Archive for March, 2012

Chevy Volt Versus Nissan Leaf: Let the Race Begin

Chevrolet started rolling the first Volts off the assembly line and onto car haulers on Dec. 13, sending them off to anxious customers who have been waiting months for their electric car, or advanced hybrid or whatever you like to call the Volt. That same day, Nissan delivered its first Leaf electric car to a customer in San Diego. Normally, handing over the keys of a new model’s first buyer is about as scintillating as ribbon-cutting ceremonies photographed in community newspapers.

In this case, the first deliveries kicked off a closely-watched sales race that will begin to answer some big questions about fuel-efficient technology and what consumers really want. General Motors has argued that the Volt is the way to go. You’ll never get stranded in a car that recharges the battery using a gasoline engine. Nissan differs, of course. As long as there’s a tailpipe, it’s not the genuine green article. As an aside, Toyota’s Prius is no longer in the conversation. Unless the Leaf and Volt end up with major quality or performance problems, Toyota has dithered away its position as the unquestioned technology kingpin.

Which car will win? The Leaf is the cheaper option, costing almost $33,000 before federal tax incentives, compared with $41,000 for the Volt. But I think the Volt is a better proposition for most consumers. Nissan says the Leaf can go 100 miles on a charge. But if you drive a pure EV hard on the highway, where the regenerative brakes will do less recharging, you can get a lot less. If the driver has a lead foot or if the weather is especially cold, that will also drop the car’s range. For consumers with a short commute—and if they only drive to work and back everyday—it’s a great option. For the rest of us, that just won’t do. The Volt can go 379 miles on a tank of gas and a full battery charge.

There’s something else about the Volt. If you strip away the green allure and techno-geek appeal, it’s just a really good car. I tested it out last month. It’s smooth, quiet and handles nicely. The Volt is not a car for smoky burnouts, but it has a nice amount of zip. Its interior has a certain Star Trek appeal. The flat control panel that turns on the audio or environmental control with a touch, as opposed to pushing a button, is very avant garde. The two video screens provide all kinds of information and the graphics that show the flow of power from the engine to the battery to the wheels and motors is nicely done. There is one flaw. GM has a ball on one screen that moves up and down and when you’re driving most efficiently, it hovers in the middle. It was confusing. But overall, the car has the kind of futuristic feel you’d expect from this kind of car.

I have not tested a Leaf. But I have driven a Mini E and felt the specter of range anxiety. I got the car with a full charge, which means it should go up to 156 miles. Like any electric car, it can be considerably less if you drive it more on the highway when you use more power and the regenerative braking system does less recharging. I drove it until the battery was down to 83%. The next day, I had a 10-mile trek of mostly suburban streets and it got down to 67%. The battery still had plenty of juice. The real problem is that you can’t just drive all day without planning out your trip and when you will recharge. You have to plan around range and allow some leeway in case you get fewer than 100 miles. That gives the Volt or any other hybrid a huge advantage for most car buyers.

This gets hotly debated in the green blogosphere. I think the Volt will be more successful. Now, let’s sit back and watch.

Cadillac and Audi Ham It Up in a Battle of the Hippest

There’s a subtle rivalry brewing in the luxury car business. Audi and Cadillac are both hamming it up with television advertising to make the case that they’re the hip antidote to stodgy traditional luxury (read: Mercedes). In recent ads, both of them have new commercials loaded with imagery painting luxury as cold and stuffy as they take a fun stab at old money.

One of Cadillac’s newest ads depicts an older couple having an anniversary dinner at their long dining room table. Actor Laurence Fishburne intones, “blue-blooded, cold.” Cut to racy imagery: a motorcycle roaring down the highway, a young guy eyeballing a beautiful woman in a glass elevator. The ad eventually goes to a Cadillac CTS and Fishburne asks, “What happened to luxury? Where did the personality go?” The point, of course, is that Cadillac brings something new and edgy to the luxury market. The theme is “red-blooded luxury.”

Audi takes it a step further. On one of the German brand’s newest ads is an obvious play off the classic Margaret Wise Brown kids’ book “Goodnight Moon,” with a vaguely creepy animated fox fur and other classic luxury items such as a well-coiffed French poodle and gold cuff links. “Goodnight outdated. Goodnight stuffy,” the ad says. “Good night old luxury and all of your wares.” Then we see a Mercedes sedan. Its lights go out. The ad concludes with a beauty shot of an Audi A8 sedan and we hear, “good morning, innovation. Good morning, unequalled inspiration.”

Audi likes throwing down the gauntlet before its German rivals. The brand has taken on BMW several times. Audi actually staked its claim as the newest and coolest luxury brand several years ago with an ad that had an old rich man waking up to the grille of his big luxury car in his bed. It’s a knockoff of the horse’s head from “The Godfather.”

So who has the better shout? Both brands are growing fast, Audi sales rose 23% last year and Cadillac was up 35%. Cadillac sells almost 50% more vehicles. But in terms of burnishing the brand as the coolest newcomer, Audi has the edge. Its average buyer makes more money. The A8 is a legitimate competitor to the Mercedes S-class and BMW 7-series flagship sedans. Audi’s A4, which is smaller than the Cadillac CTS, attracts nouveau luxe buyers. Cadillac is still working on cars to battle it out in those two vital market segments. Plus, Cadillac marketers readily admit that they are trying to expunge the image of old, stuffy Cadillac. You have to appreciate the moxie shown by both brands.

Detroit auto show: Think small

Think small. Think fuel efficient. That is the theme at this year’s Detroit auto show, also known by the official name North American International Auto Show. This year’s expo does not have the kind of heart-pounding displays of horsepower and luxury of past years. But there are some very significant models that tell us where higher fuel prices and tougher emissions regulations are pushing the cars of tomorrow.
Judging by the new models and concepts on display, carmakers are trying to make the case that you can have a hot car and a bit of fun driving it but without having a panic attack at the pump. There are compact Buicks and a subcompact from Chevrolet. Ford has a small people mover. Honda has the new Civic and both Mini and Hyundai are trying to give us more fun in a small package. Here are seven cars worth checking out.

Honda_Civic.jpgMost significant: Honda showed off a new concept car that is, more or less, going to be the new 2012 Civic when it goes on sale this spring. You can tell by the aggressive curves in the car that Honda is trying to get its mojo back. Honda’s market share fell to 10.6% in 2010 from 11% the year before. The Civic is a perennial winner for the company and vital to its success. Styling has never been the Civic’s calling card. This one takes a bold step with a fast backward-sloping roofline and some curves in the side panels that reminded me a bit of a Hyundai Tiburon. More important for Hondaphiles, the car has the company’s vaunted i-VTEC engine and a hybrid option will be available. We’ll see if its bold new look will get any love from outside Honda’s loyal followers.

buick_verano.jpgBiggest turnabout: You’ve heard the cliché “as big as a Buick.” It comes from a description of a spider in Woody Allen’s film “annie Hall.” I doubt anyone will say “as small as a Buick” when the compact Verano goes on sale late this year, but the 2012 Verano compact tells us where carmakers think the market is headed. General Motors figures fuel will only get more expensive and that luxury buyers will want creature comforts without shelling out a fortune for gasoline. The car’s 177-horsepower engine will get 31 miles per gallon on the highway with the 2.4-liter engine. A 2-liter turbo model comes later. The Verano will be an interesting test. Can Buick, which grew 52% last year, sell small cars to younger luxury buyers? On the surface it’s a tough sell. But who would have thought a year ago that the Lacrosse sedan would be one of the hottest cars on the market?

mini_paceman.jpgPick of the show: The Mini Paceman is my pick for the best design at the show. It’s Mini’s future crossover SUV and it probably it is dead one for the brand. It’s stylish, sporty, has a bit more space than a Mini Cooper but can go off-road. Stylistically, the two-door Paceman is an athletic version of the Countryman, Mini’s existing crossover suv. The two-door Paceman doesn’t look as upright as its more practical forebear. In the rear, it has haunches like it’s going to pounce. The concept had Mini’s 1.6-liter turbo engine used in the John Cooper Works performance cars and the ALL4 all-wheel drive system. That’s a strong hint that the Paceman will offer both as options. That will make it an off-roader with tire-burning potential. One bonus: They will probably ditch the Paceman name. Mini USA President Jim McDowell said in an interview that, onfortunately, consumers associate it with ’80s video-game sensation Pac Man.

toyota_prius.jpgThe comeback kid: Beating up on Toyota is a favorite pastime these days, what with their quality woes, lost market share and fallen image. I’ll give the company some accolades. The Prius c concept takes a hybrid franchise known for its egg-shaped fuel sippers and takes it out on the edge. The car leans forward like it’s in motion. The headlights are pushed up the hood and closer to the windshield as if the car is barreling down the highway. The car has shoulders, which makes it look more muscular. This car will come to market in the first half of 2012. One word of caution: There is no telling how much of the concept car’s edgy design will make it to the showroom.

FordCmax_12.jpgFord gets in the game: Nissan and GM have a jump on Ford in the green-car game. Next year, Ford will make a big statement with the C-Max Energi, a five-passenger plug-in hybrid small SUV that the automaker says will get better fuel economy that the Chevy Volt. Untested fuel economy ratings are always suspect; the Volt gets 37 mpg if it runs the gas tank dry. GM may even upgrade the Volt before the C-Max Energi goes to market. But it still looks like a good package. It’s more spacious that the other EVs and hybrids on the market and can go 500 miles using a full battery charge and tank of gas.

hyundai_veloster.jpgHyundai makes a bold statement: The Hyundai Veloster will go on sale in 2012 as a boldly-styled three-door coupe that promises to be a fun ride that gets 40 mpg on the highway. It doesn’t need a hybrid-electric system to do it, either. It mates a dual-clutch transmission with a direct-injection 1.6-liter engine to maximize fuel economy. The interior is inspired by sporty motorcycles. This could be a hit with younger buyers given the curvy styling and fuel economy. Hyundai has moved well beyond selling just on price.

vw_passat.jpgBiggest snoozer: And last, the new Volkswagen Passat is the German carmaker’s attempt to offer more value and become a big-volume seller in the U.S. market. The company only has 2.2% of the market, so it is dropping the price of the Passat by some $7,000 to get close to $20,000. The cabin looks like a VW, with well-crafted appointments and a certain German precision to the construction. On the outside? There isn’t much to it. The sides of the car are pretty flat. The back end reminds me of a Saab. Overall, the Passat is undistinctive. The selling point is affordable German engineering with options like a 2-liter diesel engine that is expected to get 43 mpg on the highway. That will have to win buyers because the design won’t turn many heads.

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Toyota Recalls Another 2 Million Cars. Apology Needed.

When NASA released the results of a 10-month study on Toyota vehicles on Feb. 8 concluding that the automaker’s cars did not have an electronics problem that caused unintended acceleration, one of Bloomberg BusinessWeek’s columnists said the media owed the company an apology. There is no ghost in the machine and the intense media coverage caused a frenzy, Bloomberg BusinessWeek columnist Ed Wallace wrote. I know Ed personally and have tremendous respect for him. But I must part ways on this issue.

Toyota may not have had electronic throttle issues. But certainly the company had plenty of other problems. Just today, Toyota announced its biggest recall in a year. The Japanese auto giant recalled 2.17 million vehicles because of carpet and floor mat flaws that could jam gas pedals. Toyota has recalled more than 12 million vehicles globally since November 2009, many of them related to unintended acceleration claims. Of those actions, 5.3 million vehicles were recalled to fix floor mat problems. Some of the cars were recalled because of a sticking accelerator pedal. It may not have been electronics, but there were problems.

Toyota has had other investigations and recalls not related to unintended acceleration. Last week, the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration opened an investigation into the 2006 Highlander hybrid amid claims that the SUV stalls frequently. In January, Toyota voluntarily recalled 1.7 million vehicles for potential defects in fuel pipes and pumps, Bloomberg reported. On Jan. 10, Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda told reporters that the recalls have inflicted “big damage” on the company, but he maintained that its cars are safe, Bloomberg reported at the time.

Back to the apology. While it’s clear that there is no mystery magnetic glitch in Toyota’s cars and that they are as safe as anyone else’s vehicles, forget the apology. First of all, investigations are news. So long as the media reports the conclusion, it’s in the public’s interest to know what’s happening. Second, Toyota’s lost its once-astute focus on quality. Rapid expansion of its model lines and sprawling archipelago of factories has made it difficult to mind every detail, which was a principal tenet of the company.

Consumer Reports has found a decline in the quality of interior finishes in Toyotas for the past three or four years, David Champion, the magazine’s director of automotive testing, told Bloomberg for a Jan. 12 story. The company whose customers once relied on Toyota for bullet-proof quality and reliability suddenly suffered a rash of problems. In fairness to my old pal Ed, some media reports accepted the unintended acceleration claims as gospel. But that alone does not exonerate Toyota. Sorry Ed, but it’s the customers – not Toyota – who deserve the apology. Toyota’s executives have apologized, and justifiably so.