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. Tue, 29 Jul 2014 17:28:43 +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 In Defense Of: The Acura RLX Fri, 10 Jan 2014 14:00:36 +0000 2014-Acura-RLX-review-main-1_rdax_646x396


“There aren’t many bad cars on the market,” is the trope trotted out by auto reviewers when justifying their enthusiastic response to whatever is trotted out in front of them at the Lowes Santa Monica on Wave 2 of the latest press launch. The post-recession era is one where the quality of the average car has never been higher, at the expense of idiosyncratic flaws that give cars character. Sure, there are always the whipping boys of the market, namely cars people actually buy like unibody crossovers and some that people don’t, like big, front-drive sedans.

Big, front-drive sedans are a segment in decline. In the mainstream market, crossovers, SUVs and even crew cab pickups have displaced the full-size car from its traditional role as a family vehicle. Roughly half of them go to fleets, and the segment is chock full of nameplates like “Taurus”, “Avalon”, “Maxima”, which have as much sex appeal as Kirstie Alley flaunting her post-Weight Watches body on Oprah. As far as I’m concerned, they send power to the wrong wheels and their dynamics have more in common with a sea-faring vessel.

They’re also quiet, comfortable, ride smooth over most surfaces and have lots of room in the back. These are very desirable traits for a lot of buyers, as evidenced by booming sales of, you guessed it, unibody crossovers, SUVs and crew cab pickups. Most car reviewers, who would gladly place themselves in the enthusiast camp, don’t care all that much about these traits. Performance is what matters, whether that means an uncomfortable ride, heavy steering, a complicated gearbox and a thirsty engine are all desirable, even at the expense of driveability in situations that don’t involve sub-8 minute laps of the ‘Ring.

This has been a chief complaint about Cadillac. Rather than trying to build the best Cadillac they can, The Standard of the World really wants to be The Ultimate Driving Machine. And one could argue that to varying degrees, Audi, Lexus and Mercedes-Benz are as well, with the A6 3.0T S-Line, the GS F-Sport and the newest E350, which isn’t completely numb to drive.

And then there’s Acura. When everyone is going for rear-drive, German-inspired, letter-series lukewarm D-segment sports sedans with lots of “high gloss piano trim” (read: black plastic with a shiny finish) they launch the RLX a front-drive, Accord-based sedan that looks utterly anonymous and has absolutely zero sporting pretensions.

When the RLX was introduced, the internet product planning brigade (Associates Degree required, must have an internet connection and 2-3 years selling mobile phone accessories at Best Buy) was livid. “No serious luxury brand sells a front-drive V6 powered car,” they sputtered, half choking on a Five Guys burger. “Acura needs a V8 and rear-drive to be taken seriously.”

I’m not about to get into a discussion of what Acura’s future direction should be, but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night. And that makes me qualified enough to tell you that the RLX is a pretty good car. Is it a rival for the crop of rear-drive 5-Series wannabes? No, but the four-wheel steering system (dubbed with the comically stupid moniker P-AWS, from the people that brought you Super Handling All-Wheel Drive) really does work as advertised, helping the car rotate when pushed into a corner hard. I only did that once, since I wanted to drive the car as your typical RLX buyer would, and in that context, it excelled.

The venerable Acura 3.7L V6 feels quick enough, and instrumented tests show that it’s about as quick as a Camry V6, or quick enough to dust a Fiesta ST to 60 mph. More important than that is what you don’t notice. The RLX is supremely quiet, while the chassis neutralizes whatever imperfections exist in the road. The steering isn’t totally numb, but you don’t have to put much effort into using it. The front drive layout means that there’s no driveshaft or large transmission tunnel cutting through the back seat area, so there’s lots of room for rear passengers. The Krell audio system is one of the best I’ve experienced in any car, and I hope it filters down to other Acuras.

For a lot of people, that’s what real luxury is about. Driving from one destination to another, in a silent, climate controlled conveyance, the only noise emanating from the stereo if they so choose. Not long ago, I would have shied away from that notion in near revulsion. I’m the kind of guy who wouldn’t buy a new car unless it had a manual transmission, and I consider it a treat whenever I can drive something with a real cable throttle, let alone rear-wheel drive. My father’s E39 530i will always be my benchmark for sports sedans.

Back then, the 5-Series was distinct from the other offerings, with a purity unmatched by anything that didn’t have a roundel on the hood. Now, you’d be hard pressed to tell the BMW apart from the Audi from the Lexus if you could do a hypothetical blind taste test. The RLX on the other hand, is more like a Japanese take on American luxury. In a strange sort of way, that’s a rather unique proposition.

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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: The Maserati Kubang Wed, 14 Sep 2011 17:15:49 +0000

Paul Fussell’s brilliant book Class describes a BMW as a car for an upper-middle class professional, while a Mercedes-Benz is too ostentatious. The true upper-class vehicle is a beige Dodge or Ford, generally filthy and driven at 10 mph under the speed limit.

Fussell’s book was first published in 1983, and I’ll give one of my favorite authors the benefit of the doubt – not even such an astute and visionary social critic could anticipate the massive explosion of (credit fueled) affluence that has swept our society. Today, a Mercedes-Benz can be leased for the same cost as a Honda Accord, a BMW is what you buy for your daughter, and a Dodge isn’t even fit for your maid to drive. Which brings us to the Maserati Kubang.

I’ve seen the logarithmic expansion of affluence on a micro level, as the carpool vehicles of choice got progressively more expensive when I was a child. In 1992, the Chrysler “Magic Wagon” ruled the roost, and as the two year leases expired, the mothers of my neighborhood moved up to the Mercury Villager Nautica, Volvo 850 wagon and Ford Expedition. 1998 was a watershed year, as the Mercedes-Benz ML320 debuted, and the minimum entry point for membership in the imaginary social clique dreamed up by Toronto’s Desperate Jewish Housewife Princesses was a luxury SUV.

Over a decade later, the affluence train has shown no signs of slowing down, and waves of identical white Range Rovers, black Cadillac Escalades, silver Mercedes-Benz SUVs (ML, GL, G-Wagen – but never the GLK) all crowd the narrow, single lane streets of Forest Hill village, as their drivers fetch coffee at Starbucks or take a watered-down Muay Thai class, in a futile attempt to fight genetics and stay aesthetically competitive with their adolescent daughters.

By the time the Maserati Kubang launches in 12-24 months, the leases on all these SUVs, as well as the current top dog, the Porsche Cayenne, will be set to expire. The Maserati Quattroporte is currently en vogue with the Forest Hill Husband set, along with the Porsche Panamera, for the simple reason that the XY crowd gets the image of a sports car, even while their wives have expressly forbidden them from buying a 911 or GranSport Coupe.

I will bet all of my Bar Mitzvah Israel Bonds that the Kubang will be a smash hit among consumers and an enormously profitable vehicle for Chrysler/Fiat. The nouveau riche, perpetually insecure about their status, have already exhausted their options for premium SUVs.

Performance, build quality and dynamic competence are all irrelevant. I know multiple Quattroporte owners, all of whom are dissatisfied in most every aspect. Their rationale for buying one “Everyone has a 7-Series or an S-Class”. You can bet that the Kubang will be bought for similar reasons. This car is going to be everywhere the rich are, from ritzy neighborhoods to rap videos to “The Real Housewives of [insert locale here]”.

Maserati, as a brand, already enjoys a more-than premium position, by nature of its nationality, its shrewd product placements in TV shows like Desperate Housewives, The Sopranos and Entourage, and the relatively limited production of its cars. History has proven that premium SUVs are a profitable formula, and the louder the enthusiast opposition, the better they tend to do.

Meanwhile, Sergio Marchionne and his Chrysler cronies will be swimming in a pile of gold coins, ala Scrooge McDuck, for the exact reasons that enthusiasts will decry online; it’s based on a Jeep Grand Cherokee platform (so it’s going to be mega profitable), it’s ugly (the better to let everyone know you’re rich and they’re not) it destroys the Maserati brand values. Sure, some of them will catch on fire or break down, but that’s ok; the owner can just borrow their daughter’s X3 while it’s in the shop.

Some of us long for a time when cars were pure, marketers less cynical and all that rose-tinted nonsense. There’s no point in arguing with reality, and the fact is that products like these will sell from Beijing to Beverly Hills to Brasilia (and most definitely whatever Russian city starts with a “B”). Better to cheer on such a naked and ruthless attempt to make money than to sit among the destitute peanut gallery of enthusiasts who could never really afford one anyways.

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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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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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