7 September 2006
It's not easy selling green

Or is it? Hertz is offering something called the Green Collection, but it's vaguely chartreuse at best:

The company is touting models with EPA highway ratings of 28 or more miles per gallon, with models like Toyota Camry, Ford Fusion, Buick LaCrosse, and Hyundai Sonata on the list.

Where are the hybrids? Heck, where are the non-hybrid cars with really decent gas mileage, like a Honda Civic?

The Buick LaCrosse gets 19 mpg in the city, and 27 on the highway, according to the EPA's own site, FuelEconomy.gov. 19. Nine-frickin'-teen miles per gallon is not green.

Actually, none of the Hertz "Collections" qualify as entirely true to the adjective given. Their Fun Collection, inexplicably, includes things like the Chevrolet HHR, a PT Cruiser ripoff that resembles a '49 Suburban, and, well, the PT Cruiser.

Still, 28 mpg on the highway sounds impressive, especially for something that qualifies as a mid-sized sedan — if you haven't driven any recent mid-sized sedans.

Permalink to this item (posted at 10:24 AM)
8 September 2006
So much for that engine growl

Hello Kitty exhaustFor some reason I can't imagine this on a German car: it's a Hello Kitty exhaust pipe. I don't know if it's a one-off or if it's actually in production, but the ad campaign, if the latter, would seem to be obvious: Puts the "cat" back in "catalytic converters"!

Permalink to this item (posted at 11:15 AM)
11 September 2006
Idle good hands are the devil's playground

In the current Entertainment Weekly (#895/896), Allstate Insurance has an ad (page 119) which asks "What's your road sign?"

"The fact is," they say, "a Virgo is more likely to get into an auto accident than any other astrological sign." These are the overall rankings, "from best to 'maybe you should walk':"

  1. Aries
  2. Cancer
  3. Taurus
  4. Gemini
  5. Sagittarius
  6. Capricorn
  7. Pisces
  8. Scorpio
  9. Libra
  10. Aquarius
  11. Leo
  12. Virgo

I'd hate to be the actuarial type who has to corroborate this stuff.

And while looking for some sort of corroboration, I found this, dated 28 June 2005:

Shy and retiring sensitive Cancerians are renowned for being tough cookies behind their delicate exteriors and being at the wheel obviously brings them out of their shell — a third of people born under this sign have made an insurance claim.

Fast and furious Leos reported the highest number of accidental damage claims — in fact Leos and Cancers are more than twice as likely to submit claims as drivers born under the astrological signs of Gemini, Sagittarius or Pisces.

Despite being safe drivers, notoriously inconsistent Geminis are careless with security and make the most number of claims for theft. Aries, famous for putting themselves first, have turned this to everyone's advantage — with their excellent history of no claims they are helping to keep overall premiums low.

Frisky and critical Virgos are obviously too busy thinking, with a quarter admitting to being distracted while driving.

Contrariwise, this article, from 27 June 2005, claims that Geminis are the worst drivers, with Capricorns the best.

I am, of course, skeptical of all this stuff, but you should expect no less from a Sagittarius.

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:16 AM)
Tough stuff, Bucky

On those not-quite-infrequent-enough occasions when I have to have automotive repairs done, I search for TSBs: Technical Service Bulletins, those handy addenda to the factory service manuals that cover the problems that weren't necessarily anticipated beforehand. (My subscription to Alldata's online manual includes all the latest TSB updates.) Sometimes — not always — they're the next-best thing to a recall, because they indicate that the automaker knows about this problem and has a fix that doesn't require hours upon hours of hyperexpensive diagnostics: if A and B, then perform C.

There exists, in fact, a TSB for Gwendolyn's minor indigestion: if code set=P0420 and drivability issues=none, then there are two choices for C: if the ECU is not at current release level, flash its little EPROMs; if the ECU is at current release level, replace one particular oxygen sensor (of four) and the front pipe assembly.

It was the latter in her case, so she's getting new hardware. The front pipe, I regret to say, contains all the pre-catalytic-converter stuff, and costs more than the actual cat. (And since it's not the actual cat, it's not covered under the Federal emissions warranty, and yes, I took this up with the service manager; force of habit, I suppose.) Still, I feel vaguely better paying for real live parts than I would paying for a lot of part-swapping and other guesswork.

Permalink to this item (posted at 4:06 PM)
13 September 2006
Back from the drink

The not-entirely-ill-fated M/V Cougar Ace will be unloaded later this week in Portland, Oregon, and Mazda, as announced here, will see which of the 4700 or so vehicles on board is fit for sale.

Autoblog parses the Mazda press release:

Mazda has announced that none of the 4,700+ vehicles aboard the ill-fated cargo ship Cougar Ace will be sold as new vehicles. According to a press release issued by the automaker a short time ago, cars that are damaged beyond repair will be scrapped immediately. Cars that are deemed fixable and saleable, however, could be sold through Mazda's dealer network as used vehicles. Mazda stresses that no decision on saleability will be made until after the full load of vehicles is unloaded and inspected.

For its part, Mazda is being completely transparent about this and will publish the complete list of VIN numbers for every vehicle aboard the ship at MazdaUSA.com and their Canadian site, Mazda.ca. As has been stated before, the cargo consists mostly of Mazda3s and Mazda CX-7s.

I covet the CX-7, but maybe not so much that I'd take a chance on one that's been parking over by Davy Jones' locker.

Permalink to this item (posted at 1:21 PM)
Mere Batmobiles tremble

Despite its Dr. Evil-esque price of one million euros, the Bugatti Veyron 16.4 isn't making any money for its manufacturer, Volkswagen: development of the 1001-hp, sixteen-cylinder supercar was frightfully expensive, and even if there were enough of them to go around, where are you going to find a place to drive one anywhere near its 253-mph top speed?

The finance angle, at least, has been addressed. Automobile Magazine (October) reports that Putnam Leasing is now offering a 60-month lease on the Veyron. Terms: $400,000 up front, $23,595 a month, maximum 2500 miles a year.

It would be, I think, unkind to mention that this comes to $1,815,700, rather a bit more than a million euros at the present exchange rate — or that it doesn't include tag, title or tax.

Still, if you've got to have a machine so fast, so profligate, that it can empty its 100-liter fuel tank (26.4 gallons) in twelve minutes flat, this is your ride, and please call me when you take delivery.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:05 PM)
14 September 2006
Quote of the week (revisited)

In July I bestowed QOTW honors on Automobile's Sam Smith, for his description of what happens when you hit the Sport button on the Audi RS4:

What was a subdued, guttural thrumming suddenly becomes a glorious crescendo. It sounds like an angry, drunken bear being shot from a cannon.

This description did not sit well with at least one reader of the magazine, who sent an email impugning, well, something:

Did the editors take the day off? Does Smith have compromising pictures of [Editor-in-Chief] Jean [Jennings]? What on earth is this supposed to mean?

"If you have to ask," as Satchmo once said, "you'll never know."

As for Smith, he's still working the intoxicated-mammals turf. On the early-Eighties Bentley Mulsanne Turbo, in the October issue:

[It] was itself little more than a frighteningly-fast Rolls-Royce Silver Spirit. (Frightening due to balance, not speed; suspension tuning was left virtually unchanged when the comfortable-at-all-costs Silver Spirit was given a Bentley badge and a blower, leaving the boosted Mulsanne with all the dynamic stability of a giraffe on mescaline.)

Not that I'd ever claim to be above such descriptions.

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:11 PM)
19 September 2006
Come over, Rover

Rover badgeWhen Ford bought Land Rover from BMW in 2000, the Germans retained the rights to the unlanded "Rover" name, though Ford was offered first place in line when and if BMW decided to let it go. And BMW didn't let it go, even though the Chinese automaker SAIC subsequently bought up the remnants of Rover's actual product line.

Now Ford has exercised its option and taken over rights to the Rover badge, reportedly for a payment of £6 million. Initial speculation was that Ford simply wanted to keep Rover and Land Rover together for trademark-protection purposes, but now a new notion is being floated: Ford might want to assign Rover to Mazda for use as a luxury marque.

Seeing the success of their Japanese competitors' high-end labels — Lexus, Acura, Infiniti — Mazda in the early 1990s sought to set up a brand of its own, and came up with both a name (Amati) and a car (the Millenia). Mazda's ongoing financial problems woes killed off the plan, though the Millenia was eventually offered with a Mazda badge for eight model years (1995-2002). But Mazda is on a roll, or a zoom, these days, and Ford, having financial problems of its own, knows perfectly well that the markup on luxury brands is way more than they can hope for on Fusions or Foci.

I have my doubts that this will ever come off. To me, it makes more sense to have Rover become to Jaguar what Mercury is to Lincoln: a way to catch people at the dealerships without forcing the fancier label downmarket. But given Lincoln's abandonment of the high-end car market — their flagship is now the Navigator, fercryingoutloud — it's hard to imagine Ford having this much sense.

Permalink to this item (posted at 9:36 AM)
22 September 2006
Downright shifty

I learned to drive in a VW Microbus, which, if nothing else, instilled within me a level of respect for simple mechanical devices. And for twenty years I stirred my own gears. Even lost a gear once: one day I was pulling out of the parking lot, shoved the lever into first, pulled back into second, and then — "Hey, where the hell did third go?"

Actually, it was still there, but out of position, and I'd toasted the synchros somewhere along the way, which has something to do with how I learned to double-clutch. Not that I'm particularly good at it, especially now, having lived with automatics for a decade and bad knees for the last few of those years.

Still, I think I could get used to one of the newer manumatics. When Gwendolyn gets time off for maintenance, the shop sends me off in a G35 so equipped, and while it doesn't have quite the tactile thrill or the speed of a proper stick shift, having the right hand working something other than the radio buttons is good for the soul.

On the other hand, you can't do a 4-2 or 5-2 downshift with a manumatic to save your life: you have to go one step at a time. The same is true of the new sequentials, though they're decidedly faster. No trick with a stick, so long as you keep your revs within reason. (Dymphna, my ancient Toyota, had ratios spaced closely enough to enable a 5-2 at any speed up to 70 or so without hitting the redline. Before you ask, I replaced three clutches over 195,000 miles.) And even the lowly Ford CD4E slushbox in my most recent Mazda was amenable to 4-2 if you stomped the loud pedal hard enough without actually hitting the rev limiter.

Some hyperexpensive luxosleds come with automatics that supposedly do exactly the driver's bidding, due to really clever mapping or elaborate control systems or an enormous number of gears. (The new Lexus LS 460 has an eight-speed. Yikes.) I've never driven a CVT, so I have no idea what it's like to have infinite gears, but I suspect the driving feel might be a trifle off-putting. Maybe my best bet would be to save up for the G35 with the six-speed stick — and for a pair of knee replacements.

And it would probably help my state of mind if I quit coming across ridiculous Google searches like what does gear 2 and L do in auto transmission. For God's sake, man, RTFM.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:15 AM)
27 September 2006
It's stolen, what more do you need to know?

You know, sometimes bait actually works:

Dallas police are investigating a glitch that resulted in the loss of one of their "bait" cars.

Sometime between Friday and Monday, a car outfitted with cameras, tracking capabilities and a remote engine-kill system designed to catch auto thieves was stolen somewhere in Dallas — police would not say where. They also would not identify the make and model of the car, so that if it is recovered, it can remain part of the undercover fleet.

(Via Autoblog.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:19 AM)
28 September 2006
Look, Ma, hands!

Gwendolyn, like just about every other Infiniti — I'm told they left it off the 1997/98 Q45 — has an analog clock. In the I30, it's on top of the center stack, as though it were mounted on the mantel over the fireplace; the '04 G35 I've borrowed from the dealership has it at the middle of the stack, where it remains in the redesigned '07 G. (I have yet to get any seat time in an FX, QX or M.)

My daughter, when she saw it, pronounced it cool, with one reservation: "Does it agree with the clock in the stereo?" (Even if she didn't look sort of like me, you'd know she was my kid, just from questions like that.) Incidentally, there's no clock in the stereo.

Not everyone is so impressed. For instance:

My husband's Infiniti has an analog clock which isn't particularly easy to read in the dark and I hate it. Why does Infiniti think it's better or fancier or whatever to have an analog clock. I remember as a kid car clocks always stopped working long before you got rid of the car and it was too big a pain and expense to fix them.

Gwendolyn's clock keeps better time than my digital watch; I think I've adjusted it once in three thousand miles. Should it go, however, it will be a pain and expense to fix it: $212 plus labor.

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:21 AM)
29 September 2006
We will, we will, rev you

I don't hear a lot of automobile engine noise these days: Gwendolyn carries around 50 kg or so of sound-deadening material, so that even sudden jumps to 5500 rpm, as I had to do yesterday afternoon to avoid being squashed like a bug on a too-short onramp, don't rattle my brain.

Racers, on the other hand, don't carry around 50 kg of anything superfluous, and as a result they tend to be Really. Damn. Loud. Still, noise is just unorganized sound, and there are things one can do to organize it — although a Renault Formula 1 V10 engine playing "God Save The Queen" probably qualifies as overkill. Also in this motor's repertoire: La Marcha Real, the Spanish national anthem; the Marseillaise; and, speaking of Queen, "We Are The Champions". Because, you know, "Another One Bites The Dust" simply would not do.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:06 AM)
1 October 2006
A cute little booger (2)

Is there a market in the Americas for Nissan's little snotwagon? And no, that's not uncalled-for verbal abuse, either:

Giggling is under way in Mexico over whether Nissan will market its tiny three-cylinder "Moco" car in Spanish-speaking countries. The trouble is moco is Spanish for booger.

Mexico has been a market for many smaller cars, from Nissan's Tsuru, which isn't even sold in the United States, to Volkswagen's old-style bug. So, an economical car built like the Moco might make sense.

And so, an email circulating warns the Moco is coming. It advises that the Japanese company could use a translator. "This is no joke," states the e-mail, which includes a photo of a green Moco.

Green? Now that's just cruel.

I warned you about this two years ago, though I admit I didn't anticipate this:

There's also concern about a compact mini wagon which is made by Mazda and called Laputa. Of course, la puta in Spanish means "the whore."

Maybe they can sell them in Russia.

Permalink to this item (posted at 3:32 PM)
3 October 2006
At least they didn't call it "Scirocko"

News item: "Beginning October 3 and continuing through December 31, any customer that purchases or leases a designated Volkswagen model from the new 2007 line — including Jetta, Jetta GLI, GTI, Rabbit, New Beetle and New Beetle Convertible — will receive their own completely customized First Act GarageMaster electric guitar that will play seamlessly through the car's existing audio system. The 2006 Jetta, Jetta GLI, GTI, Rabbit, New Beetle and New Beetle Convertible will also come with a custom-made First Act GarageMaster guitar."

Buick, meanwhile, is frantically trying to find Tiger Woods and photograph him with a ukulele.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:55 PM)
9 October 2006
Let's put this baby to the test

You do not want to watch me during a test drive. I don't think I'm particularly hard on a car, but it's going to have to be able to do some pretty weird-looking things to get me to sign the check, and this means scary roll angles, braking at odd times, and 30-mph curves at 55 or so. While I consider these things essential to determining the vehicle's suitability, I don't think the general public benefits by having to see them take place on local surface streets, and other drivers may well be put into a state of shock, which doesn't enhance anybody's safety.

The city of Naperville, Illinois now takes a step forward with its new municipal test track, intended for customers of the dozen or so local dealerships. Here's what it offers:

  • A 100-foot-long cobblestone surface to simulate driving on a brick road.
  • A 10 percent hill climb incline intended to replicate driving on a dirt road.
  • High-bank testing area with a 10 percent cross slope.
  • Rough-road testing on concrete pavement with embedded boulders.
  • Suburban driveway and curb comprised of standard concrete driveway.
  • Skid pad area consisting of asphalt pavement, irrigated so that it is constantly wet for wet braking tests.
  • Three security/Web cameras used to show activity on the track and allowing for live feeds to participating car dealers.
  • A simulated railroad crossing.

Except for maybe a high-speed straightaway, this is just about everything I'd want. Right now, the only thing locally that comes close is the franchise-mandated test course for Land Rovers behind Bob Moore's Autoplex. (I came this close to climbing it one day, mistaking one of its paths for the entrance to the Infiniti service department next door, which demonstrates further the value of getting me off the road.) I'm not saying that Oklahoma City, or its car dealers, should pony up the bucks for a replica of the Nürburgring, but there has to be something better than just flying down the Broadway Extension.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:27 AM)
10 October 2006
Bored to the max

Motor Trend reports (via Autoblog) that Porsche's ageless boxer six is now pushing the limits of development:

A key issue with the next 911 is the iconic flat-six engine apparently can't be stretched beyond 4.0 liters, which limits the potential output, even with technologies such as direct injection. This means the car will almost certainly feature extensive use of aluminum and fast-shifting DSG transmissions to save weight and boost performance.

And the purists (some of whom work in Stuttgart) wouldn't dream of trying to squeeze the Panamera's V8 under the 911's tail.

Permalink to this item (posted at 11:46 AM)
13 October 2006
A brand name is born, or something

Last month, you may have read this here:

When Ford bought Land Rover from BMW in 2000, the Germans retained the rights to the unlanded "Rover" name, though Ford was offered first place in line when and if BMW decided to let it go. And BMW didn't let it go, even though the Chinese automaker SAIC subsequently bought up the remnants of Rover's actual product line.

Now Ford has exercised its option and taken over rights to the Rover badge, reportedly for a payment of £6 million.

Which leaves the Chinese with — what, exactly?

The Roewe 750E will be the SAIC version of the Rover 75, to be introduced at the Beijing Auto Show next month. "Roewe" might be a contraction of "Rong Wei," which means "glorious power" and is not, despite some snickering, a Chinese variation on "Wrong Way."

I was kind of hoping for "Lovel." (Don't ask.) And don't expect the Roewe to be sold in the States.

Permalink to this item (posted at 10:24 AM)
14 October 2006
Besides, they don't respond to "Hey, you"

All my cars have had names, and I don't always find out right away what those names are; it took about nine miles to get some ID from Gwendolyn after I signed the papers. (Where it came from is here, next-to-last paragraph.)

Ford-fan forum Blue Oval News attempts to explain why some of us do this sort of thing:

Why is it that you might name your car, but you would never give a name to your TV set, refrigerator or your sofa?

The experts have some theories: Cars move making them animate objects. People think cars are alive. We personalize our cars with our stuff. Cars are a thing of pride.

"Cars are certainly more personal objects than refrigerators are, and a source of more personal pride," said Cleveland Kent Evans, Associate Professor of Psychology, Bellevue University. "Vehicles of any kind are probably also more likely to be named simply because they move in the course of their normal use, and so are more easily to think of like they were animate objects instead of inanimate ones."

True. But lawnmowers and vacuum cleaners move, and it's not generally acceptable to say, "I need to vacuum, will you get 'Sucky' out of the closet for me?"

Truth be told, I wouldn't be surprised to hear that someone had named a car "Sucky." God knows plenty of them qualify for it.

Permalink to this item (posted at 9:09 AM)
19 October 2006
Not yours

The BMW Limited Edition Individual M6 Convertible, offered in Neiman Marcus' Christmas catalog this year in an edition of fifty, has sold out in, we are told, one minute and 32 seconds, or about 21 iterations of zero to sixty (at 4.5 seconds per).

The powerplant is a five-liter V10. Don't ask about gas mileage.

Permalink to this item (posted at 2:54 PM)
23 October 2006
Dream big

I can relate to this guy more than you'd think:

Lyndonville resident Blaire Wolston was determined to get his dream car, a 1997 Lincoln Town Car with a presidential roof, but he knew such vehicles were hard to come by in the area.

Wolston is only twenty-two, which means when he was born, the average Town Car owner of today had already gone through a mid-life crisis or two. But he's not the only comparative youngster ever to lust after a Lincoln; a guy in my high school (I think he was one year ahead of me) owned a '63 Continental, and actually gave me a ride in it once.

Besides, it's not just mere personal preference:

Wolston said he used to own a Geo Metro, which was a mistake that lasted a very short while.

"I am not a small man," he said, "and I'm driving around in this little clown car designed for runway models. I looked like an insane person ... duct tape everywhere ... when it rained I was instantly soaked ... it had gone on long enough."

I don't know any runway models who own Metros — well, actually, I don't know any runway models at all — but really small cars make me claustrophobic, if I can climb into them at all, which often I can't. One of Gwendolyn's selling points was spaciousness. (It's also, yes, a drawback. I was getting ready to leave the supermarket yesterday when an extended 35-mph burst of wind left me with a dilemma: there's only one door detent between fully closed and fully open, and once I actually got seated, the door would invariably have blown fully open and out of reach. It took about a minute and a half for the wind to die down enough to leave the door at the halfway point.)

I'm not quite sure I buy this, though:

"Another good point," he said, "is older individuals, senior citizens, they've had their whole lives to own and buy cars and see which ones are the best and they choose this one. It's a time tested tradition for them to want a car like this. Why not learn from their innate wisdom?"

I'm approaching this age bracket, but it's never occurred to me to want a Town Car. I've spent some time with its not-exactly-smaller sisters, the Ford Crown Victoria/Mercury Grand Marquis, and they always made me feel like a very small child being dragged around in a very large wagon, even from the driver's seat. Besides, the mid-20th-century garage at Surlywood barely has room for Gwendolyn; the Town Car is six inches wider and 25 inches longer. I suppose it would reduce the possibility of problems with the garage door, since there's no way it would ever close again, but that's the only advantage.

(Seen at Fark.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 11:22 AM)
24 October 2006
Paint your car for $50

Who needs Earl Scheib? All it takes is Rustoleum, a roller, a couple of brushes for the tricky stuff, and this guy's amazing nerve.

I would not recommend that you try this on your fading Lamborghini, but I have to admit, the results aren't half bad.

(Via the Consumerist.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 10:26 AM)
2 November 2006
Serious resonance

Leo Kottke, guitarist extraordinaire, has also been known to sing, but he's not fond of his voice: it sounds, he said, like "geese farts on a muggy day."

Which brings us to the lovely Gwendolyn, who, after a cold start, emits a flatulent-goose sound of her own. I took this description to the Infiniti store, where they told me that it's the starter getting old and (un)cranky, and so long as the car actually starts, I shouldn't worry about it. "I've heard them go two, three years like that," said the service manager. And, well, cold starts are going to be more common, what with November being here, so I suppose I should get used to the noise. I have about half a dozen Leo Kottke albums; maybe I'll copy them to CD and listen to them during the warmup.

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:24 AM)
4 November 2006
This will cost a few bucks

I question the timing. About five months after Sandy and Bambi fought to the death on a lonesome Oklahoma two-lane, the Oklahoman comes up with a piece on deer/auto collisions.

Things I didn't know:

  • October and November are the prime months for such things around here, inasmuch as it's mating season.

  • Nationwide there are about 1.5 million accidents involving deer, resulting in $1.1 billion in damage. (This works out to $733 per incident, a figure at which I wince: my insurance adjuster told me they just stopped counting at six thousand.)

  • So-called "deer whistles," which are supposed to repel the critters, don't.

I may buy one of those whistles anyway, since friends swear by them; but I'll pass it off as a tiger whistle.

"But there aren't any tigers for ten thousand miles!"

"See how well it works?"

Permalink to this item (posted at 9:41 AM)
8 November 2006
Keep these out of your garage

After a few weeks of balloting, The Truth About Cars readers have selected the Ten Worst Automobiles Today, and the entire sorry lot is what Stuff magazine would characterize as "douche-y."

The truly horripilating aspect of this, of course, is that eight of these monstrosities bear domestic nameplates; the ninth is an import brand that's owned outright by a domestic manufacturer. Only the malignant Subaru B9 Tribeca has foreign origins — and even the Sube is built in the States.

You want to know why Detroit is in trouble? They approved 90 percent of these crapmobiles.

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:44 PM)
9 November 2006
Governors recalled

Evidently I repeat myself on a cycle. From this week in 2004:

American drivers of a certain age will remember the Joan Claybrook Memorial Speedometer, inflicted on motor vehicles sold in the States around 1980: not only did it top out at a mundane 85 mph, but automakers were required to give special prominence to the national 55-mph speed limit. This was every bit as stupid as you think it was, and was eventually abandoned, as was the double-nickel itself. The thinking, and I use the term loosely, was that if the speedo only reads 85, everyone will assume that this is the maximum speed of the car and no one will drive faster than that. The far more common response, of course, was "Hmmm. Wonder what happens if I peg this baby?" The Law of Unintended Consequences at its finest.

Having hit 84 briefly during this morning's commute, I am still not impressed by 85 mph, but I have a certain respect for 130: everything I've read says that the 2000 Infiniti I30's top speed is limited to 130 mph, and Gwendolyn is whipping around town on H-rated tires, which are good to, yes, 130 mph, and it's never occurred to me to see what happens at 131.

Which means that I'll likely never catch up to Automobile's Jean Jennings, who, in the December 2006 issue, notes that according to Mazda, the pocket-rocket Mazdaspeed 3 runs into an electronic dead end at 155 mph. The following hilarity subsequently ensued on the A95 on the way to Munich:

I have to say that, in between watching the road ahead for errant Trabants and occasionally glancing at the speedo for the magic 250 kph (155 mph), I don't notice what I'm passing or what's moving out of my way, but I do notice that the Audi [A8] that was clamped on my ass has receded in the rearview mirror. Just as I spy the 120 circled in red on the sign ahead, I hit the 250 mark and then poke the brakes a good one, bringing us down to the speed limit. Yes! 155 mph.

I had two more good 250-kph runs before it occurred to me that I'd never felt a limiter. Well, I did what you would have done. I got back on it until I ran out of peripheral vision, I ran out of margin for error, and I hit 260 kph — 162 mph. No speed limiter. Those liars.

Hmmm. Maybe it's time I got some serious lead back into my foot.

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:40 PM)
10 November 2006
Because it's the thought that counts

This will definitely make your Camaro more bitchin':

Skymaul catalog page

(Via Treehugger.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:46 PM)
11 November 2006
Dreamy eyes

Gwendolyn, as befitting her status as Sort of Luxoboat, has these high-zoot headlights with just a hint of upward slant to the sides and sheetmetal to match, which you could argue is a sign of her Japanese heritage but which I have always figured was an homage to/a ripoff of [choose one] the middle-1990s Mercedes-Benz S-class lamps. (See for yourself.)

Plastic lenses, alas, tend to accumulate crud, which manifests itself as an off-white to almost-yellow haze, which is not attractive and which obstructs the very purpose of the lights. I noticed this in the dealer's lot, but assumed it would respond to standard cleaning techniques. It does not. I let it go for awhile, decided it was not going to get better (duh), and resolved to take action: I addressed myself to a nearby auto-parts outlet which, in classic ethnic-joke fashion, was staffed by a black guy, a white guy, and a Mexican guy. I figured I couldn't go wrong with this combination, and I was right.

And this is how it came to pass that I applied Meguiar's Mirror Glaze Plastic Polish #10 with an old dish towel (meets all your daily terrycloth requirements), and six years of discoloration vanished in something less than six minutes. Try that with Visine. There was even substantial change from my $10 bill. Add this to the list of Products I Swear By, and prepare yourself for Gwendolyn's steely stare while you sit there in the fast lane at 53 mph.

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:21 PM)
13 November 2006
The sign of true luxury

Toyota's Scion division sells relatively low-end vehicles aimed at younger drivers. How well this is working is unclear — most of the refrigerator-like xB models I see seem to be driven by soccer moms — but Toyota, anxious to maintain buzz, will limit sales next year to only 150,000, about a 20-percent drop from this year's numbers. (Automakers that are actually profitable can do this sort of thing, I guess.)

And while I may have my doubts about Scion marketing, Toyota doesn't; they have a MySpace page, fercryingoutloud, and they've opened a virtual showroom in Second Life. Obviously they're not expecting to lure Buick drivers.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:41 AM)
Ever-increasingly complicated

I'm not sure it should technically be called a door ding: it's a teensy bit of pigment gap on the little plastic strip which is supposed to intercept door dings by sacrificing itself. Still, I didn't earn my reputation for being anal-retentive — which, by the way, has a hyphen — by ignoring little things like this, so I betook myself to the Infiniti store and asked for a tube of touch-up paint.

Not so fast, Bunky. There are two tubes. (For some reason I want to hear Jean-Luc Picard scream that at the top of his lungs: "THERE ARE TWO TUBES!") Number One (no, not you, Riker) contains the actual white stuff; Number Two is a clear coat. At fourteen bucks, this isn't exactly expensive, but I did have a brief period of yearning for the days when you could open the hood of a car, point to any part, and identify it correctly on the first try.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:22 PM)
16 November 2006
A mighty mite

"Fiat" does not stand for "fuel injection and turbo", but their revival of the teensy Cinquecento has both of these things in small but serious abundance: a 900-cc two-cylinder engine turbocharged up to around 100 hp, which should turn the little Italian box (which will actually be built in Poland) into a screamer. Bigger engines, though not that much bigger, will be offered, and in addition to the cute little coupe, there will be a real live ragtop version.

Will we get these? Of course not. The crash-test dummies would be propelled into orbit. Then again, the same platform is being used for Ford's Ka minicar in Europe, so ... no, never mind. It will never happen.

As for that other explanation of "Fiat" — "Fix It Again, Tony" — well, that remains to be seen.

(Disclosure: I have gotten seat time in only one Fiat in my life: an early-Eighties Strada, which was the US name for the Ritmo. It weighed about 90 lb, or so it seemed, and was great fun to hurl around. Later I learned that if you kept the revs up, as one should do in Italian cars generally, you could actually avoid hearing it rust.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:56 AM)
The dealership experience

Almost everyone I talk to hates the very idea of car-shopping, and while there are various alternatives for acquiring used pre-owned vehicles, if you want something new, you have to go to the dealership.

If you were wondering whose dealerships were the least heinous, J. D. Power (yes, him again) has something called the Sales Satisfaction Index Study, and in 2006, Jaguar buyers had the kindest things to say about their buying experiences.

In general, the more expensive the brand, the better the results, and there wasn't much difference between import and domestic marques: Cadillac and Lincoln took second and third respectively, and Saturn, Mercury and Buick all made the top ten. (I suppose I should wonder why it is that Mercury buyers were less happy than Lincoln buyers, since they shopped at the same stores. Maybe Steve Miller didn't buy a car this year.)

At the bottom? Well, let's just say there was a lot of Mitsubitching.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:26 PM)
19 November 2006
Where the yellow went

I had reason to consult Gwendolyn's manual last night, and while I was at it, I thought I'd take a look at the obligatory "Custom Care & Lemon Law Information" booklet that came with it. (There is a third booklet, which contains warranty information.)

There is a Lemon Law entry for each state, which reflects the substantial differences among state lemon laws. And one of those differences became instantly obvious: the pages for Maine and Massachusetts were printed on yellow paper. (This took some doing, since the states are in alphabetical order, and Maryland, which falls between, got a prosaic white page.)

Apparently this tint was indeed part of those state laws in 2000. I still have the manuals from my previous car, also a 2000 model, and sure enough, Maine and Massachusetts are on yellow paper.

Okay, fine. Still unclear to me, though, is why these two states would make such a requirement. Three possibilities suggest themselves:

  1. Legislators thought it would be wicked cool to have colored paper.
  2. Legislators thought it would be a subtle way to express their feelings about automakers by forcing additional rules upon them.
  3. Legislators thought that their constituents wouldn't connect the legal description to the state's lemon law unless the description itself somehow resembled a lemon.

None of these, incidentally, casts a favorable light, yellow or otherwise, on said legislators.

Permalink to this item (posted at 9:30 AM)
21 November 2006
Jacking point

Notice: This is not the approved method for towing.

Well, maybe for a Volvo.

Permalink to this item (posted at 4:01 PM)
22 November 2006
Not exactly beaming

A couple of weeks ago, I recommended Meguiar's Mirror Glaze Plastic Polish #10, which easily removed rather a lot of accumulated scuzz from Gwendolyn's exterior lights, and was happy to pass on this recommendation to friends who don't read this daily verbiage. One such was an Office Babe whose spouse, she said, was considering actually replacing the dirty lenses, at a cost too close to $200 for comfort.

This morning I got a look at the results from across the lot, and the experiment must be reckoned a success: the improvement was easily noticeable from 25 feet away. I duly reported same to her.

In retrospect, it probably would have gone better had I not opened the conversation with "Nice headlights."

Permalink to this item (posted at 1:08 PM)
27 November 2006
Tolls for thee

Seattle has been experimenting with virtual toll roads, with the following results:

For about eight months, drivers in 275 Seattle-area households agreed to pay for something the rest of us get for free: The right to drive on the region's freeways and streets.

They were guinea pigs in a pioneering study that explored how motorists' behavior might change if they had to pay tolls — not just on a few bridges or highways, but on almost every road with a yellow center line.

Researchers established virtual tolls ranging from a nickel to 50 cents a mile. They gave participants pre-paid accounts of between $600 and $3,000, and told them they could keep whatever the tolls didn't eat up.

The experiment ended in February. Preliminary results, released this month, suggest that if such so-called "road pricing" were widespread, it could make a significant dent in traffic.

Sensibly, the "tolls" were set by time and day. On weekdays, freeway miles were 40 cents during the morning rush, 50 during the afternoon drive, but only 10 or 15 the rest of the day, and zero late at night. Weekend tolls maxed out at 20 cents.

In real life, of course, you would have a slightly different incentive: to minimize what you paid out, rather than maximize what you get to keep. Still, optimization works pretty much the same either way.

How well a real toll system of this sort would be received by the general public remains to be seen, though I suspect that it would not fare well in Oklahoma, which is awash in toll roads already. I think the most likely use we'd find for it here would be for "high-speed" (by which is meant "limited-access") lanes, separated from the rest of the freeway, which would be billed via PikePass based on the time you entered. A 3-to-1 ratio between rush hour and other periods would be reasonable, and maybe they can turn off the sensors at night.

As for the existing toll roads, I don't think they need modification at this time: they don't carry that much traffic even during rush periods. Then again, the surest way to boost traffic on the Kilpatrick would be to let traffic get worse on Memorial Road. I am told this is theoretically possible.

James Joyner sees one additional issue:

The problem with a pay-per-mile system, though, aside from issues of privacy, is that tolls have a variable impact on behavior depending on affluence. The very wealthy won't think twice about driving whenever they please; the very poor may simply not be able to afford driving at all. Intrinsically, there's no problem with that. There are all manner of things the well-off can buy that the less fortunate can not. Still, Americans have long considered the ability to use the roads a birthright. Charging for it will be seen as taking away a basic freedom. That will not go over well, regardless of whether it makes practical sense.

I suppose it would be possible to tweak the PikePass system to allow for varying rates based upon the estimated value of a car: the most immediate effect, I expect, would be that you'd make sure you showed up to pick up your new PikePass, not in your Lexus, but in your daughter's battered old Ford Tempo. Certainly the PikePass isn't going to know in which vehicle it's mounted.

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:48 AM)
29 November 2006
Sing a song of door dings

John Estus notes at the Oklahoman's blog:

City code says parking spaces must be at least 8½ feet wide. That's the standard size for a compact car spot, but city planners recommend all parking spots be at least 10 feet wide. The minimum size of parking spaces changes slightly depending on the angle of the space, but 8½ feet is pretty much the norm.

It seems to me that parking spaces are getting narrower. Gwendolyn insists it's not her fault, that she's less than one inch wider than her predecessor. (I had to look this up twice, because frankly I didn't believe it the first time.) But inasmuch as half the cars sold in this country aren't cars at all — they're SUVs, pickups and vans — I'm guessing our vehicles are getting wider. Then again, so are we.

And none of this matters at Penn Square, where there are no parking spaces anyway. I'll check some time around the 27th of December.

Permalink to this item (posted at 1:35 PM)
2 December 2006
Too much shimmer on that Bimmer

Andy Dokmanovich comes up with a metaphor for recent BMW 3-series styling in a letter to Car and Driver:

Ever notice how that cute, unassuming girl next door with natural brown flowing hair, smooth clear skin, and "jeans and a T-shirt on a Saturday" look will usually tug at the heartstrings deeper and longer than the girl on stage with the multicolor striped hair, two pounds of hope-in-a-bottle on her face, über-jewelry, and razor-creased outfit with pointed-toe shoes? Besides the hint of insecurity, someone who seems to be "on" all the time with that much stimulation and business in every single nook and cranny is just too much to bear without wincing and hoping it'll just go away.

By coincidence, or maybe not, the letters page was illustrated with a lovely Bill Neale drawing of the vehicle I'd prefer to that overwrought Bimmer: an Infiniti G35 in Arrest Me Red. And apart from that color, I'm pretty sure that the aforementioned girl next door (who actually is a few blocks and half a lifetime away) would prefer it too.

Permalink to this item (posted at 9:49 AM)
5 December 2006
Most Eccentric Rich Capitalists Enjoy Driving Expensive Sedans

Miss Cellania has a list of Automotive Acronyms, of which perhaps the best known is Ford: "Found On Road Dead." (At least, I think it's the best-known; the only time I ever actually heard it spoken was while I was trying to get an old Mercury started in the parking lot at Heritage Park and a couple of clowns in a Pontiac tossed it at me as they whizzed by at 14 mph.)

I offered my standard (okay, maybe it's automatic) rendering of "Oldsmobile" — "Old, Leisurely-Driven Sedan Made Of Buick's Inferior Leftover Equipment."

Other old favorites:

  • Acura: "Another Car Using Rice Additives"
  • Dodge: "Digs Own Damn Grave Eventually"
  • Fiat: "Fix It Again, Tony"
  • Honda: "Hugely Overpriced Non-Domestic Automobile"
  • Hyundai: "How Your Usual Nerd Drives An Import"
  • Kia: "Korea's Incompetence Amazing"
  • Mazda: "Major Asshole Zipping Down Alleyways"
  • Saab: "Shape Appears Ass-Backwards"

And it took a while, but I finally turned up one for my own car: "It Never Found Its Niche: It's Truly Inconsequential."

(A truly prodigious list can be found here.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 9:42 AM)
6 December 2006
Smile, you're on Toll Road Camera

At the beginning of this month, Texas began collecting tolls on a stretch of State Highway 121, from Carrollton to the Denton County line. And no, there aren't any tollbooths:

TxTag® stickers, the Dallas area TollTag, and the Houston area EZ TAG are accepted on the road. Toll charges are deducted automatically from your prepaid toll account when you use the road.

If you don't have a toll tag, you're still welcome to use SH121. There's no need to prepay or register. Just get on, and we'll record your license plate, match the license plate number with the state's vehicle registration file, and send you a monthly bill for your toll charges.

About time they did something useful with a traffic camera. Of course, you'll pay more without the toll tag, but this is pretty much the rule with any toll road these days.

Will we ever get something like that here? Steven Roemerman asked the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority:

I contacted Jack Damrill, public relations for OTA, and asked him if this was in the future for Oklahoma. I got the impression that they were cool on the idea, the official position seems to be "We will watch what happens in Texas."

I'm not sure why we would not want to implement video tolling. Getting rid of toll booths would eliminate the need for the employees to man the booths; it would reduce unnatural congestion points, and would make the toll roads more accessible. But if our official stance is "wait and see," I guess we will wait and see.

I guess he's right.

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:20 PM)
7 December 2006
Keister bonnet

Given the fairly-indisputable premise that there is an abundance of asshats in show business, there exists an ongoing debate over whether this is because they're just naturally attracted to showbiz, or because showbiz, owing to its nature, eventually inspires people to degrees of rectal millinery.

Those of you who got better grades than I will recognize this immediately as the old nature vs. nurture controversy, scaled up to marquee size. In the past I have remained resolutely in the center, acknowledging equal contributions of both.

Now I'm not so sure. In the mail this week was a card with a stylized photo of a blue-eyed child and the caption: "You knew early on that you weren't like everybody else."

"So did we," it continues on the inside, and then it gets right down to the real nitty-gritty:

What is it about owning an Infiniti I30 that sets you apart? Is it recognizing the high level of satisfaction that our vehicles offer? Is it the superb blend of elegance and performance? Is it the inspiration and innovation? No. It's all of these things. And now, there's even more.

Introducing a new approach to service: Welcome to the Infiniti Inner Circle.

As an Infiniti owner who understands the advantages of having your car serviced by factory-trained technicians, you've been selected to join our inner circle. The Infiniti Inner Circle is designed to remind you when your car is due for maintenance, communicate with you via your preferred means of contact, and work with you to help ensure that your I30 operates at peak performance. Most importantly, we'll give you the attention an Infiniti owner deserves.

OUR RECORDS INDICATE THAT YOUR VEHICLE IS DUE FOR ITS 93,750 MILE MAINTENANCE DURING THE WEEK OF DECEMBER 11, 2006.

There follows the usual stuff, a card to fill out to indicate my "preferred means of contact," and the summary: "The Infiniti Inner Circle. It's exceptional. Just like you."

And it occurred to me, after I stopped guffawing at this, that a daily dose of sucking up at this level might turn anyone into a veritable fedora of the fundament.

(Disclosure: Gwendolyn has, in fact, 92,497 miles.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 10:37 AM)
When you change lanes, the baby Jesus cries

I link to this purely for its amusement value, and there's plenty of it, what with the bald assertion that there have been "460,000 Additional Motor Vehicle Fatalities Since US Supreme Court Banned School Prayer in 1963." (There's even a graph, just in case you had any doubt.)

Then again, that's a side issue: what this fellow really wants is to get people who shouldn't be driving off the roads entirely. On the face of it, this isn't a bad idea, until you look at the people he thinks shouldn't be driving:

  • Anyone who's black;
  • Anyone who's female.

Jalopnik linked to this drivel because, they said:

We ... hope 100,000 sets of Jalopnik eyeballs blow the hell out of the bandwidth on his puny, $3.99 server.

And, well, the least I can do is to help.

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:26 PM)
8 December 2006
Reconnecting the dots

Consumer Reports' auto-reliability ratings are known nationwide, and while some swear by them, others swear at them. (An example of the latter is here.) While their data for cars I have owned have tracked fairly well with my own experience — and yes, I do fill out the questionnaire every year — obviously anything I could report is too small a sample for any kind of meaningful statement.

I have noticed, though, that they've changed some of the methodology. Used to be, there was a definite range for each colored dot: the "white" ("average") dot meant a failure 5.0 to 9.3 percent of the time, and that was that; half-red and full-red dots were better, half-black and full-black dots were worse. To make this work, you had to compare it to their statistical Average Model, which had dots of various colors in each of the problem areas surveyed.

The new system, detailed in the 2007 Buying Guide, is on a relative scale, and all vehicles of a given model year are considered as a group before the dot is assigned. They're not giving out the actual percentage ranges anymore, and maybe that's just as well, since I never found them especially useful. They did state, however, that black dots, full or half, will not be issued unless the actual problem rate is 3 percent or higher, which seems reasonable: if the average for such-and-such a subsystem overall is 1 percent and the same subsystem on Brand X fails 2 percent of the time, you're still looking at a fairly-negligible risk, even though it's by definition worse than average.

Under the new system, Gwendolyn and her sisters draw 11 red or half-red dots, three white ones, and one of the dreaded black ones, under the heading "Ignition". (This is consistent with at least one other survey I've seen.) Still, no survey can tell you for sure the one thing you really want to know, which is "Is this going to happen to my car?"

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:57 AM)
Hold on to your deposits

Just about two years ago, I made some noise about Malcolm "Yugo Your Way" Bricklin's plan to bring over Chinese cars for the North American market.

Well, put that on hold for the moment: Bricklin's Visionary Vehicles and China's Chery Automobile are no longer Best Friends Forever. Instead, Bricklin will cherry-pick (sorry) a variety of Chinese manufacturers, perhaps including Chery, in search of suitable vehicles to sell over here for cheap. A Visionary spokesperson says that Bricklin will select three Chinese partners in the first quarter of 2007.

Meanwhile, Chery is talking to DaimlerChrysler about a possible small Mopar-branded car, and Shanghai Automotive, builder of the Roewe, has a tie-up with General Motors. I have to figure that one way or another, we're eventually going to get Chinese cars here, even if they're old British cars built in Oklahoma.

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:47 PM)
11 December 2006
The public is aghast

The last time the Environmental Protection Agency tinkered with their gas-mileage ratings, back in the 1980s, they didn't do anything about the methodology; instead, they applied a fudge factor "to account for factors not included in the tests".

Beginning in 2008, they will improve the quality of that fudge factor. From deep within the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers' new Your Mileage Will Vary site, the nature of the changes:

Currently, EPA relies on data from two laboratory tests to determine the city and highway fuel economy estimates. With new labels, fuel economy estimates will reflect vehicle-specific data from tests designed to replicate three real-world conditions that can significantly affect fuel economy: high speed/rapid acceleration driving, use of air conditioning, and cold temperature operation.

Of course, no two people drive exactly the same way, so you still may not reach the numbers on the label.

The following minor bits of historical data may be of interest:

  • Sandy: EPA 22 city, 28 highway; actual over 55k miles 23 city, 29 highway.
  • Gwendolyn: EPA 20 city, 28 highway; actual over 5k miles 21 city, 28 highway.

Of course, I drive when it's cold, with the A/C on, and with the pedal in close proximity to the metal.

Permalink to this item (posted at 5:11 PM)
12 December 2006
Cars with benefits

I don't think I'm in the target market for a plug-in electric car: I can see owning one as a second vehicle for short jaunts around town, but my garage accommodates only a single car, and it's got to cover most of my conceivable needs.

That said, I think they'll sell fairly well eventually, and while I have my doubts about them, at least they're not going to kill the power grid.

They're not going to save any money, either, but that's not the issue:

The Wall Street Journal reported that these plug-ins will probably cost an extra $6,000 to $10,000 more than our current crop of non-hybrid vehicles, even when mass produced. Batteries are a big part of that premium, so advances in that technology may make the differences smaller in coming years, but as most people already realize, hybrids aren't likely to pay for themselves for at least several years of ownership. Critics often say that hybrids will never pay for themselves on reduced fuel use alone, which is usually true. What most people fail to factor into that equation, however, is that consumers often value the "greenness" of their cars above dollars and cents. The feel-good factor is a big part of the ownership experience. Just like most people don't recycle their cans, bottles and papers for the money, as much as for the notion that they are doing something positive for the planet and cleaning up after themselves.

I've always suspected that the main reason the Toyota Prius dominates hybrid sales is its unquestioned hybridness (hybridity?): there is no non-hybrid version to dilute the branding. Previously in these pages:

Toyota's genius, I think, was building the Prius on its own platform, so it couldn't be directly compared to the Corolla or the Echo/Yaris or the Camry or anything else they sell over here. Honda's Insight was similarly dissimilar, but its penalty-box-on-wheels nature probably discouraged as many buyers as its alleged 55-mpg fuel economy attracted, and the car was dropped from Honda's US line for 2007.

Honda will happily sell you a hybrid Civic or Accord, but apart from the smallish Hybrid badge, it's indistinguishable from its gas-powered brethren. People want to be identified with this sort of thing, and inasmuch as I have an OG&E Wind Power placard in my front window, I'm hardly in a position to make fun of them. If what you want is the cheapest possible personal transport, you ignore all of this and buy something like a Scion xB, which hauls tons (well, kilograms) of stuff, sips fuel abstemiously, and costs thousands less than a Prius, but you won't get that warm green feeling inside.

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:00 AM)
16 December 2006
Really stylish boat anchors

When last we heard from Mazda regarding those 4700-plus vehicles that had taken a bath in the Pacific Ocean, they had announced that they were not going to sell any of them as new.

Now they aren't going to sell any of them at all:

"After thorough testing by engineers from our American and Japanese R&D centers, we decided the most appropriate course of action — with our customers foremost in mind — was not to sell any of the 4,703 Mazdas aboard the ship," said Jim O'Sullivan, President and CEO of Mazda North American Operations, based in Irvine, Calif.

The Cougar Ace sat listing at more than 60 degrees for nearly a month after an incident at sea, before it could be towed to the Port of Portland, Ore., for repairs and to have its cargo off-loaded.

Good call, Jim. Does this also mean that we won't see any sea-washed Mazda3 or CX-7 parts in the pipeline?

Permalink to this item (posted at 11:09 AM)
19 December 2006
Wow, I coulda had a V8

What bugs me most about this creepy little motor vehicle is not so much that its owner feels compelled to claim all these affiliations in a venue — the American road — where no one really gives a crap, but that the vehicle itself was obviously chosen for maximum inutility: it's a Honda Insight, fercrissake, a penalty box for two, barely capable of getting out of its own way, easily overloaded with a week's worth of groceries (that tofu is dense, man), and worst of all, painted in a color seen only one other place in nature: the inside of a child's diaper. (And if your baby is producing stuff like this, you'd better have the pediatrician on speed-dial.) Honda lost zillions on every one of these they sold; mercifully, they didn't sell many.

(Via miriam's ideas.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 10:56 AM)
22 December 2006
Hideous automotive excrescences

Autoblog's Dan Roth has a list of Things Which Must Die next year, and some of them make sense to me:

Big cars that were once small: The Civic was once a small car, now it's almost as big as Accords once were. The Nissan Versa and Dodge Caliber are similarly not-too-small cars being marketed on the pretense of being compact. The Fit is a step in the right direction, and we realize that all the required safety gear makes light cars largely a thing of the past, but the efficiency-lovers among us can't square the fact that these cars were once small and efficient, and now they're larger and less efficient.

I wince a bit as I type this, since I'm now driving the biggest damn car I've ever had in my life (this critter was an inch or two longer, but weighed about 300 lb less), but it still makes me jump to see, as I did last week, an 80s Nissan (maybe even Datsun) Maxima that would fit in the shadow of today's Sentra. In my Celica days, I coveted Toyota's Cressida, not only because there weren't a lot of cars named after Trojan women with round heels, but because it seemed like such a grandly spacious car by comparison. This year's Corollas (two price classes down) dwarf it.

Split decision on this one:

Auto-magic everything: Auto-dimming rearview mirrors never fail to blind the crap out of me. The auto climate-control tends to blow cold air on my feet when I wanted it to stay warm till I decide. Rain-sensing wipers? Come ON! All of this automation adds up to eventual failure points. Not only that, they remove the driver from the act of driving. If you don't want to be bothered to turn on the windshield wipers, perhaps you should telecommute.

I've never had any issue with the auto-dim on the mirror, but I admit I have had trouble adjusting to Gwendolyn's set-it-and-forget-it climate control, especially with Nissan's decree that no air will be sent to the floor vents until the temp gauge creeps up to the middle of the C. No rain-sensing wipers, though.

And thumbs down on this:

Manu-matics: What useless pieces of crap. The only thing worse than an automatic with a "manual gate" is a poorly programmed automatic. A lot of times, you get a twofer with trannies like this — they're never in the right gear and constantly second guessing you, and the manual modes are dopey, slow and worthless. Maybe this is the easy way to make people feel like they can "drive real good." We'd rather have three pedals and a stick connected to something.

I admit to having driven only one manumatic — the 5-speed in the previous-generation Infiniti G35 — and it's indeed slower at shifting than a true stick, but it's quicker than waiting for the throttle-position sensor to inform the slushbox that your right foot has indeed moved, and assuming that my knees aren't going to get much better in my declining years, I'd just as soon have this.

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:30 AM)
26 December 2006
Misunderestimating the price

A gentleman from New York disbelieved the Car and Driver preliminary price quote for the Mazdaspeed 3, and wrote them (February '07) to say so:

George W. Bush will start speaking in complete sentences before I find a Mazdaspeed 3 for under $23,000.

Is our dealers dealing?

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:39 PM)
31 December 2006
Doing a 360

Bob Moore got the local Saturn franchise early, and set up Saturn of Oklahoma City at the far north end of the Moore Autoplex, at 13020 North Broadway.

Ford used to sell cars here at retail; they bought up the local dealerships and replaced them with company stores. The local Mazda franchise wound up at the downtown Auto Collection, which is where I bought Sandy back in 2000.

Then Ford decided that maybe they didn't want to be in the retail business after all, and broke up the Collection. Bob Howard, recently acquired by Group 1 of Houston, got the Ford and Lincoln-Mercury stores downtown, but it was Bob Moore who ended up with Mazda, which they moved to 13020, moving the Saturn dealership to the southside.

In the fall of 2006, the Mazda store was relocated a block east, to 13045 North Kelley, leaving 13020 open once more. It's now been filled: Moore is moving Saturn of Edmond there, which means that technically, it's no longer in Edmond. I have to wonder if maybe they kept the Saturn signage in the back of the building, just in case this Mazda thing didn't work out.

Permalink to this item (posted at 11:55 AM)
Not cubic

But Zirconia, just the same:

Zirconia based coating from Zircotec in the UK will help your vehicle be more durable and powerful. The Zircotec ceramic coating was developed for the nuclear industry and has been proven in automotive applications by several Formula 1 teams. The purpose of the coating is to increase engine efficiency, improve aesthetics and improve thermal management. Older cars don't have the ability to manage the heat generated by their powertrain as effectively as more modern designs. There are also those pesky laws of thermodynamics and physics — a turbocharger housing is going to get bloody hot, no matter what. With a cherry red turbo snail, you'd best make sure anything that can burn or melt is well insulated. Coating parts like exhaust manifolds will improve engine efficiency by keeping the ambient temperature of the engine bay down, a by-product of which is lower intake plumbing temperatures.

And even the most modern designs still produce massive quantities of waste heat. How well does this magic spritz work?

The Zircotec coating is so good at providing a thermal barrier that a motorcycle racing team discovered they could remove exhaust pipes without gloves, while the gases coursing through the pipes were, uh, piping hot.

Now that's impressive. How did these guys get this good? I pulled up their FAQ and found this:

Zircotec now owned by Accentus plc is the new trading name for the surface engineering team divested from the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority in 1996. We have expertise in a range of coating applications and specialise in thermal spraying of metals and ceramics for orthopaedics, telecommunications, autosport and specialist engineering applications.

The UK used to get about a quarter of its energy from nuclear power; today it's less than 20 percent and dropping.

Permalink to this item (posted at 5:36 PM)
2 January 2007
Highway wi-fi

Autonet is rolling out a wireless-Internet package that runs off Verizon's EV-DO network. And "rolling" is the operative word, since it's intended for use in your car.

I bounced this idea off Trini, and she was quick to point out an application: "Set up a music server at home, and take your tunes wherever you go."

It's a little pricey — $399 for the hardware, fifty bucks a month — but someone who travels more than I do might find this an absolute boon.

Permalink to this item (posted at 1:29 PM)
10 January 2007
Padded sell

The Feds, specifically the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, would like to crank up auto safety standards, which in and of itself is not a bad idea, though this worries me:

NHTSA acknowledged in a March 2006 report that most people are not familiar with the agency or the government's crash tests, and that NHTSA's ratings had little influence on buying decisions.

A major problem with the program is nearly all vehicles pass current tests — 87 percent of 2006 vehicles received four or five stars (out of five possible) for side impact crashes, and 95 percent earned top marks for frontal crashes.

And what good can a test possibly be if there aren't enough failures? Are we worried about grade inflation, fercrissake? It's not like the Feds grade on the curve.

I admit up front that in my evaluate-and-purchase routine, which I perform as little as I possibly can, I don't pay the slightest attention to crash data, inasmuch as it is not my intention to use the item purchased to crash. (The last car in which I did crash — curse you, Bambi — scored four stars on the driver's side, five on the passenger's, frontally speaking, though the only reason I can tell you that is because I looked it up just now.)

This is not to say that the NHTSA is utterly devoid of good ideas: they've proposed making electronic stability control mandatory, a move which has the potential to reduce substantially the actual number of crashes. (Besides, since ESC runs off the same hardware as antilock brakes, ABS will become mandatory as well, and after living with it for half a year, I'm no longer persuaded that ABS is a crock.) This will almost certainly save more lives than trying to find new places to stuff airbags. (And besides, you already know what I think about airbags.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:08 AM)
11 January 2007
Mnemonically Ghastly

Morris Garages was the distributor in Oxford for Morris motorcars; despite the similarity in names, the two companies were not related. Yet.

In the 1920s, Morris Garages began tricking out sedate Morris Cowley sedans, which they vended under the name "MG Special." The name stuck, even after Morris Garages owner William Morris, later Lord Nuffield, sold out to the Morris auto company in the Thirties, and we had MGs for decades to come.

The Chinese, now proprietors of the octagon, have inexplicably decided to inform their domestic-market buyers that "MG" in fact means "Modern Gentleman", to the general dismay of people who know better. Personally, I think that if we're going to engage in this sort of nomenclatural revisionism, we should remember the last days of British Leyland's MGB, whose once-perky engine was detuned and detuned again in an effort to meet American emissions specifications, until its original 95 ponies were cut back to 63. By any reasonable standards, those machines were Mostly Gasping.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:51 AM)
12 January 2007
Girlmobiles

In the 1950s, Chrysler came up with a less-than-brilliant idea: they would develop a version of their standard Dodge sedan that would, they thought, appeal to women. I once described it thusly:

The Dodge La Femme was as capable as any top-line Dodge of that era, but it was glitzed up with Detroit men's ideas of girliness, with "accessories" such as a rain hat, bag and umbrella, which stored behind the front seat. The La Femme moved a mere 2500 copies in two years, or about as many workaday Dodges as fell off the transporter on the way to the dealership.

The La Femme, however, doesn't quite meet the contemporary definition of a "chick car," which is a non-gender-specific vehicle bought predominantly by women because allegedly men won't drive it, or at least won't want to be seen in it. Associate Blowhard Donald Pittenger has an interesting piece on the subject which, like most bloviation on the subject (including this), really doesn't answer the question of how they got to be chick cars in the first place.

David W. Boles' Urban Semiotic offers a definition and ten candidates:

[W]hen we say “Chick Cars” we mean these are cars women should drive and no self-respecting man should be caught dead driving or even riding shotgun — because these cars have feminine curves, engaging personalities and bleed XX chromosomes.

Never seen a Corvette or a Lamborghini do that. (Then again, apart from videotape, I've never seen a Lamborghini do anything.) One of the cars he mentions is the Nissan Maxima, presumably a blow to my self-respect, since Gwendolyn, an Infiniti I30, was the Maxima's snootier sister back in the day.

One of Mr Pittenger's commenters notes:

Ford has been trying to market the entire Mercury lineup as a "chick brand" in a possibly last-ditch attempt to keep Mercury from going the way of Oldsmobile and Plymouth. There have been quite a few Mercury ads on television in recent months, and unlike most car ads they don't feature the vehicles being driven at high speeds (hence no "Professional Driver — Closed Course" disclaimers). In addition, the on-camera announcer in the Mercury ads is a woman, and she has the attractive-but-not-stunning looks that have been shown to appeal to women.

Steve Miller would be appalled:

You know that gal I love
I stole her from a friend
Fool got lucky stole her back again
Because she knowed he had a Mercury
Cruise up and down this road
Up and down this road
Well, she knowed he had a Mercury
And she cruise up and down this road

I should point out here that the women I tend to fall for generally ignore these considerations; a salon staffer performing a routine pedicure has no way of knowing that this particular right foot, strappy sandal notwithstanding, is solid lead up to about here and can punch the loud pedal with considerable vigor.

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:19 AM)
16 January 2007
Thirty-six valves, no waiting

Back around 1980, faced with the possibility that V8 engines would be legislated out of existence, General Motors' Oldsmobile division started playing around with a three-liter V6 and the possibilities thereof. One idea considered was slicing it lengthwise to produce an inline-3, which wasn't exactly unprecedented: the Pontiac Tempest's four-banger in the 1960s was half of the fabled 389 V8. A V4 was also suggested. But the wackiest idea of all was the one that actually came closest to realization: a V5, one cylinder lopped off the end, displacing 2.5 liters.

Olds never built the V5, although inline fives did eventually find their way into the General's arsenal, and various Europeans have had straight fives for some time now. This left the title of most crazed engine configuration to Volkswagen, which took its narrow-angle V6, cut the center cylinders out of it, and bolted another one right behind it. Behold: the W8. VW also makes a W12 and, for use in the Bugatti Veyron, a frightful W16.

Then again, this little jewel has yet to go into production: a three-liter W9, basically a V6 with a center row of cylinders, a Swedish engineering student's master's thesis. It's designed to run on E85 or straight ethanol at a compression ratio of 12.7:1, with which it produces 526 hp at a scary 10700 rpm.

I don't know about you, but I'd love to see Nissan take a crack at one of these; after all, they already make the world's greatest V6.

(Via Jalopnik.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 2:35 PM)
17 January 2007
Congestion on the Chesapeake westbound

Los Angeles has the 5 and the 110; Chicago has the Dan Ryan and the Skyway; Tulsa has the Inner Dispersal Loop. Eric Seymour asks: why not sell the naming rights?

It is now common practice to sell the naming rights for sports venues, convention centers, and other prominent buildings. Why, I wonder, aren't there any roads named by the highest bidder?

In Philadelphia, I-76 is known as the Schuylkill Expressway, I-676 is the Vine St. Expressway, and I-476 west of the city is known as the Blue Route. Other cities have similar colloquialisms for traffic arteries, while others are named in honor of civic leaders. Sports venues used to be named in the same way, but now nearly all have corporate monikers. So why not sell the naming rights for major roadways?

Would you want your company associated with the Sure-Kill? And maybe that's the whole issue:

Perhaps federal funding for highway construction and maintenance is part of the reason. But come to think of it, perhaps most corporations don't want their names associated with "traffic jam" or "20-car pileup."

Given the typically lethargic pace on I-44 either side of the Belle Isle Bridge, I bet we could sell it to La-Z-Boy.

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:30 AM)
21 January 2007
Of course, the warranty is up

Conventional wisdom, accompanied by a lot of yammering, holds that domestic automobiles are unreliable. Some of them, including one once owned by me, certainly qualify as such.

Then there's this beauty, a 104-year-old Ford, believed to be the oldest blue-oval machine still in existence, which recently sold at auction for $630,000.

Specs on the 1903 Ford Model A: 72-inch wheelbase, weight 1250 lb, inline-2 engine with 8 hp, 3-speed transmission. List price $750, though the optional back seat would add $100. Top speed somewhere between 30 and 45 mph. And instead of air bags, you have actual air.

Permalink to this item (posted at 3:01 PM)
25 January 2007
And never park facing the wind

Somebody spammed a Usenet group with this, and I excerpt it here in the interest of [fill in excuse other than "nothing else to post"].

While selecting the type of car comes easily to most people, making a decision on the color of a car can be a stumbling block. Some people simply go with their favorite color, while others mull over color choices by considering factors such as climate, type of vehicle use, or the most practical choice, going with what is least likely to show dirt. But what if even that fails? Then try feng shui. Yes, feng shui, the Chinese guide used for arranging homes and offices, can also be used for selecting colors based on an individual's own personal feng shui.

According to personal feng shui, each person has an individual feng shui number that is based on gender and date of birth. This number, also called a "kua" number is associated with a color. By selecting the correct color for an individual's particular feng shui number, the driver will experience better luck overall because the color is harmonized with that individual.

Use personal feng shui to select a "success" color, which can be helpful when buying that luxury sedan. More into soccer practice than boardrooms? Choose a "family" color. Both colors are determined by the driver's kua number.

Um, okay. What's my number?

Take the year of birth, i.e., 1971
Add the last two years together (7+1=8)
For men, subtract the number from 10 (10-8+2); 2 is the kua number
For women, add 5 to the number (5+8=13; 1+3= 4); 4 is the kua number
For years such as 1982 which have a double digit, be sure to reduce to one number: 8+2=10 (1+0=1)

So I get a 2, which means:

Money/Success Colors: Yellow, Brown, Beige
Family Colors: Silver, Gold, White, Pearl

Hmmm. Gwendolyn, they tell me, is "Aspen White Pearl."

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:39 AM)
True auto eroticism

About thirty years ago, Dr. Demento associate Damaskas Hollodan unleashed a catchy little ditty called "Making Love in a Subaru," which contained the following bit of useful advice:

And now let us lie between the sheets
And thank heaven for reclining bucket seats
Don't touch that for goodness sake
You'll release the parking brake
We'll both start to roll down the street

Yipes! I've never had any seat time in a Subaru — there are stories I could tell you about a Toyota Celica, not that I would — but I suspect this information has been largely superseded by Carma Sutra, the first (I suppose) vehicular sex manual.

I have, of course, no idea how much activity is going on today behind closed car doors, but I suspect that none of it is quite as convenient as it was in the '51 Nash.

(Via Autoblog.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 5:18 PM)
28 January 2007
Real wrath-of-God type stuff

ECTO 1 is for sale.

That's right, the '59 Cadillac ambulance driven by the Ghostbusters can be yours for the asking, though they won't be ready to believe you until you can show them $150k.

Before you ask: it won't fit in my garage.

(Via Autoblog.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 11:17 AM)
2 February 2007
Tag number 1D 10T

This AutoWeek test for automotive idiocy has its charming moments, but ultimately it's aimed at the sort of tweedy folk who drive twee English wrecks with Lucas electrics, which describes very few of the people I see on the road around here. At the suggestion of Autoblog, I present herewith a list of indications that you, too, might be an automotive idiot.

  1. You react as though you were slapped in the face when someone mentions that your Lexus is after all just a juiced-up Toyota. (Similarly for Acura/Honda and Infiniti/Nissan.)

  2. You feel compelled to boast about the superior quality of German engineering while your Jetta is in the shop for the third time in six months.

  3. You pretend not to notice that your ride quality has gone to hell since you installed those ridiculous 19-inch wheels.

  4. You believe that four-wheel-drive makes you immune to the effects of winter precipitation.

  5. You think it's good for the car to spend ten minutes in the driveway warming up. (It's not, and what's more, you're getting 0 mpg while you're doing it.)

  6. You believe that going 56 in the left lane in a 60 zone is proof that you are a Good Person.

  7. Your speed decreases as you move up the onramp.

  8. You put a load of stuff in the trunk to improve winter traction — and you have a front-wheel-drive car.

  9. You have no idea what you're going to do now that you've missed your exit.

  10. You'll just take this one phone call, it might be important.

I could probably go on all day, but that would take all the fun out of the comments, assuming I get any.

Permalink to this item (posted at 9:32 AM)
6 February 2007
Just a Falcon minute

News Item: Ford Motor Company will rename its slow-selling Five Hundred model the Taurus, a name that Ford had previously used for a car that became the nation's top-seller, company officials said Tuesday.

Top Ten Names Also Considered for the Ford Five Hundred:

  1. Three-Eighty After Rebate
  2. Flathead
  3. Not A Lincoln
  4. Fonda
  5. Felcher
  6. Festivus
  7. Excrescence
  8. Prefect
  9. Fairmont II
  10. Camry (hey, they're desperate)

(Via Jalopnik.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 10:39 AM)
9 February 2007
Wish I'd thought of this

The nearest gas station/C-store has one of those coin-operated air compressors, and it is cunningly designed to run out of time at the beginning of one's third tire. I took all the precautions I could — removed all the caps first, took all the pressure readings with my handy-dandy gauge, carefully dekinked the hose, and only then deposited the coins — and still, two tires completed, third tire only just begun, and dead silence.

This is the sort of thing that makes me think "Geez, I ought to get a compressor of my own," and then I calculate how many trips I can make to that store for that amount of money.

Permalink to this item (posted at 5:23 PM)
12 February 2007
Shiftless individuals

Autoblog reports that automatic transmissions will outnumber stick shifts worldwide in 2007.

Which, of course, will make it difficult to outlaw the infernal slushboxes in the name of all that is green and holy, but hey, you can't have everything.

Disclosure: I have been driving for 32 years, and the majority of those years were spent with a stick, but my present vehicle has, yes, an automatic.

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:50 AM)
13 February 2007
Never mock a Hyundai

Forbes has another one of its goofy lists, this time What Your Car Says About You — provided, of course, that your car is the sort of pricey conveyance that is most easily affordable to, well, readers of Forbes. Since they didn't venture far enough down the automotive food chain to get to what I drive, I'm filling the gap here with what my car says about me, which is simply this: at a point where I was in bad need of new wheels, I chose to buy a six-year-old luxoboat for 40 percent of its original sticker price, with the hope of getting eight to ten more years out of it.

Not everyone reacts as blandly as this. My children asked if I were suddenly acquiring a veneer of snootiness (I almost typed "snottiness," which fits equally well); a couple of people asked if this climb up a rung or two of the perceived automotive hierarchy constituted some form of therapy (perhaps it did, in some way); one reader of this site accused me of being some sort of "grown-up," perhaps the scariest prospect of all. (The American male is not unique in his desire to perpetuate adolescence, but he goes to the most trouble to see it done.) But ultimately I can no more explain my choice of vehicle to others than I could my choice of girlfriend, had I a girlfriend, which of course I don't, and this model has no particular reputation as a crumpet-collector anyway.

If I've learned anything from the experience, it's that a lot more things are negotiable than I had imagined. I am not overly fond of leather, and I absolutely despise fake wood; Gwendolyn is outfitted rather generously with both, and I shrug when people point this out.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:46 AM)
15 February 2007
Adjusted for deflation

Bibendum, the Michelin Man, "evolves to remain always in phase with his time."

He's definitely taken off a few pounds around the middle. (Allegedly, so have I, although Bib generally is way buffer than I and presumably has better sidewalls.)

And maybe this will improve his chances of getting a steak next month.

(Via Fark.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 12:22 PM)
You too can be framed

The dealer from whom I bought Gwendolyn fitted the car with not one but two metal license-plate frames, which must be considered overkill in a state which has no front plate. I removed them both, on the basis that the decklid badge he applied is probably enough advertising for him, and besides, the rear plate, which attaches only at the top, produces an annoying rattle when the trunk is closed with the frame in place.

If I lived in Texas, though, I could justify the removal by dint of living in Texas:

Texans who unintentionally cover even a small portion of their car's license plate can be stopped by police, ticketed and perhaps arrested for the offense, the state's highest criminal court ruled Wednesday.

The 8-1 decision left three Court of Criminal Appeals judges holding their noses — proclaiming the statute "uncommonly bad," but acknowledging that the letter of the law prohibits drivers from encasing their license plate in a frame that obscures the state name, state nickname or even portions of the artwork.

The issue before the Court of Criminal Appeals focused on the Texas Transportation Code, which states: "A person commits an offense if the person attaches to or displays on a motor vehicle a number plate or registration insignia that . . . has a coating, covering or protective material that . . . alters or obscures the letters or numbers on the plate, the color of the plate, or another original design feature of the plate."

Judge Cathy Cochran suggested that Texas "enact a law that requires all design work and lettering on Texas license plates to be indented to provide a one-inch white margin at the edges," which strikes me as unlikely, given the tendency in all 50 states (well, maybe not Delaware) to cram in as much putative eye candy as possible.

I assume this doesn't apply to those of us who just visit Texas from time to time, but sometimes it's dangerous to assume things in Texas.

(Via Jalopnik.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 3:45 PM)
17 February 2007
Big wheel keep on turnin'

Spinners, those absurd little wheel attachments that keep going after the wheel itself has stopped, are so 2004, so it's obviously time to ban them:

New York State is taking fresh legal steps to ban spinning hubcaps and wheels. Bill Number 1640 is presently being considered by the Senate Transportation Committee, and it would make such wheels illegal statewide. The bill was introduced previously, but it is now gaining traction after being reintroduced by State Senator John Sabini. The measure would fine vehicle owners up to $750 for a third (or subsequent) violation.

I evaluate all automotive add-ons with two thoughts in mind:

  • What effect do they have on performance?

  • How do they enhance the driving experience?

On these criteria, spinners would seem to fail: adding unsprung weight, even nicely-balanced unsprung weight, is something to be discouraged, and the only people who can enjoy the, um, display are outside the vehicle.

Then again, if some clown really wants to spend four figures to make his vehicle look even more ridiculous — you never see these on a car that wasn't ridiculous to begin with — it's up to the state to prove that he's a safety hazard or something, and so far, New York hasn't done that.

Now I might go for the Bedardatron:

You've seen those wheel-well lights all the Chicanos have on their Chevys out on the West Coast. Well, this is the ne plus ultra of wheel-well lights. This is a strobe, a scaled-up version of that little gizmo that checks the speed of your record player.

Record player? Anybody remember those?

The machinery is no sweat. All it takes is a magnetic pickup on each wheel that acts as a trigger. Then a knob on the dashboard lets you speed up or slow down the strobe. All the necessary hardware costs a coupla bucks wholesale.

But the effect out on Van Nuys Boulevard will be worth a million. Zero out the knob and your wheels stop, just like the dots on the edge of a turntable. Patrol the drive-ins, your raised white letters as righteous and readable as a Bible in the hands of a reformed sinner.... You can always dial up a little reverse with the knob, and give those wheels a nice backspin — make them fight with the mind like the stagecoach wheels in old Roy Rogers movies.

Of course, this was conceived way back in 1982, when raised white letters on tires actually weren't mocked and vilified, but it makes more sense — and probably weighs less — than spinners.

Permalink to this item (posted at 1:11 PM)
20 February 2007
Your mileage may vary

Although this is probably not what you had in mind:

Honda is notifying 6 million owners of Hondas and Acuras that they are entitled to warranty extensions and, in some cases, payments because odometers in their vehicles rolled up miles too fast. That made warranties expire too soon and hit some lease customers with excess-mileage penalties.

Honda says that their spec for odometers — plus 3.75, minus 1 percent — is within nonbinding industry standards: the Society of Automotive Engineers calls for 4 percent either way. For 2007, Honda is tightening their in-house standard.

And there's this:

A lawyer in the lawsuit that resulted in Honda's moves now is aiming at Nissan, alleging that its Altima sedans back to 2002 roll up miles 2.5% to 3% too fast. Nissan has filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit but wouldn't say more because it doesn't comment on pending litigation.

The lawyer, James Holmes of Henderson, Texas, says he's tested Toyotas and, oddly, found them to routinely register slightly fewer miles than actually driven. Detroit brands, he says, "by and large are perfect."

If I remember correctly, Car and Driver ran some tests on this some years back, and then, too, domestics turned in the best showing.

The only really good way for us civilians to check this out for ourselves is to compare to measured miles between actual mileposts and then do the math. My last three cars have been pretty accurate, which is to say within about 1 percent or so on spot-checks in the 50-to-100-mile range.

(Via Autoblog.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 3:01 PM)
21 February 2007
The look of lust

Oh, it was there all right. I saw it in her eyes.

The story begins at the Infiniti store at 7:28 AM, where I was dropping off Gwendolyn for a spa day. (Actually, the agenda called for an oil change, a tire rotation, and a fresh set of front brake pads.) The last two times, they'd directed me to a 2004 G35 — in fact, the same 2004 G35 — as a loaner. Not today: they'd apparently replaced their entire loaner fleet, and I was handed this weird-looking device which was identified as Not The Key, and pointed toward a G35. A 2007 G35.

To start this little darb, Not The Key must be brandished, your foot must be on the brake (I figure manual-transmission models have a slightly-different regimen), and a button to the right of the steering column must be pushed. About a dozen lights come on, and the VQ engine, spiked to 306 hp, comes to growly life. It was almost a shame to have to drive down the freeway to work, of all places.

Having once offered, I of course delivered. Trini and I went off to lunch, and within half a mile she'd made up her mind: "I want this car." And it struck me as highly wantable, inasmuch as the two exceedingly-minor things that bugged me about the previous-generation G — the seat controls were inexplicably placed on the inside next to the tunnel, and it was occasionally possible to find oneself in the wrong gear for a given situation — had been neatly dispatched in the new version.

What Trini really wants, as it happens, is a federalized version of the Japanese-market Nissan Skyline, which is a corporate cousin to the G, but it's a bit easier to buy a G than to import and modify a Skyline.

Next question: Will Gwendolyn be succeeded by a G? The budget doesn't permit, at least for now. But the G would be easier on my budget than the M35, which is at the top of my vehicular lust list.

Addendum, 23 February: The NYPD has issues with the G:

According to an internal police memo obtained by Newsday, officers on Staten Island were alarmed to learn that the 2006 Infiniti G35 is equipped with a hidden backseat storage area.

Police supervisors were notified and the department issued a memo to all commands.

"Uniformed members of the service are cautioned to use extreme vigilance and remain alert for hidden compartments when conducting car stops and searching vehicles," the memo reads.

The same storage area is provided on the '07 G. It's normally stuffed with a first-aid kit.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:08 PM)
24 February 2007
The MPG crapshoot

For model year 2008, the Environmental Protection Agency has revised its test procedure for determing vehicle fuel economy, making it somewhat closer to real-world driving and perhaps somewhat closer to what real-world drivers actually achieve. In general, I applaud this action: if we're going to do this sort of thing, we ought to at least try to do it accurately.

The EPA now has an online tool whereby you can look up your pre-2008 car (if you already have a 2008 car, I'm impressed) and see how it would rate under the 2008 test. I duly punched in Gwendolyn's numbers, and was presented with this:

Old: city 20, highway 28, combined 23.
New: city 17, highway 25, combined 20.

The "combined" figure is 55 percent city, 45 percent highway. I note that EPA lists this car as running on "Regular Gasoline"; Nissan specifies premium. I'd expect it might get poorer mileage on the lower-octane stuff.

My own figures so far: city 21 (over 5000 miles), highway 28 (900). Pretty close to the old numbers, and way better than the new ones.

I went back to my previous car, on which I had over 55,000 miles of data, and here's the chart:

Old: city 22, highway 28, combined 24.
New: city 19, highway 25, combined 22.

Actual numbers obtained: city 23, highway 30.

I'd like to think that the reason why I do at least as well as and sometimes better than EPA's numbers is because I'm such a spectacularly good driver, but I don't believe that any more than you do. What I think is happening here is that the cars I have driven were not specifically engineered to get good numbers on the test: there were no characteristics intended to exploit the test conditions. For example: Chevrolet's "skip shift" on manual-transmission Corvettes would, um, encourage a 1-4 upshift, leaving the car in a tall fourth gear for most of the test, enough for GM to avoid the dreaded gas-guzzler tax.

Still, this doesn't explain everything. Sandy, my late Mazda 626, had only average mileage ratings and below-average acceleration for her class. However, I drove the living whee out of her and still got better-than-EPA numbers. Gwendolyn weighs 13 percent more and packs nearly 75 percent more horsepower (227 versus 130); then again, she doesn't have to work so hard.

Permalink to this item (posted at 12:07 PM)
All this and Gogi Grant too

At the moment, this Hyundai ad, staggeringly popular in New Zealand, is banned in Australia:

After all, it's illegal for two-year-olds to drive in Oz, and we mustn't give them any ideas.

And can you imagine the outcry if Hyundai's US branch ran this spot? No child restraints in the back seat, and no "Professional driver on closed course: Do not attempt" caption.

I can't help thinking that if Chrysler had commercials this good, Daimler wouldn't be trying to shed them, would they, Dr Z?

(Via Autoblog.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 3:42 PM)
2 March 2007
Wonder where the yellow went?

Either traffic is worse across town, or I'm unusually lucky these days:

It is a fact of life that once you hit a red light, it is inevitable that you will then hit a red light at 90% of the lights thereafter.

The morning commute runs eastbound on Northwest Distressway from Linn (2600 block West). If the light at Villa (2500) catches me, the one at Penn (2100) generally doesn't, and of the next three (mall entrances, Belle Isle, Blackwelder), I am seldom snagged by more than one. The last one is at the former Classen Circle (1400), and it almost always gets me — but from there I proceed onto I-44, where the only lights I need fear are shaped like gumballs and are usually mounted to the tops of Ford Crowns Victoria.

Conversely, or perhaps perversely, I get caught at every light going back the other way, without fail. Must be a timing issue.

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:11 AM)
3 March 2007
Bad deal of the year

Somebody sent this pitch to Consumer Reports, which tucked it into the annual Auto issue. A dealer was offering seemingly-astonishing trade-in values: "100% of original MSRP," they said, hoping you wouldn't notice the fine print, which indicated that they would subtract 55 cents per mile.

I saw that, remembered that my previous automobile cost me 59 cents per mile to operate, and concluded that this could not possibly be a good deal.

And then I sat down and actually did the math. Gwendolyn's sticker was $30,519; she has 94,210 miles, which at 55 cents each comes to $51,815.50; her trade-in value at this place would therefore be minus $21,296.50.

The disclosure forms would likely be hilarious.

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:46 AM)
6 March 2007
A question of balance

You've all seen them, and I'd bet you've made fun of them too: $500 cars with thousand-dollar stereos — and, lately, rims that sell for $3k or so.

I must point out, though, that similar outrages to sense and sensibility exist at other price points. Exhibit A: a $150,000 shift knob.

The real knob, of course, is the nudnik who buys the damn thing.

(Note: This isn't much better, but at least it's only $40.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:21 AM)
10 March 2007
Even gets AM

Not everyone loves Bose audio: one common snort is "No highs, no lows: must be Bose." And indeed you can find flatter and/or more extended frequency response elsewhere, probably for less money. ("Paper cones," sniffs Trini, expressing a preference for Kevlar.) Still, Gwendolyn has a Bose system — head unit built by Clarion under license, so far as I can tell — and the impressive aspect of the sound is the space, if you will: it's a highly-reflective ambient soundfield that is probably seriously sub-optimal for techno and such but works nicely on the classical stuff I've been known to listen to on the road, though I dialed the subwoofer back a couple of dB to keep it from rattling itself off the rear deck.

Whatever my reservations about Bose, though, I still covet this. To quote the guys at Autoblog:

The new Bose Media System features customized 5.1-channel surround sound, an AM/FM/XM satellite radio tuner that can be accessed by genre, a 200 hours hard drive, navigation system, Bluetooth, iPod connectivity with access through the system's display and a USB 2.0 input.

Oh, and it has an industry-first multi-format disc player. It can read and play virtually any type of disc you feed into it: CDs, DVD audio discs, DVD video discs, Super Audio CDs, MP3s, AAC and practically every other format available on recordable CDs and DVDs. It even has the Bose uMusic intelligent playback system that uses tags to identify listener "moods" and calls up similar songs from the hard drive.

I bet I could screw up that "moods" business big time in a matter of miles.

Still, you won't be seeing this in my car, unless someone bestows upon me the gift of a Ferrari Scaglietti 612, which costs €210,000. Besides, the Ferrari makes some grand sounds of its own without any audio system at all, and anyway Trini prefers Sirius to XM.

Permalink to this item (posted at 5:35 AM)
14 March 2007
Hang up and drive, dammit

There have been, I admit, times when I gazed longingly at another driver out here in the Teeming Milieu, but no way am I going to mess with this:

Delta Meridian Inc announced today it is now beta testing its new network called SameLane which enables riders in vehicles on any roadway to make social cell phone calls to riders in other vehicles by simply calling a premium charge phone line and entering the license plate of the vehicle in view they wish to contact.

A unique feature of the SameLane system is its ability to connect cell phone calls between vehicle riders without either party knowing the other's cell phone number. In a social call environment on any roadway vehicle riders will now be able to chat to each other, much the same way they might do while sitting on a plane to pass the time of day, without having to reveal each other’s identity unless they choose to do so in conversation.

Then again, unless you're the pilot, sitting on a plane doesn't require the level of concentration demanded of a driver.

I suppose this might work if you're stuck on an L.A. freeway for the better part of an afternoon, but here in the Okay City, where Mayor Cornett once bragged that it was possible to get a speeding ticket during rush hour, this is a Bad Idea.

(Via Lachlan, who doesn't like it either.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:32 AM)
21 March 2007
M dashed

BMW for many years has affixed the letter M to its highest-performance cars, and they probably didn't pay much attention when Nissan's Infiniti division begat M35 and M45 sedans: the Bimmers, after all, had labels like M5 and M6, and anyway Infiniti had had an M30 way back when, which no one would have confused with anything Bavarian. It was probably not a good idea, though, for Infiniti to refer to the M35/M45 collectively as the "M." And then Infiniti came up with the idea of an M6 sport package for the Canadian-market G35, and BMW drew a line in the legal sand.

A Canadian court has now ruled that BMW owns the M mark. The ruling:

[The defendant is] liable, in damages to be determined ... for the use of the letter M and the descriptor M6, as trademarks for automobiles, parts and accessories, which caused a likelihood of confusion between the sources of its wares and of BMW's.

The defendant is also ordered to deliver to the plaintiffs or to destroy under oath, all literature, invoices, packaging, signs, advertisements, promotional or marketing material, printed or otherwise recorded, in the possession, custody or control of the defendant which may be considered to offend the injunction now granted.

It's unclear whether BMW USA would prevail in a similar suit; here, as in Canada, Infiniti has been using "M" in both print and television ads for the M35/M45, but the US-issue G is offered with two sport packages, called "Sport" and "Sport 6MT," neither of which seems particularly Bimmeresque.

Disclosure: I drive an Infiniti I30, which is not to be confused with the European Hyundai i30.

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:59 AM)
Blame it on the Worcestershire sauce

You may be on a low-calorie diet, but the machine says you've been drinking:

Researchers at Sweden's Karolinska University Hospital were approached by a 59-year old non-drinker after he registered positive for alcohol when blowing into an in-car ignition interlocking device that would not allow him to drive. As a glider pilot who supervised private aviation, the man had been surprised and upset about the positive result, which occurred while he was undergoing a weight loss program involving a very low calorie diet.

Researchers found the positive test to be the result of a chemical reaction that took place when fat was broken down at a fast rate. When this happened, ketone bodies (acetone, acetoacetate and beta-hydroxybutyrate) were produced, which could then be converted to a secondary alcohol known as isopropanol, said the lead researcher, Wayne Jones, who is also on Sweden's National Board of Forensic Medicine.

At least in Australia, this phenomenon won't get you busted:

Edward Ogden, clinical forensic scientist and senior research fellow at Melbourne's Swinburne University, said it was possible that sober people could blow a false-positive test, however they would not be charged with drunk driving. Alcohol ignition interlock devices and roadside random breath testing units measure alcohol on the breath using fuel cells, which cannot distinguish between ethanol and isopropanol.

"But with any random breath test, the police would then invite you to the booze bus for a second test using an evidential instrument which measures the presence of alcohol on the breath in three different ways, including the use of infra-red at two different wavelengths," Dr Ogden said.

The real problem, apparently, is for people with the interlock devices, which have yet to be put to any significant use here in the States.

(Via Autoblog.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 4:00 PM)
28 March 2007
A new CEO Challenge

We open here with a flashback:

I remember [Michael Moore's] television series TV Nation, which had an interest in snark at least as high as my own, and which featured briefly something called the CEO Corporate Challenge, in which the chairmen would be pulled out of the boardroom long enough to demonstrate some actual familiarity with the products vended by the firms they ran. One of the CEOs targeted was Ford boss Alexander Trotman: Moore met him in Dearborn and challenged him to change the oil in a Ford truck. Trotman, to Moore's surprise, was a pretty fair shadetree mechanic, and finished up the task in less time than your local Spee-D-Loob; Moore, to his credit, left the segment in, and announced that Trotman had indeed passed the CEO Corporate Challenge.

At the end of this, I tossed up a remark about how "I certainly can't imagine Bill Ford changing his own oil."

On the other hand, apparently new Ford CEO Alan Mulally can actually sell cars:

[H]e sold three cars in just 40 minutes on the floor, with a fourth sale that's still pending. In one case, he talked Nancy Miner from Liverpool, NY into a Fusion that she was cross-shopping with a Camry. If you remember, Mulally's own garage was filled with all manner of Toyota and Lexus cars before he came to Ford, so the CEO was well situated to present the case for his own Fusion to Ms. Miner. She ended up buying the Fusion and driving it back to New York.

Which is quite a drive, since Mulally was holding court at a Ford store in, yes, Dearborn, Michigan.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:09 AM)
No Chinese British sports cars for you

National Public Radio is reporting that China's Nanjing Automotive is abandoning plans to assemble the MG automobile in Ardmore, Oklahoma, even as the first Chinese-built MGs are coming off the line.

Possibly supporting this story is this quote from Nanjing MG general manager Zhang Xin:

Despite high expectations on the Chinese domestic market, Mr Zhang says the priority is the British and European market. "British people like their own brands, and people in other European countries and the Commonwealth know MG's performance well," he says. "Nanjing MG will provide them with the same or better driving experience. We will make the best MG cars ever."

No mention of North American sales at all. Then there's this:

Duke Hale, the chief executive of Nanjing's U.S. business, which was to assemble MG TF roadsters from kits, left the company this month, reportedly being disappointed that the Chinese company had scaled back its planned production and sales operations in the U.S. — plans elaborated by Mr. Hale rather than by the Chinese company.

There is also a suggestion that tweaking the MG designs to meet US standards might have proven more difficult than anticipated.

Duke Hale had had big plans for MG, but if there's one thing certain in the auto industry, it's that nothing is certain.

Update, 1:45 pm: The Oklahoman reports:

"My understanding is that there is no more plans with the Oklahoma plant," MG's Paul Stowe told NPR. "We are discussing possible ventures in America in the future, but I don't believe there's anything on the table at the moment with Oklahoma."

British media reports have identified Stowe as quality director for Nanjing's MG division. He relocated to China from MG's former factory in Longbridge near Birmingham, England.

A joint statement from state and local officials in Oklahoma said Stowe was not speaking on behalf of the company.

"This individual is not a senior member of the team working with Oklahoma Global Motors and is not currently involved in moving the project forward," the statement said. "Representatives from ... MG in the U.K. have confirmed that his statement was not an official announcement by the company and reflected his own opinion and not that of management."

Officials said the deal was a complicated project "with individuals and companies on three continents, a foreign government and a former company in bankruptcy."

The statement was issued by the state, Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce, the City of Oklahoma City and the Ardmore Development Authority.

See "Nothing is certain," supra.

Addendum, 7 pm: Statement by Richard Rush of the State Chamber, with audio, denying the NPR story.

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:22 AM)
29 March 2007
Curse you, Infiniti!

Do you think I want to see this thing staring at me from across the lot while Gwendolyn gets her 105,000-mile service?

2008 Infiniti EX
I suppose, if I'm going to be suffering from Vehicle Lust, better it should be over a vehicle that costs around $36,000 than over one that costs around $46,000, but still ....

Permalink to this item (posted at 9:09 AM)
Hoonettes

Can we just retire that "chick car" business once and for all?

[D]eep down, most women are car enthusiasts. Like any teenage boy, they start off excited about the intoxicating freedom of driving and scan their automotosphere for the chariot best suited to fleeing the nest and impressing the rest. They may not talk about horsepower and torque, but they "get it."

And then they grow to dislike cars, if only because the cars they drive are so fundamentally unlikeable. The minivan, the family sedan, the average domestic transplant — these are the daily drivers of the women I know. Is it any wonder they loathe all things automotive?

It's the association with drudgery that kills the spirit, I think, though it doesn't help that most of the vehicles represented as suitable for Mom's Taxi duty are designed for maximum yawn and don't lend themselves to serious hoonage.

Still, the combination of a shapely leg and a lead foot will almost always cause my heart to tach up. (Trini, bless her, covets a Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:24 PM)
1 April 2007
Downholstery

Some days it seems you just can't reason with a dealership:

My 2005 TSX has only 20k miles on it, so there's still 30k miles left on the warranty. A couple of weeks ago I took her in for what I thought was some minor warranty fixes. Little did I know....

The Service Manager refused to fix the split in the [seat] stitching because he claims:

  1. that I get into the car "wrong" (whatever that means). He claims that I brush against the side-bolster of the seat, and that this is not the correct way to get into the car. I asked where in the owners manual it describes the "correct" way to get into the car to no avail.

  2. that I wear the wrong kind of pants. Yes, you read that right. The guy told me that blue jeans tend to scuff the leather, and that I might not have this problem if I wore slacks. Apparently getting into the car with Levis is not considered "normal use" under the terms of the warranty.

  3. that I should have taken it back to the dealer who sold me the car (in Sacramento, about 80 miles away). Ya, I don't get it, either. That's not what the warranty says....

I suspect the rivets in one's jeans are more hazardous to leather than mere denim itself would be, though I have no expertise in coefficients of fabric friction other than, you should pardon the expression, seat-of-the-pants estimates.

I did, however, pull out Gwendolyn's manual to see what Infiniti had to say on the subject, which turns out to be nothing: unlike Acura, Infiniti, at least in 2000, did not see fit to exclude upholstery from warranty coverage. And after 95,000 miles, including about 7,000 miles so far under my decreasingly-fat arse, Gwendolyn's leather seats are in excellent shape.

Mark Ashley, writing for Consumerist, suggests a solution: "Drive naked." Um, not on leather, Marcus; besides, there's always going to be someone who finds your lack of pants disturbing. (Solution to solution: throw a bath towel over the seat.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 4:02 PM)
2 April 2007
Vulcanize 'em

I make the turn into the onramp, and it's not ten feet before I discover that traffic isn't going anywhere, and of course there's no Plan B: I can't back up, and the ramp leads to one place only.

So I merge in at about 15 mph, and I start wondering where the hangup is. I decided it was probably two miles ahead, where a section of pavement, pounded by rain last week, finally separated itself from the roadway, leaving a crater worthy of the dark side of the moon. (Which wouldn't surprise me, since there are spots on 50th, closer to home, where telling your asphalt from a hole in the road is all too easy.) Fine, I said to nobody in particular, I'll just get off at the next mile and take the surface streets.

Then I saw the black-and-white in the median, a car with its rear in the air well off the shoulder, an 18-wheeler a couple hundred feet ahead, and I realized that there was no hazard at all: it was the phenomenon known as "rubbernecking," a bunch of people slowed to a crawl in gleeful anticipation of seeing the carnage for themselves.

And upon this discovery, I put the Venturi effect to work and shot through a narrow opening in traffic, putting this discouraging vision behind me as quickly as Gwendolyn was willing to permit.

It occurred to me shortly thereafter that if this had truly been the Venturi effect, a partial vacuum should have been created; I consoled myself with the knowledge that plenty of them already existed, between the ears of the schmucks I'd left in my wake.

Permalink to this item (posted at 5:43 PM)
3 April 2007
The proper passenger

By now, everyone knows how to get out of a car gracefully without showing your underwear. Maybe. Used to be, the tricky part was getting into the car:

Make your entrance gracefully. The best way to make a transition from pedestrian to passenger is by putting your left foot on the floor of the car and then easing into the car in a sitting position. If it's one of the low-slung models, though, you'll need to change your approach completely. First, sit sideways on the seat with your feet outside the car and swivel forward. Let your body form a gentle "S" curve, with your legs crossed at the ankles.

At the time, there presumably weren't any high-slung models, so don't try this with a Ford F-150.

And yes, there are instructions on debarking:

When you're ready for your exit, take the most attractive way out by sliding along the seat until you can put a foot on the ground. Lower your head and slip out smoothly.

This would seem to imply a bench seat. Interestingly, the illustration accompanying this wisdom seems to be a drawing of a Jaguar E-type, in which case, um, well, you're on your own, sweetheart.

[From "Key to Car Dates" by Kitt Gerard, American Girl, August 1968.]

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:33 AM)
6 April 2007
The high cost of using less fuel

GM's Maximum Bob Lutz was complaining this week that the Bush administration's plan to tweak fuel-economy standards upward would ultimately raise the price of a motor vehicle by $5,000.

"This technology does not come for free," said Lutz, and of course that's true, but how much technology does come for free?

Besides, there are plenty of other upward pressures on vehicle prices: the demand for new gadgets; new safety gizmos, some useful, some perhaps less so; the rising price of raw materials; the rising price of labor.

Me, I'm not worried so much. I owned, in succession, two Mazda 626 sedans. The 2000 model weighed about 200 lb more than the 1993, had a dozen more ponies under the hood (from a mostly-identical engine), and offered about 8 cubic feet more interior room. I got 23 mpg from the '93, and 24 mpg from the '00. Small incremental improvements, while they don't necessarily make for good ad copy, really mount up after a while.

Or I could look back at my old '75 Toyota, which struggled to get 19 mpg from its 2.2-liter 96-hp four-banger (with a stick, yet), and compare it to my current car, which weighs 700 lb more, boasts 227 hp from a 3-liter V6, and gets 21 mpg. With an automatic. Not to mention vastly cleaner exhaust.

Or I could simply mention that Honda and Toyota and friends aren't grousing in public: they're simply handing out new specifications to the engineers.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:23 AM)
7 April 2007
Attention H-badge shoppers

I think we can retire that "Hyundai = bargain brand" business once and for all.

Consumer Reports has reports on four small SUVs in the May issue. The biggest news is that Hyundai's Santa Fe in Limited trim is now considered the second most desirable vehicle in this class: it outpoints Toyota's four-cylinder RAV4, but trails the V6 version (which apparently has never been called "RAV6"). This is a very creditable showing for the Korean marque, but here's the kicker: of the twenty small SUVs which CR has tested recently, the Hyundai had the highest price as tested: $30,745, one of only three vehicles breaking the $30k barrier. (The 16th-place Jeep Compass Sport is the cheapest, at $21,660.) Admittedly, equipment levels inevitably vary somewhat, but it wasn't that long ago that Hyundai was competing almost solely on price. Not anymore.

And if they can play alongside Toyota and Nissan, what's to stop them from playing alongside Lexus and Infiniti? Not a thing. Besides, they still have the best TV spot around.

Permalink to this item (posted at 9:44 AM)
8 April 2007
Unequally revoked

Driving, we are always told by the state Department of Always Telling Us Things, is a privilege, not a right. I'm okay with that. But maybe it's a privilege too seldom withdrawn:

If you can't keep up with traffic, you don't deserve to drive. If you can't properly yield, you don't deserve to drive. If you try to bully your way into traffic, nearly taking the nose off of the car you cut off and the bumper of the car you get in behind, you don't deserve to drive. If you can't close the TWENTY car length gap between you and the person in front of you, but insist on driving 30 mph on the interstate because the other two lanes next to you are truly that backed up and are going that speed, you don't deserve to drive.

I think I've seen these people, and no, I wouldn't mind if their privileges were withdrawn.

This, though, seems a trifle strong:

You should have your tires shot out, causing you to spin wildly into the cement guard rails, crashing, and then having your body flung from the vehicle, thoroughly maiming you, but doing no fatal damage.

I mean, all four tires? Come on.

Permalink to this item (posted at 9:51 AM)
A seriously long haul

File under "Boy, I couldn't do that": Ann Althouse drives from Austin. Texas to Madison, Wisconsin in one day.

That's 1235 miles, half again as long as my single-day record. (Albuquerque, New Mexico to Redondo Beach, California, April 1988, 806 miles by my odometer.) And I was absolutely exhausted when it was over, thirteen hours after it had started. It is worth noting that on no day during any of the World Tours did I log more than 600 miles. At my present state of (d)evolution, I figure that even if my nerves don't give out, my bladder will.

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:46 PM)
9 April 2007
Gwendolyn goes to the clinic

Here's why:

When I turn the key, the engine makes a horrible scraping noise.
Sounds like a bad solenoid. Your starter consists of two parts, the starter motor itself and the solenoid. The starter motor is just what it sounds like, a motor big enough to spin the engine and start the whole ignition process. It works by turning a small gear quickly against a large gear on the flywheel of the engine. But that small gear isn't always engaged with the flywheel. That's where the solenoid comes in. It basically sticks out the smaller gear to engage it with the flywheel. When it starts to go out, it doesn't engage properly and makes the noise you've been hearing. And in order to protect the flywheel gear, which is much more expensive to replace, the solenoid gear is usually made of a softer metal, so it wears down. The solution is to replace the starter.

It's been doing this for about five months now; I figure I've pushed my luck as far as I dare.

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:31 AM)
Now at fewer locations

While rumors swirl about how the domestic automakers are an endangered species, their dealership networks are definitely shrinking: last year, Detroit dropped 462 dealerships, and so far this year they're down 480 more.

I suspect most of this shrinkage is in highly-competitive metropolitan areas where it's been dog-eat-dog and beyond for years. At least with GM and Chrysler, the goal seems to be consolidating as many brands as possible on the same lot: Hudiburg, which has been selling Chevrolets here since forever, added Pontiac and GMC some years back; now they've moved the Buick line, once dualed with Nissan, to that same lot. (The Nissan dealership remains on I-240.) Group 1's Smicklas Chevrolet, which absorbed the old Gandara Buick on May, has since dropped Buick altogether. Bob Moore, the last tenant of the infamous Lynn Hickey lot at I-44 and May, moved their Dodge store into their Chrysler-Jeep facility on the Northwest Distressway last year. Bob Moore also acquired the Saab franchise last year and now sells the odd Swedemobile alongside Cadillac in their humongous Broadway cluster.

The downside of multiple lines on the same lot, of course, is that it makes badge engineering distressingly apparent: when you have two or three (GM has had as many as five) variations on the same theme, people tend to snicker, especially if there's an obvious attempt to differentiate by price. This is, I'm pretty sure, why you tend not to find Lexuses at Toyota stores. On the other hand, there's not much overlap between Acura and Honda, or lately between Infiniti and Nissan.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:55 PM)
10 April 2007
Swinging down the lane

Ja'Rena Lunsford at the Oklahoman seemed surprised at the results of a data dump by Men's Health that gave Oklahoma City's drivers a D, ranking 74th of 100 cities. Lunsford was especially critical of the third-place ranking given the City of New York, observing:

I've only been to New York a handful of times, but that was long enough to realize that city shouldn't be getting any accolades for good driving. If I recall correctly, I had a near death experience in a cab while I was trying to get to LaGuardia International Airport.

I've driven very little in the Big Apple, but I think Lunsford is underestimating their mad driving skillz: the fact that traffic moves at all struck me, in the middle of it one day, as well-nigh miraculous.

Of course, like all drivers, I consider myself above average. (And at least I have one piece of evidence to back me up: no moving violations in the past quarter-century.)

On a possibly-related note, some months back, Car and Driver put out some research of their own, in an effort to determine which states were most driver-friendly. I duly downloaded their 800k spreadsheet worth of data, and discovered Oklahoma right near the middle: 22nd place. (Alaska, a wide-open space indeed, took first; the District of Columbia was dead last.) The Sooner State picked up points for relatively low levels of traffic and for higher-than-average speed limits, and lost points for very high truck traffic and for below-average pavement quality (which, as Tom Elmore reminds us, is a direct result of very high truck traffic). And C/D editor Csaba Csere has a very Lunsford-like response to one of his data points:

Driving is safer than it's ever been, but there are still substantial differences among the states. In Mississippi, the highway death rate was 2.28 fatalities per 100 million vehicle-miles driven. In Massachusetts, it was barely a third of that, at 0.87. I suspect this says more about the higher willingness of Massachusetts drivers to buckle up than it does about their inherent driving talent, which was not obvious when I went to college in that state three decades ago.

Boston drivers in the Men's Health report placed 34th, scoring B-minus. Last time I drove through Boston, I remember thinking I'd rather be in New York.

Permalink to this item (posted at 10:10 AM)
14 April 2007
The Grey Lady's green machine

Plug-in hybrid research continues apace, and it's reached The New York Times, which has added to its fleet a Dodge Sprinter van with an experimental powertrain using lithium-ion batteries, a small five-cylinder diesel engine for backup, and a 220-volt power cord.

A similar van has been tested in Paris by FedEx [link to PDF file] with a gasoline engine; it's been averaging 25.4 mpg, not bad at all for a delivery vehicle which travels essentially no highway miles. The batteries can run the van for up to twenty miles before the engine kicks in. There's also a bus version, which is currently under trial by the Kansas City Area Transit Authority.

The Times experiment is co-sponsored by Con Ed, the New York Power Authority, the Electric Power Research Institute and DaimlerChrysler.

Permalink to this item (posted at 9:08 AM)
15 April 2007
Get thee to a Jaguar

I own no sport-utility vehicles, and have seldom been tempted by them. (This one came closest.) Still, I think I understand the appeal of the species, which, says a British reviewer, is otherwise inexplicable:

[I]t remains one of the greatest challenges in automotive journalism to say anything of interest about these kinds of cars. And any rational appraisal of their qualities or deficiencies is rendered redundant by the British public's apparently endless appetite for the things, regardless of their faults, which include poor handling, performance and braking; poor fuel economy; offensive girth; ugliness; and impracticality. The automotive arms race that has transformed our roads over the past 10 years suggests that many of you (although, I suspect not too many Independent readers) covet these kinds of cars and, if that is the case, I am sure you will like the [Mitsubishi] Outlander. (That's taking it as read that you are so wracked with insecurity, so emotionally stunted, that you need to have a car with quasi-military styling; and must always sit a few inches above the rest of humanity.)

I am not necessarily opposed to SUVs on environmental grounds — the Outlander manages a respectable 40.9mpg, takes up no more space on the road than a Vectra estate and chugs out less black stuff than a Zafira — it is just that, to me, they seem like a quantum step backwards in the evolution of the motor car. For almost a hundred years cars seemed to be getting lighter, handling and performing better, and using less and less petrol. Then along came the Land Rover Freelander, Toyota RAV4 and their ilk, and suddenly it was as if evolution had suffered a setback.

Poor fellow has apparently never been subjected to a Ford Expedition; if he had, he'd have invoked Dante by now, and probably more cleverly than those twits at Vanity Fair, currently having a Greener Than Thou snit on the newsstands. And he's really not so different from the American variety of motor-noter, most of whom seem to think that in the best of all possible worlds we would all be driving sports sedans. Probably 3-series Bimmers.

At least our British correspondent didn't recommend any of the hideous people movers known hereabouts as "minivans," which possess exactly the same faults as SUVs, except that no one accuses them of quasi-military styling. Indeed, no one accuses them of any styling at all.

Incidentally, that's 34 mpg for the Outlander if you measure by the smaller US gallons.

(Via Purple Avenger.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 12:34 PM)
On the smaller side

Stephanie's buying a smart fortwo:

I've wanted one since I went to Europe in the summer of 2000 and saw them everywhere. (My friends were taking pictures of architecture and I was photographing Smart cars.) I chose the base model in yellow with black trim, and the only option for the interior color was gray. It will have a 5-speed automated manual transmission, which appears to be very much like the old VW Autostick. (I hope it will work better than the Autostick did.)

The gas mileage is estimated at 40 city/60 highway, which is not that much lower than a Prius. The Smart car costs about half as much as a Prius, and I expect it to hold its value well. I may decide to sell it in a few years and buy a Prius when I get tired of not having a back seat.

An overview from Automobile's Georg Kacher:

It rides well, it holds the road, it maneuvers as if it's controlled by a video-game joystick, and its performance is quite respectable. The U.S.-spec model we drove in Madrid is powered by a 1.0-liter three-cylinder engine that produces 70 hp and 68 lb-ft of torque. That's enough to push the 1654-pound featherweight from 0 to 60 mph in about 13 seconds and on to a governed top speed of 90 mph. Smart expects the car to earn EPA combined fuel-economy ratings of about 40 mpg.

As I've always said: weight is the enemy of fuel economy. And this isn't some little Tonka toy waiting to slide under the bumper of a Peterbilt; US smarts (presumably depending on tire size) are about 61 inches high, a good four to five inches taller than my overwrought luxoboat. On the other hand, you could fit two of them in my one-car garage without having the bumpers touch.

(Via Steph Mineart, who gets to ride in it.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:37 PM)
16 April 2007
Greenspeeds

Trident's Iceni coupe stands out from the bespoke supercar crowd by offering, of all things, fuel efficiency: under the Iceni's nose is GM's 6.6-liter Duramax turbodiesel. Without having to lug around a whole Silverado, the Duramax pulls the Iceni from zero to sixty, says Trident, in 3.9 seconds, about as fast as I can imagine zero to sixty. Needless to say, hooning about like that is not exactly good for the MPG numbers — "over 60 mpg at constant 55 mph" — so Trident is trying to establish some mileage credibility by dispatching an Iceni from its Norfolk HQ, across England, through the Chunnel and all the way to Monaco. The 26-gallon tank will be filled with biodiesel and sealed: the Iceni will have to make the 900-mile trip on a single tankful. That's 34.5 mpg, unheard of for a supercar; scaling back to US-sized gallons, we're still looking at around 29 mpg, about what I used to average for a road trip in a four-cylinder sedan that struggled to do zero to sixty in twelve seconds.

The Gods of Internal Combustion are undoubtedly gleeful at the news.

Permalink to this item (posted at 10:51 AM)
17 April 2007
It's really not easy being green

For some reason, Toyota Priuses aren't passing Georgia emissions testing.

Well, actually it's this reason:

When the Prius is set to idle at 2,500 rpm on the tester, it does what it's supposed to do. It shuts off the engine to save fuel. Georgia's pre-hybrid equipment issues a failing grade because of an incomplete test.

Instead of just acknowledging its system is outdated, Georgia still requires Prius owners to pay the $25 testing fee for an "aborted test." That allows them to get a failed certificate from the tester which car owners must take to one of five waiver centers (M-F, 8 am-4:30 pm) to be granted permission to buy a license plate.

Georgia apparently requires testing in only 13 of 159 counties: Cherokee, Clayton, Cobb, Coweta, DeKalb, Douglas, Fayette, Forsyth, Fulton, Gwinnett, Henry, Paulding and Rockdale. If nothing else, this would explain why there are only five waiver centers.

Reportedly, there is a special diagnostic mode in which the Prius can be tested for emissions in this manner. Did Toyota not tell anyone in Atlanta? Or did it not occur to anyone on the "Clean Air Force" to ask?

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:21 AM)
21 April 2007
In lieu of getting out of Dodge

So what are the chances that the Chrysler Group might wind up owned by its employees?

Not great, but not zero either:

About 25 hourly workers calling themselves the "Employee Buyout Committee" are proposing that workers take a 70 percent stake in Chrysler with DaimlerChrysler retaining the remaining stake. Michele Mauder, who works at Chrysler's Toledo Supplier Park, where the Jeep Wrangler is built, and is a member of the committee, said the workers believe employee ownership is the best option for Chrysler's 50,000 UAW workers. "The bottom line is the corporation won't take the hit, it's the employees, the shareholders and the consumers," she said in an interview. "So we need to work as a team."

The employee buyout committee was notified by the UAW last month that its proposal is being evaluated by the union's legal department, Mauder said.

The proposal was mentioned by a shareholder at DaimlerChrysler's annual meeting April 4, and on Tuesday, Mauder received written notification from DaimlerChrysler that the proposal is being reviewed by the German automaker.

The UAW itself hasn't made any statement one way or another, though UAW President Ron Gettelfinger has said he would prefer that DaimlerChrysler hold on to the Chrysler Group.

Separate proposals by Kirk Kerkorian, who in 1995 mounted an unsuccessful bid for Chrysler and who wound up suing DCX, and by Palm Beach investor Daniel Imperato, call for dividing up at least some of Chrysler's equity among employees.

Autoblog notes:

While the employee buyout plan is a long shot, and if successful, an incredible risk for the employees, it's also inspiring that a group of workers would be the masters of their own fate. Unfortunately, it's not yet known how much the employees could offer for a 70% stake in their employer, which, in the end, is likely DaimlerChrysler's number one consideration in this sale

I think this could work, though obviously it won't be a straight cash deal: more likely, there will be a period of years during which at least part of a worker's compensation will be paid in Chrysler stock rather than in wages or in benefits. Fifty thousand Chrysler workers times $100,000 would come to $5 billion, which is a hefty proportion of the $5-7 billion rumored to be sought by DCX. (Kerkorian's bid was for $4.5 billion.)

And whether this works or not, I'd prefer it to having the company taken private and then ritually dismembered for the sake of the bottom line.

Permalink to this item (posted at 9:38 AM)
Bloomberg to NYC: Pay up

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is expected to announce tomorrow a proposal for a congestion fee to be imposed on drivers who enter Manhattan south of 86th Street between 6 am and 6 pm, perhaps inspired by a similar fee imposed in London. The $8 charge is supposed to include existing bridge and tunnel tolls: presumably, they will be adjusted upward to $8 for incoming traffic. (In which case, EZ-Pass should work as a collection method.)

This will probably not go over well in Staten Island, where the New York subway system doesn't go. And taxis, I suspect, will be exempt.

(Via Autoblog.)

Addendum, 22 April: Bloomberg, on his weekly WNYC radio show, said that taxis were indeed exempt, and if you come in just to use the West Side Highway or FDR Drive (the de facto East Side Highway), so are you. This complicates the logistics a little, perhaps, but it might peeve some folks a trifle less.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:10 PM)
22 April 2007
"We'll show you everything"

Local car-dealer ads tend to be annoying, and that's if you're lucky. If you're not so lucky, you get pitchmen in whom you'd like to stick a pitchfork.

I don't watch much Boston TV these days, being as how I'm halfway across the continent and all, but if these spots are actually running — well, ten points out of ten for style, anyway.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:08 PM)
23 April 2007
How about just a little Hummer?

Hummer will build a smaller-than-H3 model for the 2010 model year, to be called (natch) the H4:

Hummer general manager Martin Walsh revealed that the H4 will be twinned with an upcoming compact General Motors platform, although he stopped short of saying which one it would be. "It will be another GM platform that will allow us to build a smaller vehicle," he says.

And, presumably, to offer non-Hummer variants under Chevrolet and/or GMC badges.

Will this Hummbaby sell? Walsh thinks so:

In the United States alone, Mr Walsh believes that a smaller vehicle line-up could add between 30,000 and 40,000 sales to the 70,000-odd units (split between 56,000 H3s and 14,000 H2s) Hummer shifted in 2006.

Brand DNA, of course, is vital, and since Hummers do basically two things well — tackle serious off-road challenges, and annoy your neighbor with his-and-her Priuses — the H4 will have a tough row to hoe.

(Via Autoblog.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 11:35 AM)
28 April 2007
Brought to you by Posting Module BFD-2

Steph Waller asks:

Why do most small appliances, electric shavers for instance, get tagged with names like Titan-ZX5 or Zicron-Z14? Why the X and Z? Why not Titan-CF2 or Zicron-HD7? Do the letters at the end of the alphabet denote more power or quality?

Were I a marketroid, I would reason (and I use the term loosely) something like this:

"Let's see. Vowels are weaker than consonants, especially U and I. Wait a minute, that didn't sound right. Anyway, no vowels. F is out for obvious reasons. Now look at Preparation H. Knowing it exists, would you willingly try Preparations A through G? I don't think so. You want the latest and the greatest, and that means Z, or at least X."

And marketroids get good money to come up with this stuff, and also to come up with its polar opposite. Infiniti paid a consultant 75 large for this advice:

"We wanted to express the idea that [Infiniti] was a philosophically different kind of car," [Ira] Bachrach [of NameLab] explains. Proclaiming E, S, Z or X to be yesterday's news, Bachrach recommended that the company adopt different letters for its model identifiers. "I told them to use letters that weren't conventional," he says, "that were, in fact, aggressively unconventional."

Bachrach decided he was sweet on "q" and "j." "Utterly unused letters," he says. "Aggressively novel letters which didn't necessarily parse to luxury and performance. These were marketing guys with courage."

One model became the Infiniti J30, another the Q45. "I know it doesn't sound like much," Bachrach admits. "But I'm prouder of that than anything I've ever done in the model business. It was a marvelously condensed way to convey something that would have taken millions of dollars in advertising to convey."

The Q45, which was finally dropped last year, was always referred to fondly as "the Q"; Infiniti still has tendencies to refer to "the G" and "the M," which latter caused them some legal grief.

And "J" actually has some history of its own: it denoted Duesenberg's top model, which was also available with a supercharger as the SJ.

Aside: Why is it that your ostensible "premium" automobiles (like my Infiniti I30, which even has a vowel fercrissake) always go for alphanumerics, while the brands sold to regular folk who might wear tennis shoes have real live names? For a while, Acura was bucking this trend, with Legend and Integra, but subsequent models went back to alphabet soup, with one exception. ("Vigor"? Please.) Not that the names were always swell, of course. General Motors, for the longest time, issued vehicles named for places where you would never, ever actually see those vehicles: Seville, Monte Carlo, Malibu. (Gimme a Hyundai Tucson any day.)

Still, at least as far as Infiniti goes, Steph's question — "Do the letters at the end of the alphabet denote more power or quality?" — is answered with a Yes. The car hierarchy, bottom to top, is G, I, J, M, Q. (Only G and M are currently in production.) The FX and QX SUVs will shortly be joined by an EX at the low(ish) end.

And just to make things interesting, Lexus' new high-performance variants will bear the letter F.

Permalink to this item (posted at 12:10 PM)
Enzo it goes

For June, Car and Driver tested a Ferrari 599GTB Fiorano, and while it's every bit as wonderful as the top-end Ferrari is supposed to be, it's priced "where luxury flirts with insanity." And that's if you're lucky:

While returning the 599 to a Los Angeles dealer — the car's short front overhang is a blessing on driveway ramps — we overheard a salesman quote a half-million dollar price to a couple of customers. There were no gasps, just nods, the complacent look of lambs in an abbatoir.

Slaughterhouse-500k! The base price of the 599, says C/D, is $273,845, not including destination charge and dealer prep ($1900) and US gas-guzzler tax ($4500). It goes without saying that if you can afford this car, you can afford its 10-mpg fuel habit. (EPA ratings are 11/15.) Their test car had $41,661 worth of options, bringing the total to $321,956. But the law of supply and demand being what it is, those poor (yeah, right) folks in L.A. are going to have to write a check for half a million to bring it home, and it's not like I'm going to shed any tears for them. Besides, the price of the carbon-ceramic brakes alone ($18,550) would buy a respectable econobox and gas it up for a couple of months.

Still, just once ... no, never mind. I know what would happen. I once got to pilot a Maserati around town, and while I never actually pinned the speedometer, there were a couple of moments of twice the speed limit, and this is frowned on within the city limits. And tickets were a lot cheaper back then.

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:07 PM)
1 May 2007
Gimme a c

Pontiac is running a four-page ad in the buff books this month, black with illumination seemingly right out of the sun's corona — Toyota never does this, and they used to sell a car called Corona — and on page two, you are asked, RANK THESE, FASTEST TO SLOWEST. The choices:

  • Porsche Boxster
  • Audi TT 2.0
  • Speed of Light
  • Pontiac Solstice GXP
  • BMW Z4

Knowing what you know about advertising, and what Scotty told you about the laws of physics, you'd probably guess that on the next two pages, the Poncho comes in second, and you would be correct. But there's this: YEAH, BUT LIGHT CAN'T CORNER.

Okay, kinda goofy. But this is the first Pontiac ad I can remember in years that, well, I can actually remember. And the first commandment of advertising, after all, is Get Their Attention.

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:33 PM)
3 May 2007
Even higher hybrids

Yours truly, last fall:

[Y]ou can get quite a luxe-ish Prius if the check you write is big enough, and I keep wondering when Lexus is going to get its own version in the $35-45k range.

It might look something like this:

Jemca Toyota in London has finally gone and done what dealers are wont to do: prep a car to a buyer's specific requirements. In this case, the car in question is a Prius, and while the changes are subtle, they certainly do look quite nice. The exterior is finished in Brechin Slate, a blue/silver metallic finish that's normally used on Lexus cars. Inside, the cabin is redone with hand-stitched leather. And not just the seats, mind you, from the photo in the gallery you'll see that the center armrest and door panels also get the luxe treatment. Finally, a spiffy set of multi-spoke polished steel wheels finish the look nicely. All that work drove the price tag up to £32,900, no small amount for a Prius, but for that money, the new owner has a unique car he can truly call his own.

Indeed. Of course, all that handwork keeps the price high: we're talking sixty-five grand for a Prius, fercrissake. But I still believe there's a market for a Lexusized Prius. And even if the only buyers turn out to be people who are desperate to be seen as green but who wouldn't be caught dead in a Toyota dealership, that's more than enough to turn a tidy profit.

Permalink to this item (posted at 9:40 AM)
5 May 2007
Deux Chevaux, part deux

Citroën's 2CV was to France what the Volkswagen Beetle was to Germany or the Austin/Morris Mini was to Britain: a low-end transportation device that unexpectedly turned into an icon. Designed in the 1930s, the first production 2CVs appeared in 1948, with front-wheel drive, an air-cooled flat-2 engine delivering a modest 9 hp, and windshield wipers powered by the speedometer drive. Eventually the little twin was expanded enough to kick out 30 or so horses, which accelerated the 1100-lb 2CV, um, eventually.

The last 2CV was produced in 1990; the Beetle and the Mini were still being made, albeit in small quantities. When VW introduced the New Beetle and BMW acquired Mini and gave it a complete updating, it seemed a shame that Citroën wasn't thinking about bringing back the 2CV.

Now they are. Presumably based on Citroën's C3, the new 2CV will be pitched as a premium product, where once again it will be competing against the Mini and the New Beetle. Powerplant? Maybe a new hybrid diesel. No sense in producing a retromobile unless it's fully up to date. And don't look for it here: PSA Group, which owns Citroën (and Peugeot), doesn't have any firm plans to sell anything in the States. Yet.

(Via Autoblog Green.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 5:02 PM)
6 May 2007
Bjørn under a bad sign

Oklahoma doesn't have a front license plate, and some cars sold here are never equipped with a bracket for mounting a front plate — though plenty of people have those brackets installed anyway and fill the space with various pleasantries of dubious artistic merit. (Gwendolyn, originally registered in Missouri, has a bracket, upon which I have mounted a picture of a goldfinch. Imagine that.)

One plate I see on a regular basis around here is easily explained but never really defended. It's always on a Volvo, it's sized like a European plate, and it says simply: SWEDISH. Well, duh. I've more than once grumbled "No shvit, Sven" upon seeing the silly thing. And it is silly: is there anyone who doesn't know where Volvos come from? And why do you never see it on a Saab? (Okay, it makes no sense on a 9-7X, but still.)

Should I ever find myself with the keys to a Hyundai, I think I will have a KOREAN plate made up to these specs, just to gauge the reactions from passersby.

Permalink to this item (posted at 4:27 PM)
7 May 2007
The mark of excrement

I've spent rather a lot of time over the years prescribing remedies for the ever-ailing General Motors, and most of them boil down to the same thing: develop some cars that are good enough to sell without two grand of incentives sitting on the hood. One thing that's standing in the way of this goal is the fact that the General is vending vehicles under eight different brands, which can't possibly be efficient. (Toyota, on its way to ruling the world, has three.) The Timekeeper calls for euthanasia for four GM marques:

Merge Pontiac into Chevrolet. Eliminate the overlapping models and rename the remaining models with Chevrolet-appropriate names if necessary.

Merge GMC into Buick. The two divisions complement each other nicely, with very little overlap in model range or demographics, although both marques appeal to the same income brackets. Getting GMC customers into a dealership that sells Buicks may get them to take a look at what is available and provide a bump to Buick sales.

Merge Hummer into Cadillac. Again, both brands appeal to similar demographics with no overlap in vehicle range at all. Hummer is another niche vehicle that does not need its own division within GM.

Merge Saab into Opel and continue the Opel/Saturn partnership. Since Saab is already selling vehicles based on Opel models (and built in Opel plants in Germany) this won't have much effect on the company, except for the savings in marketing and management. GM's Vauxhall division (its UK Marque), which sells rebadged Opels and Holdens, should also be closed down at the same time, resulting in even more savings.

To some extent, GM is already thinking this way: the Pontiac-Buick-GMC dealership is becoming increasingly popular. And if Americans won't embrace Buick, the Chinese have, which suggests that Pontiac is ultimately more expendable: if we're going to have low-end hot rods, they should be Chevrolets.

Losing Hummer would be a bit more problematic. The brand has two major constituencies — people who drive over rocks for the fun of it, and people who want to tell Al Gore to go pound sand — and while their overall numbers are small, their loyalty is unquestioned. Best of all, they have no unique vehicles (the short-of-milspec H1 has been put out to pasture), yet a crummy H3 commands more cash than its Chevy cousin. This could be GM's Jeep if they played their cards right. (Yeah, I know: big "if".)

A Saab/Opel merger, though, makes sense, since they're basically working the same turf. Frankly, I'd rather see someone buy Saab outright and bring it back to life, but I have no reason to think the General would consider selling it, especially since Volvo is actually making a few bucks for Ford. And the Opel connection is clearly helping Saturn, which now has a nice lineup that (mostly) doesn't cannibalize Chevy sales.

I still don't see why they need both Chevrolet and GMC trucks, though: are we supposed to believe that the bowtie boys are, um, amateur grade?

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:51 PM)
11 May 2007
Get smart

Rather a lot of people are going to:

United Auto Group Inc., the auto retailer charged with distributing the Smart fortwo when it arrives on U.S. shores in 2008, is reporting that 12,600 people have plunked down $99 to become a Smart "Insider" and reserve a spot in line to buy DaimlerChrysler's microcar. That number of people represents about three-fourths of the 16,000 fortwos that will be sold in the car's first year on sale in the U.S., and there's enough time before then that the entire allotment could be, in a sense, "sold out" before it actually goes on sale.

(Previous discussion here.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:27 AM)
12 May 2007
Minimum overdrive

An idea from Joe O'Rourke:

20-30 years ago, cars would shake a lot while doing 75mph, or they would feel "floaty". Chassis and suspension engineering and good quality tires have eliminated these sensations, and superior engine technology means the car doesn’t strain to hold the speed.

I think it's time for our longer highway systems, at the least to begin raising speed limits. When a supermajority of the populace does not obey the law, is that not a mandate for increasing the limit of the law?

Only if you believe speed limits have something to do with traffic flow. Mostly, speed limits have to do with revenue.

It is indeed true that cars are more capable than ever. There has not been, however, a corresponding increase in driver skill, and there are more distractions than ever.

(Aside: Now here's a brainstorm worthy of the name: a cell phone/emergency flasher interlock. You take a call while driving, and your flashers come on. This will remind you that you're driving, you nincompoop, and it will warn the rest of us to stay the hell out of your way while you're incapacitated. I ask only 15 percent of the take.)

The rational way to set speed limits is to observe the actual drivers, then set the limit at the 85th-percentile speed, whatever it may be. There are going to be some roads — rural Interstates, most likely — where 80 or 85 mph would make perfect sense. On the other hand, going faster than 60 or 65 on Oklahoma City's Crosstown Expressway can be construed as a death wish, if not for yourself, then surely for your car's suspension parts.

Which brings us back to O'Rourke:

The problem with that is that highways would need to be maintained to a level consistent with high speeds … and, at least in the northeast, no state ever maintains their roads to a level of safety consistent with modern day speed limits....

Neither does Oklahoma. On the other hand, I'd love to do the Kansas Turnpike at 90, at least as far north as Topeka. (Eastbound, where it becomes I-70, is another matter entirely.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 9:21 AM)
Motor-noter hardly wrote 'er

The best automotive writers combine adrenaline and grace; they can transport you to the Brickyard or the Nürburgring or wherever, and make you feel you're behind the wheel, or at least right next to behind the wheel.

There are few newspaper slots for the best automotive writers, though, which means that there's room for syndicators. The Oklahoman buys a package from Wheelbase Communications, mostly written by Malcolm Gunn. Generally, Gunn's historical stories come off better than his new-car reviews, generally because there's no sense of immediacy — the star on a Gullwing Mercedes is in no danger of tarnish — and therefore no compulsion to come up with ghastly sentences like this:

The car that singlehandedly helped revive the once-floundering Cadillac marque will arrive, redesigned, in a few months with even more ground-breaking content between its svelte skin.

Now "ground-breaking content" suggests there's a backhoe blog out there somewhere. Weirder is the description of Cadillac's revival: did the CTS pull this off "singlehandedly," or did it merely help? You can't have it both ways.

Verbiage such as this doesn't transport me to the Brickyard or the Nürburgring; it doesn't even transport me to the Cadillac dealership (which, conveniently, is next door to the Infiniti store).

Permalink to this item (posted at 10:38 AM)
14 May 2007
OMGDWT

Washington state, in the process of banning cell-phone use in cars without a hands-free device, has also banned text messaging while driving, imposing a fine of $101 (or, as we used to say on our old typewriters, l0l) on violators. The ban on texting goes into effect at the beginning of 2008; the hands-free law will kick in the following July.

I suppose someone has been observed Driving While Texting, but evidently my imagination is insufficient to call up an image thereof.

(Via Autoblog.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 3:19 PM)
16 May 2007
What happened to that little red Celica?

Is there such a thing as undercompensation?

The women I know all point at men driving Hummers and sports cars and say that he is obviously "overcompensating." I usually come right back and ask, "Then how come when you see me pull up in my Toyota Echo no one ever says, 'He must be hung like a horse'?"

Title reference: I used to own one of these: a '75, in GT trim. Finally retired her in '95.

Permalink to this item (posted at 11:02 AM)
17 May 2007
A bit of TBAGing

Not so long ago, The Truth About Cars polled its readers to determine the Ten Worst Automobiles Today, and most of the winners indeed exhibited high levels of suckage. But there's such a thing as Accentuating the Positive, and so TTAC is now taking votes for the Ten Best Automobiles Going. I wish that I'd driven more of the nominees, but the opportunities for seat time don't often present themselves. (Yes, I've driven a Maserati Quattroporte, but not one of the current models, and after much wailing and gnashing of teeth, I struck it from my ballot.)

Things I noticed:

  • No Toyotas or Scions or Lexuses (Lexi?) to be seen.

  • Both Boxster and Cayman?

  • One actual diesel car, though being a Mercedes-Benz, it's not designed for maximum miserliness.

  • Both North American and European Accords (the latter being an Acura TSX) make the list.

They're taking votes until midnight (Eastern) Saturday. Do vote, if only to counterbalance my choices.

Permalink to this item (posted at 1:04 PM)
18 May 2007
Post-divorce jewelry

It may be a while before Chrysler, sprung from bondage, gets its mojo back, but at least they have their logo again: the Pentastar is apparently coming back.

There is historical precedent for this, too: Ford's blue oval with the name in script was considered old hat after WWII and eventually dropped from the vehicles altogether, only to be reinstated in 1976.

The Pentastar was apparenly the one good idea of Chrysler chair Lynn Townsend, who moved to install it on everything Chrysler-related circa 1963. In the 1990s, Dodge got a Ram badge, and the Pentastar appeared less often; after the Germans took over, it was suppressed, allegedly because it conflicted with the Mercedes-Benz star. (So much for that "merger of equals," huh?) There is, however, no plan to bring back Plymouth.

(Via Autoblog.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:06 AM)
20 May 2007
Simultaneously clean and dirty

As much rain as we've had lately, I haven't been sending Gwendolyn to the wash rack; in fact, the only time she's had an official bath this year was the last time she was at the dealership, getting her starter replaced. I don't know who does their wash work, but I'd bet he doesn't look like this:

A nude car wash offering an X-rated sideshow and topless cleaning in Australia’s tropical Queensland state has been given the all-clear after police and officials said they were powerless to scrub it.

The Bubbles 'n' Babes car wash in Brisbane prompted a flood of complaints with a topless car wash for $45 and a nude car wash with X-rated lap-dance service for $82.

On the other hand, the dealership gives me the wash for free, which perhaps compensates for the lack of sexual frissons.

(Via Autoblog.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 12:20 PM)
24 May 2007
Get your tickets now!

The National Motorists Association, just in time for Memorial Day, has issued its list of the Top Ten speed traps in the US. If you're going through any of these areas, you might want to keep a closer watch on the speedometer — and on the rear-view mirror:

  1. Detroit, Michigan suburbs
  2. Colorado Springs, Colorado
  3. Houston, Texas
  4. Orlando, Florida
  5. Nashville, Tennessee
  6. Ann Arbor, Michigan
  7. Albuquerque, New Mexico
  8. Washington, D.C.
  9. Denver, Colorado
  10. Virginia Beach, Virginia

Statistics are based on the contributions of individual users to the NMA's SpeedTrap Exchange.

The original Autoextremist, Peter M. DeLorenzo, looks at the very top of that list and notes:

The whole state is filled with radar-totin' revenue generators who are on monthly ticket quotas, so beware. Especially if you're driving through Birmingham, MI.

It does seem a bit scary that two of the Top Ten are in Michigan.

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:47 AM)
27 May 2007
Aerodynamic efficiency

Despite a setback here and there, we are assured that they're still going to assemble MGs just outside Ardmore.

And given the Oklahoma wind, we can only hope that those MGs are capable of this:

(Seen here first.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 4:43 PM)
28 May 2007
Altogether = ooky

There seem to be two issues plaguing Brattleboro, Vermont these days: an influx of people without clothing, and the difficulty of getting bicyclists and motorists to coexist.

In a letter to the editor of the Brattleboro Reformer, local resident Cindy Coble presents a two-pronged solution:

After a long, confusing night of drinking scotch and determined to try and solve the constant problems in our town of both public nudity and cyclist vs. motorist, God gave me an epiphinette.

The nudists must be encouraged to ride bikes instead of lounging around downtown where everyone can see their ooky nether regions, thereby speeding up the sighting of personal parts for those who are squeamish.

Also, cyclists, and you know who you are, show off that toned body! Riding naked may be uncomfortable at first, but will surely command the motorists' attention. There, I did it. Man, does my brain hurt.

I guess the really surprising thing here is that someone from Vermont admits to drinking Scotch.

Permalink to this item (posted at 10:55 AM)
31 May 2007
Carbs return to the engine bay

No, no, not those carbs. These carbs:

University and government researchers are investigating whether a blend of starch, enzymes and water could produce hydrogen fuel for future cars.

While hydrogen can be converted into electricity by a fuel cell to drive a car engine, the search continues for a way to release hydrogen on-demand and at a rate sufficient to power a vehicle fuel cell. The research team claims to have found an "organic" answer that mixes starch (derived from biomass) with water. A blend of organic enzymes was added to release hydrogen from water when a driver of a future hydrogen-powered car steps on the accelerator.

Powered by macaroni and cheese! I like the idea. But what's the range?

[T]he researchers claim the requisite 300-mile range consumers expect from gasoline-powered vehicles would require just a 12-gallon tank. A full tank would hold about 60 pounds of starch — the equivalent of about nine pounds of hydrogen. About six pounds of starch produces roughly the same energy as about one gallon of gasoline.

And one gallon of gas weighs about six and a quarter pounds, making this something of a wash, mass-wise.

Of course, if they could harness the borborygmi produced as a result of the consumption of Tex-Mex, we could probably cut our oil imports down to a couple of spoonfuls, though I suspect the Organization of Pepto-Bismol Exporting Countries might have something to say about that.

(Via Autoblog.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 2:57 PM)
3 June 2007
Speed per dollar

As Sleds O' Fun go, it's hard to beat a Ferrari — if you can afford one, and you probably can't. I certainly can't. And you'd be forgiven for saying "Well, they ought to be wonderful, for that much money."

With thoughts like this in mind, Winding Road has come up with a new data point called the Speed per Dollar Index, and it is calculated thusly:

(Horsepower ÷ Weight) x 10,000 ÷ Price Point x 100,000 = SpD

Rationalization:

There's no doubt that the Bugatti Veyron 16/4 is a tremendous technical achievement, but as a value proposition, well, it fails miserably — a development that should come as a shock to exactly no one given its plutocratic price tag.

And the Veyron, which offers 1001 hp, weighs 4162 lb and costs $1.3 million, comes in with a Speed per Dollar index of 185 — about 1/11 that of the less-exalted Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT-8.

Winding Road concedes that this index doesn't address handling, or the lack thereof, but all else being equal, cheap speed is better than expensive speed, or at least less pricey.

For the sake of amusement, here are the indices for my last two cars, as calculated by yours truly:

Sandy (2000 Mazda 626 LX): (130/2960) x 10000 ÷ 20225 x 100000 = 2172 SpD
Gwendolyn (2000 Infiniti I30): (227/3342) x 10000 ÷ 30519 x 100000 = 2226 SpD

Which is what I'd expect: the Mazda was short on power, but weighed less and cost a lot less, so its Speed per Dollar was almost the same as the Infiniti's.

(Via Autoblog.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:48 AM)
4 June 2007
All the Jag could see

Volkswagen has been running this mock letter in a print ad for the Passat 2.0 Turbo:

Dear (circle one):
BMW,
Lexus,
Mercedes,
Other Owner.

I am truly sorry for what happened on the road today. I did not see you next to me at that light. If I had I would have eased off the gas a little when the light changed. I did not mean to cause you any embarrassment in front of your (circle one): Wife, Young Girlfriend, Secretary, Other. I realize you spent a great deal of money on your car and the last thing you need is some guy in a VW Passat to leave you behind like that. If I see you again on the road I will be sure to let up on the gas and let you pass me.
Sincerely,
Your Name Here

Dear YNH: You owe me no apologies. However, you owe thirty grand still on a four-cylinder car, so maybe saving a little gas might not be a bad idea after all.

Permalink to this item (posted at 11:19 AM)
Because the photographs never lie

Except, of course, when money is involved.

Me, I want one of those Bimmers with the removable truck bed.

Permalink to this item (posted at 3:25 PM)
5 June 2007
Don't I wish

As suggested by Joel at In Theory, I've been playing with AAA's Fuel Cost Calculator, into which you plug Point A, Point B, and your automotive details, and get back how much precious fuelstuffs you'll be burning and how much it will cost you to do so.

I am not quite as impressed as I might have been, because apparently the calculator assumes I'll get pre-2008 EPA highway mileage, 28 mpg, which is believable, and that I'll pay $3.049 a gallon, which isn't, unless prices take a serious tumble in the next four weeks. (Regular is edging back below $3 here, but if I'm going to get anywhere near the expected mileage, I'm going to have to be using premium, and that's a good twenty cents higher.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:37 AM)
6 June 2007
Or I could just ask directions

Infiniti I30/I35 nav systemThere's a mysterious lid atop Gwendolyn's center stack, easily openable, covering nothing of significance. The manual says it's a storage bin, and does not elaborate further, except to say that you shouldn't operate it while actually driving. What it is, of course, is the housing for the factory navigation system, which wasn't ready in time for the beginning of the 2000 model year, and I am loath to fish a nav unit out of a 2001 model and shove it into the little covered box. For one thing, it's likely to cost me a ton of money, and I'm already spending a ton of money sprucing her up for the summer and fixing everything that looks fixable. For another, these old-style nav systems run off CDs (occasionally DVDs) that are obsolete about twenty minutes after you open the package. One of those new satellite-based systems, then? Maybe. Or maybe not:

It takes carmakers time to spec, design, test, manufacture, fit, ship and sell new devices — never mind clearing the whole schmeer with legal. Portable GPS manufacturers have fewer technical hurdles and a MUCH smaller bureaucracy. In fact, products from companies like Garmin, Michelin, Maxtech and TomTom (not to mention phone and PDA-based sat-navery) are making brand new in-car systems obsolete before they’re even launched.

So imagine how far behind they'd leave a seven-year-old contraption that hides under a hatch. I think I can do without. (The photo above was swiped from Edmunds.com; it's actually a shot of the nav system from a 2001 I30.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:59 AM)
That's some stick shift

This is one of the kinder things Jay Shoemaker said about a BMW 5-series sedan in The Truth About Cars:

Martians have stolen the 535i's transmission lever and left behind a replica of their sex organs. Too bad the tactile sensations produced by this flimsy plastic lever lack any hint of sensuality (extra-terrestrial or otherwise).

I'd hate to have to figure out how to turn off the traction control.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:47 PM)
7 June 2007
Your basic comedy of errors

Once upon a time I had a 1975 Toyota Celica named Dymphna, and she needed a new starter. The shop looked up the part number, and was horrified to find that there were two different starters applicable to that model year: Toyota had made a running change during that year, and the Dymmer was a June car, so she'd get the newer version. Which would be no big deal, except that the change was so late in the year that the supply of version 1.1 starters was never all that big, and in her 190,000 miles with me she chewed up three of them. I have long suspected that the fourth unit was her original starter, rebuilt.

A curious little contretemps of this sort befell Gwendolyn this week. I was having some A/C work done, and in the process of mounting the compressor the tech inadvertently bent the low-pressure hose. No big deal, they said, we'll put in a new one, no charge, but we'll have to order it from the parts depot, and in the meantime, you just keep driving that G35 we lent you. Of course, I'm fond enough of the G to make this a nonissue. The new hose came in, and it didn't fit the compressor: eventually they decided that the compressor itself was damaged. They called around to local Nissan stores and located another compressor: still mismatched. Finally Nissan/Infiniti HQ in Tennessee airlifted some parts that fit.

After I got home, I pulled up the online service material at Alldata, and the part number for the low-pressure hose is the same as the one on my invoice (no charge, as promised), but there's an intimidating notation at its side: "To 9/00." Apparently Nissan screwed around with this model all year: my car is late enough to have the side airbags, which weren't available at first, and the later instrument panel (with only one dimmer control instead of two), but too early to have the nav system.

Oh, well. Even supermodels sometimes wind up in the wrong size — briefly.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:54 PM)
8 June 2007
Hopes dashed in an instant

Trini was in love, sort of. The ranking hoonette at the shop, she really would like to get rid of her nasty old truck and get something actually fun to drive: at the top of her list is the Spec-V variant of the SE-R version of Nissan's compact Sentra sedan.

Yesterday she stumbled upon the next best thing: it wasn't a Spec-V, but it was an SE-R, it was here in town, it was only three years old, it hadn't been driven to death, and the payments would have fit into her budget. Such a deal, I said, and she went off to make some phone calls.

The thrill was gone by the time she returned. The payments, not a problem: but her insurance would nearly double. (The premium, in fact, would be nearly $100 more than the car payment each month.) So much for budget-fitting. I've never seen a woman I wasn't actually dating so disillusioned so quickly.

Maybe I can talk her into a nice used G20: same engine, not so highly tuned, possibly less suspicious to insurance guys.

Permalink to this item (posted at 9:26 AM)
10 June 2007
Beater resurgent

Every month Automobile magazine reports on an auto auction, and I am somehow delighted to see some love for a car generally regarded as unlovable: at Barrett-Jackson in Palm Beach this spring, a '76 Ford Pinto (!) brought $12,650. And it wasn't a limited-edition sports model, either: it was a standard three-door hatchback (Ford preferred to call it a "coupe") with the base 2.3-liter four-banger and a three-speed automatic and barely 7000 miles on the clock. "This was one of the most talked-about cars of the entire weekend," reports Automobile's Dave Kinney; maybe they were talking about the gas tank. Then again, Pintos, being small, light rear-drivers, make pretty decent vintage racers, though I can't imagine someone turning an almost-new car into a racer when there are plenty of old boilers out there which would require little more work and cost lots less money.

Still: twelve thousand dollars. For a Ford Pinto. Adjusted for inflation, this is right about what it sold for in 1976.

Permalink to this item (posted at 1:45 PM)
13 June 2007
L'econobox

Let's see: Hybrids get good mileage. Diesels get good mileage. How about — a hybrid diesel?

Peugeot plans to be the first manufacturer to offer a small family car with a diesel-electric hybrid power unit. It will be a version of the new 308, revealed last week, and will be on sale before the end of the decade.

The Peugeot diesel hybrid promises to average better than 70mpg and have the lowest carbon-dioxide emissions of any car other than a pure electric. Peugeot boss Frédéric St Geours last week declined to give a price for the 308 diesel hybrid, saying "all the work going on now is to reduce the cost."

Assuming these gallons are Imperial, as you might expect from a British writeup, we're looking at 58 miles per gallon from this little Frenchmobile should it ever come to the States. Not that I expect it to: Peugeot bailed out of the US market at the beginning of the 1990s.

(Via AutoblogGreen.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 2:36 PM)
15 June 2007
Prolonging that new-car smell

Automobile's New York bureau chief Jamie Kitman has just acquired a brand-new 1967 Volvo 122S wagon.

Yes, really. It had never been titled — it was still on the Manufacturer's Statement of Origin — and the odometer showed a mere 80 miles.

And I have to admit, had I made this purchase, I might not have been quite this astute:

The next thing you do when you buy a forty-year-old Volvo with no miles on it is call Dan Johnson in Volvo's press department and ask if his company would like to honor the warranty, which, theoretically, hasn't begun to run, because the car had never been registered. And, being the smart PR guy, he agrees, mindful that (1) there can't be a dangerous precedent to set, as there aren't too many ancient Volvos still on their MSOs and (2) the applicable 1967 warranty — six months or 12,000 miles, whichever comes first — doesn't come close to Volvo's generous coverage package, circa 2007 — four years or 50,000 miles.

Incidentally, once Kitman registered the Volvo in New Jersey, he had to have it inspected, and inasmuch as the car was after all forty years old, there were some things that had to be replaced, like, for instance, the fuel tank. Which wasn't covered under Volvo's 1967 warranty.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:09 AM)
16 June 2007
Go, speed racer

Drivers in general have something of a tendency to overrate their abilities. (I am an exception, not because I'm all that good, but because I am hypercritical of my on-road performance.) The Wall Street Journal is reporting that as more supercars are sold, more of them end up in the hands of people who can't drive them:

Auto makers are turning out a new breed of supremely fast sports cars that sell for upwards of $250,000 and share many characteristics of purebred racecars. But as more of them hit the road, often in the hands of inexperienced drivers, a growing number are ending up wrapped around trees, smashed into guardrails or otherwise totaled in accidents.

In the past 18 months, drivers across the world have cracked up at least six rare $1 million Ferrari Enzos — only 400 of which were built. In March, a California man rammed his $300,000 Lamborghini Murciélago into five parked cars; while in England, a 39-year-old driver caused an international stir among car enthusiasts by crashing a Bugatti Veyron — an extremely rare $1.5 million turbocharged missile with a top speed of 253 miles per hour.

Not that I have any objection to flooring it, mind you. But you need to know what happens when you're not accelerating in a straight line anymore:

Driving experts say most accidents in these cars happen when drivers take turns too fast for the road conditions or start turning prematurely and then snap off the accelerator to compensate. If the car's back end starts to fishtail, many inexperienced drivers will fail to steer in the direction of the sliding tail or will overcorrect by turning too severely in that direction. Both mistakes can cause a spin. "It's a symphony of inputs and adjustments to keep the car under control," says David Champion, senior director of Consumer Reports Auto Test Division.

Most workaday vehicles won't get you into this sort of jam: for one thing, they don't go that fast, and for another, most of them tend to understeer at the limit, which scrubs off speed (and tire tread) as you fail to exceed the car's capacities. You get used to being bailed out by this, and then you start whizzing around in a car that doesn't do that, and pretty soon Dennis Haysbert is asking if you're in good hands:

According to the California Highway Patrol, the total number of accidents involving Aston Martins, Bentleys, Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Lotuses and Maseratis rose to 141 last year, an 81% increase from 2002, while overall crashes declined statewide during that period. Porsche, BMW and Mercedes-Benz, which sell a wider range of models, saw a 22% increase during that time frame.

I noticed this week that the rules for One Lap of America now require entrants to have completed two different high-performance driving schools, and here's why:

As the on-track speeds have increased over the years of One Lap, we need to know that all competitors have the skills to safely deal with anything that might happen on the racetracks. Two drivers schools with instruction in a racing environment is considered the absolute minimum. Most racetracks have this instruction available, many at a reasonable cost.

Even if I'd just won the lotto, I wouldn't consider buying a Ferrari unless I'd completed at least one such course. But maybe that's just me.

(Via Autoblog.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 11:28 AM)
18 June 2007
Your basic tiny roadster

At six feet tall and five feet wide (okay, that latter is an exaggeration), I'm not really a candidate for a Japanese home-market kei car, but some of them look awfully interesting in the context of three-buck regular.

Daihatsu, a Toyota affiliate which sold cars here only for four years, offers some weirdmobiles like the Naked, which probably wouldn't sell here just because of its name.

Then there's the Copen, which I suppose they could dub "Topless," now actually making some headway in the UK — although the usual 660-cc engine has been replaced by a 1.3-liter monster making 85 hp. Not a lot of ponies, but the Copen weighs only about 1900 lb, so there's more than adequate thrust. From a British review:

This midget sports car with electric metal folding roof and a good-size boot is a joy to drive, easy to park, cheap to buy, economical to own and as cute as they come. What's not to want?

"Cheap" is a relative term: the Copen sells for £10,995 in the UK, about $22,000 US, or close to MX-5 / Solstice / Sky territory. Still, "cute as they come" has a lot to recommend it, and maybe Toyota, which owns 51 percent or so of Daihatsu, can be persuaded to badge it as a Scion and ship a few thousand our way. I promise not to find it swishy.

Permalink to this item (posted at 1:45 PM)
19 June 2007
More instant flats

About a month ago I made some mention of CAMiLEON Heels, which can be an inch and a half high or three and a quarter, depending on how you set them.

Sheila Driving HeelNow comes a driving shoe for women, based on the same idea if not precisely the same technology. Devised on behalf of Sheilas' Wheels, an insurance company in the UK targeting female drivers — they offer, for instance, handbag coverage up to £300 as part of Comprehensive — the Sheila Driving Heel is switchable between heel and flat with the touch of a button. It's being touted, of course, as a safety measure: "It’s astonishing," says Sheilas spokesperson Jacky Brown, "that so many women are putting themselves, their passengers and other drivers at risk by wearing the wrong shoe or no shoe at all whilst behind the wheel. Stilettos, sling-backs and strappy sandals aren’t the sensible choice when it comes to controlling a car." And while driving with no shoes is permissible Stateside and in parts of the UK, for some reason it's illegal in Scotland.

I must admit here that I can't see where this mysterious button is located, and neither can the writer for Autoblog, who also complains that "we waited almost a week for them to send us a pic of the shoes," which pic I have duly appropriated and slightly cropped.

Permalink to this item (posted at 2:14 PM)
20 June 2007
Greening the Hummer

Is such a thing even possible? AutoblogGreen considers:

Toward the end of this decade GM will be adding some new engine options to the H2 and H3 that will help a bit, but until these vehicles are completely redesigned on lighter platforms, it probably won't be enough to turn most people around. GM will be adding flex-fuel capability to the H2 in 2009 with the H3 getting it in 2010, but why isn't it there now? The newly announced 4.5L diesel will also go into the H2 at the same time. If the H2 does continue into the future, and that is by no means a given at this point, it may inherit the two-mode hybrid system coming later this year starting on the Tahoe/Yukon.

Most likely the only way that Hummer will be transformed from an environmental pariah to at least respectable would be to follow Jeep's lead and come out with smaller lighter vehicles like the Compass and Patriot. However, Compass sales haven't been anything to write home about so far and there is no guarantee that something similar to the Compass would have any appeal at all as a Hummer. GM's best bet might be to just let the H2 and H3 live out their lifespan and then let the brand die.

A Compass-sized H4 might be salable, if it retains the rock-hopping abilities of the rest of the line — exasperating as they may be on the highway, the H2 and H3 are better-than-respectable performers offroad — and if they spend a few bucks on keeping the mass down to a bearable level. (Land Rover's teensy LR2 still weighs over two tons.) Still, you have to figure that the major reason Hummer sales are on the wane is the sheer thirst of the beast, and the new diesel will help matters somewhat. (And why didn't GM bolt flex-fuel capabilities into these Panzerwagens for '08?)

I don't see GM giving up on the brand: in its role as the Anti-Prius, Hummer has a very distinct market niche. But it's not going to garner any residual sales from outside that niche until they teach it to drink less.

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:49 PM)
22 June 2007
Quote of the week

Alex Dykes at The Truth About Cars tells a Saab story:

Fire up the engine and the SportCombi reveals its heart and soul. Unfortunately, it's the heart and soul of a squirrel with pneumonia.

Hmmm. I've driven cars like that — but not for long.

Provided you don't mind listening to an automotive impression of a cement mixer churning a bag of bolts or wrestling with torque steer for 7.4 seconds, she'll sprint from zero to 60mph handily.

Faster than anything I've owned, anyway. "Cement mixer?" Put-tee, put-tee.

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:03 PM)
23 June 2007
Full of sheetmetal

The Senate has approved jacking up the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards to 35 mpg by 2020. While I have no objections whatsoever to fuel efficiency, this is a fairly dumb idea: getting any meaningful reductions in energy use is entirely dependent on selling new cars and/or trucks, and the major gains, if any, appear at the far end of the timeframe. It would have been more honest, if less politically palatable, to increase fuel taxes: this way everyone, not just the buyer of a new vehicle, gets to participate in this questionable enterprise.

If we must legislate automotive specs, why not legislate mass? It's a lot harder to fudge — all you need is a scale — and automakers (not just American automakers, either) keep shoveling out these bloatmobiles.

Paul Niedermeyer got one of the first Jeep Cherokees:

At 3100 lbs, the Cherokee was a featherweight by today's bloated standards. [A 4,225-lb Jeep Liberty? Don't try to tell me that air bags weigh half a ton.] Foreshadowing the current trend, the Cherokee was a unibody SUV, and a tough one at that. With solid axles and a Quadra-Link suspension up front, it could hop boulders with genuine élan.

Thirty-one hundred pounds. That's about 250 lb lighter than my high-side-of-mid-sized sedan, which isn't at all qualified to go rock-hopping. Jeep's current Grand Cherokee weighs 4700 lb. With the demise (in the US market, anyway) of Mazda's MPV, there isn't a minivan under two tons. Compact pickups, with the exception of Ford's dated Ranger, now routinely hit 3500 lb and up; their big brothers start at 5000 lb.

Where is all this farging bulk coming from? Convenience features? How much does a nav system weigh, anyway? The 2000 Nissan Maxima (Gwendolyn's sister) weighed about 3200 lb; the '07 model comes in closer to 3600, and it's scarcely grown an inch.

Forget CAFE, I say; let there be Corporate Average Curb Weight, and crank the spec downward until 2020.

(And do not try to ply me with stories of how we need 1000 lb of ballast to get good crash-test ratings. You're talking to someone who hit a thousand-pound critter at 65 mph in a 2900-lb sedan, got no airbag deployment, and walked away without so much as a hangnail.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 11:47 AM)
Now don't think I'm a nut

Donna proposes a new automotive accessory:

Right near the radio, there should be a device that has 3 buttons. Hitting the first button would play the Judas Priest song, "Breakin' the Law." This comes in handy when you knowingly go through a stale yellow light. I typically sing the song out loud, except I think it would be cool to press a button and have it play. BREAKIN' THE LAW, BREAKIN' THE LAW!!! The next button would play, "Take this job and shove it! I ain't workin' here no more!” You might hit this button as you pull out of your parking space to head home from work or when someone you love asks, "How was your day?" The final button would play Steve Martin’s song, "King Tut." No reason other than it's funny and always makes me smile.

Gimme a fourth button marked "Missile Launcher," with suitable lights and sound effects, and I'm in.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:19 PM)
30 June 2007
Failure to launch

Judging by the local freeway traffic, no one pays attention to anything I say on the subject. Maybe they'll listen to someone else saying it:

You simply cannot safely merge onto a highway when you are moving at half the speed of the cars on the highway. Period. Full stop. End of story.

The entire point of on-ramps and merge lanes is to allow you the possibility to get up to the same speed as the highway you are about to be launching your car onto — that you do not take advantage of that opportunity is indicative of a remarkable lack of self-awareness, an even stronger lack of situational awareness, and an amazing amount of purebred stupidity. There is absolutely nothing worse than being stuck behind some dumbass in an econobox doing 40 trying to merge onto a highway where the speed limit is 65, and traffic is moving at 80. That is, there is nothing worse than that except actually being on that highway as the dumbass in the econobox just lurches out into your lane doing 40, and make absolutely no attempt to get up to a rational speed.

Around these parts, it might be an econobox — or it might be a Buick. Not that Buicks are incapable of coming up an onramp at a reasonable speed, but Buicks in this neck of the woods tend to be driven by people whose average age is Deceased, with exactly the consequences you'd expect.

And on my commute particularly, the vehicle to avoid is a wan Dodge minivan driven by Nurse Ratched at a constant 52 mph in either of two 60 zones. I have memorized her plate, and work diligently to stay away from her.

In the meantime, I must echo these sentiments:

People, your cars were given engines for a reason. If your vehicle is physically incapable of accelerating fast enough to get onto a highway from an onramp, get it looked at, or get a new car. Barring that, take your driver's license (assuming you even have one) out of your wallet, take a pair of scissors, and slice it into very fine strips. Once completed, take a phillips-head screwdriver, go out to your car, and puncture each of your four tires.

And the spare.

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:36 AM)
Mean streets

Oh, sorry, I meant "average roads."

The Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank, has issued its 16th Annual Report on the Performance of State Highway Systems (1984–2005). (If that sounds like more than 16 years to you, you're not alone.) Here's what they had to say about Oklahoma:

In 2005, Oklahoma reported 13,389 miles of highway under the state control. The state ranked 24th in the overall performance rankings in 2005, as compared to 31st in 2000. Oklahoma's best ratings were for capital/bridge disbursements per mile of responsibility (11th), receipts per mile of responsibility (14th), total disbursements per mile of responsibility (15th), urban interstate congestion (15th), rural primary pavement narrow (15th) and maintenance disbursements per mile of responsibility (17th). Its lowest ratings were for urban interstate condition (46th), deficient bridges (42nd), rural primary pavement condition (38th) and fatality rate (33rd). Oklahoma's worse-than-average system performance is offset by its relatively low unit costs.

Although I'd hate to have to extend this you-get-what-you-pay-for premise to, say, the New Crosstown, which promises to deliver anything but.

According to the Reason numbers, 14.11 percent of our urban Interstate is rated Poor, a bit more than twice the national mean. This implies that more than 85 percent is not rated Poor, which makes me wonder just how bad a road has to get to be tagged as Poor.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:56 PM)
4 July 2007
Systems of infinite complexity

Or at least priced like that. Lachlan shakes her fist at the Automotive Gods:

Last month, I paid off the car. Today, it’s in the shop with a tentative estimate of $1321.00.
  • Cracked thermostat housing
  • two hoses related need replaced
  • leaking valve cover gasket on the engine
  • brakes need re-done (rotors resurfaced, too)
  • miscellaneous little crap
AND … the car is at 87k … so we’re looking at having to replace the timing belt within the next year or so, and the 100k maintenance, which runs about a grand. GRRRRRRRRRRR.

Which seems like a lot of money to pour into a Ford Focus, fercrissake, but just about anything you drive these days is going to run up some serious bills when it breaks down, and sometimes when it doesn't. When I bought my current ride at 88k, I expected to fork over $1500, maybe $2000 to get it back into tip-top shape; it turned out to be twice that. (Geez, they have a lot of emissions equipment in these damn cars.) On the upside, there's no timing belt, the regular 90k service was under $500, and most of the 105k service is the replacement of the original spark plugs, which admittedly cost fifteen bucks apiece, but there's only six of them.

I did, however, look around for a Focus maintenance schedule, and it doesn't look that horrible:

100,000 Mile Service
  • Change engine oil and replace oil filter
  • Inspect accessory drive belt(s)
  • Inspect tires for wear and rotate
  • Replace spark plugs
  • Replace the PCV

The timing belt shows up at 120,000 miles.

It occurs to me that (1) Lachlan is female and (2) it's not unheard of (though it is reprehensible) for service shops to put the figurative screws to female customers.

Disclosure: When I went car-shopping in 2000, I test-drove two Foci, and came this close to buying one, but wound up with a Mazda 626.

Permalink to this item (posted at 4:28 PM)
6 July 2007
Ceci n'est pas une Hyundai

The Hyundai that isn't

This is, in fact, a Bentley Continental GT with Hyundai badging. And not just on the deck lid, either: the familiar H also adorns the nose and the wheel hubs. What's more, "Hyundai of Bel Air," the ostensible dealer named on the plate frame, does not actually exist.

Precisely why someone would do this is something of a mystery. Autoblog (which has more pictures) speculates:

[W]e're thinking this guy lost a bet with his Ferrari buddies and was forced to transform his six-figure Conti into a Tiburon wannabe.

I suppose the next step would be to affix a HYBRID badge.

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:43 AM)
7 July 2007
Stretching the point

In general, I've been a fan of cable barriers in highway medians, if only because they're substantially less unsightly than the usual concrete blocks; I said so here, though an incident in which an 18-wheeler on the Lake Hefner Parkway managed to get through one of them caused some concern locally.

Which, I assume, motivated an Australian fellow to send me a comment that was unrelated to the topic to which it was affixed, but which I hated to throw away, so I'm reprinting it here:

This video may change your opinion on wire rope safety barriers (cable barriers).

See, the problem with cable barriers is the same as with any other product: They are not the same! You have some cheep "cut corner" solutions and you have the original design with genuine developments. In my opinion it would be seriously unfair and bad for human society to ban cable barriers before even realizing what the differences are.

The Australian fellow in question identified himself as Daniel Chmura, who is a transport engineer for Brifen's Oz branch, so his interest is clear. And frankly, I was impressed with the video (it requires QuickTime), though a car weighing maybe 1500 kg is going to be a lot easier to restrain than a tractor-trailer rig: laws of physics and all that. That single incident aside, the cable barriers (mostly built by Brifen) have done well here, as they did in an extended test in Indiana.

I should point out that motorcyclists in various parts of the world have objected to them, occasionally suggesting a similarity to a cheese slicer; their deployment has been stopped in Norway. All I can say to that is that our bikers don't seem to be running into them.

Permalink to this item (posted at 10:11 AM)
Meanwhile at Altamont

We're about halfway through the 24 Hours of LeMons, not to be confused with any haute-shaute French event: this is a race for cars worth $500 or less, not including the mandatory safety gear. Last year's inaugural event was won by Road & Track's Team Corsa Uber Fantastico in an '82 Corolla, completing a full 1189 half-mile laps, sort of, and beating out two groups of Frito Banditos, a team from "Eyesore Racing," and something called "Pirate Ninjas With Lasers" (which wore number 86½ for some reason).

Autoblog is attempting to live-blog the whole affair.

Permalink to this item (posted at 11:36 PM)
8 July 2007
Or you could just take the train

Beth envisions a world of transpo-pods:

I think we're at a point technologically where we could have vehicles that are completely programmable and self driving.

Imagine a vehicle — a kind of personal pod that can come in models for any # of people; one person, two person, six person, whatever, pods — that all you do is get in — type in your destination, and sit back and let it take you there. In the pod there is wi-fi, music, video, whatever you'd like for entertainment, or even just space to sleep until you arrive.

And the payoff is huge:

I know the initial cost would be massive.

But ... just think what it would be worth to never have to pay for car insurance, or traffic tickets, or to sit [in] traffic, or have another crash or fatality due to vehicles.

I suspect it would take a lot more than robot cars to create this Utopia. For one thing, they'll be operated by computers, and computers crash. Rather a lot more than cars do, in fact. If anything, this will force the price of insurance upwards.

Besides, some of us crazy fools like to drive.

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:02 PM)
20 July 2007
As the Blue Book lops off another grand

Gwendolyn clicked over her 100,000th mile today.

Keep in mind that I'm the second owner, and that I've done less than 12,000 of those miles — and about thirty percent of those 12,000 were in the last twelve days.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:02 PM)
24 July 2007
And you thought the double-nickel was bad

On one street in one Chinese town, the speed limit is 3 mph:

The locals did a test, if the driving speed is 3 mph, you're going about 1.39 meter per second, which is close to an adult's normal walking speed. So be careful walking there as you might get a speeding ticket from the local police.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, having failed to get initial approval for his congestion fees, might consider moving to a 3-mph limit in Manhattan as an alternative. It would have much the same deterrent effect on entering the borough, and in some parts of town traffic is already moving at this speed.

I mention in passing that the top speed I reached on the World Tour this year was 92 mph. I was nowhere near New York at the time.

(Via AutoblogGreen.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:45 AM)
25 July 2007
It seemed like a good idea

I certainly thought it was. A Danish drivers' association offered to insure its members against speeding and parking fines:

For just 2.50 Danish crowns [46 cents] per day, the club will pay up to four speeding tickets and four parking tickets per year, up to a value of 10,000 crowns [$1856].

The idea, Fartklubben founder Poul Winther told Danish daily Politiken, is not to give Danes license to put the pedal to the metal, but rather to protect motorists from over-zealous traffic cops.

"We're a solidarity club where each member is jointly liable for one another," he said. "We believe that photo speed traps and parking companies have become pure money machines."

I suspect that this did not go over well in Copenhagen, because the club has temporarily ceased operations, perhaps because the government is looking for a way to tax it out of existence.

Still, the club made its case:

In support of his insurance offer, Winther points to the fact that 840 drivers who had been charged with speeding in the Copenhagen suburb of Gladsaxe were exonerated this year because the radar guns used by the police were defective.

I haven't had a ticket in twenty-seven years; what's more, I don't own any radar detectors or similar gizmos. But as the revenue from fines becomes more important to governmental bodies — Virginia, starting this month, is collecting civil penalties in addition to fines in an obvious effort to fatten the exchequer — I can see myself paying for a program like this.

(Via Hit & Run.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 9:39 AM)
26 July 2007
You're drinking too fast

Gwendolyn has a spa day today — 97,500-mile service, a mere 3,388 miles late — and the dealership saved me a 2007 G35. This one is mostly the same as the last '07 G I got to drive, but one of the fifty bazillion display settings has caused an annoying MPG meter to be parked right in the center of the gauge cluster, a big red bar graph that spends a lot of time at 0 mpg, mostly because traffic isn't moving at that exact moment. I suppose this is intended to make people aware of their fuel consumption, but believe me, every time I fill a gas tank (fifteen times this month), I am acutely aware of how much I'm using. This might be more useful were it set for something other than instantaneous fuel economy, which, after all, is rather transient. (It's maybe 6 mpg during half-throttle acceleration in first gear, but this condition seldom lasts more than a couple of seconds, inasmuch as the car can reach 60 mph in less than six seconds, during which time it's upshifted to second.)

In a vehicle designed for maximum fuel economy as the primary goal — your Priuses (I refuse to say "Prii") and such — this sort of gizmo might be fun to play with. (And with the engine stopped at traffic lights, you're dividing by zero, so MPG is undefined at that point: it should be literally off the scale.) In a sports sedan, it's just one more distraction.

Addendum: On a trip up the Lake Hefner Parkway, I decided to see what I could get the MPG display to do. With cruise set at a stolid 65 mph, the bar contracted and expanded with every little speed adjustment, from the low 20s to around 30. I did better, or at least with less irregularity, just holding the pedal in place. Cruise off, I passed a sluggard in an Expedition, and the bar practically disappeared as the G boomed up to a quick 80 mph, only to stretch itself out to full length, an implausible 60 mpg, as I dropped back to a speed less likely to attract the attention of John Law. Over on the data screen (which doubles as the nav screen, had they installed the nav system, which they hadn't) I found a cumulative mileage readout, which sat at a solid 18, and the declaration of 275 miles left on this tankful. I suppose if I obsessed about gas prices I would make use of this tool, which requires you to reset it at appropriate intervals, but I'm more the grumbling type.

Permalink to this item (posted at 10:29 AM)
27 July 2007
The price is wrought

Or at least the person paying it will be put through the wringer.

After the World Tour, I noticed that the little red cap on top of the coolant reservoir (not the tank itself) had a crack in it. Oh, it screwed down tight enough, and I never lost any of the precious green fluid, but on the basis that "this can only get worse," I asked the parts guy if the cap could be ordered separately from the actual reservoir.

He looked, and discovered he had one in stock, and although it was yellow, it was still a perfect fit. (Apparently most Nissan-built vehicles use this same reservoir cap.) Having just had the oil changed, and noting that the oil filter cost somewhere in the single digits, I figured this little piece of threaded plastic couldn't be too awfully expensive.

In fact, it was $10.21. Plus tax.

Lesson learned: parts you never replace cost a heck of a lot more than parts you replace all the time. For comparison, I looked up the vacuum pump on the cruise control, something I've never heard of anyone having to replace, and it was upwards of four hundred bucks. After replacing the front catalytic converter on this wee beastie a mere 5000 miles after replacing the pre-cat, I looked rather forlorn, and asked if the rear cat was next. Said the service manager, he's never had to replace a rear cat. According to Alldata, the rear cat costs $684, a fair chunk more than its brother in front. What's more, aftermarket replacements — evidently someone has had to replace a rear cat — come in upwards of $500.

On the other hand, Mazda part prices, as I recall, were even stiffer than Nissan's, so maybe I shouldn't complain.

Permalink to this item (posted at 9:27 AM)
28 July 2007
Be prepared, as the Scouts said

It was mentioned in the comments to this item that a friend of mine had just bought an Infiniti M35, the less-expensive version of the marque's senior sedan. The M45, the pricier version, is the same car with a 4.5-liter V8 instead of the 3.5-liter V6; inasmuch as this is a superior V6 — Gwendolyn has an earlier 3.0-liter version — and they charge many thousands extra for the V8, buying the M35 makes more sense to me, and made more sense to her. In fact, she reports, the dealer let it go for a bit over $37k, putting it almost in the range of the current G, which gave me all kinds of ideas I didn't need.

(If you're wondering what happened to the Q45, it was dropped from the lineup after 2006.)

Instead of a key, they handed her something I once described as Not The Key in a G35 story:

To start this little darb, Not The Key must be brandished, your foot must be on the brake (I figure manual-transmission models have a slightly-different regimen), and a button to the right of the steering column must be pushed.

Noting that this was a battery-operated device, she asked, sensibly enough, "How do I start the car if the battery is dead?" The salesperson gave her exactly the funny look you think he did.

"Well?"

Turns out that there's a slot somewhere on the dash in which you can shove the gizmo and still start the car. The slot in Nissan's Altima looks like this.

I should point out that the first time I drove a 2007 G35, they warned me not to let that thing get too close to a cell phone, or its little brain could be fried.

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:58 AM)
There'll be a Fury if they fail

Miss Belvedere, the 1957 Plymouth buried in a Tulsa time capsule and unearthed in 2007 with serious corrosion problems, is relocating to Hackettstown, New Jersey, the center of gravity of America's Rust Belt, where Ultra One Corporation will deploy their Safest Rust Remover product and, it is hoped, take the first steps toward restoring the Mopar marvel to some semblance of its original glory.

Robert Carney, nephew to Catherine Humbertson Johnson, sister to the late Raymond Humbertson, who submitted the winning entry in the Guess Tulsa's 2007 Population contest and was declared the winner of the car, has agreed to turn the vehicle over to Ultra One for extensive de-rusting. It's not a restoration process, per se:

According to an article in the Tulsa World, Carney has no plans to restore the car. "We're not going to take it apart and try to restore it," he told the newspaper. "Ideally, what we'd like to see is that when it's in pretty good shape, the car would go back to Tulsa for another unveiling."

One image has implanted itself in the back of my mind: a late-night commercial for Tarn-X in which the filthiest silver spoon you've ever seen in your life, encrusted with God knows what, gets dipped into the mystery liquid and comes out in two seconds ready for dinner with the Duchess of Earl. Getting the crud off Miss Belvedere is going to take more like six months, mostly because they can't just dip it in a vat, unless they have a vat the size of a parking space.

Ultra One says before the next unveiling, they plan to have the engine running and all the lights working.

(Via Hemmings.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 2:39 PM)
29 July 2007
Jeep thrills

Before there was an Escalade, a Navigator, or even a Range Rover, there was the Jeep Grand Wagoneer, created in somewhat less Grand form by Kaiser-Jeep in 1963 and perpetuated for twenty-eight years with relatively few mechanical changes, a feat made even more remarkable by the fact that Jeep changed hands twice during that period.

The Grand Wagoneer was dropped by Chrysler in 1991. A couple of years later, a Texas feedlot operator named Leon Miller, who had owned a series of them, called the company on the phone and complained. They put him through to Brooks Stevens, the original designer of the Wagoneer, who said something to this effect:

"You could bring these things back, redoing them and selling them. There's a market out there. People ask me all the time, 'Why did you quit making them?'"

Miller thought this wasn't a half-bad idea, and he rebuilt an old Wagoneer for himself. Then another, for a neighbor. In a year's time, he'd restored a dozen of them.

By contemporary standards, the Grand Wagoneer is, well, old: even in 1991 it still had solid axles at both ends, a pushrod V8 with a two-barrel carb, and a three-speed automatic. But it had its virtues: world-class rock-hopping ability, reasonable size — barely fifteen feet long, and weight just upwards of two tons — and the ability to tow 5000 lb. Besides, it's a woody, and who doesn't love a woody?

Today Miller has rebuilt over 1200 of these trucks to better-than-new condition. I picked one at random from his current inventory: it's an '88 with a shade over 20,000 miles in Dover Grey with a Burgundy interior. The list of refurbishments is considerable, and the price, $31,000, reflects that high level of work: this is not some used car, after all. (Active military get $500 off.) And if you'd like some more recent amenities, they can add CD players, satellite radio, sunroofs, and rear-seat entertainment systems.

I'm not really a Jeep person, but this was always my favorite of the line, and the fact that you can buy one today for about the price of some lesser SUV impresses me greatly.

Permalink to this item (posted at 9:43 AM)
31 July 2007
Cooper than thou

Sir Alec Issigonis' original Mini dates back to 1959; by 1961 it was considered a serious competition vehicle, thanks to some demon tweaks by race-car manufacturer John Cooper. Cars thus enhanced were officially badged "Mini Cooper," and continued to be so up through the death of the original Mini (and, coincidentally, of John Cooper) in 2000.

BMW, having acquired the manufacturer, issued its first new batch of Minis in 2001, all of them wearing a Cooper badge under the previous license, so any recent Mini is in fact a Mini Cooper, some with additional designations.

This matters at the moment because it hadn't really sunk in that our local Mini dealer, spun off from the BMW store, is Jackie Cooper, and suddenly I happened to see on I-44 a Mini with the standard Cooper badge, a different Cooper badge (from the dealership) and a license-plate frame screaming COOPER. This was about the Coopest vehicle I'd ever seen; if only it had been a coupe.

Permalink to this item (posted at 10:05 AM)
2 August 2007
No shift, Sherlock

William C. Montgomery, at The Truth About Cars, on the single-minded nature of Nissan's Xtronic CVT:

According to Nissan's literature, the 16-valve DOHC mill cranks out 175 hp and 180 ft.-lbs. of torque. In real life, the [Altima] Coupe's mechanical stableyard feels a good twenty horses shy of that total. Blame the Xtronic Continuously Variable Transmission. While the shiftless non-cog swapper quickly and accurately finds the right gear ratio in most situations, it quickly and accurately finds the right gear ratio in most situations. In other words, the mpg bias sucks the fun right out of the system.

In defense of Nissan, they have a pretty good (if costly) continuously-variable air-conditioning compressor that is almost imperceptible in normal driving.

Permalink to this item (posted at 1:06 PM)
3 August 2007
That's how we do things in the 804

Yours truly, a bit over a week ago:

Virginia, starting this month, is collecting civil penalties in addition to fines in an obvious effort to fatten the exchequer.

The Old Grouch helpfully pointed out in comments that these applied only to Virginians.

And apparently that particular bit of discrimination was enough to get the law enabling them struck down:

In the first case of its kind, a Henrico County General District Court judge today struck down as unconstitutional the Virginia's controversial speeding ticket tax that had been in effect since July 1. Judge Archer L. Yeatts III ruled that the civil remedial fees violated the equal protection clause by applying additional, mandatory fines of up to $3000 on Virginia drivers, but not out-of-state drivers who may have committed the same driving violation.

"A 'dangerous' driver is a 'dangerous' driver, whether he or she is a life-long resident of Virginia or simply passing through on his or her way to another state or county," Judge Yeatts wrote. "The court rejects the speculations postulated by the commonwealth, and mindful of its obligation to do so, has exhausted its speculation quotient in trying to conceive of any others that would be a rational basis for the distinction between resident and non-resident 'dangerous drivers'."

Source here. For now, this applies only to Henrico County. Still to be answered: how a government can pass off a fine as a mere fee.

(Courtesy of Bitter Bitch.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 3:49 PM)
5 August 2007
Some day all cars will do this

But for now, you've got to get the '08 Cadillac CTS:

Cadillac added a TiVo-like feature that caches a rolling hour's worth of audio from the radio or satellite radio. So if you like a song and want to hear it again, just hit the rewind button. With satellite radio music, the recorder uses the track/artist/time-of-day information to insert bookmarks at the start of each song, so you can find what you want quickly. (For AM/FM radio, the skip feature works in 30-second increments.)

It's not quite perfect yet, though:

There are a couple of gotchas: If you change from satellite to radio, or even station to station, the cache flushes. And Cadillac won't let you save favorite XM satellite songs to the hard disk the way the Pioneer Inno handheld XM receiver does. Why not? "Because they [Pioneer] are in litigation," explained engineer Charles Massoll. But bless the engineers: The feature was engineered into the audio system but not activated, so if the recording industry ever decides features are good if they get music fans to listen to more music, it's ready and waiting.

I caught the gist of this in Car and Driver's CTS preview, couldn't quite believe it, and went hunting around for corroboration. Considering the littlest Caddy (if there were a BMW 4-series, it would be just about this size) is high on my want list, I have to hope that this goes over well.

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:57 AM)
7 August 2007
Gettelfinger, and odd jobs

I have no particular fondness for the United Auto Workers, though I will tell you up front that the last UAW-built car I bought — a Mazda 626, assembled in Flat Rock, Michigan with about two-thirds domestic parts — was the single most reliable vehicle I've ever driven: in 55,000 miles there were a total of three unscheduled repairs, and two of them (a wiper blade, to replace one bent by a vandal, and a windshield, to replace one cracked by a random rock) clearly weren't the fault of any aspect of the manufacturing process. (And the third, the adjustment knob on the driver's seat, could perhaps be attributed to the forces exerted on it by the driver's fat ass.) Pity they can't make these things deer-proof.

So I don't have a lot of sympathy for the notion that the current woes of the American auto industry are entirely the fault of the UAW and President Ron Gettelfinger and their roughly $25-an-hour price premium over the nonunion guys who work for Toyota and Hyundai and such. Yes, they're going to have to make some concessions during the current round of negotiations, but as Frank Williams writes in The Truth about Cars, "the crucial adjustments must come from management":

They can try to lay blame wherever they want, but the union didn't approve the lackluster designs that have been rolling out of Detroit for years. The union's not responsible for badge-engineered product planning. The union didn't fill the executive suites with yes men (and women) who will kiss whatever they have to kiss to keep their jobs. And the union had nothing to do with putting beancounters in charge instead of engineers.

Bottom line: labor costs have zero impact on what cars consumers decide to buy. You could argue that an extra grand here and there — taken out of direct costs and plowed back into new vehicles — would make The Big 2.8's vehicles more competitive. Given the failure of heavily discounted domestic product to strike back against the Toyotas of the world, you could make an equally compelling case that lowering the domestics' production costs wouldn't have any impact on the end result and, thus, U.S. consumers' choices.

The UAW could work for free and it wouldn't make any difference, if what they're building is seen as More of the Same Old Crap. There are a few folks in Detroit boardrooms who understand this. How likely is it that these are the same folks having to negotiate with the union?

Permalink to this item (posted at 11:55 AM)
8 August 2007
Putting the Mo back into Mopar

News Item: Chrysler's new owner, Cerberus Capital Management, expects the carmaker to return to profitability in roughly three years' time. In a recent interview, Cerberus boss John Snow told reporters "I think you'll see that Chrysler will be in much better shape within three years. This is a plan to get it back to profitability." To ensure that it actually happens, former Home Depot chief Robert Nardelli has been appointed as the automaker's new Chairman and CEO.

Top Ten steps to be taken by new Chrysler chairman Bob Nardelli to bring the company back to prosperity:

  1. Equip all Five Star dealerships with both English and Spanish signage
  2. License the Hemi to John Deere to build the world's fastest lawn tractor
  3. Redesign the Dodge Ram logo to look less girly
  4. Fire whichever dorkwad thought the world needed a Jeep that seats seven
  5. Outsource everything smaller than the Pacifica to Hyundai
  6. Promise never to allow Lee Iacocca on television again
  7. Same goes for Dr Z
  8. Revive Dodge La Femme, offer Amanda Marcotte a test drive
  9. Two words: Demon roadster
  10. Create unprecedented buzz by burying all new models for fifty years

And don't you miss rich Corinthian leather?

Permalink to this item (posted at 5:46 AM)
9 August 2007
Now it can be told

The new GM900 platform (Tahoe, Suburban, Denali, et al.) has gotten decent reviews, though sales are running a bit below expectations, perhaps due to the combination of a queasy stock market and ghastly gas prices. But whatever the problem, you can't blame it on ignoring the needs of female drivers:

When the SUVs were in development, [line manager Mary] Sipes took the future, full-line SUV team out to the proving grounds to do some vehicle testing. They expected the usual driving exercises, but she had another idea. Hint, hint: On the way she stopped at a shoe store to buy several pairs of size-12 high heels.

"A few times a year we go off site and try to have a learning exercise that is a lot of fun," said Sipes. "We took our group to the proving grounds and broke them into teams. One guy on each team had to be Mr. Mom. We dressed him in a garbage bag to simulate a tight skirt. We gave him rubber gloves with press-on nails, a purse, a baby, and a baby stroller and some chores like loading groceries."

You might think this was kind of a drag, but there was a reason for it:

With all female handicaps in place, the men were then required to go through what women do routinely every day. They had to put the baby in a car seat and buckle them in, fold up the stroller, pull up the liftgate and stow the stroller, put grocery bags in the back. They then had to walk around the vehicle and step into it not using the running board. Wearing the gloves with press on nails they had to operate the key fob, adjust the radio and then figure out what to do with their purses — without breaking or losing a nail. Lost or broken fingernails or torn garbage bag skirts resulted in points against the final score.

And the production models reflected those experiences:

"As a result of our exercises, we made the liftgate easy to open and close, made the console big enough to hold a purse and put running boards on the vehicle," says Sipes.

Chief engineer Mark Cieslak, one of the, um, testers, notes:

"I took for granted that my wife had all these things to do like put our child in a child seat. It isn't that easy in pumps and a skirt."

I draw the following conclusions:

  • This strikes me as a heck of a lot more scientific than listening to the yammering of focus groups;
  • General Motors (in fact, Detroit generally) could definitely use some more female engineers;
  • It's about time to revive the Trans Am.

(Seen at Autoblog.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:29 PM)
11 August 2007
Slow progress

Lileks remembers this day in 1900 (by proxy):

All thirteen of the cars in Minneapolis race from the Hennepin County courthouse to Wayzata to demonstrate to the county commissioners the need for better roads. Harry Wilcox arrives in Wayzata first, making the twelve-mile run in forty-two minutes.

That's right: 13 cars. They had 13 cars in Minneapolis in 1900. Doesn't it take about 42 minutes to make it to Wayzata now?

Of course, these numbers can be deceptive. In 1988, I was in the process of relocating to Los Angeles when I heard a filler piece about average traffic on L.A. freeways moving at something like 32.5 mph. When I actually got there, it was obvious what they really meant: half the time traffic was moving along at 65, and half the time it wasn't moving at all.

Permalink to this item (posted at 9:01 AM)
15 August 2007
Retiring Gwendolyn

That's right, she's getting some new tires, specifically a set of these. What I wanted was a set of theseI'd bought a set for Sandy, my Mazda, about six thousand miles before The Incident, and I was favorably impressed — but apparently they're on the way out, and the Tire Rack, my dealer of choice, no longer had them in Gwendolyn's size (215/55R16). The tires were ordered yesterday morning, and about ten hours later came the shipping confirmation: they'll come from a warehouse in Shreveport, and will be delivered to A to Z Tire near 10th and May, where the installation will take place.

One rueful note from that last tire buy, twenty-two months ago:

I shouldn't have to do this again for at least four years.

The best-laid plans of mice and men are oft upset by deer.

Incidentally, Dunlop's list price for this tire in that size is $135.95. Tire Rack sold me four of them for $380 plus shipping. Not bad for a tire with an actual V rating.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:23 PM)
16 August 2007
Creditors dodged

A chapter in the forthcoming Household Credit Usage: Personal Debt and Mortgages suggests that buyers of American cars are more likely to default on auto loans than are import buyers.

Loans secured for European cars and Japanese cars are 50 percent and 56 percent, respectively, less likely to default than loans on American cars.

The authors looked at the performance of 6,996 auto loans from January 1998 to March 2003. In addition to the probability of default being higher for American cars, their results show that loans on European cars are the least likely to be prepaid, followed by loans for Japanese makes.

The authors suggest that, just as insurance companies base rates on the make and model of the car being insured, banks should consider dropping their "house rates" for auto loans and adjust interest rates according the type of car being financed.

That scream you heard is Bob Nardelli trying to move 100 days' worth of Jeep Commanders.

For the life of me, I can't imagine why there would be such a difference between domestic and import buyers, though the research offers some hints:

  • Purchasers of American cars were older (45 years versus 41 and 38 for purchasers of European and Japanese cars, respectively).

  • Purchasers of American cars borrowed more relative to the purchase price (80 percent versus 65 percent and 76 percent for purchasers of European and Japanese cars, respectively).

  • European car purchasers had higher monthly incomes on average ($4,625) than either American ($4,024) or Japanese ($4,114) car purchasers.

The second of these points seems the most salient, since not only is there greater loan exposure, but the domestics tend to depreciate faster. Still, the default rate isn't extraordinarily high: 4.7 percent for the domestics, say the authors. Perhaps a factor is the remarkably high level of incentives Detroit offers to move the iron off the dealers' lots, which might encourage people to buy costlier vehicles than they can actually afford. But this isn't entirely a domestic phenomenon, either: Mitsubishi took a half-billion-dollar bath on an attempt to build market share by aggressively courting subprime borrowers.

So this is interesting, I suppose, but I await further data. In the meantime, if anyone's interested, the last time I bought a car (June '06) I put down 44 percent of the purchase price. It was, however, a Japanese car.

Permalink to this item (posted at 2:45 PM)
18 August 2007
And to all a good nitrogen

The new tires were installed yesterday, and to demonstrate to the shop that I wasn't a complete idiot, I came up with the recommended pressure — 33 psi front, 30 rear — without reference to the usual decal in the door, which for some reason isn't in Gwendolyn's door at all, but under the console lid. I was, however, unable to supply the torque for the lug nuts (85 ft/lb), and then the next question floored me: "Would you like these tires filled with nitrogen?"

Say what? Is there a Clean Air Alert today or something? "What's the advantage?"

Some of these points were raised.

And inasmuch as I'd gone through an entire World Tour with a slow leak, which, once repaired, leaked faster, the pitch about better pressure retention proved persuasive.

It's not like they're having liquid nitrogen piped in from the Space Station at three hundred below or anything: apparently there are new gizmos which can separate the components of your garden-variety compressed air. And in reviewing the literature, I decided that it's not that nitrogen itself is so wonderful; it's that the oxygen (twenty percent or so of said air) is a pain in the belt.

Besides, Click and Clack make fun of the whole idea, so I figure the least I can do is give it a spin, as it were. And no, it doesn't void the warranty.

As for the tires themselves, which for all I know could be filled up with vaporware and old campaign promises, well, it's hard to make much of a judgment call after 25 miles, but they're definitely less squirrelly than the BFGs they replaced. The noise seemed a bit high on some of Oklahoma City's last-century asphalt, but they were weirdly quiet going over the Crosstown. The most obvious characteristic, though, is that rubbery smell that managed to fill up my garage in mere seconds and which I expect to linger for some time.

Permalink to this item (posted at 9:36 AM)
21 August 2007
Is you is or is you isn't a Tucker?

There were 51 Tucker automobiles produced, and number forty-six sold on eBay for a tad over 200 large.

If this seems cheap to you, there's a reason for it: while the body is the original, the guts have been replaced with Ford stuff. The donor car was a mid-Sixties Mercury wagon. Which means that while Tucker #46 is something less than what it was, it's about two decades more contemporary, what with the presence of power steering and an automatic transmission and air conditioning, for Preston's sake. (Original Tuckers were fitted with a four-speed manual.)

I'm not quite sure what I think about this. Certainly you can't waltz into an AutoZone and expect to get proper Tucker parts. Car and Driver used to espouse the notion of preserving one's lovely Jaguar by replacing its dead engine with a small-block Chevy V8, which is about the same level of heresy. Still, the high bidder presumably knows what he's getting for his $202,700; it's not like the seller was hiding anything.

(Via Autoblog.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:00 AM)
23 August 2007
Where's my electrical tape?

Nissan will be adding a fuel-economy gauge to all its US models over the next couple of model years.

I've already seen it, and I am not impressed:

[O]ne of the fifty bazillion display settings has caused an annoying MPG meter to be parked right in the center of the gauge cluster, a big red bar graph that spends a lot of time at 0 mpg, mostly because traffic isn't moving at that exact moment. I suppose this is intended to make people aware of their fuel consumption, but believe me, every time I fill a gas tank (fifteen times this month), I am acutely aware of how much I'm using. This might be more useful were it set for something other than instantaneous fuel economy, which, after all, is rather transient. (It's maybe 6 mpg during half-throttle acceleration in first gear, but this condition seldom lasts more than a couple of seconds, inasmuch as the car can reach 60 mph in less than six seconds, during which time it's upshifted to second.)

In a vehicle designed for maximum fuel economy as the primary goal — your Priuses (I refuse to say "Prii") and such — this sort of gizmo might be fun to play with. (And with the engine stopped at traffic lights, you're dividing by zero, so MPG is undefined at that point: it should be literally off the scale.) In a sports sedan, it's just one more distraction.

But Nissan really believes in these things:

Based on Nissan's trials, drivers have tended to improve their eco-driving habits over time, prompted by the real-time fuel-efficiency readings. Driving improvements also included smoother acceleration and braking, which potentially could lead to an average 10% improvement in fuel-efficiency.

Inasmuch as I'm beating the original EPA mileage estimates for my car by a smidgen — and the revised 2008 estimates by a hell of a lot — I think my "eco-driving" habits are just fine, thank you very much.

Permalink to this item (posted at 11:05 AM)
24 August 2007
Pennsylvania Turnpike: the sequel

If you need to get across Pennsylvania, one of those states that's a lot wider than it looks, you either take the twisty Pennsylvania Turnpike and peel off twenty bucks or so in tolls, or you take I-80 and yawn most of the way.

If the Keystone State has its way, you'll get to pay for the privilege of yawning:

Motorists traveling across the state of Pennsylvania on Interstate 80 could pay a $25 tax by the year 2010. The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission on Friday asked the US Department of Transportation for approval to turn the free and paid-for interstate highway into a toll road for the purpose of raising money for mass transit and other public spending projects. This would be the first conversion of a free interstate into a toll road since the interstate highway system was developed fifty years ago.

"The tolling program would generate revenues allowing a dramatic increase in capital investment along I-80, with an additional $1 billion being spent over the next decade, above and beyond PennDOT's historic 'baseline' funding levels," the tolling application stated.

The US House has already voted to prohibit this action. Said Rep. Phil English (R-PA):

"We are not going to stand by while Harrisburg raids western Pennsylvania travelers and picks truckers' pockets to prop up Philadelphia's mass transit system."

The Senate has yet to have its say. You can read the state's application to USDOT here (PDF file).

Permalink to this item (posted at 10:06 AM)
Cayenne Turbo? Not yours

Not if you're Hilary Duff, anyway:

Hilary Duff has been banned from buying her dream car — a Porsche Cayenne Turbo — because she is such a bad driver.

The Lizzie McGuire actress had special driving lessons on MTV show Punk'd, but she was still given the warning by her business manager.

She admitted: "The car I want is a Porsche Cayenne Turbo. But my business manager doesn't want me to buy it — he says that I'm a terrible driver and don't need that kind of car."

How terrible is she?

"The other day I had a little accident because I was driving while I was on the phone."

Get this girl into a Volvo, stat.

(Via Autoblog.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 4:11 PM)
26 August 2007
You might as well sell that Pacer now

You are what you drive?

While the eyes may be considered the window to someone's soul, a person's car may very well be a window into the heart. "Many people rely on their date's choice of clothing as the primary indicator of personality, but their date's car may be an even bigger indicator of who they really are — especially in the love department," says Terri Orbuch, Ph.D., the host of Detroit's popular Love Doctor live television and radio programs.

Dr. Orbuch has interpretations for owners of SUVs, wagons, Jeeps, family sedans and luxoboats. Inasmuch as what I drive falls somewhere between the latter two types, I reprint them both here. First, the sensible sedan:

The car: A Honda Accord or other sensible sedan

What the car says about its owner: Someone who drives this practical vehicle is most likely educated and intelligent, Dr. Orbuch says. "This driver probably likes discussing politics and is very well-read and mature," she explains. "People who drive these kinds of cars don't take big risks in life, but hey, that mentality has served them well up to now!" What you may find pleasantly surprising is that the driver probably has a lot of savings socked away. "This kind of person has invested his or her money well and may very well be enjoying a cushy lifestyle, but is just smart enough to know that a car is a horrible investment," she explains. Ultimately, he or she cares about value, not flash.

What the car says about its owner's love style: Its owner will most enjoy someone who likes to converse about life, Dr. Orbuch suggests. "He or she thinks that support, friendship, and honesty are essential to a good healthy relationship," she says. Additionally, he or she probably doesn't mind spending a lot of money on a mate — "especially when it comes to travel, fabulous hotels, and great restaurants," she says. The thinking is: "I save when I can to splurge when I want."

By contrast, the Bimmerphile is less of a sure thing:

The car: A BMW or other luxury sedan

What the car says about its owner: Owners of these types of cars — think the BMW 7 Series — believe that they’ve made their money, darn it, and they’ve got the right to spend, flaunt it and enjoy it. "They might be a bit annoying in the boasting department, but they are successful people who have earned some bragging rights," says Dr. Orbuch.

What the car says about its owner's love style: Dr. Orbuch says these people tend to be slightly insecure when it comes to relationships. "They are usually nervous about making big mistakes in the love department," she explains. It's important for them to feel successful in all aspects of their lives. While these drivers don't mind someone who is impressed by their money, Dr. Orbuch says that they really do hope to meet someone who will like them for who they are. "The perfect mate for this kind of person is someone who is self-sufficient but genuinely happy to dote on a partner," she says.

The idea that someone might look at BMW's "Ultimate Driving Machine" slogan and focus on "driving" rather than on "ultimate" seems not to have occurred to Dr. Orbuch.

I'm not quite sure how well I fit into a melding of these two types. Certainly I repel golddiggers, for the most obvious of reasons, and my level of insecurity borders on legendary; but being sensible and mature is hardly my long suit.

Permalink to this item (posted at 2:03 PM)
29 August 2007
Cruising is about to become insufferable

Not to mention louder:

The Horntones FX-550 System is the first mobile audio system that supplements the sound of a vehicle's horn function by sounding any MP3 audio clip. The FX-550 introduces a new dimension to the automotive customization aftermarket.

According to Horntones President Mike Kosco, "The brain-seed for this invention occurred at a coffee shop back in the summer of 2005, when a group of teenagers were heckling me about the Incredible Hulk that is airbrushed on the hood of my H1 Hummer. I thought to myself ... I wish I had a button I could push that would make my car growl!" Kosco continues, "Well, the Hummer now growls and makes hundreds of other sounds too, from simple voice clips to entire theme songs."

And who better to translate America's musical tastes into traffic noises than a fellow who has the Incredible Hulk airbrushed onto the hood of a Hummer H1?

As they say at Fark, "This should end well."

Permalink to this item (posted at 1:45 PM)
The Department of No Surprises reports in

The cover story in the October Consumer Reports is MAKE YOUR CAR LAST 200,000 MILES, a worthy goal indeed. I got just under 195,000 miles out of a Toyota Celica back in the Pleistocene era, and had it not lost half of its steering gear in a supermarket parking lot one day, two hundred K would have been a snap. A subsequent owner did get it over the mark, and it might have gone much farther had it not been T-boned in a hit-and-run one sorrowful evening in Cleveland County. That old 20R engine was somewhere between bulletproof and grenade-resistant.

Gwendolyn has about 98,200 to go, and she's in better shape now than the Toyota was at that point, so unless I am completely overcome by vehicular lust — or another damned Representative of Random Fauna springs out of nowhere into her path — she should make it easily. (My standards of maintenance have advanced over the years, roughly commensurate with my ability to pay for it.)

Not incidentally, this practice is one reason why the CAFE standard doesn't work so well: if you never trade, you never get one of those more abstemious vehicles the Congress keeps insisting be built.

Meanwhile, guess what CR thinks is the appropriate vehicle to illustrate this cover? Hint: it's not a Jaguar.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:40 PM)
31 August 2007
Pay at the pump

The Germans build a lot of high-end automobiles. (They also build some bottom-feeders, but those don't get sent over here.) There is, therefore, a chance that they might chafe a bit under a European Union proposal to ban fast cars.

Guido Reinking, the editor of Automobilwoche, has a better idea:

The burning of every liter of gasoline emits 2.32 kilos (about 5.1 pounds) of the presumed greenhouse gas CO2. The person using that liter should be charged accordingly. Benefits would accrue to anyone who may have a high-performance car in his garage but who uses his bicycle to go to the bakery or post office. The full-throttle fraternity pays extra, but anyone who drives reasonably and economically saves. This also could promote the purchase of second and third cars. Go shopping in the city in your Mini; go on vacation with the family in your 5 series or S class.

The advantage of this approach is that it makes a certain amount of sense even for us fans of carbon dioxide. (I polished off a bit more than a pint of Dr Pepper today.) And the funds thus raised could conceivably be used for staking out airport restrooms something useful.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:49 AM)
4 September 2007
Mercury blues

If you're gonna buy you a Mercury and cruise on down the road, you might want to do it now, while there's still time:

The writing's on the wall for Ford's pseudo luxury brand Mercury, which is now tipped to face extinction within the next couple of years. Flagging sales and no major new products in the pipeline mean Ford execs are likely to close the book on Mercury for good, and it could happen as early as 2012. Both industry experts and Mercury's own dealers are predicting the brand won't be around much longer. In fact, a recent survey of 125 dealers found that nearly four out of every five dealers were concerned that Ford is planning to dump Mercury.

How many new Mercs are in the pipeline? One: when the Ford Focus (probably still first-generation, while the EuroFocus is approaching the time for its third) gets a hybrid powerplant, there's supposed to be one for Jill Wagner to hawk.

This is somewhat distressing, not because I'm a Mercury fan — I owned one, once upon a time, and it was an okay car when it wasn't chewing on its own cylinder heads — but because I was sort of hoping that recasting the line as "chick cars" might bring some new owners into the fold. Apparently it didn't work: maybe women won't buy "chick cars" either.

But the death of the Big M is probably inevitable. GM and Chrysler have axed entire marques — Oldsmobile and Plymouth, respectively — for selling fewer than 300,000 units a year. Mercury is running around 180,000. All these years we've been told that Mercury was keeping Lincoln dealers afloat, but maybe Lincoln would do better as a standalone: flying solo certainly hasn't hurt Cadillac, and I have to wonder how many MKZ sales Lincoln loses to Mercury's much-the-same Milan selling for five grand less across the lot.

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:52 AM)
Cavitational force

This calls for Hershey bars all around:

1972 Capri

Okay, who's the wise guy in the back with the floss?

(Via Jalopnik.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 1:11 PM)
5 September 2007
More self-hating carbon-based life forms

Something called "Environmental Defense" has issued a ukase to the effect that of the six largest motor-vehicle manufacturers in the US market, five are putting out more life-threatening carbon than they were fifteen years before, and Nissan, with a 9.5-percent increase, is the deadliest of them all.

"Market shifts to date fall far short of what would be needed to truly address global warming," wrote John DeCicco, the study's lead author. "New policies will be needed to significantly limit automobile carbon burdens."

I suggest DeCicco attack this problem at the source: by driving a Nissan vehicle (I recommend, to save precious time, the new Nissan GT-R) into the heart of the sun.

(Via Autoblog.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 2:25 PM)
Have you driven a bore lately?

Jebediah Wilbury riffs on some really awful car names, starting with Ford's Edsel, which wound up with the name of Henry Ford's firstborn after thousands of possibilities, including a whole sheaf by poet Marianne Moore, were rejected. (Although I think "Mongoose Civique" would have been kinda neat.)

"Edsel" never bothered me all that much, perhaps because there weren't too many of them around: the marque was unceremoniously killed off early in its third year. Some badges, though, perplex me to this day:

  • Chevrolet Celebrity (1982-90): Chevrolet has always positioned itself as the car for Everyman, so tagging a Chevy as "Celebrity," the very antithesis of what Chevy stood for, was counterproductive at best. At worst, they actually offered a trim line called "Eurosport," with toned-down brightwork but no actual performance improvements.

  • AMC Pacer (1975-80): Not such a bad name, really, but "Pacer" had baggage: it was the name for one of the lower Edsel trim lines.

  • AMC Matador (1971-78): There was great amusement during the early days of the Chevrolet Nova and how its name meant "it does not go" in Spanish, though most of the stories turned out to be apocryphal. But "Matador" means "killer" — and not just of bulls.

  • Pontiac 6000 (1981-91): A corporate cousin to the Celebrity, this Poncho was mostly innocuous, unless you bought the uprated LE version, which carried "6000LE" badges on each front fender, leading smartaleck children to yell, "Mom! Look! It's a GOOOO-LEE!" The performance-oriented STE, at least, didn't have to put up with this.

  • Hyundai Excel (1985-94): This first Korean car on American soil did not actually excel at anything, so I'm assuming they named it after a spreadsheet.

  • Ford Flex (2009-?): The last thing I want in an automobile is the suggestion of bendy sheetmetal.

Dishonorable mention: Kia cee'd (2007-?), sold only in Europe, because (1) it looks silly and (2) Hyundai sells a version as the i30, which bugs Nissanophiles.

On the other hand, a source of delight was Toyota's Cressida (1973-92), so far the only car I know of named for a woman of variable virtue. (No Boxster jokes, please.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:28 PM)
6 September 2007
And a couple of Martian oxygen sensors

The Golden State sticks it to a Tar Heel, so to speak:

Estimated cost of a new catalytic converter and accompanying sensors for my 1998 Accord, including labor and tax, minus AAA discount: $902 and change.

Revised estimate after determining it needs a "California" catalytic converter, though the car was bought in Maryland and has never been west of Kansas: $1446 and change.

Two thoughts:

  • When I moved to California in 1988, I was driving a 49-state 1975 Toyota Celica, which utterly lacked a catalytic converter; after a visit to a wizard at an Exxon station in Redondo Beach, I was granted a smog certificate, complete with presumed actual numbers obtained in the official test. I assume things have gotten more complicated since then.

  • Price of the bank 2 ("front") catalytic converter for a 2000 Infiniti I30: $813.38, not including tax ($48.52) or the exhaust gasket ($3.87). If California cars get a different part, I'm not aware of it, and neither is Alldata.

Still unexplained: why anyone would need a California converter (which, based on what little I know about CARB regulations, has to be essentially identical to the OEM cat) on the East Coast.

Permalink to this item (posted at 9:44 AM)
7 September 2007
Supporting all that hardware

Every new car has some sort of computer, which costs a fair chunk of change. It doesn't occur to us, though, that those computers have software, and rather a lot of it:

A study conducted by Strategy Analytics found that a vehicle contains on average almost $2,000 worth of software, close to 9% of the average showroom price tag. In cutting-edge luxobarges such as the Mercedes S-Class or BMW 7-series you can expect to see a much higher cost of software (even though the cost as a percentage of the vehicle would probably be less).

Since you presumably can't get this software at retail, I'm wondering just where this price tag comes from. But there's no doubt that there's a lot of bytes at work during your daily drive.

Software, inevitably, has a downside:

Features like adaptive cruise control, parking sensors, lane departure warning and engine and gearbox management are all driven by software. Of course, the more complicated these systems get the more chance of them developing bugs, some of which could even lead to cars not being drivable.

There exists a Technical Service Bulletin pertaining to my car, which comes into play when two conditions are met: diagnostic code P0420 is set, yet there are no symptoms. Says the TSB, the first thing you do to resolve the issue is to check the version of the operating system, and upgrade to the most recent version if necessary. If not, you replace the pre-cat tube. The benefit of this approach is that it saves a ton of diagnostics, hence time and money, although it doesn't seem so if you've just written a check for tube installation. But the reason there's a TSB in the first place is to acknowledge that the operating system, at least in its prior versions, has a bug, one serious enough to trip the dreaded Malfunction Indicator Light.

The hardware involved, incidentally, costs just on the far side of $700, just for the computer itself: the dealership will transfer the operating system from their box to yours for not too small a fee, and I suppose eventually there will be third-party software to be had.

Permalink to this item (posted at 11:28 AM)
13 September 2007
A low response rate

Back in the spring, Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) complained to the Detroit Economic Club that the Motor City's major economic powers, the makers of automobiles, were collectively dragging their feet on fuel-economy standards, "spending millions to prevent the very reforms that could've saved their industry." Shortly thereafter, it was discovered that sitting in the Senator's driveway was a gleefully-thirsty Chrysler 300C, and yeah, it's got a Hemi. Obama, redfaced, as it were, went out and bought a Ford Escape hybrid.

Personally, I think the Senator got a bad rap: at least he has some semblance of automotive taste. (I wouldn't cut him this slack were he tooling around in something with no discernible merit.) But this incident gave Frank Williams of The Truth About Cars an idea: he would write each member of the Senate and ask, "What's in your garage?"

The results, I have no doubt, would have been entertaining, but Mr Williams got exactly one reply to his query. The lone response was from Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), who begged off on security grounds:

I am flattered that you have chosen to include me in your article on the personal transportation choices of national leaders. However, because of my public status, I am unable to answer personal questions such as these.

At least he responded, which is more than the 98 others — Craig Thomas (R-WY) had just passed away — bothered to do. And while I can sort of see the security issue here, I figure, you've seen one [fill in make and model of luxobarge], you've probably seen them all.

Permalink to this item (posted at 12:53 PM)
16 September 2007
Yeah, you too, Land Rover

Jeep's new slogan — "Have fun out there" — is innocuous enough, unless you're a member of the Mothers Anti-Fun International Association, in which case you quit reading this a couple of dozen words ago. But Jeep's not above getting in your face either, as witness a current print ad which says "They invented 'SUV' because they can't call them Jeep," which goes like this:

Jeep is a registered trademark. Good thing. No telling what kind of jacked-up station wagons they'd be trying to pass off as Jeep vehicles otherwise. Because sometime around the mid-80s, a craze took off. The era of the SUV was born. Fact is, we had them beat by a few decades. As soon as the mighty little Jeep vehicle came back from World War II, people discovered how much fun a utility vehicle could be.

There's a splendid little TV spot that illustrates the History of Fun and Jeep's role therein. And here's the kicker from the magazine ad:

When heading straight out into the unknown, it's good to know you're going there in a vehicle that's been heading down that muddy road from the beginning. That's Jeep 4X4. And that's a heritage no "SUV" can ever stake claim to.

Unfortunately for Jeep, neither can its price-leader Compass, a rebadged Dodge Caliber that is utterly lacking in Jeep DNA. I can appreciate the desire to expand the brand, but if that's a Jeep, then so is a Toyota Matrix.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:11 PM)
19 September 2007
We got your imports right here, pal

According to J. D. Power, 54 percent of car buyers aren't considering any Detroit-branded products at all: they're lost to the imports.

I wondered if this sounded like me, and I put together a list of vehicles (1) I wouldn't mind driving that (2) don't cost upwards of forty grand.

Three domestics made my list: Cadillac's CTS, if I go easy on the options; Mercury's Milan, which just looks better than its Ford Fusion sibling, and what's more, it's not as pricey as the Lincoln whatever-it's-called-this-week; and, should I decide I need to haul around a lot more people, the Buick Enclave. In fact, if they made a five-passenger version of the Enclave, which is arguably the niftiest-looking crossover, I'd be more interested, but GM has decided, reasonably enough I suppose, that small Buicks are a contradiction in terms.

And there are only three imports on that list, two from Infiniti: the G35, which I've driven and enjoyed, and the EX35, which is my idea of a small semi-ute. Alternatively, there's the Volvo C30, which might be the least-expensive of all these buggies, and which is so cute you want to tickle it under its front air dam.

Of course, given my budget, I'll probably end up with a six-year-old [insert name of vehicle at least as improbable as the one I drive now].

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:35 AM)
25 September 2007
Concentric circles, a single drain

General Motors will not be blogging the strike:

We've seen a number of comments coming in regarding this situation, and we appreciate the interest and opinions that you, our readers, have about this matter. But as I am sure that you can appreciate, these are sensitive times involving sensitive negotiations; a public blog is not the appropriate place for us to be commenting about them, nor do we think it's constructive to entertain a discussion of labor issues here.

This afternoon, we issued a statement regarding the UAW's decision; to this point, that is our only statement on the topic. Any future comments we have will be issued via press statement, and not here on FastLane.

Me, I'm inclined to agree with Robert Farago:

After more than a week of overtime negotiations, the UAW is on strike at General Motors. For those who think this action signals the beginning of the end for The General: yes and no. On the yes side, the strike will highlight the original sins that led both sides to this point. The executive greed and mismanagement. The union intransigence and denial. The strike will alert the dim-witted media that the Emperor hasn’t been wearing any clothes for decades, ding GM's rep, and make it even more difficult for the carmaker to sell cars. On the no side, GM will settle. A compromise will be reached. The same players will resume the game, poorer but no wiser.

It might be interesting to see if the Presidential candidates issue statements on this matter. Or it might not; if GM and the UAW are still stuck in this endless pas de deux after a month or so, the only thing anyone's going to want to read is Chapter 11. Or 7, even.

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:03 AM)
Für Elise

It would have been a good time to crank up the Beethoven, too, since I can't remember ever seeing a Lotus Elise here in the Big Breezy, until this afternoon, ten past six, under the Belle Isle Bridge, waiting politely with the rest of us for the lights to change.

All sorts of thoughts went through my head, but the one that stuck was "Geez, and it's rained all day, and he's had to keep the top up. How awful."

And where does one go to test-drive Loti, anyway? Dallas? (Answer: yes.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:21 PM)
26 September 2007
Well, that was quick

The strike against General Motors by the United Auto Workers has ended with a tentative settlement, terms of which are not immediately available but which likely include the creation of a trust fund to support health-care costs for retirees.

As is the usual practice, UAW workers at Chrysler and Ford have been working under their old contracts; expect those contracts to be replaced by new ones with similar provisions.

Most line workers at GM will be back on the job this afternoon.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:10 AM)
27 September 2007
Let's have some profit with honor

Saturn's "Rethink American" campaign has its good points, though there's the question of how "American" Saturn's product line, much of which is based on vehicles from GM's European outpost Opel, really is: the new Astra is built alongside its Opel cousin in Belgium, fercrissake.

But it took Chevrolet to put some attitude to this premise. A six-pager (folds down to two) in the car mags this month says flatly, "WE'RE TIRED OF BEING A FOREIGN CAR IN OUR OWN COUNTRY." The car in question is Chevy's '08 Malibu, which looks pretty spiffy and so far seems to get competitive numbers. It would be unkind to mention that the 'Bu, like Saturn's Aura, is one of GM's Epsilon cars, meaning that GM Europe (Opel, again!) is responsible for the platform, but I suspect that most people shopping in this segment are looking for Camry alternatives (if not actual Camrys), and they may not care where those alternatives come from so long as they look good and hold up well. The bow-tie boys have the first half of that premise taken care of, anyway; we'll have to wait and see about the second.

Permalink to this item (posted at 1:07 PM)
28 September 2007
A fine mat finish

News Item: Toyota Motor Co. will recall 55,000 floor mats due to complaints of unintended acceleration caused by the mats sticking underneath the accelerator pedal, federal safety officials and the automaker said Wednesday. [T]he recall involves 30,500 mats for the [2007 Lexus] ES 350 and 24,500 mats for the 2007 and 2008 Toyota Camry. Owners will be told of the recall in October, and offered replacement mats in November.

I told an ES 350 owner about this, and he gave me the sort of look he'd have given me if I'd said I had a trunkful of moon rocks.

That said, I must point out here that my ex-wife once was given a failing notice on a state auto inspection because her non-factory seat covers could theoretically interfere with the free movement of the seat belts, so it's not like this is the most unheard-of thing you ever heard of.

(Via Autoblog.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:25 AM)
1 October 2007
Germans discover fuel economy

Consumer Reports tested a fleet of half a dozen luxoboats for the November issue, and the runaway winner in the Least Thirst derby was the Mercedes-Benz E320 BlueTec diesel, which recorded an astonishing 29 mpg, way ahead of the second-place Lexus hybrid (23). BMW held down a solid third with 22 mpg (from 300 hp!), and the E350, the gas-powered version of the same Benz, was fourth with 21. (Volvo and Infiniti brought up the rear.)

This BlueTec figure, mind you, was achieved in a car that weighs two tons (4005 lb, they say) and does zero to sixty in eight flat without any of the car-mag fast-launch techniques. (Car and Driver tested an '07 BlueTec and got it to sixty in 6.8; what's more, they reported 34 mpg.) Trini, who just got rid of a gas-guzzling truck in favor of a modest little Saturn Ion with a stick shift, gets numbers no better than this.

So the next question is: Will Benz buyers fork over the extra $1000 for a slightly-slower but way-stingier car?

Me? Only once did I ever seriously consider buying a Mercedes, and this was during my newlywed days. The Benz in question was a three-year-old 240D with four on the floor and the ubiquitous MB-Tex upholstery; it had been owned by a physician around Enid way who apparently still made house calls, or something, because he'd put 100,000 miles on it, and what's more, he'd installed an auxiliary fuel tank, so it took 45 gallons to fill the beast to the brim. The upside, of course, was the 1350 miles you could go on that single fill. On the other hand, only 65 ponies dwelt behind the three-pointed star, which meant that acceleration was theoretical at best, and if we wanted to get up one of Oklahoma's notoriously-short onramps at eight in the morning, we would have been well advised to start around six-thirty. Ultimately, we wound up buying a two-year-old Chevrolet Nova with a small-block V8, which had the further advantage of costing a few grand less; perhaps perversely, we bought it from a Chrysler-Plymouth store. (Previously mentioned, in considerably less detail, here.)

That said, would I consider the BlueTec? If my budget permitted a $55k sedan, sure. I'm not holding my breath, though.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:13 AM)
2 October 2007
Civic pride

A few weeks back I made some noise about automotive longevity, noting that my current car was into six odometer digits (no decimals) and I hoped for 200k at least, which should occur some time after its twelfth birthday.

Then again, World Tours notwithstanding, I really don't drive all that much, especially compared to this guy:

There's high mileage, and then there's this. A 1995 Honda Civic is for sale in Atlanta with, count 'em, 939,899 miles. That's 200+ miles a day. Every day. Including Sundays. For 12 years. It even has a Carfax report from when the car had 907,000 miles on it. According to the seller, the car runs like new, with no leaks, no noises, no oil burning, and not even a scratch on the body. In fact, the only blemish listed is that one of the dashboard lights doesn't work, and that's only sometimes.

The car is on its ninth timing belt, ninth water pump, and fourth clutch. But the engine and transmission are original, as are the floor mats. The car even comes with records.

And apparently he changes the oil every 2500 miles. I can barely imagine three hundred-odd oil changes.

The real question, of course, is: Why sell now? He'd have a million by this time next year, and a pat on the back (at the very least) from Honda.

Permalink to this item (posted at 5:34 PM)
4 October 2007
Look what we did

News Item: The American Family Association is claiming credit for declining sales at Ford Motor Company. The Tupelo, Mississippi-based group, headed by Donald Wildmon, has called several times for a boycott of Ford products, most recently in March 2006.

Top Ten other AFA accomplishments to be highlighted in upcoming press releases:

  1. The San Francisco earthquake of 1906
  2. Eric Rudolph managed to stay out of sight for five whole years
  3. Crash beat out Brokeback Mountain for Best Picture
  4. Complete absence of homosexuals in Iran
  5. The San Francisco earthquake of 1989
  6. Reliability issues with VW Jetta
  7. Pat Robertson still not dead and still has a TV show
  8. Rice-A-Roni, the San Francisco Treat, not available in San Francisco restaurants
  9. West Hollywood not actually part of Hollywood
  10. San Francisco Giants finish last in NL West

From Henry IV, Part I, Act Three:

Glendower: "I can call spirits from the vasty deep."

Hotspur: "Why so can I, or so can any man; but will they come when you do call them?"

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:55 AM)
5 October 2007
And even more on vehicle longevity

Jalopnik has been asking its readers, "What's the oldest car you've ever owned?" This is not exactly the same as "What is the earliest model year of any car you've ever owned?", though:

Let me explain the rules for this one. If in 1965 you sold your 1964 Beetle (presumably to buy that new fangled Mustang) you only owned the VW for one year. However, if you currently own a 1964 Bug, then you own a 34-year-old car 43-year-old car.

(Strike in original due to failure in basic arithmetic.)

I come in at 20: 1975 Toyota Celica, retained through most of 1995. There have been a couple others in the low teens. Gwendolyn, be it noted, is a mere child of seven. My daughter rates a 16 at the moment ('91 Oldsmobile Bravada). I don't remember what year my brother's Cadillac is, but I'm guessing it's somewhere around twenty years old.

Permalink to this item (posted at 9:57 AM)
6 October 2007
This wouldn't fly in Maine either

I've had heated seats for just over a year, and the novelty has yet to wear off. But mere heat isn't a big deal these days: today's high-luxe seats are heated and cooled, a definite boon if you live in some place like Texas.

On the other hand, if you do live in some place like Texas, you presumably know better than to pull a stunt like this:

Executives of a car dealership in [Georgetown,] Texas ... issued an apology and fired a sales manager over the distribution of an e-mail advertisement sent to 1,200 customers that included a derogatory term for Hispanics.

The Mac Haik Ford Lincoln Mercury dealership ad was headlined "Tired of the Wet Backs?" It then listed promotions for vehicles with air-conditioned seats.

Don't get me wrong: I pride myself on my cultural insensitivity. (I keep my car spic and span, so to speak.) But if you're in business, it's seldom, if ever, a good idea to piss off a substantial portion of your customers — especially if your joke isn't all that funny. And this one wasn't.

(Via The Truth About Cars.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 9:42 AM)
9 October 2007
An American evolution

When I was knee-high to a Renault Dauphine, there was a lot of talk in automotive advertising about the "low-priced three." Perennial number three Plymouth was taken out behind the barn and shot at the turn of the century, and judging from the Malibu ad I saw in the November Automobile, Chevrolet doesn't want to be a member of this club any more:

Chevy is now the world's fastest-growing nameplate, with a third of its sales outside the United States. At home, Chevy sells more cars and trucks costing over $35,000 than anybody.

Inasmuch as I can't imagine any way to worry the sticker on an Impala all the way up to $35k, I have to assume that this means a whole bunch of Silverados and Suburbans, interrupted by the occasional Corvette. And thirty-five K is a serious price point: this is where Infiniti starts, where BMW's 1-series is expected to land, where Accord and Camry so far fear to tread. Not that GM expects to get this kind of money for a mid-sized sedan that isn't a Cadillac, of course:

The new Malibu demonstrates similar creativity and passion. Only Chevrolet would think of selling a $35,000 car for significantly less.

Cross-shop the Malibu and the Avalon? What color is the sky in this brave new world of Chevrolet?

Still, give the bow-tie boys credit for sheer, unadulterated guts: this is right up there with Lee Iacocca's half-sneered "If you can find a better car, buy it." The General, at least judging by its advertising, is getting downright ebullient. For instance: complaints about crummy-looking interiors have bedeviled Detroit for ages, so GM these days is showing actual interiors. In detail, yet. "Look upon our dashboards, ye Mighty, and despair!" If you go for the full-Lutz — er, full LTZ — you're looking at twenty-seven or so.

And from this vantage point, the new 'Bu has several things to recommend it: it's not as soporific as the Camry, not as facially challenged as the Fusion, not as wonky as the Sebring/Avenger twins. This suggests a specific niche: the Anti-Accord. With Honda emphasizing Blackberry-style utility this year, Chevy might want to twist the fun controls up to ten. Maybe eleven.

Permalink to this item (posted at 2:28 PM)
11 October 2007
The official state sports car

Kentucky State Representative C. B. Embry (R-Morgantown) has proposed naming the Chevrolet Corvette the Official Sports Car of the Bluegrass State.

The premise seems at least reasonable, since the Corvette is built in semi-picturesque Bowling Green, Kentucky, and while other vehicles are built in the state, no one will ever accuse, say, the Toyota Camry, built in Georgetown, of being sporty.

Oklahoma doesn't have an official sports car, and with the state's one auto assembly plant mothballed and plans to build MGs in Ardmore on hold, we may not get one — in which case, please allow me to nominate the true sporting vehicle of Soonerland: a Ford F-150 pickup with worn shocks.

Permalink to this item (posted at 3:00 PM)
15 October 2007
Future traveling music

Gwendolyn's sound system comes from Bose: it's got seven speakers, including a subwoofer hanging off the rear deck, 200 watts measured by some system or other, and a custom-fitted trapezoidal head unit that plays CDs, tapes, and AM/FM radio. It works just fine — I've had one CD get stuck in the slot, but I was able to get it out without implements, and the subwoofer mounting probably needs to be tightened up a tick — but if it ever breaks, it's going to cost me on the far side of $200 to get it fixed, in which case I may look at something like this new double-DIN box from Clarion:

Aside from the CD drive, it also offers up a front-mounted USB port for loading up MP3 / WMA files, customizable accent lights, optional Bluetooth, AM / FM tuner, a 50-watt x 4 amplifier and a cutesy display to boot. Check 'em out later this month for ¥34,650 ($295) apiece.

The nature of Bose systems means I'll presumably have to spring for new speakers as well, but better to do this all at once. And Clarion, at least, might have some ideas as to how to mount this in the Infiniti custom slot: they built the original OEM unit under license from Bose.

Permalink to this item (posted at 3:32 PM)
16 October 2007
Is there a Ford in your future?

If you're looking for what we used to call Toyota-like reliability, the answer is a definite maybe:

After years of sterling reliability, Toyota is showing cracks in its armor, according to data from Consumer Reports' 2007 Annual Car Reliability Survey. By contrast, Ford's domestic brands have made considerable improvements.

How much is "considerable"?

Forty-one of 44 Ford, Lincoln, and Mercury models (93%) in CR's survey scored average or better in predicted reliability. The Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan are among the most reliable cars. They and the two-wheel-drive Ford F-150 V6 make up three of the only four domestic models on Consumer Reports' "Most Reliable" list. In addition, new-for-2007 SUVs such as the Ford Edge and Lincoln MKX, as well as the freshened Ford Expedition and Lincoln Navigator, were all average or above.

Meanwhile, Toyota's having some problems:

The V6 version of the company's top-selling Camry, and the four-wheel-drive V8 version of the Tundra pickup, both redesigned for 2007, now rate below average in Consumer Reports' predicted reliability rating. (This rating does not apply to previous model years.) In addition, the all-wheel-drive version of the Lexus GS sedan also received a below average rating. Because Consumer Reports does not recommend models with below-average reliability, these models no longer make CR's "Recommended" list.

This does not, of course, mean that Toyota is headed into a tailspin, or tailing into a headspin, or whatever; it does mean, however, that these new designs are having teething problems. (The old computer wisdom comes into play: never buy anything in version dot zero.)

Still, this has to be good news for Ford, which hasn't had a whole lot of good news lately and would dearly like to move some Fusions and trucks.

(Via Autoblog.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 2:04 PM)
17 October 2007
Showroom-floor glue removal

It looks like the Daimler-free Chrysler will thin out its herd of vehicles shortly, and for the best of all possible reasons:

"We have models that overlap, where we have two or three vehicles that serve the same market segment and maybe the same customer and actually compete with each other to some extent," Chrysler President and Vice Chairman Jim Press told reporters last week. "We also have markets where we have insufficient coverage. Where we don't have enough product."

Reportedly on the chopping block: Chrysler Pacifica, Dodge Durango (though not, curiously, its Chrysler Aspen sibling), Jeep Commander and Compass, maybe even the Chrysler Sebring. (Were it up to me, I'd drop only the non-convertible Sebring: the car loses a lot of its horribleness when the top is dropped.)

Still yet to be detected on the horizon: a proper replacement for the PT Cruiser, or an apology from Jeep for bringing out the Compass in the first place.

(Via Autoblog.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:29 PM)
20 October 2007
This is an Ecooter

Ecooter

Apparently it's some sort of Chinese one-person transpo-module. If they have any notions of selling these Stateside, they probably ought to come up with a different name, lest the little econobox be nominated for The Truth About Cars' Ten Worst Automobiles Today.

Permalink to this item (posted at 9:47 AM)
You can get there from here

And the guy who can get there the fastest might be Alex Roy, who in October 2006, with co-driver Dave Maher, managed to get from New York City to Santa Monica in 31 hours, 4 minutes, or about the time you spent stuck in traffic last week.

Roy has a book out, and I've been reading a piece in Wired (November '07) on the technical aspects of the run. For one thing, he scienced out every last detail in advance. The crossing of Oklahoma on I-44/I-40 westbound, a distance of 356 miles, needed to be completed in 3:57, which is a shade over 90 mph. Can you even do that on Oklahoma Interstates? Being the sort of person who crawls along back roads whenever possible, I decided I could not rely on my own experience, and therefore I consulted a local hotshoe. Said she, if you don't do anything visibly stupid, you could probably cruise at 90 or so. And sure enough, among Roy's spreadsheets, I find a list, ordered by state, of speed limit, amount by which you must exceed said limit before they can charge you with "reckless driving," and what he considers "safe cruise" speeds. Most places, it's 80 or 85; only in Oklahoma and in California (where 40/15 runs mostly through the desert, natch) does Roy consider 90 to be "safe." Inasmuch as he had to average about 90 for the entire trip, despite fuel stops and toll plazas, you have to figure that he exceeded those figures here and there. "And it won't work if he has to come through here at rush hour," the hotshoe noted. Sure enough: Roy's schedule calls for entering the state at half past eleven in the morning and being gone by 2:30.

Over the 2795-mile trip Roy used 151 gallons of gas, which means that his BMW M5 was getting around 18.5 mpg, not too shabby for a V10 going at speeds not envisioned by the Environmental Protection Agency.

It is de rigueur at moments like this to remind you that this sort of thing is highly illegal, possibly even dangerous, and you should not try this yourself, especially if you're not as capable a driver as Alex Roy, which very likely you're not. And Jalopnik's Ray Wert points out that times, and traffic patterns, have changed since the days of the Cannonball:

The roads and highways of the nation were largely unpopulated at night and during most of the non-commuting day in the 70's when the first attempts at the "record" occurred. But as the population has expanded and the suburbs have simultaneously sprawled, roads are now populated at all times of the day and night. Regardless of whether that's a good thing — it's a fact.

Indeed it is. On the other hand, having observed at uncomfortably-close range within the past twenty-four hours the phenomenon of some asshat in an Explorer actually stopping at the end of the onramp, desultorily crawling up to sixty, and then exiting after 0.8 mile — the ignorant sumbitch could have made it faster had he gotten on the service road and stayed there — I'm willing to take my chances with a whole fleet of Alex Roys: at least they know how to get the hell out of the way.

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:27 PM)
26 October 2007
Speed rating

Tuesday, you may remember, I discovered something that is generally referred to as a "road hazard," the sort of thing that turns a tire into basically a paperweight for the Amazing Colossal Man.

That afternoon, about two, I contacted the Tire Rack and ordered a replacement. It arrived in the city just after noon yesterday, and was installed that afternoon.

In the interim, I got some experience with the spare, which apparently had never been on the ground before. To everyone's surprise, it was a full-size tire, not one of those shrunken-donut jobs, and it was a fairly substantial name: a Toyo Proxes. The previous owner, I surmise, had sprung for five of the Toyos when the OEM tires (probably Bridgestones) wore out, and eventually replaced four of them with BFGoodrich Touring T/As.

Which, I suppose, invites a question: how long should a set of tires last? My current Dunlops are considered "High-Performance All-Season Tires," which the Tire Rack explains as follows:

You want all-season versatility (including light snow traction) to drive your sports coupe or sedan in all weather conditions.

Branded with the M+S symbol, these low profile tires are designed to provide year-round traction (even in light snow) through tread designs and compounds that remain flexible in the cold weather to help blend all-season traction with good handling.

In Gwendolyn's size (215/55VR16), these tires carry a Uniform Tire Quality Grade of 460 AA A. This only hints at tread life: a tire rated 200 is supposed to outlast a tire rated 100 by a factor of two, but how long does the 100-rated tire last? I'm hoping for four years/45,000 miles on this set. (The longest I've ever managed to keep a set of tires going was right around 50k, on Bridgestone's lower-end Turanzas.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 3:01 PM)
30 October 2007
Fahr'n auf der Autobahn

Just as fast as ever, says German Chancellor Angela Merkel:

Members of the center-left Social Democratic Party, who along with Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union make up the governing coalition, backed a proposal over the weekend to introduce a general speed limit of 130 kph (80 mph) on Germany's famed freeways, the autobahn.

Asked in an interview to be aired Monday on state-run ZDF television station what she thought of the proposal, Merkel flatly rejected it saying, "It won't happen with me."

And what's more:

Merkel suggested that better traffic management systems would be a more effective way of preventing excessive emissions on the freeways, saying the kilometers-long traffic jams that often clog the autobahn, are equally detrimental to the environment as high-speed driving.

Not to mention that unless you're in one of those hybrids that shuts off the engine when stopping — which, if you're in Germany, you're probably not — when you're stuck in traffic you're getting a flat zero miles per gallon.

I think I'll crank up some Kraftwerk to celebrate.

(Via Jalopnik.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 10:21 AM)
31 October 2007
One check too many

I think we've all been through something like this:

Yesterday morning I was trying to run errands and the engine started acting up. Back to the mechanic for a new ignition coil and a couple of tune-up items. On the one hand, that was more money going out and you know I hate to spend money. On the other hand, every time I take my car in I expect the estimate to be, "This will be two thousand dollars, you should just get a new car," so a couple hundred dollars is a relief compared to my imaginary estimates.

I am similarly pessimistic, as a rule, and certainly nobody's going to cut me any slack when I show up in an Infiniti. On the other hand, so far as I've been able to tell, workaday Nissans aren't appreciably less expensive to service.

I'm not sure at what point I would start thinking that I should just get a new car. I'm pretty sure it's over two grand, though; I once had to replace both a catalytic converter and an A/C compressor in the same week, and didn't get much change back from a $2000 bill. Now if I had to do this sort of thing on a regular basis, I might think otherwise. In the last 6500 miles, though, I've been faced with just two oil changes and one set of tires, and the tires, assuming I don't go running over sharp, pointy things on a regular basis, should be good for three or four years.

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:57 AM)
Where the parking is easy

AutoblogGreen is going on about this development:

The science fiction movie Minority Report imagines cars driving up vertical highways and parking on the side of high rise apartment buildings. Driveways just in front of your doorway are not uncommon in the suburbs but on a city high rise such a thing has never been done ... until now.

According to this Reuters video, a high rise condo currently under construction, will allow you to park steps from your condo. The cars will be whisked up to just outside your condo's door by a large elevator. The condos are expected to be complete next year and will cost $6M.

If you (1) don't live in New York and/or (2) don't feel compelled to spend six million dollars on your residence, I commend to you Oklahoma City's Garage Loft Apartments, where you can park near your front door even on the third floor. (Of course, if you want to be higher up than that, the guys in Manhattan will happily take your deposit now.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 12:50 PM)
N2 the mystic

As you may remember, I'm driving on nitrogen-filled tires these days. Michael Martinek delves into the matter at The Truth About Cars, and here's what he says is the bottom line:

Nitrogen's advantages are solid (so to speak) — provided you're a diligent motorist and nitrogen refills are free. Add some nonchalance and a dollar figure and the benefits evaporate.

I am, I think, fairly diligent: when the Screw Incident flattened one of my Dunlops, I had enough sense to bring out a real live air compressor and fill the thing enough to get it to roll to the tire shop without further damage. The tech said that it wouldn't have occurred to most people, which may be true and which definitely is alarming. And apparently the practice on these things is to air them up — with real live air — and get the bead set, then to suck out the air and replace it with N2.

And there's this:

[N]itrogen is still going to leave the inside of your tires for the big, wide world; just not as quickly as oxygen. A pound's worth of gas might seep out in three months, rather than one. Meanwhile, the idea that nitrogen-stuffed tires are a fill-it-and-leave-it alternative to air is an inherently dangerous supposition. Drivers still need to get down, stick on a gauge and hear the hiss whether they’ve used air, nitrogen or cream filling. Nitrogen hype can end up doing more harm than good.

I think I'm covered: I keep a gauge handy, and I own two air compressors, a smaller one for on the road and something a bit more solid in the garage. The instructions I've been given tell me that in a pinch, I can pump some actual air into the tire, and then have it purged and refilled later.

Still, given the cost of air, which is essentially zilch unless you have to rely on that quarter-eater at the convenience store, nitrogen is going to be a tad more expensive.

Permalink to this item (posted at 4:28 PM)
1 November 2007
So long, Vicki

There will be no 2009 Ford Crown Victoria at your local blue-oval vendor; retail sales have dwindled, and Ford will offer the car for fleet sales only after the 2008 run is complete.

Its sister under the skin, the Mercury Grand Marquis, which is produced in smaller numbers but which sells better at retail, will continue, at least for a while, along with the tarted-up Lincoln Town Car: all three vehicles are assembled at Ford's St. Thomas, Ontario plant, which is expected to remain open at least through 2010.

Disclosure: My ex drives a Grand Marquis, though not with the de Sade package.

Permalink to this item (posted at 10:53 AM)
2 November 2007
Chevy digs in

Back in September I called attention to a new Chevrolet Malibu ad campaign with the pithy lead "WE'RE TIRED OF BEING A FOREIGN CAR IN OUR OWN COUNTRY." The bow-tie bunch isn't giving up, either: the newest installment says "IT'S EVERYTHING YOU NEVER THOUGHT IT WOULD BE," a shot at all those folks — a group which on occasion has included me — who wouldn't be caught dead in a domestic automobile. (The 'Bu is built at the Fairfax plant in Kansas City, Kansas.)

Motor Trend, meanwhile, has declared the Malibu "the most important new Chevy sedan in decades," though what makes it important to them might sound a mite unusual:

More important than anything is what Malibu can do for the Impala. Chevy sold 290,000 front-drive Impalas and 164,000 Malibus last year. If it can reverse those numbers, there's a better business case for a RWD Impala.

I'd like to see a rear-wheel-drive Impala myself, but I can't imagine GM wanting to cannibalize its own sales. Besides, the biggest problem with a rear-drive Impala is not the Malibu, but GM's need to crank up its Corporate Average Fuel Economy numbers, which a full-sized two-ton sedan will presumably not enhance. And the Malibu can probably sell well enough on its own, given MT's declaration that it "makes segment-leader Camry and the just-launched Accord look decidedly lumpen."

If I seem to be harping on the Malibu a lot these days, it's simply because I think we're better off with an American auto industry that actually sells cars. And GM, after years of wandering in the desert, might actually be starting to find a path that leads somewhere: the General is cutting production on the hot-selling Buick Enclave in an effort to keep demand high and incentives out of the picture, a trick the imports have long known. "Nothing destroys the value of a new product faster than overproducing," says GM car czar Bob Lutz. If the Malibu is a big hit, you can probably expect more artificial scarcity.

Permalink to this item (posted at 10:01 AM)
5 November 2007
Three liters, no waiting

My current ride has a 3.0-liter V6, not the biggest engine I've ever had at my disposal but certainly the most muscular: 227 ponies (6400 rpm) and 217 lb-ft of torque (4000 rpm). Still, this is last-century technology, especially compared to something like this:

The lucky dogs at MSN Cars UK got to test BMW's new 635d coupe and came away mighty impressed. The key to this car is the "d" at the end of the model number. Propulsion comes courtesy of BMW's 3.0L twin-turbo inline six cylinder diesel which is rated at 286 hp and a mighty 427 lb-ft of torque. The almost electric motor-like torque of of the diesel means that this big coupe has more usable real world performance than the high-performance M6 model. The 635d hits 62mph from a standstill in 6.3 seconds which is pretty decent for a two-ton car. More impressive is the fact that it does all this while scoring 34 mpg (US) on the EU combined cycle.

We'll be getting this engine eventually, in the 5-series sedan and the X5 sport-utility thing. With the shift (finally!) to low-sulfur fuel here in the States, I'm hoping we'll see performance-oriented diesels affordable by mere mortals before too long.

Permalink to this item (posted at 1:05 PM)
7 November 2007
Bodhi by Fisher

No, not really. The Dalai Lama drove, not a GM vehicle, but a Land Rover — and if you'd lived most of your life in and around southern Asia, you probably wouldn't take a second look at a Camaro.

As it happens, you can own that very Land Rover:

This auction from the Dalai Lama Foundation includes:
  • 1966 Land Rover 88" Station Wagon (RHD)
  • 3 day Buddhism study session with the Dalai Lama in India
  • Meeting with Sharon Stone at The Missing Peace Art Exhibit show & dinner

The auction will run through the 12th of November; minimum bid is $75,000. All proceeds go directly to the Foundation.

(Via Autoblog.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:52 AM)
11 November 2007
The 2009 Crescent Roller

News Item: The Malaysian carmaker Proton has announced plans to develop an "Islamic car", designed for Muslim motorists. Proton is planning on teaming up with manufacturers in Iran and Turkey to create the unique vehicle. The car could boast special features like a compass pointing to Mecca and a dedicated space to keep a copy of the Koran and a headscarf.

Top Ten Other Features of Proton's New "Islamic Car":

  1. Infidel-resistant fenders
  2. Sensor warns if car is about to enter drive-through at Taco Bell
  3. Extra-long seat belt to accommodate burqa
  4. Horn plays two bars of Scheherazade
  5. A feature patterned after OnStar calls CAIR and The New York Times in case of emergency
  6. Special Saudi model keeps women in back seat
  7. Warranted for six years/72 virgins
  8. Will not start during Ramadan
  9. Absolutely no plans for a hybrid
  10. Self-destructs upon entering Jewish neighborhoods

See your dealer today. (Suggested by LGF.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 3:13 PM)
13 November 2007
Possibly even electrifying

Automobile this month tossed some questions at George Barris, King of Kustom Kars — the Batmobile helped assure his place in the throne room — and I wasn't quite prepared for one of the answers:

We're in the 2000s now. Are you going to stay with a '50 Mercury? Or are you going to jump into a hybrid Toyota?

Wait a minute. George Barris has jazzed up a Prius?

It's nice, but it looks like a turtle. I put eighteen-inch wheels on it instead of those little fourteens; we put a spoiler on the back. We brightened it up, gave it a free, flowing look.

And you know what? They did.

I don't know if this particular incarnation is really that much of an improvement, but I must say I like the idea.

Permalink to this item (posted at 11:09 AM)
14 November 2007
File under "Damned if you do"

Scott Fruin at USC's Keck School of Medicine reports that a third or more of a person's daily exposure to ultra-fine diesel particulates occurs while driving to and from work:

"If you have otherwise healthy habits and don't smoke, driving to work is probably the most unhealthy part of your day. Urban dwellers with long commutes are probably getting most of their exposure [to diesel and ultra-fine particles] while driving."

Which seems a reasonable conclusion, given the massive number of big diesel trucks on the road. It's probably not quite so bad for me personally, since my commute, at around 18 minutes each way, is much shorter than the 45-minute average used to produce Dr Fruin's data. But this perplexed me:

Hard acceleration, on both surface streets and in freeway driving, produced the greatest exposure to diesel pollution.

"The extent that [diesel trucks] dominated the highest concentration conditions on freeways was unexpected," Fruin says. "Shortening your commute and spending less time in the car will significantly reduce your total body burden of harmful pollutants."

Why the heck do you think I'm doing all that hard acceleration? I'm trying to shorten my commute, fercrissake.

(Via The Truth About Cars.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 3:44 PM)
15 November 2007
Not to mention polarizing looks

Before the opening of the Los Angeles Auto Show, GM Car Czar Bob Lutz was meeting with motor-noters and bloggers and other pesky types, and he did give out with one semi-scoop: the much-anticipated Chevrolet Volt will be reshaped before production. Apparently the electric Chevy concept car has the aerodynamics of a 12-volt battery:

When they put the concept into the wind tunnel it was a huge disappointment. Lutz said they might have gotten better results if they put it in backwards.

On the other hand, if you had to drive it backwards, you'd get some hellacious battery life, just from all that regenerative braking. (Try that with your damn Prius.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 3:43 PM)
21 November 2007
A studly innovation indeed

Driving at night is nerve-wracking, at least for me: you can glue extra lights to every single vehicle in the country and you'd still have to deal with the fact that you can't see a damn thing until it's almost too late.

The British are trying to buy some time:

The British have shed some light on night driving with the invention of the Astucia SolarLite flush road stud. The stud emits LED light, which is powered by small solar panels. The new stud tech is present on 120 British roads, and night-time accidents are down a dramatic 70% since the devices were installed. Amazingly, the SolarLite road stud gives drivers 900 meters of visibility, which increases reaction times to over 30 seconds. Reaction time with standard reflector studs is just 3.2 seconds.

I'd question the use of the term "reaction time" here, since it's usually applied to how fast the driver actually reacts, not to how much time he has before he reacts, but this is a minor point.

There are further advantages. From the British press release:

Research carried out by the Transport Research Laboratory also shows that when the smart studs are used, drivers also significantly less likely to cross the white line in the centre of a road or move out of lane on a dual carriageway. They also brake earlier and more consistently.

The greater number of visual references also means that drivers tend not to speed into the corners. In addition, the flush fitting studs are also safer for cyclist and motorcyclists. All make their contribution to added driving safety.

And the cost?

The latest Astucia stud reduces casualties on the road and has a projected life of eight to ten years, compared with just one to two years for a conventional retro-reflective stud. Over its lifespan an Astucia "smart" stud will therefore cost no more than a traditional cat's eye. The units' efficiency can also allow a reduction in the use of energy- and maintenance-intensive, carbon-inefficient, streetlights. In comparison with the cost and trauma of a fatal road accident of course, the price of any road stud fades into insignificance.

Keep the snowplows (where applicable) from ripping them to shreds, and you've got a pretty persuasive package here.

Permalink to this item (posted at 1:36 PM)
30 November 2007
Hence the name "Fargo"

The Truth About Cars takes note of a marketing opportunity:

North Dakota, you see, is the only state in which Kia doesn't have a single dealership. North Dakota is also missing Lexus, Infiniti, Acura, BMW, Isuzu (no love lost over that, either), Volvo, Saab, Jaguar, or Hummer.

Then again, North Dakota has only about 640,000 people, and they're spread out far and wide, so this is no surprise. But:

For those who are in the market for such vehicles, they're in some luck: the largest city in the Peace Garden State is Fargo, which sits right on the Minnesota border (where you can get your hands on anything). But hey, it means there are plenty of opportunities for you to get rich by owning your own car dealership. Where else could a BMW dealership claim an entire state as its sales territory?

Wyoming, for one, though Wyoming has even fewer people than North Dakota.

And while Fargo is indeed adjacent to Minnesota, it's not like you're going to find Lexi and Bimmers right across the Red River: you're going to have to head for the Twin Cities, a good 200-mile run. (We will entertain no remarks about getting Hummers in Moorhead.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:04 AM)
1 December 2007
This stuff is exhausting

It's a fair distance from Gwendolyn's exhaust manifold to her two-stage muffler, and along the way are no fewer than three catalytic converters. Somewhere on the far side of 90,000 miles, I had to replace the front tube, where the pre-cat lives, followed shortly thereafter by the center cat, and after handing over my Visa for that second replacement, I ruefully asked the service manager when I could expect the rear unit to fail. He said he'd never seen one of those go bad.

I suppose, though, it's probably a lot like this:

[T]he item to be "fixed" was exhaust (all three catalytic converters) — and they could fix it in a couple days, and for the cost of the parts. (plus, I got the good muffler and the OEM parts) So I get someone else to do the labor, and I still get the good parts. Not a spot of rust on the "old" stuff, by the way. I mean, surface rust, but not one thing rusted through.

However, one amortizes this in the expected fashion:

Guess I can't expect that cat to run for 300,000 miles. I expect to drive this for at least another 150,000 miles and at 1500 bucks, that's about a penny a mile.

I'm shooting for 200,000. Maybe I'm insufficiently ambitious. Then again, I drive only about 11,000 miles a year, which means I have a bit less than nine years to go. (And really, I just want to beat the mileage on my old Celica, retired at 194,500 miles.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:53 AM)
2 December 2007
It costs less to build them better

Ford, acutely aware that "Fix Or Repair Daily" was becoming more than just a catchphrase, has been beavering away at quality issues for several years now, and Consumer Reports has already noticed the improvement.

Now, so has Dearborn's bottom line:

Ford Motor Co. may save as much as $300 million on warranty costs next year because of improved design standards and manufacturing technology, the company's top quality executive said Friday.

That will be in addition to $900 million in expenses Ford trimmed this year because of fewer dealer repairs after cars and trucks leave the factory, Vice President Bennie Fowler said in an interview.

To see how this was working out among actual buyers, Ford ordered up a survey, and the numbers looked promising:

The survey of 60,611 new Ford car or truck owners from September 2006 through February 2007 found 1,427 reports of "things gone wrong" per 1,000 vehicles, 159 fewer than last year, Ford said in June.

The survey, by RDA Group in Bloomfield Hills, found Toyota owners reported 1,362 problems per 1,000 vehicles.

Another RDA tabulation puts Honda at the top, with 1,313 problems per 1,000 vehicles.

If you're looking for a grain of salt to take this with, here you go:

[I]f automakers were truly interested in determining the quality of their products, they'd survey owners long after the new-car honeymoon had ended. They'd ask for feedback on reliability, fit and finish, repairs, out-of-pocket expenses, performance and how well the vehicle held up overall. If the buyer no longer owned the vehicle, they'd find out why their customer got rid of it.

Which means, generally, that it's going to take more than a year or two to erase a reputation for slapdash construction. But I submit that nothing is quite so convincing to automotive management as actual cash in the till, and that's what Ford has here.

(Via Autoblog.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:22 PM)
4 December 2007
Cutting out the chase

I have to admit, this looks a lot less hazardous than the classic PIT maneuver:

Eureka Aerospace, a company from Pasadena, Calif., [has] developed a device that shoots a microwave beam at a speeding car, frying its electrical system and stopping the car dead in its tracks.

To disable cars, the device generates energy that is amplified by a generator, and then converted to microwave radiation. The radiation is then focused with a special antenna into a narrow beam.

ZAP!

A pulse lasting just 50 nanoseconds is enough to overload wires or damage the car's central microprocessor. At a high power of 300 megahertz (compared to 2.45 gigahertz in a microwave), the radiation energy is above common radio frequencies, and isn't harmful to humans.

Um, hertz, mega or otherwise, has next to nothing to do with power.

Will we start seeing old Sixties relics pressed into service as getaway cars? They don't have microprocessors.

(Via The Truth About Cars.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 4:21 PM)
7 December 2007
The new '08 Cocoon

My current ride has a quartet of air bags (two front, two side), antilock brakes, a dashboard with no pointy protrusions, and bumpers that theoretically will shrug off a 2.5-mph impact.

Like many of you of a Certain Age, I spent most of my driving life in cars that lacked most or all of those attributes. (I learned to drive, in fact, in a VW Microbus, which lacked some other things: a radiator, air conditioning, and anything resembling acceleration.) Which leads to a question: does having all these safety gewgaws — newer cars than mine have a lot more of them — give me a false sense of security, making my driving less careful than it could be?

Don Norman, author of The Future Design of Things, thinks it can:

One major problem with the design of cars today is that you can be driving at 100 mph — which is quite dangerous — and the experience is comfy, smooth, and accompanied by nice music on the stereo system. Of course it's impractical to design a car so that driving it feels dangerous and shaky. But why not put passengers in the warm, smooth, comfy situation but have natural signals that give cues to the driver in terms of being alert?

Wait a minute. A hundred is dangerous?

I don't see these technical advances as being anywhere near as much of a problem as ill-trained, incompetent drivers are. Consider, for a moment, a cruise control, such as the Mercedes-Benz Distronic, that slows you down if it thinks you're getting too close to the car in front of you. If the road is that crowded, using cruise control at all brands you as a complete and utter idiot, and the only "natural signal" you should be getting is digital: the upraised middle finger.

As for the passengers, I seldom have any, but in general, passengers' interests must be kept subordinate to the driver's. (Finally, an advantage to the three-row SUV: back-seat drivers can be pushed back even farther.)

That said, I've mostly gotten over my distrust of airbags, mostly because I've never had one explode into the middle of my torso like Alien in reverse. Come to think of it, I've never had one deploy even when I expected it to. Hmmm....

(Via The Truth About Cars.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:16 PM)
8 December 2007
At least it wasn't spam

Basil gets email from his Chevrolet:

[T]he OnStar thing is all set up and all. And one of their features is they'll send a monthly maintenance report on the car. Well, the first monthly maintenance report came ... Tuesday, 2½ days after we got the car.

So what did Vlad the Impala have to say?

[I]t told me the tire pressure in the left front tire was a little low. It's supposed to be 30 PSI. It was 26.

So, the car emailed me and told me about it.

Geez. And I passed up a tire-pressure monitoring system on Woot yesterday.

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:43 AM)
Going back to the source

At Hershey, Pennsylvania in October, RM Auctions offered for sale a 1911 Selden Model 40R Varsity roadster. Expected to bring somewhere above $75,000, the Selden ultimately was sold for $220,000. I can't help but think that at least part of this startling price premium was due to George Selden's status as Inventor of the Automobile.

Yes, really. Or at least, so says US Patent No. 549,160 [link to PDF file], which was issued to Selden in 1895. He had in fact built a prototype as early as 1877, but hadn't gone into actual production. In 1899 his plans became clearer: he teamed up with William C. Whitney, who was going to be building electric cars, with the intention of licensing automakers under that patent and collecting a five-percent royalty. In 1902 a group called the Manufacturers Mutual Association was formed to fight Selden, who had already filed several lawsuits against rivals; they negotiated with Selden, and eventually, as the Association of Licensed Automobile Manufacturers, the group became his enforcement arm. As part of the deal, Selden cut the royalty to 1.25 percent, effectively making it cheaper to pay up rather than to fight it in court.

The one major holdout was Henry Ford, and he wasn't intending to be a holdout: he duly applied to ALAM for a license, and was turned down, ostensibly because of his previous business failures. (Wikipedia says that the opposition came mostly from ALAM board member Frederic Smith of Olds Motor Works, who didn't want Ford's products competing with Lansing-built Oldsmobiles in the Detroit market.) Ford went into production anyway, and was promptly sued by ALAM; the suit dragged on for six years before a court upheld the Selden patent. Ford promptly appealed. The New York Times reported on 13 February 1910:

The veteran Detroit manufacturer considers the decision of a lower court upholding the validity of the Selden patent as far from final or conclusive, and he expects to carry on the contest to the highest tribunal in the nation.

"There will be no let-up in the legal fight, and I expect that ultimately the Supreme Court of the United States will hold that the Selden patent is not valid."

The case never got to the Supremes; Ford was able to persuade an appellate court in 1911 that the patent as granted covered only vehicles with engines using the Brayton cycle, while Ford and other manufacturers were using the Otto cycle. ALAM chose to let the matter drop, perhaps because the Selden patent was due to expire in 1912 anyway.

Selden himself never produced any cars until he acquired a manufacturer in Buffalo in 1906. The first Selden cars, advertised as "Made by the Father of Them All," appeared in 1907; about eight thousand were built before the company shifted its focus to trucks in 1914. The Varsity roadster had a 40-hp engine — some lesser Seldens had 30 hp — and sold for around $2000. (Ford's Model T ran $850, dropping to $440 by 1915.) Only six of Selden's cars still exist today; questionable patents, however, are all over the place.

Incidentally, in that same auction in Hershey, a 1911 Oldsmobile Limited 7-Passenger Touring Car, utterly unrestored — the original tires were literally crumbling — brought $1.65 million. The price included a set of new(er) tires.

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:37 PM)
9 December 2007
I think my oil just changed

Motor Trend's Arthur St. Antoine on the new Aston Martin DBS:

Imagine, if you will, a La Perla negligee that goes 191 mph.

I can't even imagine the test drive.

(St. Antoine is also responsible for this Quote of the Week.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 5:25 PM)
14 December 2007
I can't keep up

What I remember most about the old muscle-car era wasn't the muscle, exactly. I mean, I had a Chevy Nova, but it wasn't an SS. Hell, it wasn't even an S. But it had a certain charm, based on the fact that you could pop the hood and identify just about every single part without trying hard; this was the era, as some auto scribe (possibly Patrick Bedard) once said, "when tires had been made fat enough to work, but before Star Wars ate the carburetor."

I was reading a Nissan-oriented message board last night when I came across a phrase I'd never seen before: "electronically-controlled engine mount." Say what? And does Gwendolyn have these things? I poked around a bit, and yes, she does:

The electronically controlled engine mounts take the advantage of fluid technology a step further than normal liquid-filled engine mounts. A 2-chamber mount works in conjunction with the engine's Engine Control Module (ECM) to vary the volume of fluid in the mount, based on engine rpm. It does this by opening or closing a valve between two chambers inside the engine mount. At low rpm, the volume of fluid is increased to provide maximum damping. At higher rpm the volume is decreased, providing the firmness needed for optimum feedback to the driver.

Now when I was a kid, an engine mount was made out of solid rubber, with just enough steel to bolt it down. It never occurred to me that they'd fill them with liquid, let alone control that liquid with computer-controlled, electrically-powered valves. Geez, it was just last year I figured out what a dual-runner intake manifold was. (I have one of those too.)

This is not to say that I'd like to go back to those halcyon days of yesteryear, exactly; I'm not at all unhappy with having 200-plus horsepower and 20-plus miles per gallon, and brakes work a lot better now than they used to. But I've had to resign myself to the fact that I can't fix much of anything on this darn car.

Permalink to this item (posted at 9:45 AM)
15 December 2007
We're number three!

This has potential: Chrysler, the perennial third-place American automaker, and Nissan, Japan's number three, may be putting their heads together for new vehicles, though there's no indication that any equity will be exchanged. Nissan presumably will be wanting to tap Chrysler's Dodge division for truck ideas, while Chrysler is in desperate need of competitive small cars, where Nissan has always been a player, if seldom the market leader.

One suggestion from this corner: the Nissan Teana, the J31 midsize sedan sold as a Maxima in some non-US markets, might make a nice-looking Dodge. The Teana has a suitably blunt front, a grille adaptable to Dodge's crossbars, and it doesn't look anything like Chrysler's Sebring (or all that much like the American Maxima). Nissan fits this with either a 2.3-liter inline-4 or the ubiquitous VQ-series V-6.

Permalink to this item (posted at 10:33 AM)
17 December 2007
Playing favorites

Ford's SYNC in-car entertainment system, appearing in several 2008 blue-oval vehicles, was developed with Microsoft, and you might think that for this reason alone, it would work fairly well with Microsoft's Zune music player, perhaps less well with Apple's iPod.

Or at least I might think that, and I would be wrong:

Zune: You connect it, it says "Connected" on the screen just as if you hooked it up to a computer. However, it seems when you play a track, it will read it over the USB and play it through the Sync system itself. If you try to fast forward a track through the Sync system, it goes achingly slow. By achingly, I mean seconds at a time. So if you have a long track, it's going to take you a long time just to fast forward a few minutes. I thought this was the norm for the Sync system. Then I bought the iPod and used that.

iPod: You connect it, and the screen actually changes. It shows the Ford logo on the screen of the iPod itself, not just a basic generic message. Then I noticed something else too. It actually will load up your current on-the-go playlist if you left one on the iPod before connecting it. The Zune doesn't support that. Then I tried to fast forward. It was the same exact one as the iPod itself. Fast and you could hear the music in the background. This means unlike the Zune, the Microsoft Sync system actually uses the iPod to play the track, and then just pumps the audio signal through USB. That means it looks like the fast forward command goes straight to the iPod and plays the track on the iPod, unlike the Zune which seems to just go through the Sync system itself.

Costa Tsiokos is also surprised, but not too surprised to offer an explanation of this phenomenon:

Seriously, I'm surprised MS didn't try to leverage this placement to at least make iPod interfacing buggy, in contrast to a smoother experience with a Zune or other media players. I'm guessing Ford pretty much insisted on no funny business, recognizing the iPod's ubiquity with the public, including prospective car-buyers.

For some reason, this reminds me of the time (circa 1988) when Sony built a VHS machine to sell alongside its fading Beta boxes.

Permalink to this item (posted at 12:18 PM)
18 December 2007
She thinks your traction's sexy

It's hard to stifle a giggle at this bit of froth from Her Majesty's Chief Scientific Adviser:

"I was asked at a lecture by a young woman about what she could do and I told her to stop admiring young men in Ferraris," he said.

Sir David [King], who persuaded the Government to start using the Toyota Prius, a hybrid car that claims to have lower emissions than most conventional cars, added: "Government has so many levers that it can pull — when it comes to the business sector it is quite effective.

"As soon as you come to the individual, however, they will buy a Ferrari, not because it is cheap to run or has low carbon dioxide emissions, but because young women think it is sexy to see men driving Ferraris. That is the area where a culture change is needed."

Absolutely. Women should get their own Ferraris. Why should their automotive desires be subjugated to men's?

(Via AutoblogGreen.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 2:52 PM)
21 December 2007
Thou shalt not stint on speed rating

This is apparently what happens when you do:

[A] brief inspection at the foreign car joint down the road ... revealed that the right rear Conti had developed a huge blister on the inner sidewall. The mechanic suggested that the local NTB near Northgate Mall (Store #662, 5327 Hwy. 153) would be the nearest tire joint likely to have a 245/40-17 in stock. So we limped the Zed Three over there, I walked up to the counter, inquired as to the availability of said size of tire and immediately got the "Just A Girl" treatment.

"I have Michelin Pilot Sports and these Falken run-flats..."

"Um, that's all you have in stock? I see more than that on your screen... You've got Michelin Pilot Sport A/S's, I liked tho..."

"Ma'am, I can't put those on your car on account of the speed rating."

"You what? Listen, I..."

I was ready to work myself into a fairly spectacular rage. This thimble-headed gherkin was going to try and feed me some song and dance about how he had some imaginary law or store policy that would force him to sell the little lady the more expensive tire, and if he thought I was going to stand for it....

I suspect most of the stores have exactly this policy enforced by their gherkins, and given the litigious nature of both of John Edwards' Americas, I can't say I'm surprised.

On the other hand, I may have created a problem for myself. Gwendolyn eased out of Oppama with H-rated rubber, nominally good for 130 mph, which makes sense for a car which can't exceed 130 mph unless you push it off the frigging Sears Tower. This year, seeing an opportunity, I bought her some V-rated tires, which are supposed to hold up to around 149 mph, not because I expect to be doing any extensive high-speed trials, but because they might have just a little extra margin of heat resistance during my summer road trips.

But suppose I have some massive tire failure on the road somewhere. Is some lugnut jockey going to go unbalanced on me because my spare is an H, or because all they have are V- or (gasp) Z-rated tires? It's not entirely theoretical a question: on a run from here to Los Angeles about twenty years ago, I lost both Dymphna's right rear tire and spare, 150 miles apart, in deepest New Mexico, and had to be towed into Albuquerque to find 185-70R13s with an H rating, which were a lot more common then than 215-55R16s of any specification are now.

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:18 PM)
22 December 2007
Lord of the trucks

Big Diesel God

This Chevyesque face belongs to a Chinese pickup truck: Da Chai Shen, manufactured by Dandong Shuguang, a subsidiary of the Liaoning SG Automotive Group. Its name means something like "Big Diesel God," and it should come Stateside for that reason alone.

Actually, the diesel is not so big: the base engine is Toyota's 2.2-liter AD-series inline four, and the alternative is a gas-powered 3.2-liter mill from China's First Automobile Works, based on a Mitsubishi design. Nor is the option list very big: you get a 5-speed stick and rear-wheel drive, period. In the States, it wouldn't be priced anywhere near the $8100 it sells for in China — there's that whole exchange-rate business, plus the long-standing 25-percent tariff on imported trucks, plus whatever tweaks have to be made to meet US regulations — but with the four-cylinder pickup now an endangered species in this country, I suspect that a case can be made for importing the Big Diesel God, especially if they keep the name. Expect a few Rams to be sacrificed if they do.

(Via The Truth About Cars.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 11:41 AM)
24 December 2007
The sounds of silence

Gwendolyn's manual devotes more than eleven pages to something called the "Infiniti Communicator," which appears to be a response to General Motors' famed OnStar service. The system, which I don't actually have, combines GPS, a cell phone, and a "response center." And apparently it was a colossal flop [link goes to Microsoft Word document]:

Partnering with Motorola, AT&T Wireless and ATX Technologies, Infiniti Communicator was offered in 1999 and 2000 on certain U.S. models. The system offered wireless communication, 24-hour emergency service, airbag deployment detection in case of an accident and remote unlocking capabilities. Because of the similarity in features offered, it was touted as the only real competition to OnStar.

The system looked great on paper, but actually was ill conceived based on a business model that did not justify itself. The agreement to have nationwide roaming analog airtime was not only a huge task to undertake but also was extremely expensive. The plan concentrated on the revenue generation and not the long-term effects. Essentially, the companies felt that as more consumers signed up for the service, the more revenue the companies will earn. Beyond that, nothing else was considered. But what all failed to realize was that as more customers signed on, more infrastructure and support for the customers were needed.

Secondly, there was no planning or support at the dealer level. When questioned about the service most dealers were ill informed and in some cases didn’t know the service was offered. This in turn led potential customers to feel that if the dealer body couldn’t give the specifics about the service, they would not get service when an emergency occurred. This caused the public to question the dealer body, asking why should they purchase a system and service that offers the same basic services as their cell phones. Another point was that the dealer body did not know how to market the service. Nor could the dealer service the product, which in turn hindered the selling of the product. Another instance is in the cost of the service, which initially was $1000 for the hardware only. It was later cut in half to $500. Due to the ill informed dealer network and cost, only approximately 5% of buyers of 1999 and 2000 model Q45 and I30 purchased the system.

The complete package, including four years of service (matching the factory four-year warranty), was offered at $1599. And it was apparently well-integrated into the vehicle: the implementation included a hands-free microphone mounted on the ceiling, a "Mayday" emergency call button, and send/end and volume controls mounted on the steering wheel.

When I read about it in the manual last year, I contemplated for about thirty seconds the possibility of retrofitting the hardware, but decided against it. And it's probably just as well, since the cell-phone aspect of it will be dead shortly anyway:

The network that launched the U.S. wireless industry with brick-sized — and brick-heavy — cell phones 24 years ago will switch off in most of the country next year, leaving a surprising number of users in the lurch.

Older OnStar systems for cars, home alarms and up to a million cell phones will lose service starting in February under a 2002 federal decision that allows carriers to switch the spectrum over from analog to digital technologies, which would use it more efficiently.

Oh, well. I just put this out there in case there's someone with a turn-of-the-century Infiniti with an inexplicable NO SERVICE warning light on the dash.

Permalink to this item (posted at 1:22 PM)
26 December 2007
Please present Y chromosome for estimate

I've already linked to this post of Tam's, but this time, instead of purely tire-oriented material (such as this), I'm going to bring up what she calls the "Just a Girl" treatment.

If you're female and you drive, you already know about this; us guys, maybe not so much. There isn't much research on the topic, and what there is [link goes to PDF file] isn't exactly conclusive, and yes, it is true, several anecdotes do not necessarily constitute data, but there seem to exist at least some situations in which, all else being equal, the mechanic is going to assume that a female customer isn't going to know any better and will start padding the tab and/or bringing on the verbal condescension.

Og's mom might have gotten some of this:

[A]gainst my better wishes, she took it to a dealer for an estimate.

The estimate involved a new oil pan (it was totally destroyed, according to the written) and gasket ($1400, parts and labor) and a new pair of upper and lower ball joints (desperately needed, please do not drive the vehicle under any circumstances).

First note: this is a Ford Taurus. Struts up front. No upper ball joints. Og looks at the lowers, and they look fine.

So about that oil pan:

The gasket has just worked its way out. So I loosen the pan bolts, let it sag a bit, push the gasket back into place, and re-tighten the bolts.

Total time spent: fifteen minutes, including the de rigueur oil change. (Easier to work on the oil pan if it isn't full.) Total expense: $19.

And finally:

I'm sending a copy of the estimate and the pictures to Ford Corporate to let them know how their shops are treating old women.

I have no idea if the younger ones are being treated any better, but I have no real reason to think so.

(Disclosure: During my last few months as a Mazda guy, I got to deal with a female service manager. While she always played straight with me, I have no idea how she might have treated other customers, male or female, though I have no reason to suspect she might have been up to something shabby.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 3:13 PM)
28 December 2007
Return of the Hi-Lux?

Well, not exactly. But the sort of tiny pickup truck that Toyota and Nissan ( Datsun) and friends used to vend over here has long since been superseded by the expedient of supersizing: today's "compact" trucks are as big as full-sized trucks of old.

However, Toyota does seem to remember those days, and at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, they'll be showing something called the A-BAT, with a Prius-like hybrid powertrain and an idea last seen at GM: a "midgate" that allows you to haul something longer than the actual truck bed. Which is a good thing, since the A-BAT is small by today's standards: the bed is a mere four feet long. (Fold down the midgate and drop the tailgate, and you can wedge 4x8 plywood in there.) At 181.4 inches long, the A-BAT is nine inches shorter than Toyota's standard-bed Tacoma, but rides on a three-inch-longer wheelbase.

I see two possible downsides: you almost certainly won't be able to use this as a serious tow vehicle — even a base Tacoma can tow 3500 lb — and it looks even more whimsical (or just goofy) than Honda's Ridgeline, which currently owns the Trucks For People Who Hate Trucks market segment. One close-enough approach to $4 gas, though, and someone will almost certainly build something like this.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:03 AM)
30 December 2007
Can't argue with that

The editors of Gaywheels.com have picked their Best of 2007, and I really can't argue with their choices: these guys know their cars (and trucks where appropriate). Still, I admit to an occasional giggle, mostly because of remarks like this:

Best Family Car: Buick Enclave
Gorgeous, refined and really easy access to the rear — who doesn't like that?

I would dearly love to see GM work this into an ad. Just because.

(Via Autoblog.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 10:47 AM)
Toys to show boys

"Does your car say 'check me out'?" says the British automotive site evecars.com, in the process of suggesting to its female readership "ten sexy cars to turn men's heads."

The list, I need hardly point out, is fairly arguable, though I will admit that I'm likely to notice someone in a Mercedes Gullwing or in a a Caterham Seven, both of which were mentioned. (Then there was this incident, about which the less said the better.)

This question, though, remains unanswered:

Is driving a "male" car is a way of saying "we're just as good as men, and look — we can even drive!"?

I think it's more a way of saying "We drive what we damn well please," which is the only attitude that makes sense anyway.

(Seen at AutoblogGreen.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:08 PM)
31 December 2007
Refi your Ford, sir?

I spent most of my life not having car payments, and I miss that. When World Tour '06 ended in a pile of sheetmetal and coolant (and a separate pile of venison), I'd chalked up a little over a year and a half in that happy state, and the worst thing about shopping for replacement wheels was the certain knowledge that I'd be back on the treadmill again for another five years.

Okay, four years. Two and a half to go. Admittedly, it's a smaller squeeze each month, inasmuch as I put almost all the insurance settlement into the down payment, but a squeeze it is, just the same, and I'm not anxious to prolong it. It's not an uncommon reaction:

When I needed to own a car, I remember that you looked forward to finally paying the car off, so that you had at least a year or two car-payment free before getting on the new-car carousel again. Looks like that's out the window these days. Instead, we're left with a perpetual payment model that carries a timebomb of macro-economic proportions.

And it's the same sort of bubblicious nonsense that's contributed so much to the national housing market, but with a nastier twist:

In the housing game, the assumption was that the piece of property bought would rise in value — not an unreasonable assumption, given real estate's traditional security as an asset. But that notion is laughable when it comes to cars, because common knowledge holds that a vehicle depreciates the second it rolls off the dealership lot. So the constant trade-ins and roll-overs had nothing at all to do [with] even the illusion of building equity — it's pure consumerism, disguised as upgrades in reliability.

Which explains much about why I bought a used pre-owned experienced vehicle this time around: someone else had already eaten most of the depreciation. (I paid 40 percent of the original sticker price.) Still, I'm not even thinking about trading in this none-too-wee beastie any time in the next thirty months, so long as it's running well, which at the moment it is despite 104,000 miles on the clock.

Permalink to this item (posted at 11:30 AM)
1 January 2008
A question of Priority

Prius, the name given to Toyota's first hybrid vehicle, is supposed to be derived from Latin. Jan Freeman of The Boston Globe quoted a Toyota spokesperson as follows:

"Prius is a Latin word meaning 'to go before'," he explained. "Toyota chose this name because the Prius vehicle is the predecessor of cars to come."

Well, no:

But prius can't be a Latin infinitive; "to go before" would have to be a verb, like, say, precedere. Actually, prius is just the neuter form of prior, the comparative adjective, meaning "earlier, anterior, superior." As a noun, it would mean "earlier one" or "superior one."

And if there's one thing Toyota does well, it's neuter.

Now what's the plural form? Priuses just doesn't have that classical zing. At long last, the question is answered, once and for all:

I put the question to Harry Mount, author of the new book Carpe Diem, a paean to the joys of Latin.

"Yes, it's Priora," he told me, "because it's neuter plural. But if you cheated a bit and made the car masculine or feminine — and I do think of cars as female — then it would be Priores. And Priores has nice undertones of grandness — Virgil used it to mean 'forefathers' or 'ancestors'."

So if your hybrids are named for the dames of ancient Rome — Drusilla, Octavia, Agrippina — you're granted poetic license. Otherwise, Priora is the Latin plural you're looking for.

I expect Dr. Weevil may have something to say about that, in which case I'll ask him about Lexuses. ("Lexi"?)

(Inspired, if that's the word, by The Truth About Cars.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 10:34 AM)
4 January 2008
Mass saved, anyway

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: weight is the enemy of fuel economy.

Nissan, which has no particular reason to agree with me, has apparently come to the same conclusion: the Home of the Hamburger vows to slice vehicle weight across its entire fleet. By 2015, the company says, Nissan vehicles will average 15 percent lighter than their 2005 counterparts.

Were I cynical, I could suggest that they could pull this off simply by dropping the Brobdingnagian-sized Titan truck and its SUV spinoffs: the Infiniti QX56 in its two-wheel-drive form (add another 300 lb for 4WD) presses down upon the earth to the tune of 5700 lb, a heavy piece indeed. But if they can scrape a few pounds out of the actual passenger cars, so much the better; my current ride (a Nissan product) weighs about 13 percent more than the one it replaced (which wasn't), and I can feel the bulk on every tight curve, to say nothing of every visit to the gas station.

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:57 AM)
If only it were the stereo

Up to now I'd been fairly impressed with GM's Chevrolet Malibu advertising, but the new print ad (with the obligatory green background) for the Malibu Hybrid is a serious misstep — to anyone who ever took a physics course, anyway.

Here's the goofy bit:

[The Malibu] has a 36-volt battery that consists of 6 modules and generates 10,000 watts of peak power.

This sounds impressive until you do the math: 10 kilowatts equals 13.4 horsepower. As hybrids go, this is pretty darn mild.

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:36 PM)
8 January 2008
Grading on the demand curve

"We are always very disappointed if we see retailers that are pricing the Wii or any of our products above the MSRP price."

So said Reggie Fils-Aimé, Nintendo's American boss, and apparently he was sufficiently disappointed to do something about it. Kotaku reports:

On December 14th, Nintendo President Reggie Fils-Aimé held a conference call to address the growing problem of Wii shortages, detailing the company's plans to get customers matched up with systems by any means necessary. First came the raincheck system, which allowed customers a chance to pre-purchase the machine at GameStop stores across the country, with the understanding that they would be guaranteed a system by the end of January.

Then he announced that seven retail outlets — Best Buy, Target, Wal-Mart, Sears, Kmart, Toys R Us and Circuit City — would have the coveted consoles in stock that weekend, revealing that stores had been stockpiling the systems for a massive, last-minute flood.

While the rainchecks met with varying success due to limited ability, the flood of systems that weekend had a huge effect on the eBay market.

This is the sound of a bubble bursting:

On December 17th, according to my data ...11,016 Nintendo Wii consoles were sold on eBay, for an average price of $368 — the first time the price had dropped below $400 in a month.

There is, however, a practical limit to how much a manufacturer can rein in either retailers or the secondary market, as Nissan is finding out:

Nissan was considering voiding the warranty of any GT-R resold in its first 12 months on the road, but has since abandoned that idea. "We've talked about ways to stop eBay sales by restricting the transfer of the new car warranty to the next buyer for at least six months," said Eric Anderson, Nissan's North Central Region vice president. "But we gave up on that idea because it would have been unfair to the guy who found he really had to sell his car sooner."

Anderson continued by saying there is nothing Nissan can do about dealer markups — which are expected to be at least $15,000 — either. "We'll counsel dealers on why they shouldn't, but there's no way we can stop them from doing it," Anderson said.

Excluding the inevitable "destination charge," the GT-R will list for $69,850, or about the price of 280 Wiis — at MSRP, anyway.

Permalink to this item (posted at 10:52 AM)
9 January 2008
New doors closing

If for some inexplicable reason you've been wanting to cruise on down the road in a Mercury, you might want to do it now while you still can:

[Ford CEO Alan] Mulally is obviously far less beholden to Ford's old guard than the gentleman that came before him. He's been there, done that, killed the extraneous bits. And here's the truth: when Mulally finally gets around to taking a good hard look at Mercury, Mercury will be toast.

For now, Mercury is merely milquetoast. The company adds zero uniqueness to Ford's product line. Mercury has zero technology, zero differentiation, zero prestige, zero class-leading products and zero long-term priority for the Ford Motor Company. Hundreds of Mercury dealerships, thousands of Ford employees and millions of advertising dollars are wasted trying to counter a counter-clockwise death spiral. Every penny that goes into turning a struggling Ford product into an even less competitive Mercury is a penny wasted.

At a time when Ford is struggling to generate a profit anywhere within its North American product portfolio, what value can be had with Mercury? None. There is but one, obvious solution: kill the brand.

Last year 168,422 Mercury vehicles found homes, along with 131,487 Lincolns. Your local L-M dealer is going to look at these numbers and yell that Ford is taking away 56 percent of his business. If Ford does right by Lincoln, that dealer will be mollified by the fact that he's getting higher margins, even if he winds up selling fewer units. But at the moment, doing right by Lincoln takes serious money, and any serious money Ford has to spend on Lincoln is money that won't be spent on what's left of Mercury.

A solution occasionally proffered is the Saturnization of Mercury: turning it into a conduit for European imports. And Ford has some spiffy Euromodels out there: a Focus a generation ahead of ours, a compact people mover (C-MAX), and the newest Mondeo. But this has been tried before — seen any Merkurs lately? — and the exchange rate right now is ruinous. I figure the 70th Anniversary Mercury, due out in 2009, might be the marque's swan song.

I admit, though, that I, for one, will miss Jill Wagner.

Permalink to this item (posted at 11:18 AM)
10 January 2008
Quirky Italian beauties

As I've mentioned more than once — searching this site for the brand name produces thirteen mentions, in fact — during my younger days I managed to wangle some seat time in a Maserati. Despite the presence of the revered trident midgrille, it really wasn't a sports car: it had four doors, for Pietro's sake. But you couldn't tell me that while I was whipping it around Lake Hefner at, um, slightly above the posted limit.

Still, some aspects of it struck me as goofy. My ride in those days had a five-speed stick; what in the world was this hyperexpensive sled doing with a three-speed autobox? (Answer: about 100 before I looked down at the speedo on the way to the lake.) Eventually, though, I accepted this as part of the experience: la donna, she has her quirks, but she's so beautiful you don't notice.

At least, you hope you never notice something like this:

Despite its size and girth, the GT's trunk is puny; hard luck for hard case schleppers. To make matters worse, there is no spare. Since the trunk is opened via an electrically actuated lock, the battery's location in the Maser's micro-compartment seems ill-advised.

This isn't as insane as, say, front fender skirts on the postwar Nash, which made for a turning circle more appropriate to Kenworths, but it's still a strange sort of lapse, unless there's some trick trunk release somewhere.

Permalink to this item (posted at 9:32 AM)
Lacking bodaciousness

Tata's new Nano, argues Samir Sayed, is the first step toward truly disposable cars:

How much of a car's overall expense is due to its mechanical longevity? Remove that requirement and you're suddenly free to substitute mass produced plastic, wood and other materials for the more expensive metal bits, from engine parts to the body panels. Combine this freedom with the "stripper" mentality (how many disposable cameras have a zoom function?), and your costs, and thus price, sink.

When we get a good look at the 1-lakh car, we'll see just how much performance, safety and pollution control Tata could provide for $2500. But you can bet the car is not built for the long haul — because price is all. Ironically, even without fundamentally robust mechanicals, the 1-lakh car will probably "last" (i.e. remain in operation) a lot longer than western machines; by necessity, developing countries are endlessly innovative at repairing and recycling consumer goods. But the pattern of commoditization and [relatively] rapid disposability will be set.

One lakh, in Indian parlance, is 100,000 rupees, or around $2500 US.

The Nano seats five if they're really good friends — you have to figure they're not spending their rupees on cheeseburgers — and is motivated by a 0.6-liter inline two. (You were expecting a V?) Gas mileage is guesstimated at 54 mpg, though it's unlikely we'll ever see one of them undergoing the official EPA test.

Rival automaker Bajaj, in the meantime, has already announced a more upscale car for a whole three grand.

Permalink to this item (posted at 3:42 PM)
14 January 2008
We are completely aghast

Tesla Motors still can't sell you an actual electric car, but by gum, they've got T-shirts for sale.

As if to demonstrate that high technology doesn't come cheaply, the "Men's Zero Emissions Tee" sells for a stiff $38. Frank Williams of The Truth About Cars doesn't think it will sell:

[W]on't sell many of those since there aren't many men who don't produce emissions.

And to think people are worried about mere carbon dioxide.

Permalink to this item (posted at 2:43 PM)
16 January 2008
No, really, never mind the bollocks

A Virginia legislator has introduced a measure to ban the display of fake human genitalia on motor vehicles:

State Del. Lionel Spruill introduced a bill Tuesday to ban displaying replicas of human genitalia on vehicles, calling it a safety issue because it could distract other drivers. Under his measure, displaying the ornamentation on a motor vehicle would be a misdemeanor punishable by a maximum fine of $250.

He said the idea came from a constituent whose young daughter spotted an example of the trail hitch adornment and asked her father to explain it.

I have no idea if this will impact the display of real human genitalia.

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:13 PM)
17 January 2008
Here come the smarts

The smart cars, anyway:

Traffic consultant Thomas Page of Detroit ordered his Smart microcar in March, the first day they were orderable, and he was told last weekend that his red convertible is off the boat in Baltimore and ready for delivery.

According to communications director Ken Kettenbeil of Smart USA in Bloomfield Hills, 30 to 35 percent of the Smarts ordered thus far are the convertible, more formally known as the Passion Cabriolet. Its starting price is $16,590.

Sixty to 65 percent of the 30,000 preorders were for the Passion Coupe, at $13,590, with only 4 percent for the base-level Pure at $11,590.

It may be a while before I see one of these around town: there's only one dealership in the state, and it's in Tulsa. Then again, were I in the market for something small and zippy, I'd go for a Honda Fit.

(Via AutoblogGreen.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 3:35 PM)
24 January 2008
Cooling system

I might not have noticed this except for the fact that I used to have one of these contraptions:

Two southern artists who plan to freeze a Chevy Nova in front of the library at Michigan Tech started pouring the ice base on Tuesday.

Sue Wrbican from George Madison University and Mary Carothers from the University of Louisville say the Nova was one of the last cars built in the late '70s, before fuel efficiency was considered.

The shop class from Hancock High School built a form they'll pour water into, forming a giant ice cube around the car.

I retain a certain fondness for those old Novas; my very first car (Susannah) was a '66, and shortly after I got married, my wife deemed it unsuitable for family transportation, whereupon we acquired a '76, which became the official mom-mobile, while I inherited her '75 Toyota. Curiously, the V8-powered (305, not the 350) Nova with a three-speed automatic and the four-cylinder Celica with a five-speed stick got the same indifferent gas mileage: about 17 mpg. More curiously, when she was driving the Celica, she got 15 mpg. And she drove it as though she had an egg under the gas pedal — "You should always shift before 3000," she said — while I whaled the living whee out of it. Perhaps her style was more suited to the Chevrolet. (Just recently she traded in a Mercury Grand Marquis, though I don't recall what she bought to replace it.) This guy, at least, appreciates them.

The artists are blogging the project. It should be noted that this is not one of those "Ewww, cars are bad!" exhibitions one tends to expect these days.

(Via Autoblog.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 9:31 AM)
28 January 2008
Thou shalt not speed

Britton Road through the Village is posted 35 mph, and there's a sign below it: RADAR CONTROLLED.

I saw that this weekend, and I remembered a time from my younger, dumber days, when I actually believed that somewhere along the road was a guy with a big control panel, and if you were going too fast he'd pull back on a slider and suddenly you weren't going too fast anymore.

For some reason, there are Brits who think this is a great idea.

Permalink to this item (posted at 11:02 AM)
31 January 2008
You've seen your last Isuzu

A flashback to the fall of 2004:

Japan's oldest maker of motor vehicles — they built their first car in 1916 — has fallen on hard times in the US. For 2005, the model line has been cut from three trucks to one, and that one, the Ascender, is not a compelling buy, inasmuch as General Motors, which owns 12 percent of Isuzu, sells basically the same truck at Chevy, GMC, Buick and (with a heavy dose of artificial Swedener) Saab dealerships.

Still, I'm not ready to count them out yet. Isuzu still sells well outside the US, and in 1999 GM owned forty-nine percent of the company; three years later Isuzu managed to buy back most of the General's equity, and they plan to repurchase the rest and go it alone after the 2006 model year. They might even sell cars again here, something they haven't done since 1994.

In fact, GM gave them two more vehicles to sell, but still, it's not gonna happen:

Isuzu Motors, which helped popularize SUVs in the 1980s, said Wednesday that it will exit the U.S. consumer market on Jan. 31, 2009. The Japanese company blamed the move on General Motors ceasing production for Isuzu of the Ascender sport-utility vehicle and I-290 and I-370 pickups.

Ascender is a rebadged Chevrolet TrailBlazer, which GM is expected to discontinue. The I-series pickups are versions of the Chevy Colorado small pickup. "It has always been our intention to remain in the U.S. market," Terry Maloney, COO of Isuzu Motors America, said in a statement. "However, we were unable to secure any commercially viable replacements for these vehicles."

I was sort of hoping that Toyota, which owns 5.9 percent of Isuzu these days, might offer them a Daihatsu or two, but apparently that line is reserved for Scion these days.

We have been unable to verify the rumor that erstwhile company spokesperson Joe Isuzu has been hired as a consultant to the Clinton campaign.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:50 AM)
2 February 2008
Cross purposes

Automobile Magazine columnist Ezra Dyer has a car — a ten-year-old BMW M3 — and a spouse who deems said Bimmer unsatisfactory family transportation. What to do?

Most women secretly want to drive a monster truck, and Heather is no different. My job, then, is to consider what she wants (Grave Digger with a vanity mirror) and what I want (at the moment, the General Lee as interpreted by Chip Foose) and meet in the middle. That means a crossover.

There's only one problem. From a car guy perspective, "crossover" is the new code for "minivan." And like a minivan, nobody's buying a Toyota RAV4 because it causes a primal stirring in the loins. You buy a crossover because it's useful. It answers your needs. And I find that just so depressing.

A 32-inch TV would meet my needs, which is why I got a 50-inch. A George Foreman electric grill would meet my needs, which is why I got a bitchin' Weber. A two-blade razor would meet my needs, so naturally I use a Gillette Octo-Blade Follicle-Nuker Turbo. Excess is best, but there's no such thing as an excessive crossover. Yet.

Do women truly covet monster trucks? I remember an issue of Automobile when the staff somehow managed to get their mitts on some sort of Class 6 hauler, and the office babes were just totally "Oh. My. God." Or at least so reported the Head Babe, editor-in-chief Jean Jennings, who devoted an entire page to the impact it had on her crew. I can say only that we have some pretty heavy haulers at 42nd and Treadmill, and scant few females volunteering to drive them.

For myself, speaking as a person with a George Foreman grill, a sack of twin-blade razors and two 20-inch TVs, I suggest Mr Dyer hold out for a Mazdaspeed CX-9. You know they have to be contemplating the idea.

Permalink to this item (posted at 2:33 PM)
4 February 2008
Rolling eggs

The definitive bubble car was the Isetta, literally "small Iso," designed by Iso SpA in the ruins of postwar Europe and built all over the Continent under license, mostly by BMW, which sold over 130,000 of them between 1955 and 1962, a few of which somehow managed to disappear into the US.

Of course, nobody would build such a teensy little vehicle today, right? Wrong:

A new range of city models is being planned by BMW, and they could be called Isetta after the famous bubble car of the Fifties.

Back in September, bosses announced plans for a fourth brand — and this is the clearest indication of what it will be.

Why? Pretty much the obvious reason:

[S]mall turbo petrol and diesel engines would be used to help keep costs down, yet provide decent performance and excellent economy and emissions. This last feature is a key reason for BMW giving the city car project the go-ahead. It needs to reduce the average CO2 outputs from its vehicles to meet new EU targets.

Perhaps amusingly, it was the money BMW made off the Isetta which enabled the company to produce larger models in the 1960s; there's a touch of irony in the prospect that once again the bubble car will be saving the Roundel's rump.

(Via AutoblogGreen.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 9:19 AM)
Climb every mountain

General Motors knew exactly what they were doing when they began producing the Hummer: they were creating a niche vehicle, instantly recognizable — something you can't say of too many of the General's generics — with off-road and rock-hopping capabilities as good as any you could get anywhere. So I have no trouble defending the Hummer.

Some of its owners, maybe not so much:

So I'm in the parking lot at Lowes and nitwit in the hummer is taking up far too much road space. Along comes little car with family inside, taking up the appropriate space in the road and refusing to budge. Nitwit in hummer was forced to hop the curb and of course shouted a few explicits out of the window. I followed, plenty of room since I was too driving a normal sized car.

If he'd left it at that — but no:

"Did you see that, did you see that, I had to go up on the curb to avoid that idiot, did you see where he parked?"

I quickly looked around, hoping beyond all hope nitwit wasn't addressing me, I only wanted to run in and get some molding.

No such luck.

"Some people, I'm going to have to take my car to the garage tomorrow, the wheels are probably all out of alignment."

I snorted, I couldn't stop myself, it was an involuntary sound it just came out. It's the kind of snort one makes when they’re trying desperately not to laugh at the pure lunacy of nitwit.

"Excuse me?" said nitwit indignantly

I was forced to respond.

"Look", says me "that is not a car, you're driving a hummer. It was built to crush small villages in war-torn areas. Haven't you seen the commercials, apparently it can scale a 65% incline. I seriously doubt you knocked your wheels out of alignment and if you did, ask for a refund. If you're not aware of your vehicle's capabilities perhaps you should consider a small car and do us all a favor by allowing us to drive around parking lots without fear of you infringing on our side of the road — have a nice day."

And for the coup de grâce:

And as I turned to leave — "You probably swerve around tiny little pot holes as well don't you?"

The curtain of charity descends.

Permalink to this item (posted at 2:06 PM)
5 February 2008
Now that's intake timing

Eric Sauck goes to school in Ann Arbor, Michigan; he sent a letter to Automobile Magazine, which is based in Ann Arbor, and sent the same letter to Motor Trend, which is on the West Coast but which is owned by the same outfit: Source Interlink Media. (The other two major motor mags have a similar configuration: Car and Driver is in Ann Arbor, Road & Track in southern California, and both are owned by Hachette Fillipachi.)

It should be obvious here that the two editorial staffs aren't looking over each other's shoulders, and the text varies between the two magazines: Automobile's version of the letter is slightly shorter. Motor Trend gave Sauck the sort-of-coveted "Letter of the Month" award and a 30GB Zune, which they probably bought off Woot.

Oh, the letter itself? Sauck was complaining about the sudden vogue — especially in car mags — for electric parking brakes, and points out what happens when the battery goes dead:

You're locked out of your car (smart keys), you can't pop the clutch to start it (auto-clutch transmissions), you have to find the radio reset code (anti-theft audio), you have to schedule a pricey dealer visit to clear that OBD fault code, and, oh yeah, your car might roll down that hill like a two-ton bowling ball. I'll sacrifice my Big Gulp Mountain Dew any day if it means I get the reassurance of a good mechanical handbrake.

I have to admit, I admire this guy's outlook — not to mention his skill in repurposing content. If he doesn't have a blog, he should.

Permalink to this item (posted at 10:00 AM)
6 February 2008
Who's buying the Bimmers?

Apparently a very narrow demographic:

While BMW still aims for the luxury car market stratosphere (the 7-Series and Rolls, neither of which amount to much) and the lower reaches (the MINI line, which is still premium priced for what it is), the propeller badge might as well be a rifle sight. And yuppies are in the crosshairs.

No car is more identified with a particular rung of the corporate ladder than BMW. Nothing says "mover and shaker" more than an alphabet soup 3 or 5 in a reserved parking place. We're not talking about the top slot; the truly highly-placed drive something with more presence. We're looking at the upper middle execs whose cars must stand out from the "ordinary" (cynics might say "practical") machines driven by the company's lesser lights.

Overpaying is part of the cachet, "I'm going places, and I don't need to worry about what it cost." Sure, Bimmer's rep for speed and handling is a nice seasoning. But truth be told, the sort of person who regularly buys/leases a BMW probably doesn't have the time to go joyriding. The exact position of this "Bimmer spot" within the corporate hierarchy varies from country to country, but the template remains the same: Urban Professional on the Move.

Which of course lets me out, since I'm not going anywhere, in several senses of the word. And obviously not everyone sporting a roundel is yuppie scum. (I know better.)

Still, I have to wonder if there's a bubble involved, and maybe there is:

If there is a significant worldwide economic downturn, existing and potential BMW buyers may not make enough bonus — or simply feel "safe" enough — to take on a new car after three to five years. Should the corporate ax man's blade swing through the lower executive level with special violence, BMW sales will suffer widespread decapitation.

That's the problem with near luxury products. They're not expensive enough to rise about the fray, and they're not cheap enough to be seen as a necessity, or fly under the corporate accountant’s radar.

We don't have a lot of high-zoot vehicles where I work, anyway; mostly it's trucks and sport-utilities. Then again, damn few of us are overpaid. (Some of us — I have reference to, um, me — don't even come close to it.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:58 AM)
7 February 2008
No supercars for you

Nissan has 1,076 US dealers, and 1,500 GT-Rs are coming here each year. This would mean that most stores might get one GT-R, maybe.

Actually, as it turns out, some stores won't get any at all:

The 1,500 annual GT-Rs allotted to the U.S. market will only be sold through GT-R-certified dealers.

Higher-volume Nissan dealers who also sell a good number of Z cars will get preference.

Certified dealers also must commit to a top dealership executive serving as the GT-R salesperson, preferably with transactions taking place privately outside of the showroom, and a service manager designated just for GT-R customers. The dealership also must have certified master technicians with special GT-R training, and invest in a specially equipped service bay.

I was loath to fill out this whole darn form just to find out if one of the city's four Nissan dealers might have made the cut, but sidestepping the official GT-R site in favor of good ol' NissanUSA.com brings up the usual dealer locator and a check box: "GT-R Dealers Only." I checked the box, and nobody was eliminated: apparently all four stores will be getting certification.

It's not like I'm going to be leaving a deposit — the GT-R will list for seventy grand, and I figure there will be enough dealer markup to push it into six figures easily — but Trini's gonna want to see one in the flesh. Or sheetmetal.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:24 PM)
11 February 2008
No, it gets all cranky

Cadillac wants to know: "When you turn your car on, does it return the favor?" Seriously. This is an actual ad.

Does anybody — anybody outside an advertising agency, anyway — refer to the process of starting a car as "turning it on"? "Go ahead and finish getting ready. I'll go out and turn the car on." I don't think even Prius owners talk like that.

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:06 AM)
12 February 2008
R38?

Or even R50. With the demise of the Q, Infiniti doesn't really have a flagship anymore, although the M35/M45 by all accounts is a better ride than the last Q45 was, but I find it hard to believe that Nissan is giving serious consideration to working up a GT-R variant to sell through Infiniti.

Still, Nissan design chief Shiro Nakamura told Britain's Car magazine (January):

"We have developed the platform and the transaxle powertrain — an Infiniti version is a future possibility... I have not done a study yet, but we are thinking about it."

The most logical reason for this, of course, is to improve the take: Nissan knows perfectly well that the GT-R will be priced in Upper Gougeland no matter what they tell their dealers, and at least they can ask a few grand more up front from an Infiniti store.

So: R38. Or a V8-powered R50 or R55. (Nissan is believed to be working up a 5-liter, maybe 5.5-liter, V8 for the FX, to move it a bit farther up from the new EX.) The price? Start around $80k and keep going. For this kind of money, I could — and would, if circumstances permitted — go for his-and-hers G37s, and buy lots of gas with what's left.

Permalink to this item (posted at 10:27 AM)
13 February 2008
Doing the Full Lutz

To be able to do the Full Lutz, a patented maneuver by General Motors Vice Chairman Bob Lutz, you have to be able to shrug off what was widely reported as the largest single-quarter loss in automotive history.

Which, as Lutz says, was "a special charge in the third quarter" of 2007, and which was anticipated all the way back in November:

U.S. tax law allows a corporation that suffers net losses to carry forward the total loss balance into future years in order to use the negative numbers as offsets against future profits. The result is that future taxes are lower because the corporation is taxed only on the profits minus the forwarded loss. Meanwhile, the total losses that are carried forward are treated as assets on the balance sheet. That is where GM gets its total of $38.6 billion; it is the automaker's cumulative loss total.

The [Financial Accounting Standards Board] has decided to toughen the criteria for asset valuations on the balance sheet of corporations. Adjustments are required for assets that don't meet the tougher test by first quarter of 2008. This is a one time adjustment and it could be reduced in the future if it looks like GM will be more profitable.

Inasmuch as this explanation came from a former FASB chairman, I'm inclined to give it credence.

Meanwhile, Bob Lutz wants you to know that the General's actual retail sales — none of that fleet stuff — rose a healthy 11 percent in January:

We used to grab every sale, including daily rentals, no matter how unprofitable or ultimately deteriorating to the value of vehicle and brand. And if we wanted to go back to that, we could probably boost our share back up to 27 percent or so tomorrow.

But we're in this for the long haul now … to reestablish our brands, to boost our residuals, and to improve the value and image of our vehicles. That's why the retail sales numbers are so important, and that's why I'd like to get the word out there about them. Somebody has to.

Especially when all the chatter is about an accounting entry that sounds worse than it really is.

Permalink to this item (posted at 11:16 AM)
18 February 2008
Where did we park the planetarium?

Rolls-Royce is not about to tell you the price of the new Phantom Coupé, though it's surely higher than the base Phantom sedan's $340,000. (Can a car that costs this much truly be called "base"?) It might even exceed the price of the convertible Drophead Coupé, which runs a piddling $412,000. Still, they'll sell every last one of them in a heartbeat, and two words explain why: "starlight headliner."

Which means this:

Boulevard lighting creates a gentle luminescence, an effect that can be heightened by the optional, full-length starlight headlining, which incorporates hundreds of tiny fibre optics to give the impression of a star-filled night sky. Adjustable to provide a quiet glow or ample light to read by, this beautiful lighting is complemented by discreet directional reading lights in the C-pillars.

It's like having the top down, except, well, it isn't.

Rolls-Royce Phantom Coupe Starlight Headliner

(Click here to embiggen.)

I'm waiting for some enterprising soul to come up with a motorized platform for all these optics, so that they actually move in some pattern resembling the actual night sky. (And, of course, for some other enterprising soul to buy me one of these cars, and to expand my garage so that it will fit inside.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:02 AM)
19 February 2008
Four letters, starts with F

We're referring, of course, to Ford.

Which, says Daniel Howes of the Detroit News, has an effing problem:

By that I mean the ingrained reflex to bestow new models with names beginning with the letter "F" — Fusion, Flex and now Fiesta, the global subcompact that would have been just fine, thank you, beginning life as Verve and signaling to the world that the One Ford of CEO Alan Mulally is becoming a new Ford.

But, no. It's back to the future — again — with a name that has three decades of brand recognition in Europe but hasn't been seen in the U.S. market since the early days of the first Reagan administration, roughly the last time subcompacts had much market cred.

Which really isn't an issue, since the hardest of hard-core Blue Oval buffs have said for years that European Fords were a couple of orders of magnitude better than domestic Fords, Mustangs perhaps excepted. (Then again, "Mustang" doesn't start with an F.)

I don't remember anyone complaining when Toyota mailed us all those C-cars: Corona, Corolla, Celica, Cressida, Camry. Still, "Flex" is a dumb name for a sport-utility vehicle, since any utility it has would be diminished by any significant flexing. Not even funkmasters, a class not generally known for their vehicular suss, are likely to go for that sort of thing.

Permalink to this item (posted at 1:07 PM)
20 February 2008
But we're really expensive!

Last fall I found this curious statement in a Chevrolet advertisement:

Chevy is now the world's fastest-growing nameplate, with a third of its sales outside the United States. At home, Chevy sells more cars and trucks costing over $35,000 than anybody.

At the time, it seemed to me that this wasn't exactly a selling point.

Evidently the bow-tie boys are still flogging this factoid:

"With the largest dealer network in the United States, Chevy is the leader in full-size trucks and the leader in sales of vehicles priced $35,000 and above. Chevrolet delivers more-than-expected value in every vehicle category, offering cars and trucks priced from $9,995 to $83,175."

Huh? Why's the Bow Tie brand — GM's supposed entry-level, value-oriented division — bragging that they sell the most vehicles in the "$35k and above" category? With the median new car price hovering around $27K, that's a whole lot of high-priced rides the "value division" is selling. Yes, much of what Chevy sells at the $35k and up price point are trucks and SUVs. But the fact that the spinmeisters view Chevy's $73k price span as a virtue reveals the depths of GM's non-existent branding strategy.

If it's non-existent, how much depth can it have?

More to the point, what are they thinking? And will they update this dubious statistic when the Corvette ZR1 shows up with six digits before the decimal on the Monroney sticker?

Either you're the value brand or you're a full-spectrum brand. Period. Ask Volkswagen how it felt to sell in the $70-80k range — or, more precisely, not sell in the $70-80k range.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:40 AM)
21 February 2008
Duel on the Broadway Extension

The attitude of some people is "As a matter of fact, I do own this damn road." Brad Neese has an unfortunate encounter with one of them:

She sped up, caught up to me and started riding my rear bumper, at times less than half a car length behind me — and at 60mph, that's pretty darn close. She was flashing her lights at me, gesturing wildly through her front windshield (which included many fervent displays of her middle digit) and weaving wildly behind me. As we started approaching slowing traffic, I made my second mistake: I tapped my brakes, hoping she would clue in to the fact that she needed to back off or we would be involved in a fender bender before we knew it. That sent her over the edge.

As we hit the congestion and were then moving at less than half of our original speed and still slowing down, she moved over to the lane to the right of me and slowly passed me. Her gesturing became more crazed and emphatic (which I didn't think could possibly be more demonstrative than her earlier antics — but was). She didn’t speed on, which she could have since she was in such a damn hurry. No, instead, she wanted me to know how wrong I was and how pissed she was. She did her best to match my speed, but was driving just ahead of me so that her rear bumper was about even with my front bumper. Realizing that she was going to try to cut in front of me to slam on her brakes, I kept a very close distance between me and the vehicle in front of me. She kept weaving across the center line between the lanes like she was going to either hit me or force her way in so that I would slam into her when she hit her brakes.

He got a picture of one of her gestures: the classic digitus impudicus. It's a shame he couldn't have snapped the tag on her Civic, so we'd have some way to identify the miserable trollop and steer clear of her until such time as either (1) she learns how to drive or (2) she's compressed into an oblate spheroid as she slams into a Jersey barrier during one of her hissy fits.

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:01 AM)
And even more R38

Earlier I alluded to the possibility that Nissan might produce a variant of the GT-R supercar to sell at Infiniti dealers.

Jonny Lieberman suggests how this might work:

They could stretch it and bolt on two extra doors, but it would cost about $5,000 more than the existing GT-R coupe. C'est rien: a small price to pay for the knowledge that my Infiniti can whip the snot out of your IS-F, M3, RS-Whatever, etc.

I broached the idea of a four-door GT-R to Trini, who was horrified at the prospect: everybody would be wanting a ride, and, well, you get a car like this, you're entitled to a certain amount of selectivity.

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:12 PM)
24 February 2008
Cabs forward

The City of New York is looking ahead to new and improved taxicabs:

The Taxi of Tomorrow project is a unique opportunity to explore upgrades to the existing NYC taxi fleet by learning about possibilities for a more appropriate vehicle that reflects the needs of its diverse stakeholders — passengers, drivers, owners and NYC residents.

The desiderata for the new vehicle:

  • meets highest safety standards
  • superior passenger experience
  • superior driver comfort and amenities
  • appropriate purchase price and on-going maintenance and repair costs
  • smaller environmental footprint (lower emissions and improved fuel economy)
  • smaller physical footprint (with more useable interior room)
  • universal accessibility for all users with a goal of meeting ADA guidelines, (wheelchair accessible), and
  • iconic design that will identify the new taxi with New York City

It's a tall order, to be sure. And the new cabs will almost certainly not be cheap. Then again, a single NYC taxi medallion will set you back over $400,000 [link goes to PDF file] all by itself, so the cost of the actual taxi is pretty much incidental.

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:18 AM)
26 February 2008
Don't get cwt

Franz Kafka's Garage (back page of Car and Driver) fields a tricky question:

If a half-ton pickup neither weighs, carries, nor tows a half-ton, what exactly makes it a half-ton pickup?

Their response:

That's kind of like asking why you're reading the April issue of Car and Driver in March — we're not entirely sure. Sometime, long ago, half-ton pickups could haul half a ton, and magazines came out during the month written on the cover. The pressures of competition resulted in earlier newsstand dates and more capable pickups.

Inasmuch as I was reading the April issue of Car and Driver in February, I suspect Kafka's gotten himself out of sync again.

And it gives me an opportunity to bring up once again the old Mad publishing schedule — last detailed five years ago — which flew in the face of everything everybody claimed to know about periodicals.

Today Mad comes out once a month, but you know founder William M. Gaines would never have countenanced such a thing. Comics in general tended to be pulled before their issue date, and Mad indeed had begun its existence as a comic, but Gaines viewed by-the-book scheduling, insisted upon by the Postal Service if you expected to keep your second-class mailing permit, as he did everything else: something to be avoided if possible, and if not, to be screwed around with. In the Gaines era, Mad, officially, was published "monthly except February, May, August and November"; after Gaines' death, but before switching to mere "monthly," the statement was amended to "monthly except bi-monthly for January/February, March/April, July/August and October/November." Both of these phrases neatly obscured the truth of the matter: a new issue of Mad appeared every forty-five days, a period for which there is no standardized description. What's more, despite Kafka's raving above, Mad went to a lot of trouble to make sure that no issue was ever on sale during its official month of issue.

On the other hand, Kafka's next stupid question drew an answer almost snappy enough for Al Jaffee:

My mom's car is breaking down, it has no air conditioning, and my sister wrote on the ceiling and tore on it, too. What does she do?

Kafka's advice:

First off, no more wearing pants in the car. That should fix the air-conditioning problem. It will also help your mother feel liberated and free-spirited, which should take her mind off the damage to the ceiling. A lack of pants could prove troublesome in the event of a roadside breakdown, though, so for a long-term solution, she should probably pay for the needed repairs or buy a more reliable car.

Emphasis added, mostly because my spouse at the time once attempted to make that selfsame point to me.

Permalink to this item (posted at 11:43 AM)
We get results, maybe

From about a year and a half ago:

[Y]ou can get quite a luxe-ish Prius if the check you write is big enough, and I keep wondering when Lexus is going to get its own version in the $35-45k range.

A few custom jobs have trickled out, but finally Toyota is taking my advice, kinda sorta:

Toyota will present two dedicated hybrid models at the 2009 North American International Auto Show in Detroit: one a Toyota and the other a Lexus.

It's no surprise the Toyota will be the Mark III Prius. It's the Lexus that will be the shocker: a lifestyle wagonlike vehicle based on the Prius platform and drivetrain.

If these come in at the right price — like I said, $35-45k — they'll sell like (whole-grain) hotcakes. Count on it.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:21 PM)
28 February 2008
A trifle less serenity

After five years of coaxing Zoom-Zoom out of a willing but underpowered Mazda, I found the switch to a more placid sedan a bit off-putting at first; when a car doesn't break a sweat, so to speak, you start wondering if maybe it's a bit lazier than you'd hoped.

The answer, in Gwendolyn's case, is no. As received in the summer of '06, she was fast enough, if not overwhelmingly so, and the 350 lb of extra weight, compared to her predecessor, didn't seem to put her at a disadvantage. Still, the Mazda handled a bit more crisply, despite a slightly more jittery ride.

Things wear out, though, and last fall I spent medium bucks for Dunlop high-performance tires, mostly because they'd worked so well on the Mazda. The SP Sport A2 Plus was apparently being phased out, so I bought the newer SP Sport Signatures; they were gratifyingly grippy, but the ride was rocky, and after a couple of rebalancings and such we arrived at the heart of the matter: the old dampers just didn't damp all that well anymore.

A set of fresh factory struts, installed by fresh factory-trained techs, would run close to two thousand dollars. This struck me as excessive, and eventually I addressed myself to Monroe, which sells zillions of aftermarket shocks, and who, I discovered, had come up with the struts for the contemporary Nissan Altima, suggesting to me that they might have some idea about how to hold up the corners of other Nissan products. Of their three lines, only the topmost, the Sensa-Trac, is offered for the Maxima and its Infiniti sister; it's nearly as pricey as the factory strut, but can be installed by mere mortals.

The first few days were alarming: "My God," I said in my best David Byrne voice, "what have I done?" Every imperfection in the road — and if you've ever driven in Oklahoma, you know to expect one about every three inches or so — seemed to be coming up through Gwendolyn's leather-covered steering wheel.

But then it dawned on me: when she'd first arrived, I'd thought her steering was a trifle numb. Now I'm getting actual road feel. The interaction of the Dunlops (which are V-rated and presumably have stiffer sidewalls than their H-rated brandmates) and the new struts (which, at the very least, recover faster than the old ones) has sharpened her responses considerably, with perhaps a slight sacrifice in ride. The tires tend to nibble around the bumps, the sort of thing that makes you wonder if maybe the front end is shot; yet she tracks perfectly straight, even on horrid examples of highway like I-35 through the near-northeast part of town, even on those ghastly mornings when it's been raining and the temperature is stuck at 29 or so. And there's less body roll: taking the 44 East-to-35 South ramp at my usual 60 mph no longer shoves me toward the door.

No, she's still not a sports car. But I no longer have any justification for coveting the pricier Touring version: it probably doesn't get around any better, and for some reason (bigger wheels?) its turning circle is four or five feet wider.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:46 PM)
2 March 2008
We got smarts

I admit to having had a qualm or two about the teensy smart fortwo, inasmuch as the sort of high-density traffic mazes in which they'd seem to flourish hardly exist out here on the Plains.

Now that they've arrived here, a happy owner reports:

We just took delivery today. And we are very impressed. I live in Oklahoma City and the Smart dealer is located in Tulsa, which is about 100 miles. The drive back home was perfect. The car had no problem with keeping up with traffic, which on the turnpike speeds average 75-80mph. 80mph was not an issue to keep up. When we originally test drove the car during the tour, the cars seemed a little bouncy and jerky. Our cabrio is very solid and smooth. Top up on the highway, there is very little wind noise. Top down is stupendous. And the premium sound system ROCKS!!! All in all we couldn't be happier with our purchase. And for the days driving, after taking it on a tour to friends to show off, we averaged 44 mpg. WOOHOO! One other thing to point out, the attention the car gets is insane. I felt like I was in a parade on the highway. I have never had so many people waving and smiling and pointing. Some even snapped pictures.

The automated-manual transmission, however, is not your standard slushbox by any means:

This is not a typical automatic that we are used to in the US. If you drive it like one, the shifting is sluggish. However! If, when it comes time for it to shift, let off the gas just a little and it's quite smooth. In other words, you drive it like a typical standard transmission, you just don't have a clutch to push in. My dealer instructed on this at delivery and it took a little getting used to. But after a full day of driving you don't even think about it.

Still, every car has its quirks, and this particular quirk doesn't seem severe. Traffic on the Turner does move routinely at around 80 mph — posted speed limit is 75 — and I figure if the sheer volume of eighteen-wheelers didn't prove intimidating, smart should have no trouble selling a bunch of these little darbs here in the Sooner State.

Permalink to this item (posted at 12:57 PM)
3 March 2008
VW to dial 911

Volkswagen Group is facing a takeover by Porsche:

German carmaker Porsche wants a majority share in Volkswagen. During an extraordinary meeting on Monday, the company's supervisory board gave the green light for the acquisition of shares. The company's chairman, Wendelin Wiedeking, has been given authority to start the steps necessary to get regulatory and antitrust approval for the share purchase. "Our aim is to create one of the strongest and most innovative automobile alliances in the world, which is able to measure up to the increased international competition," Wiedeking said.

In the past two and a half years, Porsche has gradually built up a 31-percent voting stake in VW Group, a process helped by the European Union's finding that Germany's so-called "Volkswagen Law," which prevented more than 20 percent of the company of being acquired, thereby protecting the interests of the German state of Lower Saxony, which also owned 20 percent, was inconsistent with EU rules.

There are, of course, strong historical ties. Dr Ferdinand Porsche, perhaps influenced by a design by Josef Ganz, is credited with the creation of Volkswagen's Beetle; the Porsche family still pulls the strings in Stuttgart. Wiedeking has brought billions of euros into Porsche's coffers, mostly by broadening the product line and annoying the hell out of Porsche purists.

Depending on whether you're counting revenues or employees, VW Group is between 15 and 20 times the size of Porsche, so this is a case of Jonah getting a big fish dinner. I have to wonder if maybe, somewhere down the line, Ford might be swallowed up by Mazda.

Permalink to this item (posted at 11:12 AM)
7 March 2008
Count the ponies

Jonny Lieberman poses a question: "How much horsepower is too much?"

Unless you routinely drag race (and I'm talking, you know, all the friggin' time) what on earth do you need 700 hp for? I'm not in any way suggesting we cap output, I just want to know who's buying these beasts? And why?

You'd want to know, of course, how Mr Lieberman's ride tests out, and he tells you up front:

My car has 224 hp. I'm suddenly mature enough to not bother racing people at stop lights (especially since that CTS-V humbled me). I only use all my car's strength when I'm getting on the freeway or when I'm at a red light in the left hand lane and need to quickly get over to the right. And you know what? It's more than enough.

Given those same criteria, the vehicle I've driven which exhibited the highest degree of indifference to how hard it was being called upon to work was a 2007 G35, so I figure that 306 hp is about as much as I'd ever need.

On the other hand, Gwendolyn, with an earlier, smaller version of the same engine, is no slouch, so I am not inclined to complain about her more modest 227-hp output, especially since I can remember no instance when I've been called upon to use all of it.

Then again, 227 hp might be marginal, or worse, if you have two tons or more to haul around, and if you have a minivan or a pickup truck, you probably do.

Permalink to this item (posted at 1:15 PM)
8 March 2008
Counting my own ponies

As a followup to the question of "How much horsepower is too much?" I decided to sit down and determine just how much I've had over the years. Here are the numbers:

  • Susannah (1966 Chevrolet Nova): 3.8L OHV inline-6, 140 hp
  • Dymphna (1975 Toyota Celica): 2.2L SOHC inline-4, 96 hp
  • Deirdre (1984 Mercury Cougar): 3.8L OHV V-6, 120 hp
  • Molly (1993 Mazda 626): 2.0L DOHC inline-4, 118 hp
  • Sandy (2000 Mazda 626): 2.0L DOHC inline-4, 130 hp
  • Gwendolyn (2000 Infiniti I30): 3.0L DOHC V-6, 227 hp

Only the first two had actual carburetors; the Mercury had something called "central fuel injection," which used one injector for the entire intake, and everything afterwards had port fuel injection. The two Mazda engines were basically identical, though the newer engine had distributorless ignition, and Mazda had moved away from hydraulic valve lifters in favor of something manually adjustable.

When I got married, my wife was driving that Toyota; we got rid of my old Nova and bought a newer one, which I didn't include here because she ended up driving it and eventually owning it. Unsurprisingly, it went unnamed. The powerplant was your basic small-block Chevy V-8, in 5.0L displacement (305), with 140 hp.

If you happened to notice that those two distinctly-different Chevrolets got the same number of horsepower, well, they didn't really: the '66 was rated by the SAE gross method, which was measured at the flywheel with nothing but the bare minimum of attachments. The newer SAE net measurement included everything you could reasonably expect to be running off the engine, including exhaust components, the alternator, and emissions gear; it was adopted in 1971. I'm guessing Susannah actually put out about 110 hp by the newer standard. (SAE recently tightened up its standards; as with the gross-to-net change, there is no specific conversion factor.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 11:36 AM)
9 March 2008
Going back to Jersey

When Ford assembled its Premier Auto Group in 1999, the company built a shiny new headquarters in Irvine, California to house its high-priced brands.

But that was then. Since then, Lincoln has been de-Premiered, Aston Martin has been sold off, and Land Rover and Jaguar are about to follow. That leaves Volvo all by itself to rattle around in Orange County.

No more. Volvo, which as an independent company had its US headquarters in New Jersey, and which still maintains its service depot there, will return to the Garden State, giving Ford a chance to unload the PAG building and make some badly-needed cash.

Mazda, Ford's Asian affiliate, remains in Irvine. Then again, Mazda was never part of the Premier group.

Permalink to this item (posted at 4:08 PM)
11 March 2008
More all-American Bimmers

BMW will be building more vehicles in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and apparently fewer in Germany. The official reason: exchange rates, making it cheaper to build in the States than it does in der Vaterland.

Stuff like this doesn't faze me. The Mazda 626 I used to drive was the first import-branded car to qualify as a "domestic" based on parts origin, and what's more, it was actually built by UAW members in Flat Rock, Michigan. And rather a lot of Volkswagens seem to get here through Mexico.

Permalink to this item (posted at 2:22 PM)
13 March 2008
De-hybridization

Something about this just tickles me no end: a Honda Insight with its hybrid stuff replaced by the K20A mill from a Civic Type-R.

Really. It looks like it just bolted in. With at least 200 hp and a six-speed manual, it's, if not wicked fast, at least capable of some speedy peccadillos, and it's still getting 45-50 mpg.

And that may be the whole point of this exercise:

While automakers spend billions in a technological arms race to develop ever more complex drivetrains, these guys have proven that simple, small, aerodynamically efficient cars can be fun, fast and frugal. Who knew?

Everybody except Congress, I suspect.

Permalink to this item (posted at 1:01 PM)
16 March 2008
The new GM vapor-control system

Mike Solowiow gets a surprise at State Fair Park:

Rocking-up at the Oklahoma City International (?) Auto Show, I asked a GM spokesperson about the upcoming electric gas plug-in Chevrolet Volt. "We have been instructed to not discuss the Volt too much, but to steer people interested in it to the newly released hybrids because we want them to focus on those released products, and not on the concept that might not make it to production soon."

"Pay no attention to the car behind the curtain!"

The so-called "two-mode" hybrid in the Tahoe might be a game-changer — getting 20 mpg out of a big, hulking truck has to be considered a major improvement — but a lot of people, even in Oklahoma, are looking for something other than big, hulking trucks, and GM's other hybrids come up short on performance and panache.

The Volt is supposedly going to be available in 2010.

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:21 AM)
17 March 2008
4x4 time

I'm not quite sure what to make of this:

Shiro Nakamura likes to think that designing cars is like making music.

That I can comprehend, I think. But then:

At Nissan, which also makes premium vehicles under the Infiniti brand, his gig involves a range of music, he says.

"Luxury cars are like classical music: you have to respect certain rules — otherwise they will not be accepted," Nakamura says. "The Nissan brand is more like jazz, pop or rock: you can ignore the rules."

Now I'm curious. Nissan sells one vehicle in this country with both nameplates: the monstrous Nissan Armada SUV, based on the Titan pickup, is dressed up with $10,000 worth of glitz and sold at Infiniti stores as the QX56. Which rule was respected, and which rule ignored?

Incidentally, my own Infiniti, an I30, is a derivative of Nissan's Maxima. If it's a classical piece, it's Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini: neither the sheer number of variations, nor the admitted ingenuity thereof, will change the fact that the theme itself came from somewhere else.

(Via The Truth About Cars.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:20 PM)
20 March 2008
Donuts on your lawn

There were four-cylinder Camaros before: in 1982, the third-generation GM pony car debuted with, if you weren't careful, Pontiac's low-suds Iron Duke engine with a single fuel injector and a measly 90 hp. As equipped, it would have been hard-pressed to outrun my seven-year-old Toyota Celica.

Now Bob Lutz is suggesting that there will again be Camaros with four-bangers — though nothing like the lowly Duke. The engine under consideration, complete with turbocharger, has already done yeoman duty in the Pontiac Solstice/Saturn Sky twins, plus a couple of GM front-drivers; it should be good for 260 hp, which should propel the 3000-lb (preliminary estimate) coupe more than adequately.

Then again, drivers itching for a bitchin' Camaro are going to demand more than "more than adequately," and they won't give a bent pushrod about GM's need to meet escalating CAFE standards. Let's just hope the curb weight turns out to be somewhere within a couple of bowling balls of that 3000-lb target, otherwise things are going to get seriously ugly.

Permalink to this item (posted at 10:00 AM)
25 March 2008
We demand our smarts

Last time we looked at the lower-case smart car, we heard from a happy Oklahoma owner, and speculated that smart might be able to sell "a bunch" of their not-quite-microcars in the Sooner State.

US distributor Roger Penske is now reporting that sales are strong nationwide:

Penske told Automotive News that he thinks that, on top of the 25,000 Smarts he's getting from Europe this year, he could "easily" sell 15,000 more. The trouble is that the Smart factory simply can't produce more than they currently are, so those 15,000 extra sales will either be delayed or lost to other brands. Penske said he's waiting to hear from Mercedes about possibly making more Smarts for the U.S.

What would you cross-shop with a smart, anyway? Prius? Honda Fit?

The big question for Penske, and ultimately for Daimler, is whether the little car can establish a permanent niche in the North American market, or if it turns out to be just another flavor of the month. For the moment, I'm betting Penske's right, and he'll move every one of these that rolls off the boat.

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:56 AM)
Special FX

Gwendolyn's lack of thirst was diagnosed as ignition problems (P1320, for you fans of OBD II codes); the fix was to replace the spark plugs (which I was going to do anyway) and the ignition coils. Unfortunately, there are six of each, and, this being a sideways V6, you can bet that three of them are a wicked sumbitch to change out. Each coil is around a hundred bucks, and the standard plugs are tipped with rare and precious Unobtainium, so this is a serious hit to the wallet; on the other hand, I'll have no problem blowing off the plug service at 120k, since it's only 14k away. I am still somewhat perplexed by the notion that using less fuel — last tank was 23.2 mpg, about 10 percent better than seasonal around-town norms — somehow constitutes a "malfunction," but it does change the emissions pattern, and inasmuch as the new ozone rules are likely to mandate closer inspection of vehicle emissions, I've got to implement the fix.

For the day, they handed me the keys to an FX35, a sort-of-SUV built up on Nissan's FM platform. Curiously, its dynamics, over my usual Bad Road course, were almost identical to what I experience in my own car, which took some doing considering that this particular FX, a 2005 model, was rear-wheel drive (an AWD version is also available) and Gwendolyn is a front-driver. Truth be told, I'd rather have the smaller EX, if only because it's not so tall as the FX. Not that I'm inclined to go car-shopping after paying the repair bill, of course.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:36 PM)
26 March 2008
It never hurts to ask

While setting up for Gwendolyn's spa day yesterday, the service manager flipped through rather a lot of screens to see what sort of past issues might be contributing to her woes, and each one was tagged with a mileage reading, from 103,799 all the way back to — I stared in disbelief — 5.

"How hard would it be to get a copy of all that?" I said.

He pushed a couple of buttons, and after a minute or two of laser whirr, he handed me a sheaf of paper.

Obviously it won't include things that were done outside the Nissan/Infiniti system, but there is stuff here worth knowing. For instance:

14967: "Wood trim is coming unglued on dash lower edge on curves."

23849: "At times when starting cold prior to warming up idle will drop very low when put into gear then come back up." [For a fix, they reprogrammed the computer.]

62982: "Test drive reveals front brake rotors warped (pads ok at 50%)." and "Inspection reveals rear brake pads worn over 90% and rotors warped." [In the 43,000 miles since then, both sets of pads have been replaced and the rear rotors turned.]

I knew all this kind of stuff from my previous car, of course, because I bought it new. This one I didn't. (And given the depreciation curves that prevail, my next one may have, um, prior service also.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 5:28 PM)
28 March 2008
On the rocks

Some Michigan transportation officials, their budgets squeezed, shrunk, and then squeezed some more, have noted with sorrow that today you can't tell their asphalt from a hole in the road, and have come up with a brand-new, really old approach: forget the pavement, bring on the gravel. It's already happening in some parts of the Mitten:

Workers [in Kent County] recently pulverized portions of four roads. They'll remain as gravel for a few months despite traffic volumes of 5,000 to 10,000 vehicles per day, said Jerry Byrne, director of maintenance for the Kent County Road Commission.

"It's safer," he said, "and it's a better ride."

And after all, what choice do they have?

[T]he state Department of Transportation estimates it needs to come up with an extra $320 million a year just to maintain state-managed roads, and many county-level officials around the state have noted that a number of their roads simply go unrepaired.

I don't know how well this would work in Oklahoma, but I can think of several roads to which I'd like to take a very large sledgehammer, just out of spite.

(Via Autoblog.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:54 AM)
30 March 2008
The ever-popular Fake URL trick

My daughter used to own a Toyota Matrix, and I remember it as being just this side of somnolent, despite her best efforts. (She obviously inherited the old man's leadfoot tendencies.) For 2009, Toyota has, um, reloaded the Matrix, including reinstating the all-wheel-drive option, and they're trying to sell it as some sort of excitemobile. A print ad in the current Car and Driver shows an '09 Matrix in some electric-tangerine color, and in the same shade, there's a URL: web-physicians.net/hyperventilation.

Which actually works, although eventually, inevitably, you'll end up here. Still, I'm amused at the premise, and at the idea that the Matrix, which is for all intents and purposes a Corolla with a hatchback, is somehow connected to one's "dark side." Maybe Toyota's trying to atone for screwing up the Scion xB.

Addendum: It's crazier than I thought. I found a display ad on Technorati for something called "Parents Against Reprehensible Metal Music," which turns out to lead yet again to Toyota's Matrix site.

Further addendum: It's crazier than I thought it was when I thought it was crazier than I thought. Just ask Mr. Raccoon.

Permalink to this item (posted at 10:10 AM)
2 April 2008
Alfa Romeo's tune

The handful of Alfisti who have been waiting with bated breath for the return of the Cross and Serpent to these shores are apparently going to be rewarded beyond their wildest dreams: not only is Alfa Romeo going to sell cars in the States again, but they might actually build them here.

A number of possibilities present themselves: acquisition of an existing plant that's been closed; expansion of one of Case/New Holland's tractor plants — CNH, like Alfa, is a part of the humongous Fiat empire — for automotive use; even a facility in Mexico has been considered.

Whatever the decision, you can credit it to, or blame it on, the weakness of the US dollar. Alfa isn't going to make any money over here by shipping us Eurocars at anything like the current exchange rate.

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:56 AM)
3 April 2008
Couped up

One way to make sure Trini reads this site is to throw in something about the Nissan GT-R, which is hitting dealerships even now at a price that will make your nose bleed. Car and Driver actually managed to hook up its test gear to one of Nissan's engineering mules, and they titled their review "Big, Heavy, and Incredible." I was reading over the spec sheet, and one number jumped out at me: 232 cubic inches (3.8 liters), within 2 cc of the Ford Essex V6 that had been dropped into my old Mercury Cougar. So how does today's oversized two-door compare to the oversized two-door of twenty-five years ago? We've got numbers:

Horsepower:

  • Cougar: 120 hp @ 3600 rpm
  • GT-R: 480 hp @ 6400 rpm

Zero to sixty:

  • Cougar: 11 seconds
  • GT-R: 3.3 seconds

Top speed:

  • Cougar: 105 mph (though speedo quits at 85)
  • GT-R: 191 mph

Gas mileage:

  • Cougar: 16 mpg
  • GT-R: 16 mpg

Price (2008 dollars):

  • Cougar: $23,050
  • GT-R: $70,475

Oh, well, you can't lose them all.

Permalink to this item (posted at 1:16 PM)
4 April 2008
Send in the clones

There are still a few people who get all bug-eyed when they see what I'm driving these days, and I endeavor to make them less impressed, usually by explaining that yeah, it's an Infiniti, but when you get right down to it, it's a Nissan with an overlay of glitz. Depending on how technical I want to get, I characterize this as either "badge engineering" or "platform sharing."

Which, of course, suggests a question: where's the line between the two? The infamous (and at the time ubiquitous) Chrysler K-cars were clearly badge-engineered: the difference between a Dodge Aries and a Plymouth Reliant was next to nil. On the other hand, there's not so much resemblance between the Lincoln MKZ (formerly Zephyr) and the Mazda6, generally accepted as an example of a shared platform. Somewhere in between, Gwendolyn has the same floorpan and powertrain as a Maxima, but different sheetmetal at each end — the doors and roof are the same, I think — and a more extensive array of gadgetry. (And five extra horsepower, due to a larger two-stage muffler. Big deal.)

Still, this isn't the sort of clear delineation I might have hoped for. Jonny Lieberman tossed out this question to TTAC readers, and this, I think, is the winner:

If my mom can tell that two related cars share parts, that's badge engineering. If only the lunatics who discuss cars on the interwebs can tell, that's platform sharing.

Of course, as one of the lunatics in question, I maintain that we don't need no stinkin' badges.

Permalink to this item (posted at 11:25 AM)
6 April 2008
A mighty road car is our Ford

Coming soon to eastern Kansas, the Mustang Church of America:

Charles Ales loves Mustangs and doing good to others, so he's putting it all together and starting the Mustang Church of America and Museum.

"There's not another one like it in the world," said Ales, lifelong car collector. "I've been around car nuts all my adult life. You can mess with their wives, you can mess with their dogs, but you can't mess with their cars. It borders on a religion with them, so I built them a church."

So far, the only automaker actually named after a god is Mazda.

Top Ten new religious movements of an automotive nature:

  1. The Porschetarians
  2. Chevrolaity
  3. Seekers of Infiniti
  4. Office of the Archmitsubishop
  5. V-Sikhs
  6. LaSallevation Army
  7. Gnashticism
  8. Subarutherans
  9. GTOrthodoxy
  10. Society of St. Prius X

Jesus, we may assume, was partial to Hondas; in Acts 2, the disciples managed to get to the first Pentecost in one Accord.

(Via the heretics at Autoblog.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:17 AM)
7 April 2008
Charge ahead

One question about the Toyota Prius, and by extension other vehicles using hybrid technology, has never quite died down: "How long can these things actually last?" The battery pack is one of the most expensive components in the car, and even though warranty coverage is extensive, the replacement cost must be considered discouraging.

Some answers: One '01 Prius, in service as a Vancouver taxicab, has rolled up 410,000 km, over a quarter of a million miles, with only minor maintenance issues. And this isn't the outside limit, either, reports a hybrid-specialist independent garage:

Luscious Garage has the distinct pleasure of servicing several high mileage Prius, including this one in a courier capacity, now topping 270,000 miles.

This car has needed very little attention up to now, with the first high dollar repair affecting the air conditioning system.

The compressor was toast. Total cost of the replacement (second-hand but in good shape), including new refrigerant: $870. Not bad at all.

Permalink to this item (posted at 1:32 PM)
9 April 2008
A truly slick idea

For those of us for whom "winter" is more than a theoretical construct, half a foot of snow on the roads can be shrugged off, but half an inch of ice will kill us deader than Chris Dodd's Presidential campaign. And the scariest variation on this theme is dubbed "black ice": you can't see it on the pavement, but it's there, waiting to send you skidding into the median. Gwendolyn is good about reporting the temperature outside, but she can't tell how the roads are with a mere sensor.

Enter the French. The research firm Eurovia is testing a varnish which changes color from white to pink when the surface temperature drops below freezing. Stripe a road with this stuff, and you won't have to wonder if it's just wet or actually frozen.

Obviously the aforementioned half a foot of snow will cover up the stripes, but then you can see half a foot of snow. In the Dakotas, or some other place where they measure annual snowfall in yards, this might not be so useful. But down here, where freezing rain strikes fear into the driver's heart on a regular basis, it's bound to be at least something of a boon, provided it actually works.

Permalink to this item (posted at 11:10 AM)
10 April 2008
And the number of cylinders shall be four

Hybrids, schmybrids: cash-strapped consumers are flocking to conventional four-cylinder cars in this age of pricey fuelstuffs. And it's mainly because the hybrids still cost a lot:

Despite the increasing popularity of the Prius by Toyota Motor Corp., hybrids made up only 3% of the overall market for new cars last year. The sales gap between the relatively new technology and the smallest conventional engines is actually growing.

"For now, the easiest, cheapest way for new-car shoppers to get better mileage is to choose a model with a conventional four-cylinder engine. And they are," said J.D. Power and Associates' Jason Rothkop. He added in a conference call that it's getting more difficult for hybrids to command a premium of up to $5,000 when customers are counting every penny.

Another J. D. Power factoid:

The four-cylinder engine now holds 37% of the U.S. market, up from 30% just three years ago when gas last averaged less than $2 a gallon.

Well, you could have had a V-8, but:

[Standard & Poor's] said that over the past three years, vehicles equipped with eight-cylinder engines saw their market share drop to 18% from 28%. V-8 engines command an $8,000 premium per vehicle over the V-6 models, while the four-cylinder models offer a $4,000 discount, on average.

Whether S&P is including inline sixes with the V-6s, I couldn't tell you. And there are threes and fives and tens and twelves out there. (If you're considering the sixteen-cylinder Bugatti Veyron, you're probably not worried about the price tag.)

Me? I've owned six cars, three with four-bangers, three with sixes.

(Via The Truth About Cars.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:50 PM)
13 April 2008
Gently used, only 2000 miles

I don't know if this is the last remaining 1902 Peugeot 5hp Bébé, but it's being sold — for £100,000 — and to be legally salable in Britain, it had to pass the MOT Test. Which, happily, it did.

The little two-seater has been in the same family since it was brought over from France. The Bébé has a single-cylinder engine displacing 0.65 litre, and shaft drive to the rear wheels. Suspension appears to be leaf springs all around. Top speed is 28 mph. I have no idea as to its fuel economy.

A reader of the Daily Mail article linked herein asked: "So just how did it pass the emissions test?" The answer is here:

An important aspect of the MOT is that the vehicle's equipment is Tested, by and large, to the standard to be expected during its year of manufacture. For example, the brakes and emissions of a 1919 Morris will not be Tested to the same criteria as a 2006 Mercedes.

It seems unlikely that this Peugeot would have even a rudimentary PCV valve.

(Via Fark.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 2:07 PM)
16 April 2008
Nismopar!

It's only a couple of models, officially, but nonetheless, Chrysler and Nissan are drawing closer together:

Highlights of the new agreement:

Nissan will manufacture an all-new, fuel-efficient small car based on a unique Chrysler concept and design. This new segment entry for Chrysler will be sold in North America, Europe and other global markets in 2010, and manufactured at Nissan's Oppama Plant in Japan.

Chrysler will manufacture a full-size pickup for Nissan. Based on a Nissan unique design, this truck will be manufactured at Chrysler's Saltillo (Mexico) Assembly Plant. In order to accommodate this product, Chrysler will shift volume from Mexico to its U.S.-based assembly plants that produce pickup trucks. Sales of the pickup in North America will start in 2011.

Things which come immediately to mind:

  • Nissan's Titan is definitely a full-size truck, but it's fifth in a five-vehicle market, and Consumer Reports reviles it. Not that CR is that fond of your basic Dodge Ram.

  • To some Nissanophiles, Oppama is the home of the Maxima, even though they started building them Stateside for 2004. (And it's Gwendolyn's home town.) However, I haven't yet heard any cries of "Blasphemy!"

  • Is Chrysler admitting that they can't afford to build one of their own designs?

  • And perhaps most important, is this a prelude to Something More?

The first Chrysler/Nissan hookup was announced back in January: Nissan will rebadge the Versa for Chrysler sale in South America. (Chrysler was buying transmissions from Nissan's Jatco unit before that, but this was the first deal for a whole car.) It's probably premature, but I wouldn't be surprised, somewhere down the line, to see Nissan's Carlos Ghosn showing up in Auburn Hills with a cashier's check and a collection of golden parachutes for Minimum Bob Nardelli and friends.

And neither would the Autoextremist:

[Ghosn] will maximize the Chrysler facilities (at least the ones he deems worth saving), he will pump up the Jeep brand globally by putting real muscle behind it, he will weed out the Chrysler product lineup both current and future (not that it would take a genius to figure that out), and he will approach the U.S. market with a unified product strategy that he has so desperately wanted.

In short, Ghosn will get what he has always wanted, which is to become more than a second-tier player in the U.S. market.

Me, I'm amused by the idea of Renault (Nissan's European partner) and Jeep back together again. Heck, if they want to bring back American Motors, it's fine with me.

Permalink to this item (posted at 3:58 PM)
22 April 2008
Pacer madness

Lileks has it:

I loved it, but rust took us apart. Until that day I was inordinately fond of it, because it was simply the most futuristic car on the mass market, and futuristic in a way only the benighted 70s could have produced. It was round in an age when most cars had the aerodynamic profile of a tipped-over Frigidaire, and it was wide — had the wheelbase of Sophie Tucker, it did. The hatchback area was big enough for sleeping, and I slept it in a few nights when I was between apartments or off in the woods. I don't remember any gearhead details like "pickup" or "top speed," and the latter wasn't that important in the 55 MPH era, anyway. Half the cars I drove in those horrible dark times shimmied like Little Richard in a KY Jelly factory, and the engines sounded like a skeleton pitching a fit on a tin roof. (To quote Foghorn Leghorn.)

Who apparently got it, I say, got it, from Sir Thomas Beecham, but no matter. One's connection to a motor vehicle comes from something deep within:

Best feature: twice I drove it in a horrible blizzard, and lived. Once I was driving back to the Cities from Fargo, and the road simply disappeared; you couldn't see more than six yards ahead, and you had only the tracks of the previous car to guide you. But that was nothing compared to a storm that closed the Interstate entirely. There's nothing quite like being on a highway thats been closed already; the radio said I-94 has been closed, but there you are, driving along, wondering what waits ahead. I pulled off at Alexandria, checked into a Holiday Inn, and I believe I had my first scotch ever in the hotel bar. It seemed like a manly thing to do.

Just imagine, though: (1) if AMC had ever been able to fit the Pacer with the Wankel rotary engine for which it was designed and (2) had they put in enough of an air conditioner to deal with the car's tremendous glass area, we wouldn't be having this discussion now: we'd be nodding to ourselves and thinking, Yeah, that Pacer, that was a great car. And by the benighted standards of the late 1970s, maybe it was.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:00 PM)
27 April 2008
Truckin' on

Jalopnik was asking "What would it take to get you into a modern mid-sized sedan?" This chap has no desire to get into one:

The problem is with "modern." That means FWD, which is nice for snow-hoonage I suppose, until the starter shits the bed or something, then a former 15-minute job becomes an afternoon-long exercise in physical and psychological torture.

Next problem of course, is the inability to just get a good honest car, they're all loaded to the gills with stupid doodads like Electronic Ashtray Position Sensors which will fail nanoseconds after the warranty expires, most likely at 2:30 AM, February 12, in Deliverance, Kentucky — immediately frying the "ECU," a completely useless device that forces the engine to reswallow its own vomit time and time again so that factories that produce children's toys out of lead-coated asbestos can purchase "clean air credits," and do-gooder dumbass politicos can jump in their private jets and deliver a sermon to me about how I'm personally responsible for the extinction of the Brazilian Banded Aardvark because my '92 F150 burns a quart of oil every 1,000 miles.

Actually, even my old ECU-less '75 Celica swallowed its own vomit; once it quit doing it and I had to replace the EGR valve, which cost something like one-third the price of an entire 20R short block.

Come to think of it, said Celica, in its waning days, went through a quart of dino juice every 1,000 miles, though most of it slipped past rings somewhere between worn and inchoate.

Permalink to this item (posted at 11:11 AM)
28 April 2008
Making the Prius Priuser

A company called Hymotion is taking deposits for a Toyota Prius plug-in kit which will make visits to the gas station even rarer:

According to the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), half of the cars in the U.S. are driven just 25 miles a day or less. Hymotion's L5 Plug-in Conversion Modules enable your vehicle to achieve outstanding fuel economy by electrically supplementing the hybrid drivetrain for up to 40 miles. When the Hymotion L5 module is fully depleted, your vehicle will function as a standard hybrid until you recharge.

What's in the box:

The kit consists of a 5kWh battery pack filled with A123 lithium ion cells that fits into any second-generation (2004-2008) Prius. The pack can be fully charged in 4.5 hours at 110V and Hymotion claims a converted Prius will get up to 100mpg for 30-40 miles. Your mileage will of course vary.

You will not come close to paying for this with your fuel savings: the kit, including installation, sells for $9,995 plus $400 shipping. Still, if you've always wanted a plug-in car and you don't have $100k for a Tesla, this is about as close as you're likely to get until Chevy produces some Volts.

Permalink to this item (posted at 12:22 PM)
Captain Kerk beams in once more

Kirk Kerkorian, having been rebuffed in previous efforts to take control of General Motors and Chrysler, is now casting his eye toward Ford:

Billionaire investor Kirk Kerkorian, a year after his failed bid to acquire Chrysler marked his latest venture into the auto sector, moved to build his position in Ford Motor Co., sending shares up almost 10% on Monday. Ford's stock finished up 71 cents at $8.21, following a week of wide swings in the wake of the company's surprise first-quarter profit report. Shares have risen 22% since the beginning of the year as restructuring efforts have gained traction.

Kerkorian, typically critical of top management in the U.S. auto sector, announced a bid of $8.50 a share for up to 20 million shares and expressed confidence in Ford's direction.

Is he sandbagging? I dunno. Ford CEO Alan Mulally sent out this statement:

We welcome confidence in Ford and the progress we are making on our transformation plan. Any investor can purchase Ford shares, which are sold on the open market. The Ford team remains focused on executing our plan to transform Ford into a lean global enterprise delivering profitable growth for all.

Neither side the slightest bit adversarial. That alone makes me suspicious.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:51 PM)
30 April 2008
A smashing success

In 2006, four thousand-odd Mazdas on the way here from Japan got an unexpected salt-water bath, prompting the company's North American branch to scrap the entire shipment. Turns out that this isn't as easy as it sounds:

"We had to create a disassembly line, basically," says Bob Turbett, the Mazda executive overseeing the destruction process.

It took more than a year to devise a plan that satisfied everyone. The city of Portland [Oregon] wanted assurance that nearly 5,000 cars' worth of antifreeze, brake fluid and other hazardous goop wasn't mishandled. Insurers covering Mazda's losses wanted to be sure the company wouldn't resell any cars or parts — thereby profiting on the side. So every steel-alloy wheel has to be sliced, every battery rendered inoperable, and every tire damaged beyond repair. All CD players must get smashed.

Although one part is salvaged before the hammer comes down:

[C]atalytic converters, rich with precious metals like platinum, are removed. Parts like these have a street value of hundreds of dollars apiece.

The crushed remains will be sent back to Japan for recycling.

(Via Autoblog.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 9:44 AM)
3 May 2008
Hauling mass

I suspect the boffins at Chevrolet are pleased with the results of this Popular Mechanics road test, in which a 2008 Malibu with a four-cylinder engine and a six-speed automatic returned almost 30 mpg over a 500-mile trip.

And I was fairly impressed myself — the best I've done on a World Tour was 30.7 mpg in 2005 — until I got to the very last paragraph:

Remember, our Malibu was a fully loaded 3700-pound, five-passenger sedan with OnStar, satellite radio, all the normal power accessories, heated seats, tilt-and-telescope steering wheel, leather seating and remote starting. And it returned nearly 30 mpg on a brand-new engine with only 473 miles. That's quite good, indeed.

Thirty-seven hundred pounds? Christ on a Krispy Kreme, as Rachel Lucas might say. In 2005 I was driving a Mazda 626, a car in the same size class as the Malibu, admittedly lacking some of the Chevy's features but still with "all the normal power accessories," and it weighed less than 3000 lb. My current ride is replete with electric servants, has ten percent more interior room, and comes in around 3400. Are they putting ballast in these things, or what?

(Via Autoblog Green.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 12:22 PM)
Uh-oh, better get Mohelco

Matt Stone, in the June '08 Motor Trend:

If we have a problem with [Maserati's] elegant GranTurismo, it's that it may be too gentile.

It's Italian. Duh.

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:15 PM)
6 May 2008
Dutch Uncle is watching

Note the clever use of the word "improve":

The Netherlands has decided to improve the country's road tax by taxing according to the vehicle type, usage, hour and roads the vehicle is using. The system uses GPS, a car transmitter and a standard cell phone GSM network to send this information to a central computer that processes the information. Once these figures are calculated, the driver is charged. Congestion and the environment are both taken into consideration in the rate scheme. Using a highway that enters a city in peak hours while driving an SUV will be taxed more than driving a small car in a rural area where private vehicles are more of a necessity.

This, of course, could not possibly have anything to do with the fact that the EU mandate for more fuel-efficient cars means less fuel tax flowing into the Dutch treasury. (See, for instance, this Oregon proposal from five years ago.)

"Full deployment" of the system is expected by 2016.

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:59 AM)
7 May 2008
Opinion noted

A fellow riding shotgun in a BMW X5 in Northumberland apparently mooned the speed camera, causing wailing and gnashing of teeth for at least one minion of Her Majesty's Nanny State:

Jeremy Forsberg, of the Northumbria Safer Roads Initiative, said: "This behaviour is simply ridiculous — it's clear what he was thinking with what he had on show. Not only is it disrespectful, but distasteful and offensive, particularly to children who may have been exposed to this nonsense. This prank could have been a real distraction from the driver and that is not something to laugh about."

Get a grip, Jer. The camera could have gotten shot at.

(Via Nice Deb.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:16 AM)
Leaving well enough alone

I took just enough physics to know that air (or whatever) doesn't leak into tires, so after a particularly rocky ride down a spectacularly godawful stretch of alleged pavement — NE 36th from Kelley to Lincoln, if you're curious — it didn't occur to me to check the tire pressures.

And when I did, they were way the hell out of spec. Nissan calls for 33/30; the fronts were 35, left rear 34, right rear 32.

Now how did this happen? My best guess, and it's not so great, is that the last time Gwendolyn got a spa day, someone thought the Dunlops had done flopped, and gave them an extra shot of air. This strikes me as slightly unlikely, since I'd carefully deleted the "rotate tires" bit from the to-do list, and they certainly didn't rotate them. (The JWL mark is your friend.)

Anyway, after correction, the same stretch of road proved much less likely to bang my head into the sunroof, so I'm assuming that my gauge, despite its age (about five cars now), is still reasonably accurate.

Permalink to this item (posted at 1:47 PM)
11 May 2008
Not even street-legal

Ford Racing is vending a hotted-up, trimmed-down Mustang to Serious Racers Only. It comes with all the pertinent safety gear (six-point restraint, roll cage, fire-suppression system) and none of the usual amenities (radio, A/C, floor mats). It costs 75 large, which is a ton of money, but it's a turnkey machine: "everything you need to go racing," says the window sticker.

(Aside: Can you really call it "turnkey" when there's no actual key? There's an ignition switch, but it's not operated with a key: you toggle the switch and press the Start button.)

Said window sticker, incidentally, is hilarious. Here's the "fuel-economy" information:

Green flag: gulps fuel
Yellow flag: sips fuel
Red flag: uses no fuel at all

And the warranty — well, you'll have to read it for yourself. Mike Monroney is hitting redline in his grave.

Permalink to this item (posted at 2:07 PM)
13 May 2008
Gearing up and/or down

Seen at Autoblog:

As we reported last month, it appears BMW and Audi, following the lead of Lexus, will begin to offer eight-speed automatic transmissions in their flagship models.

And seen at Autoblog, an hour and a half later:

When the second quarter of 2010 rolls along, 1,400 workers at General Motors' Windsor [Ontario] transmission factory will be out of work. The plant, which currently produces four-speed gearboxes for GM, will be phased out at the turn of the decade, with no plans to retool the facility to produce any other components.

To recap: The Japanese are already doing 8-speed automatics, and the Germans will follow; the Americans are just now getting around to disposing of 4-speed automatics.

This isn't entirely fair to the General — Toyota still sells econoboxes in the States with only four cogs — but this doesn't help Detroit's image as technological laggards.

Permalink to this item (posted at 11:51 AM)
16 May 2008
Found on road, Dade

A group called Prince Market Research — do they survey like it's 1999? — has determined that the worst road rage in the country is in Miami, and has been for the past three years.

Boston, New York, Baltimore and Washington followed; the least rage was to be found in Pittsburgh.

What's the deal with Miami, anyway?

The primary factor that we see year after year is that the Miami area is a combustible mix of two cultures on the road, and that is retirees out on a long leisurely drive, and young professionals on their way to work.

Which suggests that things will eventually improve in south Florida, once the geezers perish and the yuppies are outsourced to Bangalore.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:11 AM)
19 May 2008
The problem with infinite headroom

A pertinent observation from Venomous Kate:

Shiny red sports cars make gray hair more noticeable.

There are many contributing factors, of course:

  • Usually by the time you can afford a shiny red sports car, you've gone at least slightly grey;

  • Such cars tend to be rather low-slung, so even if the top is up, a minivan driver has a commanding view of your scalp;

  • Hardly anybody buys a sports car in sensible, square blue.

My own situation is no more fun. I can pop open the sunroof of my sensible, square (but not blue) sedan and get the wind whistling through my hair, but then I realize that there's scarcely enough hair up there to provoke a squeak, let alone a whistle, and I sigh, close the hatch, and press the A/C button.

Permalink to this item (posted at 9:00 AM)
20 May 2008
Feed your E-Z Pass

It's going to cost more to drive on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, though it's not certain who's going to collect the extra tolls.

Governor Ed Rendell's much-touted Act 44 [link goes to PDF file], passed last year, allegedly came with a 25-percent hike in 2010 and 3 percent annually thereafter, although no actual numbers are mentioned in the Act as approved.

Act 44 specifies that Interstate 80, the other east-west route in the Commonwealth, will be converted to a toll road. The Feds must approve any such action; so far they haven't. Which leaves room for Plan B: the Turnpike would be leased to a joint venture including Citigroup and Spanish toll-road operator Albertis for 75 years for total payments of $12.8 billion. If the Pennsylvania legislature approves, the lease agreement permits Pennsylvania Transport Partners, the name of the joint venture, to hike the toll 25 percent at the beginning of 2009, and 2.5 percent or the amount of the increase in the Consumer Price Index, whichever be greater, each year thereafter. The Governor has said that if the lease goes through there will be no need for tolls on I-80.

Regardless of whether the Turnpike Authority or PTP is doing the collections, the toll from the Ohio State Line to the Delaware River, now $22.75, is expected to rise to more than $35 in ten years' time.

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:01 AM)
21 May 2008
A bang-up selling job

Max Motors in Butler, Missouri has a promotion you don't see too often: buy a new car, get $250 worth of gas — or a handgun.

As Dave Barry might say, I am not making this up:

It seems the resourceful dealer is offering car buyers a solution for it all — and the gun is proving to be the popular choice with 80 percent of his customers choosing the firearm over free fuel. As expected, not everyone is happy. Considering most of his customers already own guns, [he] doesn't understand why people's feathers are getting all ruffled.

And no, they're not actually handing you the weapon with the keys:

Customers who choose the semi-auto pistol over the gas are handed a certificate that must be redeemed, after the requisite forms and background check are complete, at a local gun shop.

The promotion ends on the 31st.

Permalink to this item (posted at 9:32 PM)
22 May 2008
Plenty of scoot

A Suzuki Burgman 650 Executive has found a home:

My main priorities were something that would get good gas mileage; be able to run on the highway without red-lining; automatic transmission (I can shift, but I don't want to — I think you already have enough to think about while riding without throwing that one into the mix); not cost a fortune; and handle well overall. The Suzuki was the only one that fit all my requirements.

Nine grand, be it noted, is not a fortune.

This little darb has a DOHC two-cylinder displacing 638 cc. Nobody quotes horsepower on these things, but I think "Hayabusa" and I figure that there's probably lots of go. What I really wanted to know, though, was "Who the hell is Burgman?"

It's not a who:

"Burgman" seemed to me a rather unlikely moniker for a Japanese-produced two-wheeler, so I felt compelled to ask where the name came from. I was told that it originated from the German term "Burg" for town or village which was governed by a leading man. Guess that makes sense, but I'm not sure my information source wasn't just pulling my leg.

"And filling its tank, at least this week, will cost only $15 or so," he mused, having dropped $36 into his car earlier in the day.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:00 AM)
24 May 2008
A crisper idea

Ford's new Flex crossover is boxy to the point of resembling a supine refrigerator, though I have no idea if that similarity inspired the actual refrigerator on the options list:

As a $760 option, Ford isn’t simply giving you a plastic compartment cooled by the air conditioner, which can drop the temperature of a beverage perhaps 20 degrees. No, this is an honest-to-goodness refrigerator that uses a compressor to create chilled liquid that can lower the temperature of a beverage 41 degrees in two and a half hours. It also has a freezer option that can chill to 23 degrees Fahrenheit.

And what's more, if you have all seven seats filled, everybody gets a soda:

The compartment is small — capable of holding seven 12-ounce cans, four half-liter bottles or two orders of vegetable maki — but the utility is also evident. For drivers who live in hot climates, it might save a gallon of ice cream on the way back from the store or allow drivers to run other errands while keeping raw meat at a safe temperature.

Truth be told, this impresses me a whole lot more than that Microsoft stuff Ford's been hawking.

(Seen at Autoblog.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 9:46 AM)
30 May 2008
A different tach

As I've mentioned before, I've owned six automobiles. Four of them were equipped with tachometers, and while there are those who will argue that it's pointless to have a tach with an automatic transmission, I consider it a useful guide to, among other things, what gear the slushbox is in and the state of the car's idle.

The gauge panels of all four of those cars had big double dials. The Toyota and the two Mazdas had the tach on the left, speedo on the right. The Infiniti reverses that pattern: speedo on the left, tach on the right. I really don't have any reason to prefer one variation over the other, but it's puzzled me for some time, especially since I've checked out the occasional G35 from the dealership and its tach is on the left.

When you get into industrial-strength sports cars, though, all bets are off: the Porsche 911, far back as I can remember, has had the tach in the center of the cluster.

Permalink to this item (posted at 9:39 AM)
31 May 2008
We demand crummy tires

A letter to the editor of Consumer Reports, published in the July issue:

In the June 2008 Up Front article "Consider a Snappier Prius," I see no mention of the fact that the 16-inch tires for the Touring model are performance tires and thus more expensive to replace than the base version 15-inch tires. I realize buying tires isn't a frequent expense, but CR should note models that require performance tires when reviewing automobiles so consumers can know more about the real cost of owning a particular vehicle.

The response, typical of CR, was a model of politeness; they noted that "we show the tire size and model that came with our tested cars in the specifications section of our full automobile reviews." Which they do, and have for some time.

For the record, the base Prius comes with 185-65R15 rim protectors, chosen mostly for low rolling resistance, to help plump up the MPG figures; the Touring package offers 195-55R16s by Bridgestone, which look suspiciously similar to the Turanzas that came on my dear, departed Mazda 626, albeit one speed rating higher (V instead of H), explaining the price difference in one fell swoop. What I fail to understand is why someone willing to fork out two grand for the Touring package would balk at $30 extra per tire 30,000 miles or so down the road.

Then again, the same sort of folks haunt Nissan message boards, wanting to know if they can use regular gas in their Maximas — or, yes, occasionally, their Infiniti I30s. The answer is always the same: no, you probably won't kill your engine, but you're going to sacrifice both performance and fuel economy, and if you're that pinched for cash, why on God's greenish earth do you own a Maxima? Get ye unto a Toyota store and buy a Prius. Preferably without the Touring package.

Permalink to this item (posted at 12:57 PM)
1 June 2008
Two words: seat covers

The Dodge Journey, in case you haven't seen it, is Chrysler's first so-called "crossover" vehicle: it's built on the Sebring/Avenger platform, which means it's really a car, sort of. But it's been cartooned up with SUV-ish looks, because everyone knows that minivans (like Dodge's own Caravan, which pretty much defined the minivan concept) are horrid transpo-boxes suitable only for soccer moms with taxi duty.

If you think that description is vaguely (or not vaguely) sexist, have a peek at this.

And no, it's not a joke:

Googling led us to a Dodge press release posted on a Belgian media portal. The car is being targeted toward men, and its launch slogan roughly translates to "Become a father, stay a man." According to the PR, Dodge suggests that "everyone try out the back seat of the Dodge Journey in a little unorthodox manner." Well, that's one way of getting folks to look past Chrysler's lamentable interiors. People whose "backseat trial" is successful and subsequently produce a newborn child 9 months after the car's launch weekend have a chance to win themselves a new Dodge Journey, and the baby's picture will be posted to the website.

Come to think of it, Harry and Sue in "Taxi" "learned about love in the back of a Dodge". Their lesson, however, didn't go that far.

Now if somebody tries this in a Subaru, well, that's a whole different story.

Permalink to this item (posted at 11:48 AM)
3 June 2008
You've had your last Hummer

The Truth About Cars is reporting that GM has decided to abandon the Hummer brand:

While not "official," GM told its field teams that all corporate investment in HUMMER has ceased. No refreshes. No new models. And no more marketing support. The decision pulls the plug from 171 HUMMER franchisees, including 71 standalone dealers.

Maybe they can sell it to the Indians.

Update, 6 June: And they just might.

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:31 PM)
5 June 2008
Smart space utilization

A freshly-hatched (still had the paper tag) smart fortwo was parallel-parked at the Gazette office yesterday afternoon. The driver sensibly set the tiny car in the middle of the space, leaving about a quarter of it vacant on either side and making the space look a lot bigger than it does when it's accommodating something like, say, my car.

I went from there to Target, and wondered as I pulled in just how a smart should park in a lot like that. It seems to me that parking as the rest of us do, pulling up to just short of the line that divides this row from the next, is not a good idea, because some schmuck, gleeful at finding an "empty" space, is going to plow right into the poor little boîte's rear end. It seems, therefore, that the driver of the smart should attempt to align her rear bumper with the rear bumpers of adjacent vehicles, leaving no doubt that the space is occupied.

This would also apply, if perhaps with less urgency, to drivers of other wee cars. (I'm thinking specifically of the Mini Cooper that pulled in next to me in the Target lot that day.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:05 AM)
8 June 2008
Sammy Hagar tunes up

The question is posed: "Is it time to return to the double-nickel?"

The answer: No. In fact, hell, no.

You can always buy more fuel; you can never buy more time. Simple as that.

Permalink to this item (posted at 9:08 AM)
17 June 2008
Cruising for the proverbial bruising

There was an episode of The Simpsons in which Homer does a brief stint as a trucker, and is warned never, ever to mention the Navitron Autodrive system which keeps the truck running while he sleeps.

There are people who think that ordinary cruise control works something like that, and they are to be avoided at all cost. For the rest of us, McGehee discloses the Secret of Cruise Control Success:

I settled on keeping the cruise set to one or two MPH above the posted limit. Generally speaking, unless there's a crackdown ordered from on-high most troopers won't bother someone who's within a few ticks of what the signs say, as long as they're driving safely otherwise. Since my top priority was to minimize maneuvers, I needed a setting that would enable me to pass the excruciatingly law-abiding, who tend to bunch up in packs — while also allowing the more daring to glide smoothly on by whenever they overtook me. The 67- or 72-mph bracket is very little occupied and was almost perfect for me.

It usually takes me half a day on the road to remember that I even have the damn thing, and I tend to set it about where McGehee does, though as the speed limit increases I allow myself less of a fudge factor: I'll happily do 64 in a 60 zone, but if I'm allowed 80, I'm loath to poke it much above 81. Of course, if I have to pass someone — and in Texas, 80 zones are 70 zones for trucks and "Left Lane For Passing Only" is occasionally enforced — I can, and will, drop a gear and blow past, if necessary, at ninetysomething, which historically has been safe so long as I remember not to stay there. Inasmuch as Gwendolyn does 95 with about the same alacrity with which she does 70, I do have to watch myself.

Then there's this:

In Kentucky (what is it about Kentucky?) I watched a guy ... in a pickup actually run another car off the road after he discovered that tailgating me wasn't going to make me go any faster than the cars ahead of me were going. The car he tangled with was able to avoid leaving the paved shoulder and recovered almost immediately — but I was sure the guy in the pickup was going to end up killing somebody eventually.

On Texas two-lanes, the shoulders are usually wide enough that if someone is running up behind me, I'll exit onto the shoulder and let the guy pass. (A Bimmer driver actually flashed me some gratitude after I did that south of San Marcos yesterday.) And I do try to keep my distance when I'm not the lead car.

Permalink to this item (posted at 7:27 PM)
The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

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