry since that first round of predictions almost a decade ago. These predictions were likely precipitated by the "merger" of Daimler and Chrysler in 1998, and the alliance of Renault and Nissan, which had been inked the following year. We all know how the former turned out, creating not economies of scale, but rather one of the largest destructions of company value in automotive history. The latter tie-up is still going strong, and paying dividends, but aside from that, there has been little action that suggests a highly consolidated industry.

And why does Marchionne think that size is inherently good? While it's true that there are obvious advantages that stem from the basic principle of economies of scale, there are also downsides to this, most notably the loss of corporate agility. Corporations like GM have huge resources to offer its producers in each market, but if the act of marshaling those resources becomes cumbersome, decisions cannot be made in a timely manner, and competitiveness suffers.

While GM is a great example of how size does not necessarily equal strength (as is Ford, one of the other four companies cited as above Marchionne's magic 5.5m number), there are some equally good examples of smaller companies that have so far proven resilient in this tough economic climate. Honda is thriving, as Japan's number-two producer, because the company has refused to compromise its ideals. Its growth has been organic, driven by demand rather than production.

An even better example of the principle is Porsche, a company which sold less than 100,000 units last year. Despite its volumes, Porsche has managed its business so well that it is now financially powerful enough to have gobbled up a controlling interest in the only German company that is "large enough", Volkswagen. Porsche has achieved this clout with strict discipline, and tough decisions made based on the existing business and market climate (including the oft-derided decision to market an SUV). 

Size may be what's important to Fiat at this moment, but that doesn't necessarily mean that it is the major determinant to survival throughout the industry. It's true that for any company to survive, it needs to achieve a decent level of scale. But at a certain point, scale can become counterproductive if not managed the right way, and the right product decisions will, in my opinion, always trump size in importance. 

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Poor American car companies...

They're now the subject of mocking email forwards. I got this one from my dad today:

A Japanese company ( Toyota ) and an American company (Ford) decided to have a canoe race on the Missouri River . Both teams practiced long and hard to reach their peak performance before the race.

On the big day, the Japanese won by a mile.

The Americans, very discouraged and depressed, decided to investigate the reason for the crushing defeat. A management team made up of senior management was formed to investigate and recommend appropriate action.

Their conclusion was the Japanese had 8 people rowing and 1 person steering, while the American team had 8 people steering and 1 person rowing.

Feeling a deeper study was in order, American management hired a consulting company and paid them a large amount of money for a second opinion.

They advised, of course, that too many people were steering the boat, while not enough people were rowing.

Not sure of how to utilize that information, but wanting to prevent another loss to the Japanese, the rowing team's management structure was totally reorganized to 4 steering supervisors, 3 area steering superintendents, and 1 assistant superintendent steering manager.

They also implemented a new performance system that would give the 1 person rowing the boat greater incentive to work harder. It was called the 'Rowing Team Quality First Program,' with meetings, dinners, and free pens for the rower There was discussion of getting new paddles, canoes, and other equipment, extra vacation days for practices and bonuses.

The next year the Japanese won by two miles.

Humiliated, the American management laid off the rower for poor performance, halted development of a new canoe, sold the paddles, and canceled all capital investments for new equipment. The money saved was distributed to the Senior Executives as bonuses and the next year's racing team was outsourced to India.

Sadly, The End.

Here's something else to think about:
Ford has spent the last thirty years moving all its factories out of the US, claiming they can't make money paying American wages.

TOYOTA has spent the last thirty years building more than a dozen plants inside the US. The last quarter's results:

TOYOTA makes 4 billion in profits while Ford racked up 9 billion in losses.

Ford folks are still scratching their heads.


While it's obviously a gross oversimplification, the fact is that this story does give you a decent idea about how the Americans go about things sometimes. 

The one thing I thought was left out was Ford asking its ad agency to do a brainstorming session to rename the canoe...twice.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Stop it, Ford, just stop it!

For some reason, Ford has decided that the only way to get its cars noticed in the US is completely outlandish and ugly designs. This was true of the current Focus and Lincoln Navigator, and it's now true of the next Fusion, of which there is a freshly-released new shot of the front end.

With this new design, Ford is creeping ever further from its design leadership days, when the Taurus was strikingly set apart from in a positive way. 

True, Ford learned a painful lesson from the Five Hundred and Freestyle, two cars that could be considered styling black holes. Determined never to produce another anonymous car, Ford has swung wildly toward overwrought designs that beg for attention.
The lower bumper of this Fusion is actually heading in the right direction, borrowing some geometry from Ford's European Kinetic design language, which includes the gorgeous Mondeo (pictured).
But the huge chrome grille overpowers these cues, and throws the whole design out of balance. Ford's American design department is degenerating into the type of amateurishness that Hyundai and Kia has struggled for so long to overcome. Plain and simple, Ford needs a new director of North American design. Now.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Chargerghini Revealed

Well, after a few weeks of being a giant tease, Lamborghini's coyness has been rewarded with a broken embargo. The Estoque four-door concept has finally been revealed, and I must say I'm quite underwhelmed. The teaser detail shots got my motor revving, with Lambo's mastery of the details quite apparent. But the car as a whole is pretty disappointing, in my opinion. And then I saw the rear three-quarter shot. Suddenly I knew where I'd seen this car before. 

Okay, so the Estoque Concept doesn't look exactly like the Dodge Charger R/T Concept from 1999, but the stance is pretty much identical, and helps to elucidate why the overall execution of the Estoque already seems dated to me...especially for Lamborghini. Let me know what you all think.

Monday, September 29, 2008

He said it again!

After being on the road for a while, I'm finally getting a chance to catch up on some of Joe White's Eyes on the Road columns in the WSJ. I especially like this recent article, in which he closes with some sage words:

"Achieving freedom from foreign oil and keeping consumer gasoline prices low are conflicting goals. America's energy policy for the past three decades has tilted toward cheap gas to fuel our cars. Washington's energy debate is really about whether that should continue. The rest is mostly diversion."

Rock on, Joe. Rock on.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

A Car's Saga

Now that I'm in possession of the MGB, I though I'd relate a little bit about the process of getting it to me. It was chock full of omens. In fact, as soon as I committed to buy the car, putting the money in escrow, the first omen came. I left my house, and around two blocks away there was a nice black MGB roadster sitting in the middle of the road...with a flat tire. Not a good sign.

Well, my beautiful green example needed a few repairs before it was shipped from Iowa, and as soon as those were complete I arranged for its transport. The car was picked up this past Friday and was scheduled for delivery bright and early Saturday morning. It didn't quite make it. There were no flat tires involved, but the brand new, '08 Ford Super Duty PowerStroke that bore it apparently had some diesel fuel that didn't agree with it, and it just decided to quit right on the highway. I doubt a child waking up on Christmas morning to find out that Santa isn't real would be more disappointed than I was.

So what did I see just as I left the house Saturday morning? A shiny red MGB roadster cruising around, apparently just to rub salt in my wound.

Long story short, due to the lofty customer service of a Ford dealer in Illinois, who jerked the truckers around for a few days until they were convinced to take the needed part from a truck on the lot, I had to wait until Tuesday night to meet my new love. Incidentally, on Sunday I took a trip down to Columbus, Ohio, returning Monday night. Since it was quite a schlep, I took an audiobook, From Russia with Love (I've been listening to all the James Bond novels in order). And as a final jab from fate, this book introduced a new Russian intelligence agency to the mix. Was it the KGB? Of course not. It was the MGB!!! So I had to listen to the reader pronounce this acronym over and over during the course of my ride back, each time wincing a bit with longing.

Quite honestly, I don't put much stock in supernatural forces controlling the universe, and I chalk all these instances up to coincidence. But come on, WTF!!!

It was so worth the wait, though.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

So Happy Together

I've just reached automotive nirvana. I now own two of the coolest cars on the road. After an excruciatingly long wait (including a broken-down transport truck), my 1966 MGB Roadster arrived last night. This car is fun!!! And it looks great, too. So without further ado, I present my two dream machines together: the Blue Devil, and introducing the Green Monster! (Fred Savage would like's a little monster.)

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

It's a gas gas gas!

Well, I finally hit the big time. I've gotten some recognition for my blog in the form of Chevron's PR agency. They invited me to a special blogger tour of Chevron's tech facility in Richmond, CA, outside Oakland. I'm guessing their PR staff had seen my extremely well-balanced and superbly written post regarding the backlash against the oil companies. What Chevron wanted to get the word out about, though, was Techron, its relatively well-known fuel additive which purports to keep your engine spic and span. In particular, they spent most of their time talking about Techron Concentrate Plus, which can be added to a tank of cheaper stuff every oil change to clean things up if your engine's feeling dirty, but I was more interested in Techron's application to their gasoline.

You may have noticed recently that Shell has been running a campaign designed to raise awareness of the detergent power of its fuel, as well. In fact, I've been buying mostly Shell gasoline for my cars for the past few years. For my readers I suppose this begs the question, how much can the quality of gasoline differ? After all, most people treat gasoline as a commodity, with station location as the primary factor in where they fill up. Well, the answer is both simple and complicated. Read on...

Most drivers think of gas on three levels: regular, mid-grade and premium. This simply refers to the fuel's octane, which is essentially its resistance to detonation. Why would anyone want a fuel that's tougher to ignite? Well, on higher performance engines, the compression ratios tend to go up, meaning fuel is more likely to ignite before it's supposed to, and to not burn evenly. This can create problems in both performance and emissions. Especially because of the potential for emissions issues, all modern engines are able to sense these issues (knock or ping) and adjust their operation accordingly. But this robs a high-performance engine of its full capability, so it's still recommended you pop for the highest octane specified for your car. 

One big question that people wonder about: Can high octane gas help a car spec'd to run on regular? Answer: not really, don't waste your money. Unless...

Here's where things get a bit more complicated, and where I actually did learn some things from the Chevron event. Techron has been around for around 35 years, and many dyed-in-the-wool car guys swear by it. They gave us a whole presentation about their continuing advancements, waxing euphoric about PEAs (as opposed to those lame PBAs, which are so yesterday), and other technical stuff that my readers would neither understand nor care about. The crux of it all is that Techron prevents gunk from building up on your valves, injectors and combustion chamber, which can keep your engine from performing at its peak. Think of it as Lipitor for your car. 

Okay, so is Chevron gas really the best around? Well, they certainly think so, but from a more neutral perspective, there is something to be said in Chevron's favor. For a little background, I'll explain why I always fill up with Shell. A few years ago I read about a standard for gasoline called Top Tier. Before this, I'd thought it laughable that gas companies wasted money on advertising, since all gas was pretty much the same. But I found out that there's actually a pretty wide range of detergency among fuels, and the brands that conform to Top Tier standards actually follow a much stricter set of guidelines. 

A few years ago, a coalition of automakers (including VW) decided that the EPA standards for gasoline detergency were not high enough, causing emissions and reliability issues. They banded together and worked with a few oil companies (including Chevron) to establish a stricter standard. 

When I heard about this, I decided that I'd only fill my tank with the good stuff. Scanning the list of brands that met the standard, though, there were few companies on it that offered easy access in my area. Interestingly enough, the biggest companies out there, ExxonMobil and BP Amoco, are missing from this list. The one that was most promising was Shell. Rather than memorize the list, I just figured if I could find a Shell station, I'd be alright. After doing this for a while, I figured I might as well get a Shell card and get 5% back every time I fill up. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is how brand loyalty is built. 

Fast forward to Chevron event, and I clearly went into it with a skeptic's eye. Aren't all the Top Tier gasolines good stuff? And what about Shell's V-Power brand. When Shell talks about its gas which can clean up your engine, they're talking about V-Power. And when I asked the guys at Chevron how much better than Shell their stuff is, they didn't really have a satisfactory answer for me. They'd really been comparing their fuels with others meeting the minimum EPA standards and other Top Tier fuels. But in reality Shell V-Power is on a third level with Chevron fuel--the real "top tier". In the public's eye, at least, they said that Amoco Ultimate is up there as well. 

But here's the real advantage in Chevron fuel. Every one of their fuels is up to the same lofty standards. With Shell and Amoco, it's only their high octane stuff that's branded with the V-Power and Ultimate names. So back to the original question: Can high octane gas help a car spec'd to run on regular? As I said, the answer is usually no. But if you're buying Shell or Amoco (or BP of course), your engine can get a nice Spring cleaning if you pop for premium. 

I always buy premium, because I'm a car nut and I baby my baby. And Chevron didn't really have me convinced that Techron would deliver that much benefit to me (at least not enough to search all over town for a damn Chevron station). But they did make a pretty convincing case that most people could stand to benefit from regular use of Chevron. That, and the fact that they bribed me with a free trip to the San Francisco Bay Area and some free Techron Concentrate Plus, in the spirit of full disclosure. 

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Rowing through the gears...with a paddle

The past several new cars that I've driven recently have had shiftable automatic transmissions. I'm quite used to this of course, since I almost always drive in manual mode in my R32. But the three recent cars I've driven have all had interesting variations on the theme that help to differentiate the driving experience between brands. I'd like to take a moment to weigh the pros and cons of each approach, so maybe you can benefit from my experience if this is something you really care about.

I'll start, of course, with Volkswagen's DSG. The transmission comes with an automatic shift gate with the manual mode selected by pushing the shifter to the right. This, I believe, is the most common execution for a shiftable manual, and it's shared with VW's regular 6-speed slushbox. One difference is the shape of the shifter. Most of VW's automatics come with a T-shaped shifter that is fairly common, and easy to use for the common task of shifting back and forth between park, drive and reverse (much of which requires holding down the release button).

Where this shape is not so satisfying is during manual shifting, where those of us accustomed to manual transmissions like to use a similar grip on a manumatic stalk. For this reason, VW provides a ball-shaped shifter on its sportier DSG applications, including the GTI and R32. I'm a fan.

Next we come to the paddles. I'm quite fond of how VW executes its shift paddles. They're fixed to the back of the steering wheel, with an exposed bit that's labeled + or -. This label even lights up at night. Very classy. This execution has also proven very useful during track work, as the paddles will always be at the tips of your fingers during corners, assuming your hands are still at the 9 and 3 positions. For most turns in which you'd need to shift, your hands should still be there, because they'd be fast sweepers. For tighter turns, if you find yourself needing to shift in the middle, it's probably because you missed a downshift as you were braking before the turn started. In that case, you can always fall back on the shift lever, but it may even make you a better driver to learn this lesson.

This execution is in stark contrast to that of another twin clutch gearbox on the market, Mitsubishi's SST. Mitsubishi has made absolutely certain that everyone knows that their shift paddles are made from magnesium (BMW on the other hand uses magnesium for an actual benefit, that of reduced engine weight). But it is the mounting of these paddles that makes Mitsu's execution really unique. They're affixed to the steering column, meaning they don't move with the wheel. Some people prefer this, but in some spirited driving I did in a Lancer Ralliart yesterday, I firmly established my preference for wheel mounted paddles.

The one area where I do prefer Mitsubishi's layout is the shift lever. It actually looks and feels like a true stickshift lever, and its shift layout is opposite to that of the VW. To engage manual mode, you pull it to the left, so it's closer at hand, and you pull it back to upshift and push forward to downshift. To some this is counterintuitive, but to a true stickshift driver, this is exactly how it should be, mimicking the way a direct throw backward in a manual is always a higher gear.

BMW also agrees in this regard, as they've been laying out their manumatics this way for years. Where BMW falls flat is in their steering wheel paddles. The Bavarians believe that you should be able to upshift or downshift with either hand, and it's a solid idea, until you come upon their solution for this. Each paddle in a Bimmer can be pulled with the fingers (for an upshift) or pushed with the thumb (for a downshift). While this does feel inherently intuitive, especially as it matches up with the shift lever, its downfall is in the thumb activation. When your hands are in a natural driving position, a yank on a paddle is natural and easily executed. But as I found in the X6 I drove yesterday, the downshift was another story, especially during spirited driving. The thumb extension felt strained and awkward, twisting my wrists into unnatural positions. You may think this is nitpicky and stupid, and I'll admit that I'm the prince of piddling pet peeves, but it did make me feel less in control and legitimately reduced my enjoyment of the drive.

I also got to drive the new Cadillac CTS-V. Fantastic car, but its shift setup was not ideal. Not only was the shifter laid out with forward upshifts, but the paddles were not visible behind the wheel. They were basically just buttons on the backs of the wheel spokes, and if you weren't feeling around for them, you wouldn't know they're there. They also offer less surface area than other paddles, making them less accessible.

I think the variety of executions throughout the industry makes for interesting reinforcement of brand character. Mitsubishi's setup reflects the raw nature of its performance cars, whereas VW executes the system in a highly refined way. But some systems just work better than others, and clearly my ideal setup for a shiftable automatic would be the VW paddles with the Mitsubishi lever. Manufacturers take note!

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

My New Cd

After almost a year of waiting, the new front bumper/grille came in for my R32. All the initial allocation of Michigan models were shipped erroneously with plate brackets on the front bumper, meaning the front end didn't have the clean look that I'd been all excited about. Well, I just got the car back from the dealer, and it now has a completely clutter-free front end, which I'm assuming brings the drag coefficient (Cd) down precipitously. I'd imagine that I can now hit around 140 on the front straight at Grattan, instead of 110. 

Here's a shot of my gloriously clean front end. Enjoy!

Monday, September 1, 2008

My Drive With Ralph

Today I held the fate of Chrysler LLC in my hands, and I chose to allow it to continue its existence. This is actually only partly hyperbole and grandiose delusion. It's also partly true. I drove Grattan Raceway, instructed by none other than Ralph Gilles, on the very day on which he assumed responsibility as head of design at Chrysler. As I rounded corner 4 with him strapped into my passenger seat, the awful thought ran through my head of the ramifications at Detroit's number 3 carmaker if anything were to happen to Mr. Gilles on my account. Yeah, a little pressure. 

Of course, nothing went wrong, and a lot of things went right, and I was the gleeful beneficiary of some great coaching from one hell of a driver. (Special shout out to my buddy Jon for hookin' me up.) The highlight of the day, however, came not in my humble R32, but in Ralph's outrageous Viper ACR (humility need not apply). 

The Viper ACR (American Club Racing, for the uninitiated), is essentially a street-legal race car. I actually had a chance to drive one a few months ago at Chrysler's annual "What's New" event at the Chelsea Proving Grounds, right after a regular Viper, in fact. The "base" Viper is itself quite a track star, with the sort of telepathic handling you hear spoken of in the most connected and pure cars (as I mentioned of the Loti). The ACR version, on the other hand, reminds me more of the idea of "precognition" from Minority Report. In my run through the first set of slalom cones with this car, I hit almost every one, since the car had responded even before I realized I wanted to turn. Suffice to say it's a handful when you're first getting acquainted. 

When I first approached Ralph's ACR, I noticed that it was a lot more handsome than some of the others I've seen, especially the red and black version. As a car designer, I suppose he's allowed to customize his with a nice dose a actual taste, the car being all black, with a single dark gray driver-side stripe. In fact, when I entered the car, a plate in the middle of the dash proclaimed that it had been "Handcrafted for Ralph V. Gilles", a fact which instantly nullified the previous thrill I'd enjoyed when he'd noticed my steering wheel's "1236 / 5000" declaration of my car's limited edition nature. This is also probably the reason why I couldn't find a picture of this particular color combo to include in this post. 

We entered the track on the front straight, and the acceleration practically melted my face off. So this is what unrestrained power feels like, eh? On the autocross course I'd probably hit around 50 mph. On that front straight Ralph danced with 150. (In the same stretch my R32 can reach around 110.) With the end of the front straight looming, Gilles stabbed the brakes and I hit the seatbelt. I'm quite glad it happens to be a high-quality seatbelt, since it was the only thing standing between me and an express flight through the windshield. Literally. 

We happened to be running Grattan backwards today (it's usually run clockwise), so there was a hill after this straight. The ACR made such short work of the slope that my ears actually popped. Every time. The g-forces were so extreme that my stomach felt like it was rattling around freely in my torso...but in a good way. I believe Ralph when he says it took hours to clean to the puke of a previous passenger from inside the car. 

While the car was certainly extreme in its abilities, so was the driver. Having helped to calibrate it, Gilles is clearly familiar with the the ACR's limits, allowing him the confidence to wring the maximum from it. With our 20-minute lapping sessions, the car's slicks were getting slightly greasy towards the end, giving the rear some interesting character. This failed to phase Gilles even the least bit, as he kept his go foot firmly planted long after a driver with less faith would've backed off, easily using steering corrections to get the tail back in line. 

Ralph devoured the track with the ACR, and I had a front-row seat. It was also amusing to watch a Porsche 911 wag its tail all over the track in an effort to get the hell out of his way. I can truly say I bore witness to a master craftsman at work. Thanks, Ralph. 

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The short memory of auto journalists...

I remember distinctly the excitement that came from the buff books a few years ago when the Mazda6 debuted. They praised not only its Zoom-Zoom handling, but also it's sporty looks that flew in the face of Camrys (by the way, I'm ready to start the discussion about the pluralization of proper nouns according to the conventions of the English language, changing this to "Camries"--please leave your thoughts in the comment section) and Accords. 

The following is an excerpt from a 2004 Autoblog review of the Mazda6: "...The 6 hatch has all the Mazda traits we love like crisp handling, decent power and a very upscale feel to the interior. ...As far as sedans go it still outdoes most of the competition in the looks department."

But I just read a first-drive review from same of the all-new '09 model, and it's as if the first generation missed the mark completely: "We didn't exactly feel tingly with the last model (the MazdaSpeed6 would be the exception), so we walked out to the new car with key in hand to see if we are going to be feeling 'it' with the new car." 

And this gem: "...The [new] 6 doesn't look nearly as painfully boring as its predecessor."

This kind of phenomenon seems to happen fairly often with the motoring press. A car debuts, they drive it, they love it, then it ages. As soon as this happens, and they're able to compare it with the new hotness, these journalists proclaim, "We never thought it was that great anyway." C'mon, guys! Sure, maybe the new Altima and Accord have surpassed the 6 in power and possibly even dynamics, but when it hit the market you couldn't get enough of this sedan's sporty handling and its interesting compound eyes that made it not another Japanese snoozemobile. 

I love reading Autoblog and plenty of other automotive journalism, but I'm calling shenanigans! 

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

More R32 Accolades

I only recently realized that I get BBC America, so of course I've been mainlining episodes of Top Gear for the past few days. I noticed that my beloved Mk V R32 held a pretty damn impressive spot on the list of times around their test track in the hands of The Stig, so of course I sought out the episode where it's featured. They've placed it head to head with the BMW 130i hatch, and the result makes me giddy. Although the final segment in which they show the track runs gets out of synch, you get the idea. And I absolutely love Jeremy's final word on the two cars. Enjoy!

Sunday, June 29, 2008

A Slippery Subject

A few weeks ago, I was reading about Barack Obama's support for a windfall profits tax on the oil companies. While I support his candidacy, and was glad he hasn't quite reached the level of pander that McCain and Clinton did with their deplorable ideas for gas tax holidays, this profits tax is extremely wrongheaded. 

I'm in full support of a progressive tax code, in which the more you earn the higher percentage of your money the government takes. But this windfall profits tax is more of a resentment-based code, in which we basically decide whomever we're mad at for the moment should bear a higher tax burden. 

It's 100 percent true that the oil companies are making money hand over fist right now. But as many have only started to understand--at least in the mainstream media--this is attributable for the most part to pure economic forces. We're in the midst of the biggest world-wide explosion in demand for oil, led by China and India, that we've ever seen. When more people want your product, the price goes up. 

But with this in mind, it made me wonder why the candidates seemed to be ignoring a real issue in the context of these companies' profits: subsidies. I've been hearing about oil company subsidies for quite a while now, and I figured this could be a reasonable target for the ire of the American public. 

Eager to learn a little more about the subject, as well as to get the other side of the issue, I emailed my uncle, who happens to work at an oil company. I asked him why, even with the big bucks they were taking in at the moment, they were still benefiting from government subsidies. His answer, while interesting and informative, started with a very plain statement: "I'm not sure what you mean by 'subsidies'.  We do not get subsidies."

For the most part, he's right. 

Seeking a little more in-depth info on what people were calling subsidies, I found this web page, which explains the assistance that oil companies get from the US government. My uncle is right that pretty much none of the assistance listed on this page is a subsidy, which is more accurately defined as a payment by a government to aid an industry or another government or the people of a country (by artificially lowering prices). 

In discussing this issue, most people's anger is directed at the tax breaks granted the industry for various purposes. The fact is, pretty much all major industries get tax breaks designed to increase their investment in the economy, benefitting the country through economic growth. It's also interesting to note that not too long ago the oil industry needed these tax breaks to operate profitably. 

"You only have to go back 5-7 years, when oil was $20/bbl, and cash was short, that the companies were looking for ways to become more efficient so that they could still afford to pay dividends and invest for the future. That's what drove all of the mergers, Exxon and Mobil, BP and Amoco and Arco, Chevron and Texaco, Total, Fina and Elf. It's easy to suggest taking away the bennies when the companies are making lots of money, but when they were struggling at the front end of the decade, no one was lining up either to throw money at us."

This reminds me of an argument I got into over email a few years ago. I was selling VWs in New York, and I'd just listed the rights to buy our first R32 at sticker on eBay, essentially creating an auction for how much the premium would be over sticker. One person who spotted the listing was particularly offended, arguing that it was unethical to sell the car over sticker. The argument I used then was that sticker price is officially called Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price, and the price is always set by the dealer. Usually we'd sell it for under that, since that's what the market will bear, but when a limited edition car comes along with high demand, the market price is above sticker. Why is she okay with paying the market price when it benefits her, but outraged when the dealer would like her to pay a market price that benefits them?

This is really the same argument as tax breaks for the oil companies. When these companies need the assistance to sustain their business (and to compete against foreign companies getting tax breaks from their own countries, no less!) so they can continue to help the US economy grow, we don't hear a peep. But when these same tax breaks are seen on the other side of a business cycle as just heaping on more profit, it feels wrong to us. And politicians use this discomfort for their gain. 

The fact is, we need to remove the emotion from these policies. If we indeed want companies to benefit less from tax breaks when they're profitable, that should be built into the tax code, and all industries should be treated the same way. I know, this is a bit naive considering the complex natures of lobbying and industry structures. But it is a decent goal toward which to strive. 

The point of this long blog entry: next time you hear a passionate argument about oil company profits or other corporate greed, try to think with both your head and your heart. Understand that, while we need to be a compassionate society that seeks equality and fairness, some issues are more complex than a sound byte. 

A Sheep in Lamb's Clothing

Designers have striven for years to make certain vehicles look smaller than they actually are. One of the latest examples is the Chevy Tahoe, which had been getting flack for being a road-hogging behemoth. Even though the current vehicle grew further from the previous generation's none-too-diminutive size, designers took pains to ensure that observers would think its mass had gone in the opposite direction, and by many accounts it seems to have worked. 

Some cars, though, can't afford to be seen as smaller than they are. But as I watched a recent ad for the Kia Optima, it occurred to me that this is indeed what has happened. I wish I could show you the ad, but it starts out with some standard driving and panning footage, probably the same stuff that's used in the "Driving" video here. To me it seemed nothing more than a respectable looking small car. It then goes on to compare the Optima to the Accord and Camry, and I remembered, Oh yeah, the Optima's a mid-size car!

This is a big problem, especially for a brand trying to overcome the "cheap and cheerful" image that Kia contends with. The last generation of Optima was slightly goofy looking, but at least it looked as big as it is (perhaps even bigger). 

It seems that as soon as Hyundai/Kia overcome one obstacle--especially in the field of design--they throw up another for themselves. When will the Korean giant finally wake up to its full potential? I'm still waiting...

Monday, June 23, 2008

Some Well-Earned Recognition

This was a pretty good write-up of my beloved R32, and of course I can't resist posting it. Enjoy!

Monday, June 16, 2008

Jumping the Shark...With a Car

Take a look at this trailer. Okay, clearly this movie's gonna kinda rock and be kinda lame all at the same time, but there's nothing like a trailer that starts with the words: "I created Death Race six years ago. I now have as many viewers as the Super Bowl." Yeah, this could really happen. Oh, Joan Allen, what has become of you?

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

There, he said it!

For his most recent column, Wall Street Journal auto columnist Joe White talked to Mike Jackson, who runs the largest car dealer network in the country, AutoNation. The column, and Mr. Jackson, articulate so beautifully what the American people don't seem to get, and what politicians cynically ignore. We need high gas prices. This country's oil dependency is not just an environmental risk, but a security risk as well, which means that the sooner we get to the point where we can supply our own fuel, the better off we'll be as a nation. 

The fact is, our lifestyles will need to change unless technology leaps forward faster than it has been. We've been hearing about all-electric vehicles and fuel-cells for decades now, but that technology is not yet cost-effective for the job we as a country would like it to do. This president's administration has been all about the idea that Americans should not have to sacrifice their way of life for the sake of national security, unless it involves civil rights, in which case all bets are off. Anything that might put a check on our collective spending habit was completely off the table. 

To be perfectly honest, I'm not the poster-child for reduced fuel consumption. My car, while small, gets around 20 mpg, not much better than your average SUV. I waste gas taking it the track, offsetting some of the benefit of working from home. But these are active choices I've made, and they're for a particular reason. I love driving my car, and the happiness I get out of it is a pretty reasonable return for the opportunity cost of other things in my life that I can't afford as a result, if less arguably for the societal cost that my behavior brings as well. If gas prices rose even higher, I might be forced to change my habits accordingly, which may offer me less car-based happiness, but would shift more of the real external costs of my actions to my pocket.

Many other Americans will have to sacrifice things in their lives, too. It'll certainly be more painful for them, especially if they sank more than they could really afford into getting that cool SUV to go grocery shopping with. But now is the time when we must accept the fruits of our collective decisions, and learn from them. Let's not talk about things like gas tax holidays that will lower prices by 18 cents for a few months while crippling our already-overworked infrastructure. Let's applaud the fact that these trends in fuel prices have created a new mentality on the part of both companies and customers that says we're ready to see the future. 

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Another Day in Paradise

I just flew in from California, and boy are my arms tired! No, not from flying. That's just silly...why would you even suggest that? No, it's from muscling a Lotus around the hills near Santa Barbara. Don't believe me? I've got the pictures to prove it. 

In an additional dose of perfection, this was the Elise California edition, so, you know... 

I'd also like to mention that I found it interesting that even Lotus is giving in to the American demand for creature comforts. Not only did this car have an iPod hookup, it also had a cupholder!!! It was machined from billet aluminum, of course, in classic Lotus style. And the key is now actually nice looking, with an integrated remote. 

The soft top was a cinch to get on and off, once I figured it out, so the only thing this drive was lacking was sunblock. You may now commence with the envy.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

It's Finally Happened...

Well, I was driving up Highway 101 in California when it happened. It hit me for the first time: the notion that I would be willing to buy an American car. I've driven plenty of American cars in my time with my current company, and I've liked several of them. But this one was different. The materials, the attractive displays, the mix of a stick shift with a potent V6 engine, the confident handling. It was all here.
I speak of none other than the Cadillac CTS.

If you've followed this blog, you know that I have extremely particular tastes. I've often wondered if I'll ever reach outside the Volkswagen/Audi family, let alone outside of the Germans. But this experience was top notch. I drove down to LA in the lap of luxury. The car had a navigation system that didn't have a lawyer present when you turn on the car (there's nothing I hate more than repeated unnecessary actions when it comes to electronics). And the voice coming from the nav system was so pleasant, at times the woman's voice sounded almost...plaintive, but wonderfully so. It had an iPod hookup in which the iPod was not only controlled by the stereo, but the nav screen displayed playlist, song and artist names, rather than just numbering everything and making you guess. It had heated and cooled seats. It had an auto lane change blinker (blinks thrice with one tap--okay, I know I like stupid little shit). 

I just read a column by David E. Davis in Winding Road about the fact that the automotive press in this country fails to promote its home country's industry the way they do in every other country. I do take issue with the assertion that our press should have an agenda to push (okay, they've got a financial agenda, but they try to keep that out of sight, and that's the way I like it). But if you agree with David E., you have to at least admit that the American manufacturers have been struggling to do it right for quite a while, not leaving the press with much to crow about. I've asserted for the past few years that GM seems to be on the right track (product-wise...I'm not so sure about financially), and for me, this drive was proof that they've passed the tipping point. Congrats, GM. 

Now if you can get to the point where I actually buy one of your cars, rather than just proclaiming that I would, you'd be on a roll!

Thursday, April 17, 2008

It's SHOtime

A spy shot of the next Taurus has emerged, and that car will be much more dynamic looking than the current model. There's word that Ford will also be using a version of its EcoBoost engine, which would be competitive with entries like the 300C and Pontiac G8 GT. If Ford is still tossing around names for this hi-po version, it's clear that they should resurrect the SHO name. Then, they should get the most famous Taurus owner, Conan O'Brien, to endorse it. 

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Blue Devil

Well, I finally got some shots of my car just the way I want it, with the right front plate (okay, i'm still waiting for VW to replace my front bumper with one without a plate bracket), and my new wheels. Without further ado, I present the Blue Devil.