The Truth About Cars » Japan http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Wed, 16 Jul 2014 16:33:07 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.9.1 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 editors@ttac.com editors@ttac.com (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 » Japan http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/wp-content/themes/ttac-theme/images/logo.gif http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com Ghosn Top Earner In Japan For Fourth Time In Five Years http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/06/ghosn-top-earner-in-japan-for-fourth-time-in-five-years/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/06/ghosn-top-earner-in-japan-for-fourth-time-in-five-years/#comments Wed, 25 Jun 2014 10:00:45 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=852041

Renault-Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn will once more be graced with the honor of being the highest paid executive at a Japanese corporation, having held the honor three previous times in the past five years.

Bloomberg reports Ghosn made ¥995 million ($9.76 million USD) in salary and bonuses for fiscal year 2013, which ended March 31 of this year; total compensation, including dividends, amounts to ¥10 billion ($9.81 million). This puts the CEO ahead of Toyota president Akio Toyoda, who made four times less than Ghosn despite Nissan eking out a profit amid incentive spending and recall costs in the same period. However, Toyoda’s ¥757 million ($7.42 million) in dividends narrows the gap between the two leaders.

Though Ghosn may be killing it in Japan, his total earnings are outgunned by those of his standing among European and U.S. automakers. Outgoing Ford CEO Alan Mullaly earned $23 million in total compensation last year, while GM CEO Mary Barra may receive as much as $14.4 million at the end of FY 2014. Meanwhile, VW boss Martin Winterkorn took home €15 million ($20 million) and Daimler’s doctor Dieter Zetche made €8.25 million ($11.2 million) in 2013. Renault paid €2.3 million ($3.1 million) to Ghosn, bringing total earnings from the alliance to around $13 million USD..

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A Look At A Japanese Auto Auction And What It Holds For The Future http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/06/a-look-at-a-japanese-auto-auction-and-what-it-holds-for-the-future/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/06/a-look-at-a-japanese-auto-auction-and-what-it-holds-for-the-future/#comments Wed, 11 Jun 2014 12:17:53 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=842114 TAAOnlineScreen

While we’re fortunate to be treated to a weekly look at American auto auctions courtesy of TTAC’s Steve Lang and his Hammer Time series, today we’re getting a glimpse of an auction on the other side of the world.

Prof. Mike Smitka of Washington & Lee University posted an entry at his own Autos & Economics blog, detailing his trip to an auction near Osaka, Japan. Smitka outlines the differences between American and Japanese auctions, and explains the economics behind Japan’s used car market.

With annual inspections occurring at the ten-year mark, there is usually a flood of 8-year old cars being scrapped or exported. Some years ago, the rather rigorous standards were relaxed, which in turn allowed owners to keep their cars for longer. Even still, there is less supply of older vehicles, and they are usually exported to Pakistan or Russia. Contrast that to America, where the average vehicle age is around 11 years old.

That of course, is bad news for new car sellers, who could typically rely on a steady stream of consumers replacing their cars every decade or so. But as Smitka shows in another post, that trend doesn’t look like it can continue. Between higher consumption taxes, shrinking demographics and a need to trim streamline the OEM retail channels, Japan’s new car market – and its auto industry overall – look to be facing some major changes in the near future.

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Abe Administration Pushes Automakers, Nation Away From Kei Cars http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/06/abe-administration-pushes-automakers-nation-away-from-kei-cars/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/06/abe-administration-pushes-automakers-nation-away-from-kei-cars/#comments Wed, 11 Jun 2014 11:00:09 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=841985 Nissan Moco

For ages, the kei car has been one of the darlings of the automotive world, owing to its tiny size and equally tiny engine (that also netted owners a smaller tax bill). Alas, Japan’s littlest cars may soon be put in a toy box destined for Goodwill as the nation’s government puts the pressure on both automakers and owners to move toward supporting bigger offerings.

The New York Times reports the Japanese government introduced three tax increases on kei owners, including a 50 percent boost in the kei car tax meant to bring their tax burden close to larger vehicles. Officials claim the cars are becoming a drain on the Diet’s coffers both on the tax and free trade fronts, and as they cannot be exported to other markets — college campuses withstanding — the keis are a waste of profit and R&D for automakers.

The Abe administration may see push back from owners and automakers alike, however. Smaller automakers such as Suzuki and Daihatsu use the R&D from their kei offerings to better compete in other markets where similar offerings are sold, as well as adding more content to make their cars more attractive to their local market base. Owners, meanwhile, opt for keis because of the low ownership costs involved, and the greater mobility offered in areas where mass transit is few and far between.

The tax increase on the kei has affected both parties, with automakers losing sales and owners who may decide not to buy any vehicle altogether; sales are expected to drop from 2.23 million in 2013 to 1.7 million in 2015.

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Study: 51 Percent Of Chinese Consumers Snub Japanese Vehicles http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/05/study-51-percent-of-chinese-consumers-snub-japanese-vehicles/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/05/study-51-percent-of-chinese-consumers-snub-japanese-vehicles/#comments Fri, 23 May 2014 11:00:52 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=829337 Nissan Teana

Though Japanese automakers are doing all they can to win over Chinese consumers, a study led by Bernstein Research found anti-Japanese sentiments among 51 percent of 40,000 surveyed may be a barrier to further success in the growing market.

The Wall Street Journal reports the nationalistic attitude toward Japan is highest in developing cities such as Changsha, Dongguan and Xian, where automakers hope to strike it rich in the future. Bernstein analyst Max Warburton adds that while the Japanese and their joint-venture parnters will do well in the near future, “the one thing that comes out most clearly is that most Chinese really want a German car… ultimately the market will belong to the Germans.”

In the near term, those surveyed found Japanese vehicles to be less expensive to own and more comfortable than German and American offerings, and superior to vehicles manufactured by South Korean automakers. Nissan, the nation’s largest Japanese brand, was described as being for older consumers with families who have lower incomes than other brands, as well.

Aside from nationalism, the Japanese may also have a hard time breaking into the premium market, with only 41 percent surveyed willing to pay over 300,000 yuan ($48,000) for a Japanese premium vehicle.

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Japanese Automakers Form Alliance To Develop Next-Gen Fuel-Efficient Engines http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/05/japanese-automakers-form-alliance-to-develop-next-gen-fuel-efficient-engines/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/05/japanese-automakers-form-alliance-to-develop-next-gen-fuel-efficient-engines/#comments Tue, 20 May 2014 12:00:38 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=826666 AICE

Japan’s cadre of automakers have formed an alliance to research and develop a new generation of diesel and gasoline internal combustion engines, with the goal of delivering a 30 percent improvement in fuel efficiency by 2020.

Automotive News reports the Research Association of Automotive Internal Combustion Engines (AICE) will provide half of the 1 billion yen ($9.9 million) budget for the research and development of the new engines, with the Japanese government contributing the rest. The group structure follows similar paths outlined by their European competitors, where automakers cooperate with academia and government to bring new and improved technologies to market while cutting costs in R&D.

AICE has outlined a 10-year plan for improving efficiency in the combustion engine, targeting a thermal efficiency rate of 50 percent for both gasoline and diesel engines. Diesel R&D will focus on EGR and particulate filtration systems, while R&D for gasoline aims for more complete combustion cycles and improved ignition with knock reduction.

Honda R&D managing officer Keiji Ohtsu will be the first president of the new R&D body.

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Imported Cars Have A Record Year In Japan http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/05/imported-cars-have-a-record-year/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/05/imported-cars-have-a-record-year/#comments Mon, 12 May 2014 13:16:21 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=819481 vw-golf-japan-december-2010b

Sales of imported cars set a 17 year record in Japan, with brands like Maserati and Volkswagen leading the way, with Bloomberg reporting that non-Japanese brands captured 8.8 percent of non-key car sales – the highest figure since records started being kept in 1989.

Mercedes and Maserati both had record setting years in Japan, while the VW Golf was the best-selling non-Japanese car, ranking 27th overall. The VW Up! is also said to be stealing sales away from kei car shoppers, and the trend of smaller imported cars appears to be a welcome one for Japanese consumers.

Previously, most European brands imported big, expensive luxury sedans, attainable only to the upper strata of Japanese society. Many of these examples were also left-hand drive, which was considered to be a status symbol by many, in the way that a right-hand drive car has enthusiast cachet in North America (and an inconvenience as well – which was arguably part of the appeal).

But the Golf and Up! have demonstrated demand for smaller, imported premium vehicles, and other brands have been following suit. Mercedes is set to begin sales of the A-Class compact hatchback, while Volvo’s V40 small hatch is the brand’s best selling vehicle.

Nevertheless, it’s unlikely that imported vehicles will ever make up a big part of auto markets in Japan. Despite talk of non-tariff barriers and other obstacles, there are significant cultural hurdles to overcome. Certain American vehicles (like muscle cars and large custom vans) have a following among Japanese enthusiasts, but for the vast majority of consumers, American cars are simply too big and too thirsty for Japan. Witness the boom in European vehicles, which didn’t take off in earnest until smaller vehicles became available. Among Japanese auto makers, kei cars are the dominant segment, with smaller cars taking up most of the non-kei share.

Beyond that, Japan is a society where conformity, not individual expression, is considered a virtue. “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down”, is a constant refrain in discussions of Japanese management culture, and what better way to stand out than by buying a vehicle made by the opposing team? Based on that alone, it’s reasonable to conclude that talk of closed markets and non-tariff barriers are secondary

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Honda S660 To Enter Production In 2015 At Former Beat Factory http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/05/honda-s660-to-enter-production-in-2015-at-former-beat-factory/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/05/honda-s660-to-enter-production-in-2015-at-former-beat-factory/#comments Wed, 07 May 2014 11:00:37 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=816737 Honda-S660-Concept-Live-Shot-05

Over two decades ago during the early years of Japan’s Lost Decade (or Lost 20 Years for those who believe the nation’s economy has yet to improve since the boom of the 1980s), Soichiro Honda’s final car before his passing — the Honda Beat kei roadster — left the Yachiyo Industry Company-owned factory at Yokkaichi to take on the likes of the Suzuki Cappuccino and Autozam AZ-1.

History could come back around, however, when the factory gears up to build the production-version of the Honda S660 in 2015.

Autoblog reports the Yokkaichi factory — which currently builds the N, Life and Vamos for Honda under-contract — had been slated for expansion a few years ago before the automaker moved the majority of its kei-car production to its own factory in Suzuka.

No word on how many of the new roadsters will be built, nor how much they will be priced; it also remains to be seen if American Honda CEO Tetsuo Iwamura can bring the S660 — or S1000, should more power be needed than the 660cc turbocharged engine mounted mid-ship can provide — to the United States sometime after Japan gets theirs.

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Japanese Auto Market Takes Sales Hit As Consumption Tax Increases http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/05/japanese-auto-market-takes-sales-hit-as-consumption-tax-increases/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/05/japanese-auto-market-takes-sales-hit-as-consumption-tax-increases/#comments Fri, 02 May 2014 10:00:09 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=813657 2014 Honda Freed Spike

The Japanese auto market took a hit in sales last month, falling 5.5 percent to 345,226 units as an increased consumption tax of 8 percent took hold in a sign of a slow year in sales.

Bloomberg reports the drop comes at the end of a seven-month-long sales surge of over 783,000 vehicles through March 2014 ahead of the levy issued by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to help fight the ongoing financial issues plaguing Japan for two decades. As a result, economists believe Q2 2014 will see the biggest retraction since the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami.

As for the outgoing month, Toyota and Mazda both posted their lowest number of deliveries since 2011, while Subaru saw a 41 percent drop to a record low number. Meanwhile, Nissan, Suzuki and Mitsubishi all saw gains in April, with Mitsubishi taking the biggest slice of the market at 27 percent.

The consumption tax will be mitigated somewhat for automotive consumers through a 5 percent vehicle-purchase tax, and will give way in 2015 for a 10 percent national sales tax. In the meantime, the next year could play out like it had in 1997, when the tax jumped from 3 percent to 5 percent and auto sales dropped 15 percent with a 21-month decline in the industry.

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At Toyota, Craftsmen Get Hands-On In Search Of Innovation http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/04/at-toyota-craftsmen-get-hands-on-in-search-of-innovation/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/04/at-toyota-craftsmen-get-hands-on-in-search-of-innovation/#comments Thu, 17 Apr 2014 12:17:45 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=801290 Toyota factory near hard-hit Sendai. Picture courtesy cbsnews.com

Twenty years ago, as a young Merchant Mariner, I was sent to Japan where the ship I was assigned to, the Sea-Land Spirit, was undergoing a major refit. The ship had begun life as a LASH ship, a vessel that carried cargo-filled barges which it offloaded from its stern via huge, rail mounted cranes that ran on tracks down the length of its deck, and now, after the demise of that business model, it was being converted it into a container ship.

Prior to the refit, the ship had been virtually abandoned, left to rot in some bayside backwater for many years, and it had taken a pounding from the elements. To get it back into service, the ship was towed to Korea where it underwent most of the major modifications, after which it was then taken to the giant Mitsubishi works in Kobe, Japan for the final touches. It was there, so I was told, that Japanese laborers called into question the quality of the Korean’s work. Some of the massive steel braces that had been welded to the deck, they found, were as much as a centimeter off. Shocked by the poor quality of their counterparts’ work, the Japanese shipyard workers cut the braces off the deck, moved them a fraction of an inch and welded them down again.

Photo courtesy of cdn2.shipspotting.com

Photo courtesy of cdn2.shipspotting.com

The Japanese have a reputation for doing things right. Who else could take an iron ore of questionable quality and forge it into blades renowned for their strength, flexibility and sharpness? Who, but the Japanese, could take a pasty skinned, round face little girl and turn her into an object of enduring sexual desire? All cultures make things, but it is only in Japan that the making of things, “monozukuri” is elevated into an art unto itself, and where skilled craftsmen, who spend their entire lives honing their craft to perfection, become “gods.”

In recent years, however, thanks to the amount of production that has been handed over to robots, the number of “gods” on the factory floor has dwindled. Toyota, in particular, has noticed the problem and, according to a recent Bloomberg article, the company if now taking steps to reverse what it sees as a new form of brain drain by taking jobs away from robots and giving them back to men. The logic is slyly simple but infinitely deep, craftsmen, it goes, will always look for ways to innovate, always seek out easier more efficient methods and even find ways to reduce waste while robots can only do what they are programmed to do.

robots.jpg

Over the past three years, the article continues, Toyota has introduced more than 100 “manual-intensive” workplaces at factories all around Japan. In one of the sections, men manually turn and hammer red hot steel as it is forged into crankshafts in much the same way that Henry Ford’s workers once did. True to form, the men in the section have been watching and learning and the result of their efforts has been a 10 percent reduction in material waste and a shortening of the production line that will soon be applied to the automated processes used to make crankshafts in the next generation Prius Hybrid.

There is no doubt that the robots are here to stay, but Toyota’s recent experiments show that keeping humans closely engaged in the process can pay real dividends. By empowering workers and encouraging them to become skilled craftsmen who truly understand what it takes to build cars, Toyota is setting the stage for innovation. It is, I think, a uniquely Japanese solution but it could be applied here in North America as well. Despite the many people who decry the lack of skills and poor work ethic of the North American factory worker, I believe that there are a great many men and women in our factories who would jump at the chance to work harder. Everyone, I think, wants to be valued and most people want to make a difference. This could work here too, maybe some of our own best and brightest should take a look at what’s going on.

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Analysis: Australia’s Free Trade Deals Are The Final Nail In The Coffin Of Its Auto Industry http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/04/analysis-australias-free-trade-deals-are-the-final-nail-in-the-coffin-of-its-auto-industry/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/04/analysis-australias-free-trade-deals-are-the-final-nail-in-the-coffin-of-its-auto-industry/#comments Tue, 08 Apr 2014 15:35:19 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=790321 holden-plant

In the span of 24 hours, Australia inked two free trade agreements with both Japan and South Korea. Even though Holden, Ford and Toyota had already committed to ending auto manufacturing in Australia, it’s hard not to see the agreements as the last nail in the coffin of Australia’s once strong auto industry.

Although North American perception of Australia’s car market is one composed of big, rear-drive V8 sedans and Utes, that image is largely a construct in the minds of enthusiasts. The real picture is a lot less sexy.

Australia’s market is both unique and remarkably mundane. At around 1 million units annually, Australia’s new car market is a mere fraction of the United States – but it’s also far more competitive, with roughly 60 brands competing for a very small pie.

In past decades, the local auto manufacturing industry was heavily protected by tariffs, which encouraged a thriving domestic auto manufacturing industry. Holden and Ford ruled the roost, while Chrysler enjoyed a brief run of localized cars. Later on, companies like Mitsubishi, Nissan and Toyota joined the fray, establishing themselves as the favored Japanese brands.

But in 1983, the Button Plan radically changed the automotive landscape in Australia. The chief goal of the Button Plan was to consolidate the domestic auto industry by halving the number of model produced, while also looking to reduce tariffs and import quotas. The overall goal was to foster a more competitive, export-focused Australian car industry through increased competition.

In the immediate term, a number of badge engineered domestic models appeared in the showrooms of Japanese brands, but none sold particularly well. For a long time, traditional Australia vehicles like large sedans and Utes reigned supreme. But the past decade has seen a major shift in the automotive market, with rapidly changing tastes.

Much like their cousins in the United States, Australia’s traditional vehicles – large sedans and Utes – are facing a two-fronted war, and the outcome has all but been decided.

A report by Ward’s Auto shows that in 2003, large sedans (which ostensibly includes not just the Holden Commodore and Ford Falcon, but also front-drive entrants from Toyota and Mitsubishi) were the most popular cars in Australia, with 26 percent market share. A decade later, that number has fallen to just 7.6 percent.

Small cars and SUVs have overtaken the large car as the most popular segments in Australia. Rising fuel prices, shifting market tastes and a greater selection of small cars have helped propel vehicles like the Holden Cruze, Mazda3, Hyundai i30 to the top of the sales charts – to say nothing of the Toyota Corolla, which was Australia’s best-selling car in 2013.

At the other end of the spectrum, SUVs, crossovers and mid-size pickup trucks have eroded the large sedan’s domain as the family car of choice, with Ward’s reporting that one fifth of buyers are opting for mid-size or large SUVs. The Toyota HiLux was Australia’s best-selling truck in 2013, as sales of mid-size trucks (including Holden’s popular Colorado) helped dampen enthusiasm for Utes.

Beyond the lack of enthusiasm for traditional vehicles, the importance of Australian pedigree is on the wave. As Ward’s reports, the preference for Australian-made vehicles has declined substantially from over a quarter of new buyers in 2003, to roughly one eighth in 2013. Last year marked the first time that the three most popular brands in monthly sales rankings (Toyota, Mazda, Nissan) were all imports.

With a changing climate regarding imported vehicles, the FTAs with both Japan and South Korea will only reduce the cost of vehicles that Australian consumers are already gravitating to. While the FTA with Thailand arguably served as the catalyst for Australia’s major market shift towards Thai-built trucks and certain passenger cars, other factors, like a strong Australian dollar, high manufacturing costs and limited export demand for Australian cars (despite the protestations of enthusiasts across the internet) did their part in bringing about the inevitable end to Australia’s auto industry. The Japanese and South Korean FTAs won’t do any more harm to an industry on death row. But it’s impossible to ignore their symbolism in the wake of the Australian car industry’s annus horribilis.

 

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Review: 2014 Lexus GS 450h http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/03/review-2014-lexus-gs-450h-with-video/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/03/review-2014-lexus-gs-450h-with-video/#comments Mon, 03 Mar 2014 14:00:25 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=750313 2014 Lexus GS 450h Hybrid Exterior-004

Last time TTAC looked at the Lexus GS Hybrid, Jack and I descended upon Vegas, drank too much, shared too much and one of us got purse-slapped (it wasn’t Jack). In other news, Jack found the GS a willing partner on the track, I kept drawing comparisons to the Volvo S80 T6 and Hyundai Genesis, and both of us agreed the GS 450h would be the car we’d buy. Despite telling you all that we would have a full review in “a few months,” it has in fact been “a few years.” Since that pair of articles hit, the luxury hybrid landscape has changed dramatically.

2014 Lexus GS 450h Hybrid Exterior-001

The GS used to be the only hybrid game in town, but times have changed and nearly everyone has joined the party. BMW has their turbocharged ActiveHybrid 5, Mercedes just launched the E400 Hybrid, Infiniti has re-badged their M Hybrid the Q70 Hybrid, Acura is finally selling the all-wheel-drive RLX Hybrid and Audi has announced the A6 hybrid will come to America “soon” . This means that the S80 T6 and Genesis are no longer on my list, because we have head-to-head competition now.

Exterior

Lexus used to be known for restrained styling but the current generation GS marked a change for the Japanese luxury brand. In addition to taking on more aggressive front end styling, the GS was the first Lexus to wear the new “spindle” grille. The schnozz that seemed so controversial three years ago seems downright demure today, especially since this form has been adapted to the enormous (and some say questionable) LX 470. Perhaps because the GS was the first to wear the corporate grille, the styling seems slightly awkward from the front 3/4 shot (seen at the top) but looks better in person. Unlike the IS, which gets some sheetmetal swooshes on the side, the GS’s profile and rump are luxury car restrained. Overall I think the Infiniti Q70 hybrid, despite being a little long in the tooth, still wins the beauty contest. The Lexus and BMW are a bit too sedate for my tastes, and the RLX and A6 suffer from decidedly front-wheel-drive proportions when compared to the rest and the Mercedes lands smack in the middle.

2014 Lexus GS 450h Hybrid Interior

Interior

The GS’ interior is dominated by a large and tall dashboard with a strong horizontal theme highlighting a large 12.3-inch LCD. The interior arrangement is certainly dramatic, but causes the cabin to have a slightly oppressive feel in the black shades our tester was cast in. While other car makers are moving to stitched leather dashed, Lexus seems content to blend stitched pleather and injection molded parts together. The combination of textures and  “un-lacquered” bamboo (exclusive to the hybrid) make the interior look Scandinavian. The light wood is more attractive in person than pictures might indicate, and while I question the “renewable resource” marketing on a large luxury sedan, like the hybrid drivetrain, I’m sure it will make shoppers feel special.

Base hybrid models get very comfortable 10-way power front seats, but most of the GS 450h sedans I saw on the lot were equipped with 18-way seats. The high-end throne sports the same types of articulation as BMW’s excellent “sport seats” with an articulating back, inflating bolsters, adjustable thigh support, four-way lumbar and  “butterfly” headrests. Needless to say, if you have trouble finding a comfortable seating position, you’re not human. This puts the GS hybrid at a distinct advantage in front comfort over the Mercedes, Audi and Infiniti models. Out back the GS’s rear seats are spacious, comfortable and optionally heated. While the Lexus and Infiniti fail to offer a folding rear seat, the Mercedes E400 hybrid has a generous cargo pass-through behind its optional 60/40 rear thrones.

Infotainment

Wide-screen infotainment systems are all the rage, so Lexus dropped a 12.3-inch LCD in the dash. The system ditches the intuitive touchscreen interface Lexus used for the better part of a decade for the Lexus joystick (it’s officially called Lexus Remote Touch) but importantly doesn’t alter the software to adapt to the input method. I hate it. It occupies a great deal of room on the center console, and it takes far more hand-eye-brain coördination than a touchscreen. Every time I am in a Lexus I find myself glancing at the screen and fiddling with the little control pad far more than when I’m in a competitor’s luxury sedan. This increased distraction hasn’t gone unnoticed by my better half who constantly nags me about keeping my eyes on the road. Want to enter an address using the on-screen QWERTY keyboard? It’s obvious why Lexus won’t let you do that in motion.

To soften the blow Lexus throws in the same media device voice command interface as the other Lexus and premium Toyota products receive. The system is snappy, managed to figure out every command I threw at and has a more natural sounding voice than MyLincoln Touch. Helping counter the nagging LRT caused (see how that’s not my fault now), the available Mark Levinson sound system can drown out even the most shrill mother-in-laws.

Perhaps reinforcing that Lexus focuses on the “meat” of the luxury segment and not the one-percent, you won’t find the same level of gee-wizardry in the GS as some of the Euro competitors, even in this top-end hybrid model. You won’t find night vision, a full-leather dashboard, expensive ceramic knobs, massaging front seats, or LCD instrument clusters. Instead, Lexus doubles down on perfect seams, quiet cabins, a high level of standard equipment and quantities of bamboo that would Lumber Liquidators make blush.

2014 Lexus GS 450h Hybrid Engine-001

Drivetrain

While the GS 350 recently got an update in the form of a new Aisin 8-speed automatic, the GS 450h continues with just a minor software update. This means under the hood you will find the same direct-injection 3.5L Atkinson-cycle V6 engine and RWD hybrid transmission that launched in 2011. Combined with a 1.9 kWh NiMH battery pack in the trunk the system is good for 338 combined horsepower, 286 of which come from the gasoline engine. This is essentially the same engine found in the Highlander and RX hybrids, but the transmission is more similar to what Lexus uses in the LS 600hL. The unit combines the two motor/generator units with a 2-speed planetary gearset to improve efficiency at high speeds (as in on the Autobahn) but without the AWD system standard in the LS 600hL. The 2014 software update improves “sportiness” in sport mode and now imitates an 8-speed automatic instead of a 6-speed. While 338 horsepower compares well with the 6-cylinder competition, the GS 450h has the unenviable task of trying to be both the most efficient GS and the performance version as well. For reasons nobody knows, the more efficient GS 300h which uses a 2.5L four-cylinder engine is not sold in America.

By design, the Lexus hybrid system is very different from the competition. The two motor/generator units and the electrical circuitry combine with a single planetary gearsest to “act” as a continuously variable transmission. This setup allows the drivetrain to act as a serial hybrid (kind of), parallel hybrid, electric generator, or a pure EV at low speeds. In contrast Mercedes, BMW and Infiniti combine a traditional transmission with a single electric motor that replaces the torque converter. Transitions between electric and gasoline drive modes in these systems aren’t as smooth as the Lexus system because of the clutch packs involved in reconnecting the engine. Meanwhile Acura combines a dual-clutch robotic manual transmission with a twin-motor pack in the rear for the only AWD hybrid luxury sedan in this category.

2014 Lexus GS 450h Hybrid Interior-002

Pricing

GS 450h pricing starts at  $60,430 which is a considerable jump from the $47,700 GS 350, but in true luxury car fashion, you may be disappointed with what $60,000 buys you. Unlike BMW and Mercedes which offer plenty of ala carte options, the GS hybrid comes in three feature levels.  Base models don’t get navigation or snazzy LED headlamps. If you want those toys plus the 18-way front seats, semi-aniline leather, steering headlamps, heated steering wheel, 3-zone climate control, black and white heads up display, blind spot monitoring and a trunk mat, be prepared to lay down $72,062. A fully loaded $76,726 example gets the buyer heated rear seats, headlamp washers, a “high intensity heater” (an electric heater that will heat the cabin faster in cold weather), a windshield de-icer, water-repellent glass, radar cruise control with pre-collision warning, lane keeping assistant, remote engine starter, glass breakage sensor and a rear spoiler.

76 large may sound like an expensive buy, but the ActiveHybrid 5 takes the cake with a starting price of $61,400 and a fully loaded price of $87,185. Acura has been cagey about RLX hybrid pricing but their presentation at the launch indicated they plan on following Lexus’s pricing structure quite closely. Meanwhile, the Mercedes E400 hybrid delivered an unexpected value proposition with a low $56,700 starting price and when fully equipped with features not available on the GS it manages to still be slightly cheaper at $76,095. The Infiniti hybrid hasn’t changed its value proposition despite the name change and the Q70′s $55,550-$67,605 is the lowest in the group. Audi hasn’t announced A6 hybrid pricing but I expect it to slot in around the E400.

2014 Lexus GS 450h Hybrid Exterior-003

Drive

To put things in the right perspective, I have to go back to the GS hybrid’s conflicted mission. Since Lexus decided to kill off the V8 GS sedan in this generation, Lexus doesn’t have a direct answer to the BMW 550i, Mercedes E550, Audi S6, or even the Infiniti Q70 5.6 (formerly known as the M56). This means the GS 450h has a secondary mission as the top-end GS trim while the other hybrids (except for the RLX) are middle-tier options and this puts the GS in an odd bind. Lexus tells us that the reason the GS lacks a V8 is that only 5% of the Germans are shipped with one. While that may be true in Europe, it certainly doesn’t seem to be the case in California.

The split mission is most obvious when it comes to the performance numbers. Despite having more power than the GS 350, the GS 450h is slower to 60 than its gasoline-only stable mate and considerably slower than the BMW, Infiniti, and even the Acura with the only the Mercedes being slower to highway speed. Still, 0-60 in 6-seconds is hardly slow and the GS performs the task with the silence and serenity you expect from a luxury sedan. Although Lexus describes the transmission as an eCVT, this isn’t a belt/pulley CVT like you find in economy cars. As a result, it feels more civilized and less “rubber-bandy.” I found the CVT manners throughly appropriate for a luxury car and the smooth acceleration befits a brand built on smooth drivetrains. Unlike a “real CVT,” engaging the eight imitation speeds is quick and easy with fast shifts from one “gear” to another. Unfortunately this does little for the GS hybrid’s sport credentials and in no way helps it compete with the V8s from the German competition.

2014 Lexus GS 450h Hybrid Exterior-009

Although the GS gives up plenty in the thrust-department, it really shines in the bends. The GS’s chassis is well sorted and nearly perfectly balanced. All GS hybrid models get a standard adaptive suspension system with several levels of damping, but unlike the air suspension in the Lexus LS, the GS’s adaptive suspension is based on electronically controlled struts much like the BMW system. This eliminates the “disconnected” and “floaty” feeling you get with air suspensions found on full-size luxo-barges. When pushed in the corners the GS quite simply feels better than the BMW. Yep. I said it. Today’s 5-series has a more luxurious mission in mind, so the little it gives up to the GS shouldn’t surprise anyone. The Mercedes and Infiniti feel very accurate, although heavy, and the Audi and RLX are a mixed bag. Unless Audi works some unexpected magic, the A6 hybrid will remain decidedly nose-heavy. The Acura RLX, although it has a similar weight distribution problem as the Audi, has a slick torque vectoring AWD system in the back. Not only can the RLX torque vector in power-on situations like a electronically controlled conventional rear axle, but it can torque vector in “neutral” and “power off” situations as well. Although the RLX feels by far the most “artificial” in the group on winding mountain roads, it is one of the better handling sedans and at the moment the only AWD hybrid in this category.

Of course the primary reason for buying a hybrid is to save on gas. Right? Maybe. With a 29 MPG City, 34 MPG Highway and 31 MPG combined rating there’s no doubt that the GS 450h is a fuel sipping 338 horsepower luxury sedan. However at more than $10,000 more expensive than a similarly equipped GS 350 it would take you more than 20 years to “save money.” We did average an excellent 31.5 MPG over 800 miles with the GS hybrid, a notable improvement over the Infiniti hybrid and the short time I spent in the RLX hybrid. Although we haven’t extensively tested the BMW and Mercedes hybrids yet, brief spins in both indicate they will slot in under the GS. There’s one more problem for the GS: Mercedes’ new E250 diesel. No, it’s not a speed daemon, but at 34 mpg combined it not only makes up for the higher cost of diesel with the higher fuel economy, it starts around $9,000 less than a GS 450h as well.

The GS 450h is without a doubt the best Lexus GS sedan available. It gives up little in terms of performance while delivering excellent fuel economy, a quiet and comfortable cabin and most of the gadgets and gizmos a luxury shopper could buy. Trouble is, unless the Lexus dealer is the only game in town, nearly every other alternative in this segment has a list of reasons to buy it over the GS. The RLX has a trendy AWD system despite the discount brand association, the Q70′s brand image isn’t quite as premium but it’s thousands less, the Mercedes takes the sweet spot in the middle known as “value” (how’s that for a surprise?) and the BMW offers the best performance and the biggest list of options if you can afford it. As the top end trim for the GS line the 450h also has troubles coming in just about as expensive as the competition’s V8 offerings but offering no better performance than the GS 350. The biggest problem for the GS however is the price. If the GS 450h was $5,000-$7,000 less expensive,  this would be an easy win. As it is, the GS manages to be the car I liked the most in this segment, but the one I’d be least likely to buy.

 

Lexus provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review

Specifications as tested

0-30: 2.88 Seconds

0-60: 6.01 Seconds

1/4 Mile: 14.49 Seconds @ 104 MPH

Average observed fuel economy: 31.5 MPH over 800 miles

Cabin noise at 50 MPH: 68 dB

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Japanese Tourists Spark Chase, Get Spiked http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/02/japanese-tourists-spark-chase-get-spiked/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/02/japanese-tourists-spark-chase-get-spiked/#comments Wed, 26 Feb 2014 18:12:27 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=755209 Click here to view the embedded video.

The Japan Times is reporting that a car driven by Japanese tourists had to be stopped with a spike strip after its driver failed to stop despite the fact she was being pursued by at least three patrol cars.

The car initially drew the attention of officers when it was spotted going less than 40mph on Interstate 15 near the Arizona-Utah border at around 1 a.m. last Saturday Morning. Suspecting a drunk driver, officers attempted to make a traffic stop but, instead of pulling over, the car accelerated to over 75 mph and began driving erratically. The chase lasted for approximately 7 miles ending only after police deployed a spike strip that destroyed three of the car’s tires.

With the car disabled at the side of the road, officers used their loudspeakers to order the occupant out and were surprised when a Japanese woman in her 40s emerged. Unable to speak English, she could not understand the officer’s instructions and proceeded to run back and forth in the street until officers physically grabbed the woman. While pulling the woman’s husband from the car, officers noticed the couple’s seven year old son in the back seat and realized the situation was not what it appeared to be. After realizing the family spoke almost no English, officers contacted a Japanese-speaking trooper elsewhere in the state who was able to defuse the situation.

The woman explained that she had no idea what to do when the police rolled in behind her and had initially accelerated in order to get out of their way. She also apologized for the crash, not realizing that her tires had actually been spiked in order to bring the chase to an end. The family, it turns out, had arrived in California on Friday and then rented a car in order to drive to Bryce Canyon. Once the situation was clear, officers took the family to a motel. There are no plans to press charges.

Generally, tourists are allowed to drive in foreign countries, although an International Driving Permit can be required. When I first went to Japan as a teacher back in 1999, I held one of these permits, obtained through AAA, that enabled me to drive overseas with the proviso that I held a valid US license. I used it without incident, including once during a traffic stop when I got popped hooning around on the motorcycle, for the entirety of the time I lived there. The rules of the road are not entirely the same, but there is enough similarity that people should be able to transition from one place to another without much difficulty.

Failing to understand that three police cars tailing you want you to pull over is ridiculous no matter what country you are from and this is a situation that could have ended badly for everyone involved. I think the officers of the Utah Highway Patrol deserve a great deal of praise for the way they ultimately handled the situation. They exhibited, I think, the highest level of professionalism. It’s nice when a story like this has a happy ending, good on them.

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Review: 2014 Honda Accord Hybrid (With Video) http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/02/review-2014-honda-accord-hybrid-with-video/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/02/review-2014-honda-accord-hybrid-with-video/#comments Fri, 14 Feb 2014 14:00:43 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=707986 2014 Honda Accord Hybrid Exterior-001

Now and then you run into a car that just “fits”. It’s like finding a perfect shoe, or a comfy smoking jacket. Until now I have been keeping my secret love on the down-low for several reasons. First off, I’ve always thought having a “favorite car” tends to color one’s judgment when comparing cars, so I try to avoid such statements. Secondly, my dalliance with my automotive flame was fleeting. As most of us know, one-night-stands rarely hold up to the scrutiny of a long-term relationship. And lastly, coming out as a hybrid-lover has been difficult. When folks ask me “what was the best car you drove in 2013?” and my answer is “the 2014 Accord Hybrid,” they stare at me like I have three eyeballs.

Click here to view the embedded video.

Exterior

The Accord is the mid-size sedan least likely to offend. While some call the tall greenhouse and upright proportions boring, I found them to be elegant and restrained. Indeed the Accord’s side profile reminds me a great deal of former Lexus products, a similarity that was shared by passengers during the week. Several passers by even confused the Accord with a Lexus ES. This is good news for Honda but bad news for Lexus.

Up front the Accord Hybrid wears blue-tinted versions of the regular Accord’s grille and headlamps instead of the Plug-In Accord’s enormous maw. Our Limited trim model was equipped with LED headlamps but lesser trims have to get by with halogen bulbs. Out back the restrained styling continues with hidden exhaust tips, clean lines and plenty of LEDs in the tail lamps. While there are plenty of mid-size sedans out there, the hybrid market is limited to the Accord, Camry, Fusion, Optima and Sonata. In that lineup, I find the Fusion the best looking with the Accord in a solid second place and the refreshed Optima taking third.

2014 Honda Accord Hybrid Interior-002

Interior

Like the gas-only Accord, the hybrid sports a double-bump style dashboard. The first “bump” houses the same tweaked instrument cluster as the Accord plug-in with a large analog speedometer, no tachometer, LED gauges for battery/fuel and a power meter. Inside the speedo is a circular full-color LCD used for the trip computer, secondary nav instructions (if so equipped) and other vehicle information. Housed in the second “bump” is a standard 8-inch infotainment display.

Front seat comfort has long been a Honda strong suit and the Accord is no different with thickly padded and ergonomically designed thrones. The seats are lightly (and widely) bolstered so larger drivers and passengers shouldn’t have a problem finding a comfortable seating position. Because the EX trim of the gas Accord serves as the “feature donor car” for the Hybrid, all models get adjustable lumbar support, 10-way power driver’s seat, dual-zone climate control, tilt/telescoping steering wheel, standard Bluetooth, a backup camera, keyless entry/go and active noise cancellation.

2014 Honda Accord Hybrid Instrument Cluster-001

Thanks to the tall green house and complete lack of “four-door-coupé” styling cues, the Accord’s rear seats are the best in the segment. On paper there’s nothing extraordinary about the rear cabin dimension. The truth is in the sitting. The Accord’s rear seats are more comfortable than a Camry and roomier than an Optima or Sonata. The seat back angle is also the most upright of the bunch allowing easier entry and exit when compared to the reclined Fusion. That reclined rear seat is how the Fusion manages to match the Accord when it comes to inches of head room, but the Accord’s rear compartment is far more accommodating.

As with most hybrids, there’s a trunk penalty to be paid. Thanks to energy dense Lithium-ion cells, the Accord only drops 3 cubic feet to 12.7 cubic feet, and I had no problem jamming six 24-inch roller bags in the trunk. The Li-ion cells mean the gas-only Accord’s smallish trunk translates in to a roomy storage area compared to the other hybrids. Sadly everyone else has managed to preserve some sort of cargo pass-through to the trunk while Honda decided to kill it. Honda wouldn’t say what the reason was, but judging by the battery position there was still room for a cargo slot capable of handling a surf board. Call that an opportunity lost.

2014 Honda Accord Hybrid Infotainment-002

Infotainment

Base models use physical buttons to control the standard 8-inch LCD in the dash, while up-level Accords get the two-screen layout you see above. Bluetooth, SMS voice messaging, Pandora smartphone integration and USB/iDevice control are all standard on base models as is a 6-speaker, 160-watt sound system. The 8-inch LCD handles all infotainment interactions in this base system from playlist browsing to phone dialing. Honda integrates their active noise cancellation technology into the head unit, so keep that in mind if you plan to swap into an after-market unit.

I suspect that most shoppers will opt for the mid-level “EX-L” which adds a subwoofer, 360 watt amp, and a 6-inch touchscreen for audio system controls. For reasons I don’t understand, the touchscreen is surrounded by “sparkly” plastic that looks like someone tossed in some glitter in the last moments of the plastics process. In an otherwise expertly executed cabin this “easter egg” seems out-of-place. This dual-screen setup struck me as half-baked when I first sampled it, and although I think it could still use a few minutes in the oven, I have warmed up to it. Voice commands are easy to use, the system’s layout is intuitive and responsiveness to commands is excellent. However, I still don’t understand why you use the touchscreen for changing tracks and sources, but you have to use the knob and upper screen for changing playlists. I also think it’s a pity that navigation isn’t sold as a stand alone option as you have to pony up $34,905 for the Touring trim to get it.

Front Wheel Drive Biased

Drivetrain

In many ways the Accord Hybrid shares more design themes with the Fisker Karma than a Toyota Prius. Up till now, mainstream hybrids used one of two systems, either an electro/mechanical power split device designed around a planetary gearset like the Ford, Toyota and GM Voltec hybrids, or they sandwich an electric motor between the engine and transmission (Honda, Kia/Hyundai, Mercedes, VW and everyone else). Honda went back to the drawing board and designed a true serial hybrid – as long as you stay under 44 mph. Things start out on the drawing above with a 2.0L, 141 horsepower engine mated directly to a motor/generator that is capable of generating approximately 141 horsepower (Honda won’t release details on certain drivetrain internals so that’s an educated guess). Honda says this is the most thermodynamically efficient four-cylinder engine in production, a title I have no reason to doubt. Next we have a 166 horsepower, 226 lb-ft motor connected to the front wheels via a fixed gear ratio. Under 44 miles per hour, this is all you need to know about the system. The 166 horsepower motor powers the car alone, drawing power from either a 1.3 kWh lithium-ion battery pack, or the engine via the generator and the power control circuitry. Over 44 miles per hour, the system chooses one of two modes depending on which is most efficient at the time. The system can engage a clutch pack to directly connect the motor and generator units together allowing engine power to flow directly to the wheels via that fixed gear ratio, or it can keep operating in serial mode.

When the Accord Hybrid engages the clutch to allow the engine to power the wheels directly (mechanically), power is flowing via a single fixed ratio gear set. The fixed gear ratio is somewhere around a typical 6th gear in terms of gear ratio. This improves efficiency at highway speeds because there is always some loss in power conversion from the generator to the motor. The single ratio is the reason the system must use in serial hybrid mode below 44 mph. There is another side effect at play here as well: below 44 MPH, the system’s maximum power output is 166 horsepower and rises to 196 when the clutch is engaged.

2014 Honda Accord Hybrid Exterior-005

Pricing

Starting at $29,155, the Accord Hybrid is nearly $4,000 more than the Hyundai Sonata Hybrid. However, the Accord delivers a high level of standard equipment dropping the real margin to around $1,900. Instead of stand alone options, Honda offers just three trim levels. The next step is the $31,905 EX-L model which adds leather seats, a leather steering wheel, upgraded audio system with two LCD screens, memory driver’s seat, power passenger seat, moonroof, a camera based collision warning system and lane departure warning. While the base model fares poorly in direct cross-shops, the EX-L is a decent value, coming in essentially the same price as a comparably equipped Sonata, Fusion or Optima.

Work your way up to the top-of-the-line $34,905 Touring and you get full LED headlamps, navigation, XM Radio, an adaptive cruise control system and a snazzier backup cam. Although that’s more than a top trim Camry ($32,015), Sonata ($32,395) or Optima ($31,950), the Honda packs more features and when you adjust for the features missing in the competition the difference drops to a few hundred dollars. Meanwhile the Fusion wins the award for the most expensive in this segment at $37,200 with only a few features not found on the Accord.

2014 Honda Accord Hybrid Exterior-004

Drive

The Accord Hybrid’s impressive 50/45/47 MPG EPA rating (City/Highway/Combined) is even more impressive when you look at some of Honda’s design choices. First off all hybrid trims get tires one size wider (225/50R17 vs 215/55R17) than the gas-only Accord to compensate for the 230 lb weight increase. Secondly Honda chose to trickle-down Acura’s two-mode damper technology into the Accord. These two choices define how the car feels out on the road with the Accord barely nudging the Fusion out of first place when it comes to overall on-road performance. The Fusion Hybrid Titanium provides better overall grip, but the Accord has better poise and the two-mode dampers operate as advertised yielding to highway imperfections but maintaining a crisp feel on winding back roads. The take away from this is that the hybrid version of the Accord provides the best balance of grip and poise in the Accord lineup while all other manufacturers make you pay a handling penalty (albeit slight in the Ford) for the improved mileage numbers. Meanwhile the Sonata, Optima and Camry designers swapped in 205 width tires for reduced rolling resistance resulting in those hybrid models handling more like value-priced base entries.

After driving Ford’s latest hybrids, I was skeptical of Honda’s fuel economy claims. The last 47MPG Ford we tested ran between 39.5 and 41 MPG over 560 gingerly-driven miles. Keeping in mind that my commute is hilly and highway heavy I had expected the Accord’s numbers to suffer in relation as the Accord’s highway figure is 2 MPG lower than the Ford. I was wrong. I actually averaged better economy during my week with the Accord than I did at the launch event set in the Texas flat-lands (47.8 vs 45.9.) I attribute some of the difference to final tweaking of the software by Honda and some of the difference to California’s milder climate. The numbers struck me as so good I spent three days driving, filling, driving, filling only to discover the fuel economy was spot on. It is at this point I am surprised that Honda chose not to offer some sort of “eco” trim with skinny low rolling resistance tires, grille shutters and a weight loss regime for more even impressive numbers.

Honda’s new hybrid system switches between modes more smoothly than the Sonata and Optima and on-par with the Toyota and Ford systems. The smooth transitions are a good thing since the Accord spends far more time switching between EV and gasoline operating modes on level highways between 55 and 65 MPH. The system will charge the battery up, turn off the engine and run EV until the battery drops to a point that it needs to be recharged. This is different from the others that generally run engine only once you’re on the highway. Honda swiped the Accord’s brake design from their hydrogen Clarity sedan and it is easily the best I have ever driven. Stops are linear without the “grabby” feel you get in Toyota hybrid models if you transition rapidly from mild to moderate braking. Downhill driving in the Accord is also a vast improvement. Most hybrids transition to engine or 100% friction braking when the battery is full but Honda has a trick up their sleeve. Because of the Accord’s design Honda is able to continue using the traction motor to provide braking assistance. Once the battery is full, the software shuttles this energy over to the generator unit and consumes it by spinning the engine. This results in the most consistent braking feel of any hybrid so far.

2014 Honda Accord Hybrid Exterior-010

The Accord Hybrid drives like an EV below 44 MPH, much like a charged Chevy Volt and in sharp contrast to the Ford and Toyota hybrids. This is of course because the Accord’s electric motor is the only thing that can motivate the car below this speed. Because of the nature of this drivetrain, there there is definite non-linear relationship between the engine and the wheels. Press the throttle down and the engine catches up in a while, climb a hill and the engine will vary between a wail and a dull roar. While I’m sure that will bother some folks, I don’t mind the noises cars with CVTs make and this Accord is no different. Likely due to come software tweaks since I first drove it, 0-60 times dropped a few tenths to 7.0 seconds flat putting the Accord near the top of the pack in acceleration.

The Touring model Honda lent me featured all of Honda’s latest safety gadgets from the Lane Watch system that displays your right-side blind spot on the car’s 8-inch LCD. I honestly found Lane Watch to be a little gimmicky, even after having experienced it several times before. In a car with limited visibility it might be more useful, but the Accord’s large greenhouse and low beltline give it the best visibility in the segment. Touring trim also gets you a full speed-range radar adaptive cruise control with pre-collision warning. Honda’s radar cruise control isn’t the worst on the market but neither is it the best. The system brakes sharply, reacts slowly to traffic speeding up ahead of you and when you set a speed the car dips 5-6 MPH before accelerating back up to the speed you were driving when you hit the button.

2014 Honda Accord Hybrid Exterior-008

With all the numbers tallied the Accord Hybrid is an easy winner. It is more expensive than the competition but that delta shrinks when you account for feature content. The delta becomes immaterial however when you look at our average fuel economy numbers of 47.8 MPG in the Accord and 30 to mid-30s in all of the competition (including that 47 MPG Fusion.) Honda’s hybrid has the best road manners in the pack, the most composed ride, a comfy back seat and a quiet cabin. On my tally list, the Accord’s driving dynamics, fuel economy, performance and comfort more than outweigh my complaints about the cruise control and dual-screen infotainment system.

Being on the down-low, my former last word on the Accord was “The Accord may not be the best looking hybrid on sale, (for me that’s still the Ford Fusion) but the Accord’s simple lines and unexpectedly high fuel economy make the Honda a solid option. Being the gadget hound I am, I think I would still buy the Fusion, but only in the more expensive Titanium trim. If you’re not looking that high up the food chain, the Accord Hybrid is quite simply the best fuel sipping mid-size anything. Prius included.” But now I’ve decided it’s time to come clean. I’d take the Hybrid Accord period. No exceptions, no hair splitting.

 

Honda provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review

Specifications as tested:

0-30: 2.8 Seconds

0-60: 7.0 Seconds

Cabin noise at 50 MPH: 69 db

Average Observed Fuel Economy: 47.8 MPG over 835 miles.

 

2014 Honda Accord Hybrid Drivetrain 2014 Honda Accord Hybrid Drivetrain-001 2014 Honda Accord Hybrid Exterior 2014 Honda Accord Hybrid Exterior-001 2014 Honda Accord Hybrid Exterior-002 2014 Honda Accord Hybrid Exterior-003 2014 Honda Accord Hybrid Exterior-004 2014 Honda Accord Hybrid Exterior-005 2014 Honda Accord Hybrid Exterior-006 2014 Honda Accord Hybrid Exterior-007 2014 Honda Accord Hybrid Exterior-008 2014 Honda Accord Hybrid Exterior-009 2014 Honda Accord Hybrid Exterior-010 2014 Honda Accord Hybrid Exterior-011 2014 Honda Accord Hybrid Exterior-012 2014 Honda Accord Hybrid Exterior-013 2014 Honda Accord Hybrid Infotainment 2014 Honda Accord Hybrid Infotainment-001 2014 Honda Accord Hybrid Infotainment-002 2014 Honda Accord Hybrid Instrument Cluster 2014 Honda Accord Hybrid Instrument Cluster-001 2014 Honda Accord Hybrid Interior 2014 Honda Accord Hybrid Interior-001 2014 Honda Accord Hybrid Interior-002 2014 Honda Accord Hybrid Interior-003 2014 Honda Accord Hybrid Interior-004 2014 Honda Accord Hybrid Interior-005 2014 Honda Accord Hybrid Interior-006 2014 Honda Accord Hybrid Interior-007 2014 Honda Accord Hybrid Interior-008 ]]>
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Japan’s Auto Workers Seek Pay Raise Amid Soaring Profits http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/02/japans-auto-workers-seek-pay-raise-amid-soaring-profits/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/02/japans-auto-workers-seek-pay-raise-amid-soaring-profits/#comments Thu, 13 Feb 2014 15:30:33 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=740777 Auto Worker at Japanese Honda Factory

Labor unions across Japan are seeking increases in base salaries and bonuses as local manufacturers pull in record profits for the closing fiscal year.

Bloomberg reports the unions will gather for their annual spring labor negotiations to ask automakers for an increase in bonuses equal to five months’ salary, with Toyota to receive a request for a 4,000 yen increase in monthly wages in addition to a bonus amounting to 6.8 months of salary; only Nissan will fail to post record profits come April 1.

The requests mark the first time in 15 years unions have asked for such increases, according to Confederation of Japan Automobile Workers’ Unions president Yasunobu Aihara:

“The Japanese economy is at a major turning point. To end the prolonged deflation and to ensure the nation’s economy will revive and grow sustainably, all member unions decide to ask for an increase in monthly base pay.”

The turning point is the work of current Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose economic reforms — dubbed Abenomics — spurred a 51 percent advance in the Topix index last year while also weakening the yen 18 percent against the dollar in the same period. The PM has urged all Japanese corporations to give some of their windfall profits to their workers in an effort to combat the possibility of a stalled economy as a result of wages failing to keep up with inflation.

“Japan can’t wait one or two years for salary gains, which are needed sooner for the economy to enter a virtuous cycle of rising profits, wages and growth,” said Deputy Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura late last year while Abe met with business and union leaders to work out wage increases tied to increased profits.

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Review: 2014 Nissan Versa Note (With Video) http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/02/review-2014-nissan-versa-note-with-video/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/02/review-2014-nissan-versa-note-with-video/#comments Fri, 07 Feb 2014 14:00:44 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=728514 2014 Nissan Versa Note Exterior

Making a “cheap” car is a tried and true formula for most auto makers. Making a car with a low sticker and a solid value proposition is tough. Not only do you have to keep the starting price low, but you have to worry about fuel economy, maintenance, insurance and everything that goes into an ownership experience. Reviewing cars that focus heavily on value is even trickier. Indeed a number of buff-book journalists were offended by the Versa Sedan’s plastics, lack of features and small engine. My response was simple: what do you expect of the cheapest car in America? Trouble is, the Versa Note isn’t the cheapest hatchback in America, so this review is about that elusive quality: value.

Click here to view the embedded video.

Exterior

Let’s be frank, the last Versa hatchback to grace our shores was strange looking. This is because Nissan sent us the Japanese market “Tiida” hatchback, while Europeans got the related, but more attractive, Nissan Note. 2014 brings a change, with Nissan aligning America with the redesigned Note from Europe. Meanwhile China and other countries get a redesigned Tiida. (Check out the picture below.) Nissan decided that there was value in the Versa brand so the final product was dubbed the “Versa Note.”

2014 Nissan Tiida Hatchback, Picture Courtesy of NissanI must admit that the product shuffle strikes me as a mixed bag. While the outgoing Versa hatch was undeniably dowdy, I find the new Tiida (above) downright sexy for a small car. The Versa Note? “Note” so much. Nissan tells us the Note is all about practicality, and the math is simple: the squarer the hatch, the more stuff you can jam inside. Thankfully Nissan included a few swoopy door stampings to prevent any 1980s flashbacks, but the resulting design obviously prioritized function over form. At 66 inches wide and 60 inches tall, the Note looks doesn’t just look square from the side, but from the front and rear as well. Proportions like these are hard to avoid with a small hatchback but the Versa’s horizontal grille helps detract from it in a way that the Spark’s tall grille amplifies the effect. When it comes to looks, the Rio and the Fiesta win the beauty pageant.

While the Versa continues to hold the title of “least expensive car in America”, the Chevrolet Spark ($12,995), Smart ($13,240) and Mitsubishi Mirage ($13,790) and Kia Rio 5-door ($13,800)  all ring in below the Note’s $13,990 starting price. For those of you counting, that’s a whopping $2,000 (or 17%)  bump over the Versa sedan. I’m going to cross the Smart car off the list  because it’s a two-seat hatch, and we can call the Mirage and Rio near ties in starting price, but the Spark is a decent $1,000 discount. Since this review is all about value at the bottom of the automotive food chain, I’m not going to cover the more expensive options in this segment.

2014 Nissan Versa Note Interior-001

Interior

Despite the price bump from the Versa Sedan, the Note’s interior is nearly identical. The same hard plastic dashboard, thin headliner and minimalist controls are all cast in the same shade of black. The only notable changes versus the sedan are a steering wheel lifted from the Sentra, and standard folding rear seats. Jumping up to the $15,990 SV trim buys you nicer seat and headliner fabric, but the rest of the interior remains the same. The discount interior is something that doesn’t bother me in the Versa sedan, but the Note is two-grand more. At this price the Rio is made from nicer materials for slightly less and the Fiesta’s classier cabin is a scant $110 more. Materials tie with the Chevy Spark which is great for the Chevy but not so good for the Nissan. Meanwhile the Mitsubishi looks dated both inside and out with the most discount cabin I have seen in a long time.

Base shoppers will find standard air conditioning, 60/40 folding rear seats and sun-visors that extend, but notably missing from the starting price are power windows, power door locks, vanity mirrors and rear cup holders. This is where I say: “what did you expect?” After all, the Spark and Rio don’t offer all the goodies in their base models either. Here comes that pesky “value” proposition again however: the Spark is cheaper so the lower level of equipment seems more appropriate. If that’s not enough of a value proposition, consider this, for $50 less than a base Versa you can get a Spark with all those missing features plus cruise control.

Nissan tells us the bulk of Note volume is the $15,990 SV model which adds a “2-speed CVT,” cruise control, armrest for the driver, leather wrapped steering wheel with audio controls, and some Bluetooth love. Trouble is, that Spark gives you all that and a 7-inch touchscreen nav system for less. $995 less to be exact.

2014 Nissan Versa Note Interior-007

Front seat comfort proved good around town, but I found the lack of lumbar support a problem on longer trips. Cushioning is firm but comfortable and the range of motion in the 6-way manual seats is average for this segment. Sadly Nissan doesn’t offer a telescoping steering wheel in the Note like many of the competitors do. I didn’t notice this problem with the Versa sedan, but the Note I had for a week suffered from a footwell that barely fit my size 11 shoes. If you have bigger feet you may have difficulty wedging your footwear in.

The big selling point for this sub-compact is, oddly enough, the back seat. Although sitting three abreast in the rear is a cozy affair due to the car’s width, rear leg room is simply amazing. You’ll find 7 inches more rear legroom than the Rio making it possible, and relatively comfortable, for a quartet of six-foot-five guys on a road trip. No other hatch even comes close to the Note’s rear seat numbers which are just 1/10th lower than a Jaguar XJ. Because the Spark is the narrowest of the group by several inches, it only has two seats in the rear. The Mirage claims to seat five, but if the Note is “cozy,” the narrower Mitsubishi is downright cramped. Thanks to the tall body, the Versa also delivers more headroom than the competition without the rear seats riding on the ground. Cargo volume grows 30% from the Versa sedan to 21 cubic feet behind the rear seats and 38 with the rear seats folded.

2014 Nissan Versa Note NissanConnect -002

Infotainment

Base shoppers get a simple head unit with a CD-player, aux input and four speakers. Here again the Spark beats Nissan to the value game. The base Spark is just as basic, but for the same price as a base Note, Chevy sells you a 7-inch touchscreen, USB integration, 6 speakers, XM Satellite radio, smartphone integration with smartphone-based navigation and OnStar. Getting to this level of technology in the Note will set you back $18,140 and Nissan doesn’t have an OnStar alternative for the Note at any price.

The Note that Nissan lent me for a week was the fully-loaded SL model. This meant I had the NissanConnect system you see above along with an all-around camera system. This low-cost system, also found on Sentra and NV200, is one of my favorite systems on the market. The interface is simple, easy to navigate and intuitive. The latest software builds on their old “low-cost navigation” unit by adding streaming media, smartphone and Google data services. The touchscreen also integrates with the Note’s available around view camera which gives you a bird’s-eye view while parking. Although I found the low-res images lacked in detail, it did help keep the Note scratch-free in tricky parking situations. Now for the fly in the ointment. Nissan puts this head unit in an $800 bundle with the fancy camera system and requires that you also have the $540 package that includes rear seat cup holders and a two-stage load floor in the back. The total cost is $1,340 or a nearly 10% bump in MSRP.

2014 Nissan Versa Note Engine 1.6L

Drivetrain

Like the sedan, the Note gets a 1.6L four-cylinder engine featuring variable valve timing and twin injectors per cylinder to deliver 109HP at 6,000 RPM and 107 lb-ft of twist at 4,400 RPM. This is a reduction of 13 horses compared to the 1.8L engine in the old Versa hatch which seems like a valid trade for improved efficiency. Base S models get a 5-speed manual, but if you want to make the most of the small engine, you’ll want Nissan’s CVT with a twist. The Versa CVT uses a two-speed planetary gearset after the CVT belt/cone unit. This extends the ratio spread to that of a conventional 7-speed auto. When starting out, the CVT is at its lowest ratio and the planetary is in “low.” Once the CVT reaches a high ratio, the planetary gearset switches to high allowing the CVT to reset to a lower ratio as you continue to accelerate. This improves low-end grunt, top-end fuel economy and allows the CVT to “downshift” faster than a traditional CVT by shifting the planetary gearset to “low” rather than adjusting the belt. Meanwhile the Spark and Mirage use a conventional “single range” CVT. (GM swapped out the old 4-speed for 2014.)

Thanks to a curb weight that is only 25 lbs heavier than the sedan (300lbs lighter than the 2012 hatch) and active grille shutters, fuel economy has jumped to a lofty 31/40/35 MPG  (city/highway/combined) with the CVT and a less spectacular 27/36 with the manual. While 109 horsepower sounds less than exciting, consider that the Spark’s 1.2L engine delivers just 84 and the Mirage’s rough 3-cylinder is down another 10 ponies.

2014 Nissan Versa Note Exterior-006

Drive

Thanks to a relatively long 102-inch wheelbase, the Note rides more like a mid-size sedan than the Spark or the Mirage. The difference is most notable out on the open highway where the Spark and Mirage “bob around” on washboard pavement. I wouldn’t describe the Note as “refined” in the general sense, but compared to the lower cost entries the Note holds its own. Even when compared with the Kia Rio and the Chevy Sonic, the Versa has a well-engineered feel out on the road. This is where I have to repeat: “keep your expectations priced at $13,990.”

Nissan decided to fit low rolling resistance tires to the Note which help bump fuel economy to a 35 MPG combined score. While the Note manages to out handle the Mirage, the Rio, Fiesta and Sonic whip the Note’s bottom on winding mountain roads. The Spark strikes a middle ground between the Rio and the Note. The electric power steering is accurate but numb. Acceleration is lazy but thanks to the deeper ratios in Nissan’s CVT it easily beats the Spark or the Mirage to highway speeds. Nissan spent considerable time injecting more sound insulating foam in every nook and cranny making this the quietest Versa ever at 70dB.

2014 Nissan Versa Note Exterior-008

The Note managed a surprising 38.8 MPG during my 761 mile week with the “wee hatch,” as my neighbor called it. The high mileage numbers are largely thanks to the light curb weight, low rolling resistance tires and Nissan’s CVT which allows the Note’s tiny engine to barely spin at highway speeds. Although the Spark has the same EPA rating, I averaged 2 MPG less the last time I was in one. TTAC has yet to test a Mirage, so I’ll have to defer to the EPA’s 40 MPG average.

Being the cheap guy that I am, the more I cross-shopped the Note and the Spark, the less “value” I found in the little Nissan. The Note isn’t without its charms. The huge back seat and enormous cargo hold make it by far the most practical small hatch in America, the problem is all down to value. If you want sporty or luxury, buy the Fiesta but the best value in this compact segment is the Spark. It’s low $12,170 price tag rivals Nissan’s Versa sedan for the least expensive car but the $14,765 “1LT” with the manual is where the value is to be had. Priced several grand less than a comparable Note, the Spark beats Nissan at their own game. Minus one seat.

 

Nissan provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review

Specifications as tested

0-30: 3.39 Seconds

0-60: 9.13 Seconds

1/4 Mile: 17.08 Seconds @ 81.4 MPH

Average observed fuel economy: 38.8 MPG over 761 Miles

Cabin noise at 50 MPH: 70 dB

2014 Nissan Versa Note Engine 1.6L 2014 Nissan Versa Note Engine 1.6L-001 2014 Nissan Versa Note Exterior 2014 Nissan Versa Note Exterior-001 2014 Nissan Versa Note Exterior-002 2014 Nissan Versa Note Exterior-003 2014 Nissan Versa Note Exterior-004 2014 Nissan Versa Note Exterior-005 2014 Nissan Versa Note Exterior-006 2014 Nissan Versa Note Exterior-007 2014 Nissan Versa Note Exterior-008 2014 Nissan Versa Note Instrument Cluster 2014 Nissan Versa Note Instrument Cluster-001 2014 Nissan Versa Note Interior 2014 Nissan Versa Note Interior-001 2014 Nissan Versa Note Interior-002 2014 Nissan Versa Note Interior-003 2014 Nissan Versa Note Interior-004 2014 Nissan Versa Note Interior-005 2014 Nissan Versa Note Interior-006 2014 Nissan Versa Note Interior-007 2014 Nissan Versa Note Interior-008 2014 Nissan Versa Note Interior-009 2014 Nissan Versa Note NissanConnect 2014 Nissan Versa Note NissanConnect -001 2014 Nissan Versa Note NissanConnect -002 ]]>
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Nissan Outsold By Honda In Home, U.S. Markets http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/01/nissan-outsold-by-honda-in-home-u-s-markets/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/01/nissan-outsold-by-honda-in-home-u-s-markets/#comments Thu, 30 Jan 2014 18:30:23 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=727946 Nissan-Sport-Sedan-Concept-01

Though Nissan remains Japan’s second-biggest automaker with a wide gap ahead of Honda, the latter continues to outsell the former in the United States and at home, much to Nissan’s dismay

According Automotive News, Nissan’s global sales for 2013 increased 3 percent to 5.1 million units, while Honda’s rapid 12 percent growth in sales only managed 4.3 million units in the same period. Further, Nissan sold 86 percent of its 5.1 million vehicles — 4.4 million, to be exact — outside Japan, Honda doing as well by selling 3.5 million of its 4.3 million overseas. Overall, Nissan beat Honda in Europe, Mexico, China and most of Asia, yet lost to Honda in Japan and the U.S.

At home, the reason is due to Honda’s popular line of kei cars (all made in house), and all having undergone a total revamping as of late. Meanwhile, Nissan has partnered with Mitsubishi to make kei cars after years of farming out the practice to the former’s rivals. Though things appear to be looking up for Nissan, they will be looking up at Honda for a good while: Honda sold just over 400,000 kei cars in 2013 to Nissan’s 186,000, while also growing 27 percent in kei car sales against the latter’s 21 percent.

Across the Pacific, Nissan is gaining on Honda’s other home turf, selling 1.2 million units for a 9 percent increase in sales against their rival’s 7 percent increase and 1.5 million units in 2013. Market share in the U.S. held at 9.8 percent for Honda while Nissan took a tenth of a percentage for an even 8 percent in the same period.

Though Honda has done well for itself since becoming the first Japanese auto manufacturer to build a factory in the United States back in 1982 for the Honda Accord — such as exporting more cars around the world from the U.S. than from Japan in 2013 for the first time ever — Nissan aims to turn up the heat through the tandem of new production coming from Mexico, and aggressive tactics devised by Nissan North America’s new chairman Jose Munoz, who is under standing orders to boost his employer’s share of the U.S. market to 10 percent.

Either way, both Honda and Nissan still have a ways to go to take on Toyota; the No. 1 Japanese and global automaker moved 9.98 million units worldwide in 2013.

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Hyundai, Kia See Weakest Annual Sales Growth in a Decade http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/01/hyundai-kia-see-weakest-annual-sales-growth-in-a-decade/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/01/hyundai-kia-see-weakest-annual-sales-growth-in-a-decade/#comments Thu, 02 Jan 2014 16:59:53 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=691178 kia-k900-la-auto-show-14

2014 may only be a day old, but it’s already shaping up to be a rough year for Hyundai and Kia as they prepare to increase global sales by just 4 percent this year, the lowest and bleakest forecast for the Korean duo since 2003.

Though the foreseen growth will be fueled by revamped models and increased production in China, and is in line with overall projected global sales in 2014, a stronger won and weaker yen — the latter brought about by Japan’s desire to support its export industry and to find a way out of the 20-year trek through the economic wilderness — have eroded the price advantage Hyundai and Kia held over their Japanese competitors.

While the duo experienced market growth in Brazil and China last year, they lost market share in both their home market and in the United States, the former through a free trade pact between the European Union and South Korea. Sales in 2013 totaled 7.56 million units worldwide, with a total projection of 7.86 million going forward in 2014.

Shares of the parent automaker haven’t fared well in the outgoing year, advancing only 8 percent against GM’s 41 percent and Toyota’s 60 percent surges on the trading floor.

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Akio Toyoda Sees Emerging Markets’ Growth Slowing, Uncertainties in China, Japan http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/01/akio-toyoda-sees-emerging-markets-growth-slowing-uncertainties-in-china-japan/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/01/akio-toyoda-sees-emerging-markets-growth-slowing-uncertainties-in-china-japan/#comments Thu, 02 Jan 2014 13:00:58 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=691122 TOYOTA/

Bloomberg is reporting that Akio Toyoda, president of Toyota Motor Corp. and scion of its founding family said that a slowdown in emerging markets and uncertainty over demand in both China and the Japanese home market makes 2014 “unpredictable”.

While the weaker yen increased earnings for Japanese exporters, those profits are being offset by slowing demand in India, Thailand, Brazil, and Russia. Japanese automakers also continue to face a potential repeat of Chinese consumers rejecting their products, as happened last year as tensions between those countries’ governments increased over who owns a group of Islands under dispute.

“It may be impossible” to shield against tensions between the two countries, Toyoda had told reporters earlier in December. “But we will work to minimize the impact.”

Slowing sales in emerging markets caused Honda Motor Co. to miss analysts’ forecasts for its first-half earnings this year. Nissan Motor Co., which is looking to make Mexico a hub for exports, reduced projected full-year earnings by 15 percent to reflect slower than anticipated sales in the developing world.

Toyota’s own operating profits were down in Asia, excepting Japan, in the third quarter, as Thailand ended government incentives for first-time car purchases. Akio Toyoda was pessimistic about Japan as well because of that country’s planned increase in the national sales tax rate from 5% to 8%. The Toyota president said, on behalf of JAMA, that automakers would like to see a stable yen since production cannot be shifted around the world as quickly as currency values change. The Japanese currency is currently at a five year low against the American dollar.

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The Stroke Of Midnight http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/12/the-stroke-of-midnight/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/12/the-stroke-of-midnight/#comments Tue, 31 Dec 2013 12:00:00 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=690098 Supra

At the stroke of midnight, a new millennium would begin and the whole world was supposed to come unhinged. Religious leaders were telling us that we needed to be afraid because Jesus Christ, aka the “Prince of Peace,” was coming back to wreak holy vengeance upon us all, cosmologists hinted that that an ominous planetary alignment was going to totally screw up our Feng Shui and computer experts were saying that the silicon chips that they had been relentlessly incorporating into everything since the late 1980s were going to suddenly freak out. It was this last thing that got most people’s panties in a twist. When the computers stopped, we were told, power grids would fail and modern society would grind to a halt. Anything that had an internal clock, they said, would simply stop working.

By the dawn of that fateful New Year’s Eve, I was firmly established in my new life as an English conversation teacher in Japan. My move to the Land of the Rising Sun was a jump made of the sort of desperation that only poverty can induce, but my change of scenery had done little to improve my situation. Where my previous hell had been my childhood bedroom at my mom’s house, it was now a tiny, virtually uninsulated, one-room “mansion” in the Kyoto area where I slept fully clothed under a few thin blankets atop a lumpy futon spread out on the floor over an electric carpet while the winter wind, right off the Siberian steppes, whistled and wailed as it forced its way into the shabby little room through a million small openings. Although I ran the heater almost constantly, I had given up hope of actually trying to warm the space and now the cold added just one more layer of misery. The world was a shitty place, I had decided and it t really didn’t matter to me if it ended. In fact, thanks to the sudden resurgence in popularity of “1999” by Prince, I was looking forward to it.

There is a certain mindset that comes with grinding, persistent poverty. Managing your money becomes an all-consuming thing and you pick and choose your luxuries. For me, someone who has always loved vehicles, my own personal mobility took priority over some of the other luxuries I might have enjoyed and, over the 9 months I had been in-country I had managed to acquire two reliable, but beat-down vehicles of my own, a Honda motorcycle and a Toyota Supra. Now, as Y2K bore down upon me the weight of what those computer experts had been saying was beginning to hit home. Both of my vehicles, I knew, had chips in them and, as they were both old, there was a chance they might actually be affected by the software glitch. Would they start on the day after? Could I fix them if they didn’t? I wondered.

cbr

As the fateful day approached, my girlfriend decided that we needed to ring in the New Year with a trip to Lake Biwa. Japan doesn’t really have any mighty rivers, no inland seas or anything even remotely like the Great Lakes, but given the small size of the country, at 39 miles long and 14 miles wide, Biwako does a pretty good impersonation. Set in Shiga prefecture, just across the prefectural boundary from Kyoto, the lake is a scenic attraction and its shores are lined with industry, hotels and entertainment complexes. One of these hotels was planning a celebratory fireworks show to ring in the New Year and, I was told, we would be going.

We headed out early in the evening, wending our way through the busy holiday traffic and through the center of the city of Kyoto before turning east through the small mountain pass that separated the city from the lake. Traffic intensified as we neared the shore and we eventually found a parking place in a crowded hotel garage an hour before the event was set to start. As we left the car and moved towards the viewing stands, I noticed a row of gasoline powered high intensity work lights, the kind that are often used during night time road construction, along the edge of the garage and it suddenly struck me why they were there. At the stroke of midnight, should the power fail, these would be fired up to provide the light that people would need to get back to their cars. Someone was taking this pretty seriously, I thought, it was an ominous sign.

Despite all the hype, until that moment I hadn’t thought of the Y2K problem outside of my own little miserable bubble. Now, it hit me with a real force. If the doomsayers were actually right, I realized, I was out on a limb. I would be trapped in a foreign country on the other side of the planet from my own personal support network and if things really came unglued, I would be irrevocably on my own. I felt a touch of fear rise up but just as quickly as it emerged, I shoved it back into its place. The threat of disaster doesn’t equal the real thing, I reasoned, and I wasn’t about to let it ruin my night. If poverty had taught me anything it had been to focus on the here and now. Tomorrow, for better or worse, would arrive soon enough.

My girlfriend and I climbed the stairs, found our places in the viewing stands and had a great night. As the seconds ticked down the lights dimmed and then went out as the fireworks show began. It was so engrossing that the possibility of disaster didn’t even cross my mind again until the show was over and the hotel lights came back up. As we walked back to the garage, I noticed the overhead lights burned as brightly as ever and that the line of generators stood silent and alone, sentinels against a darkness that did not come. I found my Supra safe in its parking place and smiled to myself as the engine snapped to life at the turn of the key. The world would continue, technology had triumphed and fear had been banished.

I pulled into the lane and joined a long line of cars making their way out of the facility. One by one the line of cars moved towards the street and then slipped away into the night, each vehicle whisking its occupants away into their own individual futures. When my own turn came I turned onto the street and pressed the accelerator. As the revs came up, the twin turbos on my 14 year old Supra sang their own special song and pushed the car forward with a sense of urgency and purpose. The new millenium was upon us.

Toyota Supra

Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.

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Question: What’s the Best Japanese Car Name Ever? http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/12/question-whats-the-best-japanese-car-name-ever/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/12/question-whats-the-best-japanese-car-name-ever/#comments Mon, 23 Dec 2013 14:00:09 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=686970 QOTD-BongoFriendeeAs we all know, the Japanese car industry has produced some of the greatest cars ever made, from the Isuzu Statesman Deville to the Autozam AZ-1. And, of course, the Japanese have come up with some of the greatest car names ever. The Nissan Homy Elgrand. The Mitsubishi Debonair Royal AMG. The Mazda Bongo Friendee. So many to choose from!

Of course, my personal favorite is the Mazda Cosmo Big Run Genteel. I’m not sure if the Genteel was a separate model, or just an option package, but who cares? Genteel! So, what’s your favorite Japanese Car Name?

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First Drive Review: 2014 Acura RLX Sport Hybrd (With Video) http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/12/first-drive-review-2014-acura-rlx-sport-hybrd-with-video/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/12/first-drive-review-2014-acura-rlx-sport-hybrd-with-video/#comments Fri, 13 Dec 2013 14:00:00 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=675970 2014 Acura RLX Sport Hybrid Exterior

It wasn’t that long ago I had an Acura RLX for a week. If you recall that review, I came away liking the car but found little joy in the price tag. Despite wearing a fantastic stitched leather interior, there was just no way I could justify the $10,000 premium over the AWD turbocharged competition from Lincoln, Volvo and others. Can a new dual clutch transmission and three electric motors turn the RLX from being a good car with the wrong price tag to a value proposition?

Click here to view the embedded video.

Because of the RLX’s FWD drivetrain, I was forced to view the RLX with an eye towards the Volvo S80, Lincoln MKS and the Lexus ES. With the Sport Hybrid model, Acura has done two things to take the RLX out of that pool and dive into another: AWD and a hybrid system. On paper a 377 horsepower hybrid system should put the RLX head to head with the Lexus GS 350, Infiniti M35h, and BMW AciveHybrid 5.

On the outside, the RLX cuts an elegant and restrained pose. Although the cars Acura allowed us to drive at a regional event were pre-produciton, fit and finish was excellent. Lincoln has certainly made strides in recent years, but there is a difference in build quality between the MKS and the RLX that didn’t go unnoticed. Acura attempts to further distinguish the RLX from the other near-luxury brands by going aluminum intensive with the hood, quarter panels and all four doors courtesy of Alcoa. I find the RLX unquestionably attractive but the overall form fails to beat the Cadillac CTS or BMW 5-Series in my book. I place the RLX’s exterior form a tie with the Infiniti M and a hair behind the Lexus GS, especially if the GS is wearing that funky F-Sport nose.

2014 Acura RLX Sport Hybrid Interior

Interior

While German interiors continue to be somewhat spartan and cold, the RLX feels open and inviting. Stitched dash and door panels elevate the cabin well above what you will find in a Lexus ES Hybrid or Lincoln MKS. The same is true for the rear of the cabin. Constructed out of the same high quality materials as the front, this is a definite departure from the hard plastics found in the ES and MKS. Most of my day was spent in an RLX with a grey and ivory motif that played to my personal tastes. On the down side, Acura continues to woo luxury shoppers with obviously fake looking faux-wood. This decision is doubly perplexing, as the new MDX is available in Canada with real wood trim, but not in America. Why don’t they offer it in America on either car?

Front seat comfort is among the best in the luxury set, beating the Mercedes E350, Lexus GS 450h and Infiniti M35h that I drove that day, but falling short of the million-way BMW M-Sport seats. Because the RLX rides on a transverse engine platform, there is an inherent space efficiency and the direct beneficiary is the rear cabin where you’ll find 2-3 inches more rear leg room than any of the other hybrids. I had hoped the Sport Hybrid design would allow a low “hump” since there isn’t a driveshaft going rearward, but unfortunately Acura decided to use this space for hybrid drivetrain components. It’s probably just as well, since the middle seat is considerably higher than the outboard rear seats making it impossible for a six-foot passenger to ride in the middle. Thanks to lithium-ion batteries(rather than the nickel-based packs Toyota and Lexus use), the RLX maintains a decently sized trunk capable of swallowing four golf bags.

For reasons unknown, Acura decided to use the Sport Hybrid to re-invent the shifter control. I know that everyone else is doing this, but Acura’s 4-button arrangement strikes me as one of the most unusual. Instead of a flat button bank ala-Lincoln, Acura uses a bank that is designed to have some meaning. Park is a button, Drive is a differently shaped button, Neutral is yet another shape of button and Reverse is a button on its side that you push toward the rear of the vehicle. While that sounds logical, it was far from elegant when we had to make several four-point turns in San Francisco. Anyone else prefer a regular old console shifter?

2014 RLX Infotainment, Picture Courtesy of Acura

Infotainment, Gadgets and Pricing

Like the regular RLX, the Sport Hybrid combines a 7-inch haptic feedback touchscreen with an 8-inch display only screen set higher in the dash. The engineers say the concept is as follows: the lower touchscreen handles the audio, freeing the upper screen for navigation and other tasks. My opinion of the system has improved since I first encountered it on the MDX but I still think the casserole needs more time in the oven. You can change tracks and albums using the touchscreen but changing playlists or genres requires you to use the rotary/joystick lower in the dash to control the 8-inch screen. In my mind this sort of kills the dual-screen sales proposition. On the positive side the system is very responsive and the graphics are all high-resolution and attractive. iDrive is still my favorite in the mid-size luxury segment, but AcuraLink ties with MMI in second.

Base Sport Hybrid models get a speaker bump from the gas-only RLX’s 10-speaker sound system to the mid-range Acura ELS system. As you would assume, the Sport Hybrid model is well equipped versus the gasoline model and all models come with navigation, tri-zone GPS-linked climate control and keyless go. Keeping things simple there is only one option, the “Advance package” (no, Advance is not a typo), which adds Krell speakers, ventilated front seats, sunshades and seat warmers for the rear passengers, front parking sensors, power folding mirrors, radar cruise control, lane departure warning and lane keep assist, a pre-collision warning system and electric front seat belt tensioners.

2014 Acura RLX Sport Hybrid Drivetrain, Picture Courtesy of Acura

Drivetrain

Now for what makes the RLX a Sport Hybrid. First up, we a direct-injection 3.5L V6 producing 310 horsepower and 273 lb-ft of twist that now sports start/stop technology. This engine is mated to a brand-new 7-speed transaxle developed specifically for the RLX. The new transaxle is a hybrid of sorts (and I’m not talking about the motors yet) blending a 2-speed planetary gearset with a 6-speed dual-clutch robotic manual transmission. The two technologies allow the entire unit to be as compact as possible. First gear is obtained by setting the dual clutch gearbox to 5th gear and the planetary gearset to low while “second” through “seventh” use DCT gears 1-6 in order with the planetary set to high. I found this solution particularly interesting because it would, in theory, allow Acura to obtain more than 7 ratios from the same unit with some software programming. 12-speed anyone? After the transmission is the first (and largest) motor/generator, rated for 47 horsepower/109 lb-ft. Thanks to the dual-clutch transmission, the engine can be decoupled from the drivetrain, making this different from Honda’s IMA system where the engine is always spinning.

Linked by a high-voltage electrical system is a rear mounted two-motor drive unit. The single inboard housing incorporates twin 36 horsepower /54 lb-ft motors and a clutch pack. The clutch pack is used to connect the motors together when the system needs to deliver equal power to each rear wheel. Combined with the lithium-ion battery pack in the trunk (the same one used in the Accord Hybrid), you get 377 total horsepower and 377 lb-ft of combined torque. Until you reach approximately 75 MPH at which point you have around 310 horsepower because the rear motors gradually disengage and completely disconnect over 80 MPH. The whole shebang is good for 28/32/30 MPG (City/Highway/Combined).

2014 Acura RLX Sport Hybrid Exterior-006

Drive

Why bother with two motors in the rear? Torque vectoring. The dual rear motor arrangement separates Acrua’s system from the e-AWD systems in the Lexus RX 400h and Highlander Hybrid, or the mechanical systems in the Infiniti Q50 Hybrid or Lexus LS 600hL. Although it produces about the same amount of power as Toyota’s rear hybrid motor and likely weighs more, splitting things in two allows it to vector torque all the time, power on or off. Say what? Yep, you read that correctly, this is the first production system that torque vectors when your foot isn’t on the gas. Think of it like a canoe. If you’re moving forward and you plant an oar in the water, the canoe will rotate around that axis. Instead of oars, the RLX uses motors.

Let’s get one thing out of the way right now – this isn’t a replacement in my mind for Acura’s mechanical SH-AWD system. The mechanical AWD system uses an overdrive module to make the rear wheels almost a full percent faster than the front wheels causing the vehicle to behave like a RWD biased vehicle. In that setup, the front wheels are being “pushed” by the rears and the result is steering feel that is very much like a RWD sedan when under power. When the power was off in the old RL, the car would plow into the bushes like a front-heavy Audi. The RLX Sport Hybrid is completely different.

2014 Acura RLX Sport Hybrid Exterior-007

Under full acceleration, the rear motors in the RLX contribute 72 ponies while the engine serves up 310 to the front wheels. The numerical imbalance between that total and the 377 “system horsepower” is consumed in the power curve of the motors and engine and the use of the front motor to draw a little power off to send to the rear. This means that while the old RL could effectively shuttle the majority of the power to the rear wheels, the RLX hybrid is at best an 80/20 split (front/rear). As a result, flooring the RLX from a stop elicits one-wheel peel, a vague hint of wheel hop and a smidge of torque steer. Once the road starts to bend, the hybrid system starts to shine. By not only accelerating the outside rear wheel in a corner but essentially braking the inside one (and using the energy to power the outside wheel), the RLX cuts a near perfect line in the corners. Point the RLX somewhere, and the car responds crisply and instantly. And without much feel.

The downside to the rear wheels contributing so much to the RLX’s direction changes is that the steering is next to lifeless. The analogy that kept coming to mind was a video game. The RLX changes direction more readily and easily than a front heavy sedan should, yet there is little feedback about the process. When the power is off, things stay the same, with the RLX dutifully following the line you have charted in a way the FWD RLX or the old RL never could.

Acura was confident enough in the RLX to provide a GS 450h for us to play with and the difference was enlightening. The GS is less engaging from a drivetrain perspective thanks to the “eCVT” planetary hybrid system, something the RLX’s dual-clutch box excels at, but the well-balanced GS platform is by far the driver’s car on the road. The Lexus feels less artificial, more nimble, and more connected to the driver. The RLX is not far behind in terms of raw numbers, and is faster off the line, but the RLX feels less connected and more artificial in the process. It is also important to note that the RLX is the only AWD hybrid in this class since the Infiniti Q50 hybrid is Acura TL sized and the Lexus LS 600hL is considerably larger and more expensive. That feature alone makes the RLX attractive to anyone living in areas where winter traction is a consideration.

2014 Acura RLX Sport Hybrid Exterior-002

The 2014 RLX Sport Hybrid is an amazing bundle of technology. Combining a dual clutch transmission, a torque vectoring AWD system and three hybrid motors, the RLX is the gadget lover’s dream car. As a technology geek, the system is an intriguing solution to two problems plaguing near luxury brands like Acura, Volvo and Lincoln: How do we make our FWD platforms compete with RWD competitors, and how do we put a green foot forward. In doing so the RLX Hybrid may have also solved the value proposition I complained about with the FWD model. According to Acura”s thinly veiled charts, we can expect the RLX to be priced the same as the Lexus GS 450h which is $5,000 more than the M35h and about $1,000 less than BMW’s ActiveHybrid 5.

Factoring in the AWD system’s $2,000-$2,500 value and standard features on the RLX and the value proposition gets better. At the high end, the “Advance” package is likely to represent a $10,000 discount vs a similarly configured Lexus or BMW. The RLX Sport Hybrid has caused me to look at the RLX in a different light. Instead of thinking the FWD RLX should be $10,000 cheaper, I now think it is irrelevant. The Sport Hybrid has what it takes to compete with the Lexus and Infiniti hybrids head on and the value proposition to tempt potential BMW shoppers, but that turns the front-drive base model into a potential image liability. I’ll reserve my final judgment until we can get our hands on one for more than a few hours, but until then, it appears Acura has crafted a compelling hybrid system that should be on any snow-belt shopper’s list and may provide enough value to sway RWD luxury hybrid shoppers. Stay tuned for more pricing information in the Spring.

 

Acura provided the vehicle at a regional launch event and one night’s stay at a hotel.

 

2014 Acura RLX Sport Hybrid Exterior-001 2014 Acura RLX Sport Hybrid Exterior 2014 Acura RLX Sport Hybrid Trunk 2014 RLX Infotainment, Picture Courtesy of Acura 2014 Acura RLX Sport Hybrid Drivetrain, Picture Courtesy of Acura 2014 Acura RLX Sport Hybrid Exterior-002 2014 Acura RLX Sport Hybrid Exterior-003 2014 Acura RLX Sport Hybrid Exterior-004 2014 Acura RLX Sport Hybrid Exterior-005 2014 Acura RLX Sport Hybrid Exterior-006 2014 Acura RLX Sport Hybrid Interior 2014 Acura RLX Sport Hybrid Exterior-007 ]]>
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Tokyo Motor Show: Are The Japanese Really Back? http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/11/tokyo-motor-show-are-the-japanese-really-back/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/11/tokyo-motor-show-are-the-japanese-really-back/#comments Mon, 25 Nov 2013 15:30:01 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=663562

Three of the world’s most important auto shows began last week. Since my invitations to the various press events must have been lost in the mail I, like virtually everyone else in the world, followed them over the internet. I’m OK with that, really. I hate fighting the crowds and by the time a show closes high resolution photos of the most important cars are always all over the world-wide-web, anyhow. With the photos are the journalists’ impressions. Some are good and some are bad, but they all make me think. For example, there’s this article from the Top Gear website on the Tokyo motor show that asserts, on the strength of the cars at this year’s show, “Japan is back.” Hold on – Really?

To be sure there were some important and exciting cars at this year’s Tokyo motor show. Honda showed us a new NSX and the S660 sport compact that compares favorably to the Beat kei class sports car that Honda produced back in the last century. Nissan showed us the amazing three-seat, electric “Bladeglider,” a hotted up Nismo GTR and the retro themed IDx. Toyota’s performance car offerings came in the form of the Lexus RC and a convertible FT86. While Toyota ripped the top off of their Toybaru twin, Subaru went the opposite route and gave baby some back with their Cross Sport. So far as I could glean, that was about it for cars intended to stir the hearts and minds of enthusiasts. That would have made for a pretty small show though, so augmenting the really interesting stuff were was a whole slew of hybrid/electric/gas, etc SUVs, sedans and city cars intended to appeal to the masses.

Click here to view the embedded video.

From my perspective what we got are some new toys of the uber rich, two small cars that my all-American ass won’t fit into, a couple of modifications on a car I probably won’t buy anyhow and one wanna-be-retro Nissan that might actually have some possibilities if they don’t screw it up with a powertrain that serious enthusiast wouldn’t want. The emphasis on products with hybrid or alternative energy powertrains and other technical innovations says some good things about state of Japanese industry and the many different body styles on display indicates that the Japanese have noted the success of Korean cars’ design language and are finally looking somewhere other than Mercedes for inspiration, too. Good news for sure, but does any of it mean Japan is back?

For me, the glory days of Japanese cars happened roughly between 1985 and 1995. The cars of that era had good, solid lines and, while the designs weren’t daring, they did have their own unique sense of style. There was technical innovation too and it came wrapped up in practical packages. Real performance was offered across all the price ranges and the variety of new cars was enormous. There was something there for everyone and if you could not afford a Twin Turbo Supra or a Turbo 300ZX, you could, at the very least, take home on of the good looking down-market alternatives: the AE86 Twin-Cam Corolla or the 200SX Turbo. Today, that wide aray of choices is no longer a part of Japan Inc.’s current line-up.

I’m not sure why that is, but in the process of writing this article it suddenly hit me that the cars on display at this year’s Tokyo motor show says something about how our society has become ever more divided over the past couple of decades. It doesn’t take an economist to point out that the rich have gotten richer and the rest of us poorer. The market reflects that reality. The rich get supercars, those of us in the middle get family trucksters and the odd toy while the unwashed masses receive battery powered practicality. The choices are gone and fun is being increasingly reserved for those who can afford it. It wasn’t that ay 20 years ago and the sad truth is that Japan isn’t anywhere close to being back. But then, none of us are, are we?

Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast, he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.

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Pride Before the Fall http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/11/pride-before-the-fall/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/11/pride-before-the-fall/#comments Tue, 19 Nov 2013 20:38:27 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=656274 GSXR1100

The ’91 GSXR 1100 was a feral beast. It had been tame once, well “mostly tame” anyhow, but the bike’s previous owner had stripped away the thin veneer that civilization had imposed upon it and restored it to its primeval form. It hadn’t taken much, really. Larger carburetors, performance cams and a full race exhaust had transformed the bike from a wickedly fast street machine into a full-race bike that, despite the license plates, had no business being on the street. Still, it had a sort of lethal charm that attracted men like me: confident, experienced, prideful. It was a battle of wills I would not lose. I was determined to master the bike and, like a living thing, the bike was determined to kill me.

They say that most people who die in accidental shootings are killed by “unloaded guns.” I would imagine that most people who die on motorcycles are riding relatively “safe” bikes. You know the kind, usually big and slow. The ones that inspire confidence in their riders. The GSXR was the opposite of a “safe” bike. It was big, powerful and with a short wheelbase was exceedingly ill-mannered at slow speeds. On the move it was roughly sprung and, despite the steering damper affixed to the bars, prone to a bit of headshake when you laid on the power.

Still, on the smooth pavement of the Japanese expressway, the bike was a marvel of precision engineering. The slightest input translated into immediate action. A simple turn of the wrist became instant acceleration. A modest pull of the brake lever would slow even the most determined head-long rush with surprising aplomb. The GSXR was a true thoroughbred and, when it was doing what it was built to do, the division between man and machine was nonexistent. Like living thoroughbreds, however, it could be sensitive and fickle, too.

The problem began with the slightest of judders when I rolled on the throttle. The bike still surged forward upon command, but the edge wasn’t there and I noticed the change immediately. The problem was more pronounced the next time out. As I hit the gas, the bike stumbled as it came up to speed. Over time, these little vibrations became a full-on epileptic fit as the bike surged and shook whenever I added more than just a smidgen of gas. I knew I would have to address the situation and ran, one at a time, through the possible problems.

041000246unpackaged

Sportbikes are a pain in the ass to work on. Like an old muscle car, the premise of a sportbike is simple – take the biggest, most powerful engine you have and stuff it into the lightest, smallest package you can. Needless to say, clearance is limited and getting to the various bits and pieces I needed to work with proved to be a problem. I started by replacing the spark plugs but there was no effect. next, I made certain the fuel petcock was working and that no lines were pinched before finally deciding to access the air filter.

I hated the idea of opening the air filter. Located behind the carbs, under the gas tank and in the area that normally rested directly between my thighs, it was easy to see but next to impossible to get open. To make matters worse, the airbox, like so many other things on my bike was modified as well. To get into it, I had to pull the gas tank and seat and then disconnect several electrical connections before pulling the battery and then the battery box. After that I had to use a stubby screw driver to unfasten several screws and then another to loosen the large clamp that held on a single, large filter element. It took time, effort and a lot of scraped knuckles but I managed to do it without losing my sanity.

Once it was out, the filter didn’t appear to be especially dirty and so I figured that I had gone down yet another false path. Regardless, I washed it out in a bucket of fresh gasoline and started the tedious process of putting the bike back together. It took time, but when it as done the bike fired right up and idled fine. Grabbing my helmet, I wheeled the bike out of its parking spot and and headed for an access road that ran along beneath the expressway close to the Port of Yokohama.

yokohama

At the first stoplight I checked for the cops and grabbed a handful of throttle. The old bike surged strongly as it shot its way towards the redline. I grabbed second gear and held the throttle wide open. Able to breathe correctly for the first time in a long while, the old bike ate up the road without missing a beat. Shifting into third I got off the gas and let the bike slow before working it through a series of roll-on accelerations to make sure the problem was fully resolved. It was and I felt good.

A couple of miles out I turned around and headed home. I stayed off the gas a let the bike chug along in the higher gears. It was a relief that my notoriously finicky bike was working so well and I decided at the last moment to head through the port facility to a small park at the base of the harbor light house. The Port of Yokohama is a sprawling place and the central road is easily six lanes wide. Normally filled with idling trucks waiting to pick-up or drop-off loads at the port it is, for the most part, a featureless, pancake-flat stretch of pavement split by frequent railroad tracks. At its far end, the road meets a high cement sea-wall and curves around the barrier in a set of sweeping S-curves. Given the width of the road and the lack of traffic I hit them hard and slipped through them without a hitch.

At the lighthouse, I turned around and headed once again towards. It was a nice day and I wasn’t eager to be back inside so I went slowly, trudging along in the higher gears, the engine stumbling along just above idle. As the S-curves approached I dropped down a gear but the bike’s engine abruptly died. Unphased, I pulled int he clutch, downshifted again and dumped the clutch to bump-start the bike. The engine sprang back to life and I rolled smoothly through the first corner, righted the bike and then leaned into the next. It was there, mid-apex, that the engine died again.

Things happened fast. The back wheel locked and the tire began to slide. To prevent a “low-side,” a type of accident where the back tire of a bike slips out from underneath you and leaves you sliding on your ass, I grabbed the clutch and got the back wheel rolling again. But skidding loads a bike’s suspension and, as the back wheel regained traction, the rear spring was free to unleash its pent-up energy. As the spring sprung, the bike bucked, turning into an angry bronco as it attempted – and then succeeded – in throwing me off.

Click here to view the embedded video.

Free of its rider, the bike continued to follow its momentum over onto its far side while I was thrown, still in seated position with my legs beneath me, high into the air almost like a fighter pilot being ejected from his stricken aircraft. The odd thing was that, despite the amazing height I achieved, my forward momentum was not really that great and I had let go of the bars quickly enough that I hadn’t been thrown head over heels. I straightened my body and landed hard on my feet, breaking into a run as soon as I touched down. In a mere moment I was safe on the sidewalk looking back at my stricken bike as it attempted to disgorge the contents of its fuel tank into the street.

Adrenaline pumping, I ran back to the big bike and levered it back onto its wheels. One of the handle bars was twisted and a side mirror broken off, but otherwise the bike looked to be in decent shape. After pushing it to the side of the road, I pulled off my helmet, bent the bar back to where I could use it and tried to refire the bike. The starter growled for a fraction of a second and then clicked off, the battery was obviously dead. How odd. I pulled off the seat and looked to see if there was anything I could do. The problem was immediately obvious, in my rush to complete the project I had failed to reconnect one vital part of the bike’s charging system and had made the entire run on battery power alone. I cursed my own stupidity.

I snapped the wires back together and tried bump starting the bike. It took several runs up and down the flat street and by the time the old bike eventually fired I was nearly sick to my stomach with exhaustion. I waited to recover while the bike idled unevenly and, when the worst had passed, I clicked it into gear and limped home. It was a walk of shame.

In 20 years of hard, fast riding I had never had an accident on the street. Sure, once or twice I had put my foot down wrong at a stoplight and fallen over, but I had never been thrown or had any kind of real accident. I had been extremely fortunate. There was no real damage to the old bike and the only injury I suffered was to my own pride. You know pride, right? It’s that thing that comes before the fall. It’s the one injury that, I think, can never fully heal.

GSXR

Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast, he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.

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Mazda Test Drive Ends in Crash Due to Automatic Brake Failure http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/11/mazda-test-drive-ends-in-crash-due-to-automatic-brake-failure/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/11/mazda-test-drive-ends-in-crash-due-to-automatic-brake-failure/#comments Tue, 12 Nov 2013 07:58:59 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=648986 2013 Mazda CX-5. Picture courtesy motortrend.com

When the year 2025 comes around, and your sons and daughters purchase their autonomous commuter pod sans steering wheel, you may want to check the automatic brakes just to be sure they’re able to stop your children from smashing through the commuter pod in front of them, much like what happened to one customer during a test drive at a Mazda dealership in Japan over the weekend.

A customer and a dealership employee were putting a CX-5 equipped with the Smart City Brake Support through its paces when said braking system crashed through a urethane testing barrier, resulting in a severe neck injury for the hapless test driver, and a fractured arm for the employee. Normally, the braking system would have sounded an alert while applying the brakes and curbing engine power were the driver to approach a detected obstacle, all through automation.

The Smart City Brake Support was introduced in the automaker’s home market as an option for the crossover in 2012, only to become standard last month on all CX-5s in Japan for the 2014 model year.

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Review: 2014 Lexus IS250 (With Video) http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/11/review-2014-lexus-is250-with-video/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/11/review-2014-lexus-is250-with-video/#comments Tue, 05 Nov 2013 20:58:43 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=639233 2014 Lexus IS 250 Exterior

After taking a sales hit due to tsunami-related production woes, Lexus has been trying to regain their mojo with a new product offensive. Things started out with the new Lexus GS sedan that Jack Baruth and I loved on and off the track, followed by a revised RX. With the redesigned IS, the bulk of their lineup has been overhauled. Initially, I was a little concerned that the Lexus IS sedan would receive nothing more than a new nose and some LED lights for 2014 but the Japanese 3-Series fighter came out swinging when we were invited to the launch event earlier in the year. I came away impressed with the IS 350′s road manners, but most buyers will be shopping for the less powerful IS 250 and it’s taken us this long to get our hands on one.

Click here to view the embedded video.

 Exterior

Instead of refreshing the IS, Lexus decided to give their smallest RWD sedan a complete overhaul for 2014. Lexus crafted a new IS platform with a 3-inch longer wheelbase that addresses a big complaint about the old car – it was too small inside for American consumers. The result is an entirely new unibody that is three inches longer than the old model riding on a three-inch longer wheelbase. In addition to the stretch the 2014 model gets a hair wider, a hair taller and ground clearance drops by half an inch.

2014 Lexus IS 250 2014 Lexus IS 350, Exteruiotr, F-Sport Front grille, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes

In addition to the Lexus “Spindle” grille up front, the IS sports an entirely different side profile that is easily the most expressive in the small luxury segment. Although I like Cadillac’s new ATS on the outside, I think the IS provides a more balanced blend of aggressive and luxury styling cues from the angry front end, to the almost-Swedish shoulder bulges. Unfortunately I just haven’t warmed up to the Lexus daytime running lamps which are now divorced from the headlamps and have their own cut-out in the bumper cover. Lexus says they are styled after the Lexus “L” but they just look like Nike “Swooshes” to my eye. Even so, if it were my money to spend I’d be torn between the restrained but elegant BMW 328i and the aggressive but sometimes questionable IS 250. I like Cadillac’s angular lines, but I slot the design just below the BMW and Lexus in my mental tally. Add the F-Sport package to the IS 250 however and Lexus breaks the tie with a more aggressive grille. (In the picture above.)

2014 Lexus IS 250 Interior, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes

Interior

Because the GS and LS share interior design cues I had expected the IS to follow suit, I was wrong. While the other Lexus models have opted for a more open and expansive interior theme, the IS feels tight and close to the driver. The feeling is amplified by a high beltline and a tall center console. If you like your car to make you “feel big,” then this is the sedan for you. Rather than the “double bump” style that seems to be popular right now, Lexus opted for a tall two-tier look with the infotainment screen positioned farther away from the driver than the gauges, and centered in the tall dashboard. Opting for the F-Sport package replaces the analog gauges with a configurable LCD cluster.

Cabin plastics in the IS lead the competition, especially those farther from the driver’s usual reach. While BMW cut a few corners with the current 3-Series by using hard plastics low in the dash, the IS maintains a quality feel no matter how low your hand wanders. As you’d expect from Lexus, one can still get acres of stained wood and soft leather. “Can” is the operative word here,since  real leather can only be found in the top two option packages in the IS, while all other models get Lexus’s faux-cow that is bonded directly to the seat foam to prevent stretching or folding as the seat ages. The imitation-hide is perfectly convincing and the only covering available in the IS 250 F-Sport.

Front seat comfort proved excellent during my week with the IS 250, easily besting the Audi A4, Mercedes C250, Cadillac ATS and the base seats in the BMW 328i – but if you want the best seats in this segment, you’ll find those in the Volvo S60 or the optional M-Sport seats in the BMW. Thanks to the wheelbase stretch, rear legroom is up by 1.6 inches over the last generation IS, while front leg room grows about an inch at the same time. The improved rear legroom is welcome as that has long been an IS shortcoming, but it’s obvious by both Lexus and Cadillac’s latest 3-Series fighter that nobody expected the 3-Series to grow as much as it did in this last generation. As a result the 328i beats the IS 250 by a whopping three inches of rear legroom. The Lexus does counter with a slightly larger trunk, but I found the overall trunk dimensions to be slightly more advantageous in the BMW balancing out the extra cube the IS offers.

2014 Lexus IS 250 Interior, Infotainment, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes

Infotainment

Although I couldn’t find a single example on a dealer lot, the base IS with no options is the only way you can escape the infamous Lexus Remote Touch joystick. All other models use a small controller with haptic feedback to control a software interface originally designed for use with a touchscreen LCD. Regardless of the input method, all IS models get a 7-inch color LCD positioned far away from the driver. The base model sports a noticeable low resolution screen while all other models get a high resolution screen of the same size. The distance from the driver and the large plastic bezel conspire to make the screen look much smaller than it is. The problem is further compounded by the screen being actually smaller than the competition as well.

2014 brings some mild software updates to the infotainment software including a new home screen (shown above), HD Radio support and traffic information via HD radio instead of satellite so you don’t need an XM subscription to get a color-coded traffic map. If you can get beyond the input method, the system proved reliable and moderately intuitive. Overall however I am still forced to rank this system below BMW’s iDrive, Audi’s MMI, Infinit’s new two-screen setup, Volvo’s Sensus, and even Mercedes’ aging COMAND system. The only system to offend my inner-nerd more is with the Cadillac CUE system.

2014 Lexus IS 250 Engine, 2.5L V6, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes

Drivetrain

Operating by the “if it isn’t broken, don’t fit it” mantra, there are no significant changes under the hood for the IS 250 this year. That means we have the same 2.5L, direct-injection, 60° V6 engine as before, good for the same 204 ponies and 185 lb-ft of twist. (The IS 350 gets a 3.5L version of the same engine, making 306 HP and 277 lb-ft.) Just as before, we have a 6-speed transmission on offer (The RWD IS 350 gets a newer 8-speed), with AWD commanding $2,535 more. Should you opt for the F-Sport package, Lexus will add a sound amplifying snorkel to the intake plumbing to amplify the engine’s growl.

With everyone else moving to forced-induction four-cylinder engines, the smooth V6 engine is what sets the IS 250 apart. I know that calling a V6 “smooth” or, dare I say it, “buttery smooth” sounds like sacrilege, but since BMW no longer offers their naturally aspirated in-line 6 under the hood of the 328i, the refinement crown goes to Lexus.  There is more going on here than just the numbers however, because the small turbos not only deliver more torque, they do so across a much broader RPM range than Lexus’ 2.5L V6. Even the Mercedes 1.8L turbo in the C250 blows out more torque across a broader band than the six cylinder mill in the IS 250. For reasons known only to Lexus’ product planning team, the 220 horsepower IS 300h, which mates the same engine to Lexus’s RWD hybrid drivetrain, remains forbidden fruit on our shores.

2014 Lexus IS 250 Exterior, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes

Drive

The IS’s 2.5L V6 may be down on power compared to the Americans and Germans but it is no contest when it comes to refinement or engine note. Sadly refinement isn’t what propels you to 60, so when the light turns green you’ll have a whisper quiet view of the competition’s rear bumpers. Our tester ran to 60 in 7.02 seconds, a full 1.3 seconds slower than the 328i and 1 second slower than the ATS 2.0T.  Even the 1.8L turbo in the Mercedes C250 and the bargain-basement BMW 320i beat the IS 250 to 60 MPH by a few tenths.

The responsiveness of the IS in tight corners demonstrates how much time Lexus spent engineering the 2014 model. The old IS came across as isolated, perhaps even sloppy, while the third generation chassis is sharp and crisp. Every system in the IS feels like a team player from the numb suspension to the transmission shift logic and the revised double-wishbone front suspension. While the IS isn’t the hard-core corner carving machine the ATS 2.0T is, the IS 250 feels more harmonious and balanced on the road. Oddly enough, the BMW is the wild card. The E90 3-Series (previous generation) was precise and engaging, but the F30 (current generation) has traded handling prowess for a softer ride and a ginormous back seat. Meanwhile the Audi and Volvo plow like a John Deere when they encounter a corner and the Mercedes feels just as you would expect: heavy and soft. That’s not to say the IS is the performance winner. The Lexus is a hair heavier in the nose than the BMW, so at-limits handling is not as neutral as the ATS and because of the power deficit, the 328i is faster around the track. While the Lexus feels more precise and engaging than the BMW, the 328i’s better weight balance means it is both faster in the straightaways and holds its own in the corners. How about the Cadillac? It beats both the Lexus and the BMW hands down.

2014 Lexus IS 250 Exterior-004

Without taking price into consideration, the IS 250 makes a compelling argument for those that value smooth drivetrains, excellent steering feel and chassis dynamics. If however you value performance, luxury amenities and cabin room, the BMW is your best bet. If you’re a BMW shopper that is after the “ultimate driving machine” then you need to visit the Cadillac dealer.

Reviews are nothing without pricing information however. The IS 250 is the cheapest car in this shootout by a long shot. The IS undercuts the BMW 328i by $3,600 (adjusting for feature content) and even manages to be $1,700 less than the BMW 320i. Option up the BMW and Lexus with navigation, sport pack and leather and the delta grows to more than $5,000. The story is the same with the Cadillac and Mercedes with the ATS ringing in $4,200 to $7,500 more and the C250 a whopping $5,500-$7,500 more. The Infiniti Q50 may seem like a natural competitor but Infiniti has yet to release a model that competes directly with the low output options in this segment.

After a week with the IS 250 and a few hours in the Cadillac ATS and 328i in the same week something dawned on me. Lexus and Cadillac have managed to do what they set out to: beat BMW at their own game. Cadillac has nearly replicated an E90 3-Series in terms of handling and chassis performance, Lexus has crafted a drivetrain and steering rack that are superior in smoothness and feel to what BMW is selling. But just when the competition caught up BMW decided to play a different game. By chasing luxury, roominess and fuel economy, BMW has shifted the focus away from driving dynamics. (Yep, I said that out loud.) And in the process BMW is laughing all the way to the bank. By chasing BMW Lexus has created the finest IS 250, yet the sales indicate what Lexus should have been chasing is the customer.  For a car guy like me, the way the IS 250′s systems seem to work in perfect harmony combined with the low sticker price make it a winner. For the average shopper however, Lexus is an 8-speed automatic and a four-cylinder turbo away from true competition.

 

Lexus provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review

Specifications as tested

0-30: 2.58 Seconds

0-60: 7.05 Seconds

1/4 Mile: 15.37 Seconds @ 89.1 MPH

Cabin Noise at 50 MPH: 66 Db

Average Observed Fuel Economy: 27.5 MPG over 591 miles

2014 Lexus IS 250 Engine 2014 Lexus IS 250 Engine, 2.5L V6, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2014 Lexus IS 250 Engine-002 2014 Lexus IS 250 Exterior 2014 Lexus IS 250 Exterior-001 2014 Lexus IS 250 Exterior-002 2014 Lexus IS 250 Exterior, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2014 Lexus IS 250 Exterior-004 2014 Lexus IS 250 Exterior-005 2014 Lexus IS 250 Exterior-006 2014 Lexus IS 250 Exterior-007 2014 Lexus IS 250 Exterior-008 2014 Lexus IS 250 Exterior-009 2014 Lexus IS 250 Interior 2014 Lexus IS 250 Interior-001 2014 Lexus IS 250 Interior-002 2014 Lexus IS 250 Interior-003 2014 Lexus IS 250 Interior-004 2014 Lexus IS 250 Interior, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2014 Lexus IS 250 Interior-006 2014 Lexus IS 250 Interior-007 2014 Lexus IS 250 Interior-008 2014 Lexus IS 250 Interior-009 2014 Lexus IS 250 Interior-010 2014 Lexus IS 250 Interior-011 2014 Lexus IS 250 Interior, Infotainment, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes 2014 Lexus IS 250 Trunk ]]>
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