Category: Media

By on March 15, 2010

Jim Sikes’ Prius high-speed dash to fame or infamy is a media hype-fest, with wild swings in sentiment from Toyota bashing to Sikes trashing. The rush to judgment is innately human, and Sikes certainly makes an easy target. But in the process, very little effort has been made to analyze what actually happened, or what might have actually happened, on the basis of the facts rather than Jim Sikes’ financial history and sexual proclivities. Read More >

By on March 14, 2010

A few days ago, James Sikes and his runaway Prius was all over news. Until we mentioned that something is fishy. Sikes’ driving skills were put in question. Stories about a wife swapping website emerged. Stories about bankruptcy. Stories about an unpaid lease on the Prius. And sundry other stories. Quickly, Sikes turned into Balloon Boy 2.0

Michael Fumento, director of the Independent Journalism Project, went on Neil Cavuto’s show on Fox Business and said: “It appears that everybody on planet earth suspected that there was something horribly wrong with this picture – except for the national media. The real hoax wasn’t James Sikes, it was in fact our press.” Read More >

By on March 7, 2010

[Note: This piece first ran in May 2007. It seems particularly relevant again in light of the current Toyota unintended acceleration (UA) situation. But please note that the circumstance that caused the Audi UA may, or may not be very different, depending on the circumstances. In the early eighties, electronic gas pedals and complex engine controls and other interfaces such as with ABS/brakes were still on the horizon. Nevertheless, the rules of physics have not been repealed. And an unknown percentage of Toyota UA events undoubtedly are the result of pedal misapplication. Audi's near collapse in the American market after this incident remains a painful lesson in the power of the media, the slowness of the NHTSA, and the critical PR choices manufacturers make in the wake of a crisis like this. PN]

When I first heard about the Audi “sudden unintended acceleration” segment on CBS’s 60 Minutes in 1986, I knew instantly that they were blowing smoke. Literally. Read More >

By on January 7, 2010

I fought the media and the media won

[Ed: part one of this piece can be found here]

Six hours of completely sober sleep! As I arrived at Laguna Seca for a double race day in the Skip Barber MAZDASPEED Challenge, I felt like a new man. It’s customary for most club race days to start with practice sessions, but Skip Barber chooses instead to put the drivers in their trusty Econolines for a morning ride-and-coach session. My rather humbling lack of pace on Saturday — two full seconds a lap behind the leaders — led me to take this one seriously.

Read More >

By on September 6, 2009

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Beholders have beheld the new Honda Crosstour and found it not beautiful. Ugly, in fact. Ten years ago, this condem-nation wouldn’t have been a problem for the vehicle’s manufacturer. At worst, a few aesthetically-offended members of the automotive press would have nibbled the hand that feeds, gently alluding to the vehicle’s “challenging” exterior. Otherwise, the illusion that the Honda Crosstour isn’t a Gorgon-on-wheels would have been maintained—at least until “disappointing” sales proved the point. Those days are gone. These days, Honda’s decision to green light an ugly automobile has unleashed a major PR debacle. Welcome to the Internet, fellas. I did warn you.

True story. Once upon a time, I wrote that the Subaru B9 Tribeca was ugly. More specifically, I called the Subie SUV’s front end a “flying vagina.” Excrement and rotary air moving device collided. Subaru had me fired from my job as car reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle. The anti-TTAC backlash was fast and furious. BMW, Chrysler, Subaru, Toyota, GM—every single mainstream carmaker in the United States took TTAC off their press car list. Including Honda.

HoMoCo tried to dress up their contribution to the ban as a sudden realization that TTAC was too small for press car consideration. I didn’t argue the point. Why bother? We were small. But I told the PR flack in question that he was missing the point. The game was changing. Thanks to the Internet, the Japanese carmaker couldn’t hide from the truth about their cars. You know, eventually.

I figured GM’s bankruptcy would be the beginning of the end for decades of journalistic bribery and collusion. When the largest and most monolithic of the American automakers went down, the industry would realize they had to face the truth about their products, or face extinction. While I didn’t expect the chastened car companies to embrace their protagonist, I thought the post-GM C11 automakers would at least begin to see the value of a website that left no holds barred.

At that point, perhaps, carmakers might reach out to us and engage our writers and commentators in something roughly akin to a conversation. An open, honest and frank exchange of views about their vehicles’ shortcomings, leading to better products and customer relations. I predicted that the first car company to fully embrace Internet openness would have an enormous competitive advantage.

Here’s what I didn’t understand: TTAC was part of the problem. Yes, we host a not inconsiderable 1.1 million unique visitors per month. But we’re still an elitist outfit. Not to coin a phrase, we report, you decide. Old school. Or, more accurately, outdated.

The Crosstour controversy proves that the power of the truth has leapfrogged gatekeepers—both old and new—and landed on the keyboards of individual enthusiasts. To wit: a TTAC writer didn’t force Honda’s hand in the matter of its ugly ass CUV. Everyone did. Honda’s Facebook page was the medium. “The Crosstour is ugly” was the message.

And now that the message is out there, Honda can’t deal. Their efforts to do so, via their “Message to Fans,” misunderstands the fundamentally no-bullshit nature of Internet “debate.” By doing so, Honda only makes things worse.

Hi, Facebook fans. We’re listening, and we want to address a few things you’ve been talking about over the past few days. The photos: Arguably, the two studio photos we posted didn’t give you enough detail, nor were they the best to showcase the vehicle. There are more photos on the way. Maybe it’s like a bad yearbook photo or something, and we think the new photos will clear things up. It’s not the European wagon: We’ve seen a lot of comments about the desire for a wagon, but this is neither a wagon nor designed for wagon buyers. We think the Euro wagon is a cool vehicle, too, and we appreciate the feedback… but a version of that wasn’t our intention here. That’s another segment worthy of our consideration, but the Accord Crosstour, built on the larger, Accord platform, is meant to give you the best of two worlds – the versatility of an SUV with the sportiness of a car. Many of you don’t like the styling: It may not be for everyone. Our research suggests that the styling does test well among people shopping for a crossover.

Arguably? “A bad yearbook photo?” “Clear things up?” Honda’s rip-post is defensive, evasive, obfuscatory, condescending. Moreover, it shows that the automaker is so far out of the cultural loop they don’t realize that the phrase the “best of two worlds” evokes the deeply uncool Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus paradigm. And “We’re listening” brings to mind blowhard fictional shrink Frasier Crane. Taken as a whole, it’s hard to imagine Honda drafting a worse reply to their “fans” that doesn’t include the words FOAD.

More to the point, Honda fails to understand that the Internet wins. The web has revealed that their would-be emperor is buck naked and unattractive; rendering their previous product design and research worthless. And there’s nothing Honda can do to change this perception amongst the automotive opinion shapers. Because it’s not perception. It’s reality.

Honda can’t fix ugly. Unless, of course, they do. Honda could spend tens of millions of dollars to rectify this now-obvious mistake. Lest we forget, despite Subaru’s vicious anti-TTAC smear campaign, the car company quickly modified the Tribeca’s flying vagina front end into a Chrysler Pacifica-esque snout. Will Honda follow suit and change the Crosstour?

In some ways, it doesn’t matter. The autoblogosphere has forced Honda to face the truth about their car. For those of us who love cars—not forgetting that hatred is love turned upside down—the fact that Honda may be shamed into returning to product excellence is a truly wondrous thing.

It turns out that Gil Scott-Heron was right: the revolution will not be televised. It’s on Facebook.

By on August 18, 2009

While driving the Buick LaCrosse, I asked Line Director Jeanne Merchant a question: what could she tell me about reliability that would persuade me, a satisfied Toyota owner, to jump ship? Merchant gave a pretty good answer, but I was busy trying not to run over traffic cones. In a subsequent phone interview, Merchant said reliability starts early in the process. From design to component testing, from durability tests to audits and feedback, from computer modeling to real world testing, they make sure every part of the car and all its systems are built right and performing to specification. And they take it very, very seriously. “The LaCrosse is very personal to me,” Merchant said. “I’ve worked with it for years. Everybody else involved feels the same way. And the same goes for the other product lines.” Process and passion. Is it enough?

After hanging-out with the front line troops, I believe GM’s employees are fully committed to product excellence. But the product, manufacturing and service providers all depend on GM’s top management for critical support in delivering customer satisfaction and value. They’ve got to have top management support to make the hard decisions to put customer satisfaction and value first—even if it’s going to cost GM some money.

I asked two of the product managers, “Does Bob Lutz help you build better cars?” The first one I asked was taken aback. There was a moment of silence. He swallowed, started to speak, stopped and then, slowly, said, “Y-e-s.” I waited a minute. He didn’t elaborate.

The second manager I asked leaned back in his seat, tipped his head to the side, looked thoughtfully at me for a moment and then said, “Yes and no.” Apparently, there are things the troops want and don’t want in the vehicle. And then there are things top management wants and doesn’t want. Two guesses who wins that debate.

Lutz is just the most visible and outspoken GM executive. But he’s symbolic of GM’s top down management style. CEO Fritz Henderson told us the New GM would put the customer first. But the morning’s events left me with the overwhelming impression that nothing has changed at GM, and nothing is likely to change. The good people at the sharp end must still bend their will to executives; heavy hitters with a tin ear for the advice given by the people who really know how to make great cars.

Did GM Win Me Over?

To get an actual sale from me would be tough. I want a very quiet car with exceptional fuel economy and good interior room at a good price. I want a decade of reliable, trouble-free motoring, because that’s what I have now and it’s worth a lot of money to me to keep it. Dave wants the same things, too.

GM employees were only happy to address these issues. But finding a way to reassure me that GM is on track for Prius-beating answers was not an official part of the days’ events.

Dave is a very focused guy. His benchmark is Hyundai’s 10/100 warranty. He won’t have to worry about his two cars for quite some years after they’re paid off and he likes it that way. He mentioned this requirement to GM people at the track or whenever the opportunity presented itself.

He sat beside me through Lutz’ talk and heard Lutz say, “I get letters telling me, ‘you should offer a 100 thousand mile warranty.’ I tell them, ‘We have a [five year] 100 thousand mile warranty!’” I actually heard Dave snort. Maybe I don’t know Dave as well as I think I do, but I’d bet his decision didn’t take very long. “No 10/100? Well, thanks for the rides. Be seein’ ya.”

GM didn’t win Dave over.

The people I talked to at the Proving Ground made a very favorable impression on me. Most of the cars made a very favorable impression on me. I liked the LaCrosse quite a bit. I liked the Cruze interior very much, and I’m sorry the car couldn’t be driven. In a world without a Prius, I would be the target market for that car. Yes, I’d rate the Malibu “not as good” as the Camry, but it’s still pretty good. There are cars in the GM lineup that appeal to me.

If GM had flown me from the Twin Cities to Detroit at lunchtime, brought me straight to the Proving Ground and walked me right out to the cars, GM would have won. But GM brought me to Detroit twenty-one hours early and exposed me to GM’s top management.

Lutz seemed convinced that five years coverage is as good as 10. He wanted me believe that GM is a victim of a “perception gap”— when we know that GM is actually a victim of its own reputation and many years of failing to put the customer first. The party line is that GM quality is right up there with the leaders, but GM won’t back the cars as though they believe it. Henderson didn’t add anything concrete.

GM failed to provide a compelling reason to believe that GM products will deliver the 10 year reliability that I, and millions of other motorists, expect. They could have shown me some engineering excellence up close and personal. See? This is where we beat the competition. This is the difference between us and them. They didn’t.

The message I received from my junket: GM’s top management doesn’t think they have to deliver the goods on customer satisfaction. They believe I can be manipulated into believing whatever they want me to believe about GM, and that the appearance of caring for the customer is more important than the care the customer actually receives.

GM didn’t win me over, and, frankly, I feel pretty bad about it.

While I was on the phone with Jeanne Merchant and Randy Fox, Randy asked a couple of leading questions. I told them how the story was going to end. I explained my lack of confidence in GM’s top management. I didn’t feel that they would leap on an opportunity to fully resolve—and learn from—a customer satisfaction problem. I asked Merchant what she thought about that.

What’s most painful to me is the feeling that we’ve let the customers down. I’ve been involved in recalls and they’re painful but we do the right thing. I keep pushing until we do the right thing.

No wonder the real journalists drink. You meet some great people on these junkets, but if you pay attention, the story just doesn’t go their way. Maybe GM will call in a crack re-write team. Meanwhile, no sale.

By on August 14, 2009

A few weeks ago, I received this from GM Communications: “I’ve noticed some of your comments on our Fastlane blog. We are looking for passionate and influential consumers to participate in an upcoming showcase on August 10, 2010 [sic], in Detroit, MI. Would you be interested in a GM-hosted opportunity like this to learn more about our future vehicles and company?” I was more than a little surprised; my FastLane posts are generally uncomplimentary regarding GM’s products and business decisions. “Do they know we own three Toyotas?” my wife asked. ”And we gave a fourth to our daughter, who’s happily driving it at 150 thousand miles?” “I think that’s part of it; they want to know what it will take to win me over.” “They could try building cars that are as reliable as Toyotas.” “I’ve suggested that.” “Don’t you dare bring home a GM car,” she warned.

I asked my long-time Scouting buddy Dave to come along. Dave recently bought his second Hyundai; he’s as pleased as punch with it. He looked at me warily. “They’re not going to expect us to buy a car, are they?” “Oh, no, certainly not. They’re probably interested in what they can do to win you over, though.” “They could offer a ten year, 100 thousand mile warranty, like Hyundai,” Dave suggested. “Until then, no sale.”

We flew to Detroit on August 9th, courtesy of GM. A company rep met us at the airport and whisked us to the GM Heritage Center via Cadillac CTS. This was also my first ride ever in a CTS—possibly my first ride in any Cadillac since I’d driven my grandfather’s ’68 Sedan de Ville back in 1971 or so. I remember taking a girl on a date in the de Ville. When I pulled up in front of her house she actually said, “Oh my, a Cadillac!”

The CTS’ rear seat didn’t have enough legroom. A fairly short writer named Sean Kennedy occupied the passenger seat in front of me. When I asked him to move his seat up, he fumbled around for power-controls on the right of the seat for a few minutes. He eventually discovered the standard, manual lever under the front lip of the seat, and moved his chair forward enough for me to be comfortable.

When I got home, I looked at the Lexus web site; power seats appear to be standard on an ES350. It also looks like they come standard on a Camry XLE. Is manual seat adjustment a problem for Caddy’s supposed BMW beater? The CTS’ rear-seat passengers get cup holders in the flip-down armrest. Dave and I placed a pair of water bottles inside. They kept threatening to fall over and out of the cup holder. Again, no biggie?

The CTS rides smoothly (if illegally) at 80. I guess Cadillac thinks stiff leather is somehow sporting; I prefer soft skins. The CTS roofline was a bit of an issue: I couldn’t see out of the windows without craning my neck (I’m just over 6′3″). The next day, I asked a GM’er who works in interior design about passenger visibility. He acknowledged the tradeoff between ergonomics and style. Anyway, the more important question: would someone say, “Oh, my! A Cadillac!” I’m not so sure.

Heritage

From an architectural point of view, GM Heritage Center is slightly above warehouse grade. But the cars put Dave and me in Car Guy Heaven. The selection seems geared towards the Boomer demographic and just a tad later. The collection showcased a number of GM concept cars, including some of those early fighter-aircraft inspired Firebird concepts—the type of machines I ogled in Popular Science convinced they’d one day hit the road.

Dave and I wandered around, identifying cars from our personal history. “My aunt had one of those. My Dad had one of those.” “I had one of those, it died at 20K miles.” That too.

I located a couple of Cadillacs similar to my grandfather’s ’68, and Oldsmobiles similar to his and my parents’ ’64. We admired the 442s and Goats of various vintages. Yes! A Judge! In orange! Note: I was fourteen when that car was unleashed, and I loved the look. And I’m still buying a Prius when we need a new car. Times have changed, and so have I.

Tweet This

After a time, we ceased wandering and started scarfing. GM had scattered the space with buffet tables. As we refilled our tanks, I tried to get a feel for my fellow junketers.

On the ride over, Kennedy told me he’d tested the CTS-V at GM’s invitation in upstate New York. The Brooklynite claimed to have written for Elle and New York magazines. Aside from Dave and me, our feeding table was populated exclusively by women, who didn’t seem to be “into” cars. The most automotive-engaged of the bunch had recently purchased a CTS, replacing a MINI Cooper. She advised Christine Somebody from GM to “spread some of that CTS mojo to the rest of your cars.”

In fact, we were surrounding by Social Media types: Tweeters and Facebookers charged with spreading the GM message “virally.” I’m no stranger to computers and networks. I’ve worked in Information Technology for quite a long time. I can manage servers, set up a LAN, repair PCs, do anything you like with SQL databases, write useful programs in several different languages, etc. But I don’t bother to keep up with what the kids are doing. So I checked out some of the Twittering that resulted from this event.

None of what I discovered was “Tweeted” by children, but you wouldn’t know it from reading it. Self-editing doesn’t really figure; the group tends to communicate without inhibition, without any idea of sentence structure or coherent composition (call it “puddle of consciousness”). So it’s no surprise that some of the Tweeters in attendance didn’t have a lot of inhibitions about the things they said in person, either.

Social Media may be “hip,” but I doubt it’s as influential as GM and other large corporations believe. The effective lifespan of a Tweet or Facebook entry—should we admit that it contains editorial value—is measured in minutes. The lifetime of information on social media matches the lifetime of fads, not the lifetime of most of the things we need in our lives. And certainly not cars.

Anyway, Tom Pyden welcomed us. I made some illegible notes, something about “Proud Past/Bright Future.” And then it was off to bed.

At breakfast, I met a fellow FastLane commentator: “edvard.” His daily driver is a 14-year-old Toyota Tacoma. Although he likes the idea of the Chevy Volt, I think he’s going to be a tough sell for New GM.

Our first stop: GM’s Design Center, close to the Marriott. We started in the auditorium. Chris Preuss, due to replace Steve Harris as GM VP of Communications, told us who we were and why we were there. Yep, there was a lot of mutual love between GM and the new Social Media.

It’s the Perception Gap, Stupid

Then, to my delight, Bob Lutz appeared, introduced as GM’s “Chief Creative Officer.”

Lutz launched into an attack on the “perception gap,” identifying the “crappy state of journalism” as one of its causes. The room ate it up. Lutz also played the humility card, stating that the New GM had many people to thank, starting with the U.S. and Canadian taxpayers.

At about that time, I began to wonder when, exactly, GM was going to start to try to win me over. I consider GM’s insistent talk of the “perception gap” an insult to my intelligence. I know what value I’m getting from my Toyotas. I know what value my friends and neighbors did not get from their GM cars. My experience, my neighbor’s experience, Consumer Report’s evaluations and resale values all point one way: GM’s cars, for quite some time, have not been as anywhere near as good as the competition.

GM’s 2009’s may be just as good as the competition, or better, but we won’t know for ten years. Meanwhile, all this “perception gap” talk just digs the hole deeper. It makes me wonder if GM is still thinking they can win me over with tailfins, by blowing smoke.

At least Lutz admitted that “earlier models” had interiors that looked like they were made from “solidified lava.” But that’s all changed! “Why?” I wondered silently, “Is there a shortage of lava?” Lutz also revealed that he’s as happy as a clam about the New GM and its nice tidy balance sheet and its consequent new ability to compete and un-retired because the opportunities were now so much better for GM.

Amongst other things, Lutz failed to mention the fact that New GM’s nice tidy balance sheet came courtesy of a whole lot of people who got thrown under the bus. And he was one of the drivers.

We still don’t know the full extent of the collateral damage. TTAC recently reported that GM has abandoned its obligations to Olds dealers, who were receiving annual payments as compensation for closing down. New GM has also shifted its environmental cleanup obligations to Old GM.

Lutz addressed the “Government Motors” meme. According to Lutz, the Presidential Task Force on Automobiles (PTFOA) is letting GM run the business to make money so that the taxpayer can get the taxpayer’s money back. This makes quite a bit of sense and, frankly, I believe it.

Lutz implied that the PTFOA and the new Board of Directors were at least partially ignorant about what GM was really like. According to Lutz, the new Board was completely unaware that GM absolutely rocks on fuel economy. The Cobalt XFE (available only with a manual transmission) beats the rest of the class on the EPA tests.

Just don’t look too closely at the EPA web site because you’ll find that the XFE actual fuel economy reports don’t measure up to its EPA test scores. And at least some of the competition routinely beats their EPA test scores. And never mind the Prius or Yaris or any of those profitable small Toyotas against which GM doesn’t even compete.

Naturally, someone asked Lutz about global warming. Lutz was delighted to have the opportunity to call it a “crock of shit” without actually using the word “shit.” Happily enough, he’d just told a joke about “shit” that involved a clueless politician giving a speech and Native Americans whose word for “shit” was “hoya.” The audience had laughed at this joke, which I found astonishing; the joke is as old as elected office itself.

Lutz’ calling global warming a “crock of hoya” would be somewhat more credible if his lengthy answer hadn’t involved several “facts” which I know to be wrong. Why he bothers defending himself on this topic, or even discusses it, is an open question.

Someone (not a Tweeter) asked Lutz if GM was generating the necessary cash flow to survive at the current U.S. annual new car selling rate (SAAR). Bearing in mind that the Old Guard at GM claimed they were OK right to the bitter end, I’m taking Lutz’ “at 10 million, we’d like to break even” with a grain of salt. He also proffered that, at an 11 – 11.5 million SAAR and a consistent market share, New GM would be “comfortably profitable.”

New GM’s first income statement should be interesting.

Ed Welburn Lifts the Skirt

After Lutz rallied the troops, we visited the “Design Salons” for GM’s four remaining brands, starting with Cadillac.

I’ve gotten used to Cadillac’s “Art & Science” design language. While I’m not its biggest fan, I admire the way that the designers are applying it across Cadillac’s product line. Cadillacs look distinctive and resemble each other in key ways. I think this is important for a brand, and I think Cadillac is getting it right.

There were no particular surprises in the design salon, but we did get a chance to admire the cars and a couple of clay models. Dave burst out, “Those are made of clay?” I’d never seen clay models either; they are amazingly lifelike. Just don’t grab the door handles . . . they come right off.

Our next stop: GMC. For the most part, I am not a big fan of GMC. The new Terrain is, in my opinion, ugly. I know this sort of thing is highly subjective, but GMC’s adding design cues to an Equinox-sized vehicle to give it Yukon-sized visual dominance. The end result is grotesque. GM had better hope the Terrain sells on the surprisingly good fuel economy it shares with the Equinox.

GMC also showed us a clay model of a possible smaller GMC CUV, which was much more attractive than the Terrain (no pointless bulges over the wheel wells, for example). There was no mention of the vehicle’s proposed drivetrain. One of the GMC reps said they could squeeze 40 mpg out a [presumably four-cylinder] direct injection engine. In theory, that’s significantly better than a Toyota RAV4.

I had a question about the CUV’s doors. “Why bother if these won’t last past the concept stage? You never do suicide doors.” The GM rep patiently pointed out that GM has occasionally delivered rearward-opening doors on certain vehicles, like the Saturn 3-door coupe and some extended-cab trucks. Which is true but . . . I can’t recall any vehicle since the ’60’s Lincolns that had full-size suicide doors intended to be operated independently of the fronts.

Although I am not a big fan of the bulbous Buick Enclave, I generally like the brand’s design. The new LaCrosse’s v-curve body line reminds me of our ’57 Buick; an evocative touch. Buick had two extremely attractive clay models: another, smaller CUV and a new smaller sedan. The latter will most likely sit on GM’s Global Midsize Platform (they no longer call platforms by the Greek letters).

The Chevy Salon was set apart in a small, domed building. The Bow-Tie brand says they’ll offer a new Corvette Grand Sport (more than a regular Corvette, less than a Z06), a convertible Camaro (which looks far better than the hardtop, at least when the roof is stowed), Spark, Orlando, Cruze and new Malibu.

We saw a clay model likely to become the 2012 Malibu. It was an improvement in some ways, but the front-end profile looks more Camry than ever. You can’t win over airflow, I guess. Some described the new ’Bu as beautiful; it didn’t do that much for me. As the current Malibu was introduced in 2008, perhaps drivetrain changes are driving the redesign.

Ed Welburn spoke briefly about “The Lab”: GM’s interactive method for revealing design ideas to customers. I wonder if it’s practical and whether web-based customer data will lead to better cars. There’s often a lot of vocal web or enthusiast support for vehicle proposals, that may or may not survive and thrive in the marketplace. I’d be concerned that “The Lab” will get a lot of intense feedback from a skewed segment of the market: un- or under-employed people with nothing better to do.

Ed then revealed three new Cadillac designs: a midsize sedan, a new, small coupe and the fullsize XTS, the replacement for the DTS and STS.

The XTS was a disappointment. At the Heritage Center, I’d encountered a ’68 Fleetwood Brougham limousine in shiny black. That was an imposing car. When it rolled by, you knew somebody filthy rich or very important was in it. The XTS didn’t hit me that way, partly due to the graphite paint job.

Sure, it’s attractive. Yes, it’s an extension of Art & Science. Anyone who likes the current Cadillac look will not be disappointed. But there’s not enough “oomph.” Perhaps it doesn’t matter; I’m never likely to be wealthy enough to buy the modern-day equivalent of a Fleetwood Brougham limousine. In fact, few will ever be. Or should be.

When I returned to the Twin Cities, I found a DTS in taxi service in a garish paint job. How far the mighty have fallen! The XTS can hardly do worse. Memo to GM: Please ensure I can see out the back windows.

Chevy Volt

We headed over to Pre Production Operations (PPO), where GM’s assembling Volts in small batches to test the build processes, components, etc. One of the managers and one of the union reps (Local 160) greeted us at the door. They exuded an air of real cooperation, and I was glad of it.

I like unions. I think they add necessary balance to the workplace. But union organization and the management reaction to it often leads to contention, strife, poor relationships and, for lack of a better phrase, gross inefficiency. If they have that at the Volt PPO facility, they keep it capped. Maybe the shock of bankruptcy has brought about a new era of cooperation. Maybe this plant has always been different. Or maybe the old relationships between GM and the union were never as bad as we thought. In any event, I liked the atmosphere in this building.

There were quite a few Volts in various stages of assembly, all in primer gray metal and black plastic. The dark gray interior stack was attractive. The engine compartment looked fairly normal. Where the car and battery came together, it was obvious the car is different. Otherwise, the Chevy Volt looked like a fairly normal compact car.

Many attendees wanted to know the Volt’s fuel economy after the battery goes flat, how much gas it holds, total range, etc. GM was very evasive. There didn’t seem to be any fuel tanks in view, so I couldn’t make my own estimate.

During the walk-around, we met both Andrew Farah and Frank Weber. I could have sworn I heard Farah mention “400 miles range.” But Weber recently answered the question, “Can I go from Detroit to Chicago on one tank of gas?” with “I don’t know the precise distance but it it’s 300 miles, you should be OK.”  So the Volt’s range is still anybody’s guess.

If the Volt has, as the Detroit News recently reported, an eight gallon tank, if the car goes 350 miles, the “charge sustaining mode” fuel economy is going to be a disappointing 39 mpg.

I started asking Weber questions about the differential and the tradeoff between that and two motors, but the group was moving on and our guide encouraged me to keep up. I moved along, thinking GM wasn’t real keen on tough questions about the Volt.

The Culture Worriers

We headed for the proving ground. Time to drive! Well . . . Not quite. Our handlers herded us into the building, where we cooled our heels until Chris Preuss and GM CEO Fritz Henderson spoke. I took very few notes, but I know that Fritz said that “since bankruptcy, we must think every day about our customers.” And “It’s all about the cars.” They’ve cracked the code!

Henderson repeated an early pronouncement on the Volt: “The biggest problem with the Volt is what to do with old gas in the gas tank.” I suppose if you’re CEO of a giant company, the idea of $40K for a compact car may not be a problem for you. But, trust me: price is the Volt’s biggest problem.

Henderson also promised that “We’re changing the culture of the company”—as if saying it enough times will makes it come true.

Up to this point, the GM Product Technology Event was largely a matter of endurance, with a little bit of wining and dining. The presentations were occasionally interesting and a little enlightening. Equally often, they were boring, uninteresting, vacuous and/or annoying. We saw some pretty cars in the Salons, but that only carries the program so far. Some won’t make it to market, some will change radically before they do. The Salons are an exercise in “maybe” and “maybe” won’t win me over.
In the afternoon, things changed, radically, for the better.
[Part Two is here.]
By on July 21, 2009

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) woke up to a New York Times hatchet job. “In 2003, researchers at a federal agency proposed a long-term study of 10,000 drivers to assess the safety risk posed by cellphone use behind the wheel,” the NYT begins, without specifying who, what, when, where or how. But we do get a general sort of why: “They sought the study based on evidence that such multitasking was a serious and growing threat on America’s roadways.” And then, da da DA! “But such an ambitious study never happened. And the researchers’ agency, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, decided not to make public hundreds of pages of research and warnings about the use of phones by drivers — in part, officials say, because of concerns about angering Congress.” Dive! Dive! Dive!

So, here’s the “secret” preliminary data (all 266 pages of it). Now, a bit further down the Times article, we get the smoking gun. Allegedly.

Dr. Jeffrey Runge, then the head of the highway safety agency, said he grudgingly decided not to publish the draft letter [to Transportation Secretary Norman Minetta "warning states that hands-free laws might not solve" the cell phone distracted driving problem] because of larger political considerations.

At the time, Congress had warned the agency not to use its research to lobby states. Dr. Runge said transit officials told him he could jeopardize billions of dollars of its financing if Congress perceived the agency had crossed the line into lobbying.

The fate of the research was discussed during a high-level meeting at the transportation secretary’s office. The meeting included Dr. Runge, several staff members with the highway safety agency and John Flaherty, Mr. Mineta’s chief of staff.

Mr. Flaherty recalls that the group decided not to publish the research because the data was too inconclusive.

Who are these “transit officials” of which Dr. Runge speaks? And why are we to believe Dr. R’s characterization of events when Mineta’s main man Flaherty says the data was withheld due to its quality?

He recalled that Dr. Runge “indicated that the data was incomplete and there was going to be more research coming.”

He recalled summing up his position as, the agency “should make a decision as to whether they wanted to wait for more data.”

But Dr. Runge recalled feeling that the issue was dire and needed public attention. “I really wanted to send a letter to governors telling them not to give a pass to hands-free laws,” said Dr. Runge, whose staff spent months preparing a binder of materials for their presentation.

DOT telling NHTSA not to play politics? Sounds sensible to me. Now, can the NYT backpedal? Sure!

The highway safety agency, rather than commissioning a study with 10,000 drivers, handled one involving 100 cars. That study, done with the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, placed cameras inside cars to monitor drivers for more than a year . . .

Not all the research went unpublished. The safety agency put on its Web site an annotated bibliography of more than 150 scientific articles [here] that showed how a cellphone conversation while driving taxes the brain’s processing power. But the bibliography included only a list of the articles, not the one-page summaries of each one written by the researchers.

“It became almost laughable,” Mr. Monk told the Times. “What they wound up finally publishing was a stripped-out summary.”

It’s a conspiracy! Or not.

Mr. Monk and Mike Goodman, a division head at the safety agency who led the research project, theorize that the agency might have felt pressure from the cellphone industry. Mr. Goodman said the industry frequently checked in with him about the project and his progress. (He said the industry knew about the research because he had worked with it to gather some data).

But he could offer no proof of the industry’s influence. Mr. Flaherty said he was not contacted or influenced by the industry.

In summary, then, we now know the NHTSA is not in the business of releasing preliminary data, which is open to misinterpretation. In fact, suggesting that agency torpedoed a study of 10k drivers because they don’t care about driver safety, or care too much about congressional oversight, is a slur against the NHTSA’s history of protecting American motorists and calling it like they see it.

At least the NYT ends (as do we) with a quote from the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Rae Tyson, the spokesman who’s helped us investigate potential fraud re: the fed’s “Cash for Clunkers” program.

Rae Tyson . . . said [the DOT] did not, and would not, publish the researchers’ fatality estimates because they were not definitive enough.

He said the other research was compiled as background material for the agency, not for the public.

“There is no report to publish,” he said.

By on July 17, 2009

Hitting 50 was tough. I’ve reached the point in my life where I no longer ask “Is That All There Is?” I now ask, “Why did I eat that bowl of mocha chip?” I’ve entered the phase Passage’s author/plagiarist Gail Sheehy calls “Refreshed (or Resigned).” Paint me parenthetical. Recently, I’ve been wondering if I should resign myself to the fact that the car industry is full of liars, weasels, cheats and sons of bitches. And lighten-up. See the good in the people and products which make pistonheads purr. And then my daughter refused to go to bed; she trashed her room like a coke-fueled 70′s rock band. “I have anger issues,” Lola said, when she finally ran out of steam. “That’s OK,” I assured her. “It runs in the family.” So here are five things I hate about the August issue of Car and Driver.

5. August – It’s July. Car and Driver’s “August” issue was put to bed two month’s ago. Despite the obvious immediacy gap (chasm?) between CandD and the autoblogosphere, the storied car mag and its buff book brethren continue their feeble attempt to maintain the illusion of newsworthiness. Their failure to embrace change perpetuates manufacturer-enabled news embargoes, a Kremlin-style practice that prevents the free-flow of information to the consumer and perpetuates junkets that restrict and pervert automotive journalism. Car and Driver should stop chasing faux actuality and get back to the brand’s [former] core value: keeping it real. Meanwhile, I hear rumors that ex-bankrupt Source Interlink Media (Automobile, Motor Trend) has seen the light; they’re looking at improving their paper stock, upping photos and shifting focus towards features. Car and Driver should have done this ten years ago.

4. Cheerleading – Who knew new Editor-in-Chief Eddy Alterman was a Detroit altar boy? For the August issue, Eddy keeps David E. Davis Jr. on life-support, for the sole purpose of recycling reactionary claptrap that passed its sell-by date when jeans had bells at the bottom: “If you’re going to sell ‘em here, build ‘em here;” “ban cell phones;” “don’t bitch about SUVs;” etc. For this Davis gets paid? Again? But it’s more than that. Despite the “new” voices, Car and Driver is still shaking the pom-poms for Motown’s spinmeisters. While the August issue finally gives GM some shit about the Volt, the taxpayer-owned automaker ultimately gets a get-out-of-bullshit-free card: “work in progress.” There’s an entirely too credulous report on the 2011 (really?) Dodge Circuit EV. And the BMW MINI-E is cool ’cause . . . something to do with tattoos.

3. Gotta have it – TTAC’s Best and Brightest have ripped CandD a new you-know-what over this one before: the mag’s tendency to overturn the results of its comparison tests using the “Gotta Have It” category. In the August issue, the Ferrari California bests the Mercedes-Benz SL63 AMG by two points (207 to 205). Remove the Fezza’s three point Gotta Have It score and the Mercedes would have won by one. Never mind the mag’s blatant Bimmer bias; this kind of crap stinks of middle-aged white guy elitism. Which is OK—if Car and Driver would stop pretending to be “fair.” Factor-in the quality of the shrimp at the junket, and the length of the PR babe’s skirt. I dare you.

[Note: TTAC's reviews include a desirability rating. But we don't rate/compare cars according to an ostensibly objective formula. We openly admit that ALL of a reviewer's ratings are ENTIRELY subjective. We actively seek out second and third opinions on a vehicle. And we solicit reader comments which run directly underneath the review. Thank you Al Gore.]

2. Pimping – What’s the difference between cheerleading and pimping? I reckon it has something to do with article origination; whether or not a feature began life as a “let’s kick some ideas around” lunch at an expensive restaurant with “the client.” Or maybe it’s just a question of money. Either way, “VETTE DREAMS” errs on the side of solicitation. “V-8 POWER FOR THE PRICE OF A HOT HATCH, WITH THE SECURITY OF GM’S CERTIFIED USED-VEHICLE PROGRAM” is a strap-line, not an advertising headline, apparently. To his credit, former Editor-in-Chief Csaba Csere warns readers that www.gmcertified.com sucks. Sorry, “the site’s search functions aren’t strong.” Neither is Car and Driver’s credibility.

1. Boring – I could forgive Car and Driver’s carmudgeon anything if their writing didn’t bore me to tears. The mag’s literary quality is a crying shame. I’m not saying CandD’s prose is stiff, but the porn industry should be so lucky. By the same token, you’ll find more more passion in GM’s accounting department on Temazepam Tuesdays. While all the August issue’s articles are inert, the piece called “Unprotected Text” is the quintessential snoozer. I leave you with the opening sentence, which is so dire on so many levels that it’s put my ire to rest. Well, hibernation. “If you use a cell phone, chances are you’re aware of ‘text messaging’–brief messages limited to 160 characters that can be sent or received on all modern mobile phones.”

By on June 1, 2009

[Reprinted from Pravda.ru] It must be said, that like the breaking of a great dam, the American decent into Marxism is happening with breath taking speed, against the back drop of a passive, hapless sheeple, excuse me dear reader, I meant people.

True, the situation has been well prepared on and off for the past century, especially the past twenty years. The initial testing grounds was conducted upon our Holy Russia and a bloody test it was. But we Russians would not just roll over and give up our freedoms and our souls, no matter how much money Wall Street poured into the fists of the Marxists.

Those lessons were taken and used to properly prepare the American populace for the surrender of their freedoms and souls, to the whims of their elites and betters.

First, the population was dumbed down through a politicized and substandard education system based on pop culture, rather then the classics. Americans know more about their favorite TV dramas then the drama in DC that directly affects their lives. They care more for their “right” to choke down a McDonalds burger or a BurgerKing burger than for their constitutional rights. Then they turn around and lecture us about our rights and about our “democracy”. Pride blind the foolish.

Then their faith in God was destroyed, until their churches, all tens of thousands of different “branches and denominations” were for the most part little more then Sunday circuses and their televangelists and top protestant mega preachers were more then happy to sell out their souls and flocks to be on the “winning” side of one pseudo Marxist politician or another. Their flocks may complain, but when explained that they would be on the “winning” side, their flocks were ever so quick to reject Christ in hopes for earthly power. Even our Holy Orthodox churches are scandalously liberalized in America.

The final collapse has come with the election of Barack Obama. His speed in the past three months has been truly impressive. His spending and money printing has been a record setting, not just in America’s short history but in the world. If this keeps up for more then another year, and there is no sign that it will not, America at best will resemble the Wiemar Republic and at worst Zimbabwe.

These past two weeks have been the most breath taking of all. First came the announcement of a planned redesign of the American Byzantine tax system, by the very thieves who used it to bankroll their thefts, loses and swindles of hundreds of billions of dollars. These make our Russian oligarchs look little more then ordinary street thugs, in comparison. Yes, the Americans have beat our own thieves in the shear volumes. Should we congratulate them?

These men, of course, are not an elected panel but made up of appointees picked from the very financial oligarchs and their henchmen who are now gorging themselves on trillions of American dollars, in one bailout after another. They are also usurping the rights, duties and powers of the American congress (parliament). Again, congress has put up little more then a whimper to their masters.

Then came Barack Obama’s command that GM’s (General Motor) president step down from leadership of his company. That is correct, dear reader, in the land of “pure” free markets, the American president now has the power, the self given power, to fire CEOs and we can assume other employees of private companies, at will. Come hither, go dither, the centurion commands his minions.

So it should be no surprise, that the American president has followed this up with a “bold” move of declaring that he and another group of unelected, chosen stooges will now redesign the entire automotive industry and will even be the guarantee of automobile policies. I am sure that if given the chance, they would happily try and redesign it for the whole of the world, too. Prime Minister Putin, less then two months ago, warned Obama and UK’s Blair, not to follow the path to Marxism, it only leads to disaster. Apparently, even though we suffered 70 years of this Western sponsored horror show, we know nothing, as foolish, drunken Russians, so let our “wise” Anglo-Saxon fools find out the folly of their own pride.

Again, the American public has taken this with barely a whimper…but a “freeman” whimper.

So, should it be any surprise to discover that the Democratically controlled Congress of America is working on passing a new regulation that would give the American Treasury department the power to set “fair” maximum salaries, evaluate performance and control how private companies give out pay raises and bonuses? Senator Barney Franks, a social pervert basking in his homosexuality (of course, amongst the modern, enlightened American societal norm, as well as that of the general West, homosexuality is not only not a looked down upon life choice, but is often praised as a virtue) and his Marxist enlightenment, has led this effort. He stresses that this only affects companies that receive government monies, but it is retroactive and taken to a logical extreme, this would include any company or industry that has ever received a tax break or incentive.

The Russian owners of American companies and industries should look thoughtfully at this and the option of closing their facilities down and fleeing the land of the Red as fast as possible. In other words, divest while there is still value left.

The proud American will go down into his slavery with out a fight, beating his chest and proclaiming to the world, how free he really is. The world will only snicker.

Stanislav Mishin

By on May 21, 2009

How many Mercedes owners change their own oil to save a few bucks? The latest “Meet the Volkswagens” TV ad doesn’t just insult Benz owners’— and everyone else’s—intelligence. It’s also racially insensitive. By depicting a white guy with his face blackened with oil, it raises the specter of 19th century minstrel shows. OK, that’s a stretch. But so is VW’s supposition that reminding customers of their over-familiarity with their local dealer’s service department is a good thing. And what does a Microbus sliding out of a nearby garage have to do with anything, Amigo? Wait . . . cue-up the Routan commercial . . .

There’s that Microbus again, with its “Cars” rip-off happy hippy stoner’s voice (as opposed to the Beetle’s Arte Johnson-esque German accent). In this ad, the Routan asks an Odyssey owner if her van has an “autobahn-tuned suspension.” Instead of checking her meds, soccer Mom replies that there’s no autobahn in Japan. True! Nor is there an autobahn in Canada, where Chrysler builds the Routan. Or Lincoln, Alabama, where Honda builds the Odyssey. Or the rest of America, where Odyssey mom lives. To the same point, the day a Routan driver explores the limits of her minivan’s autobahn-tuned suspension is the day I’m parking my Audi.

Needless to say, VW doesn’t have the corner on bad commercials. Suzuki’s “Supercar” ad makes it look like an SX-4—or any other car— can’t traverse a pothole without shifting into 4WD. How about Saturn’s recent campaign, where they attempt to reassure their remaining customers that they’re still the “just plain folks” brand that they were back when they were barbecuing—I mean building cars—in Tennessee? A Saturn salesman warns viewers that there’s a car company out there that’ll take your car away from you if you lose your job. Jeez. How un-American is that?

He’s alluding to the “Hyundai Assurance” program where you can return the car with no impact on your credit rating if you lose your job and can’t make payments. Mr. Saturn makes it sound like Hyundai’ll hunt you down and pry the car from your hands as soon as you’re unemployed. Then Saturn man assures you that his [temporary] employer would never treat you that way. Really? Anyone want to guess what Saturn will do the day after their nine-month grace period on payments expires and you’re still unemployed and not making the payments?

And what happens to Saturn’s “Total Confidence” plan after GM sells the “ReThink” brand to the Chinese or Roger Penske or whomever shows up with cash in hand? Or no one at all? Call me cautious but I wouldn’t feel too confident about Saturn’s ability to back any of their promises at this juncture.

Chrysler’s latest commercials proclaim that the bankrupt company (shhhh!) builds dugouts, lockers, easy chairs, radar systems, TV stations, starting gates, skyscrapers, fish finders, battery chargers, base camps, luxury suites, transporters, mechanical bulls, sanctuaries, viewmasters, security cameras, troop transports, and moving vans. No wonder their sales numbers looks so bad. They’ve been building all these neat things while everyone else is building cars and trucks. But don’t worry, be happy! It’s all backed by the U.S. Government, so buy your whatever-it- is they build with total confidence!

Ford wants you to know they’re still building trucks. BIG trucks. In fact, one commercial highlights their extra-cost tailgate and bedside steps and tells you how much you need them to get in and out of the bed of the F-150.  Well, if they’re that important, why aren’t they standard? Or even better, if it’s such a chore to get stuff out of the back, why doesn’t Ford make the F-150 a more manageable size so you can just reach over the side to get what you want, like you could a few years back?

If you’re Chevy, and you can’t match the competition’s feature, you just make fun of it! In a Silverado commercial, Howie Long ridicules an F-150 driver (the usual stereotypical clumsy, balding, overweight schlub they use when they want you to know someone’s less than a “real” man) for using his “man step.” It’s the same sort of “you’re a faggot” put-down used by brain-dead high school football players (not to stereotype or anything) on classmates who can program a computer.

After questioning their competition’s customers’ sexuality, Chevy brags about Silverado’s “unbeatable” five year/100K mile powertrain warranty. But they won’t compare their warranty to the Dodge Ram’s lifetime powertrain warranty. Instead, they just belittle the Ram’s less-than-real-man owner for having a heated steering wheel and a manicure.

One good thing that’s come from the auto industry meltdown: fewer car commercials. Unfortunately, the remaining ones are getting worse, as the automakers grow increasingly desperate for sales. They’ll try anything to attract attention, whether it’s lying, belittling the competition or insulting viewers’ intelligence. Come to think of it, what’s changed?

By on March 24, 2009

One of the dirty little secrets of automotive journalism is that media scribes get perfect cars to drive. You might not think that from the lousy reviews some cars get, but if journalists took their chances with true production cars, the reviews would be a lot worse.

Needless to say, automakers want to show off their cars to best advantage. But somewhere along the way, the definition of “best advantage” got more than a little stretched. It’s one thing to make sure the press cars are clean and the tires aired up. But vehicle preparation has become a virtual rebuilding of press cars to make them absolutely perfect in every detail, and, in many cases, better than perfect.

In the Detroit area, there are a number of prototype shops that “build” press cars. These shops normally build complete prototype vehicles for shows and for engineering evaluation. So fixing a few flaws in a production car is nothing special. Special paint jobs, closer panel alignment, and reduced door gaps are standard operating procedure.

One car maker, annoyed by press reports of wind noise, had a shop develop a special fixture to replace the window glass. Then the car could be pressurized, and air leaks easily spotted. A rework of the body flanges, door seals and related parts fixed the leaks. No more reports of wind noise on those models! Of course, the average buyers, without the benefit of this careful massaging, took their chances.

The same company introduced a slightly revised version of their full size van a few years back. The press releases bragged about the dramatically improved build quality, and the media agreed. But none of the reporters had seen the press’ vans at the shop, where not only were they completely repainted, every visible spot weld was filled and sanded, creating a flawless surface everywhere you looked. The cargo version of the van, with no interior trim, had lots of visible spot welds. A lot of man-hours went into that bondo job but the van sure looked nice when it was done.

Another company introduced a new sedan to challenge the BMW 3 series for sporty credentials. That meant that every press car had to handle and steer very well. Unfortunately, the first fifty cars off the line were so poorly made that proper wheel alignment couldn’t be achieved, steering gears were sticky, and the tire supplier sent tires that were out of round and out of spec in other areas. The prototype shop went on red alert. The factory sent over another fifty cars, and truckloads of components.

Subframes were swapped, steering gears were disassembled and blueprinted, and the wheel alignment guys worked around the clock. Eventually the shop was reduced to welding up and redrilling mounting holes to make sure that suspension geometry was correct. This was in addition to the usual repainting, refitting and other preparations. Somehow the shop got all fifty press cars together in time, and the car got great reviews. Unfortunately for the paying customers, it took a few years for the production versions to get as good as the press cars.

Why does this situation continue?

The press needs the cars, and the companies need the press. If the press blew the whistle (assuming they even cared enough to find out about the extent of the pampering their cars get), they wouldn’t get cars to write about, putting them out of business. If the companies don’t provide perfect cars, they get savaged in the press. It’s a classic case of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction), just like the days when the US and the USSR faced off with nuclear weapons. Neither group wants to change the rules.

The only way to get the right stuff about cars (other than reading thetruthaboutcars.com) is to listen to writers who get their cars from dealers, like everyone else.

At present, the only magazine that buys its own cars is Consumer Reports. Despite the puritanical editorial stance about fun and cars, they often have surprising insights about quality, performance, and dealer service. CR gets cars with wind noise, flawed paint, water leaks and other problems that somehow escape the notice of the buff books.

One way this could change is for the buff books to buy their own cars. But the economics of the publishing business make this prohibitive. So, since the car makers need the press, perhaps they should set up a trust fund equal to what they spend on press cars and preparation. Buff books can requisition enough money to buy a showroom example, test it, sell it when they’re done and rebate the proceeds back to the trust fund. This would also give the manufacturer invaluable insight into resale values.

Which car maker will be first to step up and make a bold commitment to objective reporting?

By on March 6, 2009

Back in Motown’s heyday, in-house design giants like Harley Earl set the automotive fashion trends. Rockets, airplanes, Googie, breasts—vehicular taste-makers drew inspiration from the pop culture gestalt. Today’s car designers are no different. Specifically, they’ve turned to urban parade makers for their sheetmetal cues, favoring designs that evoke the wretched excess of a rapper’s bling. Unlike Earl and his cohorts, contemporary car designers suffer from Marty McFly Complex: they try dangerous things to show that they’re not creative cowards. The Ray Gun Gothic designs of day’s past had “it.” Our time’s blingmobiles are just plain embarrassing.

Yes, it’s true: bling lives. Although MTV’s Pimp my Ride has jumped the shark, anyone who’s anyone (i.e., someone who wants everyone to think he’s someone) still feels obliged to take a perfectly decent automobile and add several hundred pounds of accessories: spinners, woofers, gold plating, and neon. Anti-stock is the new stock. Or, as the marketing folks at the accessory-based Scion brand so aptly put it, hundreds of thousands of consumers are united by individuality.

Locked as they are into a three to five year lead time, automakers are just now unleashing designs that echo the PMR generation’s obsession with avoiding Prudy Square. Exhibit A: the ridiculously oversized badges sported by today’s whips.

Driving down our interstate highway system for a few hours, I began to notice the big print badges favored by Ford, Dodge, VW, Mercedes and Caddy.

The new F150 sports a badge on the tailgate that would be at home around the neck of any 80s rapper (should his chiropractor approve), especially when compared to the older truck. The New Dodge Ram trucks look as though they could lose a few pounds—say 100 or so—if only they’d put their logos on a diet.

The Buick Enclave’s badge is so big they had to form the rear window around it. Mercedes once restricted their nostril mounted three-pointed star to a single model (500 SEC I believe). Today’s entry-level C-Class’ snout sports an embedded logo that makes the old Merc long for Enzyte.

Volkswagen has surrendered to the forces of largeness, Big Style. Space shuttle crews report that the ill-fated Phaeton’s trunk-mounted logo can be seen from low-earth orbit. At the same time, BMW’s kidney-shaped grills have become swollen, bloated and distended parodies of themselves.

So why the bling thing? In much the same way that hunters spritz themselves with deer musk and a doe’s rutting blood in order to afford themselves some natural cover, perhaps the uber-badges allows manufacturers to look as if they’re hip to the bling thang, and allow them to attract prospects in heat for some new wheels.

The badge engorgement also reflects federal safety and fuel economy regulations. The government is asking all automakers the same questions; it’s no surprise they’re all coming up with the same answers. In other words, there’s a reason why today’s cars look strikingly—or not so strikingly—similar. (If not to you, to the average buyer.) Badges have become an increasingly important way to differentiate one design from another.

And yet, pre-blinging defeats the whole point of pimping a ride; it’s no fun to drive in a car sporting the same tasteless crap accoutrements as everybody else. So the tuner crowd are busy modifying vehicles that have already been modified to look like they’ve been modified. Just as the Cold War led to a $75K coffee maker in the B-1 bomber, I suspect things will get a lot worse (read: “bigger and more obnoxious”) before they get better (“back to normal”).

Then again, the ecoNazis may be bling’s undoing. Once some enterprising Greenie (or heaven forefend, a member of Obama’s Task Force) starts looking at factors like the bling-to-gross vehicle weight ratios, we’re likely to be treated to umpteen stories of how Big Bad Detroit is letting their love of self-promotion run amuck, at the expense of resources.

I can foresee a cottage industry for body shops, de-badging trucks and SUVs to assuage the conscience of those that insist on livin’ large in a rolling land yacht.

Then again, again, it could go the other way: blinged-out government eco-badges. How long before the government enlarges carpool lane stickers, or PZEV designations? Big ass emissions test stickers? How long? Not long. I may not get there with you, but I’ve seen the gi-normous hybrid stickers adorning GM’s gas-electric truck. I’ve seen the PC land.

While I’m all for the auto industry trying to get in touch with their “inner customer,” I’m not so thrilled about the blingalicious look of their new product. If I wanted to drive around a billboard, I would. If they’re going to insist on having their names writ large across the backside of my vehicle, then I should get paid to drive their ads across my city. Less is more.

By on January 29, 2009

Writing in the Telegraph, Top Gear presenter James May says The Stig is a “harmless fairytale.” So much for the autoblogosphere’s paroxysms of go-faster gossip. The fact that most of Top Gear’s readers and viewers will continue to agitate themselves about the Stig’s “real identity” says a lot about their preference for theater over reality. As is often the case, the truth is far less glamorous than fiction. At least in this example, it’s no less interesting. Let’s start with this: if you take the Stig’s “Power Lap” times as reasonable statistics with which to compare the performance of two different cars, you’ve been seriously misled.

The TG lap times are recorded year-round on a track subject to various extremes of heat, cold, and precipitation. The gap between the Volkswagen R32 at 1:30.4 and the Lancer Evo X “FQ-300″ at 1:28.2 is just over two seconds. In fact, it’s not uncommon for lap times at a track of this length to vary by two seconds or more, as the track “rubbers in” and then “washes out” over time.

I remember absolutely obliterating the lap record for my class at Mid-O last year. I shaved almost 1.7 seconds from the record during morning warmup. Later, I had to knock another four tenths off just to qualify in the front row of a regional sprint race. A big IRL test a few days previous had left a fantastic amount of high-quality rubber bonded to the track surface. Simple as that.

Applying a “surface factor” to Top Gear’s lap times, the R32 could be just as fast as the Evo around that track under identical conditions… or it could be as much as four seconds slower. Depending on conditions, the Enzo could have been the fastest car ever tested by the Stig, or it could have been slower than the Corvette Z06.

Power Lap times are like calls to Dionne Warwick’s Psychic Friends Network: use them for entertainment purposes only.

And then there’s the “Stig factor”: the difference in driving skills between one Stig, or two Stigs, or half a dozen different Stigs. Only there isn’t one. It doesn’t matter if the Stig is Ben Oliver, Damon Hill or Lewis Hamilton. The lap times will be roughly the same.

Surely Lewis Hamilton would be much faster around the test track than an older F1 driver, or a Touring Car winner, or even (gasp) a regular old American club racer like yours truly? Nope. The main gap between the best drivers and the regular Joes is minimal.

This is particularly true in relatively undemanding vehicles like street-tire, street-alignment street cars. The talent and experience required for a fast lap in something like a Corvette or GT-R can be found in literally thousands of drivers across the Western World. The difference between the very best street-car time-trial driver in the world and a mildly competitive Spec Miata racer might be half a second, if that.

As we’ve already seen, that half-second gap is much less than the potential variation in track conditions. It’s also less than the improvement possible with careful tire pressure selection and an extra session of familiarization in the car. Which reminds me: the “very best street-car time-trial driver in the world” mentioned in the previous paragraph isn’t Lewis Hamilton, Perry McCarthy, or anybody famous. It’s probably some introverted, Tilley-hat-wearing, weekend-warrior “nobody” in NASA’s Time Trial program or one of the overseas “time attack” deals.

Real racing drivers aren’t obsessed with extracting the very last tenth of a second possible in a single lap. It’s assumed that any race driver can put in about the same max-effort lap. Strategy, car conservation, traffic skills, on-track positioning… that’s where the superstars shine.

There are a few guys out there who could probably turn a faster single lap in a Ferrari F430 than Michael Schumacher. But Schumi will be within a fuel-adjusted two-tenths of a second for every lap in a forty-lap session, he’ll monitor and report effectively the car’s condition, and he’ll be aware of the position of every other driver on the track, even if he can’t see them. That’s the job of a racing driver.

If Top Gear wanted to provide serious, repeatable performance numbers, they would find and hire that aforementioned time-trialer cubicle rat, run all the cars under the same conditions on the same day, and rigorously enforce everything from tire pressure to oil temperature. In other words, they’d do what National-caliber autocrossers do when they conduct tire testing.

But if you’ve ever attended a National Solo event, you know there’s nothing sexy, interesting or impressive about that kind of process. It looks like a Star Trek convention without the fake ears or the fun shiny outfits.

Nobody would watch it. So instead we get an imaginary android, lurid powerslides and a “Power Lap” board to sit next to the “Cool Wall.” It’s a fake. But let’s be honest: isn’t that what you want?

By on January 13, 2009

After a weekend of concept-touting and audacious hoping, Detroit is praying that the bitter taste of bailout beggary will be cleansed by the redemptive powers of PR. From the sight of hundreds of rallying GM workers to a lineup of future concepts, the North American International Auto Show played host to a number of highly-managed media messages aimed at convincing skeptics that it’s no longer such a lonely world for American automakers. But the emphasis on public relations highlights how far Detroit still has to go, and fails to mask the desperate need for, well, bankruptcy. And while cheerleaders for a largely-imagined Detroit renaissance hold on to that feeling, time marches remorselessly on.

The unifying theme of Detroit’s campaign for hearts and minds: a throwback to the good old days. Back when city boys were the plucky, working class heart of the nation. “Detroit: not a town of quitters,” is how the Freep‘s Sarah A Webster frames the argument, Webster posits that a car wash billboard on Woodward Ave– which reads “never give up”– exemplifies this civic pride. “For all I know,” writes Webster, “it’s been up there for years.” Which is a major part of the problem. Detroit’s automakers have been in savage decline for so long that most Americans don’t even know what they would come back to become.

Webster notes that she “quite ironically” first noticed the sign’s long-running message of not quitting “on Dec. 12, the morning after the U.S. Senate voted against lending Detroit’s automakers the $14 billion they sought to survive the global economic downturn.” At that dark hour, the sign on Woodward shone like a beacon of hope to Webster after “Congress had just voted to turn the lights out on the Motor City.” As a “darkest moment before sunrise” though, this hardly inspires the kind of faith and sympathy that Detroit is clearly looking for. It simply highlights the new reality of Detroit as an oversized, reality-ignoring, bailout-begging hype machine.

Motown’s plucky, blue-collar image overhaul depends on prodding Americans to reach back to a decades-old model of a successful, competitive Detroit. To pull off its Lazarus risen act, Detroit must also hide the fact that the road to redemption doesn’t lead through River Rouge or Hamtramack. It comes in the form of government checks. And this causes internal discord, cognitive dissonance and a renewed emphasis on style over substance.

Should Chrysler not be “stung” by GMAC’s extra $6b worth of TARP loving? After all, if one American automaker can have its self-destructive incentive binges underwritten by the government, shouldn’t they all? Besides, if Chrysler can convince no less than the LA Times‘ Dan Neil that its 200C concept is a “real-world car” and that it “will be available in two years” (actual car courtesy of Nissan), isn’t that good enough for some know-nothing congressmen?

With Obama’s vast stimulus under debate in the new congress, the Detroit Auto Show was not a showcase of the consumer-driven products that the once-big three can put on the showroom floor. It was a message to lawmakers that Detroit could fulfill their politically-driven goals as long as the checks keep coming. And the transition from a consumer-driven culture in Detroit (if such a thing ever existed) to a politically-driven one shouldn’t be difficult.

GM, Chrysler and Ford executives are forever bemoaning the American consumer’s ignorance of their product’s self-evident desirability. And the oft-touted “perception gap” is much easier to tackle among easily-influenced subsidy check signers in DC than it is among financially struggling Americans.

AdAge reports that a $50m effort to revamp the image of American automakers in the minds of consumers is failing to gain traction, despite David E. Davis’ midwifery and the blessing of Lee Iaccoca. Ford is especially trying to distance itself from these efforts, rightly believing that associating itself with the PR efforts of tax money-guzzlers is counterproductive, at least in terms of consumer opinion.

Now that GM and Chrysler are on the dole, they can not deny that they have lost their way. As TTAC’s Ken Elias wrote this morning, decades of denial can only be swept away with a quick admission of guilt and a plausible vision of a brilliant future. But Detroit chases feelings of nostalgia and futurism while remaining stuck in a dismal and seemingly eternal present.

Detroit has singularly failed to understand that the classic American narratives of rebirth and redemption begins with a dark night of the soul– not a trip to DC to ask Santa for a multi-billion dollar bailout. A bankruptcy reorganization would not only have given GM and Chrysler the tools to transform themselves, it would have given Americans a reason to cheer for new underdog brands, freed from their toxic legacies.

Instead, Detroit is trying to conjure up sympathy by ignoring the rules, begging for money and selling a future they know is out of reach without more handouts. And even, one must now conclude, with them.

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