June 16, 2011

Life on the open road

The Economist:

My Cool Campervan. By Jane Field-Lewis and Chris Haddon with photography by Tina Hiller. Pavilion; 160 pages; £14.99.

THE classic VW camper van is a venerable vehicle on which rides--usually rather slowly--a carefree image of life on the open road. They can often be found in the narrow British lanes leading to the surfing beaches in Cornwall in the summertime. But as old ones in good nick can cost £20,000 ($33,000) or more, many of their owners are more likely to be trying to recapture their lost youth than hanging ten.

There are many variations of the VW camper van, not least because until 2005 Volkswagen never made a camper itself, but produced vans for transporting people and goods which others converted with the addition of caravan-style living accommodation. And it was not just VWs which received such attention, as "My Cool Campervan" shows in a collection of photo essays.

Posted by jez at 10:04 PM

May 13, 2011

The Mini

Ed Wallace:

Every generation seems to produce some high-profile individual who mourns to the masses that there was once a simpler and better time in America. You know the drill: People knew their neighbors, morality reigned and most everyone knew right from wrong. These elegies always end with the premise that somehow we as a nation have lost our way. Of course the simpler times that everyone seems to think we've gotten away from are nothing more than our childhood memories. As children, we perceived and remembered everything far more simplistically - without the freight of context surrounding situations we encounter as adults.

Still, it's those wistful thoughts of innocent bygone days that drive the automotive styling designs we know today as retro-cars. The BMW-designed and British-built Mini is a perfect example. This modern automobile seems made to bring back fond memories of the British Invasion and the Swinging 60s. It seems to exemplify the days when Carnaby Street, the Stones, Donovan, the Beatles, Twiggy, white plastic go-go boots and all other things British were new and groovy.

Of course the original Mini was far more and much less than that. Introduced in 1959, the Mini was the British Motor Corporation's answer to the long and successful sales career of the Volkswagen Beetle.

What is less well remembered is that the Mini's creation in the late 50s was a direct response to a major oil crisis for the Brits. What caused it? England's foolish war against Egypt's Gamal Nasser, in which England tried and failed to regain control of the Suez Canal.

Posted by jez at 8:58 PM

January 15, 2011

Panorama: Lingotto Pinacoteca Giovanni e Marella Agnelli @ Turin

Pinacoteca Giovanni e Marella Agnelli:

In a fascinating space designed by the architect Renzo Piano inside the historic industrial complex of the Lingotto in Turin, the Pinacoteca Giovanni e Marella Agnelli permanently houses 25 masterpieces from Giovanni and Marella Agnelli private collection.

Opened on September 20th, 2002, the gallery marks the final step in the twenty-year-long restructuring process of the whole Lingotto site.

The structure that today hosts the picture gallery of the Giovanni and Marella Agnelli Foundation in the "Scrigno" (literally, jewel box or treasure chest, an extraordinary container that dominates the roof-top test track), is the result of a long historical and architectural process of development that begins at the turn of the twentieth century. After this huge conversion process, the 90 years old building maintains the architectural power and freshness of the car factory designed by Giacomo Mattè Trucco, and wends its way effortlessly to the Lingotto designed by Renzo Piano.

A stunning place, particularly the roof top race track on the old Fiat factory.

View the full screen panorama here.

Posted by jez at 8:10 PM

January 9, 2011

GPS Follies

GPS Follies

"Ha, Ha, Ha, GPS, GPS!" - a senior Florentine citizen standing outside my rented car's window, pointing at our TomTom GPS.

We followed the TomTom's instructions from Fiesole through Florence to our evening destination: Central Bologna. However, the TomTom directed us to a dead end: impassable train tracks were straight ahead and we had no nearby alternatives.

After providing the elderly man his GPS humor, I completed a U-Turn and drove east toward an intersection. The TomTom protested, but later "recalculated" the route and we were on our way to Bologna, via the Autostrada.

We had a few more odd navigation moments, one in Lyon and another in Parma. All in all, the TomTom performed well. TomTom sells a GPS receiver that contains both North American and European maps.

** A side note. I used the maps app on my iPhone to augment the TomTom (European iPhone data plans are quite expensive for visiting Americans). Xcom Global provides a useful alternative for on-the go connectivity: unlimited use mifi devices. I highly recommend Xcom.

Jean-Louis Gassee's recent GPS experiences inspired this note.

Posted by jez at 7:47 PM

December 29, 2010

Social Media, Part 1: The Internet and the Auto Industry

Ed Wallace:

Twenty-two years ago, during a slow period at a dealership where I worked, I found an old Apple II computer. It had been set up to calculate leases, but I quickly discovered that it could do all sorts of things. It wasn't like I hadn't used a computer before; in 1985, using my Compaq portable as a letter-writing machine had led to my biggest sales year ever in the auto industry. But only three years later, my appreciation for the coming Information Age was to change dramatically.

One of the first things I did on this old Apple machine was hook it up online. Subscribing to the original StarText news wire that the Star-Telegram was then selling, I saw from this quaint beginning that the Information Age was starting to broaden. It wasn't long before I subscribed to CompuServe. That's when I realized I would need not just a more powerful computer, but also one capable of showing graphics to take advantage of what was coming our way.

Shortly thereafter I had discovered that others were working on creating what would be called the Internet, connecting everybody in the world to one another.

Change is hard....

Posted by jez at 3:43 PM

December 14, 2010

P2P car sharing

Chris Nuttall:

Google is investing in a start-up that hopes to shake up the vehicle rental industry and change the way people view their cars.

RelayRides.com, which launches in San Francisco on Tuesday after a successful pilot programme in Boston, says it is the world's first operational peer-to-peer car-sharing service.

The Series A round announced with Google Ventures and Valley VC firm August Capital on Tuesday is expected to help it to $5m in total funding to date.

Great idea.

Posted by jez at 10:11 PM

December 3, 2010

The Used Car Bubble

Earlier this year in BusinessWeek I postulated that new car sales could well end up higher than most were forecasting. I believed this only because one of the key factors that had been impacting new vehicle sales has been that the used car market was more than overheated, it was on fire. Stories were drifting in from all over about individuals actually paying more money to buy a year-old Honda Accord than they could buy a new one for. And the stories didn't stop.

Now numerous dealers admit that even they were astonished at how much people were willing to pay for late-model used cars, when the price structure of the market put those vehicles' prices perilously close to that of a similar vehicle new. Moreover, if one took advantage of the Zero Percent Finance offers adding luster to so many sales today, the monthly payment on the new car is often less than the used model's.

Of course it was obvious that the used car market was going to look manic compared to historical pricing. After all, the nation has gone from selling more than 16 million new cars annually to barely over 10 million at the bottom of the market. So millions of late model trade-ins won't hit the used car market for years. Fewer used cars available for resale in a rapidly expanding market equals climbing prices.

Posted by jez at 9:44 PM

December 1, 2010

In search of a lightning bolt of rational thought.

Peter M. De Lorenzo

In the midst of the biggest green car push in automotive history - what with Chevrolet touting its extended-range electric Volt as the greatest thing since sliced bread while crossing green swords with Nissan, which is shouting similar missives from the rooftops about its all-electric Leaf - it has become readily apparent that the vast majority of the American consumer public couldn't be bothered. As in they couldn't care less. That is unless someone - i.e., Washington - is throwing money at them to care.

Hybrid sales in this market are going to finish the year down again, which will mark three straight years of decline, and this includes the $4.00+ per gallon spike in the late spring-summer of 2008, when fuel economy hysteria took hold in the U.S. for four solid months. It seems that the Shiny Happy Green Sensibilities Act - or whatever you want to call the ongoing "shove-it-down-the-American-consumer-public's-throats-and-they-will-learn-to-lilke-it" mentality that pollutes the political brainiacs/stumblebums in Washington and Northern California - is going nowhere.

As a matter of fact our illustrious leaders in Washington used a considerable chunk of money from the 2009 economic stimulus package to buy up hybrids from various auto manufacturers to prop-up hybrid vehicle sales, couching it as a noble attempt at improving the overall fuel-efficiency of the government fleet, when in fact the real reason was to not only - hopefully - jump-start American consumer thinking into accepting these vehicles as being mainstream choices, but to help the vehicle manufacturers who were battered and bullied to build the vehicles in the first place to keep the production lines going.

But alas, this is the pattern we find ourselves in as a nation at the moment. A minority of the citizenry in an absolute lather about climate change - aided and abetted by maliciously clueless politicos with an axe to grind and an agenda that has more to do with their personal ambitions than it does with such quaint ideas as "being good for the country" - dictating to the majority of the American public how it's going to be.

Posted by jez at 8:29 AM

October 17, 2010

Big City Sunset

Posted by James Zellmer at 7:11 PM

October 7, 2010

Computers & Cars: MyFord Touch

Walt Mossberg
Instead of the usual array of knobs, dials and passive screens, MyFord Touch is dominated by a giant 8-inch touch screen, with large function icons in the center and color-coded corners that you touch to switch the screen among four main functions: multisource audio entertainment, navigation, phone and climate control. There is also a "home" view, combining common functions that can be personalized.

The system also has several other elements. There are twin 4-inch screens on either side of the speedometer. The one on the left presents vehicle information, such as miles traveled, and allows you to customize some of the gauges so that, for instance, you can finally banish that tachometer you never use in favor of, say, a digital readout on gas-mileage efficiency. The one on the right replicates, in simpler form, the main functions of the center screen, so you can select and check things like audio and climate control without looking at, or touching, the main screen.

These smaller screens are controlled by five-way arrow clusters on the steering wheel, like controllers on iPods and other devices usable by touch alone. There also are some large, touch-sensitive buttons below the main center screen for things like setting volume and fan speed.
Posted by James Zellmer at 9:45 PM

August 29, 2010

A Tale of Two Cities

Ed Wallace
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness ..."
-- Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, 1859

For the past 120 days I have pored over economic reports, commerce data, home sales across America, stats on inflationary trends and sales tax reports by state (when they can be found). I've sorted the data by date published, then prioritized it by importance to the economy, and looked for correlations positive or negative. But no matter how many times I read over the data, I can come to only one solid conclusion: We have now finished changing into a two-tiered economy.

This change didn't start with the downturn of the past two and a half years; instead, the completion of our segregation into two financial classes is what directly caused the downturn. No longer is the belief that "there's the 20 percent of the population that live in poverty and then there's the rest" a comfortably distant concept.

The discomfort line now divides those who "feel afraid" that they live in poverty-like circumstances, or soon will - even if they are gainfully employed - from "the rest." And instead of a 20/80 split, have-nots to haves, today it may well be 60/40.
Posted by James Zellmer at 8:53 AM

A Four Wheeled Xanax....

Dan Neil
The 2011 Nissan Leaf is the world's first mass-market all-electric automobile, to be built in the hundreds of thousands globally/annually by Nissan beginning this winter. And may I say, thank God and Carlos Ghosn, chief executive of Nissan. Not so much a game changer as a game starter, the Leaf is a five-seat, five-door passenger EV sedan sold from California to Maine, with a nice, round 100-mile estimated range; 0-60 mph acceleration of around 10 seconds; and a top speed of 90 mph. The U.S. price is $32,780 (not counting the $7,500 federal tax credit for EVs) and includes a host of value-added, segment-competitive features, such as Bluetooth, navigation, 16-inch alloy wheels. Such a car would have been science fiction five years ago.
Posted by James Zellmer at 8:51 AM

August 20, 2010

Truth and An Open Society

Ed Wallace
In order to be for a democracy, or in our case, a functioning Federal Republic, one has to have an informed electorate. Of course, that is infinitely more difficult than one might think. For even when the raw truth of a story comes to light from unimpeachable sources, it is frightening how the vested interests today will immediately attack the information and the source involved - in order to lessen the impact of the truth on the public at large - with frightening speed.

As mentioned in this column, I seem to spend an inordinate amount of time refuting e-mails in which there is no truth to the claim being made, whether it's about the Auto Task Force, why the financial system melted down or any other major hot-button issue. On the other hand, I get such e-mailings far more often than I do links to a legitimate news story. Moreover, all too often the e-mail's forwarder, who believes completely in the e-mail no matter how outrageous the claims made in it, often point out to me that they no longer read newspapers because of "known" bias.

That is scary. People will trust an unknown and angry blogger - whose bias screams through his or her words, and who knowingly and intentionally misleads the reader - before they'll trust verifiable facts in the media.
Posted by James Zellmer at 5:17 PM

July 30, 2010

The GM $50,000,000,000 Taxpayer Bailout and The $41,000 Volt

Edward Niedermeyer:
By taking a loss on the first several years of Prius production, Toyota was able to hold its price steady, and then sell the gas-sippers in huge numbers when oil prices soared. Today a Prius costs roughly the same in inflation-adjusted dollars as those 1997 models did, and it has become the best-selling Toyota in the United States after the evergreen Camry and Corolla.

Instead of following Toyota’s model, G.M. decided to make the Volt more affordable by offering a $350-a-month lease over 36 months. But that offer allows only 12,000 miles per year, or about 33 miles per day. Assuming you charged your Volt every evening, giving you 40 miles of battery power, and wanted to keep below the mileage limit, you would rarely use its expensive range-extending gas engine. No wonder the Volt’s main competition, the Nissan Leaf, forgoes the additional combustion engine — and ends up costing $8,000 less as a result.

In the industry, some suspect that G.M. and the Obama administration decided against selling the Volt at a loss because they want the company to appear profitable before its long-awaited initial stock offering, which is likely to take place next month. For taxpayers, that approach might have made sense if the government planned on selling its entire 61 percent stake in G.M. But the administration has said it will sell only enough equity in the public offering to relinquish its controlling stake in G.M. Thus the government will remain exposed to the company’s (and the Volt’s) long-term fate.
Posted by James Zellmer at 11:59 AM

July 11, 2010

A Few Photos

I believe this is a rather rare Shelby Cobra.

A sign of the times: "We will be glad to serve you when you are off your cell phone".


A squirrel seeking dinner

Malt O-Meal

Cooling off...

Dinner at Sea Salt Minneapolis

Art Fair on the Square Madison

Posted by James Zellmer at 8:39 PM

July 4, 2010

The Energy Future

Ed Wallace:
The winter of 1979 in southern California reminded people why they had migrated to LA over the decades. The daytime temperatures were in the mid-70s, and the LA basin's summer smog had disappeared, revealing the snowcapped San Gabriel Mountains.

At Neonex Leisure that day, we were brainstorming the recreational vehicle of the future. At the time we built America's largest RV, the Arctic Sun, a combination van/pickup truck pulling a 55-foot-long 5th-wheel trailer. Now Neonex Canada had put our California division in charge of designing the company's next Class A Motorhome.

Each of the other five U.S. managers gave their impressions of the future of the recreational vehicle, disclosing visions of startling grandeur. I was more flippant: "I bet it's a Honda with a Coleman tent." Three months later the Second Energy Crisis hit. We shut down our RV plant in two days flat, and I was back in Texas in five.

My point is that, if you had asked every energy or automotive issues guru what the future would hold for automobiles just before the winter of 1978 - 79, the answer would have been completely different if you'd asked them the same thing just 12 months later. That's what an energy crisis can do.

My joke about a Honda with a Coleman tent was weirdly prophetic. But my fellow managers' visions of million-dollar motorhomes would also turn out to be spot on -- 20 years later.
Posted by James Zellmer at 9:47 PM

Lunch with Luca Cordero di Montezemolo

Richard Milne:
Screaming down the home straight of Ferrari’s test track at 200kmph an hour in a classic red 458 Italia, I suddenly don’t feel like lunch. The Fiorano track near Bologna in central Italy is, at 3km, not long. But, partly in an attempt to impress the test driver next to me with some fast cornering, I feel as if I have left part of my stomach on one of its hairpin bends. Matters fail to improve as, in heavy fog untypical of early summer, I take the car off the track and, rather more slowly, on to the winding roads of the Apennines, heading for Ferrari HQ in nearby Maranello.

I am still spinning slightly when we pull into the car park just before the company’s elegant and aristocratic chairman, Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, who somewhat incongruously arrives in a small Fiat. He explains that his journey from Rome has been a nightmare as fog diverted his helicopter and forced him to take trains and cars – hence the Fiat. Nevertheless he appears in characteristically enthusiastic mood. “I’ve just been to a conference at the Vatican [on the financial crisis]. Fantastic,” he explains. “Fantastic” is a word Montezemolo uses a lot. Ferrari is “fantastic”, Italian food is “fantastic”, his new high-speed train company, NTV, is “fantastic”, as is the 458 Italia I have been driving.

On my way out he hands me a white postcard. “This is what I give to all new employees at Ferrari,” he says. Looking at it in a Ferrari 599 on the way back to Milan, it looks to me like the perfect credo for Montezemolo. It starts: “The real secret of success is enthusiasm. You can do anything if you have enthusiasm ... With it there is accomplishment. Without it there are only alibis.”
Clusty Search: Luca Cordero di Montezemolo
Posted by James Zellmer at 10:28 AM

June 19, 2010

Incapable of Rational Thought

Ed Wallace:
It started with an email sent to the Chevrolet employees at their Detroit headquarters and warned them not to use the word Chevy in lieu of the far more formal Chevrolet. GM PR people added that there was a plastic jar put into the hallway there so that each time someone heard another use the now "forbidden" word, they would deposit money as a personal penance. This decision, they said, was simply protecting the brand image of Chevrolet, much the way Coke or Apple protected its image. The memo was signed by the President of Chevrolet and GM's Vice President for Marketing.

Apparently at Ed Whitacre's new GM, morons have retaken the institution.

Are they not aware that "Chevy" has been an affectionate nickname for Chevrolet for at least 80 years and is not likely to go away? Did these executives not know that "Coke" is to "Coca-Cola" what "Chevy" is to "Chevrolet"?

People don't call their computers "Apple" -- "Mac" being to "Macintosh" what "Chevy" is to "Chevrolet" -- and certainly nobody calls anything "my Apple iPod."
Posted by James Zellmer at 3:27 PM

June 14, 2010

America’s Car-Mart: Bentonville’s Secret Sauce Makers

The Financial Investigator: Most every day at 802 Southeast Plaza Avenue in Bentonville, Arkansas appears to be a pretty good one.

That’s because that address houses the headquarters of Americas Car-Mart, an auto retailer that has found the sweet spot, the intersection where a corporation’s business model meets consumer demand and the net income flows like cool, clear water.

Focusing exclusively on the sub-prime auto-buyer, their clean and efficiently-organized used-car lots throughout the south-central and southwest regions offer a stark contrast to the traditionally dodgy experience of buying a used-car; no one at any Americas Car-Mart locale is likely to be mistaken for the Kurt Russell character in Used Cars. The staff is friendly and well-turned out, there is a wide variety of cars, trucks and vans to choose from, the business offices are clean and air-conditioned and, perhaps best of all, the word “no” just doesn’t appear to be used all that often.

From an analytical standpoint, the business model appears to be simplicity itself.
Posted by James Zellmer at 1:01 PM

June 6, 2010

Vintage VW Bus Signage

Delicious Industries:

Posted by James Zellmer at 3:14 PM

April 16, 2010

The Two Stall Park Trick

Often seen with Porsche, Mercedes, Audi or BMW drivers. The first "Smart Car" driver I've seen using this technique. Perhaps dark humor?
Posted by James Zellmer at 11:08 AM

September 27, 2009

The Truth About the TATA Nano

Sajeev Mehta:
hy is a soon-to-be success story gathering dust at TATA dealers across India? Much like the initial growing pains of the Ford Model T, the $2000 Nano currently lies on waiting list. Given the lopsided supply/demand and construction conflagrations with the government, I reckon enterprising Indians are flipping the Nanos living in parking lot limbo for profit. Still, my precious few moments sitting in somebody’s dusty Nano left me impressed. Not because it was a perfect machine: I saw automotive history in the making.

Rarely in America is a car designed around a vision: witness the overweight performance icons clawing for yesteryear’s glory, car based trucks and globally designed, badge engineered atrocities. Not with the TATA Nano: behold the homegrown hero.

The Nano is born from an undying need for affordable transportation in a country with a growing but repressed middle class. This group needs a family vehicle superior to tube frame rickshaws and 150cc motorcycles carrying four or more people. Yes, really: I saw a family of four riding a motorcycle through the congested, fast paced, life threatening streets of Bangalore. Make no mistake: a car at this price and size is the automotive embodiment of “If you Build It, They Will Come.”

It’s all about the lakhs; the Nano is designed around a price befitting the Indian working class. One look around the beast shows the good, bad and ugly of the situation.

Exterior fit and finish is respectable, until you spot the unfinished rear hatchback seams, hurriedly painted over. That stylish rear hatch is glued shut, so cargo is only accessible from the rear seat. And the list of price-conscious ideas doesn’t stop: three-lug wheels, single arm wiper blade and an adorable looking center exit exhaust.
Posted by James Zellmer at 9:39 PM

July 6, 2009

Change You Won't Believe

Ed Wallace:
I don’t mean to slight Michael Jackson’s once-formidable talent, nor do I dismiss his troubled personal life. But have we become so frivolous as a nation that any entertainer’s tragic and untimely death warranted more news coverage — day after day after day — than the real issues that will confront each of us now and in the all-too-near future? Apparently so. Most of us know more about the last two days of Jackson’s life than we know about the negotiations in which Washington forced GM and Chrysler into bankruptcy. You certainly know more about Jackson’s death that the names on the list of the 25 individuals who destroyed the world’s financial system. Of course, none of the 25 has died; they still work at the same jobs.

Let Them Eat Cowboys?

Not to be overly dramatic, but this should remind any thinking person of the declining days of the Roman Empire. Its citizens refused to deal with the decay and legitimate problems of their cities and empire, instead demanding more and more coliseums be built for their personal entertainment.

Well, we do have a new billion-dollar stadium for the Cowboys. And it has certainly received far more press coverage than the recently passed House Bill that proponents claim will save the planet from global warming. Yes, forces are gathering to reverse our 100-year history of citizens’ free travel to work and for leisure – and of that freedom’s benefits to our economy.
Posted by James Zellmer at 2:14 PM

June 17, 2009

Who Switched the Playbooks

Jack Perkowski:
When I was starting up in China, many experts cautioned me on what I would encounter. “It’s not a free market and there’s no rule of law, they told me. “The government controls the courts, the companies and the banks. Central planners in Beijing, not the marketplace, decide what goods to produce and which companies should produce them.”

“Decisions are made for political, not economic reasons,” they went on to explain. “The heads of China’s state-owned enterprises serve at the pleasure of the Party, the banks are told what loans to make, and making a profit is secondary to ensuring employment. That’s the reason why China’s banks are a mess and full of non-performing loans.”

Occasionally, I would push back, noting the economic progress that China had made since Deng Xiaoping opened the economy in 1978. “You don’t believe the government’s numbers, do you?” they would ask incredulously. “Everyone knows they’re manufactured to convey whatever message the government wants. And, when it comes to financial statements, forget it. Chinese companies have at least three sets of books, and you can’t believe any of them.”
Posted by James Zellmer at 10:17 AM

June 12, 2009

Thinking for the Driver: The New Mercedes E250CDI

Dan Neil:
If the car senses erratic steering and rapid corrections, the telltales of fatigue, the Attention Assist will advise you to get some rest as it displays a big coffee cup icon in the instrument panel (this is my favorite ISO 9000 icon, by the way). Attention Assist is just one of a dozen or more marquee safety systems Mercedes has piled onto the E-class for 2010, and it's clear at the outset that Mercedes is returning to safety as a transcendent brand value after years of marketing itself as the spoils of well-paying bad behavior, the glittery metal floss under Britney Spears' untrussed derriere.

Suddenly, the E-class is, again, the car for grown-ups.

I won't parrot the company line about the E-class being the heart and soul of the brand, except that it is. The E-class is a "business saloon," the standard-issue Mercedes -- stout, reliable, comfortable and enduring. This is the stainless-steel Rolex of cars, steadily elegant and appropriate for any occasion, and you have to admire the alacrity with which the E-class can go from being a tan airport taxi drone in Berlin to being a valet-park star in Beverly Hills.

To save you the suspense, I'll tell you now: The new E-class is a fantastic car but for one huge, agonizing, inexcusable error that baffles me like a Rubik's Cube the size of the Seagrams Building. More on that in a moment. For now, consider a short list of some of the more fun safety systems available on the E-class as standard or options.
Posted by James Zellmer at 3:32 PM

May 30, 2009

The End of the Affair

PJ O'Rourke:

The phrase "bankrupt General Motors," which we expect to hear uttered on Monday, leaves Americans my age in economic shock. The words are as melodramatic as "Mom's nude photos." And, indeed, if we want to understand what doomed the American automobile, we should give up on economics and turn to melodrama.

Politicians, journalists, financial analysts and other purveyors of banality have been looking at cars as if a convertible were a business. Fire the MBAs and hire a poet. The fate of Detroit isn't a matter of financial crisis, foreign competition, corporate greed, union intransigence, energy costs or measuring the shoe size of the footprints in the carbon. It's a tragic romance--unleashed passions, titanic clashes, lost love and wild horses.

Foremost are the horses. Cars can't be comprehended without them. A hundred and some years ago Rudyard Kipling wrote "The Ballad of the King's Jest," in which an Afghan tribesman avers: Four things greater than all things are,--Women and Horses and Power and War.

Posted by jimz at 1:43 AM

May 17, 2009

Finance It Again Tim Geihtner

Ed Wallace:
They say you don’t recognize history while you’re living through it, but it won’t be long before there’s no doubt about the historic character of what’s happening now. In the not too distant future, everyone will look back on this period and shake their heads, at both the disruption to our economy and many of our solutions to it. And when that day comes and today’s events can be seen with real clarity, we will all turn to each other and ask, "What were we thinking?"

Oh, well. There is at least one man today whose mind is already focused on where he will be standing many years from now. He has coolly witnessed the turmoil inflicted on our financial system and is dispassionately observing the panic that has overtaken us all in its wake. And, knowing that foolish decisions almost always follow emotional trauma, he alone is standing out front, gladly waiting to receive the fruits of the outrageous decisions we seem ready to make. He is Sergio Marchionne, the CEO of Fiat, and he is undoubtedly a genius without peer.

Encouraging Words

Consider if you will what is happening in the automobile industry today: A near catastrophic collapse in new car sales in most countries of the world. One might think that this signals consumers’ inability to purchase new cars, either for lack of a job or — as we have been told since last September — because they can’t get a loan for their transportation needs. But those issues are not really the problem. Many of the jobs lost were low paying jobs and therefore not new car buyers, for the rest, loans are readily available.
Posted by James Zellmer at 12:40 PM

April 22, 2009

"Gallons Per Mile Calculator"

Rick Larrick:
This page describes the MPG illusion and provides tools for converting miles per gallon (MPG) to gallons of gas consumed over different driving distances. It is periodically updated with new content. A brief summary of the problems with MPG and benefits of GPM can be found here and here.
Much more here.
Posted by James Zellmer at 5:22 PM

March 4, 2009

Selling Your Car

It's interesting to see how sellers position their cars for public sale. Every now and then, I'll notice a car with a for sale sign parked on a high traffic street. This example, a late model BMW 750i, has been parked near a local coffee shop for several weeks.
Posted by James Zellmer at 8:35 AM

February 26, 2009

Dakar Rally 2009 Photos

Posted by James Zellmer at 8:07 AM

February 24, 2009

Barack Obama Tells Germany Not To Abandon Their Auto Industry

Robert Farago quoting President Obama:
“As for our auto industry, everyone recognizes that years of bad decision-making and a global recession have pushed our automakers to the brink. We should not, and will not, protect them from their own bad practices.

“But we are committed to the goal of a re-tooled, re-imagined auto industry that can compete and win. Millions of jobs depend on it. Scores of communities depend on it. And I believe the nation that invented the automobile cannot walk away from it.”
Posted by James Zellmer at 9:45 PM

A Scion Drives Toyota Back to Basics

Norihiko Shirouzu & John Murphy:
Toyota Motor Corp.'s incoming president, Akio Toyoda, has a sobering message for the giant company founded by his grandfather: It has gotten too fancy for its own good.

On Monday, three top executives who helped lead Toyota the past four years -- including Mitsuo Kinoshita, one of the primary architects of the company's global expansion -- announced their retirement. The departures clear the way for Mr. Toyoda's planned makeover of the world's biggest auto maker.

He is expected to focus, most of all, on abandoning kakushin, or "revolutionary change," current president Katsuaki Watanabe's term for changing the way Toyota designed its cars and factories. It spawned technological advances, but led to cars that were often costlier to produce.

The 52-year-old Mr. Toyoda is also working to fix a pricing strategy that put the company at odds with some U.S. dealers, who felt its cars were getting too expensive, according to people familiar with the situation.
Posted by James Zellmer at 5:57 PM

February 13, 2009

BMW Art Cars on Parade

Mark Vaughn:
They won't be racing but BMW's famous Art Cars will be back on display. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art will feature four of BMW's 16 art cars until Feb. 24.

Among the four are some of our favorites:

-- Roy Lichtenstein's 1977 Group 5 320i with its wild wing and body work.

-- Frank Stella's graph-paper 3.0 CSL.

-- The 1979 Group 4 M1 that Andy Warhol painted with a brush.

All three cars raced at Le Mans with their new paint jobs.

Robert Rauschenberg's 1986 6-series was not a race car and, with its more conventional bodywork, seems far more restrained than the rest.
Posted by James Zellmer at 9:01 PM

February 6, 2009

A Drive in the Tesla Roadster

Dan Neill:
What transpires in the next 2 seconds is the heart and soul, the essence and spirit, of the Roadster. This is the trick this one-trick pony does better than perhaps any sports car on Earth. We in the business call it "rolling acceleration."

At about 20 mph I nail the go pedal, and the power electronics module summons a ferocious torrent of amps, energizing the windings of the 375-volt AC-induction motor. Instantly -- I mean right now, like, what the heck hit me? -- the motor's 276 pound-feet of torque is converted to dumbfounding acceleration. Total number of moving parts: one.

Street lights streak past me like tracer bullets. My little mental circuits go snap-pop with the thrust. God has grabbed me by the jockstrap and fired me off his thumb, rubber band-style. Wow.

Meanwhile, over in the Porsche, 19th-century mechanical forces are taking their own sweet time. The driver has to clutch, shift to a lower gear, and de-clutch -- a regime that takes about half a second if he's talented. When he pushes on the accelerator pedal, the throttles in the Porsche's throat open, the fuel injectors start hosing down the cylinders with high-test, and the variable-angle cams rotate to maximize intake-valve duration. The flashing fire in the cylinders can now apply its maximum force to the pistons.
Posted by James Zellmer at 9:36 PM

February 3, 2009

Bangle Bids Adieu

Robert Farago:
When it comes time to chart designer Chris Bangle's contribution to the BMW brand's aesthetic, few pundits will praise his pulchritudinous perversion of pistonhead passion, or thank him for the aesthetic affectations for which BMW is now known. In other words, the "Bangle Butt" will be Chris' lasting legacy. Of course, this is also the man who removed the words "flame surfacing" from art school and placed them on the tip of his detractors' tongues. That and Axis of White Power. (Oh! How we laughed!) Equally improbably, the Buckeye State native helped the expression "Dame Edna glasses" cross into the automotive lexicon. Yup. It's been a wild ride. Literally.
BMW design boss Chris Bangle is to leave the car industry, it was announced today. In a statement, BMW said Bangle was quitting 'to pursue his own design-related endeavors beyond the auto industry.'

Bangle, 52, was the architect of the often controversial flame surfacing look that transformed BMW design from the Russian doll mentality of the 1990s to the edgy – some would say radical and divisive – styling of today.

The cars Bangle spannered

The outgoing design chief has overseen the launch of the current 1-, 3-, 5- and 7-series saloons and hatchbacks, as well as the raft of niche models that have seen BMW's model range explode in recent years: the Z3, Z4, Z8, X3, X5, X6 and 6-series were all conceived on his watch.
Bangle grew up in Wausau, WI.

I give him a great deal of credit for dramatically changing what is often a very conservative business: car design.

Dan Neil has more.

Gavin Green has more.
Posted by James Zellmer at 8:18 PM

January 12, 2009

Failure: The Secret to Success

A useful video from Honda:

Posted by James Zellmer at 4:40 PM

November 23, 2008

Oregon Gears Up For Chinese Auto Imports

Bertel Schmitt:
Last week, Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski clinched a deal to bring Nissan’s pure-electric cars to his state. Then, he went on to Shenzen, China. “At BYD Auto Co., China’s fast-growing automotive star, a plug-in electric hybrid sedan is just weeks from meeting millions of Chinese consumers” writes the Oregonian. “The F3DM, which runs up to 80 miles on a single charge and packs a 7-gallon tank, will probably launch in the United States by 2010.” The Governor wants it to be built in Oregon. On Friday, he met with BYD President Wang Chuanfu. On a 10-day business trip through Asia, Kulongoski had laid out his vision to automakers in Japan and China: Electric charging stations every 60 miles along interstates. Tax incentives for Oregonians to buy electric cars. Tax bonuses for drivers to build car chargers in their garages. And, unspoken, but you can bet on it: generous incentives for those who bring their factories to Oregon. Then, Kulongoski has guanxi, connections, indispensable for a successful Chinese deal…
Posted by James Zellmer at 1:46 PM

November 9, 2008

EBay Cars under $10,000

Dan Neil:
Nissan’s announcement last week that it would offer a stripped-down version of its Versa model for under $10,000 -– a Sub-Versa, if you will -– occasioned a lot of media attention and interest, as if there was something to celebrate. To me it sounds like 1.6 liters of boredom, a mouthful of sand to thirsty car-buyers. Please. Ten grand? I can put you in automotive paradise for $10,000. Walk this way.

Go to www.motors.ebay.com and follow the link to “Cars & Trucks.” Don’t specify a make or model but simply order the 50,000 or so listings by price, and use the advanced search function to specify items with a “Buy It Now” price. What you’ll discover is an Elysian field of depreciation as the awesome rides of yesteryear -– in some cases cars that dominated automotive buff book covers just a couple of years ago –- are dispensed with for a fraction of their original sticker. With the recent spike in gas prices and the downturn in the economy, people are eating their cars -– “literally!” as Joe Biden would say.

Yes, these cars are a little older, but if you were to compare, wheel-to-wheel, the new Versa with, say, a 1991 BMW 850i –- a 12-cylinder supercoupe on 18-inch Hamann wheels and with only 47,120 miles on the clock –- well, your head would explode. The Bimmer has more technology in its ashtray.
Posted by James Zellmer at 10:21 PM

November 7, 2008


Johann Johannsson:
The album has a theme, although it's more loose and open to interpretation than on my last album, IBM 1401, a User's Manual.

One of the two main threads running through it is this idea of failed utopia, as represented by the "Fordlândia" title - the story of the rubber plantation Henry Ford established in the Amazon in the 1920’s, and his dreams of creating an idealized American town in the middle of the jungle complete with white picket fences, hamburgers and alcohol prohibition. The project – started because of the high price Ford had to pay for the rubber necessary for his cars’ tyres – failed, of course, as the indigenous workers soon rioted against the alien conditions. It reminded me of Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo, this doomed attempt at taming the heart of darkness. The remains of the town are still there today. The image of the Amazon forest slowly and surely reclaiming the ruins of Fordlândia is the one that gave spark to this album. For the structure and themes of the album I was influenced by the films of Alejandro Jodorowsky, Herzog and Kenneth Anger. I was interested in a kind of poetic juxtaposition and an alchemical fusion of themes and ideas, which I feel is similar to the way Anger uses montage as an alchemical technique - as a way of casting a spell. During the making of the album, I also had in mind the Andre Breton quote about convulsive beauty, which he saw in the image of "an abandoned locomotive overgrown by luxurious vegetation". There is a strong connection to the IBM 1401 album in terms of both thematic and musical ideas and I see the two albums as belonging to a series of works.
Fascinating and quite pleasant. Clusty Search: Fordlandia.
Posted by James Zellmer at 8:28 AM

The Manufacturing Spectrum: Ariens & BMW

Two interesting articles today reflect polar opposites in the manufacturing world, first up - Wisconsin's Ariens: Timothy Aeppel:
Daniel Ariens's biggest concern right now isn't the financial crisis. It's getting his hands on snowblower engines.

The chief executive of Ariens Co., a maker of mowers and snowblowers, got a curt email last month from the company that for decades supplied engines for his line of snow machines, telling him they're halting production in 60 days -- essentially cutting off motors at the peak of his season. A host of problems hobbled that supplier, including the loss of a huge customer and problems obtaining crucial parts, such as starters, from the engine maker's own supply base.

"I'm quite sure we have other suppliers that won't make it through this cycle," says the 50-year-old Mr. Ariens.

This highlights a grim reality now dawning across the U.S. economy. Deep problems existed long before the meltdown on Wall Street and won't be fixed by the government's injection of taxpayer money into the nation's banks. Even if the credit crunch eases, as now appears to be happening, companies such as Ariens are bracing for a painful recession and taking steps to survive it.

Car sales and industrial production have plunged, consumer confidence has wilted, and companies have accelerated layoffs. Manufacturing, particularly autos and machinery, is leading the way down. Exports can't be expected to cushion the impact because the slowdown is global.
Dan Neil channels Karl Marx & Leon Trotsky while tooling around in the latest BMW 750Li near Chemnitz:
My driving partner and I were in the vicinity of Chemnitz, a somewhat dire little city in the former East Germany known for its alcoholism and an enormous monument to Karl Marx. Naturally, we had to see it.

"Bitte, kennen Sie, wo ist der grossen Kopf vom Karl Marx?" we asked passersby.

The former East Germans, standing in chilly drizzle, were delighted to help the capitalist running dogs in their gigantic limousine, a 2009 BMW 750Li. They pointed us down one of the main streets -- Lumpenprolitariatstrasse, maybe? -- and there it was: A huge, glowering stone bust of the German political philosopher, about the size of a FEMA trailer. Now there, there's a redistributionist.
I have an Ariens snowblower.
Posted by James Zellmer at 8:25 AM

October 21, 2008

Classic Car & Campaign Poster

A Madison street scene: "Obamanos 2008" in a classic Mercedes 280SE.
Posted by James Zellmer at 4:12 PM

Buy a GM Car, Get GM Stock

Edward Niedermeyer:

With GM's resale values and stock price hovering at record lows, two Texas dealers have come up with one hell of a sales gimmick. Buy a GM vehicle at Frank Kent Motor Co. in Fort Worth, Texas by the end of the month and the owners will give you 50 shares in General Motors. The scheme is advertised as a celebration of GM's 100th anniversary, but when asked by Automotive News [sub], Frank Kent Motors owners admit that the promotion was actually inspired by the depths to which GM stock had sunk. And while "50 shares of General Motors" sounds better than "$327″ (based on GM's $6.54/share price at the time of writing), the dealers see the stock as (get this) a hedge against depreciation.

Posted by jez at 8:54 AM

August 28, 2008

Vintage, Classic Cadillac


Posted by jez at 10:45 AM

August 12, 2008

Classic Cadillac

Posted by jez at 9:20 PM

May 21, 2008

A Scooter Rant

Peter DeLorenzo:

But I reserve particular ire for the burgeoning scooter movement that’s being written about on an alarmingly frequent basis in the media with every new report of another record price for a barrel of oil. Now, don’t get me wrong, because I have nothing against scooters. I like them, as a matter of fact. They can be fun, efficient and even cool in the right circumstances. But presenting scooters as a viable transportation option for the masses in this country is flat-out irresponsible.

Let me backup here for a second and repeat that sentence: “...can be fun, efficient and even cool in the right circumstances.” Guess what, folks - riding your Vespa down Woodward Avenue, Michigan Avenue or Fifth Avenue does not constitute “the right circumstances.” Americans clearly watched too many Italian movies from the 60s and became enamored with the whole "sweater tied around the neck/sunglasses on top of your head/voluptuous girl hanging on the back of the scooter" thing, and this latest gas frenzy has started to warp their thinking, big time.

Posted by jez at 8:57 PM

February 1, 2008

Thinking of Summer: Aix-en-Provence

aixzmetro082007.jpgThoughts of summer as Winter continues in Madison. Note the fashionable sushi delivery vehicle, a Smart Car and the smartly dressed pedestrian. Summer in Provence. Much more on Aix-en-Provence here [map]

Posted by jez at 10:01 AM

January 21, 2008

Oil Demand, the Climate and the Energy Ladder

Jad Mouawad:

Energy demand is expected to grow in coming decades. Jeroen van der Veer, 60, Royal Dutch Shell’s chief executive, recently offered his views on the energy challenge facing the world and the challenge posed by global warming. He spoke of the need for governments to set limits on carbon emissions. He also lifted the veil on Shell’s latest long-term energy scenarios, titled Scramble and Blueprints, which he will make public next week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Following are excerpts from the interview:

Q. What are the main findings of Shell’s two scenarios?

A. Scramble is where key actors, like governments, make it their primary focus to do a good job for their own country. So they look after their self-interest and try to optimize within their own boundaries what they try to do. Blueprints is basically all the international initiatives, like Kyoto, like Bali, or like a future Copenhagen. They start very slowly but before not too long they become relatively successful. This is a model of international cooperation.

Posted by jez at 7:22 PM

January 16, 2008

The Dealer Made Me Do It

Steve Finlay:

First off, I’m not excusing auto dealers. Or lenders.

They have a moral and business responsibility to try to stop their customers from doing something stupid, such as buying a vehicle with a sticker price that will stick them with an oppressive debt.

But customers have responsibilities, too. It is their purchase, their money and their car payments. It is up to them, more than anyone else, to know their financial limitations and not cross them.

Yet, so many consumers today buy too much vehicle. Then, when the financial squeeze becomes eye-popping, they look for someone to blame. The dealership and lender make nice targets. Seldom do the debt-ridden blame themselves.

I pondered that while reading a Los Angeles Times article headlined, “New Cars That Are Fully Loaded – With Debt.”

The story tells how some Americans of average means roll over an existing loan on an expensive vehicle in order to get another expensive vehicle. They end up with two loans in one, when they couldn’t afford one.

From the LA Times article:
Americans haven't just been taking out risky mortgages for homes in the last few years; they've also been signing larger automobile loans for significantly longer terms than they used to.

As a result, people are slipping into a perpetual cycle of automobile debt that experts think could lead to a new credit crunch extending from dealerships to driveways and all the way to Wall Street.

Posted by James Zellmer at 9:44 AM

January 5, 2008

The $100M Giveaway

Ed Wallace:

Put down your highlighter and don’t bother checking your lottery tickets, because the State of Texas has announced a $100 million winner. Only it’s actually 30,000 drivers living in ozone goal non-attainment areas, and it will be doled out $3,000 at a time. And if you or your family are constrained by a certain income level, if you drive a vehicle 10 years old or older that’s been registered in the county for over a year and passed an emissions test up to 15 months ago, yet failed one recently, then the state is willing to pay you $3,000 to scrap your vehicle and get something newer. All in the name of clean air.

Considering that Texas is notoriously clutch-fisted with money for public projects, particularly when the bank account starts with $100 million, this is big news. Especially if your vehicle’s more than 10 years old and has extremely high mileage – or the kind that brings virtually nothing when you go to trade it in – this is a money-for-nothing proposition that can benefit you tremendously. So, before we go on with today’s column, check out the rules for this program at www.driveacleanmachine.com, and then call 1-800-898-9103 to apply for your voucher.

Posted by James Zellmer at 5:58 PM

December 10, 2007

Requiem for a Station Wagon

Andrew Dederer:

One of the rare examples of altruism in pistonheads concerns the (nearly extinct) American station wagon. They passionately defend the one automotive genre that the vast majority of American consumers wouldn’t be caught dead in (excepting a hearse). Why so much love for a car shape that’s been fading from the American scene for the best part of 25 years? The passion comes from recognition. The reality we’ll have to blame on Darwin and his stupid birds.

Wagons increase a car’s cargo space without altering the donor car’s fundament shape. They’re a bit heavier and generally a little shakier than their sedan sibling, but still offer car-like driving dynamics. This is important to enthusiasts, who value driving dynamics sur tout. Ironically, pistonheads hate compromises; generally speaking, they don’t buy wagons. But they recommend them to others– especially SUV owners– based on the combination of handling and hauling.

Posted by James Zellmer at 9:03 AM

November 7, 2007

Is It the New Automotive Century Yet?

Ed Wallace:

Finally, we are being treated to a good old-fashioned bare-knuckles fistfight. The biggest and most respected players in the automobile industry are trashing each other’s technological plans for future automobiles, while promoting their own concepts as the future of the industry. It’s an elevated debate, not a product-vs.-product dustup. What I found most fascinating about all of this was Carlos Ghosn’s position that, one day in the near future, only electric cars might be allowed in some of the most congested cities in the world. There’s little doubt in my mind that he’s probably right; he’s just looking at the European viewpoint on that issue, not necessarily the Japanese.

Posted by James Zellmer at 12:14 AM

November 5, 2007

Built Flint Tough


Much more on Flint, MI here.

Chevy Blazer.

Posted by James Zellmer at 8:13 PM

November 3, 2007

Smart ForTwo Review

Martin Schwoerer:

The Smart ForTwo isn't so much a small car as a short one. At just eight feet from stem to stern, it’s by far the shortest car on the market. What's the difference between small and short? A small car can stay low to the ground to achieve excellent handling and fuel economy. A short car only excels at one thing: unmetered parallel parking. The first-generation Smart proved the point. As reviewed on TTAC, it was a noisy, slow, poor-handling, stiff-legged, bouncy and crashy car with meh mileage. So, Daimler says it’s rectified the first-gen's faults. Is Version 2.0– headed stateside in 2008– ready for prime time?

The new ForTwo maintains its Tonka-toy proportions and look at me I’m wearing designer glasses (without a prescription) unconventionality. There’s now a painted parenthesis around the driver’s compartment: a clever if unsuccessful attempt to reassure drivers that Smart’s got their back (as there’s nothing much behind them). From certain angles, the slash-marked Four Two looks like a Pokemon with weird sideburns. Anyway, there’s no denying that observers (especially women) fight the urge to muss the ForTwo’s metaphorical hair and pinch its figurative cheeks.

Posted by James Zellmer at 4:30 PM

September 21, 2007

Top 10 Car Ads


It's a collection of some of the best, funniest and cheesiest UK car adverts out there. However, it is by no means a definitive list - and this is where you come in. We want to hear about your favourite and we'll update the list below accordingly.

Posted by James Zellmer at 4:48 PM

September 5, 2007

The Flop Heard Round the World

Peter Carlson:

Fifty years ago today, Don Mazzella skipped out of school to see the hot new car that everybody was talking about, the hot new car that almost nobody had actually seen.

Ford Motor Co. had proclaimed it "E-Day," and Mazzella and two buddies sneaked out of East Side High School in Newark, N.J., and hiked 13 blocks to Foley Ford so they could cast their gaze upon the much-ballyhooed new car that had been kept secret from the American public until its release that day.

It was called the Edsel.

"The line was around the block," recalls Mazzella, now 66 and an executive in a New Jersey consulting firm. "People were coming from all over to see this car. You couldn't see it from the street. The only way you could see it was to walk into the showroom and look behind a curtain."

Mazzella and his truant friends waited their turn, thrilled to be there. "Back then for teenagers, cars were the be-all and end-all," he explains. They'd read countless articles about the Edsel and seen countless ads that touted it as the car of the future. But they hadn't seen the car. Ford kept it secret, building excitement by coyly withholding it from sight, like a strip-tease dancer.

Posted by James Zellmer at 9:05 AM

July 6, 2007

Classic Mini

Amazingly small original Mini Cooper.

Posted by James Zellmer at 5:22 PM

July 5, 2007

Olds 98 Convertible

Classic barge: The Oldsmobile 98 Convertible.

Posted by James Zellmer at 8:20 AM

July 2, 2007

Classic Lime Green Corvette Drop Top

Posted by James Zellmer at 2:25 PM

June 8, 2007

Classic Volkswagen Transporter Pickup

Posted by James Zellmer at 4:58 PM

June 1, 2007

Milwaukee's Briggs & Stratton Once Had the Lead in Hybrids

Dan Carney:

We are all seeing our personal mobility threatened by rising petroleum prices and dwindling resources. The fundamental appeal of electric cars is that they allow us to use energy sources other than petroleum on the road."

A quote from a major auto maker rolling out a new hybrid concept at a recent auto show?


In November 1979, Briggs & Stratton Corp., the Wauwatosa, Wis.-based maker of lawnmower engines, rolled out its sleek, futuristic plug-in hybrid-electric concept car with the very same motivations and goals as today's car makers. On Earth Day the following spring, the manufacturer hauled it to Washington, D.C. and demonstrated the car running on domestically produced ethanol.

Like today's Toyota Prius, the B&S Hybrid sported hump-backed styling for minimal aerodynamic drag. The forward-looking design was penned by the agency of famed industrial designer Brooks Stevens, who is credited with sketching the Willys Jeepster, Harley-Davidson Hydra-Glide, Evinrude outboard boat motor and the Oscar Mayer Weinermobile.

Fascinating story.

Posted by James Zellmer at 9:23 AM

May 13, 2007

Recent Rental Cars: 2007 Mazda Miata

The rental car counter presented a simple choice for my "compact" reservation: Mazda Miata or Minivan. I put the top down and began my journey with an '07 Miata. Quick summary: better than I expected, particularly in the acceleration department, but..... uncertain handling at upper end highway speeds.

Decent seats, useful controls, easy to use convertible top and.... 27mpg after a mix of highway and suburban driving. Unfortunately, I've yet to see a rental car without an automatic transmission. A six speed manual Miata would have been much more interesting.

Much more on the Mazda Miata here.

Posted by James Zellmer at 11:05 AM

I-80: Inverse Traffic Therapy

I read with interest two recent posts regarding Madison's traffic congestion. I, too have a fleeting moment or two when I consider Madison's growing traffic congestion. It is difficult to use the words "Madison" together with "traffic congestion" after one has experienced the real, big city version. The photo above was taken recently while stuck in traffic on I-80. We're a long way from that. Regional growth certainly makes our transportation system a rather useful topic for discussion and action. My dream? TGV type train service connecting Chicago, Madison, Milwaukee and Minneapolis.

Posted by James Zellmer at 10:44 AM

April 26, 2007

Madison 2007

The scene: 6:00a.m., Dane County Regional Airport. Bleary eyed traveller is amazed that Madison now has a fashionable Range Rover SUV on display (floor advertising via Fields Auto) at the airport. We've crossed some sort of threshold, not sure what to call it.... It seems a long way from the Mayor's trolleys, however.
Posted by James Zellmer at 9:41 PM

April 18, 2007

Used Cars Rule

Steven Lang:
Every year over ten million vehicles pass through U.S. auto dealer auctions. This decades old free market has always been dependent on you, the consumer. Dealers will bid up those models that are popular with buyers, while those with a limited audience are stuck in what’s commonly called ‘wholesale heaven’. This is a place where thousands of unappreciated and unloved models go until the market dictates otherwise. Over the course of time, consumers dictates the winners… and the losers.

Over the last few years, The Big 2.5 have been downsizing their domestic production capacity to match falling demand, and compensate for their decision to wean themselves from low-profit fleet sales. Enormous assembly plants that once produced hundreds of thousands of new vehicles are now shuttered. The theory: as production sinks, new car prices will eventually hold firm and profits will follow. Unfortunately, the latest patchwork of new product has already come apart, and th
Posted by James Zellmer at 9:19 PM

February 18, 2007

From 0 to 60 to World Domination

Jon Gertner:
When he started, the Big Three completely controlled car sales in the United States. The only foreign company of any prominence was Volkswagen, and as Press recalled, Toyota’s modest sales were lumped with various tiny carmakers as “Other.” Still, soon after he arrived, Press realized he liked the company’s intimacy: he could meet face to face with top managers and exert some influence over marketing decisions. And he liked Toyota’s obsession with customer satisfaction. When he told me about his first trip to Japan, he seemed to be recounting a religious experience. “As a young person, you are searching for this level of comfort, you don’t know what it is, but you’re sort of uncomfortable,” he said. In Japan, as he put it, he found a home, a place where everything from the politeness of the people to the organization of the factories made sense. On that first trip, at a restaurant one evening, he tried a rich corn soup and asked the waitress for the recipe. She checked with the chef, who explained that there was no recipe; it had been handed down from his mother. The next morning, the waitress came to Press’s hotel room: she had found a cookbook with a recipe for the soup. Press, apparently, was still her customer. “That blew me away,” he said.

It can be simplistic, and often a distortion, to accept a corporate executive as the personification of a corporation, especially one as large and varied as Toyota. Yet Press serves as an apt representative, and not merely because his career arc mirrors the company’s ascendancy. Like Toyota, he expresses himself in private with modesty and care, yet in public his speeches are bold, declarative and effervescent. In his office, he has an informal, relaxed presence and exhibits just a hint of an avuncular stoop; yet he loves to race cars and sometimes swims 5,000 meters a day. Press also has a fluency in the company’s arcane systems and history. Toyota is as much a philosophy as a business, a patchwork of traditions, apothegms and precepts that don’t translate easily into the American vernacular. Some have proved incisive (“Build quality into processes”) and some opaque (“Open the window. It’s a big world out there!”). Toyota’s overarching principle, Press told me, is “to enrich society through the building of cars and trucks.” This phrase should be cause for skepticism, especially coming from a company so adept at marketing and public relations. I lost count of how many times Toyota executives, during the course of my reporting, repeated it and how often I had to keep from recoiling at its hollow peculiarity. And yet, the catch phrase — to enrich and serve society — was not intended, at least originally, to function as a P.R. motto. Historically the idea has meant offering car customers reliability and mobility while investing profits in new plants, technologies and employees. It has also captured an obsessive obligation to build better cars, which reflects the Toyota belief in kaizen, or continuous improvement. Finally, the phrase carries with it the responsibility to plan for the long term — financially, technically, imaginatively. “The company thinks in years and decades,” Michael Robinet, a vice president at CSM Worldwide, a consulting firm that focuses on the global auto industry, told me. “They don’t think in months or quarters.”
Fascinating and timely.
Posted by James Zellmer at 9:56 PM

February 12, 2007

Toyota Memogate?

Frank Williams:
These issues pale in comparison to one problem that could make or break Toyota’s North American operations: their relationship with their hourly workers. In a confidential memo that accidentally ended up in workers’ hands, Seiichi Sudo, president of Engineering and Manufacturing in North America, discussed the cost of American labor and the steps they need to take to control those costs.

The memo, which was inadvertently stored on a shared computer drive, states the US auto industry pays some of the highest manufacturing wages in the world. It compares American wages to those in France and Japan (50 percent higher) and Mexico (500 percent higher). They project their American labor costs will increase by $900m over the next four years.
Ed Wallace on the upcoming truck wars.
Posted by James Zellmer at 10:03 PM

February 1, 2007

Gasoline and the American People

Cambridge Energy Research Associates:
America's "love affair with the automobile" is being transformed -- but not broken up -- by forces that are redrawing the global gasoline and oil market, including higher gasoline prices, tightening environmental requirements, changing demographics, growing world oil demand and expanding fuel options, according to the new 2007 edition of Gasoline and the American People, by Cambridge Energy Research Associates (CERA).

Americans have been driving further -- 40% more than 25 years ago -- and using more gasoline in bigger, more powerful cars and other light duty vehicles. But higher gasoline prices have had a significant impact. The rate of growth in gasoline demand slowed sharply from its 1.6% per year pace (1990-2004) to 0.3% in 2005, and continued to grow slowly in 2006, at 1.0%. And for the first time in 25 years, motorists' average mileage went down. Overall, though, according to the CERA report, improved automotive efficiencies and one of the lowest fuel tax rates among Western countries have kept gasoline and oil's share of average U.S. household budgets at 3.8% in 2006, slightly above the 1960s' 3.4% to 3.6% level despite rising world oil prices.
Media coverage.

Ed Wallace has more.
Posted by James Zellmer at 11:12 AM

January 25, 2007

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Michelle Maynard speaks with new Ford CEO Alan Mulally. Interesting.
Posted by James Zellmer at 10:10 PM

January 7, 2007

Detroit Auto Show Coverage

There's no shortage of images, words and links regarding this weekend's Detroit Auto Show, with GM's Volt the most interesting announcement:
Posted by James Zellmer at 6:22 PM

December 14, 2006

Mobile Mansions Book

Douglas Kiester takes a fabulous look at Legacy RV's.
Posted by James Zellmer at 5:12 PM

November 28, 2006

Tesla Road Test

Dan Neil:
But I can tell you, even from my brief spin in this dog-eared prototype, the Tesla Roadster delivers on its promise, which might be summarized as "stupid fun for smart people." I think the Latin translation of same should appear on the company crest.

It takes a slight leg hoist and wriggle to get into the car and strap yourself into the thin carbon shell of a seat — a holdover from the Lotus Elise on which the car is based. The seat will change in the production car since its narrow width doesn't exactly accommodate "American butts," according Mike Harrigan, Tesla vice president of marketing.
Posted by James Zellmer at 10:29 PM

November 15, 2006

Honda's Fuel Cell Car

Matt Naumann:
This car ``is not just some far-out, pie-in-the-sky exercise in what may or may not come to fruition some day in the distant future,'' said John Mendel, Honda's senior vice president. ``This is a real car.'' Honda has said it will put a fuel-cell vehicle into limited production in 2008. Company insiders say it will closely resemble the FCX Concept. The company hasn't said how many will be made or how much it will cost to lease the car.
Posted by James Zellmer at 6:53 AM

October 8, 2006

Recent Rental Cars - Hot American Iron: Hertz Ford Mustang Shelby GT-H

Preparing for some travel recently, I recalled reading a snippet of information somewhere that Hertz was bringing back their famed Mustang Shelby GT-H (called the Mustang GT350H in the 1960's). Carrol Shelby's Shelby Automobiles modified 500 Ford Mustangs [Shelby GT-H] and shipped them off to Hertz where they can be rented through the end of the year.

Following are photos and notes from a recent rental:

The journey began at the Hertz rental center where a "manager" must review the car and complete an extensive checklist with the prospective renter. The vehicle check includes the engine seal, placed to make sure that there are no repeats of the 1960's practice of renting a GT350H and swapping engines (removing the powerful Shelby engine and replacing it with a lesser standard Ford motor). A nearby young father with babies in tow genuflected repeatedly as the manager checked over the 350 GT-H for me.

That the 'stang is shipped with no transmission options [a slushbox (5 speed automatic transmission) is standard] is perhaps one of it's only failures.

Checking out of my hotel one morning, I walked over to the GT-H and observed another person genuflecting. This time, the enthusiast was a man in his late 50's. Interestingly, this guy mentioned what great values the Shelby Mustangs are as he had just purchased a BMW Z4 M coupe - car that I'm sure is no slouch.

The GT-H attracted attention everywhere. Nancy wondered what was wrong with Ford that they could not capitalize on this type of devotion.

The attention was amplified when a red late model Mustang GT followed us around for a few miles. The driver caught up during a stop and asked to look over the Shelby. He had just purchased this late model red GT and wanted for a bit of engine action ("ear candy"?). After the Shelby sprung to life, he revved the GT's V8 and moved down the road.

Fellow drivers and walkers pointed at the GT-H frequently as we enjoyed the fall aspen foliage. These images provide a brief photo summary of our route:

Two Fords: the Shelby GT-H and a propane powered Ford Pickup.

God's glorious canvas provided a great backdrop for the journey.

Independence Pass

Hoosier Pass
The Hertz Shelby GT-H, a rather enjoyable break from the usual rental car. Hertz will apparently auction their fleet in early 2007 - though autoblog says that they will be sent to "select dealers" for sale (one was sold at auction during the 2006 EAA Airventure for $250K).

I was pleasantly surprised by the fuel efficiency - mid 20's. I have to agree with Nancy, who wonders what Ford is missing by not leveraging the popularity of these cars. The number of decelerating Porsche drivers, pausing to take a look (C2, C4 and Turbo) was certainly illuminating.

Bob Elton might provide a bit of information with respect to Ford's lack of Mustang brand identity leverage.

Posted by James Zellmer at 7:12 PM

September 6, 2006

On Ford

Ed Wallace:
"The production of the new Ford tractor would not involve stockholders, directors, absentee owners or parasites.” — Henry Ford, quoted by the Dearborn Independent, 1915
Posted by James Zellmer at 9:44 PM

August 30, 2006

Oil Prices this Fall

Ed Wallace:
“[R]umors inside the industry suggest that Iran is being forced to charter 20 huge oil tankers to hold 40 million barrels of its crude; apparently, Iran has run out of space to store all the oil it has pumped but not yet sold.”
Posted by James Zellmer at 7:50 PM

August 27, 2006

8 Cylinder Teenage Mating Dance

The Revenge of the F-150; Alex Williams:
Moments later, the sources of the screech — a couple of burly, whiskered country boys in their mid-20’s, one with a Confederate battle flag tattoo on his bulging bicep — had chugged off in the opposite direction down Patton Avenue in a mud-spattered white pickup. They were swallowed into a seemingly endless queue of gurgling Camaros, fume-spewing 70’s muscle cars and tidy Japanese econoboxes (some likely borrowed from mom), cruising along this wide suburban boulevard.

“Those are ‘high school hangouts,’ ” Will Thompson, 17, said dismissively about the older guys, as his own black Chevrolet pickup crept in the opposite direction. “They graduated from high school like five years ago,” explained Will, who wore a “Sanford and Son” T-shirt and a camouflage hunting cap. “It’s like, ‘You graduated, come on!’
Posted by James Zellmer at 7:10 PM

August 26, 2006

Woodward Dream Cruise VR Scenes

Mark Houston:
For the 12th year, the Woodward Dream Cruise rumbles and squeals its way up Woodward Ave.

Featuring thousands of classic cars and hot rods. The Dream Cruise is a auto enthusiast dream, and a celebration of Michigan's long and important automotive history.
More here.
Posted by James Zellmer at 3:42 PM

August 24, 2006

Electric Cars & Monterey

Martin Eberhard:
We were originally invited to participate in the McCall Motorsports Customer Appreciation Night at the Monterey Airport on Wednesday. But at the last minute a large Japanese luxury automaker, who happened to be a sponsor of the event, had a hissy fit about our being there. So we were disinvited. How can they be scared of little Tesla Motors? Oh well. We made the best of the day giving rides to press and prospective customers.
Posted by James Zellmer at 9:21 PM

August 20, 2006

The New Turbo, actually TURBO

Dan Neil takes spin a or three:
IT'S taken me this long to recognize what I love about a Porsche 911 Turbo. And no, it's not the internal-combustion volcanism — now up to 480 hp in the 2007 model — or the claws-in-the-carpet grip, the carbide-steel stiffness, the perfect steering or land-anchor ceramic brakes.

It's this: The 911 Turbo is the only ultra-performance sports car that's in good taste.
Posted by James Zellmer at 10:11 PM

August 9, 2006

"The Penalty of Leadership"

Peter DeLorenzo noted that Cadillac is resurrecting a classic ad campaign: "The Penalty of Leadership":
Speaking of Liz's Boyz, prominently displayed in their new "Life. Liberty. And the pursuit." ad campaign for Cadillac is the famous, "The Penalty of Leadership" ad written by Theodore MacManus, which was done for Cadillac back in 1915. Gee, we wonder where they got the idea to use that?
Posted by James Zellmer at 12:01 PM

August 8, 2006

Interesting Discussion of Traditional Magazine Advertising & Web Publications

Frank Williams:
Car and Driver, Road & Track, Automobile, Motor Trend and the rest of the magazines further down the car mag food chain are all supported by advertising. Unless a magazine is subsidized by a non-profit organization (e.g. Consumer Reports) or charges an exorbitant price per issue, it can’t survive without advertising. Few readers have problems with ads per se; they consider them literally wallpaper. But when the ads outweigh the content, questions begin to arise about who’s calling the editorial shots. Put a one or two-page ad for a new car in the middle of a glowing review of the same and those suspicions can easily turn to full-scale paranoia. Sneak in a multi-page "special advertising section" formatted to look and read like the rest of the magazine and credibility stretches to breaking point.
Posted by James Zellmer at 9:17 AM

August 3, 2006

The Herd Changes Course and Runs Away From SUV's

Robert Frank:
THE herd instinct is as powerful in humans as in other animal species.

Anyone who doubts it should rent “What Do You Say to a Naked Lady?”, the 1970 film by Allen Funt, the creator of “Candid Camera.” The money scene portrays a man responding to a help-wanted ad. He is directed to a waiting room occupied by men who appear to be other job seekers but are actually Mr. Funt’s confederates. At no apparent signal, these men stand and begin to disrobe. The hapless job seeker’s dismay is evident. Yet, after a few moments, he, too, stands and disrobes. At scene’s end, the men are standing naked, apparently waiting for whatever comes next.

Clearly, the herd instinct can lead us astray. For the most part, however, the impulse to emulate others serves us well. After all, without drawing on the wisdom and experience of others, it would be almost impossible to cope with the stream of complex decisions we confront.
Frank believes that the SUV craze started when Robert Altman's "The Player" was released in 1992 (Great Movie). "The film’s lead character, the studio executive Griffin Mill (played by Tim Robbins), could have bought any vehicle he pleased. His choice? A Range Rover with a fax machine in the dashboard."

Check out Tesla - an electric car startup.
Posted by James Zellmer at 3:30 PM

July 27, 2006

Kevin York's Motorsports Blog

New Madison resident Kevin York has a motorsports blog.
Posted by James Zellmer at 9:12 AM

July 15, 2006

Land Yachts: Classic 1970's Cadillac Eldorado Convertible

I walked past this classic, 1970's Eldorado on my way to the Farmer's Market this morning:

More on the Eldorado.
Posted by James Zellmer at 2:20 PM

July 10, 2006

Honda Plans Turbodiesel for US

Kathy Jackson:
John Watts, manager of Honda's U.S. product planning, said Honda plans to introduce a clean-burning, 2.2-liter turbodiesel in the United States within three years.

"That 2.2 could probably crank out about 200 horsepower and about 220 (pounds-feet of) torque at little rpm," he said at a press event here. "Vehicles like the Pilot (SUV) and Odyssey (minivan) are too big for a four-cylinder."
Posted by James Zellmer at 3:38 PM

July 5, 2006

DeLorenzo and Wallace on Nissan / Renault / GM

Peter DeLorenzo:
Make no mistake - this isn't about creating a new global automotive powerhouse well-equipped to do battle deep into this century, one that will keep Toyota from taking over the world. And this certainly isn't about doing what's best for General Motors and the people who have so much invested in the fortunes of the company. And this in no way, shape or form has anything to do with solidifying America's manufacturing base or shoring up the economy.

No, this is about flat-out greed, pure and simple.
Ed Wallace:
This possibility is not a case of what would be best for General Motors; it’s driven by egotism and greed. Setting the stage for it were the peculiarities of the financial markets; GM, the world’s largest car company, recently had a market capitalization barely above $10 billion, while its closest competitor’s market cap was $169 billion. Analysts now forecast that Toyota, the world’s second largest car company, should be worth $236 billion within the year, but faltering GM will be worth no more than $15 billion.

It is that situation that allowed a notorious corporate raider, Kirk Kerkorian, to buy 9.9% of GM’s outstanding shares for little or nothing. And with that purchase he gained the leverage to push his personal consultant — whose pay is based not on GM’s improved financial performance but on Kerkorian’s take from his investment in the motor company — onto GM’s board of directors.
Posted by James Zellmer at 8:57 AM

June 22, 2006

Buy American & Build in Mexico - Ford's Mark Fields

Frank Williams:
So a Mexican-built car is Ford’s hedge in the American market against Japanese-branded cars built on US soil. This is getting more and more confusing. But wait – there’s more.

Fields bragged that Ford’s new hybrids are “posting record sales of late” and their “innovations led to more than 130 patents,” with more pending. The Ford exec conveniently omitted the fact that Ford’s hybrid technology depends on technology licensed from Toyota. Nor did he mention the Japanese-made transaxles and battery packs and German-built regenerative braking systems which make Ford’s hybrids possible.
Posted by James Zellmer at 8:22 AM

June 13, 2006

The "Truth About J.D. Power's IQS"

Michael Karesh:
If you compare the rankings based on production quality alone, the brands’ relative positions change dramatically. BMW bounds 24 places to third; Buick jumps 14 to eighth; MINI ascends 13 to 16th; Mercedes-Benz climbs nine also to 16th; Subaru also gains nine to 19th. At the same time, Dodge drops eight to 27th; GMC plummets 13 rungs to 22nd; Nissan plunges ten, also to 22nd. Eight others change position by at least five slots. These include Chrysler, which shares many models with Dodge yet moves up five places, to fifth. Out of 37 brands, 16 rankings are heavily affected by the inclusion of design quality.
Posted by James Zellmer at 1:37 PM

June 12, 2006

UAW Chief Says Union Must Brace For Change as Big Three Struggle

The challenges we face aren't the kind that can be ridden out. They're structural challenges, and they require new and farsighted solutions," he said.

Among those challenges is that nonunion U.S.-based auto assembly plants made 1.1 million more vehicles in 2005 than they did in 2001, while production at unionized plants fell by 1.1 million, he said. Mr. Gettelfinger said U.S. labor laws heavily favor management and allow employers, such as Japanese auto makers that have opened plants in this country, to intimidate workers seeking to unionize.
Ron Gettelfinger's report is available here [25MB PDF]
Posted by James Zellmer at 12:40 PM

May 31, 2006

Best 2006 Car Deals

Dan Lienert:
Chop isn't the only one hacking prices down to size. Car buyers remember 2005 as a goldmine for car deals, because major American manufacturers, including General Motors (nyse: GM - news - people ) and Ford Motor (nyse: F - news - people ), made employee-pricing plans available to the public for a period of time. In comparison, 2006 has been something of a letdown so far, at least from the consumer standpoint. But the year is still young, discount deals are out there and the domestics might have these kinds of fire sales again.
Posted by James Zellmer at 7:46 AM

May 27, 2006

The First Action Hero

Bryan Myrkle:
I once read that a person with experience caring for horses knows more about what it meant to be a human in the last thousand years than anyone without. Similarly, anyone who’s driven a Model T knows more about what it felt like to be an American in the first half of the 20th Century than anyone who hasn’t. History records the Model T as a two-fold blessing: it created the American working class and it put them behind the wheel. Again, the map is not the territory. To fully appreciate the Model T’s impact on American psychology, you have to get behind the wheel.
Posted by James Zellmer at 8:27 AM

Least Fuel Efficient Luxury Cars - 2006

Dan Lienert:
From a million-dollar Bugatti to a tiny Mercedes roadster, the market's most wasteful high-end buys.
Posted by James Zellmer at 8:25 AM

May 19, 2006

Honda Civic GX: A Real, Available Car, Powered by Natural Gas

Speaking of Honda:
Recognized by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as the cleanest internal-combustion vehicle on Earth, the Civic GX is perfect for getting around town and running everyday errands. In fact, the California Air Resources Board gave the GX an AT-PZEV emissions rating, which means it's still the "Cleanest on Earth." And it's been completely redesigned for 2006 with a new modern, aerodynamic exterior, and ergonomic, supportive seats. The GX has everything you'd expect from a Civic, like a roomy cabin and proven performance. And because it uses compressed natural gas, the GX achieves remarkable fuel-cost savings, and helps decrease the world's dependence on oil. The Civic GX promises to lead the way to the advancement of fuel-cell vehicles, sooner than you might expect.
via autoextremist:The Civic GX, which is rated at an EPA estimated city/highway fuel economy of 28/39 miles per gasoline-gallon equivalent, is the only dedicated natural gas-powered passenger vehicle available to retail customers in the United States. 2006 Civic GX owners will be eligible for a Federal tax credit of $4,000 for the car and up to $1,000 for the purchase and installation of "Phill," the natural gas home refueling appliance from FuelMaker Corporation. More on Phill, via email:
The price of Phill is $3400 US plus shipping ($150) plus installation. An indoor installation will also need a mandatory external gas sensor for $120. A "typical" installation can range from $1000 to $1500. Your actual cost of Phill could be reduced depending on where you live, and what incentives are offered in your area. Please note that at the moment Phill is only available for purchase if you live in California, Arizona, Maryland, Washington D.C., New Jersey, Oklahoma, Nevada, parts of New York, and a select few other cities such as Salt Lake City (UT), Milwaukee (WI), Dallas (TX), Denver (CO), Chicago (IL), and Knoxville (TN). To continue with the purchase process we will need some basic information from you in order to put your name on the waiting list. If you are interested, please contact Phill Customer Service at 1-866-697-4455 (toll free), or let us know the best way to reach you.
Posted by James Zellmer at 6:24 AM

May 18, 2006

A Speedy Visit to the "Honda Powered" Indy 500

I recently had an opportunity to briefly visit the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (home of the Memorial Day weekend Indy 500 [satellite view]) while the teams were practicing. A surprisingly large crowd was on hand to watch the drivers, mechanics and managers test their vehicles, systems and methods. Many, but not all teams had quite a number of computer operators keeping an eye on all aspects of their cars.

There's not much of that at the Speedway, but when it does occur - only a split second - it is jarring.

Danica Patrick easily grabbed most of the crowd's attention. A group of fans and photographers never left her team's side. More photos here.

You did read that right. Honda powers all of the cars in this year's race. Evidently Honda has dominated recently and the teams coalesced on their engine this year.
Posted by James Zellmer at 10:21 PM

The Real Mini

There's no shortage of BMW Mini Coopers zooming around Madison Streets. There are, however, very few original Minis. I saw a gorgeous vintage Cooper this morning. A posterior view.
Posted by James Zellmer at 8:12 PM

May 11, 2006

On Flint

B. Myrkle discusses growing up in Flint and General Motors.
Posted by James Zellmer at 10:12 PM

April 28, 2006

Reckoning on the "Right"

Ed Wallace:
Worse, ethanol is not being sold to us because it will make America energy independent. It is being forced on the nation, even with all the problems that have already become apparent, because the party in power is locking in the lobbyist monies and farm state votes. And that’s not just my opinion; it’s also the opinion of David G. Victor, director of the Program on Energy and Sustainable Development at Stanford and an adjunct senior fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations, as published in the Houston Chronicle on April 15 of this year.

In fact, the corruption of our legislative body is so pervasive that, when Reuters Business discussed how we could immediately get more ethanol just by dropping the 54-cents-per-gallon import tax on Brazil’s ethanol, the person quoted as saying that “Congress has a backlog of important bills” and “won’t have time in this legislative year to deal with controversial legislation” (such as reducing tariffs on ethanol from Brazil), was nobody we elected. No, it was Jon Doggett, vice president of the National Corn Growers Association. Now tell me: Who is really calling the shots?
Posted by James Zellmer at 9:45 PM

April 24, 2006


Bob Gritzinger:
E85 is the designation for a fuel that combines 85 percent ethanol with 15 percent gasoline. E85-compatible—or flex-fuel—vehicles can run on E85 or regular unleaded gasoline. Because the alcohol in E85 can break down rubbers and plastics used in typical internal-combustion engine fuel systems, vehicles must be specially modified to allow its use. And to obtain maximum power from higher-octane E85, engines must be tuned to run on it, or be able to adjust timing and the air-to-fuel ratio when running on E85.

Supporters say the alternative fuel is environmentally friendly, reduces dependence on fossil fuels and imported oil, and takes advantage of America’s surplus of agricultural crops, like corn, that can be readily converted to ethanol for use in E85.

Critics note insufficient ethanol production facilities exist to significantly offset the nation’s appetite for fuel, that refineries aren’t adapted to producing E85, and that E85 is harder to transport because its corrosiveness means it cannot flow through existing gasoline pipelines. In addition, in most states E85 costs about the same as unleaded regular while costing the driver up to 15 percent in fuel-economy penalties because it does not pack the same explosive punch as gasoline.
Posted by James Zellmer at 8:31 AM

April 19, 2006

Corporate "Risk Taking" and the Ford Mustang

Bob Elton:
So what happened to Theodore? Promoted, given new projects, made a product spokesman like GM's Bob Lutz? Theodore was, as they say, “eased out." Making great cars, even making great cars that make money, are not qualifications for longevity in Ford's corporate community. Break the rules and you're out the door.
Posted by James Zellmer at 9:07 PM

April 6, 2006

Honda to Add Google Earth to Cars

Honda will soon add Google Earth to its ‘internavi Premium Club’ navigation service in Japan. The advanced navigation system was first launched in 2003, offering a wireless connection to the internet to download the latest traffic information to the built-in computer.
Posted by James Zellmer at 7:43 PM

March 30, 2006

Fill Your Tank With Vegetable Oil

Jim Washburn:
One day last year, my musician friend Jonathan drove up in a Mercedes. This was odd, since Jonathan is so resolutely counterculture that he once tried recording an album in the woods, without electricity.

His car's exhaust smelled faintly of french fries, and therein lay the explanation: The new Jonathan Richman tour vehicle -- an '84 300D Turbo -- was running on vegetable oil-derived biodiesel fuel as he and his drummer crisscrossed the nation in it, a deep fryer on wheels.

I was intrigued: Biodiesel comes from renewable resources. It's made from soybeans, corn or other oil crops, saving America's farmers. Or it comes from recycled kitchen grease, saving America's sewers. It pollutes remarkably less than petroleum fuel, and could potentially make the U.S. energy self-sufficient, freed from bargaining with dictators and terror-sponsor states.
Posted by James Zellmer at 11:43 AM

March 21, 2006

Ligeti and a Madison Speeding Ticket

Chan Stroman:
Flashing lights from an unmarked black sedan; sudden short blare of a siren out of nowhere. I pull over, but the police car doesn't move on. Those lights, for me? For me?

I'd been tooling along John Nolen Drive, lost in Ligeti's propulsive first Étude. Is that what it was about the throbbing blue Beetle, swimming along in a sea of cars going just as fast, that asked for special attention?
Posted by James Zellmer at 10:38 PM

February 28, 2006

Do Americans Support a Gas Tax?

Barry Ritholtz:
"A significant number would go along with an increase if it reduced global warming or made the United States less dependent on foreign oil, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll.

The nationwide telephone poll, conducted Wednesday through Sunday, suggested that a gasoline tax increase that brought measurable results would be acceptable to a majority of Americans.

Neither the Bush administration nor Democratic Party leaders make that distinction. Both are opposed to increasing the gasoline tax as a means of discouraging consumption, although President Bush, in recent speeches, has called for the development of alternative energy to reduce dependence on foreign oil."
Posted by James Zellmer at 7:04 AM

February 26, 2006

DSG: Death of the Stick Shift?

Robert Farago:
OK rivet counters: Audi didn’t invent the double clutch. Citroen offered something similar over 70 years ago, and Porsche’s formidable 962 racer also gave it a go. But Audi has just about perfected the DSG. (The only drawbacks are a certain sluggishness when gently tipping-in and a slight hesitation when paddling down more than one gear, as the DSG shuffles through the intervening ratios.) Even with its quirks, the DSG rules-- to the point where the clutch pedal and traditional manual gearbox is a mechanical redundancy, a dead device shifting. In fact, any car manufacturer who doesn’t have a DSG or something similar installed in their performance-oriented products will soon be at a tremendous disadvantage.
Posted by James Zellmer at 1:32 PM

February 25, 2006

The Birth of the Toyota Prius

Alex Taylor III:

New York (FORTUNE Magazine) � In late 1995, six months after Toyota decided to move forward with its revolutionary hybrid, the Prius, and two years before the car was supposed to go into production in Japan, the engineers working on the project had a problem. A big problem.

The first prototypes wouldn't start. "On the computer the hybrid power system worked very well," says Satoshi Ogiso, the team's chief power train engineer. "But simulation is different from seeing if the actual part can work." It took Ogiso and his team more than a month to fix the software and electrical problems that kept the Prius stationary. Then, when they finally got it started, the car motored only a few hundred yards down the test track before coming to a stop.

It's hard to imagine Toyota (Research), with its aura of invincibility, running into such trouble. But the story of how it brought the Prius to market -- a tale of technological potholes, impossible demands, and multiple miscalculations -- reveals how a great company can overcome huge obstacles to make the improbable seem inevitable. The gas-electric auto represents only a tiny fraction of the nine million cars and trucks the Japanese company will produce this year. But it is the first vehicle to provide a serious alternative to the internal combustion engine since the Stanley Steamer ran out of steam in 1924. It has become an automotive landmark: a car for the future, designed for a world of scarce oil and surplus greenhouse gases.

Posted by James Zellmer at 11:44 AM

February 23, 2006

More on General Motors

Robert Farago takes a look at GM's supplier situation in his latest "Deathwatch" editorial:
A couple of days ago, I was talking to an auto industry analyst about the world’s largest automaker. We were discussing the cracks in GM’s hull, trying to figure out which of The General's compartments were already breached, which are filling with water and which remain viable. A wistful tone in the analyst’s voice indicated head-shaking dismay. “I’m no longer hearing anything positive about GM,” he revealed. “The conversations range from how bad it is, to how bad it’s going to get.” I didn’t want to sound like a paranoid fantasist to a new source, so I tried not to out-pessimist the doomsayers. But it wasn’t easy.
GM operates a large SUV assembly plant in nearby Janesville, WI
Posted by James Zellmer at 10:10 PM

February 21, 2006

BMW's Turbo Steam Fuel Saving Concept

Deutsche Presse-Agentur:
MW engineers are working on a steam-powered auxiliary drive system that reduces fuel consumption by up to 15 per cent and boosts performance at the same time, the car maker said.

The 'Turbosteamer' concept applied to a 1.8 litre, four-cylinder petrol engine recycles the waste heat in the exhaust gases and cooling system.

In tests, the Turbosteamer produced 13 additional hp in performance with 80 per cent of the energy in the exhaust gases recycled, according to the manufacturer.
Posted by James Zellmer at 10:18 PM

February 18, 2006

BMW Audio Books

Put on your seatbelt and prepare for highs, lows and plenty of twists and turns. BMW, in conjunction with Random House, brings you BMW Audio Books, a unique series of specially-commissioned short stories showcasing the work of some of the finest contemporary writing talent. Each gripping tale is yours to download for free and a new book will be available to download every two weeks. Listen to them on your MP3 player, your laptop or ideally, in the car. So sit back, hit play and enjoy the ride.
Posted by James Zellmer at 4:02 PM

The Energy Outlook Changes

Ed Wallace:
Posted by James Zellmer at 3:28 PM

Thinking Different About the Car Sales Process

Robert Farago:
First, there were no cars. Why anyone selling an expensive product would want potential customers to contemplate a large number of them is beyond me; “pile ‘em high and sell ‘em cheap” is programmed into us on the genetic level. Second, Phaeton customers were isolated, indoctrinated and, most importantly of all, relaxed. The average car dealer’s showroom is more uncomfortably exposed than a public urinal and less relaxing than a dentist’s chair.
Posted by James Zellmer at 2:53 PM

February 16, 2006

GM Deathwatch: 07 Tahoe Sales

Robert Farago:
This is a tale of two Tahoes. The first is a wildly successful SUV that’s flying off the lots at full price: a Hail Mary pass that will put General Motors back in the end zone, saving them from the unthinkable humiliation of bankruptcy, with only moments to spare. The second is a gas-guzzling truck that’s being swept out to sea by the vast receding tide of SUV buyers: a four-wheeled indictment of GM's inability to build what America wants to drive at a price that makes the company enough money to stay in business. For the time being, which vehicle you see depends entirely on which one you want to see.
The Chevy Tahoe is built in Janesville.
Posted by James Zellmer at 9:02 PM

February 15, 2006

Ford Selling the Fusion via Mockumentary

Jean Halliday:
To promote its new Fusion sedan, Ford is airing a "mockumentary" online film series about a band of Norwegian performance artists who would give the Maytag repairman fits. The rock group Hurra Torpedo cranks out cacophonous tunes by smashing clothes dryers, kitchen ranges and what looks like an outboard motor.

By linking with the group, Ford hopes to attract consumers between the ages of 25 and 35 to the Fusion. Ford is sponsoring the three-man band's U.S. tour. The promotion includes an online sweepstakes that will give away the red Fusion SEL the band is driving on the road.
Posted by James Zellmer at 10:28 PM

February 5, 2006

The $33K 2007 Toyota Camry Hybrid

Dan Nell takes a drive in the new Toyota Camry Hybrid:
Like a Trojan horse, Camry sneaks gas-saving radicalism into a trusted American staple.

By certain lights, the 2007 Camry Hybrid is not particularly revolutionary. Here we have a nicely equipped, 3,637-pound, five-passenger sedan with 192 horsepower, costing about $30,000 (final pricing has yet to be confirmed). Styling reminds me of the old Merle Travis song: So round, so firm, so fully packed. The ride and handling are straight-up Pink Floyd: comfortably numb.
Posted by James Zellmer at 8:50 AM

January 30, 2006

Best and Worst Selling Cars By Company

The winners, the laggards, and the just-plain-so-expensive-that-almost-no-one-buys-them cars.
Posted by James Zellmer at 10:09 AM

January 23, 2006


Don Sherman:
The turbocharger recently turned 100 and the supercharger is even older. And despite their long histories, neither seems a clear winner.

Which is best suited to a vehicle depends on the intended use. With both alternatives at their disposal, engineers consider cost, driving characteristics and the space available under the hood to determine which system belongs where. Even on the same basic engine, the choice may change depending on the vehicle in which it will be used.
Posted by James Zellmer at 9:26 PM

January 21, 2006

General Motors Death Watch

Robert Farago:
It’s increasingly obvious that this necessary (not to say inevitable) “restructuring” will have to wait until GM goes under. The General’s generals made that clear when they reacted to Turnaround King Jerry York’s suggestion that GM should deep-six or sell their Saab and Hummer brands. GM execs dismissed the idea with the PR equivalent of a derisive snort. Marketing Maven Monster Mark LaNeve, a man whose comments about GM’s pricing strategy sound a lot like a snake-handler speaking in tongues, assured the press that “all GM’s brands will eventually be profitable.” Bet your bottom dollar? Done. GM has mortgaged its future on baseless brand optimism.
Harsh. We'll see how it plays out.
Posted by James Zellmer at 5:09 PM

January 20, 2006

The Making of the Logan: a $6,000 Car

Business Week:
Designer Kenneth Melville explains how just how tough it is to build a $6,000 car, including some swallowing of pride
Posted by James Zellmer at 9:58 PM

January 10, 2006

Fortune 500 Video Podcast - GM

Interesting look to the future - today: GM's video podcast of their Camaro concept car. Not sure about the car, but it's interesting that they are getting the word out using these tools.
Posted by James Zellmer at 1:31 PM

January 9, 2006

Detroit International Auto Show Coverage

There's an extraordinary amount of coverage online. I find the styling exercises interesting - sort of a look into the soul of these companies, or, at the very least their views on what the public wants:Joe White looks at the challenges facing Ford and GM. Interestingly, Ford is showing a very large truck concept, the Super Chief that can run on traditional gas, ethanol or hydrogen.
Posted by James Zellmer at 8:51 AM

January 3, 2006

Study Questions Safety of SUV's

Though the added weight of SUVs conferred some protection in non-rollover accidents, the vehicles were twice as likely as cars to roll over during a wreck, the report published in the journal Pediatrics said.
Posted by James Zellmer at 5:36 PM

January 2, 2006

The Road Ahead: Safer, Snazzier, Smarter Cars

Bill Vlasic:
The pace of change isn't limited to the vehicle itself, but also how it is designed, engineered, manufactured and sold.

With automakers fighting fiercely for new customers in the U.S. market, innovation can mean the difference between success and failure.

"The ability of the industry to create variety at a low cost is greater than it ever has been," said David Cole, director of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor. "The cost of risk is decreasing."
Posted by James Zellmer at 10:12 PM

December 24, 2005

Boomers Impact on Car Design

Chris Paukert:
But to the rapidly aging Baby Boomer population, a plunging windowline and promises of 120hp/liter aren’t what matters: strong door hinges and louder warning chimes are. So says Automotive Body Repair News (ABRN), which examines (and predicts) the effect of a growing senior populace on the face of car design. Advances in active and passive safety top the list of retiree-friendly developments, along with primary and secondary controls that are easier to operate for those with decreasing motor and visual skills. Among the ideas already gaining traction are:
Posted by James Zellmer at 2:22 PM

December 16, 2005

The Worst Cars - 2005

Dan Lienert:

Author J. Bryan III once wrote, "My Uncle Jonathan's first car, circa 1910, was an E.M.F. The initials represented the manufacturers, Everitt, Metzger and Flanders of Detroit. But a long series of breakdowns led to their being translated as 'Every Mechanical Fault'" (or "Every Morning Fixit," as Nick Georgano states in the 2000 edition of The Beaulieu Encyclopedia of the Automobile).

Fortunately, no car today could merit such nicknames, right? Wrong.

Posted by James Zellmer at 6:45 AM

December 15, 2005

Designing a $6000 Car

Patricia O'Connell:

Designer Kenneth Melville explains how just how tough it is to build a $6,000 car, including some swallowing of pride

Cars prices have accelerated steadily for the last decade, thanks to an increasing reliance on technology and ever-more luxurious interiors. Even a compact car can easily cost more than $20,000. Shifting into reverse, French auto maker Renault decided in 1998 to design a modern car with state-of-the-art safety features costing only 5,000 euros ($6,000). Renault's strategy was to create a car for people in emerging markets who have never owned an automobile -- some 80% of the world's population.

Posted by James Zellmer at 12:03 AM

December 12, 2005

Ford's Big New SUV

Just two months after it pulled the plug on the massive Ford Excursion, the Detroit News said the automaker is preparing to unveil a vehicle tentatively called the "Ford Everest."

"Excursion was just too much. It went overboard," Joe Langley, and analyst with CSM Worldwide, told the newspaper. "But there's still a market for a (jumbo) SUV."

The Excursion, launched in 2000, was quickly dubbed the Ford Valdez by critics; and Ford (down $0.02 to $8.16, Research) ended production earlier this year as gas prices topped $3 a gallon.
Posted by James Zellmer at 9:55 PM

December 5, 2005

GM's New Janesville Assembled SUV's

Thomas Content:
There's a lot riding on those SUVs, including the jobs of nearly 4,000 workers who assemble Suburbans, Tahoes and Yukons at General Motors' Janesville factory.

The plant was spared from GM's massive restructuring last month, when the company announced it would shutter five factories and scale back a host of others - moves designed to cut 30,000 manufacturing jobs.

The Janesville factory still faces a risk, particularly if oil and gasoline prices spike again, industry observers say.
Posted by James Zellmer at 8:18 AM

December 4, 2005

Automakers Lining Up for Aid

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum and Sholnn Freeman:

Troubled U.S. automakers and their allies on Capitol Hill are seeking billions of dollars in aid from the federal government ranging from health coverage for their workers to extra tax write-offs for themselves.

They're also asking for one rhetorical favor: Please don't call the requests a bailout.

I don't view it as a bailout," Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) said.

"We're not looking for a bailout," agreed William C. Ford Jr., chairman of Ford Motor Co.

Posted by James Zellmer at 1:52 PM

December 3, 2005

Run Your Car on Cow Fuel

Alister Doyle:
A C$14 million factory near Montreal started producing "biodiesel" fuel two weeks ago from the bones, innards and other parts of farm animals such as cattle, pigs or chickens that Canadians do not eat.

"We're using animal waste to reduce greenhouse gas emissions," said marketing director Ron Wardrop of Rothsay, which runs the plant.
Posted by James Zellmer at 12:24 PM

December 2, 2005

SUV Sales Down Sharply

Not a surprise... Sholnn Freeman on the sharp decline in SUV sales:

The sales spiral of the Ford Explorer demonstrates consumers' shifting tastes. It was once one of the nation's most popular vehicles, but Ford sold fewer than 12,000 last month, a 52 percent drop from November 2004.

At the height of the SUV boom in 2002, Ford routinely sold 25,000 to 40,000 Explorers a month.

Ford is looking to offset the weakness in trucks with more sales of passenger cars, including the Ford Fusion and Lincoln Zephyr.

Posted by James Zellmer at 12:01 AM

November 30, 2005

GM, Janesville and Where do We Go From here?

Tom Still offers commentary on why Janesville survived GM's recent cutbacks. Unfortunately, as he notes in closing, the auto industry will continue to shed jobs. Peter DeLorenzo summarizes Detroit's challenges here.
Posted by James Zellmer at 8:47 AM

November 27, 2005

Cheaper Veggie Diesel Process

Brian Handwerk:
Any vegetable oil can become fuel, but not until its fatty acids are converted to chemical compounds known as esters. Currently the acids used to convert the fatty acids are prohibitively expensive.

Michikazu Hara, of the Tokyo Institute of Technology in Yokohama, Japan, and his colleagues have used common, inexpensive sugars to form a recyclable solid acid that does the job on the cheap. Their research is reported in last week's issue of the journal Nature.

"We estimate the cost of the catalyst to be one-tenth to one-fiftieth that of conventional catalysts," Hara said.

The breakthrough could provide cost savings on a massive scale, he said, because the technique could fairly easily make the transition from the lab to the refinery—if interest warrants.
Slashdot discussion.
Posted by James Zellmer at 8:05 AM

November 3, 2005

Honda Accord Hybrid Review


In most respects then, the car is simply a better Accord.

Except for cost. At $3,290 more than a gasoline-only V6 Accord, it will take a very long time to recoup the hybrid’s price premium at the pump—and that’s not factoring in the cost of battery replacement—but owners insist it’s not always about the Benjamins.

“Yes, I paid a premium over a similar six-cylinder sedan,” one owner said. “But to my set of priorities, it is worth it to help promote something that simply makes sense.”

Posted by James Zellmer at 12:01 AM

October 19, 2005

Hybrid Car Design Battles

Norihiko Shirouzo & Jathon Sapsford:

A battle for power and influence is under way in the auto industry, as the basic technology under the hoods of mass-market cars goes up for grabs for the first time in nearly a century.

Amid soaring gasoline prices, car makers are rushing to use hybrid engines, which boost fuel efficiency by combining a traditional gasoline motor with an electric one. The result is a race among the world's automotive giants that -- like the VHS vs. Betamax brawl in the early days of videocassettes -- could redraw the industry's hierarchy and system of alliances for years to come.

Posted by James Zellmer at 10:04 AM

Auto Industry Marketing

This past summer's widescale auto discount, or "employee pricing" programs and car manufacturer's attempts to ween themselves from such initiatives are discussed over at Autoweek.

Posted by James Zellmer at 8:32 AM

September 29, 2005

Shopping for Auto Insurance

Ron Lieber:
Geico, however, lived up to its marketing. Its slick Web site was easy to use and returned a quote of $711.90 for six months. USAA, which covers only current and former members of the U.S. military and their families (that's us), came in at about $10 more when we called. But the rep noted USAA offers a $50 rebate to customers who buy child car seats. Plus, he told us, it pays an annual dividend averaging 7% to all policyholders depending on how the company performed that year. USAA also had a high J.D. Power ranking.
Posted by James Zellmer at 7:05 PM

September 21, 2005

Lutz on the Future of the Car

Bob Lutz on diesels, hybrids and fuel cells:

The addition of a second hybrid mode to the drive system improves efficiency, and reduces the need for large electric motors found in typical single-mode systems available today. And we’re putting it on our largest vehicles first, where it will have the greatest effect on fuel consumption.

However, the two-mode system will be scalable, meaning it’s suitable for use in a variety of front-drive, rear-drive and all-wheel-drive vehicles.

In the long-term, GM sees the hydrogen fuel cell as an opportunity to transform our entire industry. Our progress in fuel cell research has been seen before, especially in our show cars the GM AUTOnomy, Hy-wire and Sequel. These vehicles clearly demonstrated that fuel-cell-powered cars can become a reality.

Posted by James Zellmer at 12:01 AM

September 7, 2005

Requiem for the SUV?

Peter DeLorenzo on the state of the SUV, long a profit engine for many auto makers, including Toyota and Nissan, who both have large volume truck businesses. GM Janesville, will, I hope continue in the face of these changes.

Posted by James Zellmer at 12:02 AM

August 30, 2005

Interesting Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation Fund Raiser

9 Million Miles for the Ultimate Drive, an interesting annual BMW test drive promotion that supports the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. This initiative, which raises at least $1M annually, passed through Madison today.
Posted by James Zellmer at 8:00 PM

Memories: 1967 Ford Country Squire

Patrick Paternie on US culture and station wagons:

The term station wagon has evolved from a G-rated to an X-rated word and back again among U.S. automotive marketers. But love it or call it a five-door sedan, the station wagon is the iconic American automobile.

Station wagons flourished along with the growth of two other definitive aspects of the modern American lifestyle, the suburbs and the interstate. The epitome of nuclear family-era transportation, a roomy, luxurious station wagon and a AAA TripTik was a recipe for family bonding and adventure before National Lampoon’s Vacation and the Griswolds turned it into a rolling-disaster movie script.

By the end of the 1950s station wagons accounted for nearly one of five new car sales. It was the aspirational vehicle of the period, as evidenced by the Country Squire’s status at the top of Ford’s lineup.

Posted by James Zellmer at 12:01 AM

August 9, 2005

Thinking Different: GM $5,000 Chinese Minivan

Keith Bradsher, former NY Times Detroit bureau chief and author of the SUV craze critique: High and Mighty writes about the maverick executive behind GM's successful $5,000 Chinese minivan. The executive, Philip F. Murtaugh, is of course, no longer with GM.
Their development was led by an American, Philip F. Murtaugh, a native of Ohio and a maverick executive who was willing to zig while the rest of G.M. was zagging. Mr. Murtaugh was able to create in China the kind of innovative environment that G.M. has struggled for decades to achieve in its American operations. But whether G.M. can duplicate elsewhere its achievements in China or even keep its pace here is unclear.

In what may be a telling sign of the corporate culture at G.M., Mr. Murtaugh's success in China led not to promotion but to his departure from the company. G.M. declined to discuss personnel matters, but both it and Mr. Murtaugh said he resigned and was not dismissed.

A soft-spoken man in a company known for autocratic leaders, Mr. Murtaugh ran the China operations for more than nine years from his base in Shanghai, repeatedly making some of the best calls in the industry. Now he finds himself unemployed and living in a small community in rural Kentucky.
Bradsher's tenure covering the auto industry was rather controversial. More on Bradsher.
Posted by James Zellmer at 7:45 AM

August 8, 2005

Ten Predictions About Cars for 2025

Tyler Cowen posts the list.
Posted by James Zellmer at 8:45 AM

August 1, 2005

Toyota's Hybrid Hype

Jeff Sabatini (finally) takes a look at the real mileage performance of Toyota's latest hybrid: The $50K RX400h:

Certainly, it is the Prius's above-average fuel economy that Toyota has to thank for its image as a green car company. Environmental advocates do not proclaim the righteousness of all things Toyota based on the 958,888 light trucks and S.U.V.'s that it sold in the United States last year, fully 47 percent of its total sales. By comparison, only 53,991 Priuses were sold in 2004, though the company has stated that it plans to double that number this year.

It is understandable that Toyota would like to transfer the Prius's hybrid chic and green patina to other products. To this end, a hybrid version of the Toyota Highlander S.U.V. was also introduced this year, and the automaker has announced plans to add both a hybrid version of its Camry, the nation's best-selling sedan, and a hybrid Lexus GS sport sedan next year. Whether these vehicles will be gas misers like the Prius or thirstier performance-oriented hybrids like the RX 400h remains to be seen.

My first seat time in the Lexus hybrid came over a weekend in which I drove the 200 miles from Chicago to Grand Rapids, Mich. I spent a lot of time on the freeway, but I also traveled some back roads and slogged through a couple of stop-and-go city stints. By the time I returned to Chicago, I had put 531 miles on the odometer and calculated my fuel economy at 20.9 m.p.g.

Posted by James Zellmer at 12:01 AM

July 16, 2005

Return of the Affordable Car?

The Renault Logan was designed to sell for 5,000 euros ($6K) in emerging markets like Poland. The car has found a number of buyers in Western Europe who seek a no frills, reliable car. Check it out. Gail Edmondson and Constance Faivre d'Arcier have more.

Posted by James Zellmer at 12:00 AM

June 28, 2005

Tax Deductions for Hybrid car/SUV purchases

Paul Caron has the list. Note that 1 out of 7 vehicles is a domestic (the Ford Escape Hybrid - which uses Toyota hybrid components). The deduction is $2000 in 2005 and $500 in 2006 (not a whole lot for vehicles that can cost north of $40K in some cases).
Posted by James Zellmer at 7:46 AM

June 22, 2005


Retired Cop "Radar" Roy Reyer runs a site that reviews radar detectors and jammers.

Posted by James Zellmer at 12:01 AM

June 6, 2005

The Car Quality Gap?

Weekend Edition:

One debate that never dies is who makes the best cars: the United States, Japan or Germany? U.S. automakers may be closing a perceived quality gap.

Posted by James Zellmer at 12:01 AM

May 22, 2005

Greenspun on Minivans

Dave bought a new Toyota Sienna minivan and references Philip Greenspun's wonderful long term article on the minivan culture. Greenspun also correctly points out the terrible economics awaiting minivan buyers.
Posted by James Zellmer at 9:44 AM

May 18, 2005

Auto Industry Leadership Index

Peter DeLorenzo's AutoExtremist published an interesting auto industry leadership study. Take a look. DeLorenzo examines brand perceptions from a consumer, industry insider and enthusiast perspective.

Posted by James Zellmer at 12:00 AM

May 9, 2005

GM Gives it up - Discusses Hybrid License with Toyota

Toyota continues to build volume for it's supplier network by discussing a deal for hybrid auto technology with GM. Ford did the same with it's Escape small SUV Hybrid. Generally bad news for domestic parts suppliers.

This looks interesting: Product Development for the Lean Enterprise: Why Toyota's System Is Four Times More Productive and How You Can Implement It by Michael N. Kennedy

Posted by James Zellmer at 12:01 AM

May 8, 2005

SUV Slowdown

Michael Taylor:
Salvador Sotello, for example, recently paid F.H. Dailey Chevrolet in San Leandro $41,000 for a new Chevy Tahoe LT (yes, with leather) SUV that had a sticker price of $58,000. The sale was an anomaly in what is otherwise a pretty dismal selling season. "It's been pretty quiet," saleswoman Crystal Gonzalez said the other day. "Been pretty slow."
Posted by James Zellmer at 8:10 AM

April 18, 2005

Nice move, GM - audio in on new 2006 cars

This benefit - the ability to plug your iPod or other portable audio device, into a car stereo seems trivial. Unfortunately, it's a rarity. GM deserves credit for opening up - that is, allowing any audio device to plug into their car systems.....

Posted by James Zellmer at 12:01 AM

April 3, 2005

Hybrid Cars: Plug Them in Overnight?

Danny Hakim

Ron Gremban and Felix Kramer have modified a Toyota Prius so it can be plugged into a wall outlet.

This does not make Toyota happy. The company has spent millions of dollars persuading people that hybrid electric cars like the Prius never need to be plugged in and work just like normal cars. So has Honda, which even ran a commercial that showed a guy wandering around his Civic hybrid fruitlessly searching for a plug.

But the idea of making hybrid cars that have the option of being plugged in is supported by a diverse group of interests, from neoconservatives who support greater fuel efficiency to utilities salivating at the chance to supplant oil with electricity. If you were able to plug a hybrid in overnight, you could potentially use a lot less gas by cruising for long stretches on battery power only. But unlike purely electric cars, which take hours to charge and need frequent recharging, you would not have to plug in if you did not want to.

Posted by James Zellmer at 12:01 AM

April 2, 2005

Politics on Wheels

John Tieney:

By analyzing new-car sales, surveying car owners and keeping count of political bumper stickers, they are identifying the differences between Democratic cars and Republican ones.

Among their findings: buyers of American cars tend to be Republican - except, for some reason, those who buy Pontiacs, who tend to be Democrats. Foreign-brand compact cars are usually bought by Democrats - but not Mini Coopers, which are bought by almost equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans. And Volvos may not actually represent quite what you think.

Posted by James Zellmer at 12:01 AM

March 22, 2005

Diesel Hybrids on the way

John Gartner:

Vehicles with diesel engines typically get 25 to 30 percent more miles to the gallon than their gasoline counterparts, according to Charlie Freese, executive engineering director at GM Powertrain. Freese said the many factors that make diesel engines more efficient include operating unthrottled and more efficient oxidizing of fuel. Diesel engines also have a higher compression ratio, and the heavier diesel fuel has a higher energy density, according to Freese

Posted by James Zellmer at 12:01 AM

March 20, 2005

GM Adds Line-in Jack to their Auto Music Systems

Wisely, GM has decided to support audio line-ins from any portable music device, starting this fall in a handfull of models.

Posted by James Zellmer at 6:42 AM

February 22, 2005

Detroit Auto Show VR Scenes

Mark Houston has posted some very, very nice Quicktime VR scenes from the North American International Auto Show. If you like cars, you'll like these scenes.
Posted by James Zellmer at 2:30 PM

February 6, 2005

GM Auto Marketing: Find Your Style (Wife, Girlfriend, Mistress)

Driving back to SFO recently, I noticed this GM (General Motors) billboard. In essence, the message to Northern California drivers bound either for SFO or their jobs on the Peninsula or in Silicon Valley was: Advertising is often a useful way to peer into the soul of a company, or in other words, think about their dna and how the firm views its interaction with the outside world.

This campaign smells desperate to me. I'm reminded of Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy's spot on statement regarding software: "The quality of a company's software has an inverse relationship to the amount spent on marketing."

I must admit that this ad campaign doesn't click at all for me, from any angle. The whole pitch, including the website, seems like a lot of fluff. I visited the site and it promptly crashed my computer (PC, in this case). I tried again and it worked, although it later crashed just my browser.

Perhaps this all makes sense for some car buyers.....

I think GM would be much better off seeding cars to bloggers and schools for long term reviews (with the agreement that they write about their year or two with a sedan, minivan, SUV or sports car). This will take some doing, but I think it would be money well spent. Essentially, they need to route around the legacy media (see Bob Lutz's notes on this).
Posted by James Zellmer at 1:45 PM

February 5, 2005

Recent Rental Cars: Kia Amanti & Toyota Solara Cabrio

First up, the Kia Amanti. Think of this car as Kia's version of a Toyota Avalon or a Buick LeSabre. My points:
  • Styling: Not for me.
  • Interior: Not bad. My black rental had a grey leather and (fake?) wood accents. The controls were reasonable except the odd radio. Kia has adopted a display screen which monitors time, temperature and "enteertainment" options. I found it rather difficult to use. Time might solve this problem. The stereo's sound system was reasonably good (Why don't they add an audio in jack? iPod users would be much happier).
  • Handling: I cannot make one positive comment on the Amanti's handling. In a word - terrible. Far too soft for my tastes.
  • Fuel Economy: I drove 76 miles, 2/3 of which were highway miles. I filled the tank prior to returning the car with over 4 gallons!
  • Quality: The car felt reasonably well made, but, the very sloppy handling left an overall bad impression, along with the poor fuel efficiency.
The bottom line: would I purchase this car? No.

Next, the Toyota Solara Cabrio. The Solara is a two dour coupe based on the best selling Camry sedan. The Cabrio is simply a convertible version of the Coupe. I'm sure Toyota's sterling quality reputation will sell many of these. My points:
  • Styling: Not for me.
  • Interior: Straightforward, easy to use. (Disdclaimer, I've driven Toyota's for years, so the controls are quite familiar). The interior looked like the plastic it was. Functional but not all that aesthetically interesting. I thought the automatic transmission's stick shift Mercedes-like pattern was silly. Stereo sound was not bad - again no sound input jack.
  • Handling: Reasonable, but not great - a bit soft on the corners. I did have one major dislike - the cabrio has a rather large blindspot. Perhaps this is the nature of convertibles, but it's a safety issue.
  • Fuel Economy: I did not keep track of my miles.
  • Quality: The car felt and operated like a Toyota, which is generally good. However, dropping up to $30K on a Toyota leads on to expect more. I think the Germans still have them on the fun to drive question (and styling).
Bottom line, would I purchase this car? No.
Posted by James Zellmer at 10:04 AM

January 29, 2005

Toyota: The Car Company in Front

The Economist on Toyota's automotive juggernaut:
THERE is the world car industry, and then there is Toyota. Since 2000 the output of the global industry has risen by about 3m vehicles to some 60m: of that increase, half came from Toyota alone. While most attention over the past four years has focused on a spectacular turnaround at Nissan, Toyota has undergone a dramatic growth spurt all round the world. Japan's industry leader will soon be making more cars abroad than at home. It has overtaken Ford in global production terms and is set to pass Chrysler in sales to become one of America's Big Three. In an industry strewn with basket cases, where hardly any volume producer makes a real return on its capital, Toyota is exceptional in that it consistently makes good returns (see chart 1).
Posted by James Zellmer at 12:00 AM

January 15, 2005

Biodiesel & Willie Nelson

Wired News:
"There is really no need going around starting wars over oil. We have it here at home. We have the necessary product, the farmers can grow it," said Nelson, who organized Farm Aid two decades ago to draw attention to the plight of American agriculture. Nelson told The Associated Press in an interview last week that he began learning about the product a few years ago after his wife purchased a biodiesel-burning car in Hawaii, where the star has a home. "I got on the computer and punched in biodiesel and found out this could be the future," said Nelson, who now uses the fuel for his cars and tour buses. Peter Bell, a Texas biodiesel supplier, struck up a friendship with Nelson after filling up one of the tour buses, and the business partnership came together just before Christmas.
Fat links: alltheweb Clusty | Google | MSN | Teoma | Yahoo
Posted by James Zellmer at 10:28 AM

January 8, 2005

Creating and Managing Change - The Car Business

Queuing up at the local car wash recently, I was behind a guy in his 60's who had a nearly new Cadillac CTS. While waiting for our cars to make the short wash trip, I asked him how he liked the car (the CTS has received many favorable reviews, as has the new STS - including the STS-V).

He has owned Cadillacs for 25 years and this one (CTS) does not ride nearly as well as his previous cars (big sigh). The older Cadillacs were known for essentially riding like a sofa. Personally, I like the direction they've gone with Cadillac (performance, efficiency, improved handling and interesting transmissions), though I'm not a big fan of the designs.

Cadillac is attempting to resurrect its product line and change the public perception (see their Led Zeppelin advertisements), something that is very difficult in any business, particularily with strong competitors such as Acura, Audi, BMW, Lexus, Mercedes and Volvo, among others.

In a related note, famed car guy Bob Lutz, #2 at GM and a former exec with BMW, Ford and Chrysler is now evidently blogging here [RSS Feed]. Interesting reading, particularily the opportunity he now has to interact with buyers, sellers and everyone in the GM supply chain. I applaud the effort and hope the result is better, more attractive and economical cars from the firm that used to have 50% of the US market.

Background Fat Link: Bob Lutz

Posted by James Zellmer at 12:05 AM

January 6, 2005

Safer Car: Chevy Trailblazer SUV or Porsche Boxster

Malcom Gladwell wrote this useful article on SUV's early in 2004. He asks and explores an interesting question about the perceived safety advantages of SUV's:

I found that I was wrestling with the car. The protests of the tires were jarring. I stopped, shaken. "It wasn't going where you wanted it to go, was it?" Champion said. "Did you feel the weight pulling you sideways? That's what the extra weight that S.U.V.s have tends to do. It pulls you in the wrong direction." Behind us was a string of toppled cones. Getting the TrailBlazer to travel in a straight line, after that sudden diversion, hadn't been easy. "I think you took out a few pedestrians," Champion said with a faint smile.

Next up was the Boxster. The top was down. The sun was warm on my forehead. The car was low to the ground; I had the sense that if I dangled my arm out the window my knuckles would scrape on the tarmac. Standing still, the Boxster didn't feel safe: I could have been sitting in a go-cart. But when I ran it through the handling course I felt that I was in perfect control. On the straightaway, I steadied the Boxster at forty-five m.p.h., and ran it through the obstacle course. I could have balanced a teacup on my knee.

Posted by James Zellmer at 12:00 AM

December 28, 2004

SUV's and Teens: A lethal combination

Keith Bradsher's High and Mighty discusses the dangerous rise of the SUV. One of the issues Bradsher illuminated was the safety risk of young drivers & late model SUV's. Elizabeth Williamson tells the story of a 16 year old girl who died when she lost control of her 1999 Ford Explorer. Background links: alltheweb | Clusty | Google | Teoma | Yahoo Search |

Posted by James Zellmer at 12:00 AM

December 22, 2004

Honda Accord V-6 Hybrid Drive

Patrick Sauer summarizes his drive of a new Honda Accord V-6 Hybrid:

The new Accord V-6 Hybrid--that's right, V-6 Hybrid--cruises out this winter and with it, a whole new way of looking at cars will follow in its wake. It used to be one or the other, V-6 power or four-banger mileage. But the super-geniuses at Honda have corralled an additional 15 horses under this Accord Hybrid's hood (up to 255 hp) for those who like having their six cylinders but are feeling the pain at the pumps -- by the way, this car will never, ever need to be plugged in. And here's the best part, with that main course of horsepower comes a free side of better mileage--up from 24 city and 34 highway in the standard V-6 to 30 and 37 in the Hybrid. That means 633 miles per tank, in the fast lane--talk about wallet weight gain, ka ching.

Posted by James Zellmer at 12:02 AM

December 21, 2004

2005 Hot Cars - Autoweek

J.P. Vettraino summarizes his picks for 2005's hottest cars. His interesting picks include cars that many of us might consider, such as the Accord Hybrid and the MazdaSpeed 6 (I'm more of a used car fan for many reasons, mainly cost).

Posted by James Zellmer at 8:01 AM

December 15, 2004

2005 Mercury Montego Review

Dan Neil pens one of the more brutal car reviews I've seen: The 2005 Mercury Montego: "Mercury's throwback makes everything new feel old again".

Posted by James Zellmer at 12:51 PM

December 14, 2004

Car Review: Chrysler Town & Country Minivan

I recently drove a couple of versions of the latest Chrysler Minivans: a basic short body length car and a longer Town & Country version (rentals). My quick thoughts:

  • They work, and includes some very useful design items. The dashboard controls are easy to use (with the exception of the strange shifter) and the radio is not bad.
  • Air circulation on the short version is not great (for the people in the last row), while the longer version has adjustable air ducts throughout the mini-van.
  • Reasonable power, though they really should have a 5 speed automatic like the 2005 Honda Odyssey.
  • Handling: Low marks as the ride is rather soft, especially when the minivan has 6 passengers. The 2005 Honda Odyssey feels more sure footed.

Posted by James Zellmer at 5:15 PM

December 10, 2004

Hybrid Cars; "Bait and Switch"?

Allen Bukoff on the great hype behind hybrid cars. Hybrids have a great reputation now, but Bukoff says that the piper will be paid when the batteries must be replaced when the cars are out of warranty (and their used car value will plunge).

Posted by James Zellmer at 10:21 AM

November 24, 2004

2004 Honda Civic DX Sedan: $11,800 all in

One of my coworkers shopped hard and purchased a new 2004 Civic DX Sedan for $11,800, including tax & title. I had no idea one could still purchase a car like this:

  • 5 Speed
  • No Air Conditioning
  • Manual Windows
  • No Power Locks
He bought the car from Wilde Honda.

A car like this is a smart buy as it gets great mileage and has few things to break. Most manufacturers are loading cars with software and electronics that will be rather expensive to fix....

Posted by James Zellmer at 12:02 AM

November 20, 2004

Snow Tire FAQ

Rather useful snow tire information site.

Posted by James Zellmer at 3:51 PM

November 14, 2004

Road America at 50

Wisconsin's excellent Road America turns 50 in 2005. Tom Schultz has written a limited edition book.

Posted by James Zellmer at 12:01 AM

Carroll Shelby @ 81

Terry Box on the legendary muscle car builder Carroll Shelby:

Sometimes late at night, 81-year-old Carroll Shelby lies awake, thinking about all the cars he still wants to build.

"I've got 10 different cars in my head," said Shelby, the lanky, legendary Texan who created the fierce Shelby Cobras and Mustangs of the 1960s and was a renowned racer in the 1950s.

At a time when most men his age are settling in for the final chapter of their lives, Shelby is on the move again.

Earlier this year, he and his wife, Cleo, bought a 4,600-acre ranch outside tiny Annona in east Texas. After years of living mostly in Los Angeles, he said he expects the new ranch to become his primary home -- a symbolic return of sorts to east Texas, where he was born.

He has a website, of course.

Posted by James Zellmer at 12:00 AM

November 12, 2004

GM, Ford SUV Stability Enhancements

Greg Schneider:

General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co. said yesterday that they are rushing to adopt a new safety technology called electronic stability control, and together they will make such systems standard on most of their large and mid-size sport-utility vehicles by the end of next year.

The nation's two biggest automakers were quick to offer the new technology on 1.8 million vehicles after preliminary testing by the government and the insurance industry showed enormous safety benefits, especially for popular SUVs that ride high and are more likely to roll over during a crash.

Posted by James Zellmer at 6:12 PM

October 26, 2004

Japanese/American Hybrid Cars

Robert Collier continues his three part series, Energy and America's Future; with an article on hybrid cars. He also discusses Detroit's lagging position in this market (with implications for its manufacturing base).

Posted by James Zellmer at 7:18 AM

October 20, 2004

More Code in Your Car

Robert McMillan:

More than one-third of the cost of GM's automobiles now involves software and electronic components, and the amount of software loaded into a typical automobile is skyrocketing, Scott said. Cars had approximately 1 million lines of software code in 1990, but this number will jump to 100 million by 2010, he predicted.

The emergence of the automobile as a platform for software developers will mean that a much broader range of software will be used in tomorrow's cars. Remote diagnostics software, media players, even database software all will run on automobiles at some point, he said. "I can't think of software that isn't going to run on the vehicle."

I think we're already north of 100 million lines of code. BMW and others have baked Windows CE into their cars. This ill advised move has introduced a legion of bugs and challenges to our once reliable cars. I believe the automakers are better off creating very simple, purpose built software, rather than extending Windows....

Posted by James Zellmer at 12:04 AM

September 15, 2004

The SUV; take to it's "logical" extreme


When is too much, just plain too much? When International, a maker of heavy-duty trucks, decides that what the world needs right now more than anything is a monster SUV that weighs 7 tons, twice as much as a Hummer H2. The new CXT (for Commercial Extreme Truck) stands 9 feet tall and is more than 21 feet long - more than 4 feet longer than the Hummer H2 pickup. The CXT is a development off of the heavy-duty platform that International uses for its rugged-use trucks designed for road work and snow plowing, etc., and gets between six and 10 miles per gallon (we'd venture closer to six) from its commercial truck diesel engine.

Posted by James Zellmer at 8:36 AM

September 3, 2004

Invention, Refinement and Making Money

The popular Honda Odyssey is often seen at Madison area soccer, swimming, football, basketball and academic events, among others. Honda has introduced a new version for 2005. There's an interesting fuel saving feature in the new Honda: cylinder "deactiviation".

The fuel-saving feature automatically switches between 6-cylinder and 3-cylinder combustion, depending on driving conditions.
Interestingly, and typically, this is not a new idea.

General Motors actually pioneered the volume production (there were earlier concepts) of turning off cylinders to save fuel with their variable displacement V8-6-4 engine, available in 1981. Evidently, reliability problems doomed this effort.

Now comes Honda, and others with the same useful concept. They will likely make it work and make money (I imagine that today's much more advanced computers and software play a big role in the success of these efforts).

Wilde Honda, Rock County Honda and Zimbrick Honda sell them.

Posted by James Zellmer at 9:11 AM

August 9, 2004

2005 Mustang Blog?

Ford is running a Mustang blog (rather quietly at this point). Interesting angle on promoting their new sports coupe. I don't think they should run this off of the mother ship's domain (ford.com). Peter Delorenzo thinks that Ford has many, many product problems, including several new models due this fall:

But by any measure, the upcoming Ford 500, the Fusion and the Freestyle sport wagon are not only uninspiring to look at (in spite of being built on the outstanding Mazda6 platform architecture), but they're going to be indistinguishable from their competition. These new cars may be perfectly competent, but as we all know by now, being merely good enough just isn't good enough in this business anymore.

Ford continues to make great waves and have fun with their feel-good "heritage" cars, but their passenger cars appear to be falling behind before they even hit the starting gate.

Ford desperately needs a Grand Slam home run - a "standard" Ford that possesses all of the attitude, heritage and legacy of performance that its greatest passenger cars once had. And no, I'm not talking about some Yester-Tech Nostalgia Rod here, but a contemporary automobile that unapologetically says "Ford" in the very best possible way.

Ford executives continue to watch their car sales plummet (the July figures just in were dismal again), yet they dismiss and deflect any criticism by suggesting that when they get their new products "on-line" - everything will be all better again.

But at some point, it needs to sink in at Ford that consumers have actually gotten used to the fact that Ford has nothing to offer them - and that when Ford finally says, "Here you go, folks, check out our brand spanking new product lineup!" - a lot of people will just keep right on walking by.

Related, sort of, article by Thomas Content on Detroit's health care cost problems.

Meanwhile, Wes Raynal reviews the new Corvette (C6).

Posted by James Zellmer at 1:13 AM

July 26, 2004


Saw a pristine Porsche 912 today as I walked into a grocery store. I later talked with the owner who told me that it only had 65,000 miles on it! Regular maintenance is critical to a car's longevity and reliability as Dennis Budd relates in this 6.5MB video clip (Budd's Auto Repair on Monroe Street).

Posted by James Zellmer at 2:37 AM

July 12, 2004

Buying a Car on the Internet

I've summarized my recent experience shopping and buying a new used car on the internet here. Quite a change from 10 years ago.
Posted by James Zellmer at 6:35 AM