Monday, March 30, 2009

A useful application for a useless feature

Three years ago, the Answer to a Question Nobody Asked award undoubtedly went to Volvo, for the heartbeat sensor feature on its Personal Car Communicator key fob. Supposedly it tells you if there's someone lurking inside the car waiting to attack you. Really, Volvo? If I had a dime for every person that's happened to, well, I'd probably have around 10 cents (unless the Volvo engineer who thought of the feature was not actually working from a perspective of experience). 

Well, the perfect application for this technology has revealed itself. I'm sure I'm not the first to think of this, but I just read an article in the Washington Post Magazine about child deaths due to being accidentally left inside a sweltering car. Apparently it happens 15 to 25 times per year. The main thrust of the article is how it can happen to anyone, and has befallen parents from all walks of life. 

But there is also a brief discussion of safety features that have been developed to combat this sort of thing. The article mentions seat weight sensors, which I'm sure work fine, but if Volvo already has this heartbeat technology in its cars, it should be marketed for this purpose, and proliferated throughout its lineup. 

Sunday, March 29, 2009

It's always interesting in Detroit...

Well, Rick Wagoner is gone, and there's a blizzard outside my window. Things may be more calm and pleasant out by my office in Santa Barbara, but I gotta love the D. Never a dull day. 

Thursday, March 26, 2009


Okay, I'm officially calling it: when the Tesla S sedan finally goes into production in two and a half years, it will be the iPhone of cars. It is going to mark a major change in the industry, and they're going to sell every single damn one they can pump out of the factory (hopefully that won't be limited to 20K for too long). The car will even elicit behavior similar to that of iPhone users, with the fact that it has a 3G-enabled touch screen eliminating all dash buttons, and also that its owners will plug the car in to charge (and maybe sync?) each night. 

Every single celebrity will have one, showing up to the Oscars in it. Every young person will want one. It will create a whole new sector of the industry, just as the iPhone has. There may even sprout up an entire accessory and software industry around it. And Elon Musk will be the new Steve Jobs. That is all. 

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

More Diesels!!!

Back in 2006, Audi began running ads in the US touting its success racing the diesel-powered R10 TDI Le Mans car, with wins at both Sebring and Le Mans. I thought for sure that Audi was priming the pump to bring diesels to the US, but the brand's product pipeline, empty of US oil-burner entries, left me mystified. 

Three years later, the four rings still do not adorn a US diesel entry, though that will be changing this year, with TDI versions of the A4 and Q7. Unfortunately, Audi has not continued its pump priming in the US, having been relatively silent about its diesel racing engines for quite a while. 

The fact is, diesels have a lot of potential for being marketed as sporty choices, less for their top speed than their prodigious reserves of torque. It appears that Audi's parent company may be about to take the lead in this regard. Autoblog has heard rumblings of a diesel equivalent to the GTI, called the GTD

This would be seriously exciting, and hopefully high-profile enough to kick off the diesel passenger car market in the US. Think about a car with all the agility, and most of the quickness of a GTI, but with 40 mpg. If I had an actual commute, and didn't love AWD, this might be my next car. 

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Unfortunate Body Double?

Okay, I'm sure this'll seem like a huuuuuuge stretch to most of the people that read this, but it's just something that came to mind, and being true to the intent of this blog, I felt I had to post. I was just looking at pictures of the new Lincoln MKZ that's coming out for 2010. I actually was on a drive event with this car (and it's Fusion and Milan brethren) not too long ago, and it's a fantastic entry in this Lexus ES-dominated segment. 

One thing that gave me pause, though, was the trim around the headlights. It gave me a visceral reaction, brought on by the memory of what I consider to be one of the most hideous design atrocities ever committed. I speak of course of the Saab 9-5 redesign for 2006. 

Okay, so the chrome trim rings around the MKZ's eyes don't ruin it's look nearly as much as it does for the Saab, and I really like Lincoln's new styling direction, and I'm glad it's being proliferated across the lineup, but the 9-5 has instilled in me a belief that chrome headlight surrounds are just dorky. Can anyone possibly agree with me?

GMC has a reason to exist!

My friend Chris, a spy photog extraordinaire, recently caught the new GMC Terrain out testing, with relatively little in the way of camo. You can check out his full set of shots at Car and Driver. It sets up a nice contrast to the way GM used to do things, and sometimes still does in the quest to save a buck. To grab a few extra units in the small CUV market, the General rebadged the previous Equinox as the Pontiac Torrent. The scalpel job constituted little more than just a new face and taillights that actually fit into the same sheetmetal holes.
With this new generation, GM has jumped through hoops to ensure that the vehicle is substantially different for the Chevy and GMC brands. Each looks like a fitting segue to their respective Lambda big brothers, the Traverse and Acadia. 
I think the Terrain will do very well, and will be especially popular among young women who will see it as a nice alternative to the less refined small Jeep lineup. With GM making this kind of progress, it's a shame to even think about the prospect of the company not surviving. 

Monday, March 16, 2009

More SoCal Cars

My recent trip to Santa Barbara was perhaps the best yet. Not only did I get to go skiing in a t-shirt in Big Bear, but I got to drive quite a sweet collection of cars. (Hey look, it's a couple riding an ATV down my suburban street! Sorry, I got distracted.)

Anyway, I was treated to, among other things, a drive in what I had considered my "white whale", a water-cooled Porsche 911. Not only did I get to drive one, but it happened to be one of the top examples, a Carrera 4S cabriolet, with Porsche's new PDK double-clutch transmission. I had two days of bliss with this car, and loved every minute of it. It's been quite a while since I've driven my uncle's air-cooled '88 911 cab, but I can say with certainty that this is a whole different beast. The stability is second to none, with none of the fear of swing-tailed antics to which earlier cars were subject. The sounds were perfect, and the thrust is astounding from a 6-cylinder.
In terms of usability, well, you've gotta give up something for this kind of perfection. The interior feels perfectly spacious in front, but don't expect any real humans to ride in the back seat. And the dash layout of 911s is a bit behind the trends of the day, though the materials are top notch. The one not-so-pleasant surface inside was the bottoms of the doors, where Porsche, in an effort to prevent door scuffs--which are certainly common getting in and out of a car--has placed a very course carpeting. The "trunk", which is a relatively small compartment under the hood, actually seemed to be custom fitted for my expanded roller luggage bag, but could not have fit anything else. The one final gripe about the 911 was its lack of auto headlights. This car starts at $103,900, and it can't match this feature on my $30K VW? 

Still, this car was pure joy to drive, and now that I have, I guess I'll have to look for a new white whale. I'm thinking Aston Martin...

I was also able to enjoy some Audis, including the new A4 and A6. The A6 I drove was the new 3.0T model, which contrary to its name actually has a supercharged 3.0L V6. While I've given turbos a personal pass since I moved to (relatively) larger naturally aspirated engines, I've gotta say that I'm thinking my next car my have a supercharger. This engine was wonderfully powerful, and gave no hint of the inherent trade-offs of a turbo: namely the lag. Some people object to superchargers because of their whine, but I noticed none of that disagreeableness here.  I can't wait to drive the new S4 with this engine, which will be a phenomenal driver's car, lighter than the V8 S5, and nearly as powerful. 

The A4s I drove were nice, solid competitors in the segment, but nothing that remarkable. The one thing I will say is that Audi has done a great job tuning it's new clutch-operated automatic transmission to feel as though it still has a torque converter. I'm assuming it was created to improve fuel economy, but unlike my R32, which has a bit of a jerky, unnatural feel as it starts to roll when you take your foot off the brake, the A4s had an immediate, smooth take-off that hid the nature of the driveline connection.

I got to drive a new VW CC, as well, and while it's not really that special compared with the Passat, boy does it look good. Interestingly, people seem to comment a lot on the interior of this car. It actually has the same dash as the Passat, but that's a car that has largely flown under the radar in its latest iteration. Back when I was selling VWs, around 2002-03, Passats were hot, having just gotten an '01.5 refresh that added strategic chrome and new head and taillights to give the car an upscale air at a relatively small price premium. The current generation has not done as well, possibly as a result of VW's quality issues, but also I think because the look of the car is slightly awkward. On top of that, the new car starts at nearly $30K, which is pushing it for many people in the mid-size segment. 

The CC, however, aims at a slightly different class of competitors, which we in the biz call Near Luxury. It ranges from bigger cars like the Nissan Maxima, to smaller models from luxury brands, like the BMW 3-Series. With the CC's style, it has legitimate claim to compete within this segment, and since VW has actually been advertising the CC (something they haven't done for the Passat in quite a while) many of my friends have been commenting on how nice it is, especially inside. Well, the ultimate conclusion is that it took a lovelier outer shape to bring out the inherent inner beauty of the Passat. I think once the CC catches on, it'll take the Passat's slot nicely, and allow the upcoming domestically-produced Altima fighter to take over as VW's mainstream family sedan. 

Another VW I was finally able to drive is the Jetta TDI. While wholly unremarkable in most ways (aside from VW's normal elevated level of fit, finish and tuning), the engine was great. I truly hope that diesels take of in American passenger cars, since these motors will allow even automotive enthusiasts to get in on the act of saving energy. 

My drive in the Nissan 370Z was quite entertaining, what with the car's magical rev-matching software. It's exactly what an affordable sports car should be, and the interior materials left me quite impressed. I really don't have that much more to say about this car, other than to segue into my impressions of the new Hyundai Genesis coupe. 

Compared with the Z, the Genesis coupe clearly does not have the decades of pedigree behind it that Nissan offers. But the differences are in degree, not whole orders of magnitude. The steering, for example, did not have the right boost level for every situation, being too tight in parking lots. But overall, it's a phenomenal effort on Hyundai's part, and the V6 model starts at around 5 grand less than the Z. The biggest surprise for me was the engine, which sounded even better than the Z's. With plenty of pull, it's an amazing sports car value. I highly recommend taking a drive in one of these. I'm sure the dealer will be eager to let you. 

After missing the opportunity to drive the Jaguar XF last time I was in town, my wait paid off. Instead of the base model we had 6 months ago, I was treated to the supercharged variant, and it was a blast. While I'm only 28, and haven't driven too many Jags, I can confidently say that this is exactly what a Jaguar should be. While it's tuning was softer than a youngblood like myself would desire, the ride was fantastic, with an effortless sense of speed, even on twisty back roads. It presents the ultimate in comfort and stability, no matter what the road throws at it, and it's lightning fast. It's too bad the reliability of the car is sub-par, especially with all the bells and whistles they've thrown in. I could easily see this car being rendered undriveable due to a faulty, non-rising gear selector knob. 

Finally, I'll end with the car I had the pleasure to drive up the mountain for my ski trip: the BMW M3. There are no adequate words to describe this car, but to sum it up succinctly it was simply bad-ass. A monster flow of power and torque at all rev ranges gave this car a menacing presence that was matched by its power dome hood. And what a comfortable cruiser! My friend's girlfriend, who is not short, rode in the back the whole way (about 4 hours) with nary a complaint. For me, the driver's seat was a wonderful place to spend those hours, fending off fatigue easily. And BMW's new dual-clutch gearbox was a joy, an serious improvement over my DSG 1.0, especially in the down-shift department. 

The interior was a step up from the typical 3-Series boringness, with woven leather covering the dash, indicating this car's specialness, just like the engine-turned aluminum does in my car. I've always had a preference for Audis over BMWs because of design, but this latest M3 gives me pause. The fact is there's one factor which could actually push me over the top in selecting a Bimmer, and that's seat comfort. I realized on this trip that Audi and Porsche, two brands I've admired and desired for years, bolster their lower seatbacks far too aggressively for my tastes. The TT I drove last year was uncomfortable shortly into each trip I made with it, and this is exactly why. I know many drivers prefer more lower back support, but I like very little, and this has become a deal-breaker for me. Ironically, VWs have great seats for my taste, and so my planned brand upgrade may not happen as I'd hoped. The M3's seat was superlatively comfortable, and it'll be my standard for years to come. 

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Enduring Designs

First of all, I'd like to apologize to my tens of loyal readers for not posting in a while. I just came back from California (for the first time in a while) and drove some sweet cars while there, so there will be another post on those to follow shortly.

This post, however, fits with the recurring theme of this blog: random thoughts. I was on the road tonight, and saw a car that sparked a familiar thought of mine: That's a nice-looking car, even though it was designed over 15 years ago. The car I was looking at was actually a Ford Probe (the second generation; I'm not a big fan of the first). 
There were actually two other cars which came to mind that fit a similar bill, the last Mazda RX-7 and the 2nd-gen Toyota MR2, and I've had the thought about all three multiple times, but now I've decided to pull them together and find a few others that I think have enduring style. 
Mazda deserves a special mention in this post for its solid styling stint in the '90s, when it had some of the sexiest coupes around. I actually had to take another look at the MX-6 and MX-3 to make sure I didn't want to include them, too (some might consider that thought ridiculous). 

Clearly there's a theme with these cars, though. They're all sporty coupes with rounded contours and pop-up headlights, which have clearly gone the way of the dodo. But aside from that anachronistic feature, I think that each of these designs, were they to be introduced today--with a collective societal brain-wipe of the memory of their existence--could stand on their own.
I'll admit that the MR2 is pushing it a bit, since it was designed in the '80s (and introduced for 1990), and it's a bit before the point which I would consider the cutoff for "modern" design. You can see that in some of the details, like the black trim line on the side, and the lack of shaping in the lower air dam. But I think that makes its styling achievement all the more remarkable, and I'd bet it still turns heads occasionally. 

In searching for a few more examples of vehicles that have aged extraordinarily gracefully, I was able to come up with two more, though I'm sure that every one of these vehicles will have several people calling me crazy.  

The first is not that far out there, since it is yet another sports coupe. I always thought the 2nd-gen Mitsubishi Eclipse was a knock-out. The 3rd was an abomination, but the 1995 Eclipse continues to stand the test of time as a great looking car. And just like Mazda, Mitsubishi had some solid styling chops in the '90s, and you can see how they've tried to return to that era, as some of the lines from the latest Lancer mimic some earlier Galant themes. I remember seeing the 2nd-gen Diamante in Australia (called the Magna there) in 1997, and thinking it was a great design. If you look at it today, it's still a handsome car.

The last car is probably the most controversial, since it's a sedan, and its brand had achieved the highest heights of stodginess before getting the ax by the early 2000s. I still believe it is one of the great shames of modern automotive history that Oldsmobile had to die just as its designs were getting good. (Ironically, it looks like GM is about to be forced into the same decision with Saturn.)

The Intrigue was the best-looking mid-size sedan on the market when it debuted, and its untimely death, with the attending lack of a replacement to make it look old, has helped this design stay pretty fresh, notwithstanding the usual state of disrepair in which you find many current examples on the road. 
So what do you think? Am I nuts. Am I on to something? Please post a comment and let me know your thoughts. It's good to be back!