Archive for May 1st, 2011

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Chrysler and Fiat: The Odd Couple Steps Out

May 1, 2011


By Roger Witherspoon

 

The Frenchman sat at a small corner table off to the side of the bustling, glittering, Chrysler-Fiat exhibit, speaking softly to associates and watching the coming-out party for his new company.

Last year, in the throes of bankruptcy and a shotgun wedding between the struggling Detroit auto maker and the glittering Italian company best known for its Ferrari and Maserati brands, Chrysler had skipped the big New York International Auto Show in the massive Jacob Javits Convention Center. Instead, Olivier Francois, the newly designated head of the merged company, had launched a crash redesign of all the cars in its Chrysler, Dodge, Ram, and Jeep lineup, while preparing an American version of its compact, European Fiat 500. A redesign process that normally takes about five years was crashed into 18 months

In 2010 Chrysler was a New York Auto No-Show. But the revamped company’s party this year is lavish. The workhorse Jeep Wrangler got a facelift and rolled up and down a makeshift mountain wedged between the front of the convention center and the six lanes of taxis racing up and down 11th Avenue. Inside,  the company’s muscle cars – the 392-horsepower Dodge Challenger and the wide-mouthed, 465-horsepower Charger SRT-8 – flanked the 150-mile-per-hour Jeep Grand Cherokee, whose refined Italian interior décor and 900-watt sound system would let you lose your license in style.

The elegant but ageing Chrysler 300 sedan got an overdue facelift, and the ungainly, bottom-heavy, Chrysler Seabring got a sleek redesign and a new name, the Chrysler 200.

But everything looks shiny, new and inviting at an auto show and Chrysler-Fiat is making a splash just by showing up – and doing it in style. Francois was watching the crowds, scanning for that spark of excitement that would tell him the company was really back from the disastrous decisions of the semi-competent, cost cutting management which drove the company to the brink of collapse.

“In Europe,” said Francois, “we always considered Chrysler the best American brand. But it became a brand that was discontented and it had low brand loyalty.  It’s as if you looked at your kid and said he was a low achiever and then started cutting costs – you don’t pay for the best clothes or the most expensive school and so on. If you have low expectations, then that’s what you get.

“Chrysler always had a very good image in Europe. It was considered very innovative and, actually less American. It was seen as exotic. It had stylistic cars. But you needed to put money and investment in the materials, and quality, and in its people. What matters most to buyers is not whether it’s a Dodge or Jeep or Ram Truck. The perceived quality of the cars was unsatisfactory.”

Dealer surveys and stories in Consumer Reports made it clear to Francois and his incoming team that cost cutting and bad management had led to the impression of cars with cheap materials, mediocre interior designs and excessive noise. And that realization, he said, came as a relief. Chrysler had talented people and a sound product lineup:  It would not be necessary to scrap everything and start over.

Instead, what Chrysler needed was a “heavy tweak” in which they devoted attention to physical problems like materials, uneven suspension, and excess noise. All of the interiors were redesigned using better quality materials. These were corrections, said Francois, “that you can do relatively quickly.”

Francois avoided a culture clash in design by keeping all of Chrysler styling in the hands of Ralph Gilles, an African American, with input from the Italian design shop. The exception, however, is the introduction of the new Fiat 500, where Gilles plays a subordinate design role to the Italian team.

The Fiat 500 is another matter. The brand disappeared from the US more than 20 years ago because its poorly built cars didn’t sell. Now they are back, and convincing the public to get behind the wheel of the sporty little convertible is the chosen chore of Laura Soave, the sharp-eyed car exec who on the convention floor is easily mistaken for one of the svelte models adorning the showroom.

Soave left a post as general manager at Volkswagen, USA to head the reintroduction of Italian car.  “It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity for me,” said Soave. “I’m a first generation American and a kid from Detroit who grew up with cars. My parents are both from Italy, and came here separately in their teens and met in Detroit.

“And I have a personal vision of what this brand can mean to Americans. I know how to blend the Italian culture and American culture very well.”

The cultural blend started at Fiat. Her promotion to CEO of Fiat’s American subsidiary makes the 39-year-old Soave the only female chief executive in the Italian car company, and one of the few top women in the American automotive industry. “What makes Fiat, USA unique,” she said, “is that we are an Italian design company, not an American company with an Italian label. When people think of Italian cars they think of the higher end of Fiat – Ferrari and Maserati and Lancia.  And American consumers are in love with Italian things, like shoes and clothes and food.  Now they can have that Italian flair in transportation.

“We don’t want our car to blend in with the rest of the small cars in the place. The small car market has always been a compromise, an affordability issue where you made tradeoffs in style, content, and safety.  We’re not compromising, and will bring you all that great stuff in a perfect, small package.”

That’s a tall order, even for an ambitious, car-savvy Kid from Detroit. In recent years, several companies have turned their sights on the market for cars costing $20,000 or less. For years, this market was considered an after-thought, where scaled down vehicles were sold to young entry level, or low-income buyers. But now it is treated as a desirable segment of the market, and competition is heating up.

The 33 MPG Mazda 2, which looks remarkably like the equally small Toyota Yaris, goes head to head with the trend-setting Ford Fiesta and Nissan’s little Versa, to name a few small cars with very sharp automotive elbows. The design of the Fiat 500 lies somewhere between the venerable VW Beetle and the Mazda 2, with the same type of rolling soft-top found in the Smart-for-Two convertible.  Breaking into this contentious turf will not be easy.

But Soave, now living and working out of the Detroit suburb of Auburn Hills, is not perturbed. She has the typical auto swagger of Motor City residents and is relishing the fact that Fiat gave her the chance to go home again.

“My parents think this is just great,” she said, beaming. “When they saw the announcement in the paper they cut it out and I made it onto their frig along with the pictures of the grandchildren. That was a pretty good moment.”

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Muscle Cars and Speed Kings

May 1, 2011


By Roger Witherspoon

 

            The muscle cars and speed kings are back in force.

Anyone who worried that an automotive era dominated with talk of fuel efficiency and practical cars meant an end to the most expensive, powerful, fast, flashy set of wheels can rest easy.  Yeah, there is a lot of talk about these cars being the most fuel efficient ever in their class. But that class deals with a lot of horsepower, drinks premium fuel like its Gatorade and measures its performance in fractions of a second.

These are the cars that you do not need to commute to work, and will not get you to a place of worship any faster than the old folks in the minivan in front of you. And they’ll get 20 miles per gallon mostly in your dreams.

But that’s really irrelevant.

If what you are looking for is a car which looks as if it is flying when it’s really parked; which will cause heads to spin and neighbors to drool; which has a powerful growl you can hear down the block without thinking someone has lost a muffler; and, if you floor the pedal, will rock you back in your seat hard enough for you to recall being a dumb teenager, then the New York Auto Show has a set of wide wheels for you. Some may fit your household budget, and some may just fit into your imagination. They come with old fashioned American swagger, as well as foreign flair.

For starters, let’s say you are a family man and want to be somewhat “responsible” and get a car which can take the family to the grocery store and the kids to school when you are not looking for an empty, unpatrolled road to really roll on. Detroit has two family-friendly, fast cars to choose from, and the Germans have added a third.

First, there is the Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT-8, a well-heeled SUV from the renovated Chrysler-Fiat group which can get the kids to their soccer game at 150 miles an hour. You will be traveling tire to 20-inch tire with the Porsche Cayenne, which was also designed to help you pick up the school kids in a hurry. Both are luxury SUVs, with wood paneling, an elaborate music and entertainment system, and a price tag that’s well south of $100,000. Porsche used to have a decided edge in interior comfort, but the redesign and attention to quality and detail in the new Chrysler-Fiat company significantly trims the difference down to a simple matter of personal taste.

If the notion of an SUV is not to your liking, Cadillac has a station wagon for you that rolls along on 19-inch aluminum wheels. The CTS-V Sport Wagon – a slightly larger version of the 180-mile-per-hour CTS-V supercar – uses the same 6.2-liter V-8 engine cranking out 556 horsepower. The station wagon will only get you 150 miles an hour – which is no better than the SUVs – but it looks good doing it.

Okay. Skip being responsible.

You want a car like the one you wish you had when you were younger.  In that case, Detroit has brought back several muscle cars, and made the engines bigger, the cars faster, the gadgets more numerous and the seats larger to accommodate older and bigger drivers.

At the top of the heap is the 220 mile per hour Corvette ZR-1. Its supercharged V-8 engine cranks out 638 horsepower and lets the car bolt from 0 to 60 miles per hour in about 3 seconds. The 2012 ‘Vette has 19-inch wheels in front and 20-inch wheels in its bulging back for added stability. That’s a step up from the zooming Corvette Z-06, which is clocked at just 198 miles per hour. The EPA says the new Corvette can get around 14 miles per gallon of gas though, at that speed, who is checking for anything except the Highway Patrol?

Slightly slower – somewhere between 190 and 200 miles per hour – is GM’s Chevy Camaro ZL-1, with a 6.2-liter, turbo-charged, 550-horsepower, V-8 engine. This Camaro looks a lot like it did in the 60s – only faster. If you drop down below 190 MPH, you can find the iconic, Ford Mustang Shelby GT 500. It is still a head turner a half century after Steve McQueen went airborne chasing the bad guys up and down San Francisco’s unreasonably steep hills in one. Under the Mustang’s recognizable hood is a 550 horsepower, supercharged V-8 engine which costs only $50,000 and, according to the EPA, can get 23 miles per gallon of gasoline while racing down the highway. The mileage may be less if there are frequent stops for police.

Dropping down about 100 horsepower, but keeping up the image and speed is the 2012 Dodge Charger, with a 6.4-liter, Hemi V-8 engine. It looks a lot like the one the Dukes of Hazard drove – but meaner.

Perhaps American muscle cars, whose designs are geared to men, aren’t up to your aesthetic standards. A professional woman on the go may opt for one of the more beautifully designed cars on the road, the Jaguar XKR-S.  While the Jaguar is easily recognized for its soft, smooth-flowing lines, there is nothing soft about it. Under the gently sloping hood is a 550-horsepower engine which can rocket the car from 0 – 60 miles per hour in 4.2 seconds en route to a top speed of about 185.

Which means the woman who shells out more than $100,000 for the XKR-S will look very good as she leaves you way behind.

If you dole out about $175,000, you can get behind the wheel of the 190 mile-per-hour Porsche Panamera, whose 550-horsepower turbo-charged engine lets you race down the highway while getting 23 miles to the gallon of premium gasoline – which is pretty good for this segment. But if you like the looks of the Panamera but want to be more ecologically minded, there is a hybrid version of the Panamera. Its combined V-6 gasoline engine and electric motor deliver just 380 horsepower and the top speed is only 167 miles per hour. But while the hybrid can’t run with the really big dogs on the road, its price is only $95,000 – which means you save enough to add a Corvette to your garage.

And then, for performance and elegance, there is the Bentley Continental GT, the ultimate in refined, expensive, muscle cars. For $250,000, one can slide behind the wheel of one of the world’s fastest production sedans, whose W-12, twin-turbocharged engine cranks out  567 horsepower, jets the car from 0 – 60 miles per hour in 4.4 seconds and 0 – 100 in 10.2 seconds with a top speed of an even 200 miles per hour.

The exterior refinements on the 2012 Continental GT are subtle: the rear was widened an inch and a half and there is a soft ridge which curls around the front wheels and flows through the middle of the door handle towards the humped, 21-inch rear wheels. The big changes are in the interior electronics. The continental now has a touchscreen driving the infotainment system featuring a 30 GB hard drive as well as satellite radio and connections for iPods, flash drives and MP3 players.

Traveling in the Bentley Continental GT means going places in very expensive style. But with the exception of the guy in the little Corvette, no one is going to get to their destination faster.


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The Prius Triplets: Saving Gas and Avoiding Lightning

May 1, 2011

 


By Roger Witherspoon

 

            A decade ago, when gas was reasonably cheap, and SUVs approaching the size of buses dominated the roadways, Toyota did something unusual.

Instead of following the prevailing wisdom and building bigger, they came out with a new class of small cars, the Toyota Prius hybrid, whose claim to fame was that it could get about 50 miles per gallon. The Prius was about the size of the popular Honda Civic, but had a bit less space in the back because there was this large battery pack under the rear seat and trunk. It was an innovative, dual motor system in which the car could drive at low speeds – under 30 miles per hour – on battery power and an electric motor and at higher speeds with a standard gasoline engine. At that time, however, consumers openly wondered if the batteries could explode, if drivers could be electrocuted, and if the dual system would last 50,000 miles or more.

And it was an open bet whether fuel economy would sell in a market where Detroit automakers scoffed at the technology and the five-mile-per-gallon Hummer and 12 MPG Cadillac Escalade were major status symbols.

A decade later, the Hummer is gone, Detroit is climbing out of bankruptcy, the Escalade comes in a hybrid version and the pioneering Prius closes out April with the sale of its one millionth American Prius. Toyota could have stopped with minor adjustments to the Prius, now a slightly larger, four-door model with a better lithium-ion battery.

            But to mark the occasion, Toyota decided it was time for the Prius to develop siblings. So at the New York International Auto Show, the Prius is flanked by a larger, hybrid crossover model called the Prius V, and a tri-engine, plug-in electric Prius.

There is little new in the iconic standard Prius which has set the standard for fuel efficiency with a 50 MPG average. The Prius V is, literally, a stretch. It looks pretty much like the standard Prius – resembling a rolling trapezoid – only gown up.  In size, it’s a Prius and a half, and intended to more comfortably meet standard family needs. In that arena, it has a lot more room and electronic gadgets while delivering an estimated EPA rating of 42 MPG in city driving and 38 MPH on the highway.

The second row seats are versatile in that they can fold flat to enlarge the cargo area, or recline 45 degrees for more comfortable napping. For entertainment, the V has Toyota’s new “Entune” multimedia system which provides distracting links to the internet in addition to a wide variety of music. The car offers XM satellite and HD radio in addition to a CD player and connections for iPods, MP3 players, smart phones, and USB drives. The system accesses the internet for Bluetooth streaming and, using Bing, will locate and read your email and allow limited voice responses.

The crossover field is a crowded one. The Prius V will have to try and elbow room between Asian competitors like the Honda Crosstour and Nissan Murano – which now has a convertible model – or slide upscale to the Cadillac SRX.

The company is seeking a different niche with the new Prius Hybrid Plug-in electric vehicle. Toyota is circulating 160 of them around the country at this time, gathering user feedback in anticipation of a formal launch next year. The initial Prius was revolutionary in that Toyota envisioned and developed a car which could fully operate on two different power plants. The new plug-in goes a step further, allowing you to drive with three power systems.

The hybrid power systems are standard. What is different is that the new battery pack powers the electric motor for about an hour, or 13 miles, at speeds up to 60 miles per hour. After that, the charge is depleted and the car reverts to the standard hybrid combination with the interplay between the gas engine and electric motor. The difference is incremental. What the 13 electric power only miles do is extend the miles per gallon average of the car.

Wade Hoyt, Toyota’s east coast director, who commutes 42 miles each way into Manhattan from the northern Westchester County suburbs, said “my commute includes the hilly, twisting Depression-era Taconic and Saw Mill Parkways, Manhattan’s Westside Highway and congested mid-town traffic. In a conventional 2011 Prius, I can average about 51 mpg into town (downhill on balance) and 48 mpg or so going home (uphill on balance).
“With a full charge in the Prius PHV, I got 73.2 mpg going into Manhattan!  That’s what those 13 gas-free miles did for me. Since I can’t charge up at the parking garage near my office, I was reduced to 48 mpg on the return trip. That resulted in a round-trip average of 61 mpg – an 11.5 mpg or 23% improvement over the “normal” Prius on my 84-mile commute.  A 20-mile trip could have given me about 145 mpg, and a 10-mile trip infinite mileage!”

There is no free electric lunch, however.   The use of a plug-in electric car on a regular basis can boost the cost of a household’s electric bill by up to 50%. At times when gasoline prices are hovering around $2 per gallon, the additional electric costs – particularly in high priced areas like the New York metropolitan region – it may be cheaper to drive a regular Prius or other hybrid. The gasoline vs. electricity cost equation can change, however, as gas prices float towards $5 per gallon.

As with anything new, the plug-in takes getting used to. It has a lithium-ion battery which is “filled” in about three hours on a standard, 110 volt plug, and about half that time with a 220-volt outlet.  I plugged the car into the garage outlet when I retired for the evening. The car sat quietly in the driveway, the long cord snaking under the garage door, quietly drinking. Then, as the nightly news was heading into sports, I realized it was pouring rain and there was this rolling electrical machine in the driveway. While I wouldn’t give a second thought to leaving Christmas lights outside in the snow and rain, this felt odd. So I unplugged it.

As it stands, Toyota says the existing system is as safe as the typical outdoor plugs used for lighting displays, though they recommend the charging be done indoors. But, to reassure motorists, the car’s plug is being redesigned for the 2012 model to make it even more waterproof.


 

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Toyota’s Surprise Coupe: The Scion tC

May 1, 2011

By Roger Witherspoon

 

            It was not a night for driving.

The rain fell in a continuous, sheet at a rate of more than an inch an hour, turning visibility into a macabre version of peek-a-boo where you were allowed just a glimpse of roadway with each swipe of the windshield wiper blades. The small portion of the parkway visible in the headlights was black with a moving sheen of about an inch of water from the swollen, muddy, pollutedSawMillRiverthat usually meanders slowly from suburbanWestchesterCountydown past the elephants in the Bronx Zoo inNew York City.

The traction control in the Toyota Scion tC was working overtime trying to keep the Sport Coupe’s 18-inch alloy wheels rolling in a semblance of a straight line. Suddenly, there was a dip in the road and the sloping, aggressive face of the Scion turned submarine and hit what seemed like a wall of water, which splashed up and over the compact sports car. The water in that stretch of roadway turned out to be about a foot deep – six inches higher than the Scion’s clearance.

But there was no point in stopping. The rain was falling harder, the river was rising and, about a hundred yards ahead, the receding tail lights of another car were visible. There was no way to tell if the other vehicle was a tall SUV or another small car whose door jams were under water – but it did show the way to go.

We slowed down and plowed through the rising, fast moving water. The double sunroof, which illuminated the front and rear seats during the day and made the small car seem roomier than it really was, now was lit by intermittent bursts of lightning which provided fleeting glimpses of how much water there was.

The Scion, like the high end Toyotas and Lexus models, is tightly sealed to keep out wind noise, something that is appreciated when cruising along and listening to the mellow sounds of jazz musician Keiko Matsui. But on this occasion the seals were appreciated for keeping the water out as the car parted the waters and slid along the parkway until, finally, we reached higher ground and saw the police coming to close off the roadway.

Rain or shine, the Scion has a lot going for it. It is a stylish little coupe whose sloping teardrop shape stands out among the extremely boxy, ungainly machines that have characterized the Scion fleet presented at the New York International Auto Show in theJacobJavitsCenter. The show opens today and runs through May 1. And the Scion tC needs to be very distinctive: at $21,400 it is competing with the VW Jetta, the sporty Honda CR-Z, the Nissan Cube and the technologically exceptional Ford Fiesta, which costs $3,000 less.

Under the Scion’s sloping hood is a 2.5-liter in-line, four cylinder, aluminum alloy engine cranking out 180 horsepower—10 more than the Jetta and 60 more than the Fiesta. That provides a lot of juice in a light car like this.  Scion is a front wheel drive car, and comes with either a six speed manual transmission or, for $1,000 more, a six speed automatic transmission with an electronic manual mode. With either engine, the EPA estimates the Scion tC gets 23 miles per gallon of regular gas in city driving, and 31 MPG on the highway – not counting the parking lots that pass for highways in cities likeAtlantaandNew York.

            The Scion’s designers gave some thought to the interior, making sure that a low end price did not mean cheap.  To begin with, there is that double sunroof, and the one over the front seats is power adjustable.  The console and its dash-mounted controls are easy to find in the dark without a lot of fumbling.

The test car had a small, four-inch color information screen which was touch activated. Scion also offers a navigation system for an additional $1,000 and, with that, comes a clear, color backup camera. There are gauges for outside temperature, average MPG, and an “ECO-drive” monitor showing the present rate of fuel usage, which is useful in helping one drive in the most fuel efficient manner.

   The entertainment options were ample. The car had AM/FM and XM satellite radio, as well as HD radio and a single disc CD player, as well as a USB and iPod ports. The adjustable sound is provided by a 300-watt Pioneer unit with eight speakers and a subwoofer. It automatically adjusts according to the car’s speed, though that really isn’t necessary: a car built tightly enough to swim and keep your feet dry also lets you hear every distinct, soft note in Keiko Matsui’s Whisper from the Mirror without unwanted interference from the passing wind. The tC also sports one of the easiest, most efficient Bluetooth systems on the road. Both the entertainment and cell phone systems can be operated from the dash or via fingertip controls on the leather steering wheel.

As one might expect, the seats were manually operated and covered in cloth instead of leather – score one for Jetta. But the front seats are wide, thick, and comfortable. The rear seats recline have enough leg room for the average six-footer to nap contentedly. And in the absence of passengers or kids, the rear seats can fold flat in a 60/40 split to enhance an already ample trunk.

The Scion is in a tough market. It is facing stiffer competition from the Germans and a resurgentDetroit.  AndToyota’s production line has been slowed because of the tragic confluence of the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disasters back inJapan.

Still, people walking past the hulking, square Scion SUV do an involuntary double take at the sight of the sleek Scion tC.  They may find a longer look worthwhile.

 

            2011 Toyota Scion tC Coupe

 

MSRP:                                                                        $21,417

EPA Mileage:                        23 MPG City                          31 MPG Highway

 

Performance / Safety:

 

2.5-Liter, 4-cylinder, aluminum alloy engine producing 180 horsepower and 173 pound/feet of torque; 6-speed automatic transmission with electronic manual shift; front wheel drive; MacPherson strut front suspension; double wishbone rear suspension; anti-lock brake system; 18-inch alloy wheels; stability and traction control; driver and front passenger seat-mounted side, knee and front airbags; front and rear side curtain airbags.

Interior / Comfort:

AM/FM/XM satellite and HD radio;  Pioneer 300-watt sound system with 8 speakers and subwoofer; USB and iPod connections; CD player; Bluetooth; front powered, and rear sunroof; tilt & telescoping, leather wrapped steering wheel with fingertip audio, cruise and Bluetooth controls; 60/40 folding rear seats.

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