Drawing for the Future and Putting Pizzazz in GM Cars

April 12, 2015
Ed Welburn - GM Global Design VP

Ed Welburn – GM’s Artist in Chief

By Roger Witherspoon

Ed Welburn was as cool as ever.

A soft-spoken man with a quiet air, he moved through the centerpiece GM exhibit at the New York International Auto Show, barely glancing at the two showcase Cadillacs under wraps, which would be unveiled at a press preview in another hour. He would pause every now and then, look at the lighting, the angle of the cars and comment quietly to one of the many GM employees bustling around the exhibition hall.

Sometimes, Welburn would suggest a slight adjustment in the scene, the type of subtle shift one might expect from a trained artist. Other times, he’d drop a word of encouragement or appreciation to anxious staff. He walked alone, observant and confident, without the trailing entourage that usually accompanies top-level auto industry executives—particularly one who is playing such a key role in the resurrection of General Motors.

2015 Chevy Malibu

Family Friendly Chevy Malibu

These have been trying times for GM, which last year had to recall nearly 27 million domestic cars and trucks and another 3 million overseas because of a host of dangerous engineering defects. This is an important show for GM, which is showcasing some 80 cars and trucks in an effort to overcome the seemingly unending flow of bad news with a cavalcade of eye-catching, flashy vehicles capable of luring motorists and their checkbooks into showrooms. On the main floor of the Auto Show, which closes Sunday at the cavernous Jacob Javits Center, are world debuts of the Cadillac CT6, the Chevrolet Malibu, the urban-oriented Chevy Spark, and the heavy duty GMC Terrain. Then there are minor amendments to some of GM’s signature sports cars, notably the Camaro and Corvette, which are sleeker and faster than ever.

City-oriented Chevy Spark

City-oriented Chevy Spark

It’s also been a trying few years for Welburn, a trained sculptor, GM’s vice president of global design, and one of the highest ranking blacks in the auto industry.  Welburn, whose father owned an auto repair shop in Berwyn, Pa., literally grew up with the car industry and was mesmerized by the sweeping designs of the big-finned vehicles that hogged the roads in the ‘50s.

“Those cars took their design cues from the aircraft of that era,” he said, “which represented the top technology of the time.  We still take design cues from aircraft.”

The current edition of Cadillac CT6, for example, with its svelte shape and small, sharp angles, is reminiscent of the silhouette of the nation’s stealth fighters. So are the lines on the current generation of Camaro, which is on schedule to deliver its 500,000th model this month.

These mobile artworks are the products of Welburn’s design teams who collaborate via floor-to-ceiling virtual meeting rooms. His job has been to keep them stimulated and churning out new and bold ideas during a period of financial collapse and bankruptcy, followed by massive recalls due to safety issues. The difficulty is keeping the creative juices flowing with a disparate group of temperamental artists after the public acceptance of their art pieces have been compromised by the poor work of others.

“It wasn’t easy,” said Welburn with a sigh, walking slowly past the newest edition of the Malibu. “The key was to stay focused.

Staying Focused

Staying Focused

“When we went into bankruptcy there were people saying the company was doomed and all was lost.  I called the team together and said stay focused. This will pass. We will get through this and when we do, people will go to showrooms and ask what kind of car have you designed?

“And when they come, we have to be ready. We have to have the designs they want. And my teams focused on that.”

It wasn’t easy for Welburn to “stay focused” during the bankruptcy. He had taken a lot of pride in personally redesigning the Saturn line, from the extremely competitive SUV down to the Saturn Sky, a Barbie-doll of a roadster that was incredibly fine to look at but was short on interior technology. How well the line would have moved will never be known – GM killed the Saturn, Pontiac and Hummer lines as part of its restructuring.

Welburn Cruises in his '69 Camaro

Welburn Cruises in his ’69 Camaro

Without a pause, Welburn poured energy into fine tuning GM’s complete line, with emphasis on two of his personal favorites, the Camaro and Corvette. Welburn still drives a vintage Camaro.

Over the last two years, problems that surfaced with GM engineering – particularly the cover-up of faulty ignition switches – could have sent GM sales into a tailspin.  But the designs kept the cars afloat.

As the ignition crisis and the recalls accelerated, Welburn had another virtual group conference. “We had the same talk,” he said. “I told them to just stay focused on what we do best, and make sure we aren’t contributing to the difficulties the engineers have.

“We had to make our designs attractive to the public, and something the engineers could readily relate to because they, too, would be getting past these troubles.”

The designs kept coming and so did GM’s customers.

“GM took a marginal hit on sales in the short term,” said Jeremy Acevedo, analyst with Edmunds.com, the car shopping website. “But by and large GM weathered that blow really, really well. The truth is that they were unaffected in the long term. GM does a lot of things right, which is why they are the best-selling auto maker in the nation.

2015 Chevy Corvette Z06

2015 Chevy Corvette Z06

“Even amid all their recall woes they still sold 2.94 million units in 2014. That’s up from 2.79 million in 2013. Their design is the critical part of selling cars. Then there is performance and reliability.  Their design could have been compromised by faulty engineering. But when you have a manufacturer firing on all cylinders, as they are now, that is when they do shine.”

The importance of design in the reception of a car can’t be overstated.

“When you think about it,” said David Smedley, associate professor of art and coordinator of Howard University’s sculpture program, “the car is the largest form of sculpture that most Americans own. We don’t buy cars exclusively for their utilitarian value either: our self-esteem and identity is invested in them.”

And cars, if they are to sell and attract hundreds of thousands of buyers, have to be more than just well-engineered. They are conceived as aesthetic aids to the home, Smedley explained, with the engineering coming second to make the product work.

“In the process of designing cars, they are actually clay first,” Smedley said.  “They make a full-sized version in clay before they finalize any design. There is nothing like the physical form in front of you, and being in the same space as the vehicle, to get the feel of what these cars are going to be like. It is an emotional attachment, and it therefore makes sense for GM and the other car companies to recruit from fine arts, especially the sculpture programs.”

Welburn and his teams don’t just sit down and draw a car; they also have to predict the future. Automobiles begin as concepts, evolving into a drawing and then a full size clay model. But the process begins one year, and comes out two to four years later – when tastes, politics, fashion, and the nation’s economy may have changed radically. By the time an eye-catching design moves from the drawing board to the showroom, it may be outdated.

But right now, GM’s designs seem to be catching on.

 2015 Camaro with 525 Horsepower

2015 Camaro with 525 Horsepower

“The Corvette operates in an interesting landscape all its own,” said Acevedo, the analyst. “It is the American answer to the foreign sports cars, at half the price. And it has a loyal following.”

“The Camaro is another story. It has had competition from the Ford Mustang and the other Pony Cars, and it perennially slugs it out with the Mustang. In 2014 Camaro came out on top, selling 86,297 while Mustang sold 79, 675. The Dodge Challenger was behind with 51,611. But this year is going in the opposite direction. In the first quarter there were 29,695 Mustangs sold while Camaro sold 17, 320.  And that’s a design issue.”

The Mustang, in keeping with its 50 year anniversary, came out with a new, powerful, popular edition.  Camaro, on the other hand, is in the fifth year of this edition and despite the various minor changes, is looking dated by comparison.

2015 Ford Mustang - Running on 400 Horses

2015 Ford Mustang – Running on 400 Horses

But the 2016 Camaro, to be introduced next month, has been completely redesigned and the market will determine if Welburn and his crew have been using their crayons effectively. Currently, their plant is closed for retooling, Acevedo said, which limits sales until the new edition begins rolling off the factory floor.

Design has also helped GM’s truck division, which has a 35.7% share of the nation’s market – just 1% less than industry-leading Ford. The Ford F-150 is actually the world’s best-selling vehicle.

Ford F-150 - Still #1

Ford F-150 – Still #1

“But it’s the GMC Sierra and Chevy Silverado that are doing very well against the F-150 and are keeping GM  near the top of the truck market,” said Acevedo. “Chevy in particular has taken a bite out of Ford’s market share. With trucks, buyers look first for utility, but after that, it’s the styling that counts. And the Silverado and Sierra have developed a very loyal base of buyers.”

2015 GMC Sierra HD All Terrain

2015 GMC Sierra – Still Trying


Electric Flash: Green Cars are Getting Stylish

April 3, 2015
BMW i8

BMW i8 – Style and Eco-friendly

 By Roger Witherspoon

            A car doesn’t have to be dull and plodding to be green.

One wouldn’t know that from the proficient, but uninspiring plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles that crawled off the drawing boards of the major auto companies. But that seems about to change.

“We call ourselves the ultimate driving machine,” said Matt Russell of BMW North America. “Preserving that driving experience is everything to us. We sell to those who really love driving, and we needed a way to build a sports car that was also energy efficient.

“We needed a sports car that can go from 0-60 miles per hour in 3.6 seconds, top out at 155 miles an hour and has a fuel efficiency rating of 72 miles per gallon. And that’s the BMW i8.”

The i8, unveiled at the New York International Auto Show, is a stealth fighter of a car built to flow through the air rather than punch through it. There are grooves in the body designed to channel onrushing air through a narrow opening in the rear, not unlike the combustion chamber of the average jet. The result, at high speed, is you ride on a cushion of air and hear nothing from the world outside.

Porsche Cayenne Plug-in: Fast and family friendly

Porsche Cayenne Plug-in: Fast and family friendly

Not to be outdone Porsche has taken its Cayenne, the 150-miles per hour SUV, and retooled a plug-in hybrid version as a family-friendly companion to its hybrid Panamera sports car.

“It’s our feeling that electric motors are the wave of the future,” said Porsche spokesman Thomas Hagg. “But the technology isn’t quite there yet and the infrastructure and market aren’t ready for completely electric vehicles. But we feel it is certainly coming, so we have begun moving in that direction with the plug-in hybrid.  The Panamera proved that we can have an electric hybrid that meets the quality demands of Porsche in terms of performance and handling.

“But to really move our brand into the electric future we needed to develop a plug-in hybrid for the Cayenne, which is our best-selling model.”

The combined Porsche power plant was on display at the New York exhibit, which lasts till April 12, but is definitely not just for show. The Cayenne has a 95 horsepower electric motor combined with a 333 horsepower, three-liter V6 engine. One can drive the Cayenne about 20 miles on purely electric power – which is ample for many commutes – and the combined power plant gets about 50 miles per gallon.

While BMW and Porsche may have had the plug-in hybrid showstoppers, they were certainly not alone among auto makers who see an increasingly electric future. Ford’s popular Fusion has a plug-in electric model and Mitsubishi, which introduced a newly designed Outlander SUV, is also bringing out a part-electric hybrid version.

Mitsubishi iMiEV:

Mitsubishi iMiEV

The company tentatively entered the all-electric market with its iMiEV, an awkwardly named vehicle that most resembled an ostrich egg on wheels. It was comfortable and efficient. But cars are a form of sculpture defined by how they make a person stop, look, and feel when standing close and then sitting inside. For many families, it is the largest form of kinetic art they will buy. As art works, the iMiEV or BMW’s i3 would never draw a crowd.

Hence the change. “The Outlander plug-in hybrid,” said Mitsubishi Executive Vice President Don Swearingen, “is a bigger vehicle and clearly one that will appeal to more consumers than the fully electric ones with their more limited range.

“We actually developed it a few years ago and started selling it in Japan and then in Europe. The demand was so high that the plant that makes our batteries is at full capacity. We still are offering all electric cars, but our growth opportunity is in the plug-in space. I drive a fully electric car, but I live 40 miles from work. As long as I can charge each night and again at the office it works fine.  But if I want to make a longer trip, a decision has to be made as to what car to use.

Outlander Plug-in Hybrid

Outlander Plug-in Hybrid

“With the plug-in hybrid, all those considerations go away. We felt it important to offer a plug-in, five-passenger vehicle, which has 4-wheel drive capabilities and is a great opportunity for families. Since we were redesigning the Outlander, it made sense to design a version for the electric motor and batteries.”

While the regular Outlander is a seven passenger SUV, the hybrid version will seat five people, and the added space will be taken up by the battery pack. The Outlander will have two 60-horsepower electric motors – one assigned to each axle – as well as a 121-horsepower, 4-cylinder gasoline engine. The combination delivers about 44 miles per gallon.

Electric cars dominated American roadways for the first 20 years of the 20th Century, but quickly lost out to gasoline-powered vehicles which could go a lot further without worrying about a dead battery.

“Electric cars were initially the best sellers,” said Bob Casey, curator of transportation at the Henry Ford Museum in Michigan. “The assumption was that if there is going to be any widespread use of horseless carriages, electricity has a lot of advantages. You could start it easily and you didn’t need to shift any gears because of the torque characteristics of electric motors.

“In the 1890s people were making electric cars and steam-powered cars and then there was a newcomer in the lot – a smoky, noisy, dirty, internal combustion engine.  In those early days, it wasn’t clear what these things were good for.  If you lived in a city, public transportation was very good and the cities were very walkable.

“If you had a car, you used it to drive into the country at what was then considered the astonishing speeds of 15 miles per hour. But you couldn’t go far into the country because the roads were bad and there was no electricity and no place to recharge. The gas cars were much better suited to that use. By 1909 the electric car and steam car were both sold at the margins, and the market was dominated by cars powered by the internal combustion engine.”

The second coming of electric cars hasn’t changed that equation much.

“Right now,” said Orth Hedrick, Kia’s vice president for product planning, “electric vehicles are just three to five percent of the market, and the driving range is the biggest factor holding them back.

“Most people are used to a gas tank with 250 to 300 miles of driving range. But you can’t use an EV to go take a trip to see Grandma.  A lot of people view driving EVs like leaving the driveway with the gas empty light on and wondering how far they can go before the car stops.”

The technical fix to that anxiety was the plug-in hybrid.

Chevy Volt

Chevy Volt

When Chevrolet came out with its 2011 Volt plug-in hybrid it stressed the fact that the compact could get more than 300 miles to a tank of gas. Having the electric motors directly on the axle provided instant torque, enabling the small car to take off like a turbocharged roadster.  The Volt definitively proved the concept of the plug-in hybrid, even if its looks didn’t wow the consumers.

Which is why Kia is banking on an all-electric version of its youth-oriented Soul, a car marketed with hip-hop hamsters to lure a younger generation to its environmentally friendly wheels.  Basketball star Lebron James may lure buyers into Kia showrooms to see their high-performing sports car, the K-900. But once they are in the showroom, Kia is banking on the Now Generation driving off in an urban-oriented Soul.

“We designed the electric and the gas versions at the same time, rather than take an existing car and modify it so you lose space to the batteries,” explained Hedrick. “The Soul will get 93 miles before you need to recharge, which is the best range in the electric car market except for the $80,000 Tesla, which costs three times as much.

“The Soul is our best-selling vehicle. It has a cool, funky design that is perfect for the urban buyer and it will be the cornerstone of our clean mobility program.”

And Kia’s hamsters will bounce merrily to the quieter beat.

Kia Soul : Electric Hip-Hop

Kia Soul : Electric Hip-Hop



Just Drifting: A Japanese Import Roaring on American Race Tracks

June 21, 2013
Vaughn Gittin's 845 HP Monster Ford Mustang RTR

Vaughn Gittin’s 845 HP Monster Ford Mustang RTR


By Roger Witherspoon


          Anyone who has driven a car on sheet ice knows the feeling.

You hit the gas pedal, and the wheels spin faster and faster, but the rear of the car is sliding sideways and there is no forward progress at all. At that point, most motorists know they are in trouble.

Unless, of course, sliding sideways is what you intend to do.

At that point, it is called drifting and, if one is good at it, he can make a car go down a track sideways at more than 100 miles per hour, shoot straight through a curve and slide out the other side.  And if one is really good at it, he or she can turn professional, guiding a roaring racing drifter nearly sideways down a track a couple of inches away from another side winding machine and wheel them around each other like very big spitting cats.

Anyone who has ever seen the equivalent of the automotive ballet employed in televised ads with sleek new cars sliding in and out of each other like a choreographed ballet, or sat through any of the Fast and Furious movies, is familiar with drifting. It’s a street sport variation on drag racing which originated in Asia and in the last decade has caught on with the drag strip crowd.

“The sport started in Japan where this was done as an exhibition of speed and car control,” said Richard Kulach of Nissan Motor Sports. “It blossomed over there and then took off in the US.

“Nissan was associated with it early on, particularly the 240 SX model. It had a four-cylinder motor and was a rear wheel drive car, and that is the preferred drive train.  The car could also be modified easily. The SX was available in a turbocharged version which produced double the horsepower than the cars originally came with.”

The sport migrated to America as the Japanese auto industry gained more prominence on American roads. Japanese drifters began having demonstration competitions on west coast speedways – and that intrigued American drag racers and the makers of traditional American muscle cars. As a result, the ad hoc nature of these demonstrations morphed into formal Formula  Drift competitions, with the American manufacturers playing an increasing role. For auto makers like Ford and Chevy, drifting was a progression from their heavy involvement in American NASCAR and other organized road races.

The result of that intercontinental competition will be on display today and Saturday at the Wall Stadium Speedway, off the Garden State Parkway in Wall Township, New Jersey, which is hosting the Formula  Drift Championships.

“The Formula 1 Championship is essentially a title fight where the premier competitors have to earn a right to sign up,” explained Paul Brearey, who oversees marketing for Ford’s drift racing efforts.  “You have to start somewhere else and participate in local geographic drift series and at least place to earn the right to move up. It is a different type of sport from traditional racing, especially if you are from the old school where someone clearly wins and loses.

Paul Brearey

Paul Brearey

“Drifting tends to be more like dancing with cars – at high speed – rather than a race. And it is somewhat subjective, with the judges looking at style and how they went across the track rather than actual objective numbers.  There are, however, sensors on the walls on the curves and the closer you get to the wall without crashing the more points you’ll get.”

It’s the mechanical dance which gripped Vaughn Gittin, Jr., the 2012 drift champ who is seeking a repeat to the podium Saturday in his Monster Ford Mustang RTR (Ready to Rock).

“It’s not exactly a street car,” said Gittin of what came out of the Ford factory as a Mustang GT. “At 845 horsepower she wouldn’t get goo good gas mileage. She drinks over a gallon a lap, and a lap is three quarters of a mile.”

Heavy engines in small cars are the norm for drifting competitions. Chris Forsberg, who drives a modified Nissan 370Z – which is usually a reliable roadster – discarded the Z’s standard engine and replaced it with one from a Nissan Titan pickup truck.

Nissan Drifting

“Drifting is fast,” explained Gittin. “The Mustang RTR can easily do 200 going straight, but we are going sideways and around curves at over 100 miles per hour. The car is sliding sideways but always going forward. You need a lot of horsepower so you can put a ton of grip in the road to go forwards and still drive it sideways. If you don’t have a ton of grip, the car is going to slide right off the track.”

Gittin came to drifting slowly, and his acceptance of an American car was even slower.

“Growing up,” he recalled, “I was not a big fan of Mustangs. It had a little to do with me being rebellious and not wanting what my parents had.” His father had been a used car salesman from Newark, “and I remember him squealing tires and I thought that was the coolest thing ever.

“I had a go-kart as a kid and was an adrenaline junkie. I used to fool around in industrial parks, and then when I was 19, I saw a video of drifting and fell in love with the sport that let me express myself behind a wheel. It was like skateboarding in a car.”

Gittin was a computer geek at the time, working as a network administrator for an Arlington, VA company but spending his spare time and money building and modifying cars to compete in drift races.

“In 2004 I saw the new redesigned Mustang and thought it was cool-looking and thought it would be cool to bring a Mustang to an import-dominated sport.  Once we built the car and drove it, I fell in love with it and that was all she wrote.Vaughn Gittin JR

“When drifting started it was kind of monkey-see, monkey-do. All the Americans were doing exactly what we saw the Japanese drivers doing. I was no different; my car was a Nissan 240 SX, a rear wheel drive sports car. Little did I know then that we had the best kept secret in our own back yard – the Ford Mustang.”

In 2007, Gittin gave up the computer job and began working full time as a professional drift driver. Along the way he has won both the American and Chinese Formula Drift series.

This weekend’s championship at Wall Speedway is something of a special return engagement for Gittin, whose parents were Jersey natives. “I have a ton of relatives here,” he said “and about 40 or 50 will come out to support us. It’s our homecoming, and it’s going to be really awesome.”


Hyundai Santa Fe: The Ambitious Crossover from Korea

January 29, 2013

MY13 Hyundai Santa Fe

By Roger Witherspoon

Those of us who grew up during the dawn of the space age heard a common aphorism from parents, teachers and radio disc jockeys: “Always shoot for the moon, ‘cause even if you miss, you’ll be among the stars.”

It’s a phrase that hadn’t come to mind in decades, until I got behind the wheel of the Hyundai Santa Fe Sport.  When the Korean car manufacturers first ventured to America, its rickety, low powered cars were the regular butt of jokes on late night television.  But instead of feeling cowed and leaving, Hyundai decided to shoot for the moon. They took aim at the most popular cars made by Toyota and Lexus, and then decided to compete in terms of style, quality, and price.

Their Sonata sedan, while not significantly denting the sales of the Toyota Camry or Honda Accord, was so stylistically stunning that a year-old Sonata was worth more than a new one. Its sporty Genesis Coup takes off faster than a Porsche Panamera and its luxury liner, the Equus, comes pretty close to a fully stocked Mercedes Benz E-class. It is unlikely that folks who can casually afford a new Porsche or Benz will take a test drive in a Hyundai – even if it does mean saving $20,000. But the quality, performance, and most importantly, the price differential are important to many buyers looking to move up from the entry level, compact car class.

MY13 Hyundai Santa FeWhich brings us back to the Santa Fe. It is definitely not a Lexus RX, which is essentially a sports car in an SUV shell. But if you aren’t in the market for an SUV you can take to the drag races, then the Santa Fe is likely to earn high marks for style, comfort, and price. At $33,000, the Santa Fe costs a bit less than fully loaded sedans like the Camry, Accord or Ford Fusion.

This is a five-passenger, mid-sized SUV intended to haul adults in comfort or a sizable amount of cargo. Outside, the Santa Fe has the sleek, teardrop shape associated with upscale SUVs. Its contours are broken by the soft, wavy lines that have come to be associated with Hyundai styling – a blend of delicate Asian tracery and the wavy lines in Southern California beach sand. Under its long, sloping hood is a 2.0-liter, four-cylinder, turbocharged engine producing 264 horsepower and 269 pound-feet of torque. The surprisingly powerful little engine won’t take you to races, but it is more than enough to keep the Santa Fe near the front of the commuting pack.

Hyundai put a lot of thought into the interior design of the Santa Fe. That’s not surprising since first they took aim at the Lexus RX series and then sought to replicate the experience at a lower price. The dash in the Santa Fe is designed in the shape of a reflex bow, with distinct, curved compartments for each front occupant and a protruding information cluster in the middle. The passenger side is wide and clean, as if it was the observation chair on a boat. The driver’s side has large, bulging instrument clusters that are easy on the eyes.

MY13 Hyundai Santa Fe

            The center section has the CD player, satellite radio, climate and Bluetooth connections. The test car had a four-inch screen which served the backup camera. There was no navigation system, but Hyundai’s satellite-based BlueLink system allows you to download turn-by-turn directions which are dictated through the car’s sound system as you travel. It is similar to the OnStar direction system in General Motors cars. But for those who like a larger screen and a real map, a more traditional navigation system is available for about $1,200.

Underneath the dash is a small storage bin which can hold a pocketbook and also houses two power outlets the USB, iPod, and MP3 ports. The Santa Fe also comes with an Apple iPhone which you can pay to fully activate, or have it for limited use of the company’s BlueLink. The phone’s Hyundai app lets you start your car, turn on the lights, heat, and radio remotely.

In this SUV, both the front and rear seats can be heated and are mobile. The front seats are powered with adjustable lumbar supports. The rear seats are manually operated, but can slide forward or back to modify the leg room or the cargo area. These can lay back for a fairly comfortable nap, and are in a three part split.

For those who do not want a minivan, Hyundai has a modified version of the Santa Fe with three rows of seating. That last row is located in the cargo area, which is a standard configuration for seven-passenger SUVs. It provides the ability to haul more people in a vehicle which handles like a car rather than a truck. With a stretch SUV you sacrifice storage capability – you can carry a lot of people, or a lot of stuff, but not both.

Hyundai’s Santa Fe Sport, on the other hand, is a competitive and well laid out, crossover SUV. It is not really going to threaten Lexus in the marketplace, but it will give a lot of crossovers a run for their money.

MY13 Hyundai Santa Fe

2013 Hyundai Sante Fe Sport


MSRP:                                                                        $33,025

EPA Mileage:                        19 MPG City                          24 MPG Highway

Towing Capacity:                                                      3,500 Pounds


Performance /Safety:


2.0-Liter turbocharged, DOHC, 4-cylinder, aluminum engine producing 264 horsepower and 269 pound-feet of torque; 6-speed automatic transmission with electronic manual mode; All Wheel Drive; 19-inch alloy wheels; MacPherson strut, twin-tube gas damper front suspension; multi-link rear suspension with stabilizer bar; ventilated front disc brakes; solid single piston rear disc brakes; traction and stability control; fog lights; backup camera; downhill brake control; front, driver’s knee, side impact and curtain airbags.

Interior / Comfort:


AM/FM/Sirius satellite radio; CD player; iPod, MP3, USB ports; Bluetooth; Hyundai BlueLink; rearview camera with 4.2-inch screen; powered, heated, leather front  and rear seats; fold flat rear seats with 40/20/40 split;


The Ford F-150 Still the Runaway Best Seller

January 14, 2013


 13 Ford F-150 Raptor - front profile


By Roger Witherspoon


            It was dark, the moon was full, and Superstorm Sandy was at its raging height pushing a record 14 foot wall of water along the New York-New Jersey coastlines and up connecting rivers. The wave rolled through New York harbor, surged around the Statue of Liberty and then rolled up the Hudson River.

In better times the Hudson both empties into and is fed by the Atlantic Ocean at the foot of Manhattan. When the ocean tide is high the Atlantic flows into and up the river, creating a 100 mile salt water estuary. At low tide, the 300-mile Hudson brings fresh water from upstate New York down to the wide Atlantic. In midwinter, diners on the river’s edge can watch the ice flow one way as they order appetizers and reverse course as they finish dessert.

That’s also why Rick Nestler’s folk song, “The River That Flows Both Ways,” is the anthem of Clearwater, the environmental group Pete Seeger founded to clean up the historic river. (  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N5wnbDcZXUc  )

But the night Sandy rolled up the Hudson was not like old times. The wall of water surged up the river, spreading out to fill in bays and streams, flowing up banks, covering riverside parks, roadways and rail yards. At the end of Peekskill Bay the water began rising over a low-lying causeway carrying the two-lane Bear Mountain Extension, which provided the shortest route to Camp Smith, an Army base, and then zigzagged up the mountainside to the Bear Mountain Bridge, about 10 miles south of West Point.

Normally, that section of the Extension was nearly even with the tufted tops of the wild phragmites grasses that hugged the shoreline. But not this night. The wild grass and the lowest portion of the roadway – a stretch of about 20 yards – were lost under about four feet of the dark rolling waters of the Hudson River. And it was still rising.

It seemed impenetrable. But then an emergency worker in a Ford F-150 Raptor pickup truck gunned his engine and barreled through the water, which was about even with the truck’s hood, using the still visible guard rails to gauge where the actual roadway was. He stopped at the entrance to the causeway and began putting out flares to block the road as water cascaded out of the pickup’s flooded cargo bed.

“How did you get through that?” I asked him.2012 Ford F-150 SVT Raptor

“I don’t know, man. I just gunned it, crossed my fingers, prayed and went. I won’t try it twice. The water is still rising.”

The flares did not deter the drivers of two, huge, military trucks, who were bound for CampSmith, from ignoring the warnings and heading so slowly into the water they barely made a ripple. At the deepest point, as the water lapped their hoods, the trucks stalled. The utility worker called for police support and raced down the roadway. In minutes, dozens of police cars drove onto the causeway, the officers piling out in an effort to help the trapped soldiers. In the end, it took a lot of police and a fleet of kayaks to get them out.

So why did the F-150 make it when the Army trucks didn’t?

A series of Ford spokesmen blanched at the query, since the truck is rated at being able to ford 30 inches of water and the company emphatically does not recommend going through streams higher than the middle of its 17-inch aluminum wheels. As it happens, the emergency worker in the F-150 was lucky. By gunning the truck and barreling through the rising water, he created a bow wave in front of it, leaving just enough room for air to get through the radiator. The slow moving, careful army trucks, on the other hand, essentially drowned.

But even if rolling through the storm of the century was a matter of dumb luck, it was an impressive night for the Ford F-150 Raptor, still the best-selling vehicle of any type in the nation.

“It’s been the number one selling vehicle for 30 to 35 years,” said Kelley Blue Book senior analyst Alec Gutierrez. “Nothing else comes close. They produce diehard loyalists, and someone who buys a Ford pickup tends to stick with a Ford pickup for life.

“They sold about 650,000 in 2012, and outsold the Dodge Ram – which sold just shy of 300,000 – by two to one. The GMC Sierra was close with 575,000 trucks sold. The F-series is a huge seller for small businesses or construction companies, though in terms of towing capacity, it is comparable to the bigger Dodge Ram or GMC Sierra.”

It may have trouble keeping that edge. GM is redesigning its truck lineup and will unveil the rejuvenated fleet in a few months, said Gutierrez. Ford, however, is planning to redesign the F-150 for the 2015 model year, which will begin to arrive at dealers in mid-2014 – giving GM a year-long head start. Still, the allure of the F-150 is so strong that in 2012 the truck outsold the entire car and truck fleets of Volkswagen, Volvo, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Kia, or Subaru. That is quite a cushion for GM to overcome. (  http://ford.wieck.com/videos/ford-f-150-raptor-svt?query=raptor   )

The F-150 Raptor is a work truck that looks good and can go anywhere and do just about anything one might want a vehicle to do. In Texas – where 20% of the nation’s pickup trucks are sold – it is common to see a line of highly polished and simonized F-150s lined up outside the venue of every high school prom.  During the day, that same truck will carry a half ton of material and tow another three tons of cargo up, down and over any construction site. It comes close to being as capable as a Hummer, Toyota FJ Cruiser, or Jeep Wrangler Rubicon going up, down, or across steep slopes, fording streams, slogging through mud or crawling over tree limbs and rocks.

13 Ford F-150 Raptor - downhill

            Under that relatively water tight hood is a 6.2 liter V-8 engine cranking out 411 horsepower and 434 pound-feet of torque. It is mated to a six speed, overdrive, automatic transmission, and there are separate hill climb and descent gears. There are four additional power switches in the center console for use with after-market items such as floodlights or tow winches. The truck’s stability control system allows power to be transferred from a wheel which is suspended in the air to an opposing wheel. As a result the F-150 can continue in a relatively straight line regardless of what the trail does.

Inside, the F-150 is more like a large SUV. It features two screens: an eight-inch color, touch screen in the center of the dash and a 4.2-inch information screen directly in front of the steering wheel next to the speedometer.  This small screen shows the trip computer, fuel gauge, and the front mounted camera, which is used to let the driver see rocks and other off-road impediments. The main screen is used for everything else – the navigation system, entertainment, Bluetooth, and the backup camera. For amusement, the truck comes with a CD and DVD player, MP3, iPod and USB ports, satellite radio, and Bluetooth.

13 Ford F-150 Raptor - interior   The leather steering wheel is adjustable –as are the pedals – and contains fingertip cruise and audio controls. The four, 15-volt power outlets are to be expected. But since this is a work truck, Ford added a 115-volt power outlet so you can plug in a computer or other item needing serious power.

The test vehicle had the standard Supercab, with two full doors and half doors for the rear. But even with its slanted roofline, there is leg and head room in the rear for three adults in full-sized, leather seats. A larger, four-door, crew cab is available, adding about 200 pounds to the truck’s three-ton curb weight.  Either way, it’s a comfortable ride since the front seats are adjustable and can be heated or air cooled.

GM’s trucks have been steadily gaining ground on Ford, and Dodge Ram definitely has the edgiest commercials.  But for the time being, the F-150 is still the one to beat.

           13 Ford F-150 Raptor - side


2013 ford F-150 SVT Raptor


MSRP:                                                                        $50,760

EPA Mileage:                        11 MPG City                          16 MPG Highway

Towing Capacity:                                                      6,000 Pounds


Performance / Safety:


6.2-Liter, SOHC, iron block, V-8 engine producing 411 horsepower and 434 pound-feet of torque; 6-speed automatic overdrive transmission with tow mode; 4-wheel drive; hydraulic rack and pinion steering; coil-on-shock, double wishbone, independent front suspension; Hotchkiss-type, non-independent rear suspension; 4-wheel vented disc brakes; roll and stability control; 17-inch cast aluminum wheels; hill descent and off-road mode; skid plates; trailer tow; front seat, mounted side impact airbags; canopy airbags.


Interior / Comfort:


AM/FM/XM satellite radio;  CD and DVD player; iPod, MP3 and USB ports; satellite navigation  with 8-inch touch screen; SYNC connectivity and voice activation; 4.2-inch information screen; front and rear cameras; 4 15-volt outlets; one 115-volt outlet; leather, adjustable, heated and air-cooled front seats; tilt and telescoping, leather wrapped steering wheel with fingertip audio and cruise controls;


Cruising in a Luxury Liner: The Lexus GS 350

December 9, 2012

13 Lexus GS-350 - side

By Roger Witherspoon



Peel me a grape, crush me some ice

Skin me a peach, save the fuzz for my pillow

Talk to me nice, talk to me nice

You’ve got to wine me, and dine me

Don’t try to fool me, bejewel me.

Either amuse me, or lose me

I’m getting hungry,

Peel me a grape.

The highway was empty, the road was hard and dry, and the New England sun was setting in a warm, orange cloudscape that seemed out of season on a cold winter night.

My wife leaned forward in the passenger seat, her head cocked at an angle, listening intently. She glanced periodically at the back seat through eyes that were at half mast as she nodded to the beat of the music. She had heard Diana Krall croon “Peel Me a Grape” before. But not like this.

Pop me a cork, French me a fry

Crack me a nut bring a bowl full of bon-bons

Chill me some wine. Keep standing by

Just entertain me. Champagne me

Show me you love me. Kid glove me

Best way to cheer me. Cashmere me

I’m getting hungry.

Peeeeel me.

“I don’t understand,” said Marilyn in a voice barely above a whisper, as if trying not to interrupt a performance. “It sounds like we’re in a live cabaret, and she’s in the back seat. How is that possible?”

“Well,” I whispered back, so as not to break the mood. “It’s an 845-watt sound system, and there are 17 speakers and a sound leveler to balance the music coming to each seat.”

“Aaaah,” she sighed. “That explains it. We don’t have 17 speakers in our whole house.”

At that point,  (  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bfJ_c2tyfQ0    ) the pianist and bassist took off in a tight, syncopated dance of their own – each note, crisp, clear, soft, and the vibrations from the bass could be felt through the thick leather padding in the Lexus’ arm rests. She was so engrossed in the private concert that she didn’t notice the speedometer had crept to 110 – an occupational hazard when driving a musically enhanced living room.  Instead of admonishing me to slow down or commenting on the absence of wind noise inside the sedan, she closed her eyes, sighed and said “play it again.”

And the voice-activated audio system did just that.

Send out for scotch, boil me a crab

Cut me a rose make my tea with the petals

Just hang around, pick up the tab and

Never out think me. Just mink me,

Polar bear rug me. Don’t bug me

New Thunderbird me. You heard me

I’m getting hungry.

Peel me a grape.


One doesn’t buy a car for the amenities.

But if you are going to shell out more than $60,000 for a sedan, you have a right to expect a lot more than basic, comfortable transportation.   The Lexus GS-350 is a sport sedan aimed squarely at the upscale, market regularly patrolled by the BMW 535i, Mercedes E-350, Cadillac CTS, and Audi A6. It’s a tough crowd with cars justly known for performance and very high levels of comfort. In this case, the high quality sound system is just one of many items Lexus hopes will let the GS stand out in a demanding marketplace.

So far, Lexus’ designers seem to be doing something right. According to surveys of owner satisfaction conducted by J.D. Powers and Associates, Lexus is the highest ranking, high end nameplate in 2012, followed by Jaguar, Porsche, Cadillac and Honda, in that order. That’s a tough crowd to lead, and aside from the price, they have nothing in common.

13 Lexus GS-350 - red front

The look of the GS starts with its split, black, angular grill featuring sharp edges pointing towards the center and flaring widely towards the bottom. It’s an image vaguely reminiscent of ancient Samurai headgear, which flares towards the neck and shoulders. From that aggressive face follows a sleek, flowing silhouette, with soft lines along the sides resembling the tracery of water droplets across a fast-moving plane. The lines aren’t all for subliminal design – they serve to channel the airflow past the car and are part of the reason the interior is a silent theater.

Under that sloping hood is a 3.5-liter V-6 engine capable of cranking out 306 horsepower and 277 pound-feet of torque. That places the Lexus about in the middle of t the V-6 power plants of the BMW 535i, Mercedes E350, Cadillac CTS, and Audi A6, which put out between 300 and 310 horsepower. And with a top speed of 142 miles per hour, the Lexus is likely to run with, rather than ahead of its competitors.

On the road the Lexus, with all wheel drive, yields nothing to its competitors in terms of performance.  It has a six-speed automatic transmission which shifts without any noticeable or audible lag. And for an extra boost in passing, particularly uphill, there is a sport manual mode and paddle shifts on the steering column providing the type of instant response one finds in a quality sports car.

Where Lexus hopes to make its mark is inside, where the people are. And they gave more than a little thought to that experience, punctuated by a real, analog clock in the 13 Lexus GS-350 - clockcenter of the dash.

The décor is leather and dark, polished wood, accented by brushed aluminum trim and, at night, set off by soft traceries of light. While the exterior design is aggressive, the interior is all soft surfaces and rounded edges.  The armrests, for example, curve outward and resemble padded leather shelves rather than the standard door appendage. This is an all-weather car, and the seats in the front and rear can be heated if it’s cold or the passenger is just sore and seeks a soothing, hot compress. In the summer, the ventilated leather front seats can also be air cooled.  A push of a button also heats the steering wheel. The front seats and the wide sunroof are all power adjustable.

The rear seats have enough legroom for a pair of women basketball players and enough headroom to accommodate any variety of hair styles. There is a push-button sunscreen for the rear windshield, and manually operated screens for each of the rear windows. There are also separate climate controls for the occupants in the back seat.

The centerpiece of the rolling dashboard is a 12.3-inch color screen, which is split into a seven-inch navigation screen and a five-inch section for the active systems in the car, such as the climate and audio. It’s a thoughtful adaptation which is appreciated on trips through strange cities since you do not have to drop the on-screen map in order to adjust the music or temperature. And, for old eyes, it’s extremely easy to see.

There is a backup camera, but the placement is a bit awkward. The camera is near the dual exhaust, and the view is cloudy at night when the exhaust fumes are more pronounced. During the day, however, the view is crystal clear.

13 Lexus GS-350 - interior front

The GS also comes with a number of safety features. The Lexus’ heads-up display, an amenity normally found in GM’s Cadillac and Corvette, provides a hologram that appears on the hood in front of the driver, displaying the speedometer and changes in music or temperature. There is a dynamic cruise control, which adjusts to the speed of the car in front of the Lexus. In addition, there is an infrared camera focused on the driver’s eyes. If the distance between the Lexus and another car is closing too fast, and the driver is not looking forward, the car sounds an alert. If the driver does not respond the Lexus will automatically begin braking, tightening seat belts, and readying air bags 1.2 seconds before the actual collision to lessen its impact.

Lexus’ redesign of the GS sedan was necessary if it is to keep up with an innovative, high performing pack. The GS has a lot going for it. To what extent it can outmuscle the competition remains to be seen.

2013 Lexus GS 350


MSRP:                                                                        $63,232

EPA Mileage:                        19 MPG City                          26 MPG Highway


Performance / Safety:


            0 – 60 MPH                                                    5.8 Seconds

            Top Speed                                                      142 MPH


3.5-Liter,  DOHC, direct injection, V-6 aluminum engine producing 306 horsepower and  274 pound-feet of torque; all-wheel drive;  6- speed automatic transmission; electronic manual mode with paddle shifters; independent double wishbone front suspension;  independent multi-link rear suspension; 4-wheel, ventilated disc brakes; stability and traction control; b-xenon headlights with automatic leveling; fog lamps; heads-up display; blind spot monitor; lane departure monitor; 18-inch alloy wheels; driver and front passenger knee bags;  dual front airbags;  side impact  and curtain airbags.

Interior / Comfort:


AM/FM/XM satellite radio; 17-speaker, 835-watt, Mark Levinson Premium Surround Sound, Bluetooth; iPod, MP3, and USB ports; CD player; voice activated navigation system with 12.3-inch split color screen; backup camera;  heated front and rear seats; leather and wood, heated, tilt and telescoping steering wheel with fingertip audio, Bluetooth and cruise controls;  powered sunroof.

13 Lexus GS-350 - rear


Rolling Through a Superstorm In a Mazda CX-5

December 4, 2012

13 Mazda CX-5 - front profile


By Roger Witherspoon


            The full moon over the Hudson River was just a faint, fuzzy ball behind the swirling band of clouds marking the passage of Super Hurricane Sandy.

It was a strange sort of hurricane, in that there was virtually no rain. But the gravitational pull of that obscure moon and the winds that roared down from the Hudson Highlands at speeds approaching 100 miles per hour were pushing the river’s salt-water tides to record heights. That made it a perfect time to cruise along the river and watch the effects of a superstorm in action.

It was less than two miles from my home to the river’s edge. But it took time to navigate the normally short, direct route over or around the downed trees, the occasional, bouncing, live wire, broken branches and other blowing debris that littered the streets and highways of Westchester County, New York City’s northern suburb. Periodically, I opened the window of the Mazda CX-5 to listen to the raging wind or the cracking sound of trees coming down, turning down streets that seemed particularly noisy.

At the entrance to a short causeway over a Hudson River inlet, a utility worker emerged from a Ford F-150 truck dripping muddy river water off its hood and put flares across the road, blocking it off.  The Bear Mountain Extension provided the shortest route to Camp Smith, an Army base, and the winding road up to the Bear Mountain Bridge, about 10 miles south of West Point.  The lowest point of the road, he said, was under about four feet of water in a 20-yard stretch, and the river was still rising.

That did not deter the drivers of two, huge, military trucks headed for CampSmith.  The trucks were armored on the sides and bottoms better deflect the blast from roadside mines.  Slowly, the convoy drove in to the fast moving water – and got stuck at the deepest part.

The utility worker called for police support and raced down the roadway. In minutes, dozens of police cars drove onto the causeway, the officers piling out in an effort to help the trapped soldiers.

I left the Mazda at the side of the four-lane roadway and played traffic cop until a real officer came and took over. Then I slid back behind the leather steering wheel, hit the Bluetooth button to connect the audio from my Smartphone to the 225-watt, nine-speaker, Bose sound system, and continued rolling through Superstorm Sandy as the Temptations belted their ‘60s classic “Runaway Child.”

13 Mazda CX-5 - side

The Mazda CX-5 is a mid-sized, five-passenger SUV that is not particularly intended for off-road driving and certainly wasn’t designed for moonlight swims in swollen rivers. But its 19-inch aluminum wheels, and all-wheel drive makes it a pretty secure mode of transport even in abnormal conditions. It is not a Jeep or FJ Cruiser, and downed tree trunks would have brought the CX-5 to a lurching halt. But rolling over small branches and through hubcap-deep puddles and fast-moving streams was not a problem for a well-balanced SUV with traction and stability controls.

While all Mazda’s are marketed under the “zoom-zoom” logo, that speedy phrase really applies only to their sports cars. The CX-5 has a small, 2-liter, four-cylinder power plant cranking out just 155 horsepower – which is pretty anemic when you are taking off. The CX-5 is rated with a towing power of 2,000 pounds, though that may well be a strain for the little engine that could. As it is, the CX-5 has little power for passing, unless you shift into the electronic manual mode and downshift for extra torque. It is an easy maneuver, and in manual mode, the Mazda is extremely responsive and the pickup is instantaneous.

It has the sleek silhouette common among crossovers. And along its sides are soft, subtle lines which help deflect airflow as the car moves faster.  This both reduces drag and lessens the wind noise.

In their design studios, the Zoom-Zoom guys gave some thought to the quality of the interior of the CX-5.  It is a quiet car, regardless of whether the wind is moving at 100 miles an hour or the speedometer is approaching that mark. There is little exterior noise to intrude on the music or conversation.13 Mazda CX-5 - dash

All the surfaces have thickly padded real or simulated leather, accented with chrome and brushed aluminum. It is a five-seater, with the second row designed to actually hold three, average-sized adults.  Each of these seats can fold flat to add to the already ample cargo area. The front seats can be heated, though only the driver’s seat is power adjustable.

If there is a drawback, it’s that the navigation system is mediocre. Mazda uses the Tom-Tom system, which was designed originally for hand held devices and, in that mode, competed with the more popular Garmin.   Tom-Tom is more difficult to use than either Garmin or the standard navigation systems designed for cars. Its personal settings are hard to find, and it is not intuitive to operate. The 5.8-inch screen, on the other hand, is small and individual street names are harder to see. However, the screen is crystal clear, and the backup camera is lighted so you can actually use it at night.

The crossover SUV market is a crowded one and Mazda will have a tough fight to carve its own niche from the likes of a Nissan Murano or Ford Escape. But the Mazda CX-5 offers a lot for $30,000 and is sure to be competitive. It’s a comfortable way to roll, whether running on the open, sunny road, or running away from a runaway river.

13 Mazda CX-5 - rear



2013 Mazda CX-5


MSRP:                                                                        $30,415

EPA Mileage:                        25 MPG City                          31 MPG Highway

As Tested Mileage:                                                   20.9 MPG Mixed

Towing Capacity:                                                      2,000 Pounds


Performance / Safety:


2.0-Liter, 4-cylinder, DOHC, aluminum  engine producing 155 horsepower and 150 pound-feet of torque; all-wheel drive; 6-speed automatic transmission; independent MacPherson strut front suspension; independent, multi-link rear suspension; front & rear stabilizing bars; 4-wheel dies brakes; 19-inch alloy wheels; power assisted steering; anti-lock brakes; blind spot monitoring; Halogen headlights; fog lamps; stability and traction controls; hill launch assist; dual front airbags;  front and rear, side impact airbags.


Interior / Comfort;


AM/FM/Sirius Satellite and HD radio; 9-speaker, 225-watt, Bose surround sound system; iPod, MP3, and USB ports; Bluetooth; navigation system with 5.8-inch touch-screen; backup camera;  tilt & telescoping, leather wrapped steering wheel with fingertip audio and cruise controls; powered sunroof; fold-flat rear seats in 40/ 20/40 split; leather seats; heated front seats; powered driver’s seat – manually operated passenger seat.


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