The Truth About Cars » Michael Karesh The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Thu, 24 Jul 2014 17:47:59 +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 » Michael Karesh Guest Post: Society Of Automotive Analysts Reliability Study Fri, 14 Mar 2014 21:42:01 +0000 Warranty claims paid

From time to time someone comes to me with a great idea: instead of surveying car owners to get TrueDelta’s reliability stats, why not use warranty claims data? The reason why not: manufacturers consider such data to be highly proprietary. So when I heard that the auto industry’s “first OEM warranty and recall study” was going to be presented at a Society of Automotive Analysts meeting, I was intrigued. Had someone gotten their hands on this data? What were they able to learn from it?

Warranty claims comparison

It turns out that Stout Risius Ross, the financial consulting firm that conducted the study, didn’t have access to any proprietary data. Instead, they used recall filings and the manufacturer-level data available in financial statements. Recall filings include the number of cars affected. Annual costs of warranty claims must be disclosed in financial reports. These data tend to be messy, as different companies include different things in these costs; there’s no precise universal standard. Also, multiple model years are often lumped together, and changes in both warranty claims and recalls lag changes in the number of cars sold. Keep these limitations in mind when viewing the “warranty claims as a percentage of revenue” comparison.

Recall trends

The presenters downplayed the relationship between recalls and quality, as the latter includes things gone right as well as things gone wrong. So what’s the point of studying all of this warranty and recall data? The usual point for a business audience: money. Warranty claims and recalls cost manufacturers billions of dollars each year. Finance needs to be able to predict these costs so they can set aside appropriately sized contingency funds.

Engine vs. non recalls

Of even greater interest to the people in the room: who pays. OEMs want suppliers to pick up half or more of the cost of warranty claims and recalls. So far suppliers have been picking up only a small fraction of these costs, but OEMs have been getting more aggressive. Suppliers are smaller, sometimes much smaller companies. A big recall could bankrupt them—if they had to pay for it, and they were not insured.

Claims percent revenue

To help them not pay for it, they can hire good lawyers. One was on the panel. To the many suppliers in the room he suggested “if you’re not at the table, you’re part of the meal.” To avoid getting stuck with the costs of recalls and warranty claims, suppliers must first push to be included in any discussions the OEMs have regarding who pays. Otherwise they’ll just receive an invoice.

Despite the availability of excellent legal assistance, a supplier might end up having to pay out millions for a recall or warranty claims anyway. To protect themselves, they can buy insurance. The price of this insurance will depend on calculations of risk. Currently, no one outside the OEMs has good data on the costs of recalls and warranty claims. To fill this need, we have this study.

Two trends of greater interest to car owners did come up in the presentation. The first is fairly well known: warranty costs have been declining as cars’ reliability (a narrower term than quality) improves. The second trend is much less well-known: since the mid-1990s the number of cars recalled each year has been surging. The presenters weren’t able to get too far into the reasons for this. The addition of airbags has been one driver. When cars didn’t have them, they couldn’t be recalled. In recent years airbags have been one of the most frequently recalled systems. Engine-related recalls have grown much less quickly than non-engine-related ones. Also, the NHTSA has gotten more aggressive. The lawyer on the panel offered protection from big government—it’s important to push back.

A third driver of the increasing number of cars recalled wasn’t part of the presentation. To increase economies of scale, OEMs have been striving to communize as many parts as possible across multiple products. As a result, when a critical part does fail, a much larger number of cars can be affected. The number of cars recalled has grown faster than the number of recalls.

This is just the initial phase of a planned annual study. Perhaps they’ll be able to get more detailed data in the future? Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem likely. The people in the room (OEMs, suppliers, business consultants) generally agreed that the companies should not have to disclose any more detail; model-level information should be proprietary, and the requirements suck up an excessive number of person-hours already.

Warranty claims paid Warranty claims comparison Recall trends Engine vs. non recalls Claims percent revenue ]]> 71
TrueDelta Updates Latest Reliability Stats Thu, 20 Feb 2014 17:03:34 +0000 Tesla brown front quarter
TrueDelta has updated its car reliability stats to cover all of 2013, making them about eight months ahead of other sources. A new set of statistics includes only powertrain and chassis repairs—the systems needed for a car to be drivable. Stats for electric vehicles, including the Tesla Model S, are especially noteworthy with this update.

The average 2013 model required 27 repair trips per 100 cars during 2013. When you consider that this statistic includes even minor repairs, such as those for rattles, the average car today is very reliable. The averages for 2008 and 2003 model year cars were 44 and 73, respectively. Even ten-year-old cars aren’t averaging one repair trip per year.

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Some car owners only consider repairs that render a car undrivable to be worthy of concern. With this update TrueDelta has released a second set of statistics that include only powertrain and chassis repairs. These are only about one-third of the total for 2013 models. Powertrain and chassis repairs are rare during the warranty period. But such repairs increase as cars age to become 64 percent of the total for 2008s and 75 percent of the total for 2003s.
With the Prius, Toyota has demonstrated that hybrids (and, by extension, electric cars) can be highly reliable. And at first the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf required few repairs. With the 2013s, though, both suffer from new common problems, the Volt with its charge port door and the Leaf with its battery charging system.
The Tesla Model S has scored very well on at least one prominent reliability survey. In TrueDelta’s latest stats, though, it has the worst score of any 2013 by a wide margin, 109 repair trips per 100 cars per year, about four times the average. The sample size was a few cars below the usual minimum, but this score is so high that even a sample size twice as large could not have yielded even a middling score. In Tesla’s defense, nearly all of the reported problems were minor–wind noise, rattles, a click in the steering–and owners report outstanding service quality. For these reasons it is not surprising that the car has scored much better on surveys that ask owners to only report “problems you considered serious.”
These problems with the Model S could only affect early cars, and even these only during the first year of ownership. With prompt, quarterly updates, TrueDelta’s Car Reliability Survey will track the Model S and other car models closely as they age. When a car company reacts quickly, the reliability of its products can improve dramatically in well under a year.
For the latest stats:

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Then And Now: A Short History Of The Altima Wed, 09 Jan 2013 18:36:35 +0000

Camry or Accord?

Back in the early 90′s, most non-enthusiasts with who admired certain small cars as long-term transportation modules would wind up at a Toyota or Honda dealer. Civic, Corolla, Camry, Accord. The majority of these blase buyers would price out their Toyonda car with nary a fleeting glance toward the Nissan side of the world.

Those early-90′s Sentras may have eventually yielded a bulletproof powertrain for the developing world and a wonderful SE-R model as well. But nobody cared back then.  The Stanza? Still stuck in the 80′s school of design  with a 90′s price tag.

Nissan was the least loved child of the Japanese Big 3 among those who least loved cars in general. But then the market slowly changed.

Click here to view the embedded video.

The 1993 Nissan Altima was not a paradigm shift by any stretch of the imagination. Then again it didn’t take much to leap far away from a Stanza. The 1st generation Altima would offer a humdrum 2.4 Liter that produced a respectable 150 horsepower. Upscale GLE models received the fake wood that glorified an otherwise average interior, and SE models would eventually offer a fake sporty bodydress that was all too typical of the time.

Click here to view the embedded video.

The look… was  not quite as sporty as the 1994 – 1997 Accord. Nor was it as conservative as the 1992-1996 Camry. It was in almost all respects a good solid car that had to compete with great solid cars.

Then a few strange things happened with the Japanese midsize car. It stopped being a compact.

Click here to view the embedded video.

The Honda Accord went from a sporty compact to a far larger Camry-esque midsized sedan with a luxury focus.

Click here to view the embedded video.

Toyota brought forth more room with the redesigned Camry. Along with cost containment (<– Click!) and an aggressive pricing strategy that would make it a dominant player for the next 15 years.

Click here to view the embedded video.

The Altima became the forgotten car. In 1998 Nissan launched a 2nd generation that looked almost exactly like the first generation. So much so that much of the public considered it to essentially be the same car as before.

The handling became a little better. The interior was a bit more cheap. The styling was conservative to a near Malibu level of anonymity. You could buy a new Altima and the exterior contours along with an identical level of interior space (108 compact cubic feet) would make the tidy package seem almost a body double with the older model unless you put them side to side.

Click here to view the embedded video.

The Japanese alternatives simply dialed in the same consumer takeout. Toyota quality and affordability with the Camry. Honda quality and affordability with the Accord. The Altima couldn’t quite hit either sweet spot nearly as well and the stunning lack of V6 power in the SE and GLE models made the Altima little more than an afterthought in the high end of the market. Sales were a mere 130,000 units in 2001 compared with 388,000 for the Camry and 414,000 for the Accord.

Something had to be sacrificed at Nissan… and it turned out to be the Maxima.

The 3rd generation Nissan Altima was almost an automotive Charles Atlas compared with the Poindexter of the prior year.  Nissan finally embraced the role of the athletic midsize model in a way that not even the Maxima could duplicate. In fact, the V6 equipped 2002 Nissan Altima would be even more powerful and spacious than the 2002 Nissan Maxima.

Click here to view the embedded video.

Horsepower rang up to 175 for the 4-cylinder and a then prodigious 240 for the V6. The rear seats had reasonable room for the first time, stickshift models finally had zing in ways the Camords could no longer duplicate, and Nissan finally saw fit to bequeath their American supersized Altima with a new platform dubbed FF-L .

It was that decade’s version of the Chrysler LH. Modern, spacious and athletic for an automaker that had struggled to put all three of these qualities into one platform. This platform would give rise to the highly successful Nissan Murano and enabled Nissan to finally embrace the multiple model platform that was essential for profits in the global marketplace. The Maxima and Quest would soldier on in their respective declining market segments with the same underpinnings ,while the Altima models would soldier forward to finally take on the Accord and Camry.

Click here to view the embedded video.

The 2002 Nissan Altima would break through the 200k barrier and put the model firmly in the midsized dimensions where it belonged . Ten years and one D platform later, the 2012 Altima would break through the 300k barrier and seriously challenge the Accord as the second best selling midsized sedan in the United States.

This stunning advancement would hide two unusual realities for the midsized segment.

The first is that the midsize sedan market is penetrating several segments that were once distinct and impervious . Today’s Camrys and Altimas suck an awful lot of customers out of the full-sized, dedicated hybrids, and even the family CUV and minivan markets.


The average midsized car is now a full-sized model with all the safety equipment, and nearly all the fuel economy that can be had in any of these four other markets. This is as much marketing driven as it is technology driven.

The 1993 Accord, Camry and Altima offered only 4 trim levels and fewer than three engines (2, 2, and 1 respectively). The 2013 models have anywhere from 6 to 7 trim levels with a dizzying level of potential alternatives. Plug-in, hybrid, coupe, sedan, CUV-like wagon, CVT, Auto, stick. Not to mention that everything from minivans to SUV’s will often use the same exact platform.

Variety in look, and commonality with platform, are now the new reality. Lee Iacocca and the auto industry’s K-Car forebearers would have been proud.

Click here to view the embedded video.

The second reality that tails in well with the greater economies of scale (and fewer suppliers)  is a strong increase in quality standards across the board for all major manufacturers. So much so that quality gaps have now become more a matter of interiors and infotainment technologies, rather than long-term durability.

Not too long ago it used to be that only two midsized models, Accord and Camry, could largely carry the mantle of quality with the general public. Now the subpar quality car is the irritable exception.

Click here to view the embedded video.

For now the Camry is still the king of popularity, particularly the LE models. But the four-cylinder Altima I had for about a thousand miles seemed to be about $3000 better than the Camry LE I had the week before. Even though the price difference was a mere few hundred dollars.

While the Camry LE still offers a variety of hard plastics in the middle of the dash, bare bone door panels, and exposed screw holes in the back of the steering wheel. The Altima S  provides a far stronger luxury bent. With a laced up leather steering wheel and a well padded  interior with a far better overall upscale  feel of quality.

Click here to view the embedded video.

From door handles that weren’t cost contained amorphous cheap plastics. To controls that were less octogenarian and more pleasing to the touch. The reviews by Alex Dykes and Michael Karesh highlight the fact that the Altima is now a more luxurious and fun vehicle to drive than the Camry. Other than making sure the CVT is serviced every 30k, which I encourage for all those here who still have little faith in lifetime fluids, the Altima is virtually without vice.

The six cylinder Altima 3.5 SV does offer a few unique on the road advantages over the four-cylinder model. At between 40 to 60 mph, the six cylinder can turn at between 1000 and 1500 rpm’s, helping the six-cylinder model earn the mantle of the better choice for road warriors that prefer a cruiser oriented driving experience. In a near perfect mix of 50/50 driving, the more upscale Altima also garnered a remarkable 29.5 mpg drive with a similar level of refinement as $50,000 luxury cruisers routinely offered only a decade ago.

Long and the short of it, I found the real world experience of the Altima to be almost as Lexus like as an ES350. Great highway capabilities. The perfect size for a family of four that needs space. A driving experience with sound luxurious isolation and power whenever you desire it.

The interior materials in the Altima are far less luxurious than any full-sized or entry level luxury model. But with a $7,000 to $9,000 price advantage, that’s not too much of a sacrifice. A lot of you may scoff at the thought. But I can see the new Altima heartily chipping away at both markets.

Who woulda thunk back in the day?

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Review: 2012 Volvo S60 T6 R-Design Tue, 13 Dec 2011 14:02:43 +0000 Although it might not be evident from my review of the T5, I really, really want to like the Volvo S60. Why? Because unlike the Audi and BMW with which it’s intended to compete, it’s not the obvious choice. We cognoscenti live to unearth hidden gems, great cars of which the general public is unaware. Volvo used to be on the general public’s car map, but fell off during Ford’s ownership. For driving enthusiasts, the 325-horsepower 2012 S60 T6 R-Design is the most promising Volvo in quite some time, perhaps forever. Its specs suggest it can go toe-to-toe with the Audi S4. And?

Even since the groudbreaking 1983 5000, Audi has been a leader in car design. But, let’s face it, they haven’t broken any new ground recently. The current S4 is attractive, but also safe. With the the latest S60, Volvo attempted to break out of its traditional box without losing all visual ties to its past. When fitted with its chunky standard equipment 17-inch wheels, the Volvo S60 overly resembles some cars that cost far less, among them the Oldsmobile Alero from over a decade ago and the 2006-2011 Civic. The R-Design treatment helps take the sedan upscale, with a subtle body kit and bi-color five-spoke 18-inch wheels. Some people will take exception with the Volvo’s distended snout, but overall it is a sporty, stylish sedan that looks like nothing else in the segment.

The interior will be familiar to anyone who has been inside a current Volvo. The style is minimalist modern, with more character than you’ll find inside the Audi (or the other German compacts). Materials are good but short of luxurious. My main problem with the cabin: the center stack buttons for the infotainment system are hard to find and to operate at first glance.

I first drove the new R-Design in Charleston, West Virginia, in the midst of a week with an Audi S4. Given the strong similarity between the two sedans’ specs, and roads far more challenging than you’ll find anywhere near Detroit, the time and place were ideal. The first thing I noticed after climbing out of the Audi and into the Volvo: the relief provided by the latter’s much cushier—yet still laterally and longitudinally supportive—sport bucket seats. Later, while sampling a second S60 R-Design around Detroit, I had to wonder if the Volvo’s seats were overly squishy. But better too much cushion than too little, as in the Audi.

In my head the S60 is a larger car than an S4 or 335i. But in reality it’s in the same size class, and this is more evident with the swoopier shape of the current car. While the Volvo’s front seat feels roomier than that in the Audi, its rear seat, mounted low and just roomy enough for a pair of average adults, is very much that of a compact sedan. At 12 cubic feet, the Volvo’s trunk is no larger than the Audi’s marginal bin. But the Swedish sedan does have much more room in its center console and glove compartment. Neither is a useful size in the Audi.

The real story with the S60 T6 R-Design is its engine, a turbocharged 3.0-liter transversely-mounted inline six tuned by Polestar to produce 325 horsepower at 6,500 rpm and 354 foot-pounds of torque at 3,000 rpm. The six is hard to fault, with no detectable lag, just a strong smooth rush of power, and a thrilling (yet never overbearing) soundtrack. It’s not quite as efficient as the latest direct-injected competitors, with EPA ratings of 18 city, 26 highway (the S4 manages 18/28 with a seven-speed automated dual-clutch manual). Around the burbs while babying the car the trip computer reported 23.5. Exercise the engine and the stat drops into the mid-teens (or even into the single digits if you give the twin scroll turbo no rest). Otherwise Volvo’s six is as good as any and better than most. Just one more cylinder than you get in the S60 T5, but so much better in just about every way.

Such an outstanding engine deserves a better partner than the manually-shiftable six-speed automatic. Though not a bad box, the Aisin has a tendency to lug the engine when left to its own devices and shifts could be smoother and quicker. To get the proper gear you often must intervene, and no paddles are provided for the task, only the shift lever. Currently this transmission is mandatory: no automated dual-clutch or conventional manual is offered. In the S5 you have a choice of either.

The R-Design’s engine is strong enough that aggressive throttle mapping isn’t needed to exaggerate its potency. But Volvo has fitted the car with the most aggressive throttle mapping I’ve experienced in recent memory. This does lend the car an overtly sporty character that’s too often lacking in current Lexusized cars, but smooth starts require conscious effort. Switch into the Volvo from another car, unthinkingly hit the gas to get the car moving and everyone’s heads will be snapped into the pillowy headrests.

The heft of the S60 T6 R-Design’s steering can be varied among three levels (but only if the car isn’t moving). The difference is most evident at low speeds, where “light” and “heavy” feel, well, light and heavy. “Medium” falls in between, but closer to “heavy.” I couldn’t decide which mode I liked best, as the car feels more agile with “light” but more planted with “heavy.” The amount of feedback isn’t much affected: there’s more than in past Volvo’s (including the previous R) but (of course) less sense of a direct connection with the front wheels than I’d prefer.

Now, unfortunately, we come to the S60 R-Design’s primary weakness: its chassis. Swedish engineers have done their best to mitigate the car’s inherently nose-heavy weight distribution, with a performance-oriented Haldex-based all-wheel-drive system (kicks in following the merest whiff of front wheelspin and torque steer) and brake-based torque vectoring. Push the car hard and it will adhere to your intended line. The tires make a difference: the West Virginia dealer car was fitted with ContiProContact all-seasons, while the press car wore ContiSportContact 3 summer tires. The latter felt sharper as their significantly higher limits were approached. And only as the car’s limits are approached does understeer overwhelm the electronic countermeasures.

The problem with this approach: especially when driving the car moderately hard you can feel the electronics selectively apply the brakes to force the chassis to hold a line it otherwise would not be capable of. Effective, but not nearly as transparent as some systems. The feel is artificial and forced rather than natural and fluid. You learn what the chassis is capable of, but you don’t feel it in your gut. Instead, your gut keeps telling you the chassis is going to do something else—like plow for the outside shoulder. This said, the S60 does feel better the harder it is driven.

The Audi S4, in contrast, feels balanced in addition to acting balanced, despite also having most of its weight over its front wheels. An optional active differential permits progressive yet never excessive oversteer upon your right foot’s command. The Volvo’s drivetrain is less flexible. And the Audi’s brakes are noticeably stronger than the Volvo’s. Add it all up, and the S4 can be driven along a mountain road with much more precision and confidence.

The Volvo rides more softly than the more firmly sprung and suspended Audi, but this advantage is compromised by its poorer control over body motions. The Volvo absorbs minor road imperfections better—it’s the superior Interstate cruiser—but provokes more head toss over larger bumps. Though certainly not nearly as crude, compared to the Audi the Volvo’s tuning recalls Detroit’s early attempts at “European sport suspensions.” Additional polish would be welcome.

The 2012 Volvo S60 T6 R-Design starts at $43,375. The car tested in West Virginia, with nav, outstanding 650-watt audio system, heated seats, keyless access and ignition, and blind spot monitors, listed for $48,125. Not cheap, but a similarly equipped Audi S4 checks in $7,700 higher even after a $450 adjustment for feature differences, based on TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool. So the Volvo might not handle as well as the Audi, but it also doesn’t cost nearly as much. On the other hand, a G37x costs about $4,000 less than the Volvo, but is not without its own shortcomings.

So the Volvo S60 T6 R-Design is fast and fun, but rough around the edges and simply trying too hard. Compared to the Audi S4, it’s more comfortable but less confidence inspiring. So it’s not an obvious choice over the obvious choice. Instead, it’s a viable choice for those who want a powerful premium compact sedan and who prioritize seat comfort—or who simply don’t want the same car their friends have. For the rest of us…another round or two of fine tuning could do wonders.

The first car tested was provided by Chris Myers of Smith Company Motor Cars in Charleston, WV. Chris can be reached at 304-746-1792. The second one was provided by Volvo with a tank of gas and insurance.

Michael Karesh operates, an online provider of car reliability and real-world fuel economy information.

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Review: 2012 Buick Regal GS Fri, 09 Dec 2011 10:01:49 +0000 Judging from the emails I receive, some of you badly want to love the new 2012 Regal GS. In my review of the Buick Regal 2.0T, I noted that its strengths are “subtle,” and therefore unlikely to inspire love at first sight. The GS adds more aggressive styling, 50 horsepower, Brembo front brakes, an upgraded suspension, and better-bolstered seats. Should you prepare to be smitten?

The exterior tweaks work for me. They lend the Regal a sportier face, without going over the top. The optional dubs—perhaps a bit over the top. Even the standard 19s look a bit too large for the car. Inside…well the interior is pretty much the same, just with larger bolsters on the seats. So the parts look and feel high in quality, and are subtly stylish. But why no tweaks to take the GS up a notch?

A little colored thread could go a long way towards relieving the cabin’s almost overwhelming darkness. While they’re at it, my brain would much more easily process a tach numbered in the thousands to the current one, which is numbered (late model VW style) in the hundreds. The revised front seats do provide more lateral support, but like those in the regular Regal aren’t especially luxurious or comfortable. The rear seat is more cramped than it ought to be given the car’s generous exterior dimensions. The average adult will it, but not very comfortably.

Quite a few people were disappointed upon learning that the Regal GS would be propelled by a 270-horsepower 2.0-liter turbocharged four driving only the front two wheels. In Europe you can buy the closely related Opel Insignia with a 325-horsepower turbocharged V6 and all-wheel-drive. But GM is likely correct that the over $40,000 price the OPC’s powertrain would require would be too high for too many potential North American buyers.

My personal fear: the hi-po 2.0T would sound and feel too much like the raucous earlier incarnation that powered the initially-hot-soon-afterwards-dead Pontiac Solstice GXP and Saturn SKY Redline. Perhaps good for rekindling memories of turbocharged 1980s Regals, but not fitting for a semi-premium brand. I needn’t have worried. If anything the new engine is too smooth and too quiet, revving all the way to its 6,350 rpm fuel cutoff with absolutely no drama and surprisingly little noise. You can cruise down a residential street with the tach needle at 5k and fail to attract a glance. At idle the exhaust is barely audible, above idle there’s just a refined whir. Evidence of the turbo is limited to a faint puff when getting on or off the throttle. There’s no sharp transition as boost builds.

The downside of this unexpected refinement: if I didn’t know better, I’d never have guessed there were anywhere near 270 horsepower under the hood. Could Oshawa have installed the wrong engine? On paper, GM’s latest 3.6-liter V6 isn’t as strong through the midrange, with twenty fewer pound-feet (275 vs. 295) at a much higher peak (4,900 vs. 2,500), but my butt dyno reports otherwise. While the car’s 3,710-pound curb weight doesn’t help, the larger problem is the engine’s flat torque curve and lack of aural feedback: the Regal GS is quicker than it feels. If you must choose, would you rather a car be quick or feel quick?

The shifter for the six-speed manual (the only transmission offered initially) glides smoothly and with a minimum of effort from gear to gear. Though I’d personally prefer more “snick” as each gear is engaged, this is a huge improvement over GM’s past manuals in front-drivers (that in the late, unlamented Pontiac G6 GTP was among the worst I’ve ever experienced).

Even with nearly 300 pound-feet of torque delivered entirely through the front wheels, there’s no evidence of torque steer. Credit GM’s HiPer strut front suspension, where the upper steering pivot moves from the strut mount to a ball joint located outboard of the strut. This yields a more vertical “kingpin” axis about which the wheel and tire revolve as the steering wheel is turned, a reduced offset between this axis and the tire’s contact patch, and a reduced scrub radius (the distance between where this axis hits the road and the tire’s contact patch).

Though this suspension design was first offered in the Buick LaCrosse CXS, the tauter, better damped suspension tuning of the Regal GS much better realizes its potential. Driven aggressively along a curvy road the car feels, if anything, too poised and planted. With the HiPer Struts’ superior geometry keeping the wheels nearly perpendicular to the road surface through much of their travel, the 255/35ZR20 Pirelli P-Zero tires provide a surprising amount of grip given the Regal’s front-heavy weight distribution. On any but the most challenging public roads you’ll remain far from the sticky rim protectors’ limits, and will detect hardly any understeer. Partly because the front tires slip so little in typical driving, and partly because of some side effects of the HiPer Strut suspension geometry, there’s not much in the way of steering feedback. The Regal’s helm is nevertheless reassuringly precise while the chassis exudes the calm competence most often found in the best German sedans. Drama? Not here. A Cadillac CTS Touring Edition or Volvo S60 R-Design (reviews in the near future) feels rambunctious in comparison. Much larger and heavier, as well. The Regal drives smaller and lighter than it actually is. You point, the Regal goes. Just pay attention to the speedometer—it’s likely going much faster than your senses perceive.

The Regal GS has adaptive shocks with three selectable modes as standard equipment. I didn’t notice much difference between the settings aside from a slightly jiggly ride in “GS” mode. But even in that mode the ride is far from harsh—the Regal is one of the best-riding cars I’ve tested in recent memory. Not remotely cushy or floaty, but maintaining an even keel and precise body control over all but the worst pavement. Some cars with premium labels will toss you about and jostle you considerably more.

Load up a Regal GS with all available options, as with the tested car, and the sticker climbs from $35,310 to $38,785 (including $495 for the “white diamond” paint). Too high for a not-quite-midsize Buick? Problem is, if you’re seeking a powerful manual transmission sedan, you don’t have many less expensive options. Make that a single less expensive option, by my quick count: a Subaru Legacy GT runs about $3,400 less. But adjusting for feature differences using TrueDelta’s Car Price Comparison tool cuts this in half—even though the Subaru has all-wheel-drive go for a $1,700 adjustment in its favor. The Buick is a much more solid car with a much higher level of content.

Every other sedan with well over 200 horsepower and a manual transmission costs significantly more. The least expensive roughly equivalent car, the Infiniti G37, lists for over $4,000 more. A 211-horsepower Audi A4 2.0T? About $6,600 more even after a $1,700 adjustment for its all-wheel-drive system (the two are otherwise closely matched in terms of features). Of course, if you want (or at least need) an automatic there are far more less expensive choices, including a couple from Korea.

The major fault with the Regal GS follows from its greatest strength. Some team within GM clearly put a tremendous amount of effort into refining the powertrain and chassis of this car. The end result is smooth and quiet to a fault. Want a car that you can drive quickly with a minimum increase in your pulse? The Regal GS will deliver. But if you’re looking for a car that will elevate your heart rate, you’ll likely be disappointed unless the roads you regularly drive twist and turn like an epileptic snake. Even in GS form the Regal remains a car of subtle strengths.

Tested car provided by Carol Moran-Charron of Art Moran Buick in Southfield, MI. Carol can be reached at 248-353-9000.

Michael Karesh operates, an online provider of car reliability and real-world fuel economy information.

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The BLEEPING Best BLEEP Quotes From Our BLEEPING Auto Execs (NSFW, May Trigger Obscenity Filter) Mon, 05 Dec 2011 20:33:10 +0000 In Once Upon a Car, Bill Vlasic artfully employs quotes gained through over 100 interviews to make readers feel like they’re “in the room.” Assuming that Vlasic has accurately reproduced the original dialogues, we learn how senior executives really talk… (Warning: Graphic language after the jump.)

Jim Farley

On seeing Ford’s historic Highland Park plant. (He hadn’t previously viscerally connected with the domestic industry’s decline:)

“What a fucking mess.”

After moving to Ford and hearing a proposal for an ad campaign:

“What should we say? We’re getting close to Toyota? People don’t believe that shit.”

After the bailouts:

“Fuck GM. I hate them and their company and what they stand for. And I hate the way they’re succeeding. Ford is back because people trust us.”

Steve Feinberg

On his timing with Chrysler:

“We really fucked that up.”

Mark Fields

“Every assignment the [Ford] company gave me was a shitty situation that had to be fixed.”

On returning to take charge of North America, to his executives:

“This has the potential to be a fucking train wreck.”

Bill Ford

After someone suggested he come to the office less often, to give Mulally more space:

“That shit will happen when my name is not on the building.”

Steve Harris

On the lack of a unified manufacturer strategy in Washington:

“This is a shitty game plan.”

Bob Lutz

In a high-level GM strategy session post-Katrina:

“Up until six fucking months ago, people were clamoring for more and more SUVs and we couldn’t even keep up with demand!”

To Rick Wagoner on a potential GM-Chrysler merger:

“Rick, we can pick up all their assets but not the fixed costs. Shit, the first-year synergies alone are like $7 billion.”

On GM’s overly complicated program for grading all of its executives:

“Holy shit…these PMPs are not worth the fucking paper they are written on.”

On GM’s meetings, that Wagoner thrived on:

“arcane, sequential, orderly bullshit.”

On the government task force:

“[They assumed] everything was fucked up. Then the big surprise was how good our manufacturing, design, and engineering really was.”

Sergio Marchionne

First words on meeting Chrysler exec Tom LaSorda:

“I know who the fuck you are. Sit down. Let’s eat.”

On Chrysler:

“You have to be brutally honest with yourself. There’s nothing worse than bullshitting yourself into oblivion.”

To the UAW, during negotiations:

“Do you think I’m fucking stupid? We need to come up with a competitive wage rate and structure here.”

Jim Press

After cattle used to introduce the new Ram pickup started humping each other:

“This is fucking unbelievable. Why in the hell did we do that?”

Jason Vines

On learning that Daimler might sell Chrysler:

“What the fuck?”

On learning that Nardelli wanted to cut his Detroit auto show budget:

“You know what? Go fuck yourself. I’m going to quit. You [Deborah Meyer, marketing exec] and these lackeys like you are what’s wrong with this industry.”

Rick Wagoner

To the press at GM’s Christmas party:

“What do you expect me to say? That I don’t give a shit about [the workers]? That I feel like shit about closing plants? We don’t do this stuff because we like it. You want me to feel bad about it? Well, I feel bad.”

Jerry York

To Kirk Kerkorian, on Ford:

“They are so fucking far ahead of [GM] it’s not funny.”

On GM’s ever-smaller projected savings from an alliance with Renault-Nissan,

“What the fuck is the real number?”

Dieter Zetsche

On Bill Ford:

“He kept telling me how shitty his management team was. I am thinking, why would I want to take the job with this shitty management team?”

During a Chrysler internal product review:

“How shitty this quality is! How can we do work like this?”

After the UAW refuses to make concessions:

“I do not fucking believe this! What do we have to do to get what GM and Ford got? Lose $10 billion?”

After selling Chrysler:

“Of course I feel like shit. But I knew it was the only decision I could make [because of the UAW’s refusal].”

Almost without exception—that exception being ever-upbeat boy scout / Ford CEO Alan Mulally (who actually hugs Bill Ford when they first meet)—executives apparently talk like sailors. Okay, even Mulally. After giving a speech:

“You couldn’t tell that I was scared shitless?”

So it appears that Ed’s proposed movie would get slapped with an R rating if it kept the dialogue real.

Why the lack of creativity? Do auto executives know no expletives other than “fuck,” “shit,” and their most common derivations? Perhaps it’s the lack of name-calling. There are no assholes, bitches, cocks, or dicks (or worse) in the book. The best that Jim Press can work up after his new boss fires him:

“Sergio is truly from hell.”

Perhaps auto executives have all learned to hate the game not the playas?

The larger question: do these words mean anything special anymore? Or in 2011 would it be more noteworthy (and indicative of bowdlerization by the author) if the book’s quotations did not frequently include such words? Does their inclusion do anything more than provide evidence that the quotations are authentic?


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Review: 2012 Chevrolet Sonic LT Sat, 24 Sep 2011 08:21:41 +0000

I’m not a big fan of changing a car model’s name in an attempt to evade a bad reputation. If the new car isn’t very good, then you’ll just have to change the name again with the next redesign. And if the car is excellent, it will seem even more so thanks to low expectations. In the case of the new B-segment Chevrolet, reviewers might proclaim, “We can’t believe this is an Aveo!” Instead we have, “What’s a Sonic?”

First, a disclaimer: The dealer-sourced Sonic you see here isn’t the one you’ll be reading about elsewhere. It’s not a top-shelf LTZ with a turbocharged 1.4-liter engine, six-speed manual transmission, and 17-inch low-profile tires. Instead, it’s a mid-level LT with the boost-free 1.8-liter base engine, a six-speed automatic, and 195/65R15 rubber optimized for something other than grip. It’s the one you’ll see most often on the road (especially if you’re near an airport). It’s probably not the Sonic you’d personally want.

When I first encountered the Sonic, at last January’s Detroit Auto Show, it might not have been love at first sight, but it was certainly like at first sight. In the displayed LTZ trim, the car had a sportier, more upscale appearance than nearly any other affordable B-segment car then offered on this side of the Atlantic. The nose stylishly arcs back from the oversized (yet not disproportionate) grille. Quad round headlights work surprisingly well within this shape. Though vaguely BMW, here the headlights are exposed (with no lens cover,) staggered, and both attractive and distinctive. Other Chevrolets would benefit from being likewise enlightened.

Unfortunately, any car’s exterior styling is optimized for a wheel of a certain size, and in the Sonic’s case, it’s the LTZ’s 17s. Fit 15s, as seen here, and the massiveness of the chunky front overhang and tall body sides becomes all too apparent. Especially in $195 worth of “inferno orange metallic.” [Note: For $295 you can add 16-inch wheels styled much like the 15s and fog lights to the LT.]

Ford, Mazda, and Hyundai all offer sleeker, more precisely tailored subcompact hatches. In comparison, this Sonic appears a brick on undersized wheels. Nice that said wheels are forged alloys even on the most affordable Sonic, but what’s the point when they’re two sizes too small? Unlike other B-segment cars, the sedan looks better than the hatch, its rear fenders better balance the fronts and it does without a vast expanse of black plastic to “hide” the rear door handle.

The Sonic’s Scionic interior suggests that the new GM might yet retain some of the old one’s wacky Pontiac DNA. We’ve got a round analog tach paired motorcycle-style with a rectangular digital speedometer (itself sandwiched between two rows of warning lights), a mix of round and rectangular air vents, and a pair of tall narrow storage areas flanking the center stack. (Everlasting glory to whomever comes up for the best use for the last. Perhaps hair product?) There’s a lot going on. Yet the look would work if not for the same emphatically hard plastic you’ll find in just about every car at this price point (a Cruze is much nicer inside). The combination elicits Aztek flashbacks. But there are certainly cheaper interiors, and at least the Sonic’s isn’t boring.

With the Sonic’s tall bodysides, GM offers a B-segment car that can bury you as well as a big Buick. Cranking up the supportive seat helps, but you’re still in a different time zone than the windshield. Good for perceived room, not so good for perceived maneuverability. Pre-teen children in back will enjoy a fine view of treetops and clouds. The rear seat cushion is mounted well off the floor, but can’t fully mitigate the stratospheric beltline.

Kudos to GM for making a telescoping steering wheel standard—most competitors don’t offer one. Unfortunately, the center stack doesn’t also telescope, leaving its intuitively arranged soft-touch knobs and buttons, close at hand in most competitors, beyond my reach.

At 5-9, I can barely fit in the second row, but this is about average for the segment. Cargo volume is similarly modest. Safety was clearly a priority: there are ten standard airbags, including front seat knee airbags and rear seat side airbags (the latter aren’t even offered in most cars, and tend to be a $300+ option even in pricey German machinery).

The chassis might be pretty good. It’s hard to say, because of the big car driving position, mute steering, and 195/65R15 Hankook Optima tires that noisily give up the fight before the suspension can enter into it. (The LTZ at least avoids the last, and deserves a follow-up test to see if the chassis retains its composure when actually challenged.) Point the car straight ahead and it rides more quietly and smoothly than most, but without the premium feel of a Ford Fiesta.

Why “Sonic?” The only thing traveling the length of the street at the speed of sound is the loud gargle of the 138-horsepower 1.8-liter four as it clatters its way past 3,000 rpm. As in every competitor you must go there to produce much resembling forward motion, but in this case your ears will hate you for it. Forget stealth. Everyone within earshot will think you’re flogging the car far harder than you actually are. GM worked hard to minimize interior noise, then stuffed this engine in the nose. Baffling.

Last, and least, we have the six-speed automatic transmission. For this conventional unit, GM must have benchmarked the Fiesta’s dual-clutch automated manual transmission for shift logic and smoothness. Bumps, lurches, hesitations, jumping two gears forward only to immediately jump one back—it’s all annoyingly here far too much of the time. Plus engine lugging. The transmission seems unaware that the 1.8 gets the shakes below 1,750 rpm, and takes it there as often as possible. You can manually shift the transmission using a toggle on the knob to avoid some of the misbehavior, but this is a purely practical endeavor. There’s no joy to be had working the mere 1,250 or so rpm between the Scylla of mechanical racket and the Charbydis of engine shakes.

Small car, torque-free four-cylinder, six-speed engine-lugging transmission: it seems a recipe to stellar EPA numbers, doesn’t it? And yet with 25 city / 35 highway the tested car barely manages to tie the much larger, much heavier, considerably more powerful 2012 Toyota Camry.

The solution for all of these powertrain woes? Spend the $700 to get the turbocharged 1.4. It’s no more powerful up top, but has a plumper midrange and, though hardly a paragon of refinement, with its own shakes at idle, is much easier on the ears than the 1.8. Also a six-speed manual and better EPA numbers: 29/40. But it won’t initially be offered with an automatic.

The parts might still require some finessing, but with so much standard (alloy wheels, ten airbags, automatic headlights, four-way steering column adjustment, etc.) there are plenty of them. A 2012 Chevrolet Sonic LT with automatic transmission and the Bluetooth / cruise package lists for $18,090. Though $730 more than last year’s Aveo, a run through TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool tallies up nearly $2,500 in additional features, for a feature-adjusted advantage of about $1,750. A similarly-equipped (but less roomy) Ford Fiesta SE lists for $390 more before adjusting for remaining feature differences, and about $1,300 more afterwards. The redesigned but still 106-horsepower, four-speed Toyota Yaris SE includes $1,500 less stuff in its almost identical list price. A Hyundai Accent SE lists for $535 less, but the feature adjustment reverses this advantage. In every case the Sonic’s additional features more than cancel out any price disadvantage—it’s the value play in the segment.

This has been a much more critical review than I expected to write, given the unexpected refinement in some other recent GM products (Cruze, Volt, Equinox, Regal). The Sonic is much better than the Aveo it replaces…like the 2005 Cobalt was much better than the Cavalier it replaced. Competitors haven’t been standing still. The B-segment has become far more competitive recently, with many new or redesigned entries, each smoother, quieter, and more capable of sustained highway driving than the past norm. Among these, the Fiesta is more refined, the Mazda2 is more fun-to-drive, and the Accent might provide the best combination of both with a semi-livable rear seat. In this flash mob, why buy a Sonic? Its arguable strengths come down to more extroverted styling, a more attractive sedan (for those who lean that way), and additional standard features. But GM has lost too many times playing this hand in the past. Such is the way of the auto industry. Keep aiming to best the old car or the current competition, and you’ll be conjuring up a new model name every generation.

Michael Karesh operates, an online source of car reliability and pricing information.

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Review: 2011 Volkswagen Touareg VR6 Fri, 23 Sep 2011 12:54:39 +0000 How many people would rather have a Volkswagen than a Mercedes? The first-generation Volkswagen Touareg, introduced as a 2004 model, was the product of two unusual events. First, CEO Ferdinand Piech took the brand upmarket (and then some) to challenge Mercedes-Benz—so what if that was Audi’s job. Second, Mercedes, which previously had all but ignored the specific needs of the American market, jumped on the SUV gravy train. So, like BMW, Volkswagen (and Porsche, but that’s next) had to have one, too. Add in some newbie cluelessness concerning how the vehicle would typically be used, and the original Touareg became a luxuriously-outfitted, hyper-complex, 5,000-plus-pound, air-suspended, off-road-capable chunk of a truck with a price tag to match. In subsequent years, VW abandoned its assault on Stuttgart and perhaps learned a thing or two about the SUV market. But would you know it from the redesigned 2011 Touareg?

Exterior styling doesn’t appear to have been a primary consideration with the original Touareg. Quite likely, the engineers developed a body structure then tossed it over the wall to design, which then dressed it as much as possible like other VWs. The various curves and bulges fit together awkwardly, especially around the ends. With the 2011, the exterior is much the same—the typical car buyer probably cannot tell the two apart—but with subtle tweaks that eliminate the earlier awkwardness without adding anything eye-catching or distinctive. As noted in my review of the Q5, the Touareg strongly resembles both the half-size-smaller Audi and the closely-related Porsche Cayenne.

In the retreat from Stuttgart, Volkswagen decontented the interiors of its cars. The new Touareg’s interior doesn’t induce shock and awe like the original’s did (“This is a VW?!”), but remains a cut or two above the others in the showroom. As with the exterior, the new design is cleaner, perhaps to a fault. Though curb weight is down nearly 400 pounds (to a still hefty 4,700) the Touareg retains a tight, solid feel that even the best domestic SUVs (e.g. the new Jeep Grand Cherokee) can’t quite match.

The Germans haven’t yet gotten the memo that Americans want more car-like SUVs (as suggested by the rise of crossovers). So the Touareg’s driving position remains much the same following the redesign, with a high seat behind a large, relatively upright windshield. The leatherette seat itself is a touch mushy and largely devoid of lateral support—both surprises in a VW. Creating some distance from the Porsche? The rear seat slides and reclines. Slide it back and there’s a decent amount of legroom—but no more than in the 14-inch-shorter, 1,100-pound-lighter Tiguan. The two-speed transfer case no longer crosses the Atlantic, but the Touareg’s packaging efficiency remains that of a conventional SUV. To give credit where due, the Touareg’s cabin is a couple inches wider than the Tiguan’s, and it can hold considerably more cargo (70.9 vs. 56.1 cubic feet), with much of the difference behind the second row seat.

The original Touareg’s V8 gas and V10 diesel engines didn’t survive the change in mission. In their places we now get a 333-horsepower supercharged V6 hybrid and a 225-horsepower V6 diesel. But I sampled the third, relatively boring engine choice, the 280-horsepower 3.6-liter narrow-angle VR6, which like the others is now mated to an eight-speed automatic. Aided by the additional ratios and reduced poundage, this engine feels strong once underway (the initial movement from a dead stop won’t snap any necks). The transmission sometimes seems indecisive, but perhaps it was still learning my driving style. The EPA ratings of 16/23 are typical of a midsize SUV. Require better numbers? Then VW has the hybrid (20/24) or the diesel (19/28) for you. Or the Tiguan (21/27).

Unlike every other U.S.-market VW, the Touareg is not based on a front-wheel-drive platform. Instead, the engine and transmission are located much as they are in any given truck, for a 53/47 weight distribution and a more balanced feel than you’ll find in a car-based crossover. Body motions are very well controlled for an SUV, and the ride is generally smooth and quiet, with just a little clomping over tar strips to remind you of its national origin. A height-adjustable air suspension is no longer offered, but won’t be missed as long as you remain on the pavement. And yet, despite the Porsche tie, “fun” is a stretch. The steering is quick, perhaps a little too quick, with some twitchiness at highway speeds, but it’s not communicative. And, let’s face it, this is a tall, heavy vehicle with little in the way of sporting pretensions. The Touareg feels smaller and lighter than it is, but not to a sufficient degree to call the laws of physics into question.

The new Touareg might not aspire to the same heights the original did, but VW has been cutting prices. Well, not in this case. The 2011 I drove, a base trim V6 with only a couple of minor options—the cheap one—listed for $46,005, about $2,800 more than a comparable 2010. This is the price with no leather, no wood, and no sunroof (but with standard nav and xenon headlights). For 2012 nav became optional to enable a  $1,475 price cut. Add it back and you’re $545 over the 2011.Such pricing pits the Touareg against some heady competition. The vehicle that started it all, the Mercedes-Benz ML350, has just entered its third generation. To similarly equip a Touareg you need the $5,880 Lux Package (not on the tested vehicle), which bumps the tab to just under fifty. A comparably-equipped Mercedes lists for $7,400 more. Use TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool to adjust for remaining feature differences and compare the two invoice-to-invoice (often a better indicator of what you’ll actually pay), and the gap shrinks to about $4,300. Perhaps you’d rather think of the Touareg as a Cayenne without the Porsche price? The latter will set you back about $8,500 more if you go easy on the options, perhaps $13,000 more otherwise.

The Touareg’s toughest challenge might come from the Jeep Grand Cherokee, which received a substantial upgrade for 2011. Equipped similarly to the tested Touareg, the Jeep runs about $7,800 less before adjusting for feature differences, about $8,700 less afterwards. Until it gets its own eight-speed automatic, the Jeep feels sluggish compared to the VW, and even afterwards (2013?) it should continue to feel heavier and cushier. So it’s not a direct substitute. But the Jeep has its own strengths, and $8,700 is a sizable chunk of change.

The Volkswagen Touareg is certainly a solid, thoroughly competent vehicle, but its construction and consequent price continue to reflect Piech’s “beat Mercedes” ambitions of a decade ago rather than his “beat Toyota” ambitions of today. The Phaeton large luxury sedan is long gone from these shores, but its companion SUV has survived into a second generation. To have the interior ambiance reflect the price tag, you’ve got to spend another $5,880, at which point you’re uncomfortably close to $50,000 and the all-new Mercedes. Rather have a diesel? Then the price difference is cut in half and is hardly worth thinking about. So, how many people would rather have a VW than a Mercedes? Apparently about 500 a month. Odds of a third-generation $50,000+ Touareg in 2018?

Vehicle provided by Dan Kelley, Suburban VW in Farmington Hills, MI, 248-741-7903

Michael Karesh operates, an online source of car reliability and pricing information.

Touareg rear quarter. Picture courtesy Michael Karesh Touareg V6 second row. Picture courtesy Michael Karesh Touareg V6 rear quarter. Picture courtesy Michael Karesh Touareg V6 interior. Picture courtesy Michael Karesh Touareg V6 interior 2. Picture courtesy Michael Karesh Touareg V6 front. Picture courtesy Michael Karesh Touareg V6 side. Picture courtesy Michael Karesh Touareg V6 front quarter. Picture courtesy Michael Karesh Touareg V6 engine. Picture courtesy Michael Karesh Touareg V6 cargo. Picture courtesy Michael Karesh Touareg V6 rear quarter. Picture courtesy Michael Karesh Touareg V6 front quarter. Picture courtesy Michael Karesh Touareg V6 interior. Picture courtesy Michael Karesh Touareg V6 second row. Picture courtesy Michael Karesh Touareg V6 engine. Picture courtesy Michael Karesh Touareg V6 interior. . Picture courtesy Michael Karesh Zemanta Related Posts Thumbnail ]]> 34
Review: 2012 Genesis 5.0 R-Spec Tue, 13 Sep 2011 17:54:53 +0000

Has any car company ever improved its products at the rate Hyundai has over the past decade? Ten years ago their idea of a flagship was the fusty, faux-wood-and-chrome-encrusted XG350 fitted with a then-new 3.5-liter V6 good for 194 horsepower and EPA ratings of 16 city / 24 highway. The 2006 Azera was a much more credible competitor…for the Toyota Avalon. Even with a new 263-horsepower V6, Hyundai still didn’t pretend to have a luxury sedan fit for driving enthusiasts. For 2012, they do, with the new Genesis 5.0 R-Spec. But, as far as they’ve come, are they there yet?

The Hyundai Genesis has been available with a 4.6-liter V8 since it was introduced as a 2009 model. Reviewers found faults with the car, but I don’t recall the engine’s mere 385 horsepower being among them. Nevertheless, for 2012 Hyundai has a new 429-horsepower (at 6,400 rpm), 376 pound-feet of torque (at 5,000) 5.0-liter V8. In addition to its larger displacement, the 5.0 benefits from direct injection, which permits a bump in the compression ratio from 10.4 to 11.5:1. These specs are impressive. The Hyundai mill outputs more horses than the Porsche Panamera’s 4.8-liter V8, the 5.0-liter V8s in the Lexus IS-F and Mustang GT (unless you pony up for the BOSS), the 5.5-liter V8 being retired from various Mercedes, and the M56’s 5.6-liter V8. The 6.2-liter V8 in the Corvette kicks out a single additional horsepower.

Of course, specs are one thing, subjective impressions another. The Corvette’s LS3 powerplant lacks the refinement needed for luxury sedan duty. The Hyundai engine, in contrast, purrs with the world’s best. Though the idle’s a touch rough when first started, that’s the full extent of the eight’s lapses. Whether loafing about town or revving past 6,000 rpm, this is a very smooth engine. It’s not quiet when exercised, but the tune played by the mechanical bits and exhaust are music to any enthusiast’s ears, yet shouldn’t disturb those who simply want to relax. (In a rare attempt to hear more from the engine I drove the car with the engine cover off, but this made little difference.) When cruising, the engine is virtually silent, even at highway speeds.

For 2012, all three Genesis engines are paired with an eight-speed automatic developed by Hyundai, the first offered by a non-premium brand. The transmission performs well in that it rarely calls attention to itself. I occasionally noticed a less-than-slick downshift when slowing to a stop, a characteristic shared with the ZF eight-speed automatic. Through TrueDelta’s car reliability survey I’ve received a few complaints about such bumps in BMWs, but most drivers will neither notice nor mind. More bothersome: manually downshifting to second for a turn requires a tedious number of taps when you start out in eighth. These manual shifts could also be quicker, but given how the car likes to be driven they aren’t of much use regardless.

It wasn’t long ago that many doubted the benefits of having more than four speeds in an automatic transmission. So what’s the point of going from six to eight? First gear isn’t significantly shorter in the new transmission, but second is much more closely spaced. A shift at the 6,400 rpm power peak (the transmission isn’t always willing to go all the way to the 6,750 rpm redline) that would have dropped the engine to 3,600 rpm with the old six-speed now lands at 4,200. So full-throttle acceleration improves. Seventh is about the same as the old sixth, and the new transmission’s eighth gear is nine percent taller, for better fuel efficiency on the highway. At 80, the engine is only turning 2,000 rpm. Around town it’s often half that, with no sensation of lugging.

The EPA ratings: 16 city, 25 highway—a bit better than the far less capable XG350 of a decade ago. The trip computer reported low twenties in suburban driving and high twenties on the highway. But is it trustworthy? There’s an “eco” mode, but I noticed no difference in efficiency or powertrain behavior with it on.

Of course, luxury sedans aren’t often driven near their full potential. In more typical driving, the Genesis R-Spec impresses with the effortless ease at which it attains any speed. Such effortlessness used to justify the extra tens of thousands of dollars for a V12 over a V8.

The not-so-good not-so-news? The rest of the car. The exterior of the Genesis is easy on the eyes, and people remarked on the quality of the paint. But unlike that of other recent Hyundais, it isn’t in any way distinctive or remotely avant-garde. At NAIAS a couple of years ago I wondered why they had an Infiniti G37 among the NACOTY finalists, only to belatedly realize that the greenhouse (the lower body wasn’t visible) belonged to the Hyundai. Does the overall look draw most from Mercedes, BMW, or Lexus? Hard to say, they’re all in there. The interior is similarly conventional to a fault, and a little dated. The silver-painted buttons of the center stack are easy to understand and operate, but don’t suggest bleeding-edge tech the way the Germans’ much more complex, more highly stylized controls do. The infotainment system’s display washes out easily and often. But the 528-watt 17-speaker Lexicon audio system is the best I’ve experienced aside from the hyper-expensive B&O in the larger Audis. Most puzzling: the R-Spec’s high-mounted seats are unchanged from those in the regular Genesis. So they’re comfortable, but offer little in the way of lateral support. An older mystery: three years on Hyundai still hasn’t figured out how to fit cooling bits to the front passenger seat.

The Genesis 5.0 R-Spec’s chassis seems to have shipped at the rough draft stage. The steering is firmer than in the regular Genesis—even surprisingly tight at highway speeds—but provides more kickback than helpfully nuanced feedback. Body roll is modest, but the R-Spec doesn’t feel tied down and precise the way the best competitors do. In aggressive turns the nose wants to head for the curb, but the 245/45YR19 Bridgestone Potenza Pole Position S-04 tires [Update: a $1,400 option over the standard 235/45VR19 all-seasons] just won’t let it. Oversteer can’t be dialed in nearly as progressively or intuitively as in a BMW or GM vehicle with right-wheel-drive. Perhaps for this reason Hyundai (like Infiniti with the similarly-afflicted G37) opted for a crude fix: prod the V8 to kick out the tail and the stability control cuts in early and hard. Sticky treads notwithstanding, the Genesis 5.0 R-Spec is most in its element when traveling through broad sweepers or, better yet, in a straight line.

Which is, of course, how most buyers of such cars drive them. What these owners will fault much more than the handling: the ride. The 5.0 R-Spec wafts along some roads, especially blacktop Interstate, with impressive smoothness, silence, and solidity, feeling every bit a premium sedan. But on other roads it tosses about and even quivers to an annoying degree, refusing to settle down and relax. The Acura TL-S I drove the previous week had a considerably more composed chassis, while the cheaper-by-half Ford Focus SE handled bad roads better than either of them.

Of course, you won’t pay nearly as much for the Genesis as you will for one of the name brand luxury sport sedans. At $47,350, the 5.0 R-Spec is only $2,000 more than the 4.6. The factory mods might not work together seamlessly, but Hyundai is charging surprisingly little extra for them. Even an Infiniti M56, which substantially undercuts the Europeans, costs over $20,000 more when similarly equipped.

[Update: The summer tires add another $1,400, but I'd skip them. Not only do they not suit the character of the car, but you can currently pick up a set of four online for $996 plus shipping and installation. So about $300 and a set of all-season tires less than what Hyundai is charging. A further note: the Hyundai media site lists a Genesis 5.0 without the R-Spec chassis, so one is likely coming.]

The Hyundai Genesis 5.0 R-Spec’s 429-horspower engine alone is a tremendous achievement for a company that a decade ago struggled to wring 200 horsepower from a big DOHC V6. Unfortunately, the rest of the car lacks finesse. One must wonder: was the R-Spec a last-minute, low-budget project? Perhaps Hyundai developed the new engine primarily for the Equus, and only realized at the eleventh hour that it might provide the basis for a high-performance Genesis? This would explain the absence of suitable sport buckets and of a well-sorted chassis. Either way, Hyundai has been coming along so quickly that a thoroughly satisfying luxury-performance sedan can’t be far off. For now, we’ve got an outstanding engine in a pretty good car at a price that might well compensate for the current shortcomings. Just test drive extensively before you buy, as your experience will vary depending on the road surface.

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

Michael Karesh operates, an online provider of car reliability and pricing information..

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Review: 2011 Kia Sportage SX Fri, 08 Jul 2011 14:13:31 +0000

Though Hyundai owns a controlling stake in and shares platforms with Kia, the two Korean car companies continue to operate more independently than GM’s divisions did back in their heydays. So the decision between related products often comes down to something beyond price. Take, for example, the Kia Sportage. Why buy it instead of the related Hyundai Tucson?

Sure, styling is subjective, but some designs are clearly worse than others owing to unbalanced proportions or unresolved transitions. Not this time. The Sportage and Tucson share similar athletic proportions and neither exterior has an obvious flaw. The two design teams managed to craft shapes different from every competitor, and from each other. No exterior panels are shared, even the cutlines are different. With the Hyundai, there’s a complex combination of many angles. The Kia’s exterior is much cleaner, achieving a distinctive look through muscular forms that’s further enhanced by the SX’s 18-inch alloy wheels. The decision between them is highly subjective.

Inside, the Sportage’s design is again cleaner, to the point where it looks a bit cheap in the lower trim levels. Step up to the SX, though, and subtle detail changes together with perforated black leather seat surfaces make the interior seem more-or-less worthy of a price in the low 30s. The center stack controls are much easier to reach and to operate than those in the Tucson. One minor oddity: the temperature control for the driver’s seat, though it includes both heating and cooling rather than just heating, is half the size of the one for the passenger’s seat.

Forward visibility is decent in both SUVs, as it had better be since this is a key reason for the popularity of the segment. Still, the raked windshield forces a deep instrument panel and the A-pillars are on the thick side. Rearward visibility is fairly limited in the Tucson and even worse in the Sportage, thanks to unusually wide C-pillars. I wouldn’t be surprised if rearward visibility is the major reason people reject the Sportage after seriously considering it. The Sportage’s front seats don’t provide much lateral support, but are otherwise comfortable.

Given the Kia’s exterior dimensions, the rear seat is roomier and more comfortable than it has any right to be. Cargo space isn’t as generous, with 55 cubic feet compared to the 73 in a Toyota RAV4, and the front passenger seat doesn’t fold to further extend the load floor (it did with the previous-generation Sportage).

Then there’s the big difference compared to the Hyundai Tucson: Kia offers not only the corporate 176-horsepower 2.4-liter four, but also the direct-injected, turbocharged 2.0-liter first offered in the Hyundai Sonata Turbo, detuned a bit to peak at 260 horsepower (vs. 274). Standard in the Sportage SX, the boosted four feels strong, especially in the midrange, but sounds like nothing special and doesn’t stir the driver’s soul. The 269-horsepower V6 available since the 2006 model year in the Toyota RAV4 likely remains the segment’s performance champ. As in the Sonata, the turbo four seems tuned and tweaked to serve as a V6-substitute for mainstream buyers rather than for enthusiasts. One definite plus: unlike many turbos, it’s tuned to run on regular unleaded. Its big advantage over the 2.4 is the effortless, nearly lag-free acceleration with fewer revs in typical around-town driving. There’s only one transmission option in the SX: a homegrown manually-shiftable six-speed automatic. It doesn’t lug the 2.0T like it often does the 2.4, perhaps because the turbocharged engine produces far more torque at lower rpm (with a peak of 269 foot-pounds at 1,850). You can get the turbocharged engine with front-wheel-drive, but given this torque output all-wheel-drive is the better way to go.

Four-cylinder turbos are expected to increasingly replace V6s because they tend to be more fuel-efficient. In this case, the benefits are mixed. Based on the EPA ratings, the Kia 2.0T matches the 2.4 and outpoints the Toyota RAV4’s V6 in the city (21 vs. 19 miles-per-gallon), but doesn’t do quite as well on the highway (25 vs. 28 vs. 26). Proving that a four-cylinder turbo can actually get much worse fuel economy than a V6, Mazda’s CX-7 manages only 17 city and 21 highway while kicking out 16 fewer horsepower.

Even in SX trim, the Sportage’s suspension isn’t as taut as that in the Tucson, which was designed primarily for the European market. Still, the Sportage’s chassis feels solid and composed, with more steering feedback than you’ll get from the tragically numb system in the Tucson. The ride is generally smooth and quiet. There’s some jiggle over tar strips and the like, but this is typical of the segment.

Kia Sportage SX AWD pricing starts at $27,990, of which $2,500 goes for the turbocharged engine and a few additional minor features. A Premium Package (panoramic sunroof, keyless ignition, heated seats, rear obstacle detection, auto-dimming mirror with Homelink, cargo cover) adds $2,500. Leather with a cooled driver seat adds another $500, bringing the total for the tested vehicle to $30,990. And this is without the available $1,500 nav system. Yes, we have reached the point where a compact Korean SUV can cost over $30,000—they’re not just for cheapskates anymore. A similarly-equipped Toyota RAV4 Limited lists for only $449 more, a much smaller bump than in the past. Adjusting for feature differences using TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool adds about $1,000 to the Kia’s advantage. Not factored in: the Kia looks and feels like a more expensive vehicle than the Toyota.

The related Hyundai Tucson is better in some ways (handling, rearward visibility), but not so good in others (steering feel, ride quality, ergonomics). But the biggest difference is that, for undivulged reasons, Hyundai doesn’t offer the turbocharged engine in its compact SUV. So if you want 260 horsepower with a minimal fuel economy hit, your choice is obviously the Kia. There was a time when a turbocharged engine signified a driver’s car. Well, even with a torquey boosted four and a “sport suspension,” the Kia Sportage SX isn’t a poor man’s Audi Q5. What it is: a more stylish, better-finished, slightly more economical alternative to the Toyota RAV4 V6.

Summit Place Kia of Waterford, MI, provided the tested vehicle. They can be reached at (248) 682-6002.

Michael Karesh operates, an online provider of car reliability and price comparison information.



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Review: Nissan 370Z Touring Mon, 20 Jun 2011 19:20:00 +0000

Back in 2002, on a whim, my father bought the recently re-introduced Nissan 350Z for the simple reason that he loved the way the car looked. He then proceeded to rarely drive it because it was loud, rough, and generally lacking in refinement, and sold it after only a year and a half. I haven’t driven a Z since. Nissan has reportedly worked to smooth over the car’s rough edges, most notably with a redesign for the 2009 model year. So another look seemed in order.

The Z gained some curves with its redesign, rendering it prettier to some eyes, more bulbous to others, and still clearly a Z to all—but it seemed insufficiently changed to re-ignite the car’s sales. Then again, the segment is dormant. Among two-seaters, only the Chevrolet Corvette outsold the Z last year, and not by much (12,624 vs. 10,215). The third-place Miata trailed both by a sizable margin. The tested car’s $3,030 Sport Package includes a limited-slip differential, beautiful 19” RAYS forged alloy wheels, an understated rear spoiler, and a chin spoiler that gives the road noisy kisses when tempted by the slightest dip.

The Z’s interior was inarguably improved by the redesign, with a more upscale appearance and upgraded materials. The center stack, similar to that in the G37, is now upholstered in a very good imitation of leather. It’s so close at hand that the controls on the steering wheel are hardly necessary. But too many interior parts remain a silver-painted plastic that would appear much less out of place in a Versa than in a $40,000 sports car.

The instruments, a perennial Nissan aesthetic weakness, are especially hard on the eyes. Why the compulsion to put rectangular displays within round holes? And to employ orange lighting? Orange is also employed for the perforated leather on the seats and the faux suede on the doors, but it proved quite popular in these locations.

The Z’s driver seat is comfortable, but a little short on lateral support. The Infiniti G37’s power-adjustable bolsters would be welcome here. The view forward from the low seats includes a fair amount of hood.

The view rearward is nearly nonexistent, between the wide C-pillars and mail slot of a rear window. Even with a rearview camera backing out of parking spaces proves a dicey proposition.

The cargo area under the rear part of the hatch is barely tall enough to hold an upright gallon of milk, which can be counted on to slide around all the way home unless restrained by a cargo net (not provided with the tested car).

With the redesign, the 350Z received a bump in its engine’s displacement. At 3.7 liters, the VQ is now quite large for a six. Even without the benefit of direct injection, power output is now 332 horsepower at 7,000 rpm. Not the 400+ available in a Camaro or Mustang, but the Z, tipping the scales at just over 3,200 pounds, is considerably lighter than those cars. So the big six feels plenty muscular even well short of its redline. A NISMO variant adds 18 horses, a firmer suspension, and less subtle body kit, but these mods add to the cars strengths rather than addressing its weaknesses. The latter tend to be subjective—so your opinion of them may well vary. An exhaust that roars loudly at the slightest provocation drowns out any singing by the mechanical bits under the Z’s hood. Without much in the way of character, this roar suggests brute force rather than mechanical sophistication. Which, it turns out, fits the overall character of the car.

The 370Z’s manual transmission’s short-throw shifter and clutch require meaty inputs. Though the former feels satisfyingly solid and precise, smooth upshifts in casual driving require concentration. Yet smooth downshifts couldn’t be easier. Thanks to an innovative rev-matching feature, engine rpm automagically almost instantly increase by the appropriate amount. Unfortunately, the automatic bump in engine speed is accompanied by an immediate exponential increase in exhaust noise. Appropriate during spirited driving. But a bit of a shock until you get used to it, and less welcome when slowing for a stoplight, where you’ll feel the (quite possibly imagined) disapproving stares of everyone around you. The feature can be turned off, but a better solution would be a variable exhaust like those offered in the Corvette and some Porsches.

The 370Z’s steering similarly calls for meaty inputs. Partly as a result, the car continues to feel much larger and heavier than it actually is. Though the steering is quite quick, the Z doesn’t feel agile. Instead, clearly a real man’s car, it must be muscled through curves. This said, there’s less steady state understeer than in the past, and the car feels more balanced. Unless you get on the gas. Like the related Infiniti G37, the Z has a tendency to snap oversteer, especially when fitted with the limited-slip differential. In a quick-and-dirty fix, the stability control is programmed to intervene early with a heavy hand. A better fix would be rear suspension geometry that yields the sort of progressive power oversteer that makes GM’s rear-wheel-drive performance cars a joy to drive.

Road noise remains a Z weakness, with a hum and/or roar emanating from the rear tires on concrete road surfaces. Ride quality, on the other hand, is much improved over the 350Z early in its run. While the suspension is certainly firm, it takes the edge off road imperfections and no longer tortures the car’s occupants. Evenly spaced expansion joints at highway speeds can provoke rhythmic bouncing, but the amplitude is much less (and so much less likely to induce nausea) than before.

The highly-optioned tested 2011 370Z Touring lists for $42,775 after some recent price increases. Without the nav, illuminated door sills, and $580 in high-performance brake pads, (but with the Touring’s standard leather and BOSE audio) it would be $40,055. A similarly equipped 426-horsepower Camaro SS lists for about $3,500 less. Adjusting for feature differences using TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool widens the gap to about $4,400. You’ll save even more with a Hyundai Genesis Coupe, which is about $10,500 less before adjusting for feature differences and about $11,500 less afterwards.

And the related G37? About $2,800 more before the feature adjustment, but about $900 LESS afterwards. You’re not paying extra for the premium brand in this case—or even the rear seats. Looking to Germany, only Porsche still offers a two-seat hardtop sports car, and a similarly-equipped Cayman over $30,000 more. A BMW 135i lists for almost exactly the same price as the Z. After adjusting for feature differences, the BMW lists for about $2,500 less.

The Nissan 370Z is much nicer inside and much easier to live with than the 350Z my old man briefly owned. He’d drive this one more and hold onto it longer. But the Z’s still not easy to live with. On a track or an especially challenging road, the Z might prove a delight. On most public roads, though, the car continues to feel muscle-bound and out of its element. Either of Mazda’s sports cars feel much more agile, but are far less powerful. The Germans go about their business with much less noise and much more finesse, but none offer a two-seat coupe for a remotely similar price. Prefer a little more luxury and a lot less noise? Then the related Infiniti G37 Coupe could be the way to go. Or, if you’re willing to trade features and refinement for a lower price, Hyundai’s Genesis Coupe. If, on the other hand, you’ve been seeking the extroverted macho functionality-be-damned flavor of a Camaro, but in a more compact package, then the 370Z definitely delivers.

Nissan provided the test vehicle, insurance, and a tank of gas.

Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta, an online source of car pricing and reliability data.

Photos courtesy Michael Karesh

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Review & Competition Comparo: 2011 Dodge Journey Sat, 04 Jun 2011 09:06:54 +0000

When I first heard that Chrysler had revised nearly every one of its models for the 2011 model year, I cynically assumed the changes couldn’t possibility make much of a difference. After all, how much could they have done with little money and even less time—and with Detroit’s tendency to make minor changes and expect them to have a major impact? Then I drove the new Dodge Grand Caravan, and was amazed at how much its ride and handling had improved. For those seeking something smaller, or who simply refuse to buy a minivan, Dodge offers the Journey crossover. Underwhelming before, does it now similarly surprise?

The Journey’s sheet metal remains the same. It’s nearly as boxy as the minivan’s, but with the higher stance and the longer, more horizontal front clip of a crossover. Nothing fancy, but nothing off-putting, either. Of course, paint it “mango tango” and even a basic box will get noticed. A revised front fascia and the new 19-inch alloys fitted to the Crew and R/T trim levels suggest that the Journey is now a driving machine. The chrome-clad wheels fitted to the tested Lux, though equally large, aren’t as aggressively styled. One potential mod: even the 19s don’t begin to fill the wheel openings, and the rear in particular could be lowered a couple of inches.

The Journey’s interior revisions are much more extensive, and have an immediate impact. The tan leather fitted to the seats of the tested car looks and feels rich. It attractively contrasts with the black stitching and the soft-touch black trim panels. The thickly padded faux leather on the door panels extends to the inner surface of the door pulls—a premium touch too rarely found even among much more expensive cars. The doors shut with reassuring solidity. The instrument panel was already a soft-touch affair, but the new one has a cleaner, more upscale appearance to match. The various switches aren’t quite up to the rest of the interior. Even so, this is now easily the most upscale interior in the segment. Now in the bottom spot: the Honda Pilot.

The Journey’s ergonomics are also much improved. A large touchscreen, shared with the redesigned Charger sedan, is located where it’s easy to see and reach, without being awkwardly perched atop the instrument panel (as it was previously). The screen’s graphics are larger than most, making it easy to quickly find and tap the desired control (in distinct contrast to the Ford’s newest system). The screen does wash out at times, but simply designed and conveniently located knobs and buttons remain for key functions. A potential source of confusion: the fan speed knob is located between two for the audio system. But I never had the slightest trouble finding the right one. The Bluetooth for the phone works well. It’s possible to dial using the touchscreen, but the voice recognition system got the number right on the first try (simply hit the phone button on the steering wheel then say “Dial 1-234-555-1212”).

The front buckets continue the Journey’s newly premium character, with ample padding and enough contour that you’re coddled within the seat rather than sitting upon it. The driver gets an effective four-way power lumbar adjustment—but oddly a manual recliner. The view forward is very car-like, similar to the Chevrolet Equinox (but with much less of a sense of tunnel vision) and not nearly as high and upright as in the Kia Sorento or Toyota Highlander. The view rearward: not so good thanks to a small rear window and tall headrests that fill most of it.

Unfortunately, nothing could be done about the tight rear seats – short of reworking the metal. The second row—which continues to lack contour but is comfortably high off the floor—must be nearly all of the way back to provide enough legroom for adults, but if this is done there’s almost no legroom in the optional third row.

Adults might occupy both rows in a pinch, but the rearmost is best suited for pre-teens. (Built-in booster seats are an option in the second row.)

The Sorento offers a little more rear legroom (but less headroom in the third row) while the Highlander offers much more. The latter offers more shoulder room as well. The GM crossovers offer about the same amount of shoulder room as the Dodge, but far more rear legroom—easily done since they have no optional third row. Even the Mazda5 microvan, much smaller on the outside, is roomier on the inside.

There might not be much room in the back of the Journey, but Chrysler has equipped it like a large minivan. Every outboard seating position gets an airliner-like aimable LED reading light that looks classy and works well. The third-row seat package includes rear automatic climate control with vents in the ceiling.

In its original iteration, the Journey included an unusually large number of places to stash things. Storage compartments inside the front passenger seat and beneath the floor in the second row have been carried over. A well at the base of the center stack could easily hold a large camera.

There’s a couple inches more cargo space behind the third row than in the Sorento and Highlander—so unlike in those competitors, a single row of grocery bags would fit with no crushing of the eggs. Every seat save the driver’s can be folded to extend the cargo area. The load floor is high off the ground, though, a casualty of the crossover stance.

Like just about every other Chrysler product, for 2011 the Journey can be outfitted with the corporation’s new “Pentastar” 3.6-liter DOHC V6 engine mated to a manually-shiftable six-speed automatic. With 283-horsepower, this mill is considerably more powerful than last year’s 235-horsepower 3.5-liter and competitive in terms of both performance and refinement with the V6s in the Highlander and Sorento. GM’s 3.0-liter feels weak and sounds strained in comparison. Especially when prodded with a heavy right foot, the Chrysler automatic’s shifts have an unusual, firm feel—sporty perhaps, but less refined than the engine. The optional all-wheel-drive effectively blunts torque steer.

Fuel economy as reported by the EPA is a little better than last year, 16/24 vs. 15/23, but the city figure still lags the most efficient competitors. The trip computer confirmed the EPA ratings in real-world driving. Willing to sacrifice performance and/or all-wheel-drive for a couple additional MPG? A 173-horsepower 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine remains standard in the base trim level. It’s good for 19/26, well below the 22/32 of the Equinox and 2012 Sorento.

The Journey’s chassis tweaks aren’t substantial. In turns, lean is moderate and body motions are fairly well controlled, but the revised steering is too light and lacks feel, especially on center. For the first 90 degrees, the wheel doesn’t load up at all. The Kumho Solus tires further indicate that sporty handling wasn’t a priority. Chrysler should let the people who tuned the minivan’s chassis have a go at the Journey.

So, if you’ve been looking for the domestic auto industry’s answer to the Audi Q5, this isn’t it. Not that most crossover buyers will mind. Instead, they’ll find a vehicle that is easy to drive and that rides very smoothly and quietly, with a cushier character than the Chevrolet and Kia. The Dodge doesn’t only look more expensive. It also feels more expensive.

The 2011 Journey Lux with all-wheel-drive, third row, sunroof, and nav lists for $36,685, about $3,000 more than the 2010. Roughly $500 of this increase pays for additional features like keyless ignition, Bluetooth, and the four-way power lumbar, according to TrueDelta’s car pricing tool. The rest covers the engine and interior material upgrades. A GM executive once told me that if only the bean counters would let him spend $300 more on interior materials he could charge $3,000 more for the car. Now we have a test. Does the resulting price seem steep? A Chevrolet Equinox LTZ is very close in price to a two-row Journey Lux after a small adjustment for feature differences. A similarly-equipped Toyota Highlander Limited lists for another $3,000 more. Then, of course, there are the Koreans. A Kia Sorento EX V6 with these features lists for nearly $2,000 less. But the Kia has a more truck-like driving position and doesn’t ride as smoothly.

Previously, the Dodge Journey had little to recommend it aside from a relatively low price. Its tight, cheaply outfitted interior did put it at a severe disadvantage. Now, the interior isn’t any roomier, but it is much nicer, even the best in the segment. The new V6 is similarly a match for the segment’s best. Between these two improvements, the Dodge Journey’s higher but still competitive price seems justified. The Dodge Journey’s now deserves a serious look by crossover buyers who don’t need a lot of interior room. Chrysler’s people clearly took the company’s recent brush with death seriously, and in this case accomplished a surprising amount, especially considering the time and money they had to do it.

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

Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta, an online source of car reliability and pricing information.

Journey second row. Picture courtesy Michael Karesh Journey instrument panel. Picture courtesy Michael Karesh Journey instrument panel. Picture courtesy Michael Karesh Journey HVAC display. Picture courtesy Michael Karesh Journey front. Picture courtesy Michael Karesh Journey front quarter. Picture courtesy Michael Karesh Journey engine. Picture courtesy Michael Karesh Journey rear quarter. Picture courtesy Michael Karesh Journey rear quarter. Picture courtesy Michael Karesh Journey cargo all folded. Picture courtesy Michael Karesh Journey cargo 3rd up. Picture courtesy Michael Karesh Journey cargo 3rd folded. Picture courtesy Michael Karesh Journey interior. Picture courtesy Michael Karesh Journey vs. Sorento. Picture courtesy Michael Karesh Journey vs. Mazda5 rear. Picture courtesy Michael Karesh Journey vs. Mazda5 rear open. Picture courtesy Michael Karesh Journey view forward. Picture courtesy Michael Karesh Journey third row. Picture courtesy Michael Karesh Journey tailllight. Picture courtesy Michael Karesh Journey side. Picture courtesy Michael Karesh Journey vs. Taurus X side. Picture courtesy Michael Karesh and Greater Detroit MLS Journey-vs.-Sorento-thumb

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Review: MINI Countryman Fri, 25 Mar 2011 18:23:51 +0000

MINI (all caps required): the name itself inherently limits the brand. A large MINI would be oxymoronic. It would not be seen as a MINI. But most car buyers need something larger and more functional than the Cooper.  And, while MINI might be less intent on world domination than VW, it would still like to grow. What to do, what to do? When word leaked that MINI was working on a crossover, the brand’s fans feared for the worst.

Apparently also fearful, MINI has moved very cautiously. First it dipped a toe in the water with the three-door half-measure known as the Cooper Clubman. Essentially a Cooper with three inches added to the wheelbase and five added to the rear overhang, the Clubman didn’t threaten to undermine the authenticity of the brand. But it also wasn’t much more functional than the regular Cooper. Even with a couple more inches of legroom the rear seat still only warranted a single half-sized rear-hinged door. Cargo volume expanded by about a third, but a third more than very little still isn’t much.

To significantly expand its reach, MINI needed a vehicle in which four adults could travel comfortably. One implication: four real doors. How large could this vehicle be, and still remain authentically a MINI? The trick, lifted straight from the mind of  Navin Johnson: don’t just make it 16 inches longer (for a total of 161.7) and four inches wider (for a total of 70.4); also make it a half-foot taller while keeping the styling as close as possible to the original. This both fools the eye by maintaining the Cooper’s iconic proportions and enlarges the interior. A 61.5-inch height puts the resulting Cooper Countryman into crossover territory, in which case you might as well also offer all-wheel-drive. All three dimensions are within an inch of the Nissan JUKE’s. So while the Countryman might be considerably larger than a Cooper, and it might be a crossover, it’s still dwarfed by even the average “compact” ute. A BMW X3, not exactly known for its size, is 21 inches longer, four inches wider, and four inches taller.

A digression on nameplates: it’s time to drop the “Cooper” from all models save the two-door. It was confusing when Chrysler tagged everything a “LeBaron.” It was confusing when Oldsmobile tagged everything a “Cutlass.” And it’s confusing when MINI does the same with “Cooper.” (It’s also confusing when the same basic car is given many different names, as VW is wont to do, but that’s for another review.) The Clubman was little more than an additional body style, so “Cooper Clubman” was okay, but the Countryman is an entirely different car. People are going to call it a “Countryman” anyway, so why not make it official? When I say “Cooper” in this review, I mean the two-door.

Back to the car. The Countryman loses some cuteness and gains some ruggedness, but the differences are a matter of degree and the car won’t be mistaken for anything but a MINI. Same goes for the interior, which strongly resembles that in the Cooper, just larger.

In keeping with the brand, the center console includes a speedometer so ridiculously oversized that it can’t be read at a glance (best rely on the digital speedometer tucked into the conventionally located tach) and a low-mounted row of toggle switches that similarly prioritizes form over function. Also the same prevalence of hard plastic trim that looks a bit cheap given the prices MINI charges. Would premium materials be un-MINI?

The driving position is different. The Countryman being a crossover, you perch considerably higher than in the other Coopers. Though the windshield is, in the MINI fashion, distant and upright and the beltline is fairly high, visibility is good in all directions. The sport seats standard on the S are firm but comfortable. Their sizable bolsters aren’t just there to look sporty; they fit snugly and don’t give ground in turns. With no power seat adjustments and just a single manual height adjustment, the tilt of the cushion is not adjustable. A dual adjustment used to be standard in cars as lowly as the Hyundai Accent, but it can’t be found in a crossover costing three times as much today.

The Countryman’s back seat is split in two by a pair of rails, to which an optional armrest can be affixed (and which otherwise serves no obvious purpose). This means there’s no spot for a third person, but the cabin is too narrow for three across anyway. The specs suggest that there’s hardly more legroom than in a Clubman (up 1.5 inches in back, but down an inch in front), and so still 3-4 inches short of the typical compact crossover. Subjectively, though, the rear seat in the Countryman is much more comfortable than that in the Clubman and roomier than that in the JUKE. The higher seating position, which provides much better thigh support, helps a lot. Additional perks: the Countryman’s second row slides and reclines.

Cargo volume behind the second row, 12.2 cubic feet, is more than double that in the Cooper. Folding the second row increases the volume to 41.3 cubic feet, vs. 24.0 in the Cooper and 32.8 in the Clubman. Though still well short of the typical compact crossover (X3: 19.4, 56.5), the Countryman easily outdoes the JUKE (8.9, 29.3). Runs to CostCo shouldn’t pose a problem unless one finally falls for that 65-inch LCD.

The Countryman is about 200 pounds heavier than the Clubman and about 400 heavier than the Cooper. In base form it nudges under the 3,000 mark. Add a turbocharger, an automatic, and all-wheel-drive, as in the tested Cooper S Countryman ALL4, and curb weight increases to a not-so-MINI 3,252 pounds—about 200 more than the similarly dimensioned JUKE. To motivate these extra pounds the Countryman employs…the exact same engines as the other MINIs. So the 121-horsepower naturally-aspirated 1.6-liter four has its work cut out for it, especially if teamed with the six-speed manually-shiftable automatic. The sixty horsepower added by the S’s turbo are most certainly welcome. Even with them the Countryman isn’t a rocket, but acceleration is easily adequate. For best results, get the manual transmission. Turbo lag is minimal and, perhaps thanks to the all-wheel-drive, torque steer is absent.

Fuel economy, according to the EPA: 23 city, 30 highway. Though not exactly stellar, the lighter JUKE does only a bit better (25/30) and the slower Suzuki SX4 doesn’t do quite as well (23/29). If you want much better numbers you’re going to have to give up all-wheel-drive.

All-wheel-drive can deaden a car’s handling, but not this time. Instead, the system adds one entertaining feature that’s new to the brand: throttle-induced oversteer. Not much of it, but enough to have some fun, especially on slick surfaces, and it’s easily controllable. The interior bits might not all be the hardiest, but the body itself feels rock solid when chucking the car through tight turns. Especially with the standard suspension there’s more body lean than in the lower Cooper, but not too much, and certainly no slop. The steering is quick (if still far from go kart quick—banish that analogy) and, if not chatty, much more direct than the system in the JUKE. Hitting a “sport” button bumps up the steering effort, but the resulting feel is more artificial.

Put it all together, and this small crossover has the taut but lively character of a MINI, just with a higher seating position and a little less agility. The Countryman is one of those cars that can be precisely positioned with a minimum of thought. You point, it goes. The brand’s character hasn’t been sacrificed in pursuit of a livable back seat.

Also surprisingly livable, given the brand’s past: the Countryman’s ride quality (at least with the standard suspension). The taller body likely permits more suspension travel. Though still no Lexus, the Countryman generally opts to absorb bumps rather than pound them (and you) into submission.

So, what’s not to like? This being a European car, it would be the price. To its credit, MINI has priced the Countryman only $550 higher than the Clubman, all of which can be accounted for in extra features such as power rear windows and reclining rear seats. The starting price of $22,350 seems reasonable, but the options are plentiful and quickly add up. The tested vehicle checked in at $33,500 despite being modestly optioned (heated leatherette seats, panoramic sunroof, xenons, H/K audio, Bluetooth). Checking all of the boxes would add another $5,000, and you still wouldn’t have a power driver’s seat or an upscale interior. You can save $1,250 by opting for a clutch, but there’s not a lot of fat otherwise in the tested vehicle’s $33,500 sticker.

Check the same boxes on a Nissan JUKE, and the total comes to only $25,300. And this number includes leather, nav, and keyless ignition. Add these features to the MINI, and the sticker swells to $35,650. In its defense, the MINI does include many features not even available on the Nissan, most notably a two-panel panoramic sunroof. Adjust for these using TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool, and the difference shrinks to a mere $7,700.

Compared to European alternatives, the Countryman’s price seems much more reasonable. Similarly configure a larger but much less stylish Volkwagen Tiguan, then adjust for remaining feature differences, and it can run up to a grand higher than the MINI. Any other Euro ute costs far more.

Also quite possibly not to like: reliability, or a lack thereof. MINIs don’t have a good reputation here…but they might be getting better. Based on responses to TrueDelta’s  Car Reliability Survey,  the current Cooper is worse than average with its first model year (2008) but not too far from the average with newer cars. How will the Countryman, an all-new model, fare? Time will tell.

The Countryman is no MINI Cayenne. With it, the look and feel of a MINI has been successfully transferred to a four-door, four-passenger, optionally all-wheel-drive vehicle. If you want a MINI, but need to fit four reasonably-sized adults and a couple of bags into it, this is your car. Just be aware that it is a European car, with a sticker to match.

Brad Paris of Motor City MINI provided the car. He can be reached at 248-997-7700. TTAC HQ  declined the expenses for a car wash. Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta, an online source of automotive reliability and pricing data.

The MINI Countryman. Picture courtesy of Michael Karesh The MINI Countryman. Picture courtesy of Michael Karesh The MINI Countryman. Picture courtesy of Michael Karesh The MINI Countryman. Picture courtesy of Michael Karesh The MINI Countryman. Picture courtesy of Michael Karesh The MINI Countryman. Picture courtesy of Michael Karesh The MINI Countryman. Picture courtesy of Michael Karesh The MINI Countryman. Picture courtesy of Michael Karesh Countryman-side-thumb Zemanta Related Posts Thumbnail

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Review: 2011 Cadillac Escalade Fri, 04 Mar 2011 07:19:35 +0000

A large luxury SUV can’t be expected to make rational sense. As readers pointed out when commenting on Wednesday’s Lincoln Navigator review, anyone who needs the combination of interior space and towing capability the Navigator  and its arch-rival, the Cadillac Escalade, have on offer, could obtain the same functionality in a Ford Expedition or Chevrolet Tahoe / Suburban for a lot less money. For the Lincoln and Cadillac to be worth their loftier prices, they’d better deliver something above and beyond mere functionality. The Lincoln fell short in this regard, coming across as little more than a bechromed Ford. Might the Cadillac Escalade fare better?

Like the Navigator, the current Escalade is now in its fifth model year. So it’s not fresh. But the Cadillac’s more chiseled lines have aged better and it gets by with a more restrained application of chrome trim.

The grille is huge, but artfully shaped. It is not out of proportion given the size of the vehicle and faithfully advertises the power lurking within. The 22-inch-alloys (with center caps awaiting PDI) are out of proportion to the size of the vehicle, at least the regular wheelbase variant I tested. The double dubs better suit the extended wheelbase Escalade ESV. From the rear there’s little to distinguish the Escalade from the closely related Chevrolet and GMC SUVs. It could be worse: Cadillac’s designers could have drawn inspiration from the Family Truckster the way the designers of the first-generation Navigator did.

This generation of Escalade received a bespoke instrument panel. The styling is sufficiently premium and the switchgear, if not quite up to the $75,000 MSRP, comes closer than that in the Navigator. The Cadillac isn’t embarrassingly pedestrian inside.

The front seats could be better. Though blessed with power four-way lumbar adjustments, their convex contour provides no lateral support. They also feel a little undersized and unworthy of the vehicle they occupy. The Lincoln’s thrones are much larger and cushier. Visibility also isn’t quite as good in the Cadillac, as the base of the windshield is higher. But we are talking about the difference between very good and outstanding. As in the Lincoln there’s nowhere for the driver to properly rest a left foot. The only solution: rest it flat on the floor. While this might seem natural at the dinner table, it takes some getting used when driving a vehicle. The shifter is on the column rather than on the console, which makes operating the “tap up, tap down” rocker somewhat awkward. Since the rocker will be of most use in mountain driving, and even there only occasionally, this isn’t a deal breaker.

The second row is, like the first, undersized compared to that in the Lincoln. The third row, well, it’s simply ridiculous. The Escalade continues to employ a live rear axle, and this forces a high rear floor. So the third-row seat cushion is pretty much right on the floor. Adults sitting back might have enough headroom (if they’re under six feet), but they’ll find their knees above their elbows. The Navigator has a huge advantage here. Stepping up to the ESV only partially addresses the shortfall.

Cargo room is similarly impacted. There’s little of it behind the third-row seat. Adding injury to insult, the third row doesn’t fold to form a flat floor and must be removed to provide a competitive amount of cargo room. The Navigator is a much more functional vehicle. So are GM’s large “Lambda” crossovers, for that matter. (Rumor has it that the next Escalade will be Lambda-based.)

But, remember, this class of vehicle isn’t about functionality. Dip into the throttle, and the Escalade starts to make sense. The 6.2-liter V8 kicks out 403 horsepower at 5,700 rpm and 417 pound-feet of torque at 4,300 rpm. And these numbers aren’t the half of it. Even with so much power the Escalade isn’t a rocket ship—there’s too much mass for that. Where it really redeems itself is in how it sounds and feels. Even if acceleration isn’t shockingly quick, it is effortless. Unlike the Lincoln’s V8 this one never seems like its straining. It never had to jump down two or three ratios and then issue forth an unseemly roar. Not that the Escalade’s V8 is quiet; far from it. The big small block roars at full throttle, and audibly burbles much of the rest of the time. Some people might find this noise tiresome, but they won’t be interested in an Escalade anyway. The V8’s burble recalls fine watercraft more than anything on wheels, and in the process makes driving the Escalade a distinctive, and distinctively American, experience. For something to be a guilty pleasure it must be pleasurable, and prodding this powerplant is pleasurable.

On center the Escalade’s steering feels far too light and a touch loose. But helm the ute into a curve and effort builds naturally. Feedback through the seat of the pants is reassuring; the big SUV willingly goes where it’s pointed. Though certainly not predisposed to hoonery, give the Escalade your spurs and it responds “sure, why not?” In this mode a more conveniently located transmission control would be welcome. Compared to the Lincoln, the Cadillac flows with the road rather than fighting it. Even with its lower profile 285/45R22 tires the Escalade rides much more smoothly than its closest competitor. There’s no sense of the body shimmying atop its mounts. The standard “magnetic ride control” shocks that alter their firmness up to 1,000 times a second no doubt deserve some of the credit. But trick shocks can only do so much. GM seems to have put far more effort than Ford into suspension and body tuning. Despite its live rear axle and overboosted steering, the Escalade both rides and handles much better than the Navigator.

Cadillac, apparently aware of its vehicle’s more premium feel, charges heftily for it. Though the two vehicles I drove were comparably equipped, with an MSRP of $75,000 the Escalade listed for $12,000 more than the Navigator. Add another $3,200 for the extended wheelbase ESV (recommended). Running the pair through TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool finds that features account for only a few hundred dollars of this price difference. After this adjustment the Lincoln’s price advantage remains over $11,000. Oddly enough, the Chevrolet Tahoe LTZ (with a 5.3-liter V8 and 20s) also checks in about $11,000 below the Cadillac.

I’m not about to attempt a rational defense of the Cadillac Escalade. Cadillac has never marketed itself as a sensible purchase. Instead, it has always been an aspirational purchase, and an experience. With its size, its brash yet tastefully handsome styling, and its stonkin V8, the Escalade delivers what buyers in this segment are looking for. Driving it is a much different experience than driving a sports car or a high-end sedan, but it’s a rewarding experience nonetheless. Though not a place I’d care to live, I thoroughly enjoyed the visit.

Eric Breda at Cadillac of Novi provided the test vehicle. Eric can be reached at 248-476-4466.

Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta, an online source of car pricing and reliability data.

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Book Review: Crash Course: the American Automobile Industry’s Road from Glory to Disaster Sun, 03 Oct 2010 15:32:47 +0000

Predicted by site founder Robert Farago when few people thought it could actually happen, GM’s bankruptcy is now history. So, time for the histories.

Paul Ingrassia certainly seems qualified to provide one. The Wall Street Journal’s man in Detroit for years, he won a Pulitzer (with Joseph White) for his coverage of the auto industry’s early 1990’s brush with disaster and subsequent recovery. That coverage provided the basis for 1994’s Comeback: the Fall and Rise of the American Automobile Industry, a definitive account of that period.

Does Crash Course: the American Automobile Industry’s Road from Glory to Disaster similarly deserve a place on your bookshelf?

Well, it depends. Did you know:

  • most Japanese cars circa 1970 were front-wheel-drive
  • the Japanese invested in direct fuel injection in the 1980s
  • Iacocca started the SUV boom with Jeep, and gave them the 4.0 engine
  • the Saturn SL2 was larger than the SL1
  • the Toyota Prius runs entirely on electric power below 30 mph

Of course you didn’t. When discussing cars, Ingrassia gets such facts wrong as often as he gets them right. So, should we wonder what else isn’t correct? Or should we grant that someone can know the car industry inside and out, without knowing cars?

The first 160 of the book’s 280 pages review the industry’s history from its roots through 2005, with an emphasis on labor relations. There’s nothing particularly insightful in them, and certainly nothing new.

The key point: the UAW, shaped through confrontation, and with a monopoly on the supply of labor, kept demanding more and more, and industry executives, lacking courage and in denial, accepted and appeased them. For example, GM executives might have been able to bankrupt the union in 1998, but ultimately “lost their nerve” because “the UAW was the devil GM knew.”

In 2005 the UAW successfully fought an attempt to ban smoking on the assembly lines. Ingrassia’s take: “the union often stood for the right to be irresponsible, and the company accepted the ridiculous.” The most damaging concessions: retirement after 30 years on the line and a “Jobs Bank” where displaced workers continued to receive nearly full pay. When a threat to the existing ways of doing things emerged in the form of Saturn, both management and labor successfully worked to kill it. Secondary points: industry executives were out of touch with the market, and product development funds were spread too thinly due to an excessive number of brands.

The book starts earning its purchase price once it reaches 2005. Though still not insightful, but it is at least mildly interesting. Rick Wagoner is criticized for making major blunders (the FIAT debacle, the failure to sell Saab and Hummer, GMAC home mortgages, huge financial and market share losses), yet refusing to make big changes, and continuing to believe that gradualism would work. Jerry York gets props for trying (without success) to make GM accept reality and take necessary steps to avoid bankruptcy. Cerberus and the executives it hired vastly underestimated the difficulty of fixing Chrysler, and were in way over their heads. Alan Mulally faced reality and did what needed to be done before it was too late.

The last two chapters are easily the best in the book. Heavily based on confidential interviews with the people involved, they start with the first Congressional hearings in late 2008 and end with the bankruptcies. We get positive portraits of the principal Presidential Task Force members, whose lack of industry experience, as with Mulally, proved to be an advantage. Lacking this experience, “they would ignore all Detroit’s conventional wisdom about what couldn’t be done and take their guidance from common sense instead of car sense.” They did know mismanagement when they saw it. The more Wagoner touted the Volt as the solution to the company’s immediate crisis, “the more Rattner and Bloom became convinced he was removed from reality.”

We get a somewhat detailed account of how the task force, with common sense and the courage to force major changes, squeezed all of the parties hard. It forced both management and labor to take steps that should have been taken years earlier. It forced debt holders to take major haircuts, because keeping the companies operating was the top priority. The “ridiculous” Jobs Bank? Finally gone. Non-essential brands? Gone. Mountains of debt? Gone. Wagoner? Gone. In short, “the task force had brought more common sense to GM than the company had seen in decades.” Government intervention was necessary because the UAW, company executives, and debt holders would never have worked out a solution on their own, even though (in the case of the first two) their livelihoods were at stake.

Crisis was always necessary to get the UAW and executives to make any changes at all, and even with a life-threatening crisis they weren’t willing or able to make sufficient changes on their own. So what, now, that the companies have been saved? In an afterward, Ingrassia doubts that the cultures of the UAW or the “lifer” executives who remained in control had undergone the needed revolutions.

The account throughout is very much that of a professional journalist. Unlike with Alex Taylor’s Sixty to Zero (reviewed here), the personality and opinions of the author are well hidden. There’s minimal wondering what might have happened, for better or worse, if various people had acted differently. The exceptions: GM could have avoided bankruptcy if it had followed Ford’s lead, and Chrysler was nearly permitted to go under. But, once the decision was made to save both companies, what might have been done differently? What opportunities for change were missed? These questions aren’t asked, much less answered. The focus is on what did happen, on the (hopefully correct) facts.

The largest failing of Crash Course: it doesn’t dig much beneath the surface. Ingrassia’s new, shorter book (280 vs. 474 pages) is in general considerably less interesting and insightful than Comeback, which continues to be a joy to read. One likely factor: while the old book thoroughly delved into the biographies, work, and personalities of many mid-level managers, the new book focuses more tightly on harder-to-access people at the very top of the companies. (Two exceptions: a guy on the line and a car dealer.) Despite numerous interviews—they were “confidential,” and so are not listed—the major players remain caricatures. “Complacency, arrogance, and hubris,” “isolation,” a lack of “common sense,” and “lack of courage,” though certainly present, are the same, overly simple characterizations Detroit’s critics have been making since  Brock Yates penned “Grosse Pointe Myopians” back in 1968. And probably before that.

These characterizations don’t go far enough. These people aren’t stupid; smart people somehow kept doing stupid things. Replace these smart people with other smart people, and more often than not the new people will do the same stupid things. Why does experience apparently suppress common sense? What were the UAW and corporate leaders actually thinking as events progressed? Why did they feel they had no choice but to act the way they did? Why are the “cultural revolutions” Ingrassia calls for still not happening?

The best answers Ingrassia offers: “courage” and the “common sense” of an outsider’s perspective. Both Mulally and the task force came from outside the industry, and so neither accepted that the way things had always been done was the way they had to be done. Beyond this, they had the courage to make big changes, and to face down those who opposed these changes—though both also appeased the union, if to a lesser extent.

Was “courage” truly the key difference between Wagoner and Mulally? And the courage to admit failure and step side the key difference between Wagoner and Bill Ford? Briefly mentioned: the Ford family and the priority it placed on retaining control through its stock ownership. Left implicit: while GM’s executives claimed until the last minute that bankruptcy was not an option, in Ford’s case bankruptcy was truly not an option. Perhaps this and not the courage of this or that individual explains why only Ford did whatever was necessary to avoid bankruptcy? Even though they held large amounts of stock and options themselves, perhaps GM’s executives did not feel the same amount of pressure to safeguard GM’s stockholders?

With his experience and contacts, Ingrassia should have been able to offer deeper, more thorough explanations for why the various players did what they did. Did he not try, or even in retirement does he remain bound by the culture of the mainstream auto media, and so unwilling to dig too deeply or say too much? Ingrassia criticizes the local Detroit media for “helping to create the very insularity that had made Detroit executives and UAW officials oblivious to the sentiment elsewhere in America.” The cultures of the UAW and executive suites are not the only ones still in need of revolution.

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Here Comes The Power! Thu, 17 Jun 2010 19:46:10 +0000

J.D. Power has released the results of its 2010 Initial Quality Survey (IQS). As in previous years, the release stresses that Detroit has improved, but now to the point that the average for GM, Ford, and Chrysler is for the first time higher than that for the imports. J.D. Power’s sound bite: “This year may mark a key turning point for U.S. brands as they continue to fight the battle against lingering negative perceptions of their quality.”

Interesting choice of words. The battle to change perceptions is often fought with ads. What information might ads include to assist in this fight?

Anyway, we all know better than to base our perceptions on headlines and self-serving sound bites, right? As tends to be the case, a deeper dig muddies the waters. To begin with, J.D. Power continues to assert that a low number of problems during the first 90 days of ownership should allay any concerns a car buyer might have about a car’s quality. But of course car buyers are most concerned about how a car will hold up in the long run.

Initial quality sometimes correlates with long-term durability, but there’s only a partial connection between the two. Initial quality can result from solid engineering, which will also benefit long-term durability. But strong initial quality can also follow from thorough inspections at the plant or dealer. Such inspections can catch and fix problems that happen to occur before delivery, but aren’t likely to reduce problems down the road.

J.D. Power’s scores also continue to combine design quality—how easy a car is to operate—and manufacturing quality—repairable defects. These are two very different things, but no subscores are provided in this year’s release. The inclusion of design quality might explain why BMW remains below the industry average—it tends to take a big hit for iDrive. A few years ago, Mercedes reacted by providing car buyers with more thorough instruction in how to operate its cars. Which might largely explain the brand’s #3 rank. Then again, both the current C-Class and the new E-Class have also scored well in TrueDelta’s Car Reliability Survey, which strictly measures repairs and doesn’t seek to combine every sort of product-related complaint into a single score.

Ideally, we’d look at the IQS scores for individual models, since people buy a model and not an entire brand. But, aside from a selection of top-scoring models, J.D. Power continues to only publicly release scores for brands.

Even a glance at the IQS brand scores suggests the pointlessness of thinking in terms of “domestic” and “imported.” On the domestic side, only Ford seems to be doing consistently well, and has improved to the highest rank for a non-luxury brand. GM’s score actually declined a little this year, and its quality continues to vary quite a bit from model to model, with some good ones and other not-so-good ones. Chrysler continues to be consistently worse than average, though the new Ram is touted as a bright spot.

The “imports” range from Porsche in the top spot all the way down to perennial basement-dweller Land Rover. What does labeling them all as “imports” accomplish other than enabling intellectual laziness?

The big story on the import side is that Toyota’s score declined by 16 points, landing it below average. J.D. Power notes, “Recent consumer concerns regarding Toyota’s quality are reflected in the nameplate’s performance.” Additional details would be helpful, but are not provided. Could a concern about unintended acceleration count as a problem? Recalls are not supposed to count, but could some mat and pedal replacements have been included anyway? Responses to TrueDelta’s Car Reliability Survey have not indicated an increase in repairs for Toyotas, but we are much stricter than J.D. Power with regard to what counts as a problem.

In contrast to its parent, Lexus continues to score among the best.

As usual, all of this talk about where brands rank obscures how large the differences actually are (or are not). As in the past, the differences tend to be small. The average this year, 109 problems per 100 cars, is a single problem per 100 cars worse than last year. Not much of a change. Nevertheless, Automotive News headlines this decline, and credits Toyota for it. The number of brands within 20 percent of this average? Twenty-six out of 33.  Fifteen—nearly half—are within 10 percent of the average. And all of them except for Land Rover round to a single problem per car.

The differences are no doubt larger between models. And, for most people, it’s probably good enough to avoid the few outliers near the botton. But, as already noted, J.D. Power publicly releases the scores for very few car models, and even these exceptions are for top-scorers. If you want to know which specific models score well below the average, you’ll need to find another source. J.D. Power isn’t going to tell you.

Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta, a provider of automotive quality and reliability data.

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Review: Ford Fusion Hybrid 2010 Wed, 16 Jun 2010 17:48:04 +0000

A year ago, with gas prices high and the survival of the domestic auto companies never more in doubt, the media settled on the Ford Fusion Hybrid as the best evidence that Detroit deserved to survive. Roomy, reliable, economical, and fairly affordable, the FFH seemed to tick off all of the boxes. But what about love?

When the Ford Fusion was originally introduced, its exterior appeared crisply handsome. But that was five years ago. A refresh for the 2010 model year cleaned up the tail lights and enlarged the grille, but did nothing to update the thoroughly conventional three-box profile. Consequently, next to more recently designed sedans, the Fusion looks quite staid and dated. And, aside from multi-spoke alloys that do nothing to add visual excitement, the FFH looks just like the regular Fusion. Toyota’s breakout success with the Prius suggests that car buyers want a hybrid’s exterior appearance to reflect the advanced technology contained within. The virtually invisible FFH utterly fails in this regard.

The story remains the same inside the car. With an exception to be covered later, the Ford Fusion Hybrid’s interior styling is plain to a fault. Neither imagination nor attention to detail appears to have played a role. The engineers might well have phoned it in without even involving the designers. But not the human factors engineers—they would never locate the HVAC controls so low on the center stack. Much of the IP is soft to the touch, yet even with the optional leather upholstery the ambiance suggests “fleet.” Oval-shaped hard plastic door pulls resembling those that provide such a poor first impression when entering a Chevy Cobalt, Revell-worthy interior door levers, and geographically disadvantaged HVAC knobs look and feel especially cheap. One nice touch: white stitching on the black leather seats.

The FFH’s conventional styling pays some benefits. The relatively thin, relatively upright A-pillars and generous greenhouse contribute to excellent forward visibility and a familiar driving position.  As in the regular Fusion, the unfashionably unarched roof-line permits the insufficiently contoured rear seat cushion to be mounted a comfortable height off the floor. Knee room is generous. But, unlike in the regular Fusion, the rear seatback cannot fold to expand the trunk. Which could use some expanding, as the battery pack takes up its forward third. Want a hatch? Well, Ford offers the same powertrain in the Ford Escape Hybrid. Want a hatch with the handling of a car? Then Ford doesn’t have a hybrid for you.

The FFH’s interior appearance does have two bright spots—literally. Unique to the Hybrid, a pair of reconfigurable LCD displays flank the analog speedometer. Precursors to the MyFord Touch instrumentation that will debut in the 2011 Ford Edge, and then spread to many other Ford models, these displays have graphics that are both vibrant and functional. After mucking about with digital displays for a quarter-century, the auto industry has finally figured out how to make them more than a light show.

In the FFH, the reconfigurable capability is used to provide information about the power flows to and from the various powertrain components in multiple alternative formats. The intent: educate the driver how to drive to maximize efficiency. The theory is sound, but in practice, the FFH’s displays aren’t as helpful as the simpler, less colorful displays in the latest Toyota Prius. Unlike in the Prius, there’s no indication of the point in throttle application at which efficiency falls off. There’s also no indication of the point in brake application at which the conventional brakes jump in to assist the regenerative system. The latter would be especially helpful, since the entire point of a hybrid is to recoup the energy used to accelerate the car when braking the car. Use the conventional brakes, and energy that might recharged the battery pack instead heats up the rotors.

Instead, some of the display options indicate how far you can apply the throttle before the engine kicks in. Interesting information, but with no clear connection to maximizing overall fuel economy. This is still a conventional hybrid with limited battery capacity. No matter how you drive the FFH, you’re not going far before the engine has to kick in to recharge the batteries. Another option: vines that grow leaves when you drive efficiently. Rewarding until the novelty wears off, perhaps, but hardly useful feedback.

One thing Ford offers that Toyota does not: a tach. Perhaps I’m just old school, but the tach provided the most useful feedback for me. Keep the engine speed low, and fuel economy goes up. With the tach it’s also clearer how much power remains in reserve.

So how about the Ford Fusion Hybrid’s fuel economy? In suburban driving I generally managed about 42 MPG, about ten fewer than in the smaller, lighter, less powerful Prius. Drive the FFH aggressively, and this drops into the high 20s. More than in the typical hybrid, you might even want to drive this one aggressively. With no powertrain modes to choose from, there’s no “eco mode” that feels sluggish. Drive the FFH like you would a normal car and it feels like…a normal car. Or at least a normal car with a CVT. Aside from engine noise and the instruments, there’s little indication when the FFH switches from all-electric operation to gasoline power. Dip more than halfway into the throttle, and the FFH actually feels quick. Not as quick as a V6-powered Fusion, but definitely quicker than the conventional four. Unfortunately, when pushed, the FFH’s four-cylinder Atkinson cycle engine turns agricultural. The quantity of power delivery is easily sufficient, but the quality of power delivery leaves much to be desired.

It’s not possible to hold the CVT at a fixed ratio—the power-distributing role of a hybrid’s CVT generally precludes this—but shifting into L does bump engine RPM a couple grand. This is primarily intended for engine braking while descending grades, but it can also serve to keep engine response snappy on a twisty road.

The FFH’s handling is good enough that the front seat’s above-average lateral support comes in handy. The electrically-assisted power steering (EPS) is no more communicative than most such systems, but it is fairly quick and nicely weighted. There’s little lean in hard turns, and body motions are tightly controlled. The taut suspension tuning’s downside: a lumpy, unrefined ride, with sharp vertical reactions even to fairly small bumps. Only driving enthusiasts might appreciate this ride-handling trade-off. Are there enough driving enthusiasts who buy hybrids to justify it? Most car buyers will prefer the smoother, quieter, generally more refined Toyota Camry Hybrid (though the TCH’s powertrain operation and chassis have their own shortcomings).

It’s easy to see why the Ford Fusion Hybrid has attracted so much praise, as it ticks off all the right boxes. With very good fuel economy, passenger room, and reliability at a reasonable price, it’s a rational choice. But permit emotions to intrude, and the FFH falls short. The engine’s character will put off enthusiasts, while the ride quality will put off non-enthusiasts. For enthusiasts and non-enthusiasts alike, the Fusion looks boring and feels rough around the edges. As much as there is to like, there’s too little to love. Ford best not infer from the FFH’s awards that it can rest on its laurels. The next Ford Fusion Hybrid needs to be both more refined and more special.

Ford provided an insured vehicle with a full tank of gas.

Michael Karesh operates, a provider of car reliability, real-world fuel economy, and price comparison information.

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