Archive for the ‘2010 Reviews’ Category

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The Corvette: Speed, Grace, and Rolling Nostalgia

September 3, 2012

By Roger Witherspoon

I pushed the starter button and the car shook as a roar emerged from underneath the chassis and burst in a series of rapid fire explosions out the rear, as if a string of heavy duty firecrackers were celebrating behind me.

And that was when the Corvette was sitting still.

Clearly this was a sports car better suited to the driving bass-line of Eminem’s Lose Yourself  than any dulcet jazz solos from Keiko Matsui or ‘Trane. I unlatched the roof and put it on the designated tracks in the long, shallow trunk. Then slid a USB drive into the designated slot under the armrest and lined up a few hundred favorites to blare from the nine Bose speakers. I drove slowly to the entrance of an isolated stretch of  Connecticut interstate highway, where it stretches for about two miles through the marsh grass flanking the Long Island Sound, and waited till the roadway was empty.

And then, I popped the clutch and floored it.

The rumble under the car turned into a roar as the Corvette shot down the highway, going through the six gears in a matter of seconds till I held the speedometer level at 140. I did not have to take my eyes off the road: the Vette has a hologram of the speedometer and key gauges – including the entertainment system – floating over the left side of the hood between the 18-inch left wheel and the center air scoop.  It was hard to hear what Eminem was rapping over the throbbing of the engine and the roar of the wind – but the driving bass line was audible enough and seemed to mesh with the pounding of the 436-horsepower V-8.

The Corvette rides low to the ground, and the adjacent scenery was little more than a blur as I approached a long curve. I dropped down to 105 and sailed through the middle of the curve and then accelerated back up to 140 as I hit the straightaway. At that point, the highway was leaving the coast and it was time to slow back to the speed limit. There isn’t a lot of room on the crowded roads of the nation’s northeast to really appreciate what a sports car like this can do. You need a lot of space and a relatively straight road to enjoy a sports car roaring at nearly 190 miles per hour on the highway instead of splattered all over it.

But for a few minutes, and two miles of sunbaked, Connecticut highway, there was a glimpse of the joy of the wide open, western highways and the feel of a legendary machine.

This is the 60th anniversary of the introduction of the Chevrolet Corvette (  http://bcove.me/4ybhxikj  ),  the star of multiple series of hot rod adventure books of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Corvette, the first of a storied group of American muscle cars, first hit the roads in 1953. And while the 2013 Corvette has little in common with the original – except for a long, low silhouette and a reputation for speed – at 60 years of age it is the oldest Chevrolet nameplate on a passenger car. The title of the oldest Chevy nameplate still in use is the 77-year-old, truck-based, Chevy Suburban, which was introduced in 1936 and is still rumbling along.

The deliberate effort to bring back the feel – and sound – of the Corvette of the ‘50s partially explains the rapid-fire explosion of sound accompanying acceleration and deceleration in the current edition.

According to Chevrolet spokesman Monte Duran, the 2013 Corvette has a “dual mode exhaust” – two sets of twin chrome tailpipes. “The interior pipes,” explained Duran “have butterfly valves.  Those are closed at most speeds, and when you are cruising it sends the exhaust through the mufflers.

“But when you stand on the accelerator, at full throttle, the Corvette has an algorithm that you are driving in a more spirited fashion, and it opens the valves. The exhaust them bypasses the mufflers and it is a straight pipe going out the back. When those valves are open you could run a golf ball straight down into the catalytic converter. We did that for people who want the noise and crackle and pop of the after-market exhaust. So it is to give you the best of both worlds.”

In addition, while the Corvette has the same basic engine as the Camaro SS, Duran added that “the Corvette is a drop-top with less sound-proof shielding. So you get more engine noise coming through the roof.  That’s where the extra sound is.”

The noise actually takes some getting used to. You can listen to a soft flute solo at 100 miles per hour in a little Ford Fiesta or a sporty Camaro and appreciate the quality of sound-proofing in modern American-made cars.  With the Corvette, however, you can take soft jazz and all classical music pretty much off your playlist unless, of course, you use headphones.

But one doesn’t buy a Corvette for the pretty music.

This is a speed machine, the sixth edition of a classic breed designed to get you to your destination comfortably and fast. In that regard, it is successful. The test car, the Grand Sport Coupe, has a fiberglass hard top which you can manually unlock and then store on clips set into the flat trunk area.  That pretty much limits cargo to items which are small and relatively flat, such as a computer carrier or luggage bag. With the hard top on the trunk area – a wide, flat expanse about a foot deep – is large enough to carry a couple of suitcases, though you’d have to have Federal Express deliver any athletic gear to your vacation destination.

The 6.2-liter power plant in the Grand Sport zips from 0 – 60 miles per hour in 3.9 seconds, passes a quarter mile in 12.9 seconds at 13 miles per hour, and tops out at 188 MPH. If that isn’t enough, there is the Corvette ZR-1 with a 6.2-liter supercharged engine producing 638 horsepower and topping out at 205 MPH – a speed at which the State Police simply photograph the passing license plate and mail a license suspension notice to your home. Or the 505-horsepower Corvette Z-06, which chugs along at just 198 miles per hour.

Inside, the Corvette is intended to provide the comforts one would expect from a car with a price tag north of $70,000. There is an easy to use navigation system controlled by voice, fingertip controls on the leather steering wheel, or the eight-inch, color touch screen. The deep, leather seats have power adjustments and lumbar controls, and can be heated. The entertainment system has satellite radio as well as iPod and USB connections, a CD player and Bluetooth phone and audio. Sound pours through nine Bose speakers strong enough to carry a heavy beat even with the roof off. And, as with all GM cars, the Corvette has OnStar, which has its own satellite phone and turn-by-turn navigation system.

The 2013 family of Corvettes are the last of this edition, which first rolled out of the Bowling Green, Ky plant a decade ago. GM’s design chief, Ed Welburn, is not talking about the parameters for the next generation. The only hint that something very different is coming in 2014 is the announcement that the plant, which receives more than 50,000 visitors annually, is ending all tours September 14 until further notice.  That is to prevent anyone from getting clues from the retooling which will commence shortly thereafter.

But that’s for the future. For now, the 2013 ‘Vette shows a lot of life for a senior citizen.


2013 Chevrolet Corvette

            Grand Sport Coupe

 

MSRP:                                                                        $70,785

EPA Mileage:                        16 MPG City                          26 MPG Highway

 

Performance / Safety:

Top speed                               188 MPH

0-60                                         3.9 Seconds

1/4 mile                                   12.3 Seconds at 117 MPH

 

6.2-Liter, cast aluminum, V-8 engine producing 436 horsepower and 428 pound-feet of torque; 6-speed manual transmission; power Rack & Pinion steering; double wishbone front and rear suspension; 18-inch diameter, 9.5-inch wide, painted aluminum front wheels; 19-inch diameter, 1-foot wide, painted aluminum rear wheels; traction control, 4-wheel antilock brake system; run-flat tires; fog lamps, Xenon, high density headlights; heads-up holographic display; front and side impact airbags.

Interior / Comfort:

 

AM/FM/XM satellite radio; CD player; iPod and USB ports; Bluetooth phone and audio; OnStar; tilt and telescope, leather wrapped steering wheel with fingertip audio and adaptive cruise controls; power adjusted, heated, leather bucket seats; Bose sound system with 9 speakers; navigation system with 8-inch touch screen; removable roof;

 

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Mercedes C-300: The All-Purpose Luxury Car

December 31, 2011

 

By Roger Witherspoon

 

The snow was no problem.

It was only about two inches deep and, at that level, most cars would ignore it. But the temperature kept skipping just above freezing, producing cold rain, and then heading back south, turning the white stuff into a two inch glaze. It was the kind of road conditions made primarily for snow plows, tow trucks, and Jeeps and if I didn’t have to take a low riding, sleek, Mercedes sports sedan out during the middle of this mess I wouldn’t have.

Not that it mattered. With some cars, icy conditions are problematic and the only way to move is by disconnecting the electronic traction control because the continuous, unpredictable, uneven skidding among the tires crashes the wheels’ computer system. That was not a problem here. While the five-spoke, 18-inch aluminum wheels and  all-weather radials looked good on the four-wheel drive Benz, they were also quite functional and treated the ice as just another hard surface.

That was helpful on the Taconic Parkway rolling through the Franklin D. Roosevelt State park behind a fast moving Jeep Cherokee. We entered a slight curve in the highway and the rear of the SUV began to sashay back and forth. The driver, panicking, hit the accelerator in an effort to bull his way through the ice – which was precisely the wrong thing to do. The Jeep did a slow 360 across the three-lane highway and ended up on the shoulder.

            I eased up on the C-300’s accelerator to give the Jeep space to dance across the lanes, and then easily cruised around him and continued on my way. There is a lot to be said for having four-wheel drive, traction control and appropriate tires.

            The new Mercedes Benz C-300 is a four-door sports sedan whose long, sleek, low silhouette is intended to turn heads. But its exterior design, for all its eye-catching details, is always second to its primary function providing safe, sure, extremely comfortable transport in all conditions. In that regard, the Mercedes C-300 is a petty package on a really efficient, versatile, sports sedan that offers a lot for about $48,000.

Under the hood is a relatively small power plant for a sports model, producing just 228 horsepower. But it is mated to a seven speed, automatic transmission which seamlessly gets the most torque out of each gear and effortlessly shifts among them. The quality of the transmission is particularly evident when used in electronic manual mode on an open road. It is not a car for drag racing – the top speed is just 130 miles per hour, and it accelerates from 0 – 60 in just over seven seconds. But except for Saturday night drag racing on certain urban streets, you really don’t use maximum acceleration unless you are already on the road and need to pass something in a hurry or get out of the way. And when it matters, the C-300’s power plant can deliver.

The ability to maneuver on icy terrain is part of a package of road condition safety features Mercedes hopes will steer buyers to its showrooms the same way Volvo cars have traditionally drawn those who view safety and stability as primary features.  In addition to the relatively standard traction and stability controls, Mercedes’ engineers have added capabilities, such as cross wind sensors which actually shift the angle of the car’s chassis to slightly tilt into the wind. The effect of the innovation is particularly noticeable on mountain curves, where you can hear the wind howling down the side of the mountain towards you, only to flow harmlessly over the changed silhouette.

This Mercedes has side radar alerting the driver to the presence of cars on either side when changing lanes – a feature that is becoming common in upscale cars. But Mercedes has changed it from a passive system noting objects in the area, to an active safety system calculating how fast the distance between the cars is closing. The system can do two things: alert the drive to a possible pending collision and, if a crash is imminent, apply safety features such as tightening safety belts, reducing speed, and readying airbags.

            Inside the sedan is what you would expect to find in a luxury car: a powered sunroof and rear window sunscreen; soft, powered, leather seats which are heated in front and can fold in the rear; and a host of electronic gear. The leather-wrapped steering wheel tilts and telescopes, and has fingertip controls for cruise, information, audio, and easy to use Bluetooth. There is a 7-inch pop-up color screen for the navigation and entertainment systems.

For music there is a 6-disc CD player, as well as connections for USB drives, iPods, and MP3 players, as well as a six gigabyte hard drive to carry 1,500 or so of your personal favorites. The music emanates from eight speakers, producing a smooth surround-sound blanket which could lull you to sleep – except there is an alarm which goes off if the car drifts into another lane or onto the shoulder.

Whether one is driving through snowy, seasonal Nor’easters or watching the speedometer hit triple digits while rolling past mountaintop windmills in the Berkshire Mountains in Massachusetts, the C-300 provides quite a ride.

 


2012 Mercedes Benz C300

 

MSRP:                                                                        $47,850

EPA Mileage:                        17 MPG City                          24 MPG Highway

 

Performance / Safety:

 

3.0-Liter DOHC V-6 engine producing 228 horsepower and 221 pound-feet of torque; 7-speed automatic transmission with electronic manual mode; 4-matic all wheel drive; 3-link independent front suspension; multi-link independent rear suspension; 18-inch, 5-spoke alloy wheels; 4-wheel disc brakes; electronic stability program; dual 2-stage front airbags; side airbags; head protection curtains; dual front pelvic airbags.

 

Interior / Comfort:

 

AM/FM/Sirius satellite radio ; voice controlled 7-inch retractable color display;  6-disc CD/DVD player with 6 GB hard drive; iPod, USB, and MP3 connections; Bluetooth  phone and music connection; 8 speakers;  tilt and telescope steering wheel with fingertip cruise, phone and entertainment controls; voice activated navigation; power sunroof; heated front seats; split, fold flat rear seats; powered rear sunshade.

 

 

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Running on E: The Chevy Volt Hits the Road

September 20, 2011


By Roger Witherspoon

What was left of Hurricane Lee was rapidly losing steam.

The rainfall had eased from a blinding deluge dropping two inches per hour, to a gentle, late summer rain. And the long distance haulers were taking advantage of the relative lull to make up for lost time by racing their big rigs up the New England interstate.

The speedometer approached 70 as I eased from the long entrance lane onto the right lane of US I-84 near the New York-Connecticut border – an unremarkable speed in normal circumstances, but close to excessive on this rain-slicked roadway. My visibility was suddenly poor: the rain was no match for the windshield wipers on the electric Chevy Volt, but the water pouring from the huge tires of the 18-wheeler in the middle lane next to me created the highway equivalent of a surfer going through a fast-curling Pacific wave off the Hawaiian coast.

Suddenly, I realized the wave was closing and the wheels of the big rig were getting closer. The truck was moving into my land and, with the Chevy lost in the water wall thrown up from the tires, the driver couldn’t see me.  There was no shoulder, and the shortest route to safety lay straight ahead. So I floored the accelerator.

There was no satisfying, accompanying engine rumble since the Volt’s 111 kilowatt, electric engine runs silent. But it does deliver 273 pound-feet of torque directly to the axels, and there was a satisfying feel of gravity pushing me deeper into the leather seats as the volt shot forward. In seconds, the speedometer hit 95 and the traction control fought to keep the car running straight on the soaked roadway as the car just cleared the rumbling truck’s front bumper.

            It took less than a minute for the latest innovation from General Motors to show that it could compete with front running family sedans in terms of performance and handling. And in developing the Chevrolet Volt, GM has staked out a unique technological course in a newly evolving field of hybrid electric transportation. Whether the Volt and its successors will catch on with the car buying public, however, is still an open question?

The Volt is the third and, perhaps, the most versatile of the mass produced electric vehicles aimed at the general public, charting a different course than the Nissan Leaf and the Toyota Prius Hybrid Plug-in Electric (http://bit.ly/jj7N0Z ).

Toyota was the first off the electric block but is entering the market tentatively. The company is circulating 160 of the Plug-in Hybrids 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 a half 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 electric motor can drive the car unaided at speeds up to about 25 miles per hour. After that, the Prius either uses both the gasoline engine and the motor or, at high speeds, just the gasoline engine. The difference the additional of the plug-in component makes in terms of gas mileage is incremental: the 13 miles running solely on electric power just extends the miles per gallon average of the car.

Nissan, on the other hand, completely bit the electric bullet with its Leaf. It has only an electric motor. The drawback, however, is that the car can get only about 75 miles before it needs a new charge – which can take eight hours.  That makes it a perfect car for getting around in small towns or daily commutes within traffic-snarled metropolises like New York. But it is fairly useless for vacation trips and could be problematic in sprawling cities like Los Angeles. Nissan is banking on the Leaf being the preferred car of the future, when the electric charging infrastructure is as ubiquitous around the nation as the gas pump. But selling that notion now is a challenge.

With the Chevrolet Volt, GM is hedging its bets with what amounts to a reverse hybrid. With this sedan, only the electric motor can power the car, and a full charge – which takes 10 hours on a normal 110-volt outlet – will provide the equivalent of just 31 gas-free miles. The mileage is not absolute because sitting in New York City traffic, for example, can eat up with charge without the car physically going very far.

But after the charge is used up the small, 1.4-liter gasoline engine kicks in. It will not drive the Volt, but it serves as a generator to keep the battery charged to power the electric motor. That combination – an electric motor with a gasoline battery charger – gives the Volt its driving range of about 330 miles between visits to a traditional gas station.  It is also what gives the Volt an EPA estimated mileage of 37 MPG on the highway, and a whopping 93 MPG in city driving.

The interplay between the gas engine and the battery required some tradeoffs. It provides enough juice to keep the car going, but not enough to fully charge the battery while the car is being driven and bypass the need for the 10-hour battery charge.

Pam Fletcher, the chief engineer of the Volt, said “there is always some minimum buffer in the battery to drive the car. The Volt’s engine uses about 65 percent of the battery’s capacity, and the internal combustion engine charges enough to maintain that minimum state of power. It does not power it back up to full.

“Our philosophy was if you want to go from the minimum state of the battery up to a full charge, you have to get that energy off the grid, where it is less expensive and more efficient to generate. And it is likely that the electricity you get from the grid will be generated in an environment with more easily treated emissions than those from a bigger internal combustion engine.”

Getting power off the grid is not free. Charging the Volt nightly can boost the electric bill of a three-bedroom home as much as 50%, according to some industry estimates.  In high utility rate areas like New Jersey and New York, that means the savings you get by having less frequent trips to the gas station is nearly offset by the monthly electric bill.

The Volt does have some of the battery-charging features of the standard hybrid, such as regenerative braking, which converts the heat in the brake shoes to electricity. But it would take a bigger engine and batteries with greater storage capacity to have the4 Volt fully charged while on the go –and that would drive up its already hefty price of nearly $45,000.

Aside from the power plant technology the Volt is, above all, a family car, and it will be on the road competing with mid-sized sedans such as the Nissan Altima, Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla – which all have much lower sticker prices, and higher gasoline bills. In that regard, what has GM done?

Outside, the Volt is as sleek as its name implies. Its wide front and split grill could be viewed as aggressive were it not for the curved headlights which turn the metal grimace into more of a smile. The long, sloping hatch back ends in a raised spoiler instead of fading into the bumper, which gives the Volt more the appearance of a sporty, four-door coupe.

Inside, the Volt is a spacious sedan with the trimmings you would expect in a car with this price tag, and a few designs that may take some adjustment. The leather seats are wide, comfortable, and can be heated, which is particularly useful.

The dials on the dashboard are novel. There is a blue column showing the amount of electricity in the battery, which runs down as the battery is used up. And there is a green floating ball resembling a suspended Earth which monitors the Volt’s power flow. The center console is a white plastic with raised letters for Climate, Radio, and other controls, all activated by lightly touching them. Women who got into the Volt uniformly disparaged it as the controls of a blender. 

But it is efficient. The rear backup camera is crystal clear. The navigation system is easy to use with a seven-inch LCD screen and, for communication, there is either the Bluetooth linking your cell phone to the car’s audio system, or GM’s satellite-based OnStar system.  Live help at OnStar can provide turn-by-turn directions if you prefer that to the lady robot in the navigation system.

For entertainment, the Volt offers everything. There is a CD player, AM/FM and XM satellite radio, and connections for the iPod, MP3 player, or USB port. In addition, there is a 30 gigabyte hard drive to download a few thousand of your favorite songs and create your own travelling juke box.

For a hatchback, the Volt is surprisingly spacious. It is about the length of a Honda Civic, but has more interior leg room, so a pair of six-footers can actually ride in comfort in the rear seats. 

The Volt is a smart entry into the plug-in world, since an infrastructure for all around use does not yet exist for fully electric cars. Whether it catches on, or becomes a transitional vehicle as the electric infrastructure matures will be determined by events unfolding over the decade.

The Volt is a stylish, versatile, comfortable, sporty sedan which is dependable in a variety of road conditions. It will give the other electric road runners – and quite a few gas guzzlers – a quiet run for the money.

2011 Chevrolet Volt

 

MSRP:                                                            $44,680

EPA Mileage:                        93 MPG City              37 MPG Highway

Top Speed:                                                     100 MPH

 

Performance / Safety:

 

111 Kilowatt electric motor and 1.4-liter gasoline engine delivering 84 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque; 5-speed automatic transmission; front wheel drive; independent MacPherson strut front suspension; torsion beam rear suspension; lithium-ion battery; antilock and 4-wheel disc brakes; stability and traction control; 17-inch forged painted aluminum wheels; rear vision camera; dual stage, frontal, knee and side-impact airbags.

Interior / Comfort:

 

AM/FM/XM satellite radio; Bluetooth and OnStar communications; Bose audio system with 6 speakers; CD player; 30 GB hard drive; USB port; iPod and MP3 connection; navigation system with 7-inch LCD screen; tilt and telescoping, leather wrapped steering wheel with fingertip audio and cruise controls.

 

 

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Irene and the Hybrid Lexus CT

September 10, 2011

By Roger Witherspoon

 

            It was the gray calm after the storm.

The torrential rains from Hurricane Irene’s slamming northern side passed through theLower Hudson Rivervalley in the early morning light, leaving an uneasy calm, a roiling river, and an unpredictable string of roads blocked by downed trees and rampaging streams. The Hudson River swallowed the wide expanse ofPeekskill’sRiversideParkand splashed against the empty Metro North station as if waiting for a train that was never going to come.

Which made it an interesting day for a drive. Normally, in an unpredictable landscape like this, one would like to be behind the wheel of a Jeep orToyota’s go-anywhere FJ Cruiser. But the car of the day was a hybrid hatchback, the Lexus CT200h, which is billed as a luxury compact for all purpose family driving.

     The beginning of the trip was auspicious enough. The Bear Mountain Extension’s narrow causeway across Annsville Creek – one  of the Hudson River’s many, small, nondescript inlets – was half flooded, with the road west towards the Bear Mountain Bridge completely under water. Eastbound, however, on Route 9 looked like a promising trip, since there were only a few meandering streams winding under the road towards theHudson.  But not today.  A mile past Annsville the eastbound lane hosted a large, horizontal, elm, and the westbound roadway had become an uninterrupted set of fast-moving rapids undermining the eastbound roadway. If there had been a shoulder, it was long gone.

I was glad the Lexus hybrid was a compact, and not a big SUV, since there was not a lot of room to turn around on what was left of the two-lane roadway. And it helped that in reverse the sharp, color cameras in the bumper take over and the map in the seven-inch, pop-up, navigation screen on the dash is replaced by a crystal clear view of the road behind the car. In a shopping center, the camera serves the safety function of helping the driver avoid backing over small children. In this case, it let me see where the road ended and the rushing water began.

The compact was not designed to bound over downed tree trunks or large branches, or ford deep, fast moving streams. But its traction and stability controls were sufficient to keep the Lexus moving straight down Route 9, even though the swollen streams were now flowing across the road, covering it with an inch or so of rushing water.

            As a go-anywhere family car, theLexus CT200h is an interesting blend, and the company seems intent on developing a new genre of vehicle – the luxury compact. As a compact car, the CT 200h has a lot to offer in terms of comfort, convenience, and performance and clearly stands out in the tiny car field. But with a price just south of $40,000, it’s going to have to compete with much larger, sportier, more comfortable, cars like the Chrysler 200 or Lexus’ corporate cousin, the Toyota Camry, as well as small, sporty, SUVs like the turbo-charged Nissan Juke.

In terms of styling, the CT 200h is low and sleek, with subtle ridges and lines giving it more character than the typical, low budget compact.  It is about the size of a Honda Civic, but has a stubby hatchback instead of a long sloping one. And though the rear window on both cars contain windshield wipers, the window on the Lexus can’t open. That can be a drawback if you try to haul long cargo which, on the Civic and some other compact vehicles, would stick out the rear window.  But with the rear seats folded down, the Lexus CT is long enough to hold a half dozen, eight-foot stakes that lay across on the arm rest and nestled against the passenger side of the center console.

There isn’t much under the hood, either. The primary power plant is a 1.8-liter, four-cylinder gasoline engine and an electric motor which, combined, provide 134 horsepower.  While compact cars are not generally known for power plants, one might expect more of a compact costing nearly $40,000 – which is about what you’d pay for a Lincoln MKZ. That hybrid power plant will take about 10 seconds to propel the CT200 from 0 to 60 miles per hour, which means you need to have a lot of space before trying to cut into traffic. It does offer a shift between a more responsive sport mode, or a more ecologically friendly normal driving mode. The most notable change in sport mode is that the instrument panel lighting changes from blue to red, and  the hybrid power indicator changes into a tachometer.

On the other hand, the Lexus can drive on just the battery power at up to 28 miles an hour, and the hybrid combination gets an EPA estimated 40 miles per gallon of gasoline on the highway, and 43 miles per gallon in city driving. And one doesn’t usually buy a compact if you are looking for a performance car.

    Inside, the Lexus luxury compact has a lot going for it. To begin with, despite being a compact, it is extremely comfortable and roomy, with enough leg room in the rear for the average six-footer. The seats are soft leather, and the front set can be heated. Only the driver’s seat is power operated, however – the front passenger has the limited manual seats.

Its navigation system is especially easy to use, featuring the company’s new “Lexus Enform.”  This is an interactive program which lets you sit at home at your computer, input up to 200 addresses or destinations you want to use, and upload them all to the car’s navigation system. The addresses can be placed into a maximum of 20 individualized folders with titles such as “Favorite Restaurants” or “relatives” or camp sites. The navigation system also ties with the satellite radio to offer XM updated traffic and weather.

The sound system utilizes 10 speakers – more than enough to envelop the small cabin in a blanket of sound. There is a six-disc CD changer, AM/FM and XM satellite radio, as well as connections for flash drives, iPods, and MP3 devices.  The car has a traditional slot in the console to hold a cell phone, or you can use a plug-in, adjustable holder to contain your cell phone or iPod.  The gadget sticks up on the console and takes some getting used to. But it does make the device convenient to see and use, and holds it firmly in place.

Whether Lexus can succeed in creating the luxury compact market, particularly in this economy, will be an interesting experiment. But Lexus put a lot of thought into the CT 200h and, if there is a market for such a category, it will set the standard for competitors.

 

2011 Lexus CT 200h

 

MSRP:                                                                                                 $38,725

EPA Mileage:                        43 MPG City                          40 MPG Highway

 

Performance / Safety:

            0 – 60 MPH                                                    9.8 Seconds

            Top Speed                                                      113 MPH

 

1.8-Liter, in-line, 4-cylinder, DOHC gasoline engine and electric motor, producing 134 horsepower and 105 pound/feet of torque; 17-inch aluminum alloy wheels; 4-wheel independent suspension; 4-wheel, power assisted, front & rear disc brakes; anti-lock brakes; stability and traction controls; front driver and passenger knee airbags; front side impact airbags, side curtain airbags; fog lamps, backup camera; rear windshield wiper.

Interior / Comfort:

AM/FM/XM satellite radio; tilt & telescope leather steering wheel with audio and cruise controls; heated front seats; 7-inch navigation screen; Lexus Enform navigation destination system; Bluetooth; 6-disc CD player; MP3, iPod, and USB connections; Lexus audio with 10 speakers.

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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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A Taste of Green Sports: The Hybrid Honda CR-Z

February 18, 2011

 

By Roger Witherspoon

 

A car doesn’t have to be ugly to be fuel efficient.

Nor does a car have to sacrifice pizzazz to save the planet.

Starting with those dictates, the challenge to the guys with the crayons at Honda was to come up with a low end, compact sports car, which had hybrid technology and better gas mileage than the little, Plain Jane, Honda Fit or its stalwart workhorse, the Honda Civic.  So the designers threw out the old templates, melted their crayons drawing something that oozed a sense of hot and, since they couldn’t think of a clever name for it, settled on the CR-Z.

Outside, the CR-Z is a stunning little sports car with a tapered front and aggressive little grill, sliding to a flared rear end. From its profile, the CR-Z resembles a jet engine waiting to be ignited. It is the kind of car that easily passes the whiplash test – it fairly screams for a second glance. And there is nothing about it that says, well, Honda.

That part’s the good news. The rest of the car needs some work.

Under that sloping hood is a two-part power system: the gasoline engine, and the electric motor. The primary power comes from  a 1.5-liter, four-cylinder gas engine producing just 122 horsepower, followed by an electric motor feeding off a 100-volt, nickel-metal hydride battery pack. The combination is mated to a six-speed manual transmission that, in typical Honda fashion, is quick and responsive. The car is not as fast as it looks, however, and the handling is, well, ordinary.

This is not, however, a full hybrid in that you can’t drive on just the electric motor. Rather, the motor serves as an augmenting system for the gasoline engine, shutting it off when you are idling or stopped.  That boosts fuel efficiency to an EPA estimated 37 mpg. That is still good  fuel mileage, and places the CR-Z fifth among all cars behind the 50-mile per gallon Toyota Prius, 42 MPG Honda Civic Hybrid, 41 MPG  Honda Insight, and the 39 MPG  Ford Fusion.

The power system in the CR-Z differs from other hybrids in another manner: it is not automatically activated when you turn the car on. While the electric motor does shut the gasoline engine off when you are in gear, if you turn on the car to warm it up, the gasoline engine just keeps chugging away. The car is also noisy at higher speeds, something that comes as a surprise given its svelte shape and the fact that Honda’s are generally quiet cars.

Unlike the Honda Civic which has four seats – even though the ones in the rear have very little leg room – the CR-Z is not designed for rear passengers. There is no second row of seats, just two bins on a shelf, or you can lay the trunk lid down and extend the rear cargo area. There are usable storage areas for cell phones and other items, including a small pop up bin on top of the dash.

The test car had a navigating system and a 6.5-inch screen and voice recognition. Surprisingly, however, the CR-Z only offered AM/FM radio and a single-disc, CD player but no satellite radio system or capability.  Lack of satellite radio is surprising for a $23,000 car, but the navigation system is a good one. And the backup camera is crystal clear.  The sound, from a 360-watt system with seven speakers, was more than enough to envelope the small passenger compartment.

The car does have Bluetooth for easy cell phone pairing, and the layout of the dash was eye catching, with back-lit blue dials surrounded by a pulsing red line which let you know how fuel efficient you were. You can make up for the absence of satellite radio by bringing along your iPod, MP3 player or USB drive and plugging into the car’s sound system.

If there is a major problem it is that the sight lines are atrocious.

The rear side windows are small triangles, which means you can’t really see traffic out of them and you have to depend on the small side mirrors to see if any cars are approaching. That makes changing lanes something of a rolling guess. The rear roof tapers and then is cut off in a four-inch square back. That little window slit is not enough to see what is behind the car, particularly at night.

There are always tradeoffs when you have a roadster. But Honda needs to rethink that one. The Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution initially had a wide spoiler across the center of its back window which pretty much blocked out everything except oncoming Mack Trucks. They dropped that spoiler in the 2011 edition of the Evolution because it blocked too much of the rear view. Instead, they mounted a spoiler at the end of the trunk, where it is functional, attractive, and not a road hazard.  The hatchback design of the CR-Z doesn’t lend itself to that solution, but the current system leaves a lot to be desired and is not up to Honda’s usual thoughtful standards or the promise of such a good looking car.

But nearly all new iterations of a car have design pains. And if one is in the market for an attractive, fuel efficient roadster, the CR-Z isn’t a bad place to start.

 

2011 Honda CR-Z

MSRP:                                                                       $23,310

EPA Mileage:                        31 MPG City                          37 MPG Highway

As Tested Mileage:                                                   34 MPG Mixed

Performance / Safety:

1.5-Liter, SOHC, 4-cylinder engine producing 122 horsepower and 128 pound/feet of torque; 100.8 volt electric motor; 6-speed manual transmission; power assisted Rack & Pinion steering; anti-lock brakes;  vehicle stability assist; daytime running lights; 16-inch alloy wheels; fog lights; high density headlights; dual stage front and side airbags; side curtain airbags.

 

Interior / Comfort:

AM/FM radio; 360-watt, 7-speaker sound system; CD and MP3 player; iPod and USB port; tilt & telescope steering wheel with fingertip audio and cruise controls; navigation system with voice activation; Bluetooth.

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Really Regal Road Running in a Rolls Royce

December 26, 2010

 


By Roger Witherspoon

The empty New England highway was dry, the speedometer was in triple digits, the passing landscape was a dreamy, flowing, green kaleidoscope and the warm fall sun radiated off the brushed steel hood of the Rolls Royce as the miles flew by.

There may have been bumps in the road, but a Coupe with self-leveling air springs has the feel of riding a soft leather cushion on a fast moving cloud. There may have been a strain at 105 miles an hour when going around a wide turn. But since the edges of the leather seats sense gravitational forces and expand or contract to counter the pull you really don’t notice these, either.

The roof folded neatly into the back, between the trunk and the rear seat. Yet the aerodynamics of the car were sleek enough that it was easy to hear Miles Davis’ sax blowing from the CD player instead of the roar of the passing wind. And though, at three tons, this is a big, heavy vehicle, the convertible, two-door, Rolls Royce Phantom Drophead Coupe still jumps from 0 – 60 miles per hour in just 5.7 seconds and can cruise at a license-losing 150.

Rolls Royce, the ultimate upscale division of BMW, bills the half million dollar Drophead Coup as one of the finest touring cars – though nothing manmade is perfect. If there are drawbacks, it lies in the meld between the technologically oriented BMW and the traditionalist Rolls Royce.  In an effort to modernize the vehicle, BMW added the computerized control system updated from its high-end, 750 series of luxury cars. At the tap of a finger at the end of the console, a mahogany drawer folds out revealing a single round control knob which governs the entertainment, climate, navigation and communications systems. Some of that works well. Some it is cumbersome and none of it is intuitive.

The navigation system is relatively rudimentary by the standards of a $30,000 ford Sync or $50,000 Lexus RX 350. It is lacking in detail, particularly the names of upcoming streets, for example, and does not list upcoming turns and their direction – features which are pretty standard these days. The entertainment system on the other hand, with 15, 420-watt, Logic-7 speakers, has excellent sound quality, but there is only a single in-dash CD instead of a six-disc changer. There are, however, modern connections for iPods and MP3 players. And the Drophead comes with XM satellite and HD radio, as well as an easy to use, Bluetooth cell phone connection.

But as a defining symbol of craftsmanship and luxury, the Rolls Royce still sets a standard for the high end, luxury line. The trim around the top of the doors and the rear is teak, the kind of wood one would find on the decks of private yachts. The wide teak deck behind the rear seats covers the storage space for the retractable roof.  The wood on the console and doors is polished mahogany offset by thick, cream colored leather interrupted by chrome dials. The grain in the mahogany panels is bookend matched, something you find in high end, hand-crafted furniture. The entire craft has the feel of a small, pricy, well maintained, hand-crafted yacht.

On the outside, there is the characteristic, distinct steel hood and the traditional, Flying Lady hood ornament which disappears under the hood when the engine is off. Underneath that brushed steel is a 6.75-liter, V-12 engine which cranks out 453 horsepower and delivers 531 pound/feet of torque through the six-speed, electronically controlled transmission. The high torque is what makes the Coupe so responsive. It also drinks a lot of gas. The EPA mileage estimates are just 18 miles per gallon in highway driving and 11 MPG in the city. The test car averaged just under 12 MPG in mixed driving. But then, this is not a car you buy to be eco-friendly: It comes with a $3,000 gas guzzler tax.

The most distinct feature from the Drophead Coup’s flowing side profile is the long, front-opening “suicide doors,” so-called because if you open one while driving the wind will instantly whip it back and pull you out of the car. But in normal use, the rear-hinged door provides easy access to the wide, comfortable back seats, which really are intended to be used and have enough leg room for folks living well north of six feet. The doors are long and heavy and are, therefore, power driven – they close at the touch of a button.

In the back, the Coupe has a double trunk: raising the floor board reveals bins which are capable of holding two small suit cases, leaving plenty of room for larger ones and golf bags in the main storage area. There are separate climate controls and air outlets for the front and back sections of the car which are so effective, you can actually have the heat and air conditioning going at the same time with little interference.

And when driving at night, there is soft, blue lighting under the seats, instruments and storage areas.

The Rolls Royce vehicles have long had an image of being designed for those who have money, like expensive, exquisite things, and don’t like to drive. The driving experience was reserved for the chauffeur.

But the modern Rolls Royce  fleet, under the auspices of BMW, was designed with the philosophy that if you pay a half million dollars for a car, you ought to enjoy the driving experience.     The Drophead Coupe, a beautiful, exquisite, detailed, powerful, high-performing, convertible sports sedan is at the top of their line.

 

2010 Rolls Royce Phantom Drophead Coupe

MSRP:                                                                       $471,500

Gas Guzzler Tax:                                                       $    3,000

EPA Mileage:                        11 MPG City                          18 MPG Highway

As Tested Mileage:                                                   11.9 MPG Mixed

Performance / Safety:

0 – 60 MPH                                                    5.7 Seconds

Top Speed                                                      149 MPH

6.75-Liter, aluminum alloy, 48-valve,V-12 engine producing 453 horsepower and 531 pound/feet of torque; 6-speed, electronically controlled automatic transmission; double wishbone front suspension; multi-link rear suspension with self-leveling air springs; run-flat high performance tires; power assisted, ventilated, 4-wheel anti-lock disc brakes; stability, traction, and cornering brake control; head-thorax airbag in each seat; spring-loaded, pop-up rollover protection; engine immobilizer; heated windshield; bi-xenon headlamps with auto-leveling and power washers; chrome 21-inch wheels.

 

Interior / Comfort:

 

AM/FM/XM satellite and HD radio; single disc CD player; MP3, USB-port, and iPod connection; 420-watt, 9-channel Logic-7 audio system with 15 speakers; navigation system with 6.5-inch monitor; front and rear cameras; Bluetooth cell phone connection; full leather interior – seats, dash, and sides; teak wood  rear deck and brushed steel hood; power closing doors; power tilt and telescope leather steering wheel; power retractable cashmere lined roof; lambs wool floor mats.

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Red Ink and Black Crayons: Drawing the Future at GM and Chrysler

August 13, 2010

By Roger Witherspoon

Ed Welburn was the picture of a man who was right where he always wanted to be.

The setting wasn’t spectacular. This was the 2010 New York Auto Show and General Motors, just climbing back from bankruptcy, did not splurge on space or amenities.  But there was Welburn, a quiet Black man whose bald pate was reflecting the overhead spotlights, seated on a plain stool between two of the latest products from his creative palate.

On his left, glistening on a slowly moving turntable, was silver, supercharged, 556-horsepower, Cadillac CTS-V; on his right, the new edition to his growing rolling flock, was a silver CTS-V station wagon.

Which prompted the question: “Ed, why would you make a 150 mile-an-hour station wagon?”

“Because we can,” replied Welburn, grinning. “Besides, does that look like a station wagon to you?”

In fact, the functional station wagon did not look like one at all. The rear was more tapered, the windows were trapezoids under a sloping roof reminiscent of Acura’s crossover, the ZDX, and the front was the aggressive grill of the Cadillac cat.

“Who wouldn’t want one?” asked Welburn.

The question was not really rhetorical. Buses and trains are modes of transportation. Cars are the largest form of utilitarian art most families ever invest in.  It is how a potential buyer feels in or next to a car which closes a sale.  And while news from the various 2010 auto shows was that GM and Chrysler are coming back from the brink and again competing in the marketplace, success will not rest on the existence of small cars, fuel efficient hybrids, the use of quality materials, and the latest electronic gadgets. That technology is widely known and every car company has them.

To sell cars by the millions, GM and Chrysler will need fleets with pizzazz, with flair, with allure, with styles that will bring buyers back into the showrooms saying “wow!” as they reach for their check books.

The future of these two troubled, historic, American automakers now rests largely with the fertile imaginations of two Black artists: the sculptor, Ed Welburn, Vice President for Global Design at GM; and the graphic designer, Ralph Gilles, Vice President for Design at Chrysler LLC.

The two men are cut from different cloths.

Welburn, the 60-year-old Philadelphia native, is a generation removed from Gilles, whose Haitian parents stopped in 1970 in New York to visit relatives and give birth to him on American soil before immigrating to Montreal, Canada where he was raised. Welburn grew up in the era of the 1950s “hogs;” those long cars with huge tail fins whose styling cues came from lumbering, big-winged, Air Force bombers. Not surprisingly, while his wife tools around in the sleek, Saturn Sky roadster – one of Welburn’s favorite designs – Welburn prefers to tool around in his vintage, yellow and black, 1969 Camaro.

Giles, on the other hand, is a product of the 70s and 80s, when stealth jets and sleek, fast, fighters dominated the design cues of transportation artists. While his hand is in all of Chrysler’s cars and trucks, his wheel of choice is a black on black, 640-horsepower, 200 mile per hour, Dodge Viper.

And they are artists with different missions and starting points. General Motors came out of bankruptcy a slimmed-down giant with four successful, ongoing brands – Cadillac, Buick, GMC, and Chevrolet – which Welburn had been developing new cars for. He was most sorry to lose Saturn, a line he had just finished completely redesigning.

“But I understand it fully,” he said. “It is a business, like they said in The Godfather, which is still my favorite all time movie. I’m still proud of those designs.”

At Chrysler, on the other hand, Gilles is starting from scratch with no new cars in the showrooms and in the immediate pipeline. Chrysler ended a stormy relationship with Mercedes by bringing in a new CEO, Robert Nardelli, whose chief qualification was having spent the previous five years running down Home Depot, earning a reputation as one of the nation’s worst chief executives, and walking away with  a $210 million severance. Nardelli cut cars he didn’t like, including the aggressive Dodge Magnum, the signature Dodge Durango and the iconic, retro-styled, PT Cruiser. But he did not green light a new set of winning wheels.

Chrysler, which went bankrupt and become the partner of Italy’s Fiat, is primarily a domestic auto maker. It is the weakest of the three American car companies and, historically, it has concentrated on large sedans and trucks – and area where Gilles made a name for himself. He now wears two hats: president of Dodge cars and vice president of design for all of Chrysler. His mission is to take Fiat’s expertise with developing small, fuel efficient cars, and make those little boxes appealing to American tastes in addition to ensuring that Chrysler’s remaining brands turn out an arresting fleet of high performing, eye catching sedans, SUVs, and trucks.

That requires something of a race against the normal three-year development timeline. Chrysler introduced a new Grand Cherokee in June – characterized chiefly by a remarkably upgraded interior – and hopes to produce modified or new versions of the rest of its line by the end of the year. But it will take more than tinkering with the interior to keep Chrysler in the black.

General Motors is still the world’s largest auto maker and Welburn, as design chief, controls a variety of crayon boxes to meet the world’s disparate motoring tastes. He is the sixth design chief in GM’s history, with his stamp on every vehicle conceived by the more than 1,600 designers at the company’s 11 design studios in eight countries.

“I don’t think what I am doing is the same as what Ralph is doing,” mused Welburn.  “I have a lot of respect for Ralph. But I am dealing with a global design organization dealing with a lot of different cultures. I am in and out of a lot of places I never thought I would be in and out of, and leading teams of people from cultures I never thought I or any one else of African American descent would be leading.

“I’m working with Australians for that market; folks from China or Korea for the Asian market; or Brazil or here in the United States. I don’t dwell on that, but it doesn’t escape me at all that it’s a long way from Philadelphia.”

For a young Ed Welburn, the 1958 Philadelphia International Auto Show was the key to his future. It wasn’t the eight-year-old’s first exposure to the intricacies of cars. His father, Edward, owned and operated an auto body and repair shop in nearby Berwyn, Pa., and young Ed spent hours watching his father working on the cars from the skeletons out.

“The ‘50s were a very car-oriented period,” Welburn said. “And it was a period in which cars had a lot of flair. You could easily identify different brands by their looks. They all have very strong character.

“It was a very exciting auto industry, and I grew up in a family where there were always new cars around.”

But the Auto Show was special. Designs were changing as American society shifted into a mobile culture. The automakers were experimenting with new designs, configurations and bold styles.

“I like a design that has flair,” said Welburn, “that is very expressive and has character that can mean very different things on different types of vehicles. Some designs need to be expressive, and others need to be quiet.

“But they all have to be contemporary. And that is what the big fins on the cars – especially the Cadillacs – were all about. They were built on the new technology of the time.”

His parents encouraged him to read everything he could about car design and by the time he was 11, he said, “it was my dream to be a designer, and I did not think of it as a field in which there were not a lot of African American designers. I just thought of it as a field I was extremely interested in.”

He took the unusual step of writing a letter to General Motors “and I just let them know I was an 11-year-old kid in Berwyn, Pa. , who was interested in auto design and wanted their advice.  What courses should I take in high school and what other preparation would I need to go to a university?”

GM responded with a high school curricula and a list of the competitive colleges they recruited from. Welburn followed their advice and went to Howard University, which allowed him to design his own course of study, specializing in sculpting. He joined GM’s design center in Warren, Mich., in 1972 and began a steady progression upward.  In his early years, the Cutlass Supreme, 1977 Buick Park Avenue, and the Oldsmobile Riviera sprang from his creative pad. Then, in 1985, GM asked him to design a 1,000-horsepower car for the legendary race driver A.J. Foyt to pilot in the Indianapolis 500. His 1987 Aerotech, with Foyt at the wheel, set a world land speed record, averaging 257 miles per hour and topping 300 on the straightaway.

In 2003, GM promoted Welburn to vice president of design, making him the highest ranking black executive in the auto industry. Two years later, the title was expanded to head of global design. In that capacity, if he is not globe-trotting, Welburn is in his office facing the equivalent of a giant video parlor.

“The screen I am looking at,” he explained, “is 18-feet wide. Today, the studio in Brazil is working on a car for their emerging market, and it’s like I’m in the studio with them – but I’m here in Michigan. The guys in our studio in Australia are part of the design review because I asked for their input. Every studio has roughly the same equipment. It is fast moving, full of energy and very creative.”

The participants in these global video design conferences depend on Welburn’s artistic feel for the strengths of his staff. “It really depends on the project,” he said. “I know my people and I know them all around the world. I know that the team in Australia has the emotion I was looking for.

“The team in Brazil is doing a fantastic job. But to give a different perspective, I didn’t want a team that was just like the team in Brazil. The team in the UK, for example, where they are strong, they are really strong with Cadillac – something edgy, something stealth like. They are not the studio I would have gone to for this assignment.”

Welburn sees the world as a global palate, with cultural changes in styles, tastes and textures. Asian artists, trained in intricate brush strokes and shades in jade, provide softer interior design cues for cars than the more brash Australian designers.

“I see the entire world more than anyone else in our organization,” he said. “I was in Korea, China and Australia, and while I enjoyed the time I spent in the studios, I also enjoyed walking the streets, riding the cars, seeing the automotive landscape and seeing how people use and personalize their cars.

In Dubai, the architecture is very edgy on the exterior and very light in color. Inside, it’s a shock when you see all the rich colors; brilliant colors that contrast to the exterior. We need to understand that taste as we sell cars in the Middle East.  In other parts of the world, it may be colorful outside the building but dark and quiet inside.  It is a way of looking at what artistic sense connects with people.”

An example is the critically acclaimed Buick Lacrosse, which was put together by a team from Warren Michigan, taking lead on the exterior, and a team from Shang Hai, China, taking the lead with the interior. The car is a hit in both countries, particularly China.

“The design is much better than what either of those teams would have developed on their own,” said Welburn. “There is an emerging design language coming out of China and it comes from their art, whether it is jade sculpture or cut paper.

“There were a couple of people who switched locations to help the blending process. Through virtual reality, we were looking at each others designs all day, every day, so it was a pretty seamless process.”

The process is far less smooth across town, where Chrysler is working to blend its American staff with those of the new Italian partners. But coming up with eye-catching designs is not a new task for Gilles.

In 2004 Gilles, then head of Daimler Chrysler’s creative Studio #3 was tasked with developing a new breed of cars to distinctly define the company’s major brands. His Jeep Liberty had already proved to be a successful link between Jeep’s comfortable, full sized, Grand Cherokee SUV and its small, off-road, warrior Wrangler.

“Dodge and Chrysler were separating themselves into different types of vehicles, with different customers in mind,” explained Gilles. “Dodge is a mainstream brand with an attitude.

“But Chrysler is more aspirational, more graceful with more high-end products. We’re going to a premium market where the main competitors will be Volvos, Audis and other imports.”

They had scored with the Dodge Magnum, a hot rod with a 340-horsepower Hemi engine masquerading as a family station wagon. They led the track with the 200-mile-an-hour, 500-horsepower Dodge Viper. And they added the Dodge Charger, an updated version of the muscle car of the past.

But it was the Chrysler division where Gilles’ studio needed to shine. Chrysler needed a high end sedan, with a classical look reminiscent of a Bentley, a rear wheel drive like the best from the company’s heyday, and a head turner engineered soundly enough to be parked next to a Jaguar or Mercedes without embarrassment.

The car, said Gilles, “would redefine us as a car company and it would be the kind of car the valets would park out front.”

What they came up with was the Chrysler 300. “That car was a perfect storm of all our ideas,” said Gilles. “That car really resonates.”

And when he sat in the drivers’ seat and stepped on the gas “I was almost in tears driving the car. It felt so right. It’s one thing to make it look good, but the engineers brought it home.”

Critics thought so, too, and Motor Trend Magazine named the Chrysler 300 its 2005 Car of the Year, beating out 24 competitors including Porsche 911, Lotus Elise, and BMW 6. Together, Gilles’ cars led the way in an amazing turnaround for DaimlerChrysler, whose bottom line went from an $806 million loss in 2003 to a $1.3 billion profit in the first nine months of 2004. In all, 2004 was a banner year for the 34-year-old artist from Montreal, Canada’s black community.

And it all began with crayons on a kitchen table.

Gilles was five when his parents took him to visit his Aunt Gisele on Long Island and she watched him drawing.  What differentiated Gilles from kids at that early age was the fact that his drawings were clear and made sense.

“My aunt saw my sketches,” Gilles, recalled, “and she turned to her husband and said ‘Hey Mike! My Nephew can draw! Give him some paper to draw on.”

So he began sketching wherever he went, passing dull moments in school with fanciful drawings of cars and other modes of transport. At 15, Gilles wrote a letter to Chrysler head Lee Iacocca, asking what it would take to become a design artist for the giant car company.

“And wow, they wrote me back,” he said. “I was so impressed. They wrote giving the different names of colleges they hire from, and that was all I needed.  I felt a certain loyalty to Chrysler because they wrote me, and it changed my life.”

Gilles attended the College for Creative Studies  in Detroit, which trained about 40% of Chrysler’s designers, and went to work for the firm after graduating in 1992. Within a decade he had worked his way up to head Studio #3 in Auburn Hills, Michigan, one of the company’s seven design studios. Gilles equates the design studio with a movie lot.

“I direct a studio to draw,” he said. “We get together with the other team members and exchange ideas. It’s like when you make a movie, and you talk about the scenes in the movie before you film the thing.

“It’s like that with cars. No one person designs a car.”

In the short term, Gilles is primarily repackaging the cars in the existing Chrysler fleet. “We are spicing up the Dodge Caravan,” he said so it would not simply be a lower cost version of the Chrysler Town and Country. He is adding 20-inch wheels to the sprightly Dodge Nitro and made 19-inch wheels standard on the muscular Dodge Charger.

But, he acknowledged, this year “We are just playing with cosmetic changes.”

That will change. There will be a new edition of the 2010 Viper “and we will have a replacement for the Durango in the fourth quarter. It is all new and redesigned. It has not a stitch in common with the previous Durango and is a thoroughly modern crossover.”

And his team is working with the Italian design shops to redesign the Fiat 500, a popular small, European car, to meet American tastes later this year.

Chrysler, which skipped the 2010 auto shows, is playing catch-up, which puts extra pressure on Gilles and his artisan crew. “Everyone is confused by our new business model,” he said. “Had it been a normal year, the practice would have been to have had 14 to 16 models at the Detroit Auto Show.

“The products are still coming. The level of work is being done – but we are not pre-showing them like we used to. There will be a much shorter lead time. But we are certain we can keep the excitement.”

Gilles has a track record of producing exciting, crowd-pleasing cars. Chrysler’s future rests on his ability to do it again.

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Doodling Sports Cars: The Art of Andre Hudson

August 13, 2010

By Roger Witherspoon

From the perspective of a Denver middle school teacher, grading papers from Andre Hudson was a chore.

“Like a lot of kids,” the 33-year-old designer recalled, “I was always doodling on assignments and the teachers were not quite happy when I turned papers in with sketches of people and cars and boats on them. I never really imagined that you could make a career doing something like that.

“Then somebody gave me an automobile magazine since I had always loved cars. There was a sidebar story on Chrysler design and a story about a designer that had worked on the Dodge Viper concept. I was blown away. Somebody’s job is to go in and draw and design cars! I had never thought about it. Wow! This could be an amazing thing to do! That’s why I consider it a blessing to be able to do what I do for a living.”

Whether or not Black artists could do that for a living is a question the young Hudson didn’t ask. His middle school guidance counselors had no idea what it took to get involved in automotive design, or where to go for practical guidance. So Hudson went home and composed a letter to Bob Lutz, then at Chrysler Design, saying he was about to enter high school and wanted to know what it took to be a car designer.

“I would love to work for your guys at some point,” Hudson wrote. “I loved aircraft and cars and could you please enlighten me as to what I need to do to pursue a career?”

Three months later, young Hudson got home from school and found a letter from J.E. Hurlitz, then vice president of product design, stating the company was “thrilled with your excitement and willingness to work with us.”  If Hudson attended the College for Creative Studies in Detroit and earned a degree in industrial design he could join the Chrysler design team.    Three years later, Hudson graduated from high school, packed up, and headed for Detroit, unaware of the downward spiral of the Motor City.

“Imagine the shock of this Colorado kid packing up his dodge shadow and rising out of I-94 corridor into downtown Detroit thinking where have I come to?” Hudson recalled.  “That neighborhood was abandoned and there were barrels with fires burning in them. It looks like I have landed on the set of Robocop.”

But College was a different world. This was the study of utilitarian art in motion. To designers, a car is a form of performance art and those who appreciate your work buy replicas to take home.

“Cars are a very emotional product,” he explained, “and as a designer of cars, they are extensions of you. Trains and aircraft and other types of transportation are more engineering than design driven and, therefore, the attachment is not quite that emotional.

“There is much more freedom of expression in vehicle design, and it’s what made the connection with me as an artist.”

In his junior year, he received a summer internship with Chrysler. But his work brought him to the attention of Ed Welburn, a design executive at General Motors, who hired him when he graduated.

Welburn, who would eventually become vice president of global design at GM, mentored Hudson, steering him through several projects as he grew as a design professional.  “I worked on several concept cars,” he said. “Your dream is to do that because you can get those dreams out on the turntable at shows.  But as you mature you realize the importance of not only getting the cover of a magazine for a month or two, but working on a product that you can see in your neighbor’s garage or your parents’ garage.

“It’s been a quest to hone my skills and put out products that my friends and family can drive.”

His seven-year journey through GM’s design system had the young Hudson working on big SUVs including the Chevy SSR and Hummer H3, as well as the slick, Saturn Sky roadster. He had a three month assignment in GM’s design shop in Coventry, England, which stretched to three years.

Hudson was eager to see the world, and looked forward to working in other GM design studios. But then, the Koreans came calling.

“I was intrigued with Hyundai,” he said. “They were on this mission to become much more – perception wise – than the staid company they had been. I was intrigued with the idea of becoming part of a company going through that growth process.

“Hyundai was up and coming and moving quickly. I felt it was time for something new for me.”

Hudson left GM to become the senior designer at Hyundai’s new studio in Irvine, California where he was to come up with a model for a new sports car. He came up with a head turner called the Genesis Coupe which, he said, “was a first for the new Hyundai.     “The company said we know we are building cars that are competent and highly rated in safety. But we are not stepping gout aesthetically to establish who we are. The Genesis was to say we are not copying or mimicking anyone. We are standing alone. We are ready for this.”

The Genesis was striking enough to earn a television debut as the high speed escape vehicle of Jack Bauer in the last episode of the adventure series “24.”           (  https://rwshiftinggears.wordpress.com/2009/11/16/rolling-with-the-road-runners/ )

In his five years with Hyundai, he said, “the biggest culture shock was the speed at which this company moves. I have worked on twice as many projects at Hyundai as I would have worked on at GM.”

Cars resulting from Hudson’s professional doodling which may now be found in neighborhood garages include the Elantra and Azera sedans, and the 2011 Sonata, now hitting Hyundai show rooms.

“The last generation Sonata was very conservative,” said Hudson. “It would blend into a parking lot if you went to a mall and tried to find your car. With this car we sought to establish ourselves as design leaders. We looked at what it was going to take to make an attractive and competitive design with its own distinct language. We didn’t want people saying we were making knock-offs of Toyota or BMW.

“The romance of many cars in the last decade or two has been lost to a very architectural, tectonic, product-like feel.  With the Sonata, you notice it has a three dimensional feel. Just as Ed (Welburn) use to say a car is the largest piece of sculpture working people will buy – that is true of the Sonata. You can follow a single line from the bottom of the grill through the hood, up the rail, across the roof and down the tail end. There is a beautiful inter weaving of details on the car. We call it fluidic sculpture.”

Whether the new Sonata catches on with upscale motorists remains to be seen. In the meantime Hudson, with his dream job and colored pencils, continues doodling.

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Smart ForTwo: When Half a Car Is Still a Lot

August 6, 2010

By Roger Witherspoon

It was a small parking spot, even by New York City standards.

The man walking his Scottie paused and looked, with obvious incredulity, as I drove the Smart ForTwo into the gap with room to spare.  He walked around the car twice, stopping at one point to hold out both arms and noting his wingspan was about the length of the vehicle.

“How fast can this thing go?” he asked.

“The top speed is 90 miles per hour,” I said. “And I’ve had it at about 85 miles an hour going uphill on the highway.”

“Really?” he asked, quizzically. “What kind of engine fits into that little thing?

“It’s got a three cylinder engine pushing about 70 horsepower,” was the answer.

“Three cylinders? Seventy horse? That’s just half an engine,” he snorted.

“Well, yeah,” I replied. “But look at it. It’s only half a car. Half an engine works just fine.”

And so it goes for the Smart ForTwo, the ultimate urban vehicle. The $14,000 car was designed to comfortably hold two large people and little else. As an example of the scale, the Smart ForTwo is just 106 inches long, which is just a shade over eight feet, and weighs 1,808 pounds. The speedy Mini Cooper S, with a 185-horsepower, four cylinder engine and a top speed of 138 miles per hour, is 146.2 inches long, or just over 12 feet. The more staid Honda Civic Coupe, with a 140-horsepower, four-cylinder engine, is 175.5 inches, or about 14.5 feet. In short, you can fit two Smart ForTwo cars in the standard parking space.

But the Civic and Mini are intended to be full time, go everywhere cars with adequate trunk space for extended getaways. There is a different mission for the Smart ForTwo, which is designed for one main purpose – commuting around the city. Which means the shelf behind the front seats has enough room for a briefcase, some groceries, or an instrument – though not a bass fiddle – and little else. Despite its diminutive size, however, the front seats are more than adequate for a six and a half foot tall, 350 pound passenger whose legs were stretched out, not doubled around his chin.

The Smart is not, however, a traditionally designed sedan which had an unfortunate encounter with a buzz saw.  Its style can best be described as perky, with a painted on curve around the doors which resembles a rolling smile. As might be expected, the three-cylinder vehicle is slow to accelerate, taking almost 13 seconds to go from zero to 60 miles per hour. But once it gets rolling, it has not trouble keeping ahead of the normal highway pack. And in city driving, where speed is impossible anyway, the maneuverability of the little Smart is an asset. In addition, the car has an EPA rating of 33 miles per gallon in city driving, and 41 miles per gallon on the highway.

On city streets, motorists and pedestrians do a double take when the see the sporty half-car. On the highway, some motorists find it hard to accept the fact of being passed by something little bigger than a colorful riding lawn mower. A motorist in a Mercedes E-350 was startled when the Smart passed him at 85 miles an hour, and immediately changed lanes to follow. When I exited at a gas stop he pulled up alongside and yelled “what is that thing and who makes it?”

“It’s a Smart ForTwo,” I said. “And it’s made by the same guys who make yours.”

Smart is a division of Mercedes Benz, with German precision engineering, though it is assembled in the French-German border town of Hambach. In the US, it is solely distributed by the Penske Automotive Group and sold by Smart dealers. Some of these are affiliated with existing Mercedes dealerships.

The engine is in the rear and is mated to a five speed, automatic transmission with an electronic manual mode operated by paddle shifts behind the leather wrapped steering wheel.  The Passion Coupe model is a two part convertible. At the touch of a button, the soft top can roll back along a set of roof side rails. It can be opened or closed while at full speed with no problems.

Of, if one wants a completely convertible look, the roof rails over the windows pop out at the touch of a button and store in special slots in the trunk door. If the weather turns ugly, you will have to pull over to reinsert the rails, but the process takes seconds. And the car comes with fog lights for the road, and heated seats to keep you comfortable.

Inside, the Smart is not barren. It has power windows and there is an option for a factory installed navigation system. It has just AM/FM and no satellite radio, but there is a six-disc CD player and jack input for an MP3 or iPod. There are only two speakers and a sub woofer, but that is more than enough for the small passenger cabin.

The Smart ForTwo is not the car you would leisurely drive across the country. It is comfortable enough for the trip, but there is no room for your luggage. But if you want a car just to get around town or get you to and from work, it might be a smart car to look into.


2010 Smart ForTwo

MSRP:                                                                       $13,990

EPA Mileage:                        33 MPG City                          41 MPG Highway

Performance / Safety:

Top Speed:                                                     90 MPH

0 – 60 MPH                                                    12.8 Seconds

1.0-Liter, 3-cylinder, aluminum engine producing 70 horsepower and 68 pound/feet of torque; 5-speed automatic transmission with electronic manual mode with paddle shifts; lower wishbone, McPherson strut, front suspension; DeDion axel, coil spring rear suspension; disc brakes; electronic stability and traction control; rack and pinion steering; 15-inch aluminum wheels, driver and passenger airbags, head/thorax side airbags.

Interior / Comfort:

Tilt, leather wrapped, 3-spoke sports steering wheel with shift paddles; AM/FM radio; 6-disc CD player; MP3 and iPod connections; 2-speaker and subwoofer sound system;  heated seats; fold flat passenger seat;  roll-back soft roof; removable roof rails.

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