I’m anything but a Trekkie, but a recent drive in the Tesla Roadster made me think of the Starship Enterprise. To be more precise, the Enterprise a second after warp speed has been deployed. Imagine for a moment that your brain is Captain Kirk and the “gas” pedal is Scotty. When Scotty receives the warp […]
Posts By: Martin Schwoerer
Even frugal cars need to be desirable. Most electric vehicles are anything but. Right now, EVs are slow, ugly, cheap, and not good to drive. In contrast, the Tazzari Zero from Imola, Italy, wants to be a “wanna have”: great to drive, good to sit in and easy on the eyes. Here’s the data: cast-aluminum, glued frame, central motor, RWD, low center of gravity, Li-Ion Fe batteries. A two-seater that is a bit longer, but lower than a Smart. Weighing just 545 kg (1202 lb), 150 N·m of torque and 15 kW engine power would seem to go a long way. The top speed is 56 mph and it has a range of 88 miles. Gorgeous looks (if you ask me), with a dose of NSU TT attain the right balance of aggressive and cute.
Car manufacturers are toast! At least, that’s what members of the Electric Vehicle (EV) religion believe. A car maker’s core business is engines—but engines are over, they say. It’s 1910 all over again, and internal-combustion cars are going the way of the horse-drawn carriage. But I say: Wrong! The electric Twingo I drove proves that there is more to making a good drive than just getting the propulsion stuff right.
As previously reported, the Th!ink EV was a disappointment: feckless, lightweight-feeling, stiff-legged, wobbly. A real let-down when you consider that it was specifically designed for the requirements of electric power. So it was with some skepticism that I took the helm of a Renault Twingo that MES-DEA (a Swiss company) had turned into an EV.
What’s the deal with these small cars and their self-righteous names? I’m talking about the Smart, the iQ, and the Think. Does anybody really believe that making a car diminutive turns it into some kind of Einstein? If anything, I’d be happy if car makers showed they understand they have some really stupid machines out there. The Fiat Cretino, the Ford Fiasco, the Opel Idiot, the Mercury Moron: now that’d be Truth in Naming.
After a few seconds in the Mindset, I was thinking: Whoa, this thing is fast. And Goddamn, it feels good. And then I remembered a movie I hadn’t thought of in a decade, and it struck me: this doesn’t seem like 2009, this is more like Gattaca. You know: the sci-fi movie starring the Studebaker Avanti, Rover P6 and Citroen DS Décapotable—all running with electric motors. They are breathtakingly, inimitably beautiful cars. In the movie, they only make a whirring noise. It’s all very 2030, and somehow, it works. Of course, if you had an electric droptop DS at your disposal, then why would you drive a Swiss-made, electric Mindset? But I’m getting ahead of myself. So, what is this car about?
Hydrogen-fueled propulsion has been the Next Big Thing since the 1970s. Recently, it has also been assigned to the past, at least by US Energy Secretary Steven Chu, who said, “We’re going to be moving away from hydrogen-fuel cells for vehicles.” Thus, hydrogen propulsion seems to be one of those things that are everywhere in the time-space continuum except in the present. Some hydrofans are refusing to give up, though. VW’s evil genius boss of bosses, Ferdinand Piëch, has a nephew, Sebastian Piëch, who is a grandson of Ferdinand Porsche. Seb seems to be a smart, rich guy who speaks four languages, has an engineering and marketing background and lives in Shanghai and Tokyo. He’s a big name among big names at Riversimple, an alternative-car company which recently presented its first car in London. If Piëch had a monkey-man slogan, it’d be “ideas, ideas, ideas.”
My first car was a 1970s–era Opel Rekord. It was one of the most beautiful cars GM ever made. It was also roomy, reliable, as well as cheap to own and service. Those typical brand values made Opel a star player in Europe, and demoted Ford and many others to the status of also-rans. Later, Opel lost the reliability and beauty part of the plot. Is today’s Rekord – the Opel Insignia – good enough to lead an almost-dead company to the future?
The New York Times introduces 31-year-old Brian Deese, a near graduate of Yale Law School, as President Obama’s pick to re-shape General Motors—and American capitalism along the way. As a special assistant to the president for economic policy, he was pretty much the only full-time member of the Presidential Task Force on Automobiles from November 4 through mid-February. He comes to the job with no automotive experience, or business experience, or much experience at all, if you put his resume up against the insanely vast and critical task before him. Making him perfect for the job. Maybe a real outsider is just what the General needs. Deese seems to have earned the president’s ear with competence. By all reports, he sees the challenges of GM’s tumble holistically, in terms of the effect on the economy in general, Medicaid and unemployment insurances in the specific, and understands the political ramifications of every thing he eats, reads or wears from here on out. No one older than 31 would want this job. And you’d be hard pressed to find anyone younger. So he’s perfect.
The Web as we know it is a teenager, but car makers seem to think it’s a baby: cute, with much potential, but inscrutable and insomnia-inducing. One could think of numerous, obvious new applications for automotive marketing, but we don’t see them in practice. Click on a manufacturer’s site to get an instant, confirmed test drive appointment for a car of your ideal configuration? Nope. Can you publicize your satisfaction or disatisfaction with a dealer on a maker’s site (similar to what yelp.com is enabling for all kinds of services)? No dice. Indeed, most commercial car stuff on the web is conventional, and boring. But recently I’ve heard of some Web-based brand-building that is supposed to be better. Here are three examples from the UK.
For the past 60 years or so, Fiat has had what amounted to a compulsive gambler’s business model: invest tons in one single car, cross fingers that it sells like hotcakes, and run the rest of the company with disinterest. This one-pony strategy has often delivered what, in the end, were the most desirable small cars of each decade. How else to describe the 1950’s 1100, the 1960’s 124, the 128 from the 70s or the Uno from the 80s? All, as well as the Punto from the 1990s and the Panda from the present decade, adhered to a simple but elusive formula: cheap to buy, brilliantly packaged, surprisingly robust, and a hoot to drive. (Most other Fiats, let’s not fail to mention, have been crap).
Are electric cars a dead end? Just as Ho Chi Minh said when asked about the French Revolution, it’s probably too early to tell. In the meantime, interesting things are happening. Der Spiegel reports that a European consortium of car makers and utilities has agreed on a standard for plugs. That means you’ll soon be able to drive from Lappland to Sicily, or from Lisbon to Moscow (albeit in 50-mile spurts), without worrying about compatibility. The plug will be in a three-phase, 400V configuration. But what about loading stations connected to the plugs? The news here: a consortium including Volkswagen, Daimler, BMW, Ford, General Motors, PSA, Fiat, Toyota, Mitsubishi as well as major western-European utilities are working on a standard electric “filling station.” So much for infrastructure. But what about the cars?
Everything has unintended consequences, but sometimes they are positive. A new study commissioned by T&E, the European Federation for Transport and Environment, says there is an overlooked element in the public discussion about corporate fuel economy. Lower overall fuel consumption as caused by more economical cars, T&E says, would lead to lower fuel prices. “Economic benefits of energy conservation policies in Europe are consistently underestimated. But until now very few have made the point that a policy-induced decline of demand for oil could also result in lower oil prices, and hence greater economic benefits.” They’re not talking about the flawed US CAFE system, however.