Toddlers love the 2012 Hyundai Veloster

2012 Hyundai Veloster effectively bridges the gap between baby boomers and toddlers

by Dan Buxbaum

2012 Hyundai Veloster in Century White

 

 

 

 

 

 

Most weekday afternoons, my commute takes me from the office straight to day care to pick up my 21-month-old Son. After blowing kisses to a screaming mob of his groupies, the little guy typically pulls me outside, at lightning speed, anxious to see which media vehicle will be chauffeuring him back to our house. After I point out where the vehicle is parked, he delightedly proclaims, “New car! New car!” Except that, when he saw Hyundai’s 2012 Veloster, (I didn’t even have to point), he donned an ear-to-ear grin, and shouted, “Whoa, cool, wow, car!”

My sentiments exactly.

By way of their “24/7, version 2.0” product initiative (seven new models in 24 months), we found Hyundai to have built a car that is so good, I almost considered trading in my nine-month old, family-friendly SUV for one.

The exterior’s “fluidic-sculpture” design was, in a word, stunning. Bulbous headlamps with LED markers led the way up the front façade to a muscularly-styled hood, graced with a set of almost-believable faux air scoops.

Adding to the design, our Veloster was equipped with the optional “Style” package (18” two-tone wheels, panoramic glass roof, fog lamps, upgraded trim and audio). As equipped, the upper portions of the car contained so much glass, that we found most of our staff beginning to develop an irrational fear of hail storms.

Also worth noting, the glass roof severely compromised front seat head room, lowering the number to 37.2”, versus 39”, had it been equipped with the standard, fixed metal roof.

To us, the most striking visual element, however, was the full-size third passenger door, located on the passenger rear side of the vehicle. We found the concept to have worked effectively, garnering confused looks and ill-timed expletives from curious bystanders, as well as passengers desiring rear seat ingress and egress via the opposite side.

Inside of the Veloster’s cabin, the fluid-sculpture design theme continued, with elements designed to mimic a sport bike, or “crotch rocket,” to the younger crowd.

According to Hyundai, the tall, steeply-raked windshield is meant to evoke styling cues reminiscent of a motorcycle helmet visor, while the center stack and audio/HVAC controls emulate a sport bike’s fuel tank. The air vents are said to be inspired by motorcycle tailpipes, and the floor console mirrors a bike’s seat. We found it all to integrate nicely, and yes, their crotch rocket-design comparisons were spot-on.

What you wouldn’t have found in a sport bike were the myriad of features that were included in our test car’s $2,000 “Tech” package (Satellite radio, backup camera with parking sensors, navigation system). The best feature, it was universally deemed, was the customizable, seven-inch, touch-screen multimedia/navigation display, complete with rearview camera, gaming console compatibility (through an RCA-style jack and a 115-volt outlet), Bluetooth audio streaming, and Pandora® internet radio.

Powering our Veloster was Hyundai’s 1.6-L “Gamma” four-cylinder, direct-fuel-injected engine. This was the same all-aluminum mill found in the Hyundai Accent and Kia Rio, and produced an identical 138 HP and 123 lb-ft of torque.

Mated with our test car’s standard six-speed manual transmission, the Gamma felt quick and lively, with great mid-range power and a glorious pull at high revs. During our week of driving, the car averaged over 34.5 MPG; truly respectable, considering our lead-footed driving style.

For those desiring automatic gear changes, Hyundai offers an automated, six-speed, dual-clutch transmission (DCT) as a $1,250 option.

The Veloster’s taut ride and handling characteristics were provided courtesy of a Macpherson strut-type setup with 24 mm stabilizer bar up front and a light-weight “V-torsion beam” with coil springs and hydraulic mono-tube shocks in the rear.

The “V-torsion beam,” according to Hyundai, integrates a 23 mm stabilizer bar to allow bracing of the arms for greater stiffness and to further control body roll.

The overall setup performed exceptionally well, working in perfect harmony with the electrically-assisted steering, and provided high levels of chassis responsiveness and feedback.

As-tested, our fully-loaded Veloster had a MSRP of $22,315, inclusive of a $775 freight charge. The base-model Veloster starts at $17,300, and includes standard features such as Bluetooth connectivity, power windows, door locks and mirrors, 7-inch LCD video touch-screen display, and Hyundai’s marvelous Blue Link telematics system (crash response, stolen car recovery, remote vehicle locking/unlocking, maintenance minder system).

We opined that, having developed a clearly-established rapport across multiple generations, the Hyundai Veloster was a vehicle sure to stand the test of time. Rumor has it; there is a 201 HP, turbocharged variant due out later this summer, with a starting price below $22,000. If the rumor is true, sign us up; we can’t wait.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Parts & People test the 2012 Kia Rio 5-Door SX

 

 

Kia’s 2012 Rio 5-Door SX handling and amenities surprises and delights

by Dan Buxbaum

2012 Kia Rio 5-Door SX

Kia’s bold, new exterior design for the Rio 5-Door SX clearly reflects their “design-led transformation” philosophy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Life is full of great success stories, as is evidenced by Kia Motors’ surge to popularity since its stateside introduction in 1994. Kia Motors America company officials recently reported surpassing 485,000 annual vehicle sales for 2011, a more than 36-percent increase over the same period in 2010.

The 2012 Kia Rio, available in the EX, LX and SX (tested), trim levels, is a successful effort by the manufacturer to make this vehicle not only well respected, but a leader in its class.

The fluid, sculpted lines of the Rio’s exterior clearly convey Kia’s intended message of a “design-led transformation.”  Blessed with luxury car amenities such as LED accent lights and rear combination lamps, power-folding mirrors, and two-tone seventeen-inch wheels, the overall look of our tested SX model is one of substance and quality.

The car has a low and aggressive stance, yet remains parking-lot and driveway entry and exit friendly due to a reasonable 5.5 inches of ground clearance. Not once during our weeklong test drive did we manage to scuff the underside of the Rio’s great-looking chin.

Inside the Rio’s cabin, niceties such as steering wheel audio controls, a sliding center armrest, dual illuminated vanity mirrors, and an auto-up/down driver’s front window prove this little car’s ambitions to move upmarket.

The 2012 Rio 5-Door SX’s interior exudes quality and style with upscale materials and superb ergonomics.

Standard in the 2012 Rio SX, and optional in EX trim, is Microsoft’s Your Voice (UVO) in-vehicle infotainment system with voice control.  The navigability of UVO’s interface is superb, integrating more premium features such as Bluetooth wireless technology, Sirius satellite radio, backup camera, USB and auxiliary jacks, as well as a hard drive for in-car music storage.

With regards to interior volume and comfort, the front seats provide a supportive environment for around-town drives and long-haul road trips.  Sitting high in the driver’s seat, the driver is afforded a commanding view of the cabin and the road ahead.

Side visibility is excellent, as well, though the large C-pillars obstruct rear corner visibility for lane changes and parking lot trolling.

The Rio provides 43.8 inches of front-seat legroom, which was more than ample to accommodate this driver’s six-foot, four-inch frame.  The rear seats provide a less substantial 31.1 inches of legroom, although a child seat was able to be installed directly behind the driver’s seat with very little forward adjustment.

The expansive cargo area with its 15 cubic feet of storage (rear seat up) was easily able to swallow a stroller and productive day’s worth of grocery bags as well.

For 2012, Kia has endowed the Rio with a new version of their award-winning “Gamma” 1.6-L four-cylinder engine.  In this application, the 138-HP Gamma utilizes modern technologies such as Gasoline Direct Injection (GDI), variable valve timing, and ultra-lightweight materials to achieve a class-leading fuel economy rating of 30/40 MPG (city/highway) and an engine weight savings of more than 29 pounds over the previous generation.  In our real-world driving, we averaged a respectable 31.1 MPG on regular unleaded gasoline.

The SX was also equipped, as standard, with a smooth new six-speed automatic transmission which is well-matched to the engine’s power band. A six-speed manual gearbox can be had as well, but only on the entry-level LX model.

The Rio has excellent drivability, with taut, fun-to-drive reflexes.  The SX model’s sport-tuned suspension utilizes a MacPherson type setup with gas shock absorbers up front, and a coupled torsion beam axle with gas shock absorbers in the rear.  Impacts and ride motions were well controlled, even as they were transmitted through the test car’s low-profile 205/45R17 tires.

The standard electric rack-and-pinion steering setup provides excellent feedback and has razor-sharp accuracy when maneuvering around town.

When it comes to slowing down, the Rio is equipped, as standard, with four-wheel power-assisted disc brakes with ABS and electronic brake-force distribution.  The SX model’s front discs are larger than those on the LX and EX (11.0 inch and 10.1 inch, respectively), translating to an excellent pedal feel and respectable tracking, especially when executing panic stops.

The 2012 Kia Rio 5-Door LX MT has a starting MSRP of an impressive $13,600.  Our feature-laden SX AT model, as tested, rang in at an economical $17,795, which includes a $95 carpeted floor mat option.

With Kia’s five-year/60,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty and 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain coverage, as standard, we would be hard-pressed to find a better-executed car for the money.  The overall value, driving dynamics, interior comfort and amenities, and great looks combine to make a great sub-compact car that should be at the top of everyone’s list.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Great Fuel Mileage Debate

THE GREAT FUEL MILEAGE DEBATE

An Enthusiast’s Observations on an Alternatively-Fueled Reality

The same discussion seems subject to frequent revolutions throughout our daily ramblings: What to make of alternative-fueled vehicles in the U.S. Marketplace? To one, it may be like comparing a lox-and-bagel sandwich with regular or light cream cheese (same taste, slightly different content and outcome). To an enthusiast though, the prospect of federally-mandated lower-horsepower, smaller-displacement, higher-efficiency mills powering our trusty chariots is simply preposterous. How dare our government tell us that accelerating from 0-60 in 4.8 seconds is illegal unless it’s done with, at minimum, a “Nader-esque” standard of responsibility? Simply put, how can automakers responsibly revolutionize our automotive landscape without taking the ‘drive’ out of driving?

Recently, Car and Driver magazine pitted a 2011 Chevrolet Volt against a 2011 Chevrolet Cruze Eco (C&D, September 2011). To some, the purpose of this comparison may have been two-fold. First, was an inexpensive, gasoline-powered subcompact (Cruze) an acceptable ‘real-world’ substitute for an eco-hallmark like the Volt? Second (and more importantly), were these two eco-mobiles able to retain any semblance of a fun-to-drive characteristic? The results were quite surprising.

To begin, in the automotive realm, the proposition of real-world economy is simple. Summed up for business types, the 2011 Volt has a base MSRP of $39,995 whereas the Cruze Eco can be had for a mere $19,995. Hold your horses, though; Before the torches and spears come out, let’s allow for an explanation that may (or may not) factually debunk the Volt’s price premium. Both cars are built off of GM’s new ‘global’ compact car architecture, meaning that many of their core chassis, interior and exterior parts are shared. Subsequently, Car and Driver found the interior plastics and switchgear in the Volt to have a more minimalistic, insubstantial quality and feel even compared to those utilized in the Cruze. The Volt is also woefully absent of common features like a power driver’s seat, which seems to be a standard fixture in most vehicles costing substantially less.

Granted, the cost of engineering the Volt’s complicated hybrid powertrain can be easily factored in to the equation. How is it, though, that during Car and Driver’s real-world 42-mile Michigan commute (Ann Arbor-Chelsea-Dexter-Ann Arbor), the Cruze managed a whopping 47mpg solely on gasoline? The Volt reached 119mpgE (a complicated formula) solely on electricity, but what if the car had a zero or partial-charge and had to rely on its own engine? Over a near-900-mile highway trip, combining gasoline and electricity, the Volt returned the equivalent of only 40mpg. It’s also worth mentioning that the Volt required frequent recharging to ensure maximum electric range. Perhaps on a gasoline-only cross-country road trip, the Volt’s real-world mileage would max out in the mid-to-high 30s. The value proposition for this $40,000 car, then, would become increasingly more difficult and complex relative to the affordable $20k Cruze.

More importantly to us enthusiast types, though, is the relative “fun-to-drive” quotient. For both the Cruze and Volt within their respective market segments, there is not much to live up to. Other than the overtly-communicative Mazda3, cars like the Toyota Prius, Volkswagen Jetta, Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic have not (at least in recent years) been exactly setting the bar for handling and driver involvement. This is the modern era of the automobile, though, and is henceforth where Chevrolet has shown a few flashes of brilliance with the Cruze. The Cruze Eco comes standard with a 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder good for 138 horsepower and a whopping 148 pound-feet of torque available at a very low 2500rpm. Though the engine is a gem, the true brilliance of the Eco shines through VIA a six-speed manual transmission with tall 4th, 5th and 6th gear ratios. Through this engine and transmission combination, Car and Driver tested the Cruze Eco’s 0-60 time at a very respectable 8.4 seconds. Needless to say as well, there is true comfort in knowing that an automaker can still visualize a need for a genuine manual transmission for both economy and driver involvement. In the handling department, the Cruze and Volt both employ a four-wheel independent suspension and four-wheel disc brakes which, believe it or not, are becoming rarities amongst their competitors. The Cruze’s curb weight, though, is a comparatively svelte 3015lbs, nearly 750lbs slimmer than the Volt’s 3766lbs. Granted, the Cruze does without the Volt’s batteries, regenerative braking components and other weight-adding subtleties. One cannot help but wonder, though, how much better a performer the Volt might be if it lost a few hundred pounds.

The Volt’s powertrain, on the other hand, employs a completely different philosophy for its forward momentum. There is a 149hp electric drive motor providing thrust to the front wheels VIA a continuously-variable transmission. Depending on how the car is driven (and several other factors), the electric-only operability is good for between 25-50 miles. Once the pure electricity runs out, power is routed through both the electric motors and a 1.4-liter naturally-aspirated four-cylinder engine good for a mere 84hp and 93 pound-feet of torque. Despite the gasoline engine’s low output though, the acceleration numbers for the Volt with full electric power available are truly respectable. 8.8 seconds from 0-60, 5.9 seconds from 50-70mph, and a “Cruze-comparable” 16.7-second quarter-mile run at 85mph (the Cruze did it in 16.6 seconds at the same 85mph trap speed). Based upon acceleration numbers alone, it would seem that as a ‘performance electric,’ the Volt does a decent job. As to what happens after the juice runs out, however, it can only be noted that there are a paltry 84 horsepower and limited electric capabilities powering nearly 3800lbs of mass. One could only hope that their afternoon commute, then, were completely devoid of long up-hill stretches and the need for evasive highway passing maneuvers.

To sum it all up, in a perfect world, the Volt would make perfect sense for the well-to-do commuter. Having a 30-mile average commute infused with traffic and construction would be the Volt’s bread-and-butter. Within a realistic perspective though, given the limited capabilities of both ourselves and our infrastructure, the high-mileage fossil-fuel burners still remain our best bet. With the implementation of technologies like lower-friction metals, direct fuel injection and adaptive engine/transmission mapping, automakers are continuing to build more efficient vehicles without sacrificing technological advancement or fun-to-drive capabilities. As enthusiasts, we simply cannot wait for both the next-generation Cruze Eco and Volt. If the Cruze’s engine were to employ lower-friction metals and direct fuel injection and the Volt lost 500lbs (and gained a proper urban support system), the possibilities would be endless. Until then, we remain perfectly content with cars like the high-mileage turbocharged 2011 Chevrolet Cruze Eco. Let’s just hope that Chevy minds the demands of us enthusiasts and hangs on to that glorious six-speed manual gearbox.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Elevation and the Combustion Engine

Elevation and the Combustion Engine

Your Colorado car may not need a tune-up after all…

Picture yourself on a road trip from Chicago to Denver, West-bound on I-80 with the cruise control set at 75.  You’ve just stopped for sleep and fuel in beautiful Kearney, Nebraska.  This “midwest treasure” is home to the most picturesque Motel 6 you might ever see and a Sinclair station that, yes, still has the famed green dinosaur out front.  As you pull out of Sinclair and goose it back on to the highway though, you notice something; Your trusty chariot seems down on power, and not just by a little bit.  Was it the fact that you chose to fund the proprietors of the green dinosaur rather than the Shell station across the street?  Was it the fact that you ate those three extra dinner rolls at the Cracker Barrel last night?  The answer resides in neither a fuel quality or carbohydrate-based excuse, but rather in one simple word: Elevation.

 Kearney, Nebraska rides the almost exact geographical mid-point on I-80 between Iowa and Colorado.  At 2,131ft, Kearney is the first major city on this Chicago-to-Denver route whose elevation surpasses 2,000 feet above sea level.  Grand Island, which is about 45 minutes East, sits at 1,856.  Lexington, which is about 45 minutes West, sits at a towering 2,408.  Although the surrounding land seems deceptively flat and full of corn, the clay underneath you is actually rising at a fairly rapid rate towards the sky.  As a result, the air becomes less saturated with oxygen and, in turn, your engine has to work much harder to create a complete and efficient combustion cycle.

As you arrive in Colorado, you notice that even more of your car’s precious acceleration (and fuel economy) have gone the way of the dinosaur.  Denver sits nearly 3,000 feet above Kearney at 5,280, exactly one mile above the sea.  According to http://www.ifsja.org, the formula for horsepower loss due to altitude is ‘elevation x 0.03 x horsepower at sea level.’  In other words, your 300-horsepower beast (at low altitude) has lost 47.52 horsepower simply from making the trek to the Mile-High City.  Granted, there are other natural parasitic losses that lower the 300-horsepower rating right from the factory.  Though your engine may produce 300 horsepower on its own, there is much energy lost when that power is routed through a flywheel, transmission, differential(s), driveshaft and axles.  When a car is dyno-tested, or has its power measured at the wheels rather than at the engine, this is why the power output number is significantly lower.  For example, when mustang50magazine.com dyno-tested a 2005 Ford Mustang GT (rated at 300 horsepower), it only produced 242.9 ‘useable’ horsepower at the rear wheels.  Utilizing the aforementioned formula for power loss due to elevation, if this Mustang were driven in Denver (5,280ft), it would be putting down something more like 195.38 rear-wheel horsepower.

At this point, a Denver resident might ask where the bright spot resides in this article, and the answer is simple.

When seeking a new or used vehicle in a high-altitude market, look for a vehicle that is turbocharged.

The debate over whether or not ‘forced-induction’ (turbocharged or supercharged) vehicles are statistically more efficient than ‘naturally-aspirated’ engines at high altitude remains mostly unsolved.  One consistent truth behind this, though, is turbocharging is more efficient than supercharging.  The theory behind supercharged engines is that at high altitude, they are no more efficient than a naturally-aspirated engine.  This thought stems from the fact that a supercharger is belt-driven, much like an alternator, power steering pump or air conditioning compressor.  As such, it utilizes the engine’s power to turn a pulley and belt system which, in turn, winds up the insides of the supercharger to ‘force’ extra air down into the engine for combustion.  The advantage of this process is the virtual elimination of ‘lag’ when accelerating, due to the fact that a supercharger’s insides are turning efficiently even when the engine is idling.

Concurrently, with turbocharging, the engine’s expelled hot exhaust gases are forced through a turbine-spindle-compressor assembly (turbocharger).  This process happens even before the exhaust has a chance to escape through the car’s mufflers, catalytic converters and tailpipes.  As such, the high velocity of the exhaust gases from the engine are blown through the turbine’s ‘blades,’ ‘allowing the turbine to ‘spool up.’  This then turns the attaching spindle, which is connected to the compressor and its own respective ‘fans.’   Once spooled, the compressor’s blades suck fresh air upwards and accelerate it back into the engine.  The turbine’s blades, in turn, force the already-used hot exhaust gases back into the exhaust stream and out into the atmosphere.

The downside to this system is that the engine has to complete an entire combustion cycle, wait for the turbine and compressor to spool and then wait for the fresh air to be recirculated all the way back to the engine’s intake to create power.  This is why turbocharged engines experience ‘turbo lag,’ a delay experienced mostly during acceleration from a standstill.  Another downside is that this system creates a great amount of heat and, as such, can be considered thermally inefficient.  This is because hot air is less oxygen-rich than cold air and, in turn, cannot be combusted by your engine as efficiently.  As a result, especially in warm ambient temperatures or in stop-and-go driving, the compressor is typically forcing hot air back into the engine.  Manufacturers have recognized this issue and began using ‘intercoolers’ to aid the process.  The intercooler typically sits in the middle of the piping between the turbocharger’s compressor and your engine’s air intake.  When the compressor expels fresh air back towards the engine, it is first passed through the intercooler which lowers the temperature of this air substantially.

How turbocharging and intercooling benefits you is simple: More power and efficiency are available more frequently and under more varied conditions.  By the turbocharging and intercooling principle, your engine has an ability to keep the air it breathes significantly faster-flowing, cooler, and in turn, oxygen-rich.  As a result, the engine does not necessarily have to work as hard to achieve greater levels of power and efficiency.  Plus, manufacturers have a tendency to ‘under-rate’ the power and efficiency of turbocharged engines from the factory.  For example, Subaru rates the horsepower of its turbocharged 2011 WRX engine at 265bhp.  Several sources, though, have dyno-tested this engine at over 250 useable horsepower at the wheels.  Taking into account a normal power loss from the aforementioned flywheel, transmission, differentials, driveshaft and axles, this is reflective of the engine most likely developing closer to 300bhp.  This offers further evidence that, although not always consistent, a turbocharged engine’s efficiency can surpass even its own manufacturer’s expectations.

Put simply, the next time you are either road-tripping through or moving to a high-altitude area, remember that your car’s lack of power is not something that can be adjusted or controlled.  Like us humans, today’s fuel-injected and computerized cars can automatically compensate for different oxygen levels in the air.  How the engine is able to mitigate the difference, however, resides within how efficiently it can do so internally.  With a turbocharged engine, there seems to be little question as to the benefits in efficiency it provides at higher altitudes.  Try test-driving a turbocharged Subaru WRX, Audi A4, Acura RDX or BMW X3 next time you’re out shopping for a car.  Trust me, the difference you feel will be well worth it, especially when taking your next trip through the Rockies.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Affordable Off-Roader Comparison Test

Affordable Off-Roader Comparison Test

a.k.a. ‘How to Best Climb Over Parking Blocks’

Featuring the 2008 Toyota FJ Cruiser and 2008 Hummer H3 X

When living life as an automotive enthusiast, it might be commonplace to find yourself conjuring up excuses to buy a new car.  This is a frequent practice that, by nature, has a tendency to irritate spouses, parents, children and even small pets.  With each successive purchase comes a new light; New opportunities to go different places, show off to different people and even to discover a life one may never have known before.  With a true-to-history, body-on-frame 4×4, these traits can be magnified by several thousand times due to the fact that one may suddenly believe he or she has the capability to go anywhere and do anything; Climb any grocery store snow pile without getting stuck, exit any parking lot without scraping the front end.  Suddenly you find yourself beckoning to the call of the almighty gas-guzzler; The semi-impractical box on wheels that you’ve now convinced yourself you simply cannot live without.  Ignoring the ‘where the (expletive) are you’ phone calls and text messages from your significant other, you now have a mission.  Find an affordable, lightly-used off-road vehicle that can convince even the most stubborn of spouses that it is worth its weight in gold…er….91-octane gasoline.

2nd Place

2008 Hummer H3 X

Think back to when you were in your pre-school years, just starting to dream of having a vehicle of your own.  Your parents, understanding your unbridled enthusiasm, bought your first one: a Power Wheels Jeep Wrangler with working lights and seat belts.  Now imagine having that Power Wheels Jeep immortalized in the soul of a seemingly go-anywhere, do-anything mega-ute.  Theoretically speaking, the H3 is the car that the Transformer ‘Mechatron’ would drive (if he fit).   Is this immortalization of an underpowered, cheap, semi-durable go-anywhere kid-mobile necessarily a good thing, though?

Theoretically, yes.

Blessed with a much-needed boost to 242bhp and displacement increase to 3.7L for the 2007 model year, the Hummer’s five-cylinder Isuzu-sourced power plant seems enough of a good thing on paper.  When you can potentially achieve the efficiency of a four-cylinder engine with the power of a six-cylinder, all seems well with the world, right?   Uh, not so much.  When that odd number of cylinders and a meager 242lb-ft of torque have to lug around 4700 pounds of steel plus passengers and cargo, it can feel quite underwhelming.  In mixed city and highway driving, the 5-speed manual H3 averaged a paltry 14.2mpg.  Granted, with the manual transmission you can usually find the right gear to fit the engine’s limited powerband.  Plus, the manual’s shift linkage actually has quite a solid feel and relatively short throws from gear to gear.  With the dated GM 4-speed automatic pretending it’s not living in the dark ages though, it’s an entirely different story.  The slushbox never seems to know where to find the balance, consistently hunting for the right cog even on steady freeway stints.  Kudos to GM for giving the H3 soft throttle tip-in (great for off-roading), but when you finally grab hold of forward momentum, hang on; It’s like riding on an old wooden roller coaster controlled by children with un-medicated Attention Deficit Disorder.

On another hand, the suspension is downright marvelous both on- and off-road.  Except for a slightly numb on-center steering feel, real-world handling is quite good for such a large ute.  Highway travel packs the miles away with ease thanks to a comfortable ride, especially when the solid live-axle rear suspension is loaded with a trailer or passengers and cargo.  Be forewarned though that the maximum tow capacity with the five-cylinder motor is a meager 4500lbs (when properly equipped).  With stacked leaf springs at the rear, the chassis itself should be capable of much more but is seriously limited by the engine’s soft power output.  Up front, there is a short and long arm suspension setup braced by a relatively beefy stabilizer bar.  This setup, even with the thick stabilizer bar, provides for incredible wheel articulation over obstacles and a great amount of flexibility when the going gets rough.  When traversing everyday road irregularities, however, there is an unsettling amount of chassis flex felt all the way through the steering wheel and into the cabin.  This is where the H3’s compact pickup-based roots start to show, as under these conditions it feels more like a Chevy Colorado or GMC Canyon with a topper over the bed and seats in the back.

When it comes to braking, grabbing the binders to slow this rig down too often reminds you of its heft and pickup-based architecture.  It seems that no matter how gingerly you manipulate the brakes, the front end wants to dive towards the ground like a two year old in an easter egg hunt.  The brakes are still aided by modern goodies such as 4-wheel ABS, electronic brakeforce distribution and emergency braking assist which do result in a positively firm and accurate pedal feel when stopping quickly.  This modern brigade of electronic assistants and positive pedal feel have a tough time performing admirably, however, when the chassis simply refuses to cooperate with abrupt inputs.

Reflecting upon the H3’s styling and visual appeal though, you simply cannot stop looking at this rig.  Just like your trusty old Power Wheels Jeep, this is a great car to look at.  Nothing screams ‘I can crush you’ louder than the trademark 18-inch Hummer wheels and beefy 265/65R18 all-terrain tires.  The menacing front end seems to look over you, almost as if to say, “Yeah, I’m taller; Wanna see my roof rack touch the top of that tree?”  The rear end is pure H2, replete with extra-large tow hook, gigantic spare tire and side-mounted license plate bracket.  Looking at the big rig from the side is just as menacing, with an obviously great amount of ground clearance (9.1 inches) and tremendous approach and departure angles (37.5/35.5 degrees, respectively).

Open the door and take a step inside, however, and it becomes an entirely different story.  The first thought that encompasses your mind is, “Am I in a $20,000 Chevrolet Colorado or a $37,000 Hummer H3?”  GM has done very little to differentiate the interior trim of the H3 from its significantly less-expensive pickup truck siblings.  True, the instrument dials are finished in typical Hummer bold lettering and are clear and easy to read, but they possess a glaring likeness to those of the Colorado and Canyon.  The gear shift, radio, HVAC and transfer case controls are surrounded by a ‘bright’ faux-aluminum housing that looks relatively convincing.  HVAC and radio controls do not have a positive, reassuring feel when you operate them, however.  GM’s cost-cutting measures become obvious when the radio knob has half an inch of free play from side-to-side and an HVAC dial falls off in your hand.  The ‘X’ model comes standard with power-adjustable seats swathed in two-tone leather.  The leather is soft to the touch and overlays a generous amount of padding for good long-distance comfort.  The seats are entirely devoid of anything reminiscent of lateral support though, so in harder corners and while off-roading, plan to grab hold of anything nearby to keep your posterior firmly planted.  Plus, the leather in our test vehicle was overly shiny and worn, and was beginning to split and tear on the driver’s left thigh bolster.  One can clearly understand GM’s mission to make this a rugged vehicle, but it does not seem like the interior surfaces could hold up to constant abuse.  Getting past the shortcomings, however, the seven-speaker Monsoon stereo is simply marvelous, the cabin stays quiet at speed, the seats are still comfy and cushy, sight lines outward are surprisingly good, and there are storage bins and upholders aplenty.

When all is said and done, the 2008 H3 X proves to be an entirely useable vehicle both on and off-road.  Its comfortable suspension, cushy seats and low noise levels make it the better highway companion of the two vehicles tested.  Its off-road prowess is virtually untouchable and its visual appeal will undoubtedly make you the envy of all your neighbors.  The H3’s shortcomings in power, stability, braking and overall material quality simply overcome its positive attributes however.  For a $37,000 SUV, you cannot help but feel like you should just be getting a little bit more…

1st place

2008 Toyota FJ Cruiser

Picking up where the H3 left off, the 2008 FJ Cruiser is another breed altogether.  You have to wonder how the Japanese could contrive such a big, heavy, go-anywhere SUV when their latest efforts seem to all revolve around efficiency.  Granted, its design roots are deeply planted in the original FJ-40 SUV and Land Cruisers from the days of yore.  How is it, then, that such a ‘green’ company as Toyota could conjure up a success story with the new FJ?

Simple.  Find your target market, take notes, and knock it out of the park.

The FJ Cruiser seems to have been designed with one purpose in mind:  Go anywhere, do anything.  This trait is exemplified with the feeling that the FJ should be as reliable as any other Toyota product.  Built on the solid Tacoma/4-Runner platform, the 4X4 FJ seems poised to rack up mile after mile of abuse, as many older Tacomas and 4-Runners seem to do.  Try finding a 1996-2002 generation 4-Runner with less than 150,000 miles on the clock; It seems virtually impossible to accomplish.  Most of those cars appear to be one-owner vehicles as well, proving their owners are a loyal breed.  The FJ also seriously undercuts the H3’s price point.  Even when new,  a fully-loaded 2008 FJ 4X4 retailed for around $33,000, a far cry from the $37,000+ demanded by the H3.

Power for the 2008 FJ comes from a 4.0L V6 that, according to Toyota, was specifically designed with truck duty in mind.  At 239bhp it puts less horsepower to the ground than the H3, although it has a whopping 278lb-ft of torque at a very useable 3700rpm.  This mountain of instantly-available torque allows the FJ to feel downright sprightly when traversing both traffic jams and mountain trails.  Standard with the 4X4 model is a part-time transfer case and five-speed automatic transmission that, unlike the H3, seems to always find the right gear.  This is no doubt aided by the 5th cog, which helps the FJ’s engine maintain a relaxed 2100rpm when cruising at 80mph.  The FJ’s curb weight also comes in at a comparably svelte 4295lbs, over 400lbs lighter than the H3.  All this translates to uncovering respectable real world fuel economy of 18.7mpg in combined city and highway driving, and a maximum 22.0mpg on a longer highway stint.  There is also a six-speed manual transmission available that pairs with a full-time 4X4 transfer case.  As such, fuel mileage suffers substantially, but there is never a worry about trying to find the right transfer case gearing for changing road conditions.  Toyota also endorses the FJ 4X4 manual as having no issue traversing the famed Rubicon Trail; After off-roading with the 4X4 auto-equipped FJ, however, you’d have a hard time not finding it just as capable as the former.

The four-wheel independent suspension in the FJ is far more modern than the system in the H3 and, on paper, it seems as though the H3 may have a leg up when off-roading.  To a true off-road enthusiast, having a four-wheel independent suspension is practically a death wish.  Live axles, then, should be the way of the warrior without exception.  Except that, in this case, Toyota managed yet again to blend modern technology with old-school durability.  In the front is a double-wishbone suspension (can you say Honda Civic?) that somehow allows for over nine inches of wheel travel.  At the rear is a multi-link setup that provides a high level of ruggedness without utilizing leaf springs or a completely live axle.  This all translates to a superb real-world feel when traversing city and highway streets, and a confidence-inspiring level of maneuverability off-road.  Don’t forget that this SUV is still heavy and has quite a large footprint, but around town, it feels much more lively than the porky H3.  The downside to the independent, ‘sans-leaf-spring’ rear axle, though, is sagging of the rear end when towing.  Though the FJ’s tow capacity is a respectable 5,000lbs when properly equipped, attaching anything heavier than a couple of dirtbikes causes the rear end to sag worse than…well, you fill in the blank.

In terms of braking, the FJ is equipped with much the same setup as the H3.  Beefy brake discs front and rear aided by the same electronic goodies result in respectable stopping distances and good emergency braking capabilities.  The downside, however, is that Toyota’s engineers seem to have missed the boat with pedal feel.  There is consistently an almost spooky amount of pedal travel before the pads grab, and there is an unsettling vibration felt in the pedal as the system builds vacuum to assist stopping power.  Thankfully, the front end does not dive under hard braking as much as it ‘squats,’ enabling a greater level of control in this circumstance than the H3.

Exterior styling for the FJ is a bit of an abnormality, it seems.  This truck possesses a single color for the main portions of the body, a white roof, black rocker panels and wheel arches and silver mirrors, door handles and bumper caps.  Though you may understand and appreciate the throwback to the original FJ40, one cannot help but think of how much better this rig would look with a black roof, black bumper caps and black trim throughout.  This feat was accomplished by the limited-production 2007 ‘Toyota Racing Development’ (TRD) edition FJ, which with a pure black color scheme looked downright menacing.  Compared to the H3, ground clearance is a bit higher at 9.6 inches, though approach and departure angles are slightly narrower at 34 and 30 degrees, respectively.

Inside the cabin, the FJ was clearly built for ruggedness and appears to be able to withstand a substantial amount of abuse.  The dashboard, when viewed from the side, appears to have been built from an extruded aluminum I-beam.  This, when combined with the rubberized floor treatment, water-resistant seat fabric and heavily-pebbled dash and door materials combines to an supreme feeling of ruggedness.  Although it is never recommended to take a high-pressure garden hose to the inside of a car to clean it out, the FJ certainly does a good job of allowing you to believe it’s possible to do so.  fit and finish is typical Toyota-solid on most parts, though some of the controls for the HVAC, radio and windows feel surprisingly cheap, much like the H3.  The seats are relatively comfortable for shorter hauls, but are thinly padded and have too short a bottom cushion for longer-legged drivers.  The optional armrests for both front seats are also rock-hard and prove ineffective at keeping tired arms at bay.  Rear seat comfort is limited by an overall claustrophobic feel, especially when accommodating three adults.  Ingress and egress are also seriously limited by clamshell-type ‘half’ doors for the rear that require the front doors to be open with seat belts unbuckled for proper operation.  On the subject of audio, the standard six-speaker sound system is a bit of a misnomer, as it actually creates a decent sound stage but lacks any real punch or power.  The optional nine-speaker FJammer sound system with subwoofer, though, does a magnificent job of accomplishing accurate sound reproduction throughout the cabin.  The downside is that you are required to fork over the dough for the most expensive ‘Upgrade Package 2’ to get this system.  Storage, like the H3, is plentiful and there are lots of flexible cup and bottle holders both front and rear.

Seeing that the Hummer brand has been sold off to a Chinese conglomerate and for now is completely defunct, one cannot help but shake the worries of residual value and manufacturer backing.  In most markets, the FJ cruiser has maintained a very solid resale value and most pre-owned models will easily qualify for Toyota’s certified pre-owned backing.  Although the buy-in price for a used FJ will, relative to the Hummer, be substantially higher, the overall worry-free ownership experience the FJ provides simply cannot be matched.  To sum it all up, while the H3 may initially appeal to a much broader audience, it is the FJ Cruiser’s all-around practicality, proven reliability and attractive price point that give it the edge for victory.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

‘Scare Thy Neighbor’ – The 2012 Porsche 997 Turbo S

There is something to be said about a company that emphasizes their design philosophy as ‘evolutionary, not revolutionary.’   Since its inception in 1963, Porsche has changed very little with their flagship, the 911 sports car.  Absurd in concept and rigidly unchanging despite growing and improving competition, the 911 seems doomed for the dark ages unless something changes, right?

Wrong.

This 2012 Porsche 997 Turbo S is a car that defies every bit of logic and reasoning we learned as a child.  It has 530 angry, snarling, twin-turbocharged horsepower that can temporarily increase boost by 0.2 bar for hellacious bursts of acceleration.  If you haven’t been lucky enough to experience the first 30 seconds of free-fall the first time you went sky diving, it’s kinda like that.  In the Cabriolet I tested, Porsche claims a 0-60 run of a mesmerizing 3.2 seconds and a top speed of 195mph.  These numbers are assisted by an electronically-controlled all-wheel-drive system that sends most of the engine’s power…uh….’downward’ to the rear wheels under normal driving.  Combined with launch control and Porsche’s brilliant 7-speed PDK transmission, the all-out acceleration runs are downright violent.  Let’s just say that on my first try, I nailed 2.6 seconds to 60 and, by the time my eyeballs retracted to a normal position, I was cruising well over 100.  The exhaust note can be intoxicating too, especially when heard from the Cabriolet’s open quarters; imagine a Learjet getting into a dueling brawl with a Dyson in a room full of angry blenders, and you get the idea.  Ladies and gentlemen, this vehicle is proof of why God invented concealed-unit radar detectors and adult diapers, both of which should be listed in the owner’s manual as required accessories.

Power is only one part of the package on this uber-machine, which boasts some of the best handling and braking characteristics in the world.  Braking is accomplished by the extremely effective PCCBs, or ‘Porsche Carbon Ceramic Braking’ system.  Six-piston brake calipers up front and 4-piston calipers in the rear squeeze high-performance pads onto slotted carbon rotors the size of the Jolly Green Giant’s dinner plate.  When it’s time to grab the binders, this all equates to a 60-0 stopping distance of under 100 feet and a pedal feel that can only be described as “magical.”  All that braking perfection doesn’t come cheap though; break, bend or warp a rotor and one of those puppies will set you back almost $3,500.  Ouch.

Handling and steering response are near- telepathic, accomplished by PASM (Porsche Active Suspension Management) and massive 305-width tires in the rear.   Not having the weight of the engine over the front wheels works a miracle for directional stability and on-center steering feel as well.  Porsche also uses something called ‘dynamic engine mounts’ to counter engine sway in the rear end during hard cornering.  Remember that fancy ‘magneto-rheological’ fluid your friend bragged about in his Corvette’s suspension?  This baby has it in its engine mounts and yes, you really can feel it working.

The true beauty of the 997 Turbo S Cabriolet, though, is day-to-day drivability.  As it is with most 911s produced since the 1960s, you can still fit two full-size adults in the front and two double-amputees or small house pets in the back.  All joking aside, Porsche does make a solid point to tell you that they manufacture three different child seats that are specifically designed to fit in the rear quarters of both coupes and cabriolets.   The luggage compartment under the front bonnet, all things considered, is spacious.  The roof of the Turbo S Coupe even has attachment points for a roof transport system, though I’d double-dare anyone to put their precious skis up there: gravity during acceleration runs wasn’t kind to the contents of my pockets, and I’d only assume it’d be just as rude to your snow sticks.

To sum it all up, if there is one car in this world that I could own and drive every day, the 997 Turbo S would be it.  So what if your friends get more looks in their fancy Gallardos, 458s, R8s and Vipers?  None of those cars can fit your trophy wife, two shih-tzus and a weekend’s worth of suit cases and shopping bags inside.  Plus, nothing in my opinion compares to the acceleration, handling and day-to-day drivability this masterpiece provides.  When it comes down to the red-and-blues flashing in your rearview mirror, remember too that this one is far less flashy and, as such, seems to fly under the radar largely unnoticed.

The Porsche 997 Turbo S; I’ll take mine in Basalt Black with the two-tone cream and beige interior and matching ‘Junior Plus’ car seat.  Take that, practicality.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

“How To Save a Life” – An Essay Written for Ford and GM

I wrote this back in the Summer of 2007.  It’s lengthy, wordy and obscure.  Perhaps most importantly though, it’s sharply to-the-point.  What a lovely coincidence that the ‘Big 3’ took heed shortly thereafter and utilized many of these same recommendations.  Please feel free to share your thoughts.

-D

Introduction

Date: January 26, 1986

Place: Parents’ House

Event: Chicago Bears vs New England Patriots: Super Bowl XX

After a ferocious game of Candyland with my Dad, I settled into our big red armchair to watch the Bears take on the Patriots to capture their first NFL title since 1963.  No doubt, this was to be an exciting game.  My entire family was mildly intoxicated and cheering loudly in the living room.  Our 1980 Honda Accord and 1985 Chevrolet Celebrity Wagon were parked quietly in the garage.  That wagon was my new favorite thing to talk about.  I proclaimed how, when I got older, I would own one just like it.  Light blue with a blue interior, 2.8 liter V-6, and the rearward-facing third-row seat.  Ahh, how times were so carefree back then…Okay!  There goes the game!  I’m practically drooling a small lake on the floor as I watch in catatonic excitement.  Before I know it, we have hit the first commercial break.  

‘Introducing the all-new 1986 Ford Taurus.’

I will never forget that commercial.

There I sat, eyes aglow, looking at the black beauty gleaming across the twenty-seven inch screen in front of me.  It had six cylinders of fuel-injected power.  Digital instrumentation.  Luxury seating for five or six.  Looks that could kill.

I was in love.  I was three and a half years old, and my obsession with cars had just begun.

Halftime rolled around and I was formulating, on the backside of a coloring book, my best interpretation of the digital dashboard I had just seen.  I was fascinated.  Captivated by an American car, I now swore I wanted to be a car designer when I got older.  From that point on, I did everything I could to exhaust the country’s supply of crayons, pencils, markers and construction paper to draw nothing but cars and dashboards.  Just ask my parents.  (I don’t care what they say, they loved it)

Date: January 1993

Place: McCormick Place

Event: Chicago Auto Show

Tom Gale.  Chief designer for Chrysler.  This man was my idol.  Forget my Dad’s 1989 Acura Integra LS, I was captivated again.  ‘The all-new 1993 Chrysler LH cars.’  Dodge Intrepid, Eagle Vision, Chrysler New Yorker, LHS and Concorde.  Cab-forward design for more passenger room, brand-new 3.3L and 3.5L six-cylinder engines, and one heck of an eleven-speaker Infinity sound system.  Not to mention, of course, the coolest feature of them all:  Autostick.  How in the world could you shift a four-speed automatic transmission without a clutch?  Pioneers, this Chrysler group.  I wrote Mr. Gale a letter, along with a picture of what I thought the ‘next-generation’ Intrepid should look like.  I received a personalized letter of thanks from him shortly thereafter, assuring me that my ideas would be genuinely taken into consideration.  That made my day, my month, and my year.  I had a voice at ten and a half years old.

My Ideas Would be Genuinely Taken into Consideration

Motor Trend Magazine recently interviewed Jim Press, President and COO of Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Inc.  He discussed Toyota’s success in the American market and the launch of their new Tundra full-size pickup truck.  More importantly, he elaborated on Toyota’s rise to fast becoming the world’s number-one automaker.  His secret to success was easy to decipher:  Listen to what the people tell you they want rather than what you think they want.

Most of America is not as into cars as me.  They see their vehicles as transportation appliances.  Something to safely get persons A, B and C to points A, B and C with minimal risk or drama.  I am in the midst of starting up an automotive consulting practice.  The following are some of the actual comments from my first clients, in regards to most Japanese and Korean vehicles.

“Eight airbags?  Great.  Stability control?  Don’t know what that is, but it sounds like it could save my ass.  Sign me up.  All-wheel-drive?  Perfect for the winter.  Is it safe and reliable?  Excellent.  Good warranty?  Great.  I can get leather, xenons, Bose, and a Nav system for under $25 grand??  Plus it says the resale value is good.  I’ll take it.”

This is what most people I interviewed thought of when they read the brochures describing most any average American family car.

“Side airbags are optional?  No standard ABS?  No roadside assistance?  It looks like a rental car.  The inside looks like it will fall apart if my kids touch it too much.  Why do I need 18 cup holders and a heated washer fluid reservoir?  I’m 35 years old; I’m still too young for a Buick.  It’ll only call the paramedics for me if I pay to activate this plan?  Doesn’t the Camry come with all this stuff standard? 8 Cylinders and FRONT wheel drive? The steering wheel will knock my fingers off if I accelerate too quickly.  My last Ford wasn’t worth anything when I went to trade it in.  It’s made in Korea?  I thought it was a Chevrolet.”

The Answer Man

People have been asking me for advice on buying cars since I was fifteen years old. 

In 1997, my Dad brought me to a Chrysler dealership and given his budget, I picked out the perfect Chrysler Concorde LXi in the perfect color with the perfect options for him.  He loved that car, as it was truly what he wanted at a price he could afford.  At 37,000 miles, the cooling system had sprung a leak.  Shortly thereafter, the car started missing second gear (this, after my Mom’s 1992.5 Plymouth Grand Voyager had the transmission replaced at 36,100 miles).  It was averaging 11-12mpg, and the check engine light would come on intermittently.  The passenger-front dash speaker (full-range) would only work if you hit it with your fist, and the ABS/Traction Control only worked half of the time.

When asked in November of 1999 if he wanted the new 300M or the new Infiniti I30, he chose the I30 solely on the fact that he knew it would be mechanically sound.  Now, nearly eight years and ninety-five thousand miles later, the car belongs to my brother and sister, and has only been in the shop twice.  Once for a starter motor at 75k and once for an oxygen sensor at 85k.

At that time, I was still relatively indebted to American cars.  My best friend’s Mom had a 1993 Saturn SL2 that she loved, but had caused more headaches and breakdowns than she could ever possibly have imagined.  She had thought her car was simply a fluke, and I had heard some relatively good things about Saturns.  In May of 2001, I decided to purchase a 1996 Saturn SL2 with a five-speed and a sunroof.  One owner, new OEM exhaust, OEM brakes and tires, 64,000 miles, regularly maintained, clean carfax, no accidents.  $6500.  Sounded like a winner.

Fast-forward to September of 2002.

The Saturn now had 90,000 miles on it, and was in desperate need of repair.  I had, however, already repaired it several times.  It now had gone through two oxygen sensors, an alternator, two batteries, a new sunroof motor and module (the parts were not sold separately) and two wheel bearings.  At that point (when I sold it), it needed another new muffler, new front pads and rotors (after only 24,000 miles), a head gasket, a water pump, and a CV joint.  Possibly a control arm, too.  And to think, I maintained that car immaculately, and only at Saturn dealerships.  It had still never been in an accident.  Plus, it was only worth $4000 private party without all of the problems.  (CarMax offered me $1800 to trade it in).  My love affair with American cars was over.  No questions.  I wrote a letter to Saturn not for sympathy or reimbursement, but simply to inquire as to why their division, slated to directly compete with the Japanese market, simply could not keep up.  I never got a response.

A Mechanical Cry for Help

By this time, I was very interested in automotive politics.  I kept track of GM, Ford and Chrysler stock and quarterly reports to stay informed of their stake in the marketplace.  I began hearing rumors of Toyota taking over the number one spot within the next ten years.  I had been reading most every article in most every major automotive publication since 1992.

I listened to ‘Click and Clack’ religiously on NPR Saturday mornings with my parents.  Week after week, people would call in having problems with their cars.  Of course, from time to time a Japanese one would squeak in there; But what would you think if you heard the show I did where three callers had less-than-five-year-old American cars and the fourth had a twenty-year-old Honda?  You would be frightened to know how many of my friends and relatives will not buy another American car because of ‘potentially life-threatening safety recalls.”  Tire failure, shorts under the hood could ignite raw fuel causing a fire, liftgate could pop open.

My friend’s sister bought a brand new 2000 Ford Focus ZTS back when they first came out.  Leaving the lot of the dealership, her clutch pedal snapped off its housing and stalled her car in the middle of oncoming traffic.  Another friend, merely two months ago, had to execute a pedal-to-the-floorboards emergency stop in his 2005 Ford Ranger to avoid hitting a clueless pedestrian.  The truck stopped two feet short of the man in the intersection, but not before the bar that held the clutch, brake and gas pedals shattered, leaving the clutch disengaged, the gas pedal floored, and the brakes locking all four wheels.  His car was dead in the middle of Colfax, one of the busiest (and most dangerous) streets in Denver.

My girlfriend’s Mom has a 2005 Saab 9-3 Arc convertible.  It has only 18,000 miles on the odometer and is now more than two years old.  The car is in the shop practically every two to three weeks with another issue.  The same thing happened to our fleet of 9-3 Linears we had at my old Enterprise Rent-A-Car branch.  Light bulb after light bulb would burn out.  The cars wouldn’t run right when it was cold.  The whole interior would rattle after just a few thousand miles.  The engine shook the whole car at idle.  The window regulators were worse than Volkswagen’s ‘mark four’ platform cars (1999-2004 Jetta, Beetle, Golf).  She wants to get rid of her car but can’t, as it is worth less than half of what she paid for it new.

Capitalize On Your Strengths

On the contrary, my girlfriend’s Dad has a 2005 Ford F-150 XLT with the 5.4-Liter Triton V8.  He has put nearly 75,000 miles of hard work and abuse into it just in the last two years.  Not to mention $25,000 in modifications (Roush supercharger, exhaust, intercooler, upgraded ECU, huge lift kit, 22’’ wheels, among a bed-length toolbox and many other things).  This would have destroyed any normal vehicle.  His company also has a 2000 Chevrolet Silverado K2500 with nearly 260,000 miles on the clock and no problems to speak of.  It is still on the original block and transmission, too.  Here’s where I start to see hope.

These trucks were built around the concept of ‘give America what they want.’  The Silverado/Tahoe/Suburban, in that generation, was consistently at the top of the list for best-selling vehicles in the US.

The F-150 has managed to stay right up there as well.  Its re-design in 2004 revolutionized the market for American-built pickup trucks.  Incredible rigidity and refinement.  An American vehicle had finally set a benchmark.

The new Silverado just won Motor Trend’s coveted ‘Truck of the Year’ award.  You listened to what America wanted and delivered.

The F-150, however, is now placing last in several comparison tests with the new Silverado, Tundra, and even Titan.

I have always said that if I were to need a pickup truck or large SUV to haul materials or tow a boat, I would turn to Ford and Chevrolet before anybody else.  With all of the new competition in the running, however, I will eventually need an even more compelling argument.  Nonetheless, capitalize on your dominance of the American truck market; But don’t bet the farm on it.  Your compact trucks have a long way to go (Ranger/Colorado), and Ford, the durability of your new twin-turbo Powerstroke was even flawed at launch, just like the last generation.

What to do, old friend?

Here’s where I start to get honest.  I by no means have the qualifications of a road test editor, automotive executive or even well-versed businessman.  I am a server at Morton’s the Steakhouse by night, occasional Automotive Consultant by day, and genuine friend, brother and fiancé 24/7.  I just enjoy helping friends and family look for the perfect car, as I have been doing since I was in middle school.  This is my greatest passion.  To talk, read, write and simply learn about cars.  I have compiled what I know through thousands of articles from every different publication.  Not to mention simply talking to people I know, both formally and informally.  I’ve had the opportunity to drive many of these cars through working for a major car rental company.  More recently, I have found myself traveling to dealerships (locally and abroad) to check out and drive new and/or improved models.  Plus, my Father is in rental cars virtually five days per week.

To all of you who might be reading this, the following is my best advice to you.

FORD MOTOR COMPANY


General Company Ideas

-Drop the Mercury nameplate.  It is a waste of money.  I have never once heard of anyone going out with the intent of buying a Mercury vehicle.  Nearly every person I talk to is unable to differentiate between a Ford and Mercury (appearance aside).  Chrysler lost Plymouth and has not looked back.

-Drop Jaguar.  Now.  They are hemorrhaging badly and are quickly crossing the point of no return.

-Drop Land Rover.  Seriously.  Somebody will pick them up.  Do not wage their success on the new LR2; it will, I believe, only be a moderate success (read: Freelander)

-Keep Mazda.  This company will continue to be profitable through way of innovation.  Do not develop another minivan for them, and do not develop another compact pickup truck.  Drop the RX-8 or turbo charge it like it used to be.  Mazda will become your ‘sporty’ brand.

-Keep Volvo.  Although, if you cannot improve their reliability in a cost-efficient manner, drop them altogether.  (S40, XC90 are ranked very poorly in this regard).  The new C30 is amazing.

-Stay away from Hybrid technology.  You heard it right.  The cost of the materials needed for R&D as well as production, I believe, far outweigh actual fuel savings.  Work harder instead on making your engines ‘greener,’ (ULEV; SULEV…take a look at Honda) and more fuel-efficient.

-On that note, utilize systems on your six-cylinders similar to BMW’s Valvetronic and variable-length intake manifolds.  If my Dad’s Z4 3.0si can realistically average 25/31mpg (city/highway), your powerful (ie; non-184hp, made-in-china) six-cylinders can, too.

-Make ABS standard on EVERY model

-Make stability control systems standard on EVERY model.  If this is too expensive, make it an inexpensive option.  Cut the costs from somewhere else.

-Enhance your new vehicle warranties.  Promote these enhancements heavily.   You need to start building value/dependability in your vehicles again.

-4/50 Bumper-To-Bumper

-4/50 Powertrain

-4/50 Roadside

-Extend, for the upcoming model year, powertrain and roadside to 7/70.  However, charge a deductible beyond the expiration of the factory 4/50 warranty.

-Incorporate an optional factory maintenance program a’la BMW, Audi, etc.

-Example:  For $750, include all scheduled maintenance, oil changes, tire rotations, brakes, clutches, bulbs, belts, hoses, etc for 3/36.

***This will improve your vehicles’ resale values***

Make this program standard for all new Lincoln/Luxury brand vehicles.

-Keep the Fusion and MKZ, but drop the Milan.  Get ready to update the Fusion.  Soon.  The Mazda6 platform is aging quickly.

-Stop talking about these new recovery plans involving layoffs, consultants, etc.  You know where the problems exist, as do your loyal, tenured workers.  FIX THEM.

GM


General Company Ideas

-Drop Buick.  For God’s sake, nobody except Tiger Woods gives a crap about these cars.  You will never captivate a ‘younger’ market, and your cars are simply too ‘target demographically-confused’ to ever be successful.  See ya later.  Nobody needs a poor-man’s Cadillac.

-Drop GMC.  What in the world is the difference between a Chevrolet truck and a GMC truck?  I sure don’t know, and I know my cars pretty well.

-Drop Saab.  You are destroying their heritage, their customer base and their cars.  Saabs have always been quirky, but never overpriced and unreliable.  Take a peek at what a 2004 9-3 is going for on the used car market.  You’ll see what I mean.

-Drop Hummer.  You have the H-3.  That’s it.  Who cares about the same old 5.3L V8 dropped into the same unrefined Colorado/Canyon platform?  The H2 fad is over, and the H1 is simply ridiculous.  Hummer is as good as dead.  Replace the H3 with a serious off-road version of the Tahoe.

-Keep Pontiac.  Revitalize them in a way never before seen.  They will be your sporty brand.  Do not make a GXP Torrent.  Nobody wants it on this side of the Atlantic.  In fact, don’t make the Torrent at all.  Invest the money instead into turning the Vibe into a good-performing, all-wheel-drive hot hatch.  I love the concept that car had back in 2003.  Make it an Impreza-killer.  Drop the Montana.  Look into making the next-gen G6 coupe Rear-Wheel-Drive.

-Keep Saturn.  You’re doing something right here.  North American car of the year??  Way to go, ladies and gentlemen.  The Sky is hot (and affordable).  Be careful with the Astra; It’s underpowered and does not offer all-wheel-drive.  This is not an economy car.  Drop the Outlook and Relay.  They do not sell.  At all.

-Keep Cadillac.  I would almost say that, at 25 years old, I want a 6-speed CTS for my next car.  The Escalade is overpriced, but a looker.  The STS is crap; re-design it.  Clean sheet.  On that note, get rid of the DTS; Make the STS your top-of-the-line.

-Keep Chevrolet.  Your new Malibu looks and sounds great; but the front end still looks like a rental car.  Get the Camaro on sale as soon as possible.  The Mustang is losing its footing (literally; no thanks to an archaic live-rear-axle).  Do not delay the release of the convertible.  Do not let the Camaro tread into Corvette territory, either.  Otherwise, you will wind up killing sales of the base Vette and have to stick with the Z06 on its own.

-More option packages, less stand-alone options.  Stand-alone options are for trucks.  Want to save money?  Do what Honda does.  A few standardized trim levels with various available accessories.  There; Your manufacturing costs just got significantly cheaper.

Overall?  STOP PLATFORM SHARING.  Nobody wants the same steering, suspension, interior and feel on three cars that just look a little different.  Make ONE of each model and focus on it.  Yes, you can share engines, transmissions, radios, etc; But put them in DIFFERENT cars.  Platform sharing is killing your brand’s image.  The public is catching on.

In The End

I see no real reason to conclude or sum up my points.  Everybody skips to the end of the story to find out what happens before they read the rest.  This stuff is important, folks.  Nobody thought Pan-Am would go out of business, and they did.  Even United Airlines seems to be on the verge of collapse.  First-Class meal upgrades prepared by famous chefs do not appease your bread-and-butter crowd.

Carlos Ghosn, when he took over Nissan, traveled all over the country to speak with his bread-and-butter crowd.  Except that he realized one important detail.  To please the public, you have to please your employees.  Not just high-level management, either.  Ghosn visited with factory workers, janitors, salesmen, and parts counter clerks all over the country.  He sat them down for meetings about manufacturing processes, sales goals, and cost management.  He even bought pizza for them if the meetings were taking too long.  As intimidated as these entry-level workers were at first, they did become at ease with Ghosn’s policies, and ultimately believed in his promises.  They believed in him because he set forth these new policies and goals strictly based on what they (and the public) wanted.  Guess what happened, GM and Ford?  That’s right.  Nissan is now profitable again, and has enjoyed tremendous success, especially with the Altima and 350Z.

Treat your workers with respect.  Every last one of them.  Eliminate only the positions which you know you do not need.  Give the Mercury, Land Rover, Jaguar, Buick, Hummer, Saab and GMC workers plenty of warning and help them find other jobs within the field.  Most of these factory workers you are laying off have no formal post-secondary education like you do.  Where else are they going to find jobs?

Your employees and the public can fix your companies.  Listen to them, I beg of you.  Everyone I talk to has an idea, a concept, a belief, and faith.  Remember that you have a place right in the heart of every American consumer.  We know you have worked hard.  Prove to us that you care by building on your strengths.  We will be there to help you along the way with all that we can give.  Just ask.

Regards,

Daniel Ari Buxbaum

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment