Archive for the ‘2011 Reviews’ Category

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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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New Kid on the Block: Cruising in a Chevy Cruze

July 26, 2011

By Roger Witherspoon

 

 

 

To say it was pouring rain would be an understatement.

It was the kind of heavy, continuous, seamless torrent of water flowing ceaselessly from above that made the air just slightly less damp than the swollen creeks and, a few millenniums back, probably prompted fish to move topside and evolve into amphibians.

It was definitely not made for driving, since the winding highway through the lower Hudson River Valley Highlands had a steady cross flow of a half inch or more of water and the going was, at best treacherous. And to make matters worse, one of Bambi’s cousins under a tree in the wide center median decided the shelter was better on the other side of the roadway, and began splashing across.

There wasn’t a lot of time to avoid becoming one of the 1,200 motorists who hit a deer on New York State roadways each week. I tapped the brakes to avoid a skid and sharply turned the wheel left to cross the shoulder behind the bolting Bambi. The left wheels crunched gravel then rose slightly on a grassy mound while the traction control strained to even out the spin rates between those off-road wheels and the two still on water-covered pavement.  I expected the sharp maneuver to trigger a skid – this was, after all, a $20,000 Chevy Cruze, not a high priced performance car.

But the engineers in Detroit apparently know what they are doing these days, and the Cruze handled the rain dance with aplomb. Even Keiko Matsui, whose delicate jazz piano was wafting softly from the Cruze’s CD player, never skipped a beat as the car bounded on and off the roadway. No wonder GM is making money.

The mid-sized, four-door sedan is a crowded field where it is hard for a newcomer to carve a niche – especially in the under $25,000 group. This is an area which, for too long, offered motorists little more than wind-blown boxes on wheels. But times have changed. Asian entries like the Kia Soul, the Suzuki Kizashi and the Toyota Scion tC; and Detroit models like the Ford Fiesta and Dodge Avenger offer an impressive array of gadgets and amenities and have become cars people seek, rather than relatively inexpensive wheels that people settle for.

So Chevrolet had work to do to make the Cruze noticed in the mid-sized pack. They started with the face. The sedan has the low, wide stance similar to that of the Camaro, but that is the only similarity. The trademark Chevy badge and wide grill on the Cruze forms more of a smile welcoming family motorists, than the dark, aggressive grimace gracing the sports car.

Under the hood, the Cruze sports a 1.4-liter, four-cylinder engine cranking out just 138 horsepower. But this is a light car and the engine is turbocharged, so it never feels underpowered. And since it is mated to a six-speed transmission, the Cruze is responsive in automatic or electronic manual mode. The engine is billed as getting 26 miles per gallon of regular gas in city driving and 37 MPG on the highway.  That seems a bit wishful: the test car got 23.7 MPG in mixed driving.

GM was thoughtful in designing the interior, though frugal with some of the amenities. The interior has attractive, two-toned seats, but they are unheated and cloth rather than leather. The seats are manually operated and, depending on your weight, may not be the easiest to maneuver, particularly when you are trying to adjust the seat’s height. The seats are, however, are wide and comfortable.  The two-toned motif is used all around the interior, with the padding on the doors and dash matching the look of the center of the seats. The dash itself is a double curve, providing a separate space for the driver and passenger and demonstrating that a car does not have to be plain to be inexpensive.

            There is enough leg and head room in the rear for two passengers who dwell well north of six feet to travel comfortably over long distances.  In addition, the rear seats fold flat, providing additional storage space to an already ample trunk.

For entertainment, the Cruze came with AM/FM and XM satellite radio in addition to the CD and MP3 players, and the iPod and USB connections. The six-speaker sound system, with sub woofers in the front doors, was more than ample to envelope the cabin in sound. And the car’s wind suppression is effective enough to allow you to easily hear every note in a soft solo even though the car is rolling down the road at triple digit speeds.

There is no navigation system in the Cruze, but the car has both Bluetooth connection for your smartphone and OnStar, GM’s satellite communications network. So one can either use an app like Google’s navigation system or push the OnStar button and get turn-by-turn directions as the system’s satellites follow you down the highway.

The Cruze will have to work to make a dent in the tough, crowded, mid-sized marketplace. But it is likely to give the leaders in the segment a good run for the front of the road-running pack.

 

2011 Chevrolet Cruze

 

MSRP:                                                                        $21,455

EPA Mileage:                        26 MPG City                          37 MPG Highway

As Tested Mileage:                                                   23.7 MPG Mixed

 

Performance / Safety:

 

1.4-liter, DOHC, cast aluminum, turbo-charged engine producing 138 horsepower and148 pound/feet of torque; 6-speed automatic transmission with manual mode; traction and stability controls; independent, MacPherson strut, front suspension; torsion beam rear suspension; 17-inch wheels; 4-wheel, anti-lock brakes; driver and front passenger front, knee, side impact, and head curtain airbags; rear side impact and head curtain airbags.

 

Interior / Comfort:

 

AM/FM/XM Satellite radio; CD and MP3 player; USB and iPod ports; 6-speaker sound system; Bluetooth and OnStar communications; tilt & telescope steering wheel; leather wrapped steering wheel with fingertip audio, Bluetooth,  and cruise controls.

 

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Road Running Investments: 4 Cars Worth More Used Than New

May 31, 2011


By Roger Witherspoon

 

            People contemplating potential financial investments are not likely to put a car on the short list of places to park their money for a year. Indeed, the standard mantra – though exaggerated – is that a new car loses half its value the moment it leaves the dealership.

But if you had bought a 2010 Toyota Prius Hatchback, a 2011 Hyundai Sonata SE, a muscular, 2011 Chevy Camaro SS, or the iconic 2011 Kia Soul, you could have made money putting it on the market after driving it around for a year. And that’s with serious driving.

The EPA considers 15,000 miles to be the average an American motorist drives the family car in the course of a year. According to Kelley Blue Book ( www.KBB.com  ), which tracks private party and Internet sales through sites such as www.Autotrader.com ,  a Prius (  http://bit.ly/lynbyq ) with 22,500 miles and an original MSRP of $22,150 is now selling on the private market for $24,705 – an increase of $2,555 over the purchase price. That’s a return of 11.5 percent, which is higher than the return Bernie Madoff gave his favored investors during the heyday of his Ponzi years.

The stylish Sonata sedan ( http://bit.ly/mtnAO4 ) with 13,500 miles on it, sells for $24,170, an increase of $855 over its purchase price of $23,315 for a respectable 3.7 percent return. The Kia Soul ( http://bit.ly/lGLbXz ) , which uses hip hop hamsters to hype its appeal to youthful buyers, held pretty steady with a resale price of $14,055 after 13,500 miles. That’s just $60 over the purchase price of $13,995, but its more than the Federal Reserve was paying on treasury notes during last year’s financial crisis.

And near the top of the investment list is an entry from Detroit, the 2011 Chevrolet Camaro SS Coupe, which left the showroom with a sticker at $$31,000 and after 8,000 miles on the road can now be sold for $34,000 – an investment return of 9.6 percent (http://bit.ly/mdRgHg ).

“In most cases a car is not an investment,” said Alec Gutierrez, manager of vehicle evaluations for Kelley Blue Book. “Over the last several years, however, used car values have been on the rise.  Part of that is a lack of vehicles available due to the economy and a reduction in new vehicle sales.

“Cars fit the classic definition of a depreciating asset. But with supply decreasing and fuel assets increasing, their value has been really strong.”

The domestic car market, Gutierrez explained, dropped from 17 million cars per year in 2005 and 2006 to a low of 10.5 million in 2009, a decline of nearly 40 percent. So there are far fewer cars on the used car lots. “The increases depend on the segment, however,” he added. “Overall, used car values are up between 5 percent and 6 percent. But the value of fuel efficient vehicles can but up anywhere between 15 percent and 20 percent, and we attribute that to the rapid rise in gasoline prices.

“The resale value of the Prius is definitely tied to gas prices. It has always been in demand, and even prior to the earthquake in Japan Toyota had only a 10-day supply in the showrooms. But it is one of the vehicles that consumers flock to immediately as gas prices rise.  We have seen demand for the Prius shoot through the roof, with some Prius values increasing between $3,000 and $4,000. And that goes for two, three, and even four-year-old Prius.”

The Sonata’s appeal, he said, has come from he termed its “phenomenal” new design (http://bit.ly/mzwk2z ).  “Even as it becomes used,” he said, “There is a lot of interest and it stays close to the MSRP. We see that from time to time when the design is great. The new Camaro has done well because of the redesign.

”The standard 2011 Camaro is selling $200 to $500 above sticker price and the convertible is really hot.”

            Hyundai spokesman James Trainer said that in addition to the design, the Sonata is offered as a standard sedan, or a hybrid or a turbo, and the hybrid gets 40 miles per gallon and the standard and turbo get 35 MPG. The Sonata is the only car in the mid-sized sedan segment that does not offer a V-6 engine.

“The competition – Camry and Honda Accord – have to be engineered to carry the weight of that bigger engine.  But our turbo-charged four cylinder engine, with 274 horsepower, gets better horsepower than any of the 6’s do.”

The resale value is also helped by Hyundai’s 100,000 mile warranty.

The Kia Soul, said Gutierrez, has benefitted from rising gas prices “and it’s a fun design. Nissan has tried to jump into that market with its Cube. That car is performing well, but the 2010 model is just about $1,000 below its MSRP. The Kia Soul is just more in demand.”

The reception of the boxy Soul comes as something of a surprise, particularly with its pants-sagging, hoody-wearing, hip hop hamsters comparing this odd-shaped Kial to standard boxes and toasters (  http://bit.ly/mCKQx3 ). “The car was targeted equally at male and female Gen Y consumers in their mid-20s who are looking for their first car,” said Michael Sprague, Kia’s vice president of marketing.

“We positioned the Soul to break out from the ordinary and offer a new way to roll.  Our creative agency, David and Goliath, came up with the concept of hamsters who were on the wheel and broke out of that cycle. We thought it was great imagery to convey that you don’t have to buy the traditional little compact car out there. You can have this really cool car instead of one of the other boxy cars.

“A lot of parents are putting the money down and buying it for their children, with the children making the ongoing installment payments.”

Kia has also found that a large portion of their sales are to senior citizens, who are still active and like its price, interior spaciousness and the fact that it is easy to get into and out of.

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Mazda 6: The Zoom-Zoom Car

May 22, 2011


By Roger Witherspoon

 

            The literature of automotive promotions has certain distinct characteristics.  It comes in a glossy brochure, has a host of high quality photos, and wears out the standard thesaurus with multi-syllabic adjectives describing the quality of the vehicle’s interior and the exhilaration that comes from driving a well made car.

Only the folks from Mazda have the notion that adults have enough on their minds without being reminded that, well, they’re adults. And when they describe their cars in their glossy brochure, state up front that “children put it much better and simply call it Zoom-Zoom. It’s why we build the kind of cars we do.”

The kinds of cars I built as a kid were powered by rubber bands. There was one experiment with jet engines loaded with gunpowder and sugar. In the end, it literally flamed out. But for about 10 glorious seconds, it zoomed across the empty armory parking lot, at times seemingly airborne and, for my money, was the most wonderful thing on wheels.

The Mazda 6 has a 272-horsepower V-6 using regular gasoline instead of a rocket engine using solid fuel. Standing outside, the sound emanating from the twin exhausts is a low rumble, not a flaming roar. And from inside, there is no sound at all except for the melodic 88s of Keiko Matsui emanating through the Bose sound system, even when the world is flying by at 100 miles per hour. And at times, it was easy to imagine that my jet car was back, bigger and better than ever, taking me on a long overdue ride with wheels barely touching the pavement.

In reality, of course, Mazda’s don’t fly and if the wheels aren’t on the ground you are probably in trouble and need to slow down. But the 6 has a finely tuned independent front and rear suspension which seemingly puts a layer of cotton between you and road and gives the feeling of gliding instead of rolling along. It is, however, definitely a power glide – the 6 is intended to be a sports sedan and, for the most part, Mazda succeeds.

            That power plant is mated to a six-speed automatic transmission with an electronic manual mode that responds about as quickly and effortlessly as an actual stick shift. The stability and traction controls help ensure a road-hugging trip regardless of travel and weather conditions.

            On the outside, the designers took pains to give the 6 a sportier look than the average mid-sized sedan.  So they borrowed cues from their RX-8 sports car, with the outsized hump over the 17-inch, aluminum alloy, front wheels to accompany a long, sloping hood. The curved grill is more of a grin than a sports car’s grimace but this is, after all, a family car.

   A lot of thought was given to the design of the interior to make the various controls extremely easy to see and use – day or night – in addition to being convenient and attractive. The controls for the entertainment and climate systems on the center console in the middle of dash were not only easy to see, but large enough so you could not miss them in the dark. The entertainment system, for example, with its backlit red light, featured FM/AM and Sirius satellite radio, as well as a 6-disc CD player, and auxiliary control for the iPod, USB and MP3 connections. If you touched one of the buttons, it was surrounded by a soft blue light. The 6’s entertainment and Bluetooth systems can also be controlled or voice activated from the leather, retractable, steering wheel.

The test car, which had a price tag of about $28,500, did not have a navigation system or backup camera. Adding those refinements – which tend to be expected in sedans these days – would push the cost up to the $30,000 range, where it begins to have more direct competition with the Nissan Altima, Honda Accord, and Toyota Camry. The seats in this model were manually operated and cloth. But they were wide, comfortable, and easily adjustable. Having leather, power operated, heated seats would push the sticker price up further.

The interior also features a powered sun roof, which gives both light and a feeling of spaciousness to the car. The rear seats can fold flat in a 60/40 split, thus increasing an already large trunk. In addition, there is enough leg and headroom in the back for pair of passengers who are well north of six feet tall to travel in comfort.

Mazda is still an also-ran in the mid-sized sedan market providing the all-purpose family car. But with the 6, Mazda does have a respectable contender.

 

2011 Mazda 6

MSRP:                                                                                              $28,405

EPA Mileage:                        18 MPG City                          27 MPG Highway

 

Performance / Safety:

 

3.7-Liter, DOHC V-6 engine producing 272 horsepower and  269 pound/feet of torque; 6-speed automatic transmission with electronic manual mode; 17-inch alloy wheels; blind spot monitoring system; 4-wheel disc brakes; traction and stability control;  dual chrome exhaust;  independent front & rear suspension;  fog lights;  dual front airbags; side and side curtain airbags.

Interior / Comfort:

 

AM/FM/ Sirius satellite radio; 6-disc CD and MP3 player; iPod and USB ports; 6-speaker sound system; auxiliary audio input jack; power sunroof; tilt and telescope, leather steering wheel with fingertip audio, and cruise controls; Bluetooth.

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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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