Posts Tagged ‘Volkswagen’

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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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The VW Jetta: Running With the Big Boys

February 9, 2011

By Roger Witherspoon

The mix of sleet and snow left the driveway covered with five inches of ice leading to an ice-covered street. The city’s snow plows had succeeded only in putting ice blockades in front of every driveway, and packing the streets’ ice surface till they were hard and slick enough for qualify for National Hockey league play.

But on this frigid, gray morning staying home was not an option. I poured a cup of tea and then, while it brewed, went outside and pushed three buttons: The first button started the ignition of the five-cylinder Volkswagen Jetta; the second began heating the driver’s soft leather seat; and the third defrosted the side mirrors. Then I went back inside to savor the tea and watch the bad weather deteriorate.

Inevitably, it was time quit procrastinating and leave. Driving on ice can be problematic for even the best of cars. For the traction control to work properly, at least one all-weather or winter tire has to grip something solid – even if just for a fraction of a second. In this case, the front wheel drive Jetta’s 17-inch wheels and Continental, all-weather tires treated that ice as just another hard surface and the car moved easily forward, crunched over the ice mound at the end of the driveway and smoothly rolled down the street. It wasn’t a bad way to start the day.

The new 2011 Jetta is a mid sized sedan which seeks to offer a lot in a package that’s just shy of $25,000. It needs to offer a lot, since this is a crowded field with fierce competition in style, perks, and performance from auto makers in Detroit, Japan and Korea.  But in many ways, VW succeeded in crafting a visually appealing, comfortable, workhorse of a sedan.

Their top of the line SEL model with the power sunroof has a sleek profile and a long, sloping front reminiscent of sportier sedans. Under that long hood is a five cylinder engine cranking out just 170 horsepower. But this is a relatively light car and, with a top speed of 127 miles per hour, it won’t linger at the rear of the motoring pack or need a push to get up steep hills. It drinks regular gas and, according to the EPA, gets 24 miles to the gallon in city driving and 31 MPG on the highway – which isn’t bad for a mid sized sedan.

Inside is a pleasant surprise. The design is relatively simple – its flat dash does not have the wavy flair of the Hyundai Sonata, for example. But the use of real and faux leather interspersed with brushed aluminum is pleasant and looks more expensive than it is. In addition, at this price, cloth seats and limited entertainment options – which are normal on many mid-sized sedans – could be expected. But the Jetta has wide, leather seats, though the front pair are manually adjustable. The rear seats, which can fold down to expand the trunk area, provide more than a yard of leg room  and can easily accommodate passengers on the high side of six feet tall.

It comes with an easy to use navigation system, and while the five-inch screen is small, it is easy to see and, paired with the Sirius satellite radio, provides up to the minute traffic and weather alerts. The navigation screen also provides a useful and rarely seen feature: a box in the upper left corner showing the posted speed limit for whatever street you are driving on. The touch screen also makes it easy to use the entertainment functons.

In addition to satellite radio, the Jetta’s entertainment system includes a single CD player, as well as an MP3 and iPod connection. There is also an easy to pair Bluetooth cell phone connection which automatically reconnects every time you turn the car on. The phone and entertainment functions can be accessed on the dash, via fingertip controls on the leather steering wheel, or by using voice commands.

The doors lock automatically after the car starts moving, and this function can only be turned off at the dealership. It’s annoying to park, go to retrieve your briefcase from the back seat, only to find the rear door still locked. Volkswagen’s engineers should have included an on/off switch for those who don’t like being locked in by robots. But that’s a minor point.

The new Jetta packs a lot into a mid-sized package, making it a viable option in a hotly contested field.

 

 

2011 Volkswagen Jetta SEL

MSRP:                                                                       $24,165

EPA Mileage:                        24 MPG City                          31 MPG Highway

Performance / Safety:

0 – 60 MPH                            8.2 Seconds

Top Speed:                             127 MPH

2.5-Liter, 5-cylinder, aluminum alloy engine producing 170 horsepower and 177 pound/feet of torque; 6-speed automatic transmission; independent front struts; semi-independent rear; front & rear power assisted disc brakes; 17-inch alloy wheels; fog lights; heated mirrors; halogen head lamps; traction and stability controls; driver & front passenger front and side airbags; front and rear, side curtain, head impact airbags.

Interior / Comfort:

AM/FM/Sirius satellite radio; Bluetooth; CD and MP3 player; iPod connection; navigation system with 5-inch touch screen; tilt & telescoping steering wheel with fingertip phone, entertainment, and cruise controls; power sunroof;  leather seats, heated in front, fold flat in rear.

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