The Truth About Cars » Media The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Thu, 17 Jul 2014 12:00:21 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars no The Truth About Cars (The Truth About Cars) 2006-2009 The Truth About Cars The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars » Media The Manly Art Of Stick Handling Sat, 22 Mar 2014 15:02:58 +0000 6-speed manual transmission

I was browsing the internet the other day and came across a website that purports to be “A guy’s post-college guide to growing up.” Normally I avoid websites like this. I learned about the manly arts the old fashioned way, dangerous experimentation, but since I have been wrestling with an especially verdant crop of nose hair recently I thought I might find some grooming tips and so I decided to check it out. Amongst all the articles on slick, greasy-looking haircuts, sensual massage techniques and the power of positive self-development, I found this handy beginners’ guide on how to drive a stick shift. Since it was one of the only things on the site I had any real experience with, I looked it over and decided it was pretty good. Naturally, I thought I would share it.

Like sword fighting and bare knuckle boxing before it, driving a car with a manual transmission is on the verge of becoming a lost manly art. One day soon I expect to tune into the History Channel and hear someone explain how archeologists think these devices might have worked and watch as historic re-enactors dress up in their oldest bell bottoms and tie dyed shirts in order to drive around in their automatic transmission equipped replicas while making shift noises and pretending to step on a clutch pedal that isn’t there.

You keep both hands on the wheel, Frankie. I’ll handle the stick.

OK, perhaps I am being just a little facetious here, but let’s face it, manual transmissions are moving out of the mainstream and there will come a time when only cars aimed at the enthusiast market will bother to offer them. History tells me, of course, that it wasn’t that long ago in the grand scheme of things that all cars had manual transmissions. Some people will say they also had crank starts, hand-operated chokes and manual spark advance too, and that no one ever laments the loss of those things. It is, they will say, the price we pay for progress. The old things go away, replaced with new things that serve the masses better and, despite the fact that a few people may lament their loss, the fact is that vast majority will hardly notice their absence.

That’s not going to be the case with the manual transmission. Learning to shift your own gears is a right of passage. It is something that people grew up watching their elders do and upon a child’s entry into adulthood, the skill was handed down across the generations, person to person. With few exceptions, those clever, intrepid people who had the gumption to teach themselves, every one of us who knows how to work a stick learned from someone else.

Click here to view the embedded video.

I started out the way most young people do, pretending to row the gears in an old broken down Opel Kadette in my parents’ garage and eventually wheedled a lesson from my older brother Tracy who took me out in his, then, fairly new 1978 Nova. It was a pretty little car, a red on red two door coupe that had a 250 cid six cylinder under the hood and was as utilitarian as they come. I started out shifting gears from the passenger seat to get the feel of the shift lever and by the time I slipped over behind the controls had a fairly good idea of what I needed to be doing with my hands. Learning how to work the pedals took a little longer but, with my brother’s encouragement, I eventually got the hang of it.

I won’t say the experience changed my world, but it did open up a part of it that is, unfortunately, closed to many young people today. By the time I got my first car, a slightly older six cylinder three speed manual Nova of my own, there was no doubt about my ability to work the thing and, over the years and in the many manual equipped cars that would follow, I built upon the skills my brother taught me.


Running a car with a manual transmission connects man and machine in a way few other things can. In that same way the bumps and judders transmitted to a driver’s fingers through steering wheel gives one a connection to the pavement rushing beneath their seat, the vibrations transmitted to the palm of your hand by a shift ball and the sole of your left foot by the clutch pedal gives you a direct connection to a car’s drive train. Also, because you don’t have computer managing your engine speed and choosing the best gear, a manual transmission forces you to watch your gauges, to monitor the tachometer, and to actively think about the process of driving. These things pull driver and car together and when a driver has real focus they can join with the vehicle in the way that jockeys talk about becoming one with the animal during a race. That experience is, in a nutshell, enthusiasm is its purest form.

As a fat, hairy, old-school ape man, I have a special disdain for the “self-improvement” media and magazines that try to tell young men what it means to be a man while, at the same time, attempting to sell them a plethora of products to make them ever softer and ever more sensual, but this time I think they nailed it. Perhaps driving a manual is no longer a skill that every man must have, but it is a skill that every man – and every woman, really – should aspire to. It doesn’t matter if you learn if from your brother or a magazine, just get out there and learn it before it’s too late.

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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The Wobble Comes To An End As Consumer Reports Echoes TTACs Criticisms Of The Jeep Cherokee Tue, 11 Feb 2014 21:22:05 +0000 450x337xIMG_4625-450x337.jpg.pagespeed.ic.CmfCHZbR1g

In late 2013, TTAC was invited to review the Jeep Cherokee. As the journalist assigned to cover the launch, I gave what I felt was a nuanced but critical assessment of the vehicle: that it delivered with respect to its off-road prowess, but left a lot to be desired in other areas, namely the on-road driving experience and overall packaging.

TTAC was alone in its criticisms, with other outlets heaping praise on the Cherokee for attributes that I felt were lacking. A backlash from readers, Mopar fans and other entities ensued, and we were left looking like a fringe element of anti-Cherokee cranks, despite what we as an organization felt was a fair and nuanced, if – ahem – slightly colorful review of the car. It turns out that in the end, we weren’t alone.

Consumer Reports recently delivered their verdict on the Cherokee, and their examples (ostensibly one that they purchased) were criticized for many of the same issues that TTAC did, namely, poor dynamics, a choppy ride and an unrefined 9-speed automatic transmission. Only TTAC and CR have called out the Cherokee for these issues, with other media outlets either downplaying, ignoring or outright praising these elements. Since then, the media has been happy to give the car more positive press, spinning its respectable but mid-pack sales figures into some kind of Cinderella story.

When you are the lone outlet taking a controversial stance on a new car, it can be tough to weather the accusations of bias or even outright malice. Everyone wonders why your impressions are so different from the rest of the pack. In addition, you are left even more vulnerable to punitive actions from the auto maker for having strayed off message. But CR’s impressions of the car, even months later, feels like vindication on some level.

Chrysler has graciously offered to let TTAC have another go at the Cherokee, and I’m slated to have my own re-test in April. It’s been my hope that these issues have been ironed out, especially after the costly delays that Chrysler implemented with the objective of improving the Cherokee’s transmission. They deserve immense credit for having the courage to do so. Whatever the outcome, you can be sure that we will refrain from The Wobble. We will continue to bring you The Truth About Cars.

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Editorial: The Future Is Here At Nissan – Just Not In The Way You’re Expecting Wed, 28 Aug 2013 13:00:19 +0000 Click here to view the embedded video.

The big news this past week from Nissan: lots of old iron at Pebble Beach, concept car test drives for sympathetic journalists and a pledge to have autonomous cars ready (but not on sale) for 2020. More interesting than that is news of Nissan’s booming exports from America. Some say that this is the “new normal” – Japanese OEMs expanding their manufacturing base in America as they leave Japan en masse to both insulate themselves from a volatile yen, take advantage of America’s welcoming manufacturing climate and shed a reliance on Japan’s aging and declining population. And even more interesting than that is how it was presented.

The clip above, which is packaged like a broadcast news report, actually comes from Nissan’s internal communications team in Tokyo. Rather than just issuing a press release, Nissan is looking to have an even greater role in influencing the conversation (awful word I know, but it’s apt). They aren’t just disseminating information to journalists: they are cutting them out entirely. Whatever discussions we may have at TTAC over the efficacy of automotive media or the competency of its press corps, this is a significant development. I don’t think it’s inconceivable that one day, brands will have a stranglehold on the automotive discourse.

Press cars and press trip invites are one way that brands currently manage who has access to product and people, and these are used as both carrots and sticks. In a way, it’s hard to fault PR people for this practice. PR staff, by definition, are committed to disseminating their client’s story, even if it runs counter to the findings of a journalist. Not caring about these perks is one way to subvert the established order, as former EIC Ed Niedermeyer successfully did during his tenure. Even when doing so, it’s possible to get information from internal sources and third-party outlets. But Nissan appears to be going a step further.

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Editorial: Chrysler Dodges Poison Pen Darts By Delaying Jeep Cherokee Launch Wed, 31 Jul 2013 16:03:21 +0000 F5B1A05901-450x298

Monday night at 5:43 PM, TTAC received this note from Chrysler PR

Due to unforeseen circumstances, the 2014 Jeep Cherokee and Dodge Durango short-lead media drive program – originally scheduled for August 4-14 in Seattle – is being postponed.  We deeply regret this late notice and apologize for disrupting your busy summer schedule.  We will get back to you as soon as possible regarding information for the media drives of the Cherokee and Durango, which we expect will take place in the first half of September.
For those of you that have already booked your flights to the program, your reservation will automatically be canceled by our travel company, BCD Travel. Should you have questions related to this, please feel free to contact me and/or the individuals noted below:

This is the first time in recent memory that a press launch has been cancelled outright, and the delay apparently stems from calibrating the much-hyped 9-speed automatic transmission that has so far been vaporware in the Dart. This follows announcements by Chrysler that Cherokee production would be delayed and units wouldn’t arrive at dealers until September, while other reports cited fit-and-finish issues as well as transmission problems as the reason for the delay.

Delaying the launch leaves Chrysler in an unfortunate position in terms of public perception (and certainly among the media), but frankly, they have good reason to do it. The Cherokee is a very important product for them; Jeep’s future in world markets, as well as North America, is riding in part on this car.

Chrysler is definitely cognizant of the fact that this car is controversial among certain members of the media. It is the revival of a storied nameplate but is seen to lack any continuity with the original XJ Cherokee. Despite the fact that the vast majority of consumers want a crossover and their needs are best served by them, the automotive press continues to regard crossovers with barely disguised disdain.

Between that and the highly polarizing styling and you have a recipe for a PR disaster should the Cherokee not be up to snuff in terms of QC or driving dynamics. There are certainly members of the press ready and willing to rip it a new one for failing to live up to their expectations, whether realistic or outlandish. Personally, I am very interested in this car. As the first major Jeep launch built of CUSW, and the first application of the 9-speed automatic, it will set the tone for Jeep’s performance as a future star (and profit center) of Chrysler and Fiat. The consequences of it flopping will be severe for Chrysler, and I was looking forward to getting some seat time in the Cherokee. Evidently, that will have to wait.

By delaying the launch (even at great expense) they are increasing their chances of getting good press for such an important car.The recent recall of the Grand Cherokee and the Liberty is also looming in the background at Auburn Hills, even if it doesn’t have a direct bearing on the Cherokee’s launch.   What I’m curious about is whether this apparent commitment to quality will extend past the launch of the Cherokee and into regular production and future launches. Any future delays or holdups with future product launches won’t exactly inspire confidence in Chrysler’s ability to launch high-quality vehicles in a timely manner. This is “Strike Two” after all.


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Shanghai Auto Show: Oh, What a Media Day Mon, 22 Apr 2013 09:50:24 +0000

The Shanghai Auto Show truly is a reflection of the Chinese car market: It is huge, and it is one big disorganized mess. This year, the media days were shrunk to one, with the effect that nearly 20 press conferences ran at the same time.  If you went to Audi, you could not go to Fiat, Chery, Nissan, and a host of others. Getting admitted was a whole other matter.

I have been to the Beijing and Shanghai auto shows for the fourth year now, and I know that their on-line signup process can be daunting. You enter intimate personal details, beginning with your passport number, you hit SEND, and the website craps out. You do it again, it craps out again.  Old China hands remember that one needs to use Internet Explorer exclusively to achieve results. This year however, even old IE did not do the trick. No go, even after an email said that they did reset the computer and to try it again. Catch-22: No successful sign-up, no confirmation number, no confirmation number, no credentials. Which led to long lines of irate international correspondents in front of little windows, where their professional qualifications, their visa status, and their reason for being here was questioned.  Those who waved invitation letters by large OEMs were told to submit the original, no copy. If Kafka would still be alive, he would have been at the Shanghai Auto Show doing research.

For the fourth year, TTAC finally passed scrutiny, and could join the members of the professional media that covered China’s  largest auto show. Here is a tribute to the credentialed members of the media that were let in.

A photo journalist from China Youth Daily, practicing the intricate art of large format photography.

Her colleague, taking still pictures of the Renault Alpine.

The East Asia Correspondent of Latex World.

The China correspondent of Christopher Street Monthly.

Of course, there was also higher caliber equipment.

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Titillating Embargoes, And How Our Youth Is Led Astray By Manipulative Automakers Wed, 16 Jan 2013 10:25:39 +0000

Investigative reporter

We have a new car show season. With it come new car releases, and with them comes a contagion that is as tiring and headache-inducing as a Cobo Hall flu on top of an after party hangover. The disease goes by the name of embargo, and it comes with  the embargo breach as a secondary infection.

In case you have studied Pol.Sci. instead of HTML, you might be thinking that we are talking about real embargoes, such as those of Iran or Cuba. We don’t. In our biz, an embargo is when an OEM sends a blog a picture or a story, and then asks not to “print” it until later. If you think that the outcome is both predictable and inevitable, then you are absolutely correct. We could put the matter right to sleep without wasting (ha!) precious HTML column inches, would the new car season not also be marked by an excited chattering, twittering, OMG+1000ering over busted embargoes in what goes as the automotive media these days.

So let’s do what we rarely do, let’s talk about embargoes.

Our embargo

In the funky world of car blogs, embargoes are treated with the fascination otherwise reserved for an older sister’s first period, for our first pubic hair, or, OMG!, stained linen. Likewise, a broken embargo is treated with the enthrallment, or faux outrage caused by school buddies who purportedly went to “third base” without going blind.

Whenever an OEM tells me that “kids have lost their interest in car”, I say: “Wrong, look at Jalopnik.” Jalopnik is the epicenter of youthful eruptions caused by titillating embargoes.  Jalopnik even has a special section for “Embargo News, Videos, Reviews and Gossip.” Currently,  the section crucifies Cycle World (yes, Cycle World) for blowing an embargo.  I was unable to find out which one. I had to withstand attempts of the Jalopnik section to lure me into other Gawker assets that promise me “Orgasm-Free Casual Sex.”  No thanks. In my advanced age, one is grateful for any orgasm one can achieve during casual sex.  (Speaking of age, things got a little better at Jalopnik after Ray Wert was replaced by a more youthful looking, but far more mature Matt Hardigree. As mature men, they talk less, and do it more.)

However, I am looking forward to the promised reviews of embargoes. Car reviews: Tired. Embargo reviews: Wired. Can we hope for five star embargoes? Three thumbs down for halfhearted embargo breaches? A “Meh” for indignant reports of embargo breaches, illustrated with the embargoed picture?  +1000 for the intrepid reporter who can’t be cowed by the OEM machine, and who hits “Publish” a day before he is allowed to? Best upskirt picture during car reveals? Endless opportunities for a blogging biz that always should be on the look-out for distinction at the lowest cost.

Bad boys they are, Jalopnik is a bad influence on other adolescent automotive authors, who try to be a Jalop, even when writing for a site that makes its money by selling contact data of car buyers to car-dealing sharks. Oh, the excitement when they hold their first embargoed picture in their shaking hands! The temptation to jerk off to it usually overcomes the best of them. Kimberly-Clark, always on the lookout for new niches for its tissues, should look into the matter. EmbarGoezAwayz® perhaps?  I mean, I invented Sneezies® for them in the 80s, why not continue on the road to success? You know where to find me, I’m sure.

Their embargo

With that rant off my chest, here the Truth About Embargoes.

What is an embargo? In real life, an embargo is close to a blockade, and some say it’s an act of war. If we stop Iranian oil, it’s God’s work. If the Arabs stop Arabian oil, it’s an outrage. In the unreal life of the motor media, an embargo is a request not to publish something before a set date. Blogs know how to design, make, market and even recycle cars, why should they listen to silly pleas to delay their orgasms until a later date?

How binding is an embargo? It is not binding at all. Usually, an embargo is an appeal to professional courtesy. Lack of  which renders the matter void.

What happens after a breach? Nothing, except for the excited chattering and twittering that provides added media exposure. In most serious cases, the sanction may be that the reporter is not invited back.  This rarely happens, and only with the most stringent types of embargoes as listed below.

What is the sense of embargoes? Purportedly, it is to give journalists time to get their heads and printing machines around a topic. In reality, an embargo acts as a timer that sets off a cluster bomb strike of stories, timed just right for maximum impact for the OEM, while delivering useless crapitation on the part of the individual news outlet. An embargo usually contravenes the interest of the publication, and the stage is set for trouble.

Embargo consequences

Types of embargoes

The buff-book embargo: This is a throwback to the times when pictures of rare pre-production models were shot with large format cameras, on (OMG!) film, where color seps were made, and where cylinders needed etching. This took at least a month, and led to the strange custom, still observed on occasion, that reporters congregate in a room a month before the launch, where they are presented with a top-secret car, and a piece of paper on which they have to promise that they won’t say anything until the embargo lifts. Unless the paper is a hard and fast Non Disclosure Agreement, in which clear sanctions, such as loss of your firstborn, or $250,000 for each breach, are agreed upon, that paper only has symbolic value. The buff books stick to the embargo, because they want to be invited back, and they need the month anyway. They also do on-line, and a day after the meeting, renders appear that come close to the actual car. Those, wink-wink, do not count as a breach of embargo. I observe the buff-book embargo, even if it leads to a conversation like this one: “As you know, no photography allowed today, Mr. Schmitt.”  “I know.” “Where is your camera?” “At home, you told me not to bring one.” “Oh. You brought your phone, did you?” “Sure.” “Good. Keep it in your pocket.” “Sure thing.” Wink. Wink.

The individual embargo: Trusted reporters sometimes receive individual access to car, inside information, executives, production sites etc. before the launch, with the understanding that the story is held back until the launch. This usually is in form of a handshake agreement, sometimes on a piece of paper. This embargo is rarely breached, because it gives reporter and publication a better story, and a leg up on the riff-raff that has to quote from the press release. I observe the individual embargo. I am old-fashioned and I believe in handshakes.

Ignore it: Common (market) embargo of today

The common embargo: Sometimes, press releases, even those published on publicly accessible websites, or sent out via mass emails have “Embargoed until ….” on them. This is regarded as effective as appeals for chastity until marriage, and it is as commonly ignored. When I was young, pubescent kids used to get thrilled about chastity and we tried to get our hands and more as deep into other pants as possible. These days, kids excitedly twitter and chatter about (OMG!) breaches of embargo.  I ignore this kind of embargo, I would laugh at complaints and never receive any.

The come-on embargo: The industry, fascinated with the social media thing, has caught on to the stirring in loins and keyboards caused by a titillating embargo. As the slow reveal loses its efficacy, nothing punches better through the clutter of pre-car-show press releases than a big “EMBARGOED UNTIL …” on the email. In a world where real tits have given way to titillations, this assures attention, just like adolescent sex was exciting, because it was verboten. High fives in the PR departments of the OEMs are triggered by the secondary explosions in blogs that feign outrage over embargo breaches by colleagues who dared to go to third base first (“AutoWeek’s Phil Floraday Breaks Embargo On Buick Enclave!!!” OMG!)

Expect large-scale farming of these genetically modified forbidden fruit, and expect them to taste as bland as GM produce usually tastes. A blogger who gets excited, or worse, who observes the come-on embargo is a lost cause, and really should look for other employment.


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Made-Up Stories, Removed Stories: Dirty Tricks Prolong Chinese Islands Conflict Tue, 23 Oct 2012 12:46:57 +0000 The violent anti-Japanese demonstrations in China appear to be over, and intestinal complications aside, it seems to be safe again to eat sushi in Beijing or Shanghai. State-owned media however is trying its utmost to keep the matter on the front burner, so to speak, in a very insidious way.

A few days ago, China’s state-owned media wrote that “Toyota has denied media reports that it will withdraw from the Chinese market and shut down production facilities in the country.” Nobody had seen those media reports in the first place, but the denial made headlines the world over.

Writes an outraged Hans Greimel, Tokyo Correspondent of the Automotive News:

“Something is disingenuous about inventing a news angle that had not existed and giving it life through a denial. It’s akin to asking Toyota if it plans to pull out of North America or is working on a car that can fly to Mars.

Just as China was magically engulfed in “spontaneous” anti-Japanese protests that were turned off like a faucet by the Chinese government, you might suspect similar machinations behind local press coverage of the Japanese automakers there.”

As easily as made-up stories stay alive, fact-based accounts of the destruction brought by the riots vanish. Chinese auto portal carried the story of a Toyota car dealer in Qingdao who watched 193 cars and his dealership go up in flames after two safes were stolen. A few days later, the story was gone.

“Perhaps it cut to the bone too much and it was censored or simply removed,” writes Chinacartimes. Ash Sutcliffe of Chinacartimes resurrected and translated the story. Read here in full length how the anti-Japanese riots ruined the life of a Chinese businessman and 28 customers who had their car in for service.

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Italy Seizes Gaddafi’s Stake In Fiat Wed, 28 Mar 2012 22:51:44 +0000

A year ago nearly to the day, I was investigating the connection between Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi and Fiat. With an American-led intervention in Libya underway, Reuters had reported that a Wikileaked State Department document revealed that the Libyan Government owned a two-percent stake in the automaker Fiat as recently as 2006. When I contacted Fiat’s international media relations department for comment, I received this response:

Dear Mr Niedermeyer,

Further to your email, I would mention that the Reuters report you refer to is incorrect. As too are other similar mentions that have appeared recently in the media concerning the LIA’s holdings in Fiat.

The LIA sold all of its 14% shareholding in Fiat SpA in 1986 – ten years after its initial stake was bought.  It no longer has a stake in Fiat SpA.

I trust that this clarifies the matter.

It didn’t, actually. In fact the matter remained as clear as mud to me until just now, when I saw Reuters’ report that Italian police have seized $1.46 billion worth of Gaddafi assets, including “stakes in… carmaker Fiat,” under orders from the International Criminal Court.

So, did Fiat lie? Not exactly. The Libya Arab Foreign Bank did sell back its shares in 1986, but the Wikileaked memo claimed that a successor entity, the Libyan Arab Foreign Investment Company, was the more recent Libyan investor. Not being well-versed in the structure and history of Libya’s sanction-avoiding foreign investment shell companies, and lacking the resources to effectively pursue the story (tracking Gaddafi-era investments is a chore), I left it there. And even now that Italian police confirm that a Gaddafi-controlled stake in Fiat has been seized, it’s not at all clear whether Fiat’s management was aware of this.

The AGI has the most detailed account, reporting

The Guardia di Finanza Corps of Rome has seized property worth more than 1.1 bln euro from members of the Ghaddafi family upon a warrant of the International Criminal Court of The Hague. The property seized includes real estate, company shares and bank accounts that belong to members of the Ghaddafi family or to people of Ghaddafi’s entourage with an overall value of more than 1.1 bln euro

Property investigations carried out by the GdF of Via dell’Olmata, in Rome have enabled to discover two financing companies through which leaders of the former Libyan regime had made investments in Italy. [emphasis added]

That covers Fiat management fairly well: at the very least, it appears that they didn’t know about Libyan investment until police were involved. I might suspect that this very Gaddafi stake in Fiat was frozen by Italian authorities prior to my request for comment, and Fiat’s representative misled me about it… but I have no way of proving it. Time will (hopefully) tell.

Meanwhile, on this side of the pond, it’s only a little strange that this wasn’t somehow brought to light in pre-bailout vetting of Fiat. Sure, a foreign enemy of the United States was a significant shareholder in the firm that was handed a bailed-out Chrysler for no cash down. On the other hand, Libya was not on the War On Terror radar at the time, and the auto task force had enough to worry about without investigating Fiat’s shareholders. All the same, chalk this up as yet another example of the unintended consequences of government intervention in the economy.

Finally, there’s the real question: did Gaddafi actually benefit from his Fiat investment? It all depends on when this second investment in Fiat shares took place. The Wikileaked memo says Libya owned two percent of Fiat as of 2006, which means it was enjoying the short-lived Marchionne boom (financed in part by General Motors) after years of decline and stagnation. And when things headed south in 2008, snagging Chrysler for nothing sent Fiat stock on its last real bounce… which means the Gaddafi regime did benefit to some extent from the auto bailout. Still, with Fiat’s shares pricing at all-time lows the Libyan dictator almost certainly lost money on his Fiat investment over the years. Unless the Guardia di Finanza find evidence that Fiat’s management knew about Libyan investment, this might well be a case of “no harm no foul.”

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Blind Spot: The Twilight Of The Volt Mon, 05 Mar 2012 00:44:30 +0000

 “Do you want to accompany? or go on ahead? or go off alone? … One must know what one wants and that one wants”

Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight Of The Idols

This week’s news that GM would stop production of the Chevrolet Volt for the third time in its brief lifespan came roaring out of the proverbial blind spot. Having watched the Volt’s progress closely from gestation through each month’s sales results, it was no secret to me that the Volt was seriously underperforming to expectations. But in the current media environment, anything that happens three times is a trend, and the latest shutdown (and, even more ominously, the accompanying layoffs) was unmistakeable. Not since succumbing to government-organized bankruptcy and bailout has GM so publicly cried “uncle” to the forces of the market, and I genuinely expected The General to continue to signal optimism for the Volt’s long-term prospects. After all, sales in February were up dramatically, finally breaking the 1,000 unit per month barrier. With gasoline prices on the march, this latest shutdown was far from inevitable.

And yet, here we are. Now that GM is undeniably signaling that the Volt is a Corvette-style halo car, with similar production and sales levels, my long-standing skepticism about the Volt’s chances seems to be validated. But in the years since GM announced its intention to build the Volt, this singular car has become woven into the history and yes, the mythology of the bailout era. Now, at the apparent end of its mass-market ambitions, I am struck not with a sense of schadenfreude, but of bewilderment. If the five year voyage of Volt hype is over, we have a lot of baggage to unpack.

When a history of the Volt is written, it will be difficult not to conclude that the Volt has been the single most politicized automobile since the Corvair. Seemingly due to timing alone, GM’s first serious environmental halo car became an icon of government intervention in private industry, a perception that is as true as it is false. I hoped to capture this tension in a July 2010 Op-Ed in the New York Times, in which I argued that

the Volt appears to be exactly the kind of green-at-all-costs car that some opponents of the bailout feared the government might order G.M. to build. Unfortunately for this theory, G.M. was already committed to the Volt when it entered bankruptcy.

But by that time, the Volt was already so completely transformed into a political football, the second sentence of this quote was entirely ignored by political critics on the right. The culture of partisanship being what it is in this country, any nuance to my argument was lost in the selective quoting on one side and the mockery of my last name on the other. One could argue that that this politicization was unnecessary or counter-productive, but it was also inevitable.

The Volt began life as a blast from GM’s Motorama past: a futuristic four-place coupe concept with a unique drivetrain (which still defies apples-to-apples efficiency comparisons with other cars), a fast development schedule and constantly-changing specifications, price points and sales expectations. It’s important to remember that the Volt was controversial as a car practically from the moment GM announced (and then began changing) production plans, becoming even more so when the production version emerged looking nothing like the concept. But it wasn’t until President Obama’s auto task force concluded that the Volt seemed doomed to lose money, and yet made no effort to suspend its development as a condition for the bailout, that a car-guy controversy began to morph into a mainstream political issue.

At that point, most of the car’s fundamental controversies were well known, namely its price, size, elusive efficiency rating, and competition. Well before the car was launched, it was not difficult to predict its challenges on the market, even without the added headwinds of ideological objections (which should have been mitigated by the fact that they were actually calling for government intervention in GM’s product plans while decrying the same). But GM’s relentless hype, combined with Obama’s regular rhetorical references to the Volt, fueled the furor. Then, just two months after Volt sales began trickle in, Obama’s Department of Energy released a still-unrepudiated document, claiming that 505,000 Volts would be sold in the US by 2015 (including 120,000 this year). By making the Volt’s unrealistic sales goals the centerpiece of a plan to put a million plug-in-vehicles on the road, the Obama Administration cemented the Volt’s political cross-branding.

When GM continued to revise its 2012 US sales expectations to the recent (and apparently still wildly-unrealistic) 45,000 units, I asked several high-level GM executives why the DOE didn’t adjust its estimates as well. But rather than definitively re-calibrate the DOE’s expectations, they refused to touch the subject. The government, they implied, could believe what it wanted. Having seen its CEO removed by the President, GM’s timid executive culture was resigned to the Volt’s politicized status, and would never make things awkward for its salesman-in-chief. And even now, with production of the Volt halted for the third time, GM continues to play into the Volt’s politicized narrative: does anyone think it is coincidence that The General waited until three days after the Michigan Republican primary (and a bailout-touting Obama speech) to cut Volt production for the third time?

Of course, having used the Volt as a political prop itself from the moment CEO Rick Wagoner drove a development mule version to congressional hearings as penance for traveling to the previous hearing in a private jet, GM is now trying to portray the Volt as a martyr at the hands of out-of-control partisanship. And the Volt’s father Bob Lutz  certainly does have a point when he argues that the recent Volt fire controversy was blown out of proportion by political hacks. But blaming the Volt’s failures on political pundits gives them far too much credit, ignores GM’s own politicization of the Volt, and misses the real causes of the Volt’s current, unenviable image.

The basic problem with the Volt isn’t that it’s a bad car that nobody could ever want; it is, in fact, quite an engineering achievement and a rather impressive drive. And if GM had said all along that it would serve as an “anti-Corvette,” selling in low volumes at a high price, nobody could now accuse it of failure. Instead, GM fueled totally unrealistic expectations for Volt, equating it with a symbol of its rebirth even before collapsing into bailout. The Obama administration simply took GM’s hype at face value, and saw it as a way to protect against the (flawed) environmentalist argument that GM deserved to die because of “SUV addiction” alone. And in the transition from corporate sales/image hype to corporatist political hype, the Volt’s expectations were driven to ever more unrealistic heights, from which they are now tumbling. Beyond the mere sales disappointment, the Volt has clearly failed to embody any cultural changes GM might have undergone in its dark night of the soul, instead carrying on The General’s not-so-proud tradition of moving from one overhyped short-term savior to the next.

Now, as in the Summer of 2010, I can’t help but compare the Volt with its nemesis and inspiration, the Toyota Prius. When the Toyota hybrid went on sale in the US back in 2000, it was priced nearly the same as it is today (in non-inflation-adjusted dollars), and was not hyped as a savior. Instead, Toyota accepted losses on early sales, and committed itself to building the Prius’s technology and brand over the long term. With this approach, GM could have avoided the Volt’s greatest criticism (its price) and embarrassment (sales shortfalls), and presented the extended-range-electric concept as a long-term investment.

Even now, GM can still redefine the Volt as a long-term play that will eventually be worth its development and PR costs… but only as long as it candidly takes ownership of its shortcomings thus far and re-sets expectations to a credible level. And whether The General will defy and embarrass its political patrons by destroying the “million EVs by 2015″ house of cards in order to do so, remains very much to be seen. One thing is certain: as long as it puts PR and political considerations before the long-term development of healthy technology and brands,  GM will struggle with a negative and politicized image. And the Volt will be seen not as a symbol of GM’s long-term vision and commitment, but of its weakness, desperation, inconstancy and self-delusion.

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The “Slow Reveals” Need To Stop Fri, 24 Feb 2012 17:48:24 +0000

As a “glass-half-empty” kind of guy, I would need a minute to think about the most fascinating story I’ve ever written, but could easily tell you about the most infuriating. That dubious honor goes to the Facebook launch campaign for the 2012 Ford Explorer.

Starting in June of 2010, Ford released a series of “teaser images” of wilderness or other scenes with an Explorer barely visible. The process went on for roughly a month, and I was responsible for writing blog posts about the new images, which proved to be trying. By the time the 2012 Explorer launched, I was sick of hearing about it, and didn’t care whatsoever about any of the new technologies or improvements.

The Explorer is far from the only car to get this treatment; most notably, the Chevrolet Camaro and Scion FR-S/Subaru BRZ underwent this excruciatingly uninteresting method of endless concept cars and leaked details. Other vehicles, like the Dodge Dart get social media soft launches where little teaser photographs are dribbled out bit by bit.

The car companies feel that this builds buzz for the “brand”, but most importantly, it’s great for the auto bloggers. Every new photo or piece of information can generate a new post, which can generate an all-important “click” (see also: Top 10 lists, slideshows, reporting on social unrest and natural disasters). It’s a symbiotic relationship between the OEM and the media that’s unlikely to change, given the dysfunctional economics of blogging, that rewards speed, sensationalism and superficial content (which generate clicks) over the kind of slow, measured, in-depth work that the foundations of real in-depth journalism are built on. The kind of content that takes time and money to produce, bores many readers because it’s over 800 words long and often gets displaced in the article hierarchy because a new Toyonda Camcord Juicy Couture Special Edition was released and if we’re not first at re-hashing the press release and stock photos, we’ll be rendered irrelevant. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a new Ferrari teaser photo to write about.


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Generation Why: The CD Player Is Dead, Long Live Smartphones Mon, 16 Jan 2012 16:39:27 +0000

Are in-car CD players the mark of a vehicle aimed at geezers? According to an Automotive News report, the CD may be going the way of the cassette or 8-track player in certain cars – namely those aimed at younger, “Gen Y” buyers, who use smart phones as music devices.

An Automotive News article on the topic seems to suggest that “Sonic and Spark customers” [read: the coveted "Gen Y" types that Chevy is desperately hoping to attract] apparently don’t have much love for physical media any more.

“We asked potential Sonic and Spark customers what they were looking for in infotainment,” said Sara LeBlanc, MyLink’s global infotainment program manager. “They were very worried about cost. They said to us: ‘Get rid of the CD player. We don’t use it.’”

It’s true that Gen Y is concerned about vehicle costs, and that smart phones and MP3 players are the dominant forms of music players, but I don’t think anyone, regardless of age, has ever thought about how much the cost of a CD player has added to the price of the car. True, I can’t remember the last time I bought a CD, but unlike in-car iPod systems, CDs tend to work every single time, unless the disc is heavily damaged.

These days, the number one question I get about a press car is usually “how do I plug in my iPod.” Horsepower, airbag count, sticker price, where it’s made, those are all secondary considerations for passengers. Anyone who has driven a new car in the past 18 months knows that these systems are imperfect at best.The Ford SYNC system is at the top of my shit list for failing to work as advertised in nearly every single press car. Just as consumers expect total reliability from their cars mechanical components, they expect the same from things like infotainment systems – a flaky iPod interface is a surefire way to piss off your customers, have them raise hell on social media platforms and lose spots in the all-important J.D. Power Initial Quality studies.

GM’s elimination of the CD player may have more to do with getting rid of “…optical drives — that is, CD or DVD players — because they are expensive and appeal mainly to older motorists.” Sales of CD-free infotainment units are expected to jump 36-fold over the next 6 years, but CD players will also likely stick around for a while due to Boomers and “older” generations favoring them. GM can also eliminate having to offer pricey options such as navigation systems, by shifting that responsibility to the user’s smartphone.

Chevrolet seems to have found a novel feature to keep costs down, by having the phone do most of the heavy lifting. But what if you’re among the 47 percent of Americans aged 18-24 without a smartphone? Are you completely shit out of luck for any hope of having a sound system, navigation or other similar features?

The increased proliferation of these sorts of systems  also raises big questions about the robustness of the current crop of cars. Will the infotainment systems still be supported by the various suppliers and vendors, or will they essentially “brick” the cars, or crippled a large part of their functionality? Not that the OEMs should care; after all, the warranty period will be up, and all that matters is getting buyers into cars right now and keeping them coming back when it’s time for another new car every few years. Given that the automakers business model is based on selling new vehicles, it’s not really a concern of theirs whether or not the system craps out and renders the car useless. Just buy a new Spark for $0 down, $199 a month for 60 months! The prospect of a whole field of useless cars, sitting dormant amid a tight supply of decent used cars seems like a far fetched prospect until you think about all the obsolete electronics cluttering the various nooks in your house. Tossing a Minidisc player in the trash is no big deal; an automobile isn’t quite the same thing.

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Hammer Time: What Should Have Been Fri, 13 Jan 2012 14:26:06 +0000


I remember looking at the then brand new Ford Five Hundred and thinking to myself, “This would make one heck of a Volvo.”

Like the Volvos of yore this Ford offered a squarish conservative appearance. A high seating position which Volvo’s ‘safety oriented’ customers would have appreciated. Toss in a cavernous interior that had all the potential for a near-luxury family car, or even a wagon, and this car looked more ‘Volvo’ than ‘Ford’ to me with each passing day.

Something had to be done…

Hmmm… why not subtract ‘twenty’ from the Five Hundred name. Call it a 480, and put in a nice classic Volvo styled fascia on the front end. Throw in an interior inspired by the best of Swedish design and, Voila! Ford would have offered a Volvo that would have hit the square peg of the brand’s main customers… and maybe even a few others who were considering an upscale Camry or a Lexus ES.

Sadly Ford never made a Volvo version of the Five Hundred, or the Flex for that matter. Instead they mis-balanced the diverging priorities of competing simultaneously with BMW (S40′s, C30′s, S60′s) and conservative middle-aged Americans who valued luxury transport over driving dynamics (Xc90, XC60, C70).  The brand became a disaster.

I am starting to see the same ingredients mixed into other brands these days. Take for instance Scion.

Yes this brand will get a nice pop and halo in the form of the upcoming FR-S. Then again, halo sports cars that are shared with other brands tend to be short-lived. Just ask Pontiac and Saturn about the Solstice and the Sky.

So what would be the perfect car to put into Scion’s kinship?

Two years ago I would have strongly argued for making the CT200h a Scion. It didn’t have the luxury trappings of a Lexus. However it offered tons of sporting character and attracted the type of youthful and educated audience that Scion sorely needed at that point.

You know. The type of people that quickly walked away from Scion after they started marketing bloated SUV-like compacts that should have been marketed as… Toyotas… or Volvos. Who knows.

Wait a second. YOU know!

A lot of potentially great cars over the years have been marketed to the wrong brands for the wrong reasons.  So I ask the B&B, “What cars were given the wrong brand, and where should they have gone?”.

Like most marketing classes in modern day MBA-land there are no right answers. Just SWAG’s and opinions. Feel free to demote a Cadillac to a Chevy if you must. So long as you can defend it, let’s hear it.

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TrueCar’s Troubles Could Change The Way We Shop For Cars: Back To The Past Mon, 02 Jan 2012 18:30:21 +0000

First it was Honda that had issues with TrueCar. Now, it is regulators in several states, along with dealer associations that claim that TrueCar’s business model is at odds with “long-standing state laws designed to protect the interests of car dealers and shoppers,” as Automotive News [sub] reports. Says AN:

“Regulators in Colorado, Wisconsin and Virginia have issued bulletins to dealers or sent letters to TrueCar concluding that legal problems exist with TrueCar’s business model of charging dealers for leads that turn into a sale. And dealer associations in three more states — California, Kansas and Ohio — say members who use TrueCar may be violating state law.”

This looks like an opening volley of an all-out war. TrueCar said that it has been contacted by regulators in six states: Colorado, Louisiana, Nebraska, Kansas, Virginia and Wisconsin.

What seems to be at issue here is that TrueCar dealers collide with state laws governing advertising and so-called bird-dogging, or paying a third party a fee that is contingent on a sale, as state regulators and associations claim. Dealers could have to pay hefty penalties, and TrueCar’s business model would be destroyed.

The troubles couldn’t have come at a more inopportune time. Or maybe, they have been timed to inflict maximum pain. In September, TrueCar raised more than $200 million  from investors. On January 1, TrueCar was scheduled to become’s partner for auto shopping. TrueCar agreed to pay Yahoo $150 million over three years.

When Ed wrote about Honda vs. TrueCar, he opined that the “conflict could have profound impacts on the ever-changing face of the new car market.” It sure can.

The Internet changed the way we shop for cars, and the bird dogging fees pay for it. Buying services other than TrueCar can and will be next if this matter gains traction. Countless blogs that feed buying services with customers (TTAC does not) could find themselves out of money. Writers who whip up quickie “car reviews” could be looking for new work. Customers who seek price transparency may have to look harder.

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Ten Simple Things The Industry Could Do For Me This Christmas Sat, 24 Dec 2011 20:08:26 +0000

All told, this has been a successful holiday season for your humble editor. I have showered myself with gifts, avoided annoying family entanglements, kept my pimp hand weak strong, and made sure there’s a three-hour gap in my Christmas to re-watch Michael Mann’s Heat in its glorious entirety.

And yet… I’m dissatisfied. Perhaps because there are ten simple things the automotive industry and/or its various players could do to make this the best season ever, and as of yet, none of them have been done. So here’s my list, delivered nice and late. Warning: mixture of hatred, sarcasm, and foolish sincerity ahead.

#10: Get the Chinese crap out of iconic American automobiles. There’s no simpler way to say it. Ford, please fit a decent, American-made transmission to all the Mustangs. If you need to, just toss in the GT500 transmission, charge everyone a fair amount for the difference, and rest secure in the knowledge that the right thing has been done. GM, you don’t get a pass on this either. Every Corvette sold in this country should have American-made wheels. It’s that simple. I don’t want to do 195mph on wheels made by suppliers who can just close their doors and reopen the next day under a different name. We won’t even talk about the electronics. Just fix the running parts, okay?

#9: Mercedes-Benz should formally apologize for the W220 and W210. Every customer who purchased a new S-Class or E-Class from those infamously troubled generations should receive a letter in the mail, hand-signed by Dr. Panzer Kampf-Wagen or whoever is running the show nowadays, apologizing for selling them an utter piece of junk. Hundreds of thousands of customers were basically swindled. They thought they were buying a Mercedes-Benz, not a cost-cut half-plastic embarrassment. Make it right. And throw them a little incentive towards the price of a new (and presumably better) Benz, just to make up for the abysmal resale on, say, the 2001 S430.

#8: Kill the Caliber. Okay, I guess that one’s been done.

#7: Buy all the Calibers back. Well, a guy can dream.

#6: Extend the warranty on the Cadillac Northstar. All of them. As dismal as the Mercedes-Benz S430 was, at least the basic mechanical parts were generally sound. Not so the Caddy four-valver. It’s great to drive and the name is also really cool, but they have become infamous for reliability issues. Now would be a good time for GM to show that they are serious about making Cadillac a world-class brand. They could do this by extending the warranty to match that of existing world-class brands like Hyundai, Kia, and Mitsubishi. If you really want to impress people, and if you really want to do something about Cadillac residuals, extend the warranty backwards in time. There’s precedent. Honda did it on the exploding-tranny Acuras. Surely Cadillac can match Acura.

#5: Go ahead and release the real 2012 Honda lineup. Oh, you’ve certainly had your fun with us, you crazy Japan-people, you. We Got Punked! I’m laughing. I really am. So now you can pull the wraps off the Civic, Acura TL/TSX, and CR-Z that you really want people to buy. I can hardly wait. DO EEET NOW. Obviously anybody who accidentally bought the current cars will get to trade, right?

#4: Let’s get Car and Driver and Road & Track off the newsstands. And AutoWeek while you’re at it. Seriously. Those of us who remember these magazines in their prime (not that AutoWeek ever had a prime, but you get the idea) are just depressed by reading them now — and the younger drivers don’t care. Close their doors and give existing subscribers, none of whom paid more than $6.95 a year anyway, their choice of Grassroots Motorsports or Shaved Asians to finish out their terms. Reading these once-great magazines now produces the same uncomfortable feeling I had when I heard that Jaco Pastorius had died in a gutter. Let’s make the dignified choice.

#3: End trim discrimination for manual transmissions. We live in an era where just-in-time manufacturing and supply have revolutionized the way cars are built. There is no reason whatsoever why the Hyundai Elantra Limited can’t be had with a manual transmission. Same goes for any other number of cars on the market. I’m not asking anybody to take the completely wacky step of fitting optional manuals on cars which don’t have them available now. I’m not living in dreamland. I understand that it’s critical for every Nissan Maxima sold to be crippled with that ridiculous Completely Vapid Transmission, and I can see how it’s simply too much hassle to offer a stick-shift in US-market Mercedes-Benz sedans, what with the extra $10 million it would cost to test the powertrain combination. That kind of cash pays for a lot of hidden goodwill programs on the W210 (see #9, above). I’m just saying: if you offer a manual transmission in one trim level, offer it in all of them. TSX Wagon, I’m looking directly at you. It can be special order only. That’s okay. I will wait.

#2: Porsche. Try finding it in your God-damned hearts to engineer, build, and sell a sporting 2+2 made to last a lifetime under a combination of four-season street and casual racetrack usage. Take all the money you waste on lifestyle marketing, accessories catalogs, special promotions, unique tie-ins, PR, free trans-Atlantic business-class flights for sycophants, hybrid drivetrains for five-thousand-pound crapwagons, special advertising sections, long-term loaners, Peter Cheney’s garage door, full-color glossy posters featuring frog-faced, thyroid-deficient trucksedans, whatever special tools are required to make sure the Cayman’s engine pushes less air than the 911′s, and any other unbelievably stupid thing you’re currently doing — and put all of it into creating a decent car. Just do that. Just put aside the thirty years of self-aggrandizing detritus you’ve built up around a once-legendary brand. Just build a car that will run 200,000 miles with careful maintenance the way (some of) the air-cooled cars did. I want to buy a Porsche. But I’m not a big enough fool to give you $85,000 for something that will have major, unresolved defects and a 35% residual five years after I take delivery.

#1: I’d like my colleagues to look in the mirror. If you’re writing in this business, today would be a good day to take stock of who you are, what you’re written, and the things for which you personally stand. Today would be a good day to remember that, although your super-best-friends in the PR business may pay for your daily driver, send your family on vacations, and pick up the tab for your drinks, your genuine and true responsibility is to the people who read your articles. My son is two and a half years old. The day will come when I am dead and he will only have what I’ve written to guide him as to who I was. He will see that I was flawed, intemperate, promiscuous, and occasionally naive to a fault — but he will also see that I believed in my readers and was passionate about creating content in which they could believe. Will your son be able to say the same? Or will he say, “My father (or mother) was a pawn of people who bought and sold him for the price of a monthly car payment”? Here’s a litmus test. If you had more interactions with PR people, fleet managers, and industry buddies than you did with your own readers last month, you’re part of the problem. Fix your wagon.

What are the chances I will get any of these gifts? Let’s be honest. It’s between slim and none. I have received one thing for which I am grateful, however: all of you at TTAC. Time and time again you have demonstrated that, collectively, you are the greatest group of partners any writer in the automotive world could wish to have. Merry Christmas to me, indeed.

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After One Year On The Market, Honda “Upgrading” 2013 Civic Tue, 20 Dec 2011 20:35:06 +0000

It’s been a fascinating year for the compact car, as all six of the segment’s leading competitors brought out new or updated models over the last 18 months. But as our Chart Of The Day shows, the competition has hardly sent the segment into overdrive, as after an early-year boom, compact car sales have slackened considerably. Intriguingly though, Honda and Toyota, which lost sales early this year due to supply interruptions in the wake of the Japanese Tsunami, seem to be the only brands with recovering compact sales. What’s especially interesting about this is the fact that Toyota’s modest refresh and Honda’s poorly-received new Civic were once widely considered by automotive pundits to be under threat from the resurgent competition. Indeed, Honda’s Civic has been especially hard-hit by media criticism, earning a harsh review from TTAC’s Michael Karesh, losing its coveted “recommended” rating from Consumer Reports, and engaging in some ugly media-bashing. But now that the Civic seems to be one of the only compacts to enjoy a late-year sales rebound, Honda’s announcing that it will be upgrading the Civic for the 2013 model-year, just one year after the new model was introduced.

Tetsuo Iwamura, Honda’s top North American executive tells Bloomberg that

Civic is a good product; of course the expectation of the marketplace for Honda product is quite high. We have to once again make it great. The gap between Civic and the competitors has been narrowed. We have to once again make the gap wider.

Honda has not yet announced any specifics about its planned 2013 upgrades to Civic, preferring instead to let Sales VP John Mendel hammer home the relative nature of Civic’s fall from grace. Mendel tells Bloomberg

We disagree with [Consumer Reports]. Did they make some points? Yes they did. We haven’t gotten worse, everybody else has gotten better. Where we used to be four or five laps ahead in the race, there’s more people on the same lap with us.

Moreover, Honda’s execs argue that inventory levels, not product weaknesses are the cause of relatively low Civic sales, as Bloomberg reports

The company has about 117,000 models in inventory, or a 41-day supply, less than half what it should have, Iwamura said.

“Hopefully, by the end of March next year” Honda will have full inventory, Iwamura said. “If John could sell more, then it will be the end of April or May.”

Honda has set a target to increase U.S. sales of its namesake brand to 1.25 million models next year, from about 1 million this year, Iwamura said. It plans to boost sales of its Acura luxury line by 43 percent to 180,000 from about 126,000 this year, he said.

“It looks like quite a high jump, but because of the availability problem we had a really low year this year,” Iwamura said. “That is the reason why growth looks huge, but for us, it’s a natural growth.”

Of course, there are a few problems with this line of reasoning. First, and most obviously, why is Civic receiving an “upgrade” after one year on the market if there’s nothing wrong with it? Second, since when is an 80+ day inventory ideal? Wasn’t this industry supposed to be moving away from the stack-em-high-and-sell-em-cheap ethos? Inventory levels may be a convenient scapegoat for weaker-than-hoped-for sales numbers, but financial results in this industry are closely tied to keeping those inventories from running out of control. And considering Civic is one of the only compact cars showing signs of recovery in recent months, it seems that both the upgrade and the professed need for a skyrocketing inventory may not be as necessary as Honda now seems to think. In any case, we’ll see how Honda’s upgrades affect the quality of the Civic, and we’ll be watching this segment closely to see how this brutal competition pans out…

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TTAC In The WSJ: A Review Of “Once Upon A Car” Sat, 26 Nov 2011 18:20:21 +0000

Having read most of the latest raft of auto industry books, with titles like “Car Crash,” “Overhaul,” and “Sixty To Zero,” I have to say, Bill Vlasic’s “Once Upon A Car” is my favorite of the bunch. Not only does it lack the parochial form and voice that define too many of theses tomes, it populates its narrative with rich dialogue and intriguing character studies. In short, it’s got all of the lessons about industry, culture, and competition that you’d expect from a modern study of the auto industry, but it presents them in such a way that they never feel like a lecture or a business school study. Instead you get a well-spun yarn, still-newsworthy anecdotes and an unvarnished look at industry dynamics on their highest level. If ever there were to be a modern movie based on the auto industry, Vlasic’s book should be its basis. Read my full review over at The Wall Street Journal.

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CR: VW Press Cars Don’t Match What’s On The Dealership Floor Wed, 23 Nov 2011 19:54:02 +0000

TTAC has long held that reviews of press cars made available by manufacturers at launches and press fleets must be complimented by reviews of vehicles acquired from dealer lots. It’s been a controversial position at times, and I’ve had to do battle with OEMs as recently as a few months ago to explain why dealer car impressions matter. Today, Consumer Reports is proving the point by revealing

When VW dropped off an early media car this summer, I remember looking at the trunk and saying to myself “well, at least both of the cheap hinges are dressed up with plastic covers, unlike the Jetta, which just has plastic on the side with the wiring.” As you can see in these two photos from Car & Driver and Edmunds it appears that the Passats in VW’s press fleet have covers on the hinges.

But not that Passat you just bought. No, your new Passat isn’t as nicely finished as the press version.

Like all the vehicles we put through testing, Consumer Reports buys retail samples at a car dealership. I personally purchased the Passat TDI we’re testing. (We also bought a 2.5 SE and a 3.6 SEL Premium.) As you can see in our images, none of the Passats have the two plastic covers found on the press cars. Consumers apparently only get a cover for the wiring loom hinge; the other one goes bare.

Interestingly, we had a somewhat similar issue with VW when a Passat press car proved to be equipped in a spec that is not actually available at dealerships (V6 with 17-inch wheels). When we noticed the discrepancy (and by we, I mean Michael Karesh, of course), we asked VW how we had received a non-representative model, to which they replied that press fleet vehicles were “early builds” from the new Nashville plant, and therefore not necessarily in market-ready spec. Which is a reason, but not an excuse: the media can only serve consumers well if we’re given representative cars to review. So, while these discrepancies are all relatively minor, details matter when you’re spending upwards of $20k on something. Hopefully VW and the rest of the industry will learn from this experience and make greater efforts to equip their media cars exactly to dealer spec. One also hopes that Motor Trend has driven at least one Passat that’s not from a press fleet

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Motor Trend’s Car Of The Year: As Relevant As You’d Expect Wed, 16 Nov 2011 23:56:21 +0000

Click here to view the embedded video.

Motor Trend’s Car of the Year award has been a lightning rod of criticism among automotive gadflies ever since… well, you decide. Corvair? Vega? Mustang II?  Every year, MT picks one “best” car from a market that serves a wide variety of needs, and every year, the autoblogosphere rushes to help the tottering “contest” collapse under the weight of its own pretense. This year, with Motor Trend picking Volkswagen’s new de-Euro’d Passat (a car that has received a decidedly mixed critical reception) for its highest honor, is it any wonder that the peanut gallery is frothing over the choice?

Jalopnik, the gaddiest of automotive gadflies, swung for the moon with their headline of “Golden Shower” superimposed atop a picture of Editor-In-Chief Angus Mackenzie. Mike Spinelli’s satirical rant, praising Motor Trend for giving the award to a car that has been watered-down and decontented for the American market, would be funny if there weren’t legions of people who earnestly believed the Passat could qualify as some kind of enthusiast vehicle beyond the mere fact that it was a Volkswagen, and therefore obscure to most consumers.

The previous Passats were great cars. I lobbied hard for my folks to buy a B6 Wagon in high school but they ended up going with a Hyundai Santa Fe. The inside of a Passat was, to quote a popular movie at the time “lined with rich mahogany and filled with leather [bound books]…” and the 2.0T engine provided a nice kick. The dealer even had a parts counter guy who offered to re-flash the ECU for another 40 horsepower and 90 lb-ft, but alas, it wasn’t to be. Otherwise, the Passats were just “meh” to drive. More fun than a CamCord to be certain, but eating diabetic candy is more fun than eating celery sticks.

But a rant like Jalopnik’s, as funny as it is, is just as disingenuous as Motor Trend’s award – it’s not really about the quality of the car or of Motor Trend’s journalism, but a sly bit of branding and status whoring, intending to position Jalopnik as a site of integrity, by the enthusiasts, for enthusiasts. We’ve seen this before with the Jeff Glucker hit-piece, in spite of the rampant XBOX whoring and other questionable tactics like misleading headlines that lead to single sentence posts. Motor Trend may have made a bad call, but trotting out the typical “enthusiasts are being ignored” canard is the wrong move when our target for attack has given the COTY award to illustrious candidates like the 2002 Ford Thunderbird and the 2001 Chrysler PT Cruiser. Spinelli asks rhetorically “Why would Motor Trend cater to the whims of “enthusiasts” over the marketplace?” Because, as we’ve established long ago, enthusiasts complain endlessly and buy seldom. Meanwhile, the new Jetta is setting sales records, despite it apparently being the enthusiast Antichrist on four wheels [Ed: to the point where Forbes calls it a "flop," despite its 27% bump in sales]

On to the next bête noire – Motor Trend brags about this year’s field of cars being one of the largest and most competitive, at 35. Looking at the field, I can see about, oh, 33 more worthy candidates (aside from the Fisker Karma, which is vaporware and looks like a kosher sausage that stayed in the frying pan too long). Why not the Ford Focus or the Chevrolet Sonic, two small cars that prove that American cars can beat the imports at their own game [Ed: Might this not have been the best year in history for MT to give a GM small car the honor, after so many embarrassments?]? Why not the Audi A7, which should win for no other reason than being heartbreakingly beautiful? Why not the Nissan LEAF for being a mass market EV that actually works?

If you ask me, the reason is because Motor Trend is out of touch with everything and everyone else outside of Planet Motor Trend, and has officially become irrelevant. They slam the Ford Explorer, but again, it seems to do just fine in the sales race. Their endless advertorial love affair with the CTS-V wagon “long term tester” is almost a parody of auto journalisms excesses. And don’t forget MacKenzie’s own piece for Subaru’s magazine (and MT) which detailed his all-expenses paid jaunt to the Australian Outback in – A Subaru Outback! More than anything else, this seems like MT is betting that the new Passat will sell well, rather than rewarding a manufacturer for a truly significant achievement. And who precisely learns what from that?

Ed described the new Passat to me as “A German Impala” and that’s a pretty apt, if uncharitable description. It’s a lot better than the “enthusiast” vanguard would have you believe, but there’s still something not quite right. It’s a little watered down, a little soft around the edges – just right for everyone else who isn’t totally immersed in the world of automotive trivia. And they’ve never bought a car based on an annual award anyways.

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Reality Distortion, Financial Times Edition: Chinese Car Sales Up 75.8 % Tue, 15 Nov 2011 12:59:40 +0000

Are you unhappy with the fact that Chinese car sales were down 1.07 percent in October? No problem! All you have to do is to subscribe to the on-line version of the Financial Times. For the price of your subscription, you would be assured that “China’s passenger car sales in October surged 75.8 per cent from a year earlier.”  Don’t believe it?  The Financial Times will tell you it’s true. (If the link breaks, they woke up.)

By mistake, the Financial Times today republished an article that ran in Reuters in November 2009. It’s good that the FT is behind a paywall. Otherwise, the story would already be all over the Internet.

To subscribe to the feel good pink sheet costs you $7 a week. The Truth About Cars will remain free.

(No, wise guys. It’s not an old story that was found in the archives. Want proof?)


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Quote Of The Day: Score One For The Car Mags Edition Fri, 11 Nov 2011 23:37:24 +0000

The New York Times has a story that’s fascinating in its own right: the number of people leasing a car on without first test-driving the car has doubled since 2007.  Troubling stuff for most auto enthusiasts among us, but probably not much of a surprise to readers on the retail side of the business. One auto broker explains the most common reasons for taking this leap of faith:

Generally these are people who know what they want, whether it’s because they’re very brand-loyal or they’ve fallen in love with the styling of a particular model. Same goes for buyers who are strictly interested in getting the best deal, and those with limited choices like a big family that needs a nine-passenger vehicle with 4-wheel drive.

But, as one “enthusiast” explains, some consumers are just so well informed, they don’t need to drive their car before they buy it. That’s what they subscribe to magazines for!

Here’s how Charles Van Stone,  “retired human resources executive and well-read car enthusiast,” sees it:

I never test-drive a car, but I do subscribe to five different car magazines. So by the time I’ve read all these different opinions and finally sit behind the wheel, I have every reason to believe it’s going to be exactly what I wanted… Whether it’s because of my emotional connection to the car or all the reading I’ve done, I have never been disappointed. I’ve never bought a car and thought “Uh-oh, this was a mistake.”

Given that Mr Van Stone most recently ended up in a Camaro SS, it’s safe to say that how it drives per se wasn’t his overriding concern anyway. Which is a good thing, because if a “well-read car enthusiast” asked me, I’d have told him to drive the more playful V6 before committing to the SS. But then, my idea of what an “enthusiast” might be interested isn’t the only one… and ultimately, if the guy is happy, he’s happy. That’s all that matters, especially with a car like the Camaro.

But the strangest thing about Mr Van Stone’s representation of the test-drive-free lifestyle is his reliance on the automotive media. Though I wasn’t in the least bit surprised to see analysts reference the rise of online research as one possible explanation for the test-drive downturn, I was not expecting the Times to quote someone letting his buff book subscriptions “take the wheel” in an auto buying decision. On the one hand, it’s a rare show of relevance for the mainstream automotive media. On the other hand, their champion is a guy who bought his car without even driving it. If such is the modern automotive enthusiasm, I wouldn’t rush to overstate the vitality or relevance of the media outlets that nurtured it.

At the end of the day, no form of media can replace a test drive. No Youtube video, no spec sheet, no eloquent review is a substitute for actually driving the car you are considering committing to. At least, it can’t if you actually care about the details of a driving experience. And you should: understanding the nuances of car control can make you a more efficient, courteous, and above all, a safer driver. Conversely, the fact that more people are buying cars without having ever driven them does not speak well of our collective relationship with these powerful, dangerous, expensive machines. And though the car industry needs people to be passionate about the act of driving in order to thrive (and not merely survive), its collective answer to this trend thus far has been to introduce more distracting gizmos. Apparently it really isn’t important to drive cars anymore… as long as we keep buying them.

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Quote Of The Day: “Negative Reviews Are Good For Business” Edition Thu, 03 Nov 2011 16:58:49 +0000

Like most corporate trends, the rush to social media is often little more than an opportunity for new consultants to sell common sense packaged in the buzzwords du jour. And though it’s easy to just laugh off the process as just another fad, it’s important to remember that common sense is in relatively short supply these days… if the only way to get it across is to punctuate it with words like “engagement” and “voice share,” so be it. And because social media is forcing companies to come to grips with every possible kind of feedback, the trend is actually helping validate the hard-hitting editorial approach that TTAC has long embraced. At Motor Trader’s social media conference, Richard Anson, CEO of the consumer review site Reevoo, explains the simple truth:

Social content will help drive sales so trust and transparency are vital; we all trust our peers more than any vendor or brand. Negative reviews are good for business. Retailing is all about transparency so perfection is not credible. Customers expect and want negative reviews and they give dealers a great opportunity to engage.

Hear, hear!

This is a lesson that the auto industry often struggles with, especially with in-house social media efforts like The Ford Story (now But even within the larger automotive media scene, there’s a lack of appreciation for the constructive powers of negative reviews. Due to a long and pointless tradition in the automotive media of trying to objectively evaluate all vehicles on a single rating or “star system,” there’s a sense that negativity in a review implies that a car is not worth considering. In reality, if someone is going to own and live with a car, aren’t they going to be as interested in its flaws as its charms? Consumers aren’t stupid, and if they feel like they’re getting a whitewash from any one review outlet, they’ll look elsewhere. And thanks to the internet and “social media,” they’ve got lots of options.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, sod off. I’m absolutely stuffed.

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

Oh all right, just the one then.


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Nikkei Sees “Sharp Slowdown” In Global Car Production. They Need Glasses Mon, 31 Oct 2011 15:18:50 +0000  

Last year, world car production had jumped 26 percent to 77.8 million units, as it recovered from  a carmageddon-induced slump. This year, global car output will see a “sharp slowdown,” if  The Nikkei [sub] is to be believed. The Tokyo business paper cites IHS and J.D.Power, both expect only 4 percent growth. The Nikkei however should do some chart studies before writing.

As the graph above shows, that growth rate is not a sharp slowdown, is simply is a return to normalcy. Last year’s 26 percent jump was the counter-reaction to a 12.4 percent slump in 2009. From 1998 to 2007, the global car market expanded at an average rate of 3 percent per year – in a more or less linear fashion.  Pre-carmageddon, the rolling 3 year average was a little above 4 percent annual growth. The worldwide market is simply getting back into its old pace.

The cars lost during carmageddon however appear to be lost for good.

What I am seeing is a sharp slowdown in my trust in major wire services.

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Honda Hustling Out Civic Refresh Mon, 31 Oct 2011 14:52:56 +0000

After decades of offering some of the best C-segment products available, Honda made the mistake of phoning in its latest generation of Civic just as the entire competition stepped up its game. Compared to the previous generation of Cobalts, Corollas, Elantras and Focii, the current Civic might be a fine car… but compared to the new crop of compacts, its barely competitive. In his TTAC review, Michael Karesh called the new Civic “a low point” and “dreadfully dull,” while Consumer Reports struck the body blow by failing to recommend the Civic for the first time in memory. And though Honda’s initial reaction showed signs of a potentially fatal bunker mentality, lashing out at CR and pointing to a second place Motor Trend showing (because that’s proof of an absence of mediocrity), it seems the company is coming around.



Automotive News [sub] reports that a mid-cycle refresh planned for Spring of 2014 has been pulled forward to 2013, as Honda’s John Mendel says

We take feedback seriously, regardless of who it’s from, and we will act accordingly quickly. I don’t know how much we can do, and how quickly. But the comments of Consumer Reports and our customers have not gone unnoticed. We are appropriately energized.

If the late-2013 refresh date is right, Honda should have a few months before Hyundai’s new Elantra (which is on a four-year development cycle) hits the market, and the Civic refresh should coincide with the Cruze’s mid-cycle update as well. Behind the eight-ball in this segment for the first time ever, Honda is going to have to dig deep and work wonders to return the Civic to its previous greatness.

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What’s Wrong With This Competition?: Canadian Car Of The Year Edition Sun, 30 Oct 2011 17:08:53 +0000

It’s safe to say that most of the seemingly infinite number of “car of the year” competitions are so utterly bunk that they’re not even worth the effort of exposing. But the reality is that you still see advertisements for cars proudly proclaiming them the favored choice of some local, national, or media outlet’s car of the year competition. So, to show just how non-representative and unscientific these awards can be, we thought we’d share the categories from the Automotive Journalist Association of Canada (AJAC)’s “Test Fest,” which will determine the “Canadian Car Of The Year” as well as the favored cars in several categories. Our Canadian tipster writes:

They do all kinds of crap that skew the results.  For example, they use the cars “as tested” price to determine what category it falls under, rather than MSRP.  So what category the car falls under is completely at the whim of whatever car the manufacturer drops off and what category THEY want the car tested in.  You could have an Elantra fall into the “Over $21,000″ category or “Under $21,000″ category depending on content.  Same car, 2 different categories.  But it gets better.  Some of the categories I call “lump” categories because they just throw everything in one category.  My favorite is Sports Car Under $50K.  They actually have the Veloster competing against an Charger SRT8 and a C Class Merc.  No, I’m not making this us.  I’ve included the list for you, so that you may try and decipher WTF these boobs are doing.

Hit the jump to check out the categories for yourself. But first, it should be noted that despite previous questions about the AJAC award’s ethics, the competition now has a page on its website dedicated specifically to enumerating the ethical obligations of participating journalists and the award’s organizers. Unfortunately that page is limited to the following content:

Code of Ethics

AJAC Ethical Guidelines

Under review.


Small Car < $21K
Chevrolet Sonic Sedan
Fiat 500
Honda Civic Sedan
Hyundai Accent
Kia Rio S
Nissan Versa Sedan
Scion iQ

Small Car > $21K
Ford Focus
Hyundai Elantra
Subaru Impreza
Volkswagen Beetle

Family < $30K
Chevrolet Orlando
Chrysler 200
Kia Optima LX
Mazda 5
Toyota Camry
Volkswagen Passat TDI

Family > $30K
Chevrolet Volt
Dodge Charger
Hyundai Sonata Hybrid
Kia Optima Hybrid
MINI Countryman
Toyota Prius V

Luxury Car
Acura TL
Buick LaCrosse eAssist
Chrysler 300S
Infiniti M35h
Lexus CT200h
Mercedes C-Class C350 4MATIC

Sports/Performance < $50K
Buick Regal GS
Dodge Charger SRT8
Honda Civic SI Coupe
Hyundai Veloster
Kia Optima SX
Mercedes C-Class Coupe

Sports/Performance > $50K
BMW 1 Series M Coupe
Chevrolet Camaro Convertible
Chrysler 300 SRT8
Hyundai Genesis R-Spec
Mercedes CLS C-Class
Porsche Cayman R

Prestige > $75K
BMW  6 Series Cabriolet
Jaguar XKR-S
Mercedes S-Class S350 BlueTEC 4MATIC

SUV-CUV < $35K
Dodge Journey
Jeep Compass
Jeep Wrangler

SUV-CUV $35-$60K
Dodge Durango
Ford Explorer
Range Rover Evoque
Volkswagen Touraeg TDI

SUV-CUV > $60K
Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8
Mercedes M-Class

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