The Truth About Cars » In Defense Of The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Wed, 23 Jul 2014 16:29:19 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars no The Truth About Cars (The Truth About Cars) 2006-2009 The Truth About Cars The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars » In Defense Of Android Auto vs. Apple CarPlay vs. Your Precious Bodily Fluids Fri, 27 Jun 2014 11:00:49 +0000 tumblr_m9hum9gnmd1rsen2io1_500At yesterday’s Google I/O keynote speech, Google laid out its vision for Android Auto (reported here yesterday), which is quite similar to Apple’s CarPlay. I’ve ranted here before about Apple’s CarPlay when it was first announced and after more details came out last March. Both have the idea that your phone can hijack the screen in your car. What’s newsworthy from Google is that we have an enlarged list of vendors who are playing along. (Wired has the full list. Suffice to say that you’ll have plenty of choices if you want a car that goes both ways, if you know what I mean. Most interesting factoid: Tesla isn’t playing with either Apple or Google. Hear that? It’s the sounds of thousands of alpha-nerd Tesla owners crying out in terror.)

Today, I want to address why you should stop worrying and learn to love having your phone in charge of your car’s telematics display.

Using most computer crap in cars will kill you. I’ve had enough of people arguing about BMW i-Drive vs. Audi MMI vs. giant Tesla touchscreens vs. your smartphone. You all don’t get it. They’re all part of a Communist plot to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids. Or at least distract us and get us into horrific driving accidents. When you’re driving, you should have your hands on the wheel, or your passenger’s thigh. No, no, definitely on the wheel.

But some computer crap in cars is exceptionally valuable. When you’re driving somewhere new, nav systems are great. Even if you’re driving somewhere you go all the time, modern nav systems like Waze give you real-time user-reported intel on the traffic and even where the speed traps are. But how do Waze drivers report speed traps? They press tiny buttons on the phone and promptly create new accidents for other Waze drivers to report.

So how can you use a computer in your car safely? What we’ve seen so far from the automakers is largely a massive failure on this front. BMW’s iDrive, no matter how much they simplify it, is still an abomination upon humanity. Tesla’s giant and beautiful touchscreen, much like the Chevy Volt and other new cars that don’t have real buttons any more, require you to look for the button you’re trying to press. Prior attempts at voice recognition are laughably inaccurate, particularly once the car is moving at freeway speed and you’ve got wind noise and tire noise, never mind a blaring stereo. What’s left? The thing that Google seems to get, and you know Apple will copy it a year later and claim they invented first, is that they have all this knowledge about you. Your calendar has your destination address right next to your appointment. And they know where you live and where you drive every day on your commute. Why is this a good thing? Because Google will (hopefully) be very good at guessing what you’re up to and will just do it with little or no user intervention at all. When you do need to use your voice to tell your nav system what to do, or what music you want to play, you’ll get the benefit of Google’s backend data center megabrain which can do a way better job of figuring out what you’re talking about than the puny computer in your car or phone. Why? Because it’s got context. If you’re trying to navigate to a some business, it’s going to compare your vocal garble to the names of local destinations, especially if you did a Google search on your computer beforehand or your buddy emailed you the address. If you’re trying to play some hipster indie band, it’s going to look at the names in your library and in its “people who like X tend to like Y” megabrain graph. Smaller search space = higher recognition accuracy.

But I don’t trust the Google megabrain with my precious privacy fluids. We are rapidly approaching a moment of truth, both for ourselves as human beings and for the life of our nation. Now, truth is not always a pleasant thing, but the fact is that you’re already telling Google, Apple, the NSA, OkCupid, and the fiendish fluoridators far too much about yourself. It’s a huge pain to keep apps from profiling you, but you can do it if you insist. (I use the totally not user-friendly XPrivacy. My proposed solution for the real world: government regulation. But I digress.) For the rest of us, there’s a tradeoff. You give up some privacy. In return you get something. Maybe that something is a free version of some game. You could pay $1 and get the advertising-free version. But do you pay that dollar? No? That’s how little you truly value your own privacy.

When you use Android Auto, Apple CarPlay, or Microsoft Win9 Cartopia Enterprise Edition, you’re indeed giving up some privacy, but look at what you’re getting back. You’re getting good stuff. For a great price.

How will we ultimately trade our privacy for all these great features? Will Google crack down on apps’ ability to learn totally unnecessarily personal things about you? (There is a new feature in Android “L” that’s supposed to help with this.) Will government regulators ultimately crack down on Google? We’ll see. Now let’s get this thing on the hump — we got some flyin’ to do.


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Bring back a BOF 5-seater or I’ll buy a Saab Wed, 17 Jul 2013 17:24:05 +0000 Saab 9-7x Aero

I have a problem. I own a 2002 GMC Envoy. No, my ownership of a GMT360 SUV isn’t the problem although it is probably enough to get me committed to a mental institution. At 140,000 hard miles, my Envoy is getting old and there’s nothing out there to replace it. That’s a problem.

Whenever the Envoy gets brought up I feel the need to defend myself by saying I “married into it.”  This is entirely true, I did not have anything to do with the purchase. My name is not on the title and finances were co-mingled after it was paid off. That being said, I have an awkwardly styled place in my heart for GM’s GMT360 SUV. Why? It’s all about towing.

I am one of the few people in the USA crazy enough to have built their own home. No, I didn’t write a check to a contractor to build my house, I built my house. Two years into the continuing saga the only help we have had in our construction nightmare has been from friends that had no idea what they were getting into when they offered. Because I’m a cheap bastard, this meant we dug our foundation with picks, shovels and wheelbarrows and we poured the foundation by the 50lb bag. All 67,200lbs of it. Yes, I am insane and should be committed. No, I do not recommend that anyone follow in my footsteps.


Since “my” car during this process was a 1998 Volvo S70 T5 (manual of course) and then a 2006 Volvo V70R (manual yet again), hauling duties fell on the Envoy. Almost everything that is our house came in the Envoy, on the Envoy, or a in 14-foot utility trailer towed by the Envoy. Why not buy a pickup truck? There were several logical reasons. First off, the Envoy 4.2L I6 produces reasonable torque, it seats 5, has a covered cargo area, is fairly easy to park, but most importantly: it was paid off. The used utility trailer with electric brakes has proven far more useful than simply swapping the Envoy for a pickup. Yes, I still dream pickup dreams (that’s what happens to you when you go to college in Texas) but my practical side says I may never own one.

I never really liked the Envoy before we started construction. I knew better than to deride my better half’s car shopping, but I never understood why anyone would pick the Envoy over a Grand Cherokee or an Explorer or a Pathfinder, or, or, or. As it turns out, the Envoy isn’t half bad after all. The 4WD low range is useless honestly, but the locking 4WD system has saved my bacon when trying to shuttle heavy items on our hillside property or haul a heavy trailer up the steep gravel road. The rear seats fold completely flat, and though doing so causes the front seats to become decidedly uncomfortable, the cargo hold is generously sized. GM may have used a solid rear axle but they tossed in a load leveling air suspension in the back that has been incredibly handy. The air bag suspension doesn’t just keep your butt off the ground when you put people in the back seat, it keeps the suspension in the middle of its travel when you have 800lbs of crap in the back making the Envoy handle better than most SUVs of its era when fully loaded. Not that I recommend this, but it also makes trailer hauling easier because you can go way over the recommended tongue weight without causing serious driveability problems for the tow vehicle. In addition, GM has a bleed off valve you can use to inflate tires, basket balls, etc. I can’t count the times I have had to adjust the tire pressure in the trailer or in the car in the middle of nowhere because something happened as I was hauling a load of free bricks.


The only downside seems to be the relative china doll transmission. The 4L60 transmission isn’t GM’s most robust unit and we’re on our third slushbox at 140,000 miles. The first transmission was replaced at only 15,000 miles so I’m positive that was a manufacturer’s defect but Transmission #2 failed around 80,000 miles (covered by an extended warranty). Looking back on the problem, I have a feeling that the issue was inadequate cooling and inappropriate service intervals for the load. Since then I have been flushing the ATF every 20,000 miles due to the loads we haul. Still, the Envoy is showing its age. The dashboard has gouges from ABS pipe hauling, the rear window weather-stripping is torn from 4x6s rubbings against them, one rear window leaks, the rear air suspension deflates after a few hours when parked, she burns a little oil and the transmission isn’t shifting like it did 60,000 miles ago. It’s time send my friend out to pasture. Did I say friend? I guess I did.

So what options are there on the mid-sized market that won’t cost an arm and a leg but can haul 6,500-7,000 lbs? Can’t do that in the GMC Acadia (GM’s replacement for the Envoy). The Pathfinder and Explorer have given up on towing, Kia killed the Borrego, the Montero was mercy killed, the Rodeo is extinct, the Xterra and 4Runner top out at 5,000lbs and VW’s Touareg is luxury priced starting at $44,000. That leaves just the Jeep Grand Cherokee in the mass-market mid-size SUV segment with over 5,000lbs of towing capacity. How can GM think there’s no market for a well prices world-market Trailblazer?

Here’s where my cheap side kicks in. A low mileage 2009 Saab 9-7x can be had for $16,000-$17,000. That makes it the best priced  GMT360 SUV by a few grand. It also happens to be the best GMT360 ever made. I realize that’s like saying it’s the best bedpan ever made, but it does have an impact on this very small segment. What’s a car guy that tows to do? Do I 2014 Grand Cherokee or Durango for $33,000+ or do I dive into a used “Trollblazer” because it is a crazy-cheap known quantity. Stay tuned.

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Thanks To Suburbia, The Car Can Never Be The Next Cigarette Fri, 10 May 2013 11:07:01 +0000

I have two interests that are often in conflict with one another. One is my love of the automobile. The second is urban planning. Recently, I was reading a response piece to the notion that the car will become the next cigarette, or a similar “socially unacceptable vice”. Derek Kreindler wrote the following in his response:

“But heavy-handed, top down solutions are not the answer. The next generation of urban planners are being educated in universities by liberal arts faculty members hold views that are largely not representative of the opinions and needs of the general public. Combine that with a growing apathy for the automobile among young people and you create a situation where anti-car sentiment is easily bred. Look no further than the move to ban EV charging stations from urban areas as a perfect example of their utter refusal to meet reality on reality’s terms.”

I am 26, and am among the “next generation of urban planners” who was educated in those very universities in the author cites. Here are my thoughts on the subject.

I am a lifelong resident of Long Island, New York. To many, Long Island is the traffic jam on I495 that separates Manhattan from the Hamptons. I on the other hand see the 112 mile Island as so much more. Historically, Long Island was the birthplace of aerial innovation and set the template for suburban development across the United States. Our parkway system helped lay the groundwork for the Federal interstate system. Our unique environmental constraints helped create pioneering studies of population density (the measure of amount of people per square mile) and wastewater’s impact on groundwater. In fact, many of the land use preservation strategies employed on Long Island are replicated nationwide in an effort to help slow suburban sprawl.

As a planner, you constantly hear others promoting the dangers of suburban sprawl, continued dependence on the automobile, the need for “Smart Growth” and expansion of transit. These concepts are both valid and worthwhile. That does not make them the right approach for all areas. Like any other tool, these ideas are only useful when appropriate.

Unfortunately, there is a rising trend in urban planning that is biased towards dense, urban environments. Ideas that once were legitimate planning concepts such as “smart growth” and “sustainable” development have become real estate industry buzzwords that no longer resonate with the informed public. Once again, these terms are legitimate development concepts, but their misapplication by the real estate industry have numbed their impact. These density-biased concepts, such as the notion of the automobile becoming stigmatized in a similar manner to the cigarette, ignore the realities of existing suburban land use patterns. Older suburban areas, such as Long Island’s own Nassau and Suffolk Counties, typify the concept of Euclidean Zoning, or segmented, separate land uses. Due to these segmented developments, the car is still very much a necessity for most Americans.

City - Picture courtesy

In recent years, there is the appropriate push to consolidate the tract housing developments, and blend commercial uses in with the residences. These “mixed-use” concepts look to revitalize struggling downtown areas that are in dire need of economic development. This is where the call for increased bicycle and transit usage comes in. As population density increases, these ideas slowly become viable. However, new-age urbanists have taken the notion too far, calling for measures that make it harder and harder to use a car to get around cities. These measures are the antithesis to driving enjoyment. Think about it though…is it ever pleasant to drive in a city, or would you rather navigate country backroads?

In a dense urban environment, measures to reduce automotive use are successful because of the population density. In suburban areas, these measures don’t work nearly as well. Ideas such as expansion of transit service is difficult to impossible to implement due to the lack of resident demand, federal subsidy and most importantly, population density to support more buses and trains. In fact, I’ve written a piece calling for further reinvestment in our road system on top of innovative suburban transit solutions. Another push has been for increased bicycle usage, which works well in the city. In suburban areas, the landscape and destinations are too spread out for widespread bike usage to be viable. Simply put, thanks to suburbia, the automobile is here to stay for a very long time.

These new age, idealistic concepts are almost always perceived by the general public as condescending, and reflect what I call ”ivory-tower” planning. All too often, the planners who suggest these ideas come off as smug, and seem to talk down to those who live outside of dense urban centers. This projected image, whether intentional or not, lessens the impact of their important message. Further, this ivory tower smugness leads to a generalized mistrust of urban planners by the public. I agree with my peers that the urban environment isn’t suited for the car. That being said, urban policy solutions, predicated on the notion of ample population density, are simply not appropriate for rural and suburban areas. Kreindler closed his piece with the following:

“But still, don’t be surprised if this line of thought becomes part of the discourse at some point in the near future.”

Car - Picture courtesy

This line of thought is already entering public discussions in municipalities across the country, which isn’t a bad thing. Eventually, we will have to look beyond the automobile, and a planner’s job is to look ahead to anticipate future needs. What planners have to remember is that recommendations need to be grounded in reality and most importantly, be implementable. As I often say, there is no “one-size fits all” or silver bullet approach to solving this. While automobile reduction may work in Times Square, it isn’t suited for suburban areas across the country.

Readers, just remember: Not all planners hate the car. As a whole, we aren’t naive. We understand the car’s importance. Thanks to suburbia, the car will be popular for decades to come.

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Abu Dhabi Dispatches: How I Nearly Met Jack Baruth At The International Defense Expo Wed, 27 Feb 2013 16:00:14 +0000


A few days ago, I was at the International Defense Expo here in Abu Dhabi. It prides itself as “the most strategically important tri-service defence exhibition in the world.” Many tanks were on display, among them an armored Audi A8. I wanted to inspect that car a bit closer, when a man approached the white-haired product specialist of Audi. The man had a gold lame jacket, and he needed a haircut. They gave away free parabolic mikes at the AVIC booth, but being Chinese, it would only pick up the voice of the salesman. Here is the transcript.

Product specialist: “Mr.Baruth! Welcome to Abu Dhabi! If you are tired of lightweight cars, you have come to the right place!”

Baruth: [Unintelligible.]

Product specialist: “Angry husbands and ex-girlfriends…I see. Really? An entire PR department? Interesting. I understand how that could be a problem. An Audi A8 Security could certainly address your safety issues. Please, this way.

This is the 2013 Audi A8 Security; it is equipped with our famous W12 engine with just under 500 horsepower. We offer a V8 as well, that engine is rated at 414. The V8 gets 21 miles per gallon, but the W12 consumes slightly more at 17. We feel the W12 engine is perfectly matched to the armament.”

Baruth: [Unintelligible.]

Product specialist: “As a Phaeton owner, you certainly are very familiar with the W12, excellent. If I may show you some of the security features.”

Baruth: [Unintelligible.]

Product specialist: “Of course the A8 Security offers protection to BR7. In the luxury “hard car,” or non-tactical armored vehicle market, no one has exceeded this rating. As you can see from the demo, the windows are multi-layered, polycarbonate, ballistic resistance class 10. The door utilized hardened steel and ceramics to achieve bullet resistance 9; so any pistol-wielding PR intern can be casually dismissed as you comfortably listen to your ironic Burt Bacharach. The entry and exit areas have layered features, so there are no seams for a jealous ex-lover to penetrate with a nail file, ice pick or even the standard NATO 7.62 round.”

Baruth: [Unintelligible.]

Product specialist: “Additionally, the underside of the A8 Security is blast resistant, and is built with anti-magnetic plating. You can rest assured a frustrated former track day student will be unable to pull an Alexander Haig on you en route to Summit Point.”

Baruth: [Unintelligible.]

Product specialist: “Other items of note include armor plating for the vehicle’s electronics and an optional emergency air system. This would be particularly helpful on your next drive to Los Angeles or even Cleveland. You may also enjoy a smoke extractor system should one of your future threats lady guests insist on smoking in your cabin.”

Baruth: [Unintelligible.]

Product specialist: “Of course each of our A8 Security vehicles is manufactured in a separate location, guarded and secure. So should you encounter a Carrie Fisher-esque threat, she will be unable to research the weak points on your car, of which, as you can see there are none.”

Baruth: [Unintelligible.]

Product specialist: “With your experience behind the wheel of many luxury vehicles, I can imagine that on occasion you might enjoy being chauffeured. If I may call your attention to the interior of the A8 Security; the exterior dimensions make it the longest vehicle in the high-security segment and this translates to more interior room. The seats have available heat and massage options, as well as a footrest made available by moving the front passenger seat forward and folding it from the back. Should you reconfigure the seat for more …um-hem, shall we say…’rambunctious’ activities with one of your lady friends, there is a memory function. Very popular in the Saudi Arabian market … who has time to remember all the positions, right?”

Baruth: [Unintelligible.]

Product specialist: “Did you say flash bang? Very funny! Speaking of which, the price is …”

Baruth: [Unintelligible.]

Product specialist: “… of course, of course, how gauche of me. I you had to ask and all that. We will settle with your assistant. Excellent! A perfect choice! If I may escort you to our reception area we can set about the process of customizing your new A8 Security to your specifications…”

Baruth: [Unintelligible.]

Product specialist: “…I am sorry, this is quite embarrassing, but I do need to take this phone call…

…Hello…mmmhmmm…I see…Yes, he is right here…but he…it’s just… Wie bitte? Natürlich, ich verstehe. Alles klar. Kein Problem. Machen wir. Tschau mit au. Tschö mit ö. Wiedersehn mit iedersehn.”

Product specialist: “…Mr. Baruth, this is a bit embarrassing, but I was unaware it was the Porsche PR department. I am sure you know about our tangled management roots, I am afraid I will be unable to sell you a secure vehicle today. Perhaps the folks at Lincoln can help you out.”

Baruth: [Redacted.]

Product specialist: “Now, now, Mr. Baruth. How do they say? Panther love, ja! Have a safe trip home, a very safe trip.”

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In Defense Of: The Cadillac CTS-V Wagon Mon, 20 Feb 2012 12:31:14 +0000
If you are unfamiliar with the type of car pictured above, then may I congratulate you on finally getting a WiFi connection all the way up there in your cave on the moon. Yes indeedy, this is the much-publicized Cadillac CTS-V wagon.

No, on the other hand, it is not a press car. Let me explain.

Along with TTAC and a few other outlets, I am privileged to write weekly for a small community newspaper of quite good quality. I mean, apart from the bits that I contribute, obviously.

There it was that I rifled off one of my usual grammatically suspect musings, declaring the CTS-V wagon as rare as seeing Elvis riding a unicorn, and indicating that it was a car only a lunatic would ever really buy. A day later, I received this picture:

“…The chances of actually seeing one are not as bad as you indicated. I just spotted one ….in my garage.”

Then followed a brief correspondence in which the invitation was given to come take the car for a drive any time I wanted. I leapt at the exceedingly rare opportunity: not to drive a CTS-V wagon, but also to meet the sort of person who would actually buy one of these things.

Opinion on the CTS-V wagon is far from rosy around the TTAC offices. Derek Kreindler very publicly doesn’t like it. Jack Baruth likes the V-wagon enough to have bought one, but only if GM weren’t giving them away for free. Also, only if they’d paint the damn thing green.

As for myself, I think the CTS-V wagon is completely ridiculous and I unapologetically, unabashedly love it, love it, love it. If you’re a wagon guy – and I am – it’s the 5-door apex predator, to my mind even more so than the V2-with-a-backpack AMG Hammer-wagon or the unobtanium RS6 Avant.

Yes, building it is most assuredly a shrewd PR move for GM. There are lost tribes living in the Amazon who could quote you 0-60 times and Darth Vader references thanks to the sustained media blitz we’ve had about this thing.

Can the CTS-V also be seen as a bribe to quirky auto-journos to generate favorable press for the General? As much as TTAC loves to lampoon the journosaur as a lazy leech – Vampire the Buffet-Slayer – it’s a compelling argument: after all, as Murilee has pointed out, for most of us it’s all about the cars. To paraphrase Homer J Simpson, you’d step over your own mother just to get something interesting.

So it’s important to shed a little light on these ethical considerations, and to wonder aloud about the importance of repeatedly road-testing a car produced in approximately the same quantities as a special-run Zonda. On the other hand, 556hp station wagon!

What’s it like to drive? Hard to say, from just a spin around the block. I’d need, oh, let’s say 11 or 12 months to really get to the bottom of things…

But I can tell you this, as you extend your right foot deep into the power reserves and the supercharged V8 starts whining and bellowing like a tyrannosaur caught in a bandsaw, try keeping the grin off your face. What’s more, especially in black, it has that GNX-style menace goin’ on. Traffic parts like Chuck Heston was reprising his Moses role whilst brandishing an Armalite.

The CTS-V wagon is indefensible in many ways. It’s not a sleeper: Q-ships don’t have yellow brake calipers. It’s not that practical: sure it’ll haul more than the sedan but with rear-drive only, you’d be better off with something like an X5M. Also, it drinks fuel like an oil-well fire and goes through rear tires like Keiichi Tsuchiya.

What it is though, is special, and unique, and above-all, interesting. I was at Barrett-Jackson this year, and the thought occurs to me that, two or three years down the road, even a beat-to-hell presser wouldn’t look out of place crossing the block amongst the gleaming street-rods and restorations.

Oh, and what of the owner? A dapper, cheerful, well-dressed man in his middle-60s; successful in business and in life, with grandkids and a fleet of Mercs. Then I did a little more digging and found a ’73 big-block ‘Vette, owned since new, a history of wrenching on a Mk6 Formula Ford in the 60′s and (strange parallels, Baruth) a modest collection of hand-made electric guitars.

As Derek points out, you’re not defined by your car. Perhaps, though, who you are has something to do with what you drive. In this case, I felt privileged to have met both the man and his machine.

And that’s eight-hundred words about the CTS-V wagon without mentioning Jonny Lieberman once. Arrgh! Tripped at the finish line.

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In Defense Of: The Press Junket Mon, 31 Oct 2011 16:45:05 +0000

You know, it’s getting goddamned hard for a chap to enjoy a decent corporate-sponsored nosebag from time to time what with the ever-imminent prospect of Jack “Banquo” Baruth popping out from behind a silver soup tureen and shouting “J’accuse!” like some sort of admonitory, jort-clad Visigoth. At least, such I was thinking to myself as I lined the walls of my pericardium with the rich yellow fat best produced by overly-sauced food and moderately crappy wines.

This was in the latter stages of a lunch – sorry - launch I was attending in, admittedly, a very unprofessional capacity. I’m still not entirely sure how I ended up here, but I’m one of those people who can’t say no when offered work; here though there would be no byline, and theoretically therefore, no conflict of interest.

Still, I was keeping one eye open, metaphorically-speaking, for our own favourite Sword of Damocles, as – pardon me good sir, but I believe your trotter is in my trough!

Lifer Automotive Journalist the Size of a Small Moon: “Oh, do beg pardon. Snarfle-snarfle-glub.”

Think nothing of it. Now where was I? Ah yes, the dining room. There I was, surrounded by the ambiance of several tonnes of avoirdupois on the hoof rapidly consuming their considerable body weights in alcohol, rich meats and cream-based sauces. The sound was akin to that of creating a vast clone army of Cookie Monsters and then turning them loose to attack the Nestle Toll House central warehouses. Om, as they say, Nom.

As I sat, replete and idly wondering how much leftover ribeye I could secret away in my pockets for homeward economy-flight consumption before I became drunk enough to lose basic motor skills, a voice hissed at me.

“Psssst!” came the hoarse whisper, “Lime-Green Audi S5!”

Thus it was that I received the secret verbal handshake that identifies those of us for whom the gravy train remains a bemusing through-the-looking-glass experience, best described by TTAC contributor Derek Kreindler as a luxury vacation with people you hate. Not that I object to the free bacon of course.

Fast-forward a bit and here I am again at yet another free-for-all, sipping a Stone IPA I didn’t pay for, noshing on some quote-unquote “vintage”  ribeye – hipsterism for carnivores? – with port-wine reduction. As our gracious host rises to his feet to thank the assembled journalists for coming, thus reminding us all about how important we really are, I’m thinking about Jeff Glucker.

A better writer than I has already covered this topic, but moving forward, the immediate fallout of Gluckergate has been the usual 10-10-80 polarization of those who read, follow and comment on the various automotive blogs and websites that are part of Interwebs 2-point-whatever-we’re-at-now. 10% of people were outraged at Mr. Glucker’s ethical mis-step, and applaud Jalopnik’s no-holds-barred outing. 10% of people (including yours truly) were outraged at Jalopnik’s mean-spirited sensationalization of Mr. Glucker’s misstep, their gleeful attempt to score points off a rival blog, and the offensive odour of holier-than-thou adopted by a site that used to be a cool place to get COTD.

For 80% of folks however, it seems to have been no big deal, business as usual, a Pontiac Tempest in a GM-stamped Teapot that showed up in a giftbag in the free hotel room you were flown to on business class. By the way, these are only approximations – I don’t know how accurate my Scion calculator is.

The consensus seems to be, and I apologize in advance as I’m about to start slopping around the whitewash of generalization here, that automotive “journalism” should forever be aware of the invisible quotes surrounding the latter half of its appellation. At the end of the day, to seize hold of one of the most hackneyed phrases available, the public sees us as little different from those who review TV shows or toasters.

For me, it’s even more simple: there but for the grace of God, go I. Like Jeff Glucker, I am no Baruth or Farago when it comes to “tirelessly savaging his enemies”. Quite frankly, the thought of even mildly inconveniencing an enemy makes me yearn for a nice, long, mid-afternoon nap. No, I’ll have to be content with merely savaging the English language.

And really, fat jokes aside, who am I to begin to cast the stones of ethics at my colleagues when I myself am working towards the same equipment list as the current Nissan Altima: full-size spare tire as standard. If there’s a sin too often revisited at the TTAC offices, it’s that of patting ourselves too hard on the back for being independent, and incorruptible, and outside the mainstream.

But when our own Edward N. half-despairingly asks the question, “where is the pride?” I bristle. It’s right goddam here.

No, not necessarily only in the articles and reviews before you now, but in the company I am privileged to keep. It’s in the excellent weirdness found at Glucker’s own Hooniverse website. It’s in the riotous anarchy of the 24 hours of LeMons. It’s in the sensible debate of a Best and Brightest comments section and the in-sensible arguing on the facebook page of a certain be-flipflopped TTAC alum.

Surely, the face of automotive journalism has changed as the face of traditional media has changed; not always for the better, but with a new host of writers and thinkers, and most importantly, with a new kind of audience. Not only that, but also the shoulders of the giants we stand upon are not always as sloping as we New Breed hacks would have you believe: there are many print journalists to whom I humbly doff my cap.

The cogs of the PR machine grind grimly on, just as they always have done, with free lunches and free cars, jewel-like launch settings for economy-grade rides and endless giveaways. But the cogs have chipped a tooth: in internet forum discussions, in the musings of those automotive writers I’m honoured to call colleague and in, quite frankly, a higher calibre of PR folks who actually care about the companies and products they represent, there is pride to be found.

Most of all, dear reader, there is you, the TTAC audience; the some of the people you can’t fool any of the time. It is my humble privilege to lay before you such scribblings as I do and have your own finely-tuned bullshit-o-meters waver the needle if you detect the influence of a comped bar-bill.

In the meantime, I happily wade though rivers of bearnaise to bring you The Truth, ever mindful of my responsibilities to the pull-no-punches ideals set out by our founder, and carried on by the writing and editing staff of TTAC.

Obsequious Waiter: Would Sir laike an aftair-dinnair meent?

No, sod off. I’m absolutely stuffed.

Obsequious Waiter: Oh, but Sir, it’s only wafair-theen.

Oh all right, just the one then.


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Requiem For The Last American Car Thu, 15 Sep 2011 20:12:25 +0000

[Editor's note: Today, at 12:25 pm, the very last Panther-platform Crown Victoria rolled off the line at St. Thomas Assembly Plant. Ryan Paradis, a.k.a. "86er," has the honor of eulogizing the beloved beast in his first-ever contribution to TTAC] 

It has become beyond trite by this point to say that, with the end of the Crown Victoria, Grand Marquis and Town Car, an era comes to an end. And yet it is thus: the last of the body-on-frame, rear wheel drive and eight cylinder engine passenger cars, once a species unique to North America, have now reached the end of an 80 year span that commenced with the advent of the 1932 Ford V-8.

Having transported generations of Americans through some of the nation’s finest decades, full-size cars like the Crown Victoria, Grand Marquis, and Town Car are now an anomaly. While large V8-powered sedans made a comeback in the 21st century, the Ford Panther chassis was one of the very few full-size, rear-drive sedans that never left. And today we bid it farewell.

Let us be clear before we go any further: increasing CAFE standards will mean that, barring a phenomenal advancement in engine technology, all large cars in their current form will be phased out before long. New realities are coming that automakers will find impossible to avoid. At the same time, without vehicles like the Ford Crown Victoria, Mercury Grand Marquis, and Lincoln Town Car, cars so steeped in our notions of a limitless frontier and freedom from tyranny (of the mobility and engine displacement varieties), we lose a potent symbol of the domestic industry’s raison d’être.

The Ford Panther chassis is a rolling respite from traffic anxiety disorder. If your only experience with one has been riding in a taxicab, or careening through city streets, you’ve been misled. Truth is, the Panther’s driving personality is far more sedate. While some cars vie for your down payment by touting driver involvement, the big Ford goes the other way, trumpeting maximum driver isolation. It regards the world around it as uncouth, bumpy and loud, and lovingly insulates you from the indignities of crumbling roads and the frenzied pace of traffic. Only when breezing along without a care in the world do these vehicles truly come into their own, not only transporting you to your destination in isolated comfort, but under the right conditions, even taking you into view of a past that is on the brink of being irrevocably lost.

Prodigious torque, smooth power delivery and the isolation of riding on (frame) rails will now become the sole purview of those who have signed the paperwork for a truck or traditional sport utility vehicle. Those loners, those holdovers clinging to a time that has passed them by, will now have to join that swollen cohort of automobile purchasers who have savored the qualities they continue to find rewarding, from a higher perch.

But I come not to praise the body-on-frame passenger car but to bury it. Aficionados of this type of automobile have had ample time through various stays of execution and luck to sample the last vestiges of what make North American motoring a unique island unto itself for the vast majority of the 20th century. Indeed, through various twists of fate, the body-on-frame passenger car has held on longer than it would seem it had the right to, and that in of itself is reason enough to observe its passing today with pride, solemnity and recognition of a notable landmark.

After today, the remaining holdover from a completely globalized design movement led by the world’s automakers remains the pickup and traditional sport utility vehicle. Can this segment, in particular pickups, remain the top sellers? Or will they too fall victim to changing tastes and new regulations that threaten their existence?

For now, the American Truck reigns supreme. Today, we honor what once was and observe the demise of the American Car. In truth, the Panther has no peer, no competitor. It is the last vestige of the American car. Let’s not kid ourselves; pretty much everything else is international in form and function.

A part of me hopes they put the last Crown Vic or Town Car in the Smithsonian, with an inscription on the plaque reading: “Once we built cars, and we were not ashamed.” But another part of me is OK with the notion that the passing of the last traditional American sedan will go mostly unnoticed. After all, it befits the nature of this car; going about its business day in and day out, stoic and laconic, its qualities unheralded except by those who came to rely on it for the past 33 years.

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In Defense Of: Enthusiasm In Automotive Journalism Tue, 06 Sep 2011 21:37:30 +0000

When bearded flip-flop enthusiast and serial-ruiner Jonny Lieberman recently wrote about his new long-term-tester fantasy ride – a stick-shifted, murda’d-out Caddy CTS-V wagon – he facebooked a prediction, “Cue the Baruth-venom in 3…2…1…” Quoth JB in response, “No venom here. In the best liberal fashion I have censured you for the ethics of it and moved on.”

Those of us in the peanut gallery goggled at the collegiality of the kaijus of contrarianism; thank goodness they weren’t going to start throwing buildings at each other again. Now Frank Greve’s AJR piece on auto-journo shillsterism has shown up, basically lauding Mr. Baruth as the Last Honest Man In Auto Journalism™ and intimating that Motor Trend is, by comparison, the painted whore of Babylon. Jeez, hasn’t Tokyo suffered enough?

Now, while I was happy to see TTAC receiving the laurels it so richly deserves, particularly as I am privileged enough to be allowed to write for them from time to time, I must confess that Mr. Greve’s article got up my nose a little. On one hand, he’s correct: there is a tremendous amount of manufacturer manipulation of reviewers either by a heavy hand on the tap controlling the free-car pipeline, or by stuffing them so full of foie gras that it leaks out onto the page in the form of talking points. On the other hand, the subtext of Mr. Greve’s expose seems to chart something of an annoyance with the pesky “automotive enthusiast.” To wit:

John Pearley Huffman, a prominent freelance reviewer, goes even further, suggesting that he and his colleagues have distinctive perspectives when it comes to guiding consumers.

“Car writers are, first and foremost, automotive enthusiasts,” Huffman says. “We love cars more than maybe even the manufacturers do.”

Egad! Those bounders actually enjoy piloting these ‘orrible bellowin’, pollutin’ machines! Why, they could be driving something nice and safe like a Hyundai Elantra. Or, alternatively, another Hyundai Elantra.

Thing is, upon reflection, Mr. Greve’s criticism hits a little too close to home. The chances of me subverting an accurate criticism of a vehicle based on the offer of a free jar of Grey Poupon or two are slimmer than the chances of me getting lent a hi-po Caddy-wagon for an entire year. On the other hand, does the fact that I love nearly everything about the automobile hamstring my objectivity right from the get-go?

It would seem, dear reader, there are not one, but two great crimes perpetuated upon the public by the Automotive Journalism community as a whole. The first is caving to the pressure to pander, something which you will not find here at TTAC.

The second though is perhaps more insidious. How does one leave an a priori affinity for the automobile curbside, particularly in an era where there are supposedly no bad cars? Complain about the numb steering in a Fiat 500? Well, you might as well kick a puppy.

Mr. Greve offers no concrete solution to the problem of either over-fed parroting and/or froth-mouthed enthusiasm when it comes to automotive journalism’s shaky state. On the other hand, he mentions Consumer Reports more than a few times. The question seems to be, should we turn away from over-wrought prose and hi-res shots of curving flanks and towards a system of shaded dots and empirical data? Well, not to put to fine a point on it, “No.”

On one hand, I would no more turn to a Baruth column as a piece of pure consumer advice than I would turn to Commando as a how-to on home security. When I see the Baruthian byline you just know it’s going to be a wild ride of brutal and occasionally scandalous honesty. Also, he is the only person I have ever seen bother to make a small grammatical correction in a Facebook posting.

But consider this for a moment: would a non-bi-Phaeton-owning, non-Porsche-collecting Jack Baruth have made a different call on that fateful Panamera. ‘Twere he merely a clipboard jockey, would panel gaps and impressive numbers have swayed him towards a more positive verdict?

Like anything else, it’s how you use it. Automotive enthusiasm can be either a whetstone for your quill, or a set of rose-tinted spectacles. The character of the writer is what guides that particular choice.

I keep in my office a sign to hang above my keyboard. Inspired by an excellent article from the Guardian’s long-term science writer, it trumpets the following sage advice, “Nobody has to read this crap.”

In a world where the VW Jetta can sell like pretzels at Oktoberfest, despite being universally panned as a cheap, plasticky sell-out, every automotive journalist should take this phrase to heart. People don’t have to read regurgitated press releases, vomited onto the page as a sticky mess of bland positivity.

But nor do they need to, nor necessarily want, two slices of dry white toast: there are more Jakes than Elwoods out there. Good automotive writing needs meat and flair. There’s a place for folks who make their living reviewing toasters and dishwashers, but you don’t walk into a dealership and fall in love with a Cuisinart.

Cars are an emotional choice, every time. They are part of our culture, an expression of our personal style, and as such, they deserve to be written about by people who are passionate about them. And by the way, that’s guys and gals too, Mr. Greve, with your baby-hoisting Mothercare quip: I know plenty of women in the auto-chronicling business who are both bigger gearheads and better writers than I.

As for myself, a 9-5 day-jobbing freelance who takes the bus to pick up my press-cars and has to fill them with my own fuel (despite what the Editor keeps slipping into the disclaimer), know that I’ll never intentionally pull my punches. More than that though, I’ll strive to never write anything that puts you to sleep.

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The Tragedy Of The Gas Tax Sat, 25 Jun 2011 15:42:51 +0000

General Motors CEO Dan Akerson set off something of a firestorm a few weeks ago, when he said, in response to a question about forthcoming CAFE increases:

You know what I’d rather have them do — this will make my Republican friends puke — as gas is going to go down here now, we ought to just slap a 50-cent or a dollar tax on a gallon of gas.

Predictably, populists and economic alarmists of all stripes took great umbrage at Akerson’s candor, questioning his leadership of GM as well as his perspective on the shaky US economy. But Akerson is not alone in his support of some form of gas-tax increase. Bob Lutz and  Tom Friedman (an odd couple right there, if ever there was one) agree with him. Edmunds CEO Jeremy Anwyl defended Akerson and even suggested a $2/gallon tax earlier this year. Bill Ford and  AutoNation’s Mike Jackson are of the same mind as now-retired Republican Senator George Voinovich on the issue. And yet, inside the Beltway, the subject tends to draw a chuckle and a roll of the eyes. Everyone wants it, but nobody wants it.

Since the term “oil addiction” has been used to death, let’s look to an (arguably) less demeaning metaphor: vegetables. Your mother probably didn’t force you to take an honest personal inventory when she made you eat some dreaded brussel sprout or another (which is why the addiction metaphor seems better), but she would have had you not been slave to infantile instinct. So now, with our fully developed faculties, let’s consider what happens if you don’t eat your vegetables.

In the most basic sense, not increasing the gas tax is bad for America’s physical body. Our roads, which circulate the lifeblood of commerce (OK, enough with the metaphor), are literally crumbling. Again, a phrase we may have become desensitized to, but literally true. Car and Driver has a good look at the problem of America’s infrastructure woes and their link to the gas tax, the Highway Trust Fund.

The HTF is a rare beast in the political world. Usually, federal tax money goes into the general fund, where legislators first pass an authorization bill, giving guidelines about how the money can be spent, then a separate appropriations bill actually putting the money into things like buying fighter jets or paying the National Institutes of Health’s electric bill. The HTF’s authorization guarantees that all federal gas-tax revenue will only be put there. Whenever a new transportation spending bill is passed, called a reauthorization, there are slight tweaks to the HTF and how it is spent, but in general it is considered sacrosanct.

Once in the HTF, interstate money is divided according to complex formulas that take into account things such as lane-miles of road, the number of  licensed drivers, ­priority programs for things like bridge replacements, and equity provisions to ensure that every state gets a minimum (currently guaranteed at 92 percent) of their contribution back. State transportation departments, which plan, build, and maintain the interstates, decide what they want to do and then pay for it; the federal share for interstate projects is 90 percent, 80 percent if no high-occupancy lanes are built.

Now, the HTF is running out of money….To match the rate of inflation and have the same value that the 18.4-cent tax did in 1993, the gas tax  would have to be increased to 28 cents per gallon.

Safe public roads are a government outlay that all but the most extreme “Atlas Shrugged”-thumpers can get behind, especially in the wake of a rush-hour bridge collapse like the 2007 Minneapolis I-35 bridge collapse. And yet the tax that pays for our interstates hasn’t even kept up with inflation. Increasing the price of gas may hurt Americans’ mobility in the short term, but not having an interstate system is the more dire long-term alternative.

Another downside to undertaxed gasoline, which explains the broad industry support for a gas tax hike, is that America’s cheap gas makes life hell for automotive product planners. Though this might actually be good for TTAC, as it would keep us well-stocked with stories of inventory issues and mis-timed products, we’re not that selfish. Recent history teaches us that the rate of increase or decrease in the price of gas, rather than the price itself, drives the market to the extremes of high and low fuel efficiency (as evidenced by he fact that last month’s hybrid sales fell despite gas prices hitting their 2008 price levels). Industry planners would rather see the price of gasoline taxed to a state to create sustainably steady price increases, eliminating some of the speculative swings in pricing, than to plan for lower efficiency and higher profits only to be caught flat-footed by a price shock. Also, bringing US gas prices into line with the rest of the world will help US market-dependent manufacturers develop truly global products. Finally, a gas tax increase would eliminate the need for the complex, loophole-ridden CAFE regime, which industry lobbyists say “only about six people in the US actually understand.” Lutz explains:

You either continue with inexpensive motor fuels and have to find other ways to incentivize the customer to buy hybrids and electric vehicles, such as the government credits. Or the other alternative is a gradual increase in the federal fuel tax of 25 cents a year, which in my estimation would have the benefit of giving automobile companies a planning base, and giving families that own vehicles a planning base. Every time gas prices go back down, everybody starts buying big stuff again. Gas prices go up a buck, the big stuff is unsellable and everyone wants small cars. Go figure. It’s like the collective memory is about three weeks long. We can’t run a business that way.

And then there’s the issue of “externalities,” or the unborn costs of cheap gasoline. One commonly-cited “hidden cost” of cheap gasoline is the US’s huge overseas military presence. Though the link between America’s military adventures and our low price of gas isn’t always obvious, our intervention in Libya shows how expensive interventions are often undertaken out of fear of a gas price shock. Since the cost of military action isn’t built into the price of gas, this amounts to a hidden cost. Furthermore, the military’s intensive use of gasoline has a multiplying effect on those costs, forcing Pentagon planners to seek ever-greater efficiency simply to maintain existing overseas deployments.

Another there are plenty of other externalities to cheap gasoline. As Akerson points out, CAFE puts the burden of efficiency on auto manufacturers, potentially costing manufacturing jobs, at a time when the oil industry has been immensely profitable. Furthermore, as the video above shows, pollution is another hidden cost of cheap gas. Like military interventions, the cost of health problems caused by pollution is largely born by taxpayers… another “hidden cost” that some estimates place at over a trillion dollars per year.

But the final externality is one that should stop the populist resistance to a gas tax in its tracks: if we don’t pay for our gas with more money, we will do so with our privacy. Going back to  the Highway Trust Fund, we find that the only alternative to an increase in the tax itself is the “Vehicle Miles Traveled” tax, a scheme that would require the government to track every single vehicle in the United States and tax it based on the miles traveled. Though in many ways a more fair system than a gas tax alone (as it apportions costs based on use of the infrastructure, without filtering it through the efficiency level of each individual car, the VMT tax scheme is an Orwellian nightmare waiting to happen. Though privacy is not at the height of its popularity at the moment, those who oppose any increase in the gas tax would do well to consider the implications of this alternative (Who does the data belong to? Will law enforcement get access? Will others be able to track you by piggy-backing onto the system?). Especially since no other alternative is even being seriously considered.

Ultimately, the tragic truth is that there may be no way to prevent this final “alternative” to the gas tax for the simple reason that, as efficiency improves towards zero gasoline use vehicles, gas tax revenue will eventually fall away to nothing. But that horizon could be pushed out twenty years if we recognize that not even indexing the gas tax to inflation is unsustainable and if we create a long term “glidepath” of predictably-increasing gas taxes. In this scenario, our highways could be maintained, some of the externalities of gasoline use could be mitigated, and the auto industry would have the predictability to plan products that use the remaining gasoline as efficiently as possible. Moreover, the US would not be taking on any special burden in the global picture, but would simply be joining the rest of the world in paying a more realistic price for our gasoline.

Any one of these arguments could be quibbled with, but at the end of the day, opposition to any increase in the gas tax can only be justified on the fear of short-term consequences that pale in comparison to the longer-term alternatives. Like the auto bailout, sacrificing long-term principles based on short-term fears betrays a lack of faith in America’s ability to innovate its way out of challenges. What’s the principle at stake here? Market function, for one thing, which is fundamentally perverted by willfully hidden externalities. How about the historically unprecedented mobility offered by our interstate system, not to mention the ability to enjoy that mobility without government surveillance? Global equity in an increasingly multipolar world, and environmental justice are other fine principles, if you’re into that kind of thing. Oh, and did we mention America’s swamped fiscal situation that is the backdrop to all of this?

Sadly, the reason a gas tax increase hasn’t happened isn’t because people don’t understand these issues. This isn’t a problem that can be solved by op-eds like this one. Taking on this issue will require a fundamental shift in how the gas tax and gas prices more generally are seen inside the beltway, and based on President Obama’s recent decision to release strategic oil reserves, that leadership is as AWOL as ever. And with an election looming, we’re more likely to see a gas tax holiday (as we did during the last presidential election) than any proposal for an increase in gas taxes. So, what’s the solution? Instead of just verbally supporting a gas tax increase, corporate leaders like Akerson who claim the policy is in their best interests need to stop throwing up their hands at the political challenge and start putting their money where their mouth is. The ideas behind a gas tax increase are so strong, even a moderately well-funded political action committee would at least be able to embarrass a few of the craven politicians who oppose this common-sense policy. You have to start somewhere…


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In Defense Of: The Mazda MX-5 Tue, 08 Feb 2011 23:31:09 +0000

In the rarefied world of auto journalism, EVO magazine has assumed a place at the top of the food chain, for its derring-do tales of “flat out motoring”, performance car snobbery of the highest order and rich douchebag “contributors” whose only qualification is owning an absurdly expensive car that masquerades as a “long term tester”.

Like foodies, hipsters and other urban vermin, the EVO crew clearly gets off on the elitism of motoring rather than the appreciation of an automobile or the joy of driving. Figures then, that Chris Harris, supposedly a thinking man’s Jeremy Clarkson, criticized the Mazda MX-5 as being “shit”. According to Harris, the Mazda is “slow, imprecise and unsatisfying”. On what planet?

Harris goes on to state

I don’t really see it as a sports car at all – it never feels like one through your legs, feet and bottom – because sportscars are supposed to be exciting. And the MX-5 isn’t exciting. An Elise is exciting because it’s a proper sports car, whereas the MX-5 is just a way of being a little more exposed to the elements.

Harris apparently has some kind of outside income, since he seems to drive a 997 GT3, which leads us to the inverse problem that most journalists have. Since many earn a meagre living and own crappy cars, everything feels amazing in relation to them. Harris, on the other hand, is effectively stating that the tuna tartar isn’t bluefin and therefore not fit for his consumption. It would be easy to dismiss this as a way of trolling to draw attention to the site, but our author claims that this isn’t the case. When prodded in the comments, he justifies his reasoning in a rather vague manner.

There’s a wallowy loose-ness to it as well: you turn, the bodyshell flexes, the steering column shifts, the suspension rubbers compress – it’s actually very hard to get feedback from the car at all. In this respect almost any hot hatch is better: certainly the 205s/AXs are much more appealing in the way they steer and respond.

If you couldn’t tell from the picture, I own a 1st generation Miata, and it’s been to the track on several occasions. I agree, it does feel a little soft but it’s also a 15-20 year old car. I haven’t had the pleasure of tracking the new car, but people I trust – and by that I mean people with competition licenses and racing experience, say it is lovely. For my money, I have yet to find anything more satisfying in a tactile way than my car. I find its small size helps me place the car wherever I want on a road course. I love the way I can feel what all four corners are doing, whether the front is about to push due to more throttle than necessary, or the subtle pulsating of the limited slip as it starts to lock.

And even though such a pursuit is considered to be the sole dominion of hairdressers and pantywaists, there is nothing like dropping the top on the first day of spring, cranking Abraxas through the not-bad headrest speakers and scaring a lady friend with (to borrow EVO’s most famous phrase) “a dab of oppo” while driving “flat out” through a highway ramp. I have taken my car to the track more than a few times, and have even had a successful club racer (the former coach and now rival of TTAC’s Jack Baruth, in fact) in the car as both a driver and instructor. Never once has he complained about a steering column flexing or bushings that crumble under load. Of course, a dumb North American auto journo couldn’t possibly suss out vehicle dynamics without the benefit of a blast up to Wales and back, so I’ll have to take his word for it.

Sure, there are so many better cars than my Miata. After say, the Ford Shelby GT500, it does feel like a tin can piece of crap, but really, what else can be expected? The same logic applies here. If all Harris does is drive the top echelon of sports cars, then an of course an entry-level roadster with a wheezing four-banger will feel “slow” and “imprecise”, especially if one’s daily mount is a 997 GT3, one of the all-time great sports cars.

In my teens, I loved EVO Magazine, because spouting off whatever opinions I read in it made me feel superior to other people when discussing cars. I thought that every car had to be a hardcore performance machine, and had grand visions of me wheeling my parents BMW 530i on full opposite lock, or lifting the inside rear wheel of their MKV Jetta 2.0T on the way to school. No surprise that I became an insufferable knob when it came to discussing the merits of automobiles. When a friend’s mom got a 128i convertible, I scoffed at the notion. Why wouldn’t she buy a 135i with the M Sport Package, 6-speed manual and Brembo brakes. It didn’t matter that she was over 50, used the car mostly for recreation and could not drive stick. Anything else was just not acceptable, not quite “EVO” enough.

I was too young to realize that the “Troy Queef” column in Sniff Petrol, one of my favourite online publications, directly lampooned the kind of breathlessly inane verbiage that is in EVO every single month without fail. The overwrought prose, the nonsensical, erudite English metaphors, the pumped-up tales of vehicular bravado, are all like the “Penthouse Letters” for auto geeks. When EVO first came on the scene, it was a welcome relief from the U.S. magazines full of Valentine One ads and “journalism” that hit as hard as yogurt flung from a drinking straw. Of course, jerking it to magazines and actually nailing porn stars are very different things, and rest assured the crew in England are firmly on the onanism side of the scale.

Since then, the magazine has become laughably predictable. Anything built for the “common man” will fare poorly – the latest Mercedes CLS500, a car that is by all accounts sublime scored 3.5 stars because

it’s precisely the car Merc wants it to be, but at the moment it’s not quite the car we want it to be.

Yes, Evo is supposed to be a performance magazine, but for 99.9% of the readership, who can’t afford or don’t drive a 964 much less a brand new Porsche, the CLS500 is beyond the amount of car they could ever need. Just to confirm I’m not ridiculous, they criticized the KTM X-Bow R for not being light enough, despite having a curb weight of around 1738 lbs and a 320 horsepower engine. With these kinds of standards, it’s not unreasonable to think that the MX-5 and its predecessors wouldn’t pass muster with the EVO crew. Conversely, it also shows us how irrelevant the “enthusiast” media is, as it delves from an accurate portrayal of how a vehicle behaves when pushed to the limits, to jerk-it fodder for the kind of people who like the image and identity attached to performance cars and high speed driving rather than the discipline, preparation and investment (mental, physical and monetary) that comes with it.

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Bumper Sticker of the Week! Thu, 13 Jan 2011 16:00:09 +0000
I spotted this sticker on a (disc brake-equipped) Nissan pickup in the parking lot of the San Jose North Pick-Your-Part during my last trip to California. While I do believe that drum brakes want to kill us all— I’m already hating the four-wheel/single-circuit drums on my ’66 Dodge A100 van— I still admire the cryptic sentiment expressed here.

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In Defense of Sex Sun, 03 Oct 2010 12:33:04 +0000

First off: Bertel needs no defense. I however felt compelled to write this editorial. Don’t you go thinking the latest round of “naughty” videos was all his idea. I egged him on. I think we are privileged to have him. So…

Standing ovation to our Bertel Schmitt. Bertel and I talked about this subject together. We arrived at the idea together. We knew we’d provoke a storm. But we thought it was worth it. I, however, chickened out. I asked that my name not be put on the article. I find myself now asking myself: Why? I’m not ashamed of it. I showed it to my wife. She made a face like, Oh boy! But she was not unduly bothered.

So… clap, clap your hands for having a guy with the guts to do it. I believe it’s a reflection of our times. The responses are, too. Even more so.

Cars and girls do go together. Sex sells. Not only that, sex is part of life. I for one, showed the post at work. To female colleagues. They laughed. One called the girl in the bikini commercial great. My boss saw it, too. She, and may I stress, she, laughed, too.

Don’t know why Americans are so uptight. The following videos NSFW!!! There you’ve been warned. In Brazil they certainly (by most everybody) are not considered porn. They passed on TV. On prime time TV. Racy? Maybe. Porn? Never. But if nudity offends you, don’t click on the play button. You have been warned.

So a campaign against breast cancer like the one in the video wouldn’t make it in America. Does it call attention against breast cancer? You betcha! But verboten in America. Notice the sponsors. Huge multinationals (Fiat) and a huge Brazilian bank. Yes a bank.

I ran into this one. I remember it very well. This commercial became famous the world over. Washington Olivetto, the man behind it, has been considered a genius because of it. Women cry when they see it, remembering their own experiences. No, couldn’t be shown in America. And America was a country that could make a movie like Pretty Baby or The Blue Lagoon. Well, once upon a time. Notice it’s from 1987. Delicate, innocent, sweet, classy if you ask me.

This one (embed disabled)  is for iNeon. It is the opening of a soap opera. That passed on Globo TV, which everybody, and I mean, everybody, watches. Everyday for months. At 7 pm. Notice it’s from 1987, too. Did it provoke controversy? Sure. Nobody died though.

The song by the way (for the soap opera opening) is from a band called Ultraje a Rigor. The song is called Pelado (Naked). The lyrics are wise because they make a mockery of how such things are so small when compared to everything that goes on.

I got so inspired and the lyrics seemed so fitting to the situation that I made a rough translation:

Que legal nós dois – How cool, both of us here
Pelados aqui – Naked
Que nem me conheceram – the same way they got to know me
O dia que eu nasci - the day I was born
Que nem no banho – the same way I am in the shower
Por baixo da etiqueta – underneath all the etiquette
É sempre tudo igual – everything is always the same
O curioso e a xêreta – the curious guy and the nosy gal
Que gostoso, sem frescura -  how yummy, no bullshit

Sem disfarce, sem fantasia – with no disguise, no fantasy
Que nem seu pai, sua mãe – the same as your father, your mother
Seu avô, sua tia… – your grandfather, your aunt

Indecente – Indecent
É você ter que ficar – is having to be
Despido de cultura – without access to culture
Dai não tem jeito – then there’s no way
Quando a coisa fica dura – when the “thing” gets hard
Sem roupa, sem saúde - without clothes, without health care
Sem casa, tudo é tão imoral – without housing, everything is so immoral
A barriga pelada – a naked tummy
É que é a vergonha nacional – is what’s the national shame
Vai! – Go!
Chorus - Refrão
Pelado, pelado – Naked, naked
Nú com a mão no bolso – Nude, with my hand in my pocket
Pelado, pelado – Naked, naked
Nú com a mão no bolso – Nude, with my hand in my pocket
Pelado, pelado – Naked, naked
Nú com a mão no bolso – Nude, with my hand in my pocket
Nú com a mão no bolso – Nude, with my hand in my pocket
Nú com a mão no bolso – Nude, with my hand in my pocket
Nú com a mão no bolso – Nude, with my hand in my pocket
Nú com a mão no bolso – Nude, with my hand in my pocket
Nú com a mão no bolso – Nude, with my hand in my pocket
Nuzinho pelado – Very naked, naked
Nú com a mão no bolso! – Nude, with my hand in my pocket

Note: Nu com a mão no bolso can also be translated as stark naked. Here I think the guys from the band are playing with words and commenting on the lack of money. They’re saying this is immoral, not the human body.

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Panther Appreciation Week: Defining Panther Love Thu, 23 Sep 2010 19:07:03 +0000

As someone who has driven over 300,000 non-livery, private-owner miles in various iterations of Ford’s Panther, TTAC’s Panther Appreciation Week struck a bittersweet chord for me. I’ve enjoyed seeing this versatile vehicle-from-another-era get the admiration and respect I believe it deserves, and the peek at the other side of the philosophical coin – courtesy of some Best & Brightest commentators (and Paul) – has also been interesting. But this tribute to the platform’s imminent demise has saddened me, as it highlights how the Panther has represented such a stoic constant on North American roads for so many years. Regardless, change is the only true constant, and it won’t be long before the pride of St. Thomas Assembly is irretrievably crushed by the ever-advancing juggernaut of modernity. Standing at the precipice of this retirement, I feel compelled to look at what the Panther has meant, both in my life, and in the market over these past three decades.

First off, full disclosure: At nine years old, I learned to drive in an ’81 Country Squire wagon, so it goes without saying that the big cat’s claws are forever embedded in my heart. From there, Panther proximity became less a sentimental thing and more an association of convenience: with a top Ford-Lincoln-Mercury salesman for a father, these cars were just always around. This made possible multiple Panther memories, including:

* Counting down the New Year in 1987 with eight members of my extended family in an ’85 Colony Park wagon after being rear-ended in traffic at 11:45 p.m.

* Reaching for an ’86 Crown Vic rear door handle after my first involuntary police car ride (for driving without a license) and realizing it wasn’t there

* Getting my first speeding ticket (83 in a 35) at 16 in a brown ’84 Grand Marquis

* Driving an old lady’s ‘85 Crown Vic like a maniac to an emergency animal hospital (to no avail)

* Arriving at my senior prom in a dark green ’89 Town Car that exactly matched my suit

* Buying my first non-Thunderbird – a white ’92 Crown Vic – and velcroing a big blue coffee cup to the dash so I’d look like a cop (much fun ensued)

* Being so impressed with the ’92 that I bought a ’95 Crown Vic

* Being so impressed with the ’95 that I purchased an ’01 Grand Marquis

* Riding in one of several hundred P71 Police Interceptors in my killed-in-the-line-of-duty cousin’s police funeral

* Watching my ’01 Grand Marquis hit 200,000 miles last week, knowing that it’s not unreasonable to expect 100,000 more

Throughout all of this, I had a ring-side seat to how Panthers performed in the market, courtesy of my dad’s occupation. From the “more luxurious/expensive/profitable-by-the-pound” successful early years, to the emergence of the “old person’s car” connotation, to the de-contented fleet stripper it ultimately became, watching this compromised-but-never-compromising, confounding-but-always-confident icon of mid-century American auto design outlast its market segment was as comforting as Rush Limbaugh is to a Republican.

It should be said, though, that some part of the Panther’s longevity stems from functional nostalgia – my current car seats six, pulls a trailer, swallows massive amounts of cargo, and regularly returns and honest-to-goodness 20 miles per gallon in mixed city/suburban/highway driving. Don’t even mention the ease of maintenance and lowest-on-earth cost/availability of replacement parts. Utility-wise, I’d put a used Marquis up against a comparably-pre-owned CUV any day of the week, and the Mercury would win on value every time (and cost several Grand less doing it).

Of course, the Panther platform has its (many) (glaring) faults, and if you point these out, I certainly won’t argue. I know the rear seat should be roomier and that the rear doors should open wider. I’m aware that making the car handle like a “modern automobile” is difficult and quickly becomes a nightmare of diminishing returns. And yes, to be a big, old-fashioned luxo-barge, it should ride better. Nevertheless, those that assail the Panther based on such observations miss the object of their objectivism: Supposing that the standards of automotive preference are truly standardized is just as fallacious as the fan-boy fanaticism that fuels these critics’ ire.

What I mean is that the things people love about their cars – and cars in general – is paradoxically different, and the same. To wit: the track-day superstar gives the same loving glance back at his Lotus after a day of hot-lapping as the gentle octogenarian does to his ’54 Oldsmobile after an evening reminiscing at the drive-in.

I think guys like Jay Leno have the right attitude. They celebrate automotive enthusiasm in multiple contexts, allowing for the fact that what is good in one context may not be in another. And no, that’s not relativism – good and bad both still exist in such a paradigm, more attention is just paid to what’s an apple and what’s an orange. Probably, the Panther would get a fairer shake from such a perspective than by being compared to current mass-market offerings like the Camry or the LaCrosse.

When automotive history looks back to situate the Panther, I hope it will be judged as a good car for its time, and one that kept delivering value – both to its manufacturer and to its owner – long after that time ended. But I know it will be remembered as one thing if nothing else: a survivor.

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In Defense (Defence?) Of Top Gear Mon, 09 Aug 2010 15:22:25 +0000

I ought to start this article off with the reasons as to why I decided to write this article. I got scalded recently for criticizing Jack Baruth’s article on why Top Gear USA will fail. On reflection, the scalding was well earned. It’s a bit unprofessional to criticize a fellow worker’s work no matter how much you disagree with it.

But this set off a light bulb in my head. Why should I post a comment about why I disagree with an article, and get browbeaten, if I can write an article of my own, highlighting my thoughts? Isn’t that the American way? Why give something away for free, when you can sell it?

But before I proceed, I ought to clarify that I’m not going to advocate why Top Gear USA will fail. That’s another topic completely. I’m going to talk about my reasons as to why I think Top Gear is all right.

Top Gear does something which few shows do: capture our imaginations. Say what you want about these awful reality shows (America’s next supermodel, American Idol, America’s got talent, etc), but everyone watches for one reason, to see an underdog story come true. Want proof? Look at the Susan Boyle video.

And this is what Top Gear does. It shows us what deep down we’d all love to do, if we were given a budget of their size. I would love to do a cheap car challenge with my friends which (nearly always) ends up destroying the car in some fashion. Or do a race across Europe. Or build an amphibious vehicle.

Now many criticize Top Gear for not catering to “normal people” and not doing enough “proper reviews”. But wouldn’t that be defeating the object, somewhat? When Top Gear WAS doing reviews of Vauxhall Vectras and Toyota Corollas (A.K.A “Old” Top Gear) did it capture the imaginations of people around the world?

There were probably a thousand other shows on American TV doing exactly the same thing, so what would have made “Old” Top Gear distinguishable from the rest? In fact, I find it strange that it’s normally “petrol heads” who criticize Top Gear for not doing enough reviews on “normal cars”.

You’d have thought, showing Lamborghini Gallardos doughnutting and Bugatti Veyron being maxxed out would get the petrol in their veins flowing? But no, what they actually want to see is a Honda Civic being tested on whether it has the best boot space in its class. Yeah, right(!)

Top Gear  talks more about the car industry as a whole. They criticized the car scrappage scheme in the UK for not being environmentally sound, they moan about speed cameras & various new motoring laws and the price of petrol. These are topics WE’VE talked about on TTAC.

But for some reason, it’s fine for us to talk about it because “we’re The Truth About Cars and we’re committed to telling the truth about the car industry”, but when Top Gear does it, it’s seen as silly and frivolous.

Now as I mentioned earlier, the reason (I believe) for Top Gear’s success is the way it captured people’s imagination. Top Gear started doing stunts which, quite frankly, people hadn’t seen before on any show. Can anyone name a TV show (I won’t even say “car show”, just any show) before Top Gear which did stunts like this:

  • Race an Aston Martin DB9 against the Eurostar/TGV to Monte Carlo, France?
  • Cross the English Channel in an amphibious vehicle?
  • Have a road trip across South America?
  • Race a Ferrari 612 Scaglietti against a plane to Verbier, Switzerland?
  • Try to see if they could go from London to Edinburgh and back again onone tank of fuel?
  • Race a Mercedes-McClaren SLR against a boat to Oslo, Norway?
  • Try to destroy a Toyota Hilux?
  • Race a Bugatti Veyron against a Cessna 182 to London, UK?
  • Try to send a Reliant Robin into space? (I doubt anyone had the budget to do that!)
  • Have a road trip across Africa?
  • Race a Nissan GT-R against the Shinkansen Bullet Train across Japan?
  • Race a Toyota Hilux against a dog sled to the North Pole?
  • Drag-raced a Bugatti Veyron against a Euro Fighter Typhoon Jet?

All of these stunts/races were thing people had rarely seen on TV, let alone on a car show. Now we come to the “Star in the reasonably priced car” segment. I’m going to gloss over the comments who say that it contains a load of British stars who they don’t know, because if you remember it’s a British show with, well, British stars.

My criticism stems from the petrol heads who see this part as the bit which could easily be cut out of the show. But I believe this segment has merit. Now, I’m not a fan of “celebrity culture”. I couldn’t give a toss what Madonna has been doing for her lunch. But a lot of people do care. As TTAC commentator Tricky Dicky eloquently puts it “The whole point of the ‘Star in the Reasonably Priced Car’ is NOT to deliver a benchmarkable assessment of driving skills, it is to get another angle on a celebrity doing something outside of their comfort zone.”

No-one actually cares if Michael Gambon has a perfect driving line. In fact, quite the opposite, we WANT to see how bad celebrities actually drive. And at the very worst, this segment has given us one thing. Andy Garcia, Tom Cruise, Cameron Diaz and Jeff Goldblum driving a Kia C’eed. What other show has done that?!

Now is Top Gear perfect as it is? Hardly. Top Gear has thrown some clunkers our way. The bit where they tried to make their own electric car was painful to watch as it didn’t tell us anything and was quite unfunny. The caravanning episode, whilst funny, told us what we already knew; that caravanning is utter misery.

But even “The Sopranos” had some dud episodes, too (“Pine Barrens” springs to mind). To say Top Gear is brilliant all the time, tells us that,

1. There’s no room for improvement (which there clearly is!) and

2. You’re believing the hype.

Top Gear is a great show, but is it without fault? No.

So, there you have it, my case for why Top Gear should be given a great deal of respect for what it has done. It has got people who weren’t that interested in cars, interested in cars. And surely that can’t be a bad thing?

Disclaimer: Cammy Corrigan is fully aware that this article may end her writing career, but still went ahead with it. With a little TOO much encouragement from Bertel Schmitt, who said: “I’m a sucker for career-ending stories.”

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In Defense Of The Chevrolet Volt Mon, 02 Aug 2010 21:41:56 +0000

[Editor's note: In the absence of an official rebuttal to Edward Niedermeyer's NY Times Op-Ed on the Chevrolet Volt, TTAC's own Ken Elias has volunteered to come to the Volt's defense.]

The Chevy Volt should be a brilliant piece of engineering achievement if it works as advertised.  That’s a big “if” and I wouldn’t bet my life that GM’s first iteration of the car will live up to the hype.  And that’s only because of the long string of overhyped vehicles that came out of the former GM that simply never delivered.  But that’s three decades of history talking – and GM’s a new company today with a different mindset and competitive spirit.  Its newest products – the LaCrosse, SRX, Equinox, and Camaro for example – have been well received by the public and there’s no shame putting one of these rigs in your driveway.  So let’s start out giving GM the benefit of the big doubt that the new Volt will work as advertised.

If that’s the case, then does the $41,000 price tag make sense?  Sure it does since most of us aren’t going to buy one so the price tag is irrelevant.  That sticker price is just for show – the real deal is the three year lease at $350/month and that’s a super competitive price.  It’s about the same as one would pay for a low end Honda Accord lease and that’s a low $20k car.  In all reality, the actual cost of amortizing the development costs of the technology plus the specialized parts likely far exceeds the sticker price of the Volt and will do so until unit volume achieves mass market demand – and that’s the real goal when the second and third generations come to market.

When Toyota first assembled and sold the Prius in 2000 in the States (1997 in Japan) you can bet that the price tag of the car was well below that real cost of the car.  How much is a corporate secret – but Toyota was deathly afraid that Bill Clinton’s accelerated investment in advanced technology programs in the 1990’s would give the domestic OEMs a chance to gain a leg up on Toyota.  (And while some think that the first Prius cost only $32k per copy – well that was just for the parts.)  It was a huge bet by Toyota that its Hybrid Synergy Drive would eventually form the basis of a new generation of vehicles which would allow it to remain competitive with whatever came out of Detroit.  Looking back, we didn’t get much from Clinton’s investment other than encouraging Toyota to make the leap and jumpstart the entire hybrid movement.  (And again, we don’t know what kind of funding Toyota if any it may have gotten from its government.  No point telling anyone now is there?)

The question of whether it made sense for GM to continue investing in the Volt before and after the bankruptcy is also irrelevant.  For starters, the old GM was going to go broke whether or not it poured money into the Volt.  So dropping the Volt then may have given GM a few more days of life although GM had countless holes where it was bleeding cash so it’s impossible to know.  The bankruptcy outcome for GM was preordained by 2005 or thereabouts anyway (if you were an early TTAC reader).  And throwing taxpayer money at the Volt during and after the bankruptcy – even if the PTFOA thought it was too expensive for commercial success – misses the point too.  It’s a disruptive technology that over time could significantly alter gasoline usage in this country for a large segment of drivers.  And that’s the real goal after all, isn’t it?

We have to look at the low volume production of the first gen Volt as merely an “on the road” experiment to perfect the technology.  As with any new technology (e.g., the Prius), the second and third generations of the Volt will be the real winners as component prices fall, volumes increase, and sales start to generate real profits.  Of course, the price tag will have to drop as well since it’s a better economic decision to buy a new Cruze for $17k and put gas into it until the wheels fall off rather than invest $34,000 (net of tax credits) in a new Volt today.

Comparing the Nissan Leaf to the Chevy Volt makes no sense whatsoever.  For starters, the Leaf has potential only for those folks that have no fear of range anxiety – that is those that have a defined commute each day (and maybe 60 miles tops round trip) and have no extra-curricular needs for their car.  One can count on both hands the likely number of Americans that fit that description.  Oh yea, you had better to remember to plug it in each night or else it’s a no-go the following morning.  The Volt overcomes that objection easily – forget to plug it in, no problem.  Need to drive more than the allotted battery power – no problem.  No charging station nearby – no problem.  Want to take a weekend trip – no problem.  It just makes sense to get a Volt rather than a Leaf if the lease prices are the same.

So let’s not worry if a couple of billion dollars of taxpayer money went into the Volt.  For starters, there’s a chance we’ll get back the bulk of the money anyways.  And taxpayer credits?  Heck, lots of industries have benefited from such programs before.  Why single out the Volt?  Even the Leaf will qualify for credits.  We just have to hope that GM can lead the way in technology – and that will make us all better off.

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Farewell Mercury Thu, 03 Jun 2010 15:00:22 +0000

If you scan the autoblogosphere on a regular basis, you’ve read some half-hearted eulogies to the best and worst of Mercury. Fair enough, as the Mercury brand deserves every one of those backhanded compliments: sharing too much content with a comparable Fords and (sometimes) sharing too many styling cues with the Lincolns means it couldn’t die off without a dig or two. And it is an easy target: aside from the (lead-sled) post war Yuppie clientele that inspired Mercury’s creation, the original sleeky-Sable and a few old Cougars, this was bound to happen.

But obviously my love for Mercury (here, here, and here) means I’m not going to bury Mercury, but to praise it. And to make sure the brand remains in our collective consciousness just as long as it’s GM counterpart, Pontiac. Wishful thinking, Mehta?

Perhaps I can make it happen: by telling the tale of two Cougars. More to the point, two Cougars owned by the Mehta family: a 1967 Cougar XR-7 with the GT package, and a 2002 Cougar V6 MTX with the Premium package. Both are remarkably un-badge engineered Mercury products, looking like neither a Ford nor a Lincoln. Or any other car, for that matter. Both cats are surprisingly competent and well-crafted machines for their time to boot.

And both found their new leases on life just in time. The ’67 needed a full restoration, and my brother (TTAC’s DoctorV8) went to medical school for (among other things) this reason: to spend ridiculous amounts of money for a restomod Cougar that’ll make ’69 Camaros crap their pants. Think fully independent suspension with Wilwood stoppers, a 6-speed stick and something called a BOSS 529 (that’s right, 529) motor from Mr. John Kasse. Wrap it in a stock looking body and toss in a vintage interior with modern gadgets, and this 600+ horse Cougar shall combine the best luxury elements of a Lincoln with the raw power of a Ford. The coming months will tell.

The 2002 Cougar is more of that madness, in a more controversial package. No doubt, the “New Edge” Cougar has plenty of haters. But nobody will deny the Euro-Cat’s excellent underpinnings from the similarly excellent Ford Mondeo. And while my ‘02 Cougar is a freebie, a gift from a friend who endured a catastrophic engine failure common to V6 Cougars/Contours, the parts and labor involved is anything but effortless. And while the B&B is ever-so-savvy, this Kitten’s got some tricks up its sleeve that’ll surprise everyone.

The stock 2.5L Cougar short block is gone, replaced with a Taurus 3.0L lump turning a wicked 11:1 compression ratio. Ceramic coated headers and a host of SVT Contour upgrades (cam shafts, oil cooler, air box, radiator, etc) made their way under the hood, and so did an original Contour transaxle with a Quaife differential and rod linkage for the shifter. And that gearbox makes this Cougar a 1 of 1, not likely to be duplicated again. And with (an expected) 250+ horses, low-14s in the quarter mile and close to 30MPG, that’s a damn shame. I can’t wait to prowl the streets in this sleeper: a little more computer tuning and it shall happen.

All things considered, this cat has the functional upgrades that made the Mercury Cougar “S” a sweetheart concept car over a decade ago. And while the Sport Compact market was actually fading, the Cougar “S” had a chance to be a sales champ, relative to the mundane sheetmetal cursing the rest of the Mercury lineup. Mercury coulda been a contender if they stuck with what made the Euro-Cat so interesting. Perhaps an American VW was in the making. But it wasn’t.

Ford did an admirable job destroying a mid-level luxury brand with a slim chance of redemption. Mercury deserved better, for it wasn’t terminally ill like Saturn, or pushed in different directions like Pontiac: it had no direction whatsoever. And with a Ford family member behind it, there was the management fortitude to fix this brand. But no matter what Mercury did, FoMoCo’s $40,000 Ford Taurus Limiteds and $32,000 Lincoln Zephyrs/MKZs sealed its fate. Maybe the entire brand should have passed away when the Cougar ran extinct in 2002.

I’d normally request that Mercury should rest in peace, but let’s be clear about one thing: my Cougars will never let that happen. They are the first and the last of a species, as Dylan Thomas wrote:

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rage at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,

Because their words had forked no lightning they

Do not go gentle into that good night.

DSC08374_1280x960 DSC08375_1280x960 IMG_1727_1280x960 IMG_1729_1280x960 IMG_1731_1280x960 It was the best of brands, the worst of brands...

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Toyota Aren’t Number One … In Recalls Tue, 16 Feb 2010 11:46:19 +0000

According to popular wisdom, the flood of recalls will change Toyota and will permanently damage Toyota’s market share in the United States (much like what happened to Mitsubishi and their cover up scandal). But there are some people who believe (like I do) that this is “man bites dog” journalism. That the Toyota recall (whilst serious) is being blown out of proportion. It seems that other people are starting to see it that way.

US Recall News‘ reason for being is recalls. They would be dead without recalls. US Recall News has written an article that says that the real recall bogeyman doesn’t live in Toyota City, but in Detroit. The identity of the true bogeyman’s name may surprise some.

US Recall News’ article starts off rather reasonably:

“Toyota led the pack for recalls in 2009 with over 4.8 million units recalled across both the Toyota and Lexus brand names. And 2010 already puts Toyota as a front-runner so far with its Prius recall of over 437,000 units and the subsequent recall of over 4.5 million units for various problems. A Tacoma recall of 8,000 units was added to Toyota’s bill on February 15 as well.”

Nothing contentious there, but then, it takes a sudden turn:

“But wait – is the hype more bark than bite? While 5 million units for the Japanese automaker may seem like a sea of cars, there’s another car manufacturer that trumps Toyota in total recalls over time”

Your best guess in 5 – 4 – 3 – 2 – 1

Time’s up, let’s take a look at the answer:

“Since the NHTSA started keeping records, Ford Motors has recalled over 20 million vehicles, the highest recall year being 1996 with over 7.6 million units. Thus, while the current recall hype might be news to the US consumer who favors Japanese models over their American counterpart, the news of Toyota’s 5 million units recalled could be overshadowed by Ford’s recall history.”

A partial breakdown of Ford’s recalls is then given, from 1972 when Ford recalled over 4 million cars for defective seat belts to cruise control issues of the new millennium.  In fact, the article sticks the boot further into Ford by mentioning that the Dearborn boys barely averted a total meltdown:

“2005 wasn’t such a great year for Ford in the recall department, either. While we’re at it, we should mention 2009 as well. Both years resulted in a recall of 4.5 million units each for Ford, and were directly related to cruise control malfunctions. Had the NHTSA combined these incidents into a single report, it would have been the largest recall of all time with an estimated 14 million Ford / Mercury vehicles affected.”

But don’t think that this TTAC article is just here to pour water on Ford being on fire recently (are they on fire due to one of their cruise controls?) You see, despite Ford dwarfing Toyota in the recall stakes, Ford are making huge strides in quality and reliability and are now being thought of in the same vein as Toyota and Honda. Which shows that you can turn a perception gap around. So, things aren’t that bleak for Toyota and is it totally within reason that they can get back on top and put “acceler-gate” (copyright Cammy Corrigan) behind them. Then they can start worrying about Hyundai.

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The Pretty Side Of Honda Mon, 18 Jan 2010 08:30:09 +0000 Chart courtesy

There has been a lot of, well, criticism, of Honda on these pages lately, including allegations that Honda had lost it. So far, more that fifty of the Best & Brightest offered advice on how to save the company from certain annihilation.

Today’s Nikkei says “domo arigato gozaimashita” for all the support, and runs a different story: “Honda Motor Co. has emerged from the economic turmoil at the head of the pack, thanks in good part to a nimble production network that can meet the latest consumer preferences at relatively low cost.” Here is why.

Honda Market Share USA Subcompacts 2009. Picture courtesy to the Nikkei, Honda retooled its U.S. production operations in a mere six months last year, responding to the sudden demand for smaller vehicles. As the chart shows, the realignment translated into a substantial share of the U.S. subcompact market.

It is also the reason for Honda being “the only major Japanese maker likely to score a net profit” in the current fiscal year, says the Nikkei.

Capacity utilization rates at some facilities have been boosted by as much as 20 percent. In the current fiscal year, which ends March, Honda will most likely report an overall utilization rate of 79 percent, highest among Japan’s three largest automakers. In the industry, anything above 80 percent utilization is considered healthy. Given the worldwide capacity utilization, estimated to be between 50 and 60 percent, 79 percent are short of a miracle.

Honda can make smChart courtesy and large vehicles on the same production lines. All it needs is a quick change of welding pieces, paint nozzles and other components.

Not only the Nikkei is impressed with Honda, the stock market likes Honda as well. At the time of this typing, Honda’s stock (HMC) changed hands for $36.90 at the New York Stock Exchange, eclipsing its pre-carmageddon highs.

Honda may have “ugly styling highlighted by uglier front grilles; a hybrid system that simply isn’t as advanced and effective as Toyota’s; a bloated Accord; no new direct injection engines; lots of muddling about future EVs; and a misplaced optimism about fuel cells,” as Edward Niedermeyer wrote it.

However, Honda’s stock chart, a market capitalization of $67.7b, and a near-pornographic P/E of 47.92 on the other hand are a sight to be seen. Maybe you shouldn’t have bought the Insight. But you would be very pleased if you would have had the foresight to buy the Honda stock in December of 2008. You could have doubled your money.

Or, looking at the chart and all that’s wrong with the company, maybe it’s time to short HMC?

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Editorial: Collector Car Market: The Sky Hasn’t Fallen; Just a Few Prices Fri, 11 Sep 2009 13:07:49 +0000

In a recent news article, RF stated: "…here’s another story where the web pulls the rug from under auto industry types seeking to hide the truth. We’ve been saying it forever (in Internet terms): the collector car market has collapsed. Well, duh. But the mainstream media and specialist press has both been happy to perpetuate the myth perpetuated by the auction houses that their business has been defying gravity. See? Cars are selling for phenomenal prices! Meanwhile, Hagerty’s CARS THAT MATTER is telling readers to pay attention to the men behind the curtain." In truth, the men behind the curtains are not the market. They are middlemen. They extract a percentage from every participant they can find to witness their activities; Buyer, Seller, hell, even the gawkers have to pay to watch the show. The auction houses are, in ecological terms, parasites on the very market they claim to serve. Like any parasite their success has a tendency to cause harm to their host. These guys are tarted up used cars salesmen. That, and the recent transformation of the car auction into a three ring circus, is what is killing the auction companies, and it has absolutely nothing to do with the collector cars being sold.]]>

In a recent news article, RF stated: “…here’s another story where the web pulls the rug from under auto industry types seeking to hide the truth. We’ve been saying it forever (in Internet terms): the collector car market has collapsed. Well, duh. But the mainstream media and specialist press has both been happy to perpetuate the myth perpetuated by the auction houses that their business has been defying gravity. See? Cars are selling for phenomenal prices! Meanwhile, Hagerty’s CARS THAT MATTER is telling readers to pay attention to the men behind the curtain.” In truth, the men behind the curtains are not the market. They are middlemen. They extract a percentage from every participant they can find to witness their activities; Buyer, Seller, hell, even the gawkers have to pay to watch the show. The auction houses are, in ecological terms, parasites on the very market they claim to serve. Like any parasite their success has a tendency to cause harm to their host. These guys are tarted up used cars salesmen. That, and the recent transformation of the car auction into a three ring circus, is what is killing the auction companies, and it has absolutely nothing to do with the collector cars being sold.

All these moves created an artificial market bubble where some people were proven to be fools, easily separated from their money. It successfully convinced them that a machine mass-produced by the hundreds of thousands could have rarity based on factory options. They achieved this by wining, dining, and blinding those fools with the bright lights of live TV coverage. In an era where celebrity is valued above wisdom, why not go for fame and throw a few hundred grand at that Mopar?

Smelling blood in the water, and seeing the resulting feeding frenzy themselves, more parasites attach themselves to the market. Builders and restorers taking less-valued stock from that mass-production pool of used cars and create a host of dubious offerings for the auction block. “Resto-mods.” “Tribute” cars. “Continuation” cars. As a bonus, many of them even turn this activity into TV shows, attaching themselves to the celebrity culture.

Finally even the manufacturers themselves got into the game. Selling the first cars off the lines at auctions. Selling off their own collections. The final insult to both the auction houses and to their own lack of vision: Building retro-cars and selling straight to the consumer.

This whole collection of players created a market-within-a-market, and it inflated too far, too fast to sustain itself. That is what has collapsed. In a decade we might call it “The Muscle Car Bubble” or maybe “The Baby Boom Bubble.” Like all economic downturns a few of the “innocent” were harmed in the collapse, but mostly the damage, deservedly so, has been contained within the bubble’s sphere of influence.

The collector car market is, and always will be, healthy. Collector cars are not beanie babies or Pokémon cards. Automobiles have aesthetic appeal and genuine practical use. They have intrinsic value, both as a utilitarian object, and as a stylistic example of what happens when engineers and designers create something. Sir William Lyons, the man behind Jaguar, once said, “The car is the closest thing we will ever create to something that is alive.”

There is palpable inspiration and creativity expressed in the form of the automobile. People who love cars will always want, buy, and sell them. Private sales make up the vast majority of all collector car transactions, and the Internet is transforming that market from a local to a global phenomena accessible by anyone, anywhere. Car auctions are also dying for the same reason swap meets, car clubs, and buff-books are. You can browse the whole planet’s supply of cars, parts, and automobilia from your laptop or cell phone. On your schedule, at minimal cost. Craigslist has far more reach and power than Craig Jackson. Google will find what you want better than Gooding.

The Collector Car Market hasn’t collapsed. It merely sheds excess now and then when parasitic traders come in and inflate a bubble such as we’ve seen recently. There are top tier collector cars and there are pedestrian collector cars. Duesenbergs and Delahayes will always have value, as will ‘Cudas and Camaros. Only when the latter types start trading at prices near the former you have a market as artificial as testicles hanging off a truck.

Smart people and smart money were never in the bubble anyway. The market survives. Smart auction houses will even survive the stupidity of some of their brethren. Those that haven’t fallen into the trap of celebrity culture glitz will continue to bring buyers and sellers together for as long as there are titles to trade along with the hardware. What we are seeing is the deserving death of a small portion of the market. Couldn’t have happened to a more deserving bunch.

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In Defense of . . . the United Auto Workers (UAW) Wed, 29 Jul 2009 02:04:58 +0000

This website has stood out front in condemning the pro-corporate cowardice of the paper car mags, and rightly so. But when they show some courage and get it right, they deserve a shout-out. In the proud TTAC tradition of recognizing all viewpoints, I salute Jamie Kitman’s latest column in Automobile. Kitman’s point: the United Auto Workers (UAW) make a handy whipping boy, but contrary to the new conventional wisdom, they are not the Great Satan that sank our auto industry. In fact, the money the UAW made for decades was a good thing. “Courage,” you say? If you’re like many here, that’s not the adjective you’d use . . .]]>

This website has stood out front in condemning the pro-corporate cowardice of the paper car mags, and rightly so. But when they show some courage and get it right, they deserve a shout-out. In the proud TTAC tradition of recognizing all viewpoints, I salute Jamie Kitman’s latest column in Automobile. Kitman’s point: the United Auto Workers (UAW) make a handy whipping boy, but contrary to the new conventional wisdom, they are not the Great Satan that sank our auto industry. In fact, the money the UAW made for decades was a good thing. “Courage,” you say? If you’re like many here, that’s not the adjective you’d use . . .

You probably think about the auto workers union something more along the lines of “pinko Keynesian socialism.” We’re talking world-class wages for the lazy, shiftless louts who famously tied beer cans inside the fender as a practical joke on the buyer? The same bums whose panel gaps were so sloppy, it’s a wonder said can didn’t simply fall out in the second month of ownership?

Not so fast. Consider this: the heyday of the UAW just happened to be the heyday of the American auto industry, whose vitality we now mourn. It was Henry Ford himself who actively overpaid his workers by his era’s standards, so they could afford his company’s products. (Compare that to today, when Wall Street punishes Costco for doing the same.) For decades, the UAW was the mechanism by which America’s working class continued to share in the auto titans’ prosperity.

And what did those bums do with their ill-gotten gains? They became what those same corporate media organs (I’m looking at you, military-contractor GE employee Tom Brokaw) lionize today as The Greatest Generation. The generation that broke Nazism, built Levittown, beat polio, and put more of their kids through college than any generation before.

What made this generation of Americans so Great when they banded together to give up their bodies to the corporate war machine, yet such unpatriotic slobs when they banded together to resist the economic might of the corporate industrial machine? Perhaps the answer we’ve all accepted as gospel has something to do with the seven corporations who now own virtually every medium where you’ll hear the story.

But crack open a few dusty, pre-media-oligopoly history books. You’ll get a quick reminder that there was nothing casual—and a whole lot that was courageous—about the drive to unionize American factories. Workers in places like Haymarket literally gave their lives to get out from under rich industrialists’ thumbs. That isn’t the kind of passion that’s prompted by compulsive laziness.

So why did they do it? If you think this is a shopworn parable about an obsolete problem, consider how our largest retail corporation has made billionaires of its owners by selling us merchandise made by Chinese sweatshop laborers whose average—average—wage is 13 cents an hour.

Those owners have a choice, you know. They could make the choice Henry Ford made. The same choice Detroit’s workers enforced on their employers for decades, to the enduring benefit of the nation. The same choice Costco makes today. They just don’t want to.

Our economy is sinking in a deflationary spiral, precisely because the loss of jobs has sapped consumers’ buying power. Yet, as we slowly feel the quicksand rise past our chins, our last gurgled oaths are damnations cast on ourselves and each other for having ever greedily wanted to keep our jobs.

IM(not especially)HO, you can’t discuss The Truth About Cars without confronting The Truth About Car Workers. And like it or not, that truth leads you straight into the economics of class warfare.

The people who crucify this President for trying to keep America’s #1 middle-class job source alive are the same ones whose pet publications think nothing of trillion-dollar handouts to Wall Street. On the altar of this cold-blooded religion, they’re eager to sacrifice the easy target of a clumsy, mismanaged, uncompetitive Big 2-1/2. As for the millions whose lives dissolve into poverty, alcoholism and suicide when their sustenance is stripped away? Merely the collateral damage of some healthy “creative destruction.”

Ultimately, that’s where I can’t get on board with the gleeful UAW-basher crowd. All we hear today is that American citizens by the tens of millions can be fecklessly reduced to the gutter, but the artificial corporate entities we created to enhance the general welfare are somehow “too big to fail.” Pity is, the people pushing this pro-corporate groupspeak don’t realize their god is as uninterested in their faith—or their fate—as that funky bird-beaked statue Yul Brynner beseeches for plague relief in The Ten Commandments.

You know how that story ended, right? His son died anyway, and nobody cared.

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Editorial: In Defense of . . . Cash4Clunkers Sat, 13 Jun 2009 12:17:22 +0000

Well, it looks like the American version of cash-for-clunkers is going to get past Capitol Hill, and I find myself conflicted. On the one hand, I'm getting a little sick and extra wary of more money going to prop up auto sales (I figure there is going to have to be a real reckoning before things can get better, and I'm leaning toward letting it happen). On the other hand, considering what it is (actual law-to-be and not an academic case study) this is about as good a clear-the-clunkers bill as we're going to get. The New York Times Freakonomics blogger Steven Levitt looked at this one on Friday (I went over Germany's version in February). Just about everything he says is true, but there is one point he missed (and was nice enough to call attention to) that throws the whole argument in opposition out of whack. We'll get there, but first, what's right about it?]]>

Well, it looks like the American version of cash-for-clunkers is going to get past Capitol Hill, and I find myself conflicted. On the one hand, I’m getting a little sick and extra wary of more money going to prop up auto sales (I figure there is going to have to be a real reckoning before things can get better, and I’m leaning toward letting it happen). On the other hand, considering what it is (actual law-to-be and not an academic case study) this is about as good a clear-the-clunkers bill as we’re going to get. The New York Times Freakonomics blogger Steven Levitt looked at this one on Friday (I went over Germany’s version in February). Just about everything he says is true, but there is one point he missed (and was nice enough to call attention to) that throws the whole argument in opposition out of whack. We’ll get there, but first, what’s right about it?

The first thing they got right is the credit for scrapping. Back in February, I complained that the €1000 credit was too small to motivate much action. I was wrong, but only just—the hottest sales went to the cheapest car on the market. $3500 to $4500 is a good number, about a 20 to 25 percent down payment on a lot of practical vehicles (enough to keep from getting too far upside down), without completely messing up the used-car market.

Then there are the ownership and scrapping rules: simple, straight-forward and mostly enforceable (someone will run a scam, they always do, but that will be the exception). We want running vehicles taken off the road for good, so the vehicle must have been insured for a year and must be scrapped.

The mileage rules seem both too open and too restrictive. A lot of vehicles will fit the mileage rules and a lot more will qualify to be purchased. On the surface, this is greenwashing and pretty weak at that. It’s actually a good thing; the law is aimed at people buying actual practical vehicles, rather than propping up a handful of favorite models (most prospective buyers of “green-mobiles” don’t own a qualifying vehicle anyway). All of these rules are straightforward and defensible because of another effect.

For a blog about unintended consequences, Levitt really blew the most important (unwritten) part of the law. At least he was open about not knowing the true prices of used cars. Bad as the new car market has been, the used car market has been worse (though showing signs of recovery), especially older SUVs (the very target this kind of cull). A simple glance at his feedback shows him that 4000 odd dollars is a 400-500% improvement in value for a large number of formally “popular” vehicles.

It is this margin between “book” value and “bill” value that will drive most of the action on this bill (there will be exceptions, but bad cases make bad law). A better name for the bill would be the “Get the Blazers and Explorers off the Road Act.”

Once upon a time, these two vehicles ruled the car market, along with a few others (e.g., Durango) and foreign relations (e.g., Rodeos). This success came back to bite them when SUV demand dropped. Unlike their bigger cousins, they couldn’t offer much “utility” to justify their cramped size and thirst. There are plenty of alternatives, from sedans, to wagons, to CUVs that can do everything they can do and better while being roomier and more fuel-efficient. Also, they are notably thirsty (remember 18 mpg is the ceiling, not the floor). If you’re trying to push average mileage higher, the least useful gas hogs are a good place to start. Especially since oversupply and changes in demand have dropped trade-in values for these old-school SUVs down near three figures.

While most of the culled vehicles are likely to be domestic, the incentive applies to any purchase. The competition gets to sell to people who were likely out of their reach before, while the domestics get the additional bonus of getting rid of some of the most troublesome pigs in the python. Hopefully, this reduction will help push up residual values, which is the only practical way the car market will get to anywhere near the old peak. Of course, for a diet to work, you have to change your habits as well.

Again, I’m of two minds on this law. I don’t want to see an endless sea of nickel-and-dime assistance bills coming out of Washington (propping up two companies, one needing to die, and one that seems unlikely to change, is bad enough). On the other hand, once you strip away the trappings, the bill is well thought out and (comparatively) cheap. It’s no magic bullet, but at least it’s pointed at the right target.

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In Defense of . . . The Chrysler and GM Bailout Thu, 11 Jun 2009 17:29:23 +0000

Over the last year, as this unparalleled automotive sales depression has picked up steam, I have observed unprecedented vitriol directed at both Chrysler and General Motors. Here on TTAC, Autoblog, Jalopnik, CarDomain, et. al. and members of the mainstream press have all criticized the companies receiving federal aid. I just couldn’t understand it. It’s as if the only vehicles these companies ever built were the Jeep Compass and Pontiac Aztek. Critics seem to have completely forgotten all the great cars both companies are building right now and have built over the years. At the same time, they've overlooked Chrysler and GM's importance to their employees, suppliers and countless communities from coast-to-coast. "Stakeholders" who have a direct impact on as many as one-in-10 domestic jobs. ]]>

Over the last year, as this unparalleled automotive sales depression has picked up steam, I have observed unprecedented vitriol directed at both Chrysler and General Motors. Here on TTAC; on Autoblog, Jalopnik, CarDomain, et al.; and in the mainstream press, the companies receiving federal aid have been criticized. I just couldn’t understand it. It’s as if the only vehicles these companies ever built were the Jeep Compass and Pontiac Aztek. Critics seem to have completely forgotten all the great cars both companies are building right now and have built over the years. At the same time, they’ve overlooked Chrysler and GM’s importance to their employees, suppliers and countless communities from coast-to-coast. “Stakeholders” who have a direct impact on as many as one-in-ten domestic jobs.

Then came the contentious debate about bailing out Chrysler and General Motors which culminated in President Obama’s address on March 30. Obama gave Chrysler thirty days fix its balance sheet and close its alliance with Fiat—or face liquidation. GM was given an additional thirty days to restructure itself or face bankruptcy. While Chrysler came within days of escaping bankruptcy, a few of its dissident bondholders balked and Chrysler was thrown into a Chapter 11 filing that many pundits felt it would it would ultimately result in liquidation. While many observers rooted for it to failure, Chrysler has emerged from bankruptcy with unprecedented speed. Congratulations.

Back in early November, in what seems like a lifetime ago, the talk in the automotive world was of a possible “merger” between GM and Chrysler. I thought that this was a bad idea and would quickly lead to the dismantling of the Auburn Hills automaker and the loss of at least 30,000 US jobs. I came out and said that there was a far better partner for Chrysler who needed small car technology that they couldn’t afford to develop on their own. That partner was Fiat, which had the obvious and complementary need to sell vehicles in the United States in its quest to become a truly global automaker.

On January 20, Chrysler announced it was in serious partnership talks with Fiat to merge their operations; a move that would help both cope with and survive in the deepening worldwide automotive sales depression. This sales implosion was not only was impacting weak regional automakers but successful global ones like BMW, Honda, and even Toyota. All were seeing sales volumes declining by 40% or more as the virus was spreading around the globe.

Then, as now, I believed that an alliance with Fiat was Chrysler’s best and probably last hope for survival and was pleased to see yesterday’s deal between Chrysler and Fiat concluded. I truly believe that it will have a positive impact on both companies and will give us, as car enthusiasts, additional choices. After all, what can possibly be bad about Alfa Romeos returning to our shores?

Meanwhile, it should be said that other nations have taken extraordinary steps to protect their home-based industries. Why shouldn’t we do the same, especially since we have provided completely open access to our market allowing them to build their export industries? For example, I have absolutely nothing against Hyundai and Kia. But what’s fair about the fact that South Korean manufacturers can sell more than 600,000 vehicles a year here in the United States, yet our manufacturers sell fewer than 10,000 units annually south of the 38th parallel?

Last year, when driving to cover the Los Angeles Auto Show, I was forced to take a detour off the freeway. I stopped at a Starbucks in the Asian enclave of Alhambra off I-10 to get my e-mail. As I pulled into the parking lot, I noticed something strange: there wasn’t a single American brand car in the lot. While there were a few BMWs and Mercedes, every single car in the lot was of Asian origin. I walked into the Starbucks thinking to myself that Asian buyers, consciously or unconsciously, appear to buy homogeneously, supporting their nation’s car builders. Why don’t Americans? It’s because our market is so open that we can. In retrospect, maybe this explains why the American public—and our politicians—gives our own companies such a cold shoulder.

I hope the restructuring of General Motors is ultimately successful. The fact that some are calling for a boycott of “Government Motors” strikes me as absurd. Collectively, we as Americans will soon own 60 percent of New GM. Why would we not buy vehicles from a company we own?

[Read more of Rich Truesdell's work at]

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In Defense of . . . The Jeep Jinx Wed, 10 Jun 2009 11:17:41 +0000

I'm a Jeep owner, a Jeep historian and a Jeep enthusiast. I've published more than a dozen Jeep articles. I've attended dozens of Jeep Jamborees and Camp Jeep events. I've driven a Jeep down the Rubicon Trail from start to finish, twice. So it pains me to write about the Jeep Jinx. But the facts are inarguable: virtually every company that's owned the Jeep brand has fallen on hard times.]]>

I’m a Jeep owner, a Jeep historian and a Jeep enthusiast. I’ve published more than a dozen Jeep articles. I’ve attended dozens of Jeep Jamborees and Camp Jeep events. I’ve driven a Jeep down the Rubicon Trail from start to finish, twice. So it pains me to write about the Jeep Jinx. But the facts are inarguable: virtually every company that’s owned the Jeep brand has fallen on hard times.

The original Jeep prototype was designed and built by a small company called American Bantam. The vehicle’s tendency to be both a curse and a blessing was assured from the start; the U.S. military liked it so much it they shoved Bantam aside. They commissioned competitors Willys-Overland and Ford to more or less copy the design.

In terms of perfecting the vehicle (including better torque), Willys-Overland did most of the heavy lifting. Not surprisingly, the feds gave Ford the nod for organizing mass production. Working together, the two automakers built some 600,000 examples.

After World War II, Ford got out of the Jeep-building business. Willys Motors produced the first civilian Jeep, the CJ-2A, on July 17, 1945. After a slow start (1824 units), sales of the farm-friendly vehicle took off. Willys manufactured the Jeep CJ-2A until 1949, racking up 214,202 sales.

The automaker replaced it with the CJ-3A. But agricultural sales dried up, as farmers turned to tractors. It was not the first time—nor the last–that Jeep found a market pulled out from under its feet, putting its corporate owners in financial jeopardy.

By 1953, Willys-Overland was struggling for survival. The ailing Kaiser-Frazer Corporation decided to buy Willys-Overland, ditch its own car business and produce Jeeps. The reconstituted Willys Motors, Incorporated was born.

In 1963, Willys became Kaiser-Jeep. Looking for new civilian markets, the company introduced the Wagoneer, the precursor to the modern SUV. While the recreational vehicle marketplace experienced sustained growth throughout the sixties, Kaiser-Jeep continued to lose money.

In 1970, American Motors (AMC)—who had its own bout with bankruptcy in 1967—purchased Kaiser’s Jeep operations. In spite of two oil crunches in the seventies, Jeep experienced rapid growth under AMC’s management. The market for dual-purpose vehicles expanded dramatically.

Unfortunately, AMC’s car-making operations were not competitive. Renault partnered with the troubled automaker, then seized control. As the eighties progressed, Renault fell on hard times. Sales of Renault-engineered small cars failed in the US market. The state-owned company also faced political difficulties in its home market.

Renault soon sold its stake in AMC to Chrysler, whose charismatic CEO Lee Iacocca coveted the Jeep brand. In 1987, AMC “merged” with Chrysler. In reality, Jeep was absorbed by Chrysler. This was no bad thing. Chrysler experienced one of the most-sustained growth periods in its history. The rising tide lifted all Jeeps.

This growth period was highly profitable for Chrysler, and Jeep. In 1992, Chrysler debuted the hugely successful Grand Cherokee, an AMC design. The American automaker’s success made it an attractive acquisition target for Daimler, who saw expansion as a way to avoid an unfriendly takeover. At the same time, Chrysler’s executives considered it an opportune time to “cash in their chips.”

And thus the now notorious “merger of equals” with Germany’s Daimler-Benz in 1998, forming DaimlerChrysler. DaimlerChrysler eventually sold most of its interest in Chrysler to Cerberus in 2007—even as Jeep produced some of the least worthy vehicles to ever wear the famous badge.

Two years later, Cerberus lost the rest of its stake as Chrysler descended into C11. With the fed’s help, Italy’s Fiat is pickng-up the pieces. To recap . . .

- Willys – Defunct, sold Jeep to Kaiser in 1953
- Kaiser-Jeep – Defunct, sold Jeep to American Motors in 1970
- American Motors – Defunct, absorbed by Chrysler in 1987
- Renault – Sold AMC to Chrysler in 1987
- DaimlerChrysler – Divested its Chrysler stake in 2007
- Cerberus – Bailed on Chrysler in run-up to Chrysler’s Chapter 11
- Chrysler – Sold to Fiat

Jeep is one of the world’s best-known brands. It was one of the pioneers of the sport utility category. Over the years, especially under Chrysler’s stewardship, Jeep sold millions of vehicles. The Wrangler is a worldwide icon. Until recently, the Grand Cherokee was a best-selling SUV, that sold 300,000 units annually.

But it core strength—go-anywhere capability—has always been its weakness. In other words, whether serving the military, farm owners, off-road enthusiasts or Soccer Moms, Jeep is a niche brand. As recent history has shown (e.g., Aston Martin, Jaguar, Land Rover, Saab, HUMMER, Volvo, etc.), large companies and niche brands make terrible bedfellows. Big companies seek volume above all; a tendency that tends to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.

In fact, you could say that Jeep’s owners have been a jinx on Jeep. With Fiat eyeing Jeep as a way to help it grow to the size it thinks it needs to survive, one gets the distinct impression that bad things are about to happen. Again. Will Fiat be the company that ultimately breaks the Jeep Jinx?

[Read more of Rich Truedell's work at]

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In Praise of: Detroit’s HVAC Engineering Fri, 23 Jan 2009 02:38:23 +0000 With all that the domestic automakers have done wrong, it's important to remember the things they've done-- and continue to do-- well. In his post about dumb moves behind the wheel, Jonny Lieberman highlighted one of these engineering accomplishments: Heating Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HAVC). As JL pointed out, even when Detroit was making malaise-era cars that barely ran, their HVAC systems were the "envy of the world." Sure, Volvos and Saabs had good interior heating and defrosting systems, not to mention heated seats. But Detroit led the world in keeping drivers physically comfortable. In this, geographic happenstance played a critical role.]]> With all that the domestic automakers have done wrong, it’s important to remember the things they’ve done– and continue to do– well. In his post about dumb moves behind the wheel, Jonny Lieberman highlighted one of these engineering accomplishments: Heating Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HAVC). As JL pointed out, even when Detroit was making malaise-era cars that barely ran, their HVAC systems were the “envy of the world.” Sure, Volvos and Saabs had good interior heating and defrosting systems, not to mention heated seats. But Detroit led the world in keeping drivers physically comfortable. In this, geographic happenstance played a critical role.

In European cities, streets are narrow and go in all directions. The history and glamor of road racing looms large. Small cars, precise handling and confident cornering were always high priorities. In contrast, Detroit’s streets are broad and, for the most part, adhere to a 90 degree grid. Boulevard and interstate cruising defined the automotive gestalt. Motown’s suspensions were calibrated more for comfort than precision handling. And HVAC systems enjoyed pride of place.

Every year when the NAIAS rolls around, people question the wisdom of holding a big auto show in Detroit in January. The weather outside the hall isn’t Fargo or International Falls cold, but it’s enough to evoke mention of brass monkeys’ testicles witches’ mammaries. Statistically speaking, January’s average temperature: 17.8°F. Not to mention wind chill; the “breeze” coming off Lake St. Clair can cut you to the quick. And yes, there’s snow. Average annual snowfall: 41 inches.

Detroit auto execs and their contemporary counterparts may have never experienced the joys of dealer service managers and warranty work but they still had to deal with Michigan weather on the way to and from work. Auto execs don’t like to be cold. Neither do engineers. Working together, they made sure that Motown’s products could warm their bones– and keep them warm– through the worst of the midwestern winter. 

Quick digression…

I reckon the Volkswagen Beetle’s token HVAC system is one of the main reasons Motown diss-missed the small car boat. In January, Wolfsburg’s average temperature is a relatively balmy 38°F. This may account for the fact that the Bug’s heating system didn’t have an electric blower. Pressurized air was ducted off of the cooling shroud into the headers/heat exchangers. Heat, then, was speed sensitive– under the best of circumstances. 

After a Michigan winter or two, with plenty of road salt rotting the German car’s undercarriage, the Vee Dub’s heat exchangers and heat ducts were perforated with rust. Small wonder VW offered a gas heater: a self-contained 18k btu gasoline-fired furnace. 

Back to Detroit, which isn’t located in a desert. Still, the average July temperature clocks in at 83.4°F (Wolfsburg 72°F), with plenty of relative humidity to keep the sweat flowing. 

Air conditioning was originally introduced by Packard in 1939 as a $274 option. It filled up the vehicle’s entire trunk. To turn it off, the driver had to stop the car, turn off the engine, open the hood and disconnect a belt connected to the air conditioning compressor. In 1941, Cadillac built 300 equally inconvenient air-conditioned cars. 

GM’s Harrison Radiator Division developed the first efficient, affordable automotive A/C unit. Offered as an option on all 1955 V-8 Pontiacs, it featured a two-cylinder reciprocating compressor and an all-brazed condenser. Fitted with a magnetic clutch, the unit didn’t need extra power to drive the compressor, which greatly improved performance and fuel economy.

Meanwhile and anyway, by the 1960s, domestic automakers were improving ventilation systems. Cars had air vents in the fender wells, with cable actuators on the kick panel. Flow-through ventilation was soon integrated into the heating system. By the 70′s, automotive air conditioning became a factory option on Detroit’s popularly priced cars. 

Upgraded HVAC systems were an excellent way for dealers to add to a car’s bottom line. (Heaters were an extra cost option well into the 60′s.) Many of our Best and Brightest who grew up sweltering in cars without a chiller gladly paid for extra for A/C when they could afford it.  

Another digression…

My dad, may he rest in peace, loved air conditioning. American Motors used to label the maximum A/C setting “Desert Cool.” They must have had my dad in mind. Though he liked his options, as far as A/C was concerned, they could have had a single setting: max cool, max fan. In the 1970s, he switched from Oldsmobiles to Mercurys; you could have cooled your drink on the dashboard of his 1974 Grand Marquis.

Thirty-eight years later and I’ve never driven a Detroit product that couldn’t blast full heat in subzero weather, or keep you comfortable on a blistering hot summer day. Just about every automaker in the world now makes fairly sophisticated climate control systems. But it’s a clear case of meeting a high standard that Detroit, to its credit, has set.

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Editorial: In Defense of: The Detroit Bailout Sun, 16 Nov 2008 12:55:12 +0000 As the domestic auto companies appear to be circling the drain, there's been debate about the extent of the impact of their failure on their supplier base, the impact on the industrial manufacturing base of the United States, even possible negative implications for Toyota and Honda. One party in all this that has rarely been mentioned are the consumers. While a few automotive analysts, pundits and bloggers have touched on how an implosion of the Detroit based car companies will affect consumers, almost all of the discussion has centered on whether or not people will buy a car from a bankrupt manufacturer, and the related issue of how product warrantees will be covered if their manufacturers go belly-up. A more basic consumer issue: how the loss of GM, Ford and Chrysler from the US auto market would affect the prices, features and technology of new cars.]]> As the domestic auto companies appear to be circling the drain, there’s been debate about the extent of the impact of their failure on their supplier base, the impact on the industrial manufacturing base of the United States, even possible negative implications for Toyota and Honda. One party in all this that has rarely been mentioned are the consumers. While a few automotive analysts, pundits and bloggers have touched on how an implosion of the Detroit based car companies will affect consumers, almost all of the discussion has centered on whether or not people will buy a car from a bankrupt manufacturer, and the related issue of how product warrantees will be covered if their manufacturers go belly-up. A more basic consumer issue: how the loss of GM, Ford and Chrysler from the US auto market would affect the prices, features and technology of new cars.

While some critics of the domestics would have us believe that nobody is interested in cars built by the domestics, the fact remains that The Big 2.8 still sell millions of new cars a year in the North American market. October was a sales disaster for the domestics, with GM’s year to year sales falling 45 percent, Ford 33 percent and Chrysler seeing a decline of 37 percent. Foreign brands also saw declining sales but the decline was not as steep. With consumer confidence at the lowest level since just after the 9/11 attacks by Al-Qaeda, sales will not likely pick up anytime soon. The overall industry is on pace for a 10.6 million unit year, down from 16 million in 2007, and down over 40 percent from the record year of 2000. Still, between them the domestics sold just about 400k cars in October, good for 55 percent of the total US car & light truck market.

It’s a simple fact of business that competition puts downward pressure on prices. Critics of any bailout for the domestics like to say how their customers won’t go away; they’ll just buy Toyotas, Hondas, Nissans and Hyundais. What they don’t say is how much more expensive Toyondisssandais will be without competition from GM, Ford & Chrysler. You simply cannot remove competitors with a 55 percent share of a market without seeing the remaining vendors raise prices. Without competition from domestic competitors, the foreign brands have much less of an incentive to keep their prices down. Also, the structural costs of the domestics (at least until the cost reductions due to renegotiated UAW contracts kick in in  2010) create a price ceiling foreign brands can undercut. Take away that ceiling and watch Toyota raise its prices.

Conversely, take away that structural cost disadvantage for the domestics and you’d see lower prices right now on all brands, foreign and domestic, because of real price competition. Look at India. That market is very price sensitive. Just about all the global manufacturers are active in India, but the growing indigenous Indian auto industry led by Tata and Mahindra creates price competition for the transplants. Since Tata announced the sub $3000 Nano, Renault-Nissan, which already produces the low cost Dacia Logan, has announced a joint venture with Bajaj, maker of scooters and three-wheelers, to compete with the Nano at the new entry level price point.

A Detroit meltdown would affect more than just new car pricing. Say what you will about the domestics, but their presence in the market forces the other manufacturers to compete on features and technology as well as price. I’m not saying that a disappearance of The Big 2.8 would return the days of “radio and heater optional,” but there’d be less incentive for remaining companies to keep content level high. The Honda Accord’s initial market success in the late 1970s was partly attributable to a higher level of standard equipment than the domestics offered.

Regarding technology, the list of innovations introduced to the market by the domestics and their suppliers is almost endless: electric starters, seat belts, catalytic converters, modern refrigerants, car audio, defoggers (forced hot air and electrically heated), turbochargers, magnetically controlled dampers/shocks, and on and on. Without the billions the domestics spend on R&D ($15.6b for Ford & GM in 2007, not counting Chrysler which is privately held and doesn’t publish proprietary data or the moneys spent on R&D by domestic auto suppliers) the pace of technological improvements will slow significantly.

The domestic car companies’ disregard of their foreign competitors in the 1970s and their poor quality in the 1980s have so alienated consumers (and their now adult children) that it’s easy to see why so many people either don’t care if the domestics disappear or actively wish for their demise. If they think, however, that such a disappearance will be good for consumers, in terms of price, features and technology, they’re sadly mistaken.

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