Archive for the ‘Toyota’ Category

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The Toyota Camry: Still the one to Beat

August 19, 2012

By Roger Witherspoon

 

The Toyota executive was beaming.

He stood in the cavernous entrance hall at the New York Mets’ Citifield last August, in front of a glistening, redesigned, stylish Camry, the flagship of the company’s fleet and the nation’s best-selling mid-sized sedan. It had been a rough two years for Toyota and its personnel: lurid stories of runaway cars and stuck accelerators had eroded confidence in the company’s quality controls and the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami had caused thousands of deaths and seriously eroded the company’s manufacturing pipeline. Both events contributed to Toyota losing its hard fought status as the world’s biggest car company to a resurgent General Motors.

But the unveiling of the 2012 Camry was supposed to change that, to herald the start of a new, resurgent time for the Japanese car maker. With a flourish, the cover was whisked off the prototype model to appreciative nods from the automotive press.

And then, the Earth moved. Literally. And the walls shook. And the floor moved. And a panicky voice on the loudspeaker shouted: “This is an earthquake. Evacuate the building immediately!”

Toyota’s pre-launch media hoopla may have been lost in the aftermath of the major east coast earthquake which caused minor damage to buildings and major worries about the safety of American nuclear power plants. It was not the most auspicious introduction to the car that Toyota hoped would restore its luster as the one to beat in a field with strong competition from a resurgent Detroit and an upstart Korea. But as the car made its way to showrooms this year, it has proved to be as special as the company hoped it would.

“Toyota has done extraordinarily well,” said Alec Gutierrez, manager of vehicle valuation for Kelly Blue Book. “For the first seven months of this year compact car sales were flat compared to last year with an increase of just 1.4%. But mid-sized cars accounted for 18.6% market share in June, a 44% increase year over year. The surge in mid-sized car sales can largely be attributed to the strength of the redesigned Toyota Camry, which posted more than 32,000 sales in June alone.

“The mid-sized segment traditionally has been dominated by Camry and the Honda Accord. When they are redesigned there are so many people out there who will only buy from Toyota or Honda. The Camry until now was conservative in terms of styling. For 2012, they didn’t stray too far in terms of design, but it was upgraded in terms of fuel economy and is competitive with compact cars. They didn’t increase the price much and there is the Toyota brand loyalty. Anyone considering a mid-sized car is going to consider Camry. It’s the long standing reputation they built in terms of Camry’s reliability and long term desirability that keeps it in the top position.”

According to a national survey by KBB, the 10 best-selling mid-sized cars from January through July of this year are:

 

Camry – Sales 243,800. Up 40% over 2011

Honda accord – 183,800. Up 18%

Nissan Altima, 183,700. Up 20%

Ford Fusion – 160,200. Up 6%

Chevy Malibu – 153,800. Up 8%

Hondai Sonata – 138,400. Up 2%

Kia Optima – 86,500. Up 99%

Chrysler 200 – 78,400. Up 105%

VW Passat – 64,100. Was not available

Subaru Outback – 63,300. Up 6%

 

Gutierrez added that “Toyota has played a large role in the nation’s auto market in general, and account for 18.5% of all car sales this year, compared to only 16% last year.” The company is still in third place, however, behind General Motors and Ford, who’s revamped Fusion may threaten Nissan and Honda for the Number 2 spot on the mid-sized list.

But for the foreseeable future, the Toyota Camry is still the one to beat.

            To start understanding the allure of the 2012 Camry, take a look at the outside styling. It is still a family sedan, but now has an aggressive-looking, low-scooped, front grill similar to that of its sporty, costlier Lexis IS 350. It is a distinct departure from the sedate, conservative appearance of previous generations of Camry, with a face that is more grimace than smile.

At a glance of its side profile, the Camry’s styling is not as eye-popping as that of the drawn-in-America Hyundai Sonata. But Toyota has definitely dropped the laid-back look and opted for a more flowing, artistic design which draws the eye approvingly from that charging face, over the wide wheel rims to a flare at the rear. It is not a car that is sitting on its laurels.

Under the hood, the Camry has a 3.5-liter, V-6 engine producing 268 horsepower and 248 pound-feet of torque, which is more than enough to let the Camry run with the best of the highway pack. The engine drinks regular unleaded gasoline, but is thirstier than one might expect from a Toyota. The Camry’s EPA rating is just 21 miles per gallon in city driving and 30 MPG on the highway. And if you opt for the less expensive, 178-horsepower, four-cylinder engine the Camry has an EPA rating of 25 miles per gallon in city driving and 35 MPG on the highway – which is about what you would get from a compact car like the Honda Civic.

If one is really looking to cut down on trips to the gas station, Camry has a hybrid edition carrying an EPA rating of 40 miles per gallon in the stop and go city traffic, and 38 MPG on the highway. The Camry hybrid has a 2.5-liter gasoline engine producing just 156 horsepower and 156 pound-feet of torque. But it is mated to a 105 kilowatt electric engine that gives the Hybrid power plant a combined rating of 200 horsepower.  The electric motor’s 199 pound-feet of torque added to that of the gas engine makes the Hybrid significantly more responsive and quick – in taking off or passing – than the standard Camry with the big gas engine.

There are, of course, tradeoffs when one buys a hybrid. The combined power plant adds about $2,000 or more to the price of the car, which can be partially offset by cutting back on the options. In addition, the hybrid’s regenerative braking system uses the heat generated by the brake pads to make more electricity. As a result, Toyota Hybrid owners avoid having a large brake repair job five or six years down the road. So it may be more productive to consider a full hybrid system such as this one as a performance enhancement with a higher upfront cost but reduced carrying costs and less stress on the average budget.

           

            Aside from the gas mileage the differences between the standard and the hybrid models are slight. The rear seats in the standard Camry can fold down, thus enlarging an already ample storage area. In the hybrid version, that middle area between the rear seat and the trunk, however, is occupied by the battery, so the trunk is a bit smaller and the seats do not fold down.

Inside, the Camry offers the type of real wood trim on the doors, center console and dash that is usually reserved for more upscale, full sized sedans. The seats are leather, power adjusted and can be heated in the regular Camry. And though one may opt for cloth covered seats in the hybrid for economic reasons, these, too, can be heated, which is a boon in cold weather climes or if you’re just plain tired.

For entertainment, the Camrys are now part of the Toyota/Lexus Entune system, which lets you set up your musical tastes and folders on your computer at home and these are instantly available in the vehicle.  They come with AM/FM and Sirius satellite HD radio for standard enjoyment over 10 JBL speakers. In addition, there is Bluetooth connectivity both for phone use and playing music. The system also has connections for iPods, MP3 players and USB drives. There is also a CD changer.

The system can be controlled via fingertip controls on the leather steering wheel or through the seven-inch, color, touch screen, which also provides navigation and a crystal clear backup camera.

The fully loaded Camry will tap your wallet for $32,500, which is packing an awful lot into a well-designed package. It is not surprising that the Camry still sets the standard for all the rest.

 

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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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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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The Prius Triplets: Saving Gas and Avoiding Lightning

May 1, 2011

 


By Roger Witherspoon

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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Toyota’s Surprise Coupe: The Scion tC

May 1, 2011

By Roger Witherspoon

 

            It was not a night for driving.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

            2011 Toyota Scion tC Coupe

 

MSRP:                                                                        $21,417

EPA Mileage:                        23 MPG City                          31 MPG Highway

 

Performance / Safety:

 

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

Interior / Comfort:

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

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Running on Empty: Toyota and the Disappearing Credibility

February 22, 2010

 

By Roger Witherspoon

            As Jerry Meyers sees it, the senior management of Toyota would love to do the right things for the company, for their customers, and for the regulatory agencies – if only they had a clue as what the right course of action was.

            “What they should do is easy,” said Meyers, the former CEO of American Motors, the Detroit auto company which produced Jeeps and small Rambler sedans, and openly mocked the “gas guzzlers” of the Big Three until it was bought by Chrysler in 1987. “Every crisis management expert will tell you to be transparent. You have to be quick, get the bad news out, get it all out, bury it and move ahead. That’s what every crisis management expert will tell you.

            “But back at the ranch, it’s a lot more difficult than that. It assumes perfect knowledge. It assumes you know what is wrong – or very close to it – and you know what to do about it and you can, in fact, get it done.  None of that is ever assured or, in the real world, are clear and crisp and easy for management to get their arms around. But they have evidently run into something that is so puzzling that they don’t quite know what is wrong, and they don’t know quite what to do, and they don’t know if they can do it even if they did know what needed to be done.”

            Finding the right path will be difficult for Toyota which is being tugged in several directions. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) yesterday launched its fifth, separate, simultaneous investigation into possible procedural, technical, and criminal violations by the giant car company in its handling of four different problems throughout the Toyota fleet.  The latest investigation is into the manner in which Toyota handled complaints that the power steering failed in some 2009 – 2010 Matrix and Corolla models.

            The investigation launched Thursday came two days after NHTSA announced it is seeking documents from Toyota to determine when the company learned of problems with accelerator pedals that either stuck in one position, preventing the car from slowing down, or inexplicably increased accelerated. Under federal law, companies selling cars in this country have to notify NHTSA within five days of discovering a safety defect, and then launch a recall. Failure to do so could result in fines of up to $16.4 million, the maximum permitted under the statute. The probe looks into the timelines involved in three Toyota recalls of some 8 million vehicles and the production line shut down of several models affected by accelerator, steering, and brake problems.

            The defect investigation, said a NHTSA spokeswoman, is conducted in two parts: a preliminary evaluation and an engineering analysis. The four month evaluation determines if Toyota properly looked into and categorized consumer complaints. If the evaluation finds there may be a safety issue, the inquiry moves into the engineering phase in which NHTSA conducts its own engineering tests to determine the scope of the problem and its danger to the motoring public.

            This is a departure from the agency’s past relations with the Japanese automaker. Previous investigations have relied on Toyota’s assertion that acceleration problems result from mechanical issues, primarily sticking pedals and shifting floor mats.

            It is also an unusual microscope for a company which has the fourth least number of complaints – after the Smart ForTwo, Mercedes, and Audi –out of the 40,000 filed monthly with the federal transportation agency

            In addition, at least three congressional committees have announced they will hold hearings into Toyota’s actions in handling the various technical problems, and the oversight provided by NHTSA. The regulatory agency has come under the Congressional microscope because during the Bush administration, safety complaints about Toyotas were essentially left to the company to resolve.

            But a company can only resolve issues if it really knows what it is doing and is open to the possibility that its core engineering expertise might be flawed.

            “They built a public perception of a firm that paid great attention to detail, very high quality, and very customer conscious,” said Meyers, now a professor of management and organization in the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. “That’s all crumbling down now.

            “They are fast building a reputation over the last 90 days of being slow, inept, opaque, and insensitive. That’s a reputation they built in 90 days, which is overcoming, for the moment, the reputation of the last 30 years.”

          Meyers, as a former auto industry CEO, has more than a little sympathy with his counterpart at Toyota since the company, in his view, makes great cars.  “I drive a Lexus ES 350,” said Meyres, a lanky six footer. “It’s the finest car ever made.”

            From Toyota’s perspective, the current spate of problems are not systemic – they just happen to be coming to a head all at once. John Hanson, Toyota’s national manager for environmental safety and quality communications, the pedal problems forcing the first two recalls were separate matters.

            “We are in a climate where the term unwanted acceleration is very broad, with the media reports about all manner of situations where vehicles are out of control,” Hanson stated.

            The pedal entrapment by the loose floor mats “did involve high speed injuries and death,” he said. That was different from the sticking pedals, he said, “though they are often, unfortunately melded together. Both recalls involve the accelerator pedal, but for different reasons and with different results.”

            Toyota is even more frustrated with its latest recall of Prius models with brakes that appear to temporarily fail when the car hits a pothole or goes over a rough stretch of road.

            In reality, said Hanson, the anti-lock braking system and its accompanying, electronic stability and traction control system “is functioning as it was designed, but appears it is more aggressive than previous generations with regards to predicting the pending loss of traction.”

            In essence, Toyota has designed a braking system whose computer brain can decide to overrule the driver and refuse to apply brakes as ordered when the driver hits the brake pedal. That does not, he said, mean the car has a loss of brake control. But the control is in the silicon network of the computer chip, not the foot of the motorist.

            “The new 2010 has the ability to look further ahead when it compares what your foot is telling the pedal to do and what it senses between the road and the tires,” Hanson explained. “The computer makes a decision early in the cycle as to what is best when the tire goes over a bumpy road or pot hole and is unweighted.

            “The computer compares that with what the driver would do – such as tap the brakes – and is saying ‘I don’t think I want to give it that much brake pressure because if I do I will lose traction’. So it ignores the brake instruction and maintains control as it deems best. That scares people because they don’t know what it is doing.”

            The electronic brain in the car, which can overrule the living one behind the wheel, is part of an ongoing effort to develop smart cars approaching the nearly-human Audi ferrying Will Smith in the science fiction movie “I Robot.” Toyota already has systems with dashboard cameras trained on the driver’s pupils that sound alarms if the computer feels the driver is drifting off to sleep. Its high end Lexus sedan will already park itself, and the cars warn drivers when they are veering out of their lane – a useful feature during rainstorms at night when dotted lines are difficult to see.

            To the company, then, engineered safety systems are not a threat, even if they can make motorists uncomfortable.

            But confidence in its engineering prowess hurts Toyota when changes are made and motorists are not alerted. The latest recall, involving the steering in the Matrix and popular Corolla compact sedan, was deemed significant enough that Toyota altered the system on new cars being produced – but did not alert existing owners to a potential problem. But that is part of the insular atmosphere at Toyota and over confidence in their technological ability.

            “From their point of view,” said Jeff Liker, Professor of industrial and operations engineering at the University of Michigan, “if they determine that a problem is not a safety issue, but it’s a drivability or customer satisfaction issue, then they are not under any obligation to tell the public.

            “Part of the disagreement between people on the outside who are now critics of Toyota, and people on the inside who are engineers is that the people on the outside think there are safety issues and the people inside Toyota do not.”

            Liker, who has studied Toyota for the past 25 years and is the author of “Toyota Culture: the Heart and Soul of the Toyota Way”, said once the firm’s engineers determine a problem is not a safety issue, the company will make a “running change” at the factory but see no need to go public and mention the complaints or the remedy. Toyota is not alone in that regard.

            “The Ford Fusion Hybrid had a brake hesitation problem,” said Liker, “and they did not recall the vehicle. They put out a technical service bulletin and told the dealers that if somebody comes in with a complaint, this is what you should do.

            “The only reason Toyota had a recall was because of all the political pressure. They are under a microscope and everything looks negative. And NHTSA is under pressure because they are accused of being too soft on Toyota.”

            With Toyota, the public perception is that their judgment is faulty when it comes to deciding what is or is not a safety issue. “In the case where somebody clearly crashed and clearly it is because of the vehicle, that is a clear cut safety issue,” said Liker. “But there was a GM study covering a 10 year period which found that in 98% of the cases where there is an accelerator accident it is because of driver error. People think they have a foot on the brake when they actually have it on the accelerator.”

            Still, Toyota could have avoided the crisis if it assumed the worst and acted on the possibility that its engineering systems were faulty, rather than insist that the accident victims were to blame. And that is where their public image crashed.

            Toyota was caught, said Liker, between insisting that the problems lay with mechanical systems or inattentive drivers, or stating that they sold unsafe cars. “At that point, it was a no-win situation for them.”

             Meyers, who headed American Motors when its flagship Ambassador sedans had runaway accelerators triggered by faulty cruise commands, said Toyota’s public image will continue to be battered until their multiple technical problems are solved.

            “They can’t figure it out,” said Meyers. “The only thing they should be doing is getting at the root cause of the sudden acceleration and nail it. Once it’s nailed, do a fix, then tell the world that you found it, we are going to fix it immediately and irrevocably, and resources are incidental. They are probably digging like crazy to find it.”

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