Thursday, November 26, 2009

Deutschland, Part 8

One of the best aspects of my Germany trip was the opportunity to bear witness to the miraculous German public transportation system. Aside from flying in and out of Munich, and one stretch with a rental car, nearly my entire trip consisted of train travel.

Between cities I took the Deutsche Bahn regional trains, which were fast, comfortable and reasonably priced. Within each city there were two systems of trains, the U-Bahn, which is much akin to the subway system of New York, with a high concentration of stops in busy areas, and each stop only a minute or two apart. The S-Bahn, pictured above, was a more macro train system, allowing you to travel quickly from one area of a city to another. Both were wonderfully easy to use.

In between, where there might not be 100% train coverage, there were generally extensive networks of trams and buses. Anywhere I wanted to go, and just about every city I visited, I could generally get within a few blocks using public transit, and the regularity of these trains, trams and buses was commendable.

There are cities in the US with this kind of extensive transportation system, notably New York City, whose system is about just as efficient, though a lot less clean. But what is truly remarkable is the extent to which the entire country seemed to be covered by this consistent system. In the smaller towns there may not be an extensive subway system, but the buses were easy to use and got me to the important places.

There are too many cities in the US that are lacking adequate public transportation. South Florida, in which a large portion of the population is too old to even drive at night, has a few buses meandering around, and not much else. Detroit, because of the powerful auto lobby, has resisted any sort of meaningful transport infrastructure, which has contributed to the death of the city proper. Anyone who's ridden the People Mover in downtown Motown knows that it's a bit of a joke.

And although Germany also has a powerful auto industry, its focus, as with much of the rest of Europe, on sensible mass transportation has allowed it it create an efficient and extensive system that meets the needs of pretty much everyone in the country.

In the US, we--and our governments--make a lot of choices that benefit the individual at the expense of the common good. Emphasis in many areas is usually more on lower taxes than on desperately needed public works. Hopefully one day we'll realize that the common good is often just that: really good.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Viral Potential

Lately I've been discovering a bunch of new websites that have been spreading virally. It started with the LOLcats of, and then along came (FML) and (TFLN). You may recognize all of these, or none of them, depending on your level of plugged-in-ness, and I'm quite sure there are plenty of viral trends which I have yet to discover, since I'm the kinda guy who really just uses Facebook to see pictures that my friends post.

But these sites are becoming increasingly collaborative. Actually, a site which popped up as a parody of FML, called (MLIA), has turned me on to other sites, like Mystery Google. Through these sites, strangers are having disproportionate effects on one another, including copying other people's behavior by imitating stories that have been posted on MLIA, and telling other people to commit random acts (often of kindness, on Mystery Google).

People have lots of stories on MLIA about getting commands from others through Mystery Google (which actually gives you the search results from the person who searched right before you), to call phone numbers and cheer up their friends. It's amazing what someone will do at the behest of a complete stranger, when they're connected through a fun site that both trust.

In terms of marketing, these sites have lots of untapped potential, for a brand that does it right. Many of us have heard, and even seen, how Honda went wrong with its Facebook campaign for the new CrossTour. But if a company has a sense of humor about its brand, and allows people who are not only savvy about this type of social collaboration, but also un-cynical about it, they can reach lots of young buyers, who will have a great new impression of that brand.

All I can say is, ad agencies, I know you have this in you. Get to work, and make it fun.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Big Brother Car

Continuing on a recent theme about the technological progression of automobiles, I'd like to share prediction that I made a few years ago at my job. Once again, it may be surprising to realize how close we are to this kind of thing.

It's obvious that cameras are ubiquitous on cell phones at this point. A few years ago, they became so cheap that manufacturers began just throwing them on every phone, and now it's a cost-of-entry feature. Sure, higher resolution and zoom are a bit more expensive and rare, but a basic camera has got to be dirt cheap. And it doesn't really cost more to turn it into a video camera, since it's really just a matter of software.

And now, of course, these devices are making their way onto cars. Back-up cameras, once a novelty, are now a common option an any new vehicle that costs over $25,000. Infiniti has started using multiple cameras to create its Around View Monitor system, which creates a complete birds-eye view of the car's surroundings.

With such a preponderance of cameras on modern cars, it seems a logical leap that they would begin to face forward, and be constantly recording on a loop. It would be the black box of cars, and I can imagine the insurance industry is already lobbying for this. There would no longer be a question of who was at fault in an accident, especially with the availability of data from the rest of the car's systems on brake application, speed, etc.

This isn't a slam dunk. There will be a lot of people on the civil liberties side opposed to this move. And there's certainly a reason why cars aren't already technologically limited to maximum speeds by law. But our obsession with safety will always increase, and if we decide that we want to get unsafe drivers off the roads at all costs, this would be one way to do it.

I by no means offer a full endorsement of this direction. But as a driver with a very safe record, and who prides myself of my defensive driving skills, it doesn't sound like the worse thing in the world. I fully believe that American drivers tend to be woefully under-trained, and the European system of a more rigorous licensing process (if not the expense that goes with it) is appealing to me. Having recently returned from Germany, where I got to experience the Autobahn, and true lane discipline, my lament for our chaotic roads is ever stronger.

But we shall see if the crash video recorder will ever gain credence in this country, or if our traditional need for liberty above all else will prevail.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Absolute Power, Probably Not Corrupting Much

A few days ago, Autoblog posted about the fact that most Camaros driving off dealer lots have eight pistons under the hood. In fact, the V8 advantage is two to one. Autoblog was psyched about this, saying it was "a trend we can get on board with." For me, it's a different story.

I had the privilege of driving both the V6 and V8 models, and while the eight-banger is undoubtedly a beast, I came away with a preference for the six. The Camaro is already a heavy car, and with the V8 hanging out in front of the axle, its handling is compromised. Add to that the fact that the V6 is actually plenty powerful, more so even than a 2009 Mustang V8.

Do you think that 90 percent of those Camaro SS buyers are ever going to use the muscle they've bought? Yeah, for one burnout coming out of the dealership lot, and then probably never again.

But I suppose that a lot of the Chevy hardcore who shelled out the cash for their dream ride are legitimately concerned about being razzed for buying a secretary's car if they settle for the V6.

Friday, November 20, 2009

VW R Cars

My friend Adena commented that she needs more photos to be able to decide betwixt the Golf R and the Scirocco R, so here are a few.

Golf R:

Scirocco R:

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Confident or Sporty, Pick One

I'm currently working on a consulting project for a client that is introducing a brand new entry into what we call the Near Luxury segment. You might know this class as the cars getting whooped by the BMW 3-Series for the past several years.

In the info we got from the manufacturer, it turns out that, while there is a sport suspension option on this car, it is not available with all-wheel drive. I was all set to point out the foolishness in this setup to the client, when I dug into the issue and found out that for rear-drive based entries in this segment, this is pretty much universally true. In fact, the Infiniti G37x coupe that I recently drove lacked paddle shifters because they are only available on the sport package. BMW offers a sport package, but on the AWD models it omits the suspension upgrade. You're out of luck with Mercedes and Lexus, too.

It makes me feel a bit left out, since, quite honestly, if I were to buy a car in this class, I'd want both. I'm actually right in the wheelhouse for this segment, and it's possible my next car will hail from it. Why should I suffer if I want the security of AWD for the snowy Michigan winters, during which I actually change my tires, and the fun of a sport suspension for when I visit Grattan for some laps?

I discussed this with a co-worker, and he insisted that our client should be building cars for the larger market, not me. He's got an excellent point, but it still saddens me. If anyone has feedback on this, though, please comment, since I still feel like the combination works. Do you think they're making a mistake? Do you happen to have inside info that generally AWD on rear-drive platforms is not compatible with the decreased compliance of a sport suspension? Sound off!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Deutschland, Part 7

Since I had some time to kill after leaving Stuttgart, and before I had to be in Frankfurt for the auto show, I decided to see Heidelberg, a beautiful town with an overlooking medieval castle on a hill. The pictures mostly speak for themselves.

To start off the tour, there were scale models of the castle in both its heyday:

And in its present state:

This is the giant wine barrel in which the ruler of the state would put the wine he collected as taxes from the farmers. The farmers would all bring their most rock-bottom wine (who's gonna waste the good stuff when they know its fate?), and it would sit in the barrel with everyone else's wine, plus a ton of air, and they would serve it at huge banquets. Of course the stuff was nearly undrinkable, so they discontinued the practice.

And here's the view of the city below the castle.

They told us on the tour that historians are able to identify who built the castle by their stonemason signatures.

There was even a museum of pharmacy inside the castle.

Well, that's all for Heidelberg. Be sure to check back soon for Frankfurt.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

My Dilemma

As anyone who's read enough of this blog will know, I'm very picky about what I drive. My R32 gave me months of agony over its lack of a true manual transmission, before I even bought the damn thing.

So when I saw the next generation of R hardware at the Frankfurt Auto Show two months ago (more on that in later posts), I once again found it difficult to make up my mind which I liked better.

On one hand, the Scirocco R looks totally badass. Its squat shape looks almost reptilian, making up for the lost cargo space versus its Golf platform-mate. But it uses front-wheel drive, for the weight benefit, according to the VW people on the stand.

The Golf R, on the other hand, has all-wheel drive, just like my beloved R32. I've loved having AWD, due to both its track handling and the winter driving benefits.

The fact is, it doesn't look like the Scirocco will ever make it to this side of the pond, anyway, but I saw a ton of them in Germany, and even tailed one on the Nürburgring for a lap. And nevermind the fact that the new generation of R models have turbo fours, which I'm not crazy about. I'll probably give in eventually and buy a new one.

So, which to buy, assuming I have the choice? I've put a poll at the bottom of the blog. Weigh in on which is more badass.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Automatic Autos

I've actually had quite a few conversations about the imminent reality of driverless cars. Every time the topic comes up, it's fun revealing to the lay folk that we, in fact, already possess all the technology needed to never have to pilot a car again. Even more astounding, all of this technology is on cars that are at your friendly local dealer right now. When you think about it, you've probably even heard about many of them.

We're all aware of the proliferation of GPS navigation. And perhaps you've caught wind of lane-departure warning systems, which can sense road markings, and when the car begins to cross them without first signaling, gives you an audible, visual, or even tactile warning. There are actually some systems that will give a tug on the wheel to get you straightened out.

Next is dynamic cruise control. We've had cruise for years, which gave drivers a taste of the thrill of auto-pilot. But the latest systems can maintain a set distance from the car ahead, with some even able to come to a complete stop to avoid a collision.

Finally we've got self-parking systems. Toyota was the first to bring this to market on the Lexus LS, but the system is now on Lincolns and vastly improved. The car uses a variety of sensors and cameras to execute a parallel parking job by taking full control of the steering wheel.

So we've really covered every element needed to form a fully functional self-driving automobile. In fact, on a 2007 episode of Top Gear, Jeremy Clarkson took a ride in a BMW 330i as it bombed around their test track under its own, GPS-controlled direction.

So it should come as no surprise that driverless cars on public roads should come a little closer to reality, as a three-year study is about to start assembling "road trains" in which cars on test tracks--and even public roads in Spain--automatically follow a lead vehicle in order to cut drag and improve fuel mileage. Check out the post from Autoblog, and try to guess how soon this kind of thing will be a reality on American roads.

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Toll of Power

It's been shown time and again that the burdens of power can wreak havoc on one's appearance. Recently, many have discussed the visual transformation of George W. Bush over the course of his presidency.

The auto business can be particularly harsh on the physique, and recently attention was drawn to the transformation of Jim Press, as the former industry heavyweight's gig with Chrysler didn't quite work out as hoped.

Another casualty, which I just noticed today, is Dieter Zetsche, of Daimler AG. He rode Chrysler all the way down the tube, and looks worse for the wear. A few years ago, he looked young and vibrant despite his shiny pate. Now he just looks like an old man.

Poor Dieter. Hopefully his millions will console him.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Shameless Re-post

I usually try not to repost items from other blogs, but Autoblog featured something I just had to get up on my site. From the blog James Spotting comes the press release from Russian car company Dartz, which has decided to no longer offer a leather option on its Prombron model that included hides from the foreskin of whales.

Here is the text of the release, since it's so priceless:


One month ago DARTZ presented uberluxury armored car with whale penis interior - PROMBRON’ (ex.RussoBaltique), lot of people name this car as DARTZ.KOMBAT. As the world’s resonance was very huge and DARTZ got lot of angry e-mails from Greenpeace, WWF and also Pamela Anderson, DARTZ make strong decision to stop their plans regarding such interior.

“We have no any ideas to kill the whale or something like that. All we want - to make just luxury car. Real luxury car which will be world number one car. Our brand was started at 1869 when in Riga was opened Coach Factory or Russo Baltiysky Vagonnij Zavod - PBVZ, and first products was luxury train coaches. At 1907 was made a decision to open Car Department, and at 1909 first car left factory - the name of this car was RussoBalt. This was luxury and sport cars. At 1911 specially for Monaco Rally car got french style name - RussoBaltique. At 1912 factory made world first 4 x 4 wheel drive car, and at 1914 - armored car. All we want to unite luxury and armoring traditions of RussoBalt factory in one car, which brand celebrated 100 years now. At 1922 RussoBalt was renamed to PROMBRON’ (ex.RussoBalt).

We just looking for most expensive products for this car - and that’s why we choosed whale penis leathure when we checked it is most of most. After wave of protest we realised our mistake and make a decision not to use natural leathure at all. We will focus on world most advanced nanotechnologies to achieve interior highest quality using artificial materials which also was never used for cars. We want to tell our hello to all whales: “Our Sea Brothers! We all know that earth are stand on three whales - we will keep You live! We don’t Earth fall down to Ocean!”

Also we make a decision to pay more attention to glass and on our new car model we will use glass which will be made by special technology - from artificial grown chrystals, which will be gold sputerred to cut IR and UV rays, which make driving inconvinient when sun shine.

Best regards,
Leonard F. Yankelovich

I could think of little more than how lucky we are that the three whales holding up planet Earth are no longer in danger of being forced to enter Abraham's covenant against their will.

But I was also curious about the scale of use of this material. It turns out it's called Minke Dork, and it's taken from the member of a Minke whale. Its use was "pioneered", if you can call it that, by Sruli Recht, a Jewish fashion designer born in Jerusalem and living in Iceland. I wonder where he finds someone big enough to hold the whale during its bris.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Deutschland, Part 6

My second day in Stuttgart was spent at the Mercedes-Benz Museum. While I wasn't able to do the factory tour, it worked out fine, since I spent about nine hours at the museum. If you ever find yourself near Stuttgart, I highly recommend stopping by, as this architectural marvel (as seemingly all German automotive museums are) makes for a fascinating experience.

The main exhibit started at the top of an awesome shaft of elevators, where they showed you videos projected on the wall through the elevator glass. At the top you are confronted by a stuffed horse with the following inscription:

From there, you encounter the coolest part of the museum, which only Mercedes-Benz can offer, essentially a chronicle of the concurrent invention of the automobile by two men who apparently never met: Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler.

Starting with the first internal combustion engine, the so-called "Grandfather Clock":

It continues with the first car:

And then on to the evolution and adaptation for myriad uses:

Throughout the exhibit there was plenty of world history gracing the walls, to give you a good context in which to discover the cars. Eventually you get to some of the most beautiful cars ever to grace the road, the 300SLs, including the Gullwing coupe:

They even had a special exhibit which chronicled the evolution of the E-Class:

Needless to say, this museum was the subject of endless fascination for me. I was impressed beyond my expectations, though I can't imagine your stay would be near as long as mine.

Monday, November 9, 2009

A Stay of Execution

Best. Weekend. Ever!

Last year I acquired my MG in September, and I'd worried that I wouldn't have much time left in the season to enjoy it. But I got lucky, and we had a beautiful October, which allowed me to bond with the Green Monster before I had to shut it away in a lonely garage for the winter.

This year the pattern of alternating years for the weather in Michigan was looking likely to hold up, with most of the October after I returned from Germany dreary, cold and rainy, generally unfit to enjoy the finer aspects of British motoring.

But then came this weekend. While not exactly a full-on Indian summer--the temps topped out in the 60s--it was sunny and gorgeous all weekend. Astoundingly perfect conditions for my little toy.

It started out wonderfully, with a first date with a beautiful girl. I picked her up for lunch--Sushi Samurai in West Bloomfield was great--and then we just drove around for a while, exploring the town and looking for a hidden castle. It was uber-romantic, and perhaps the best first date I've ever had. Dinner's overrated.

Today I met my friend Chris and his parents for a drive with his A5 and his dad's classic Mini Cooper. We drove some fantastic roads Northwest of Ann Arbor, stopping briefly in Hell and then at a cider mill in Pinckney.

Here's a picture of our cars, which happens to be in the order in which we drove, since Chris' fully modern sports coupe can burn our LBCs easily, and of the two classic drivers, I was the more aggressive/insane one, so each of us got to stretch our cars' legs at our own preferred pace.

Quite honestly, I don't know if this holds any interest for anyone reading this, but I couldn't resist the urge to gloat about/appreciate this final opportunity of the year to enjoy the MGB.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Deutschland, Part 5

And now we come to the event that I'd been dreaming about for months, perhaps years: the Porsche factory and museum in Zuffenhausen, a suburb of Stuttgart. While I was disappointed with not getting my act together for this trip two years ago--the Frankfurt Auto Show is only every other year, so I had to wait until this year--the timing of my trip was fairly auspicious, since the Porsche Museum has only been open since January. Not only that, but I happened to go on 9/11, which was just a function of my trip timing, and were it not for the horrific event that Americans associate with it, this would be a joyous coincidence.

Upon entering the building, I got a good look at the shop where exhibit cars are restored and maintained.

But my first order of business upon arrival was to make sure I could get a tour of the factory. At first, the woman at the desk apologized, but there would be no English tour today. Sunken-hearted, I was about to slink off in despair, when the woman behind her said she had just talked to someone else on the phone (literally while I was talking to the first woman) and had found out there would be an English tour, and it started in a half hour. Now that's luck.

I was fortunate enough to tour the plant where the 911, Boxster and Cayman are born. They also make all of their engines here, and it was quite a treat to see them being essentially hand-assembled. This was our first stop on the tour, and as I was watching a worker lovingly lay a camshaft in a cylinder head, the tour guide explained that this was the only plant in Germany where workers are allowed to have a beer with lunch.

There were two engine lines, one for the traditional flat-six engines that Porsche has used almost since the beginning of time, and running parallel to that, the line for the V8 engines that are used in the front of the Cayenne and the Panamera. Luckily we were standing over the flat-six line. I wouldn't want it any other way.

It’s a very relaxed environment, and this is by design. Porsche has timed the speed of the line minutely so that it is going neither too fast (which would lead to undue stress) nor too slow (sloth makes quality suffer, too). It used to be a one worker/one engine process, but with the addition of a few robots (only for some bolts) this has changed a bit.

We got to see the factory’s leather shop, which apparently also sets this plant apart from its peers in Germany, who usually outsource this work. The cows are all sourced from the Alps (what was that California was saying about “happy cows”?), and up to 10 hides are used per interior. The coolest part about it is how the hides are cut. Not with blades or lasers, which could damage them, but with high pressure water jets. So cool!

In the main assembly building, it was a joy to see the complex ballet of movement whereby the cars are transported between two levels, and automatically rotated to face forward after they leave the elevator to head the other way. The guide claimed this led to increased quality, perhaps purely from the mental effect on the workers. There were far fewer robots on the Porsche line than at the Audi plants, and especially the subsequent Volkswagen plant in Wolfsburg. Porsche workers also seemed to possess the pinnacle of pride, as one would expect. They seemed to be generally older, which is natural, since they are surely paid more for a higher level of skill.

While none of the factory tours I attended allowed photography, I do have a picture I took later of the building in which the first Porsche--the 356--was assembled.

After the tour I went back to enjoy the museum at a leisurely pace. It is a beautiful work of architecture, and the exhibits are encountered in a downward spiral around the building. The first picture is from Wikipedia, cause how cool is the building at night, right? The rest are mine, since I only got to experience it during the day.

I've got plenty of other pictures from the museum, but here's a representative one. It's my favorite Porsche of all time, the 356 Speedster, and it was the exact right color combo. Incidentally, I'm trying to convince my dad to pull the trigger on his purchase of the BMW Z8 he really wants in this color combo. Just do it, dad!

I'll leave you with one of the highlights of the museum, which was the staff firing up a 911 race car and revving the engine for the crowd which quickly gathered. Actually it's a fairly small museum, so pretty much everyone in attendance was huddled around the car. According to a security guard, they do it once a day, just to thrill the museum goers.

After leaving the museum, I crossed the street to the dealership that was on-site. It was marvelous, and doubled as an event center. Here's a sculpture that was inside:

Which brings to mind an interesting contrast versus Audi. While I was on the Ingolstadt plant tour, a couple expressed interest in buying an Audi, especially since the tour had gotten their blood pumping. The tour guide said that they would have to go to a dealer, but there was none on-site. Audi, unlike every other company, seems to be missing a great opportunity here. The dealership attached to the Mercedes museum was massive, and rightfully so. What better place to buy a new Mercedes than at the Mercedes museum?

Having spent an entire day frolicking among the maximum Porschetude, I was spent. But I was definitely looking forward to the next day, which was the Mercedes museum, also in Stuttgart. Until then, auf wiedersehen!