The Truth About Cars » Product The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Wed, 23 Jul 2014 18:25:17 +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 » Product Chrysler Changes Product Plans Again, Extends “Sell-By Date” Of Avenger, Caravan, Wrangler Thu, 25 Jul 2013 12:46:06 +0000 Jeep_Wrangler_X_--_10-06-2010

Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne may not be fond of changing up his outfits, but he certainly has no problem mixing up product plans. The latest news out of Auburn Hills suggests that Chrysler will be extending the lifespan of some key products for up to another 5 years.

Under the new regime, the Dodge Avenger, one of Chrysler’s main fleet queens and the key cannibalizer of Dart sales, gets a stay of execution until 2015. The Dodge Grand Caravan will run until 2017, an extension of two years past its planned replacement date, while the Jeep Wrangler, which is said to be undergoing a radical redesign, will stay on the market in its current form until 2018.

Chrysler has good reasons to keep all three vehicles going. The Avenger’s platform-twin, the Chrysler 200, will be replaced next year in a major redesign, and by keeping the Avenger around, Chrysler will have a cheap sedan to sell to fleets (and presumably, less-than-qualified buyers).

The Grand Caravan can also fill that role in minivan form, while a redesigned Chrysler Town & Country will apparently be introduced to consolidate Chrysler’s minivan position. But the popularity of the Grand Caravan among fleet buyers and in the Canadian market has been said to give Chrysler pause about killing it off entirely. For some time, plans have called for one brand to get a minivan and one brand to get two crossovers. Automotive News seems to think that Chrysler will get the van and presumably Dodge will have a redesigned Journey – and a Grand Caravan too.

The decision to keep the Wrangler kicking around is seemingly more transparent. By extending its lifespan another two years, Jeep can get more capacity at its Toledo, Ohio plant, which is said to be running flat-out. In addition to a whole bunch of brand new features like aluminum body panels and an air suspension, the Wrangler will apparently get a diesel engine and a pickup variant. Right now, Jeep is selling Wranglers, particularly the 4-door Unlimited model, as fast as they can, with special edition variants not lasting long on dealer lots. Presumably, Chrysler will keep pumping them out for another few years to keep Jeep buyers satiated.


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Why There’s No Powershift Option On The Ford Fiesta Ecoboost Tue, 21 May 2013 14:48:29 +0000 2014-Ford-Fiesta-1L-rear-3q

During the launch of the Ford Fiesta 1.0L Ecoboost, multiple outlets ran articles parroting Ford’s PR line about the lack of an automatic transmission. Apparently, Ford declined to offer an automatic or Powershift dual-clutch gearbox on the 3-cylinder Fiesta since a two-pedal option would run counter to the 1.0L’s stated mission of being both fun to drive and good on gas.

Not so, says a supplier source. According to them, there were plans to offer such a combination, but the combo was axed due to “customer expectations” not being met. What does that mean? The performance, ride and NVH characteristics were far below what was considered acceptable, and therefore the decision was made to offer the 3-cylinder with 3-pedals, and no fewer.

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Acura Signs The Death Warrant For The ZDX Wed, 10 Oct 2012 17:20:35 +0000

Acura may be refreshing the ZDX for 2013, but the company has simultaneously signed the car’s death warrant, killing off one of the most reviled cars on sale today.

Acura’s Jeff Conrad issued a roundabout confirmation of the car’s death

“People shopping for a luxury crossover vehicle will find the Acura ZDX an even more attractive product,” said Jeff Conrad, vice president and general manager of the Acura Division. “Moving forward, we will continue to advance the Acura lineup with a focus on new core models, like the recently redesigned RDX and the upcoming all-new RLX flagship sedan, that provide the ideal balance of performance and fuel efficiency that is right for each product and a driving experience that is dynamic and emotional.”

At $51,815, there are understandably few takers for Acura’s four-seat monstrosity. Acura sold only 48 units last month, which may be less than the number of TWAT nominations the ZDX garnered in the same 30 day period.

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Would You Trade Places With A Chrysler Dealer? Mon, 15 Feb 2010 20:59:57 +0000

It’s not a question that should leave many folks on the fence, but apparently there are at least a few Detroit-area journalists who might be willing to consider the career change. “Dealers optimistic about Chrysler’s future” proclaims the Detroit News headline from NADA’s annual convention. A more accurate headline (such as USAToday‘s “Chrysler dealers face new-model drought”) probably should have included the term “punch-drunk” to better explain this unexpectedly sunny outlook. One grizzled ChryCo dealer sums up the mood with aplomb:

We’re the toughest fighters. We’ve always been 3 or 4 (in the marketplace). We’ve never been spoon-fed. We have to fight for every piece of ground… There’s light at the end of the tunnel; I just don’t like the length of the tunnel.

Bizarrely (or, for those familiar with the dynamics of Detroit’s media, not), The Freep’s Mark Phelan dons his Pollyanna chapeau and goes for broke with the headline “Chrysler has lots of products to crow about.” Because the “game of survival” claptrap you hear from the people who actually have to sell Chryslers is just so much bellyaching. Phelan kicks off with a plea to “stop shoveling dirt onto Chrysler’s grave for a moment” (not bloody likely, mate), and then breaks into some prose that would be tough to describe as anything other than advertising copy.

SUVs became emblematic of Detroit’s dysfunction, but there’s still a market for them, and the new Grand Cherokee looks like a winner. Its elegant looks sheath a classy interior and the go-anywhere ability that make Jeep one of the auto industry’s strongest brands.

A brand-new seven-seat crossover SUV for Dodge — the brand’s first vehicle in the popular segment dominated by models like the Toyota Highlander and Chevrolet Traverse — is to follow the Grand Cherokee out of Chrysler’s plant off Jefferson Avenue in Detroit in the third or fourth quarter of this year.

At about the same time, dynamic new versions of the exciting Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger sedans are to arrive in dealerships.

Get the picture? This is a lot of faith in Cerberus-era products for a guy who just 15 short months ago said:

Cerberus’ ownership of Chrysler is a strip-and-flip operation. Chrysler’s leaders spent much of the nine years they were part of DaimlerChrysler approving vehicles that didn’t stand a chance in the market.

And yet the last of the Cerberus-developed models, which first appeared in Chrysler’s laughed-out-of-Washington viability plan, are somehow worth breaking out the ad copy thesaurus for? One wonders what Phelan thinks of the widely reported sense of relief at the NADA conference that Chrysler would not be pushing extra inventory as they did last year.

In any case, product is only one of many major issues facing Chrysler’s dealer body. The ongoing arbitration aimed at bringing justice to Chrysler’s bankruptcy-era dealer cull is dragging on, while the critics of the cull like AutoNation CEO Mike Jackson blast ChryCo inpublications like Automotive News [sub]:

Chrysler went first, and I think they did a terrible job. Why they took out any rural small-town dealers, I don’t know. It’s a strength for them. Blows my mind.

But Chrysler must have a fairly different take on the importance of culled dealers, as it has resisted arbitration since the idea first came up in congress. Most recently, Chrysler reserved the right to challenge arbitration legislation in a letter to dealers, prompting Rep. Chris Van Hollen to lay into the Pentastar-crossed automaker:

Chrysler’s suggestion that they may now challenge this legislation is very troubling and will do nothing to help turn the struggling car maker around. It is my hope that Chrysler will allow the arbitration process to play itself out and abide by the outcome of these deliberations.

Meanwhile, with product and dealer relations in trouble, finance is forming the third leg of Chrysler’s stool of misery. With GMAC pushing for more lease marketing, dealers are reporting that this is not the road to salvation (go figure). One dealer explains to USA Today:

They drop cars off lease and they’re gone. We lose these people. That will hurt once the new product starts to flow again. They’re leaving us in droves.

But then the government has already backed GMAC and Chrysler in hopes of somehow rescuing both. If GMAC needs to push leases, it will be hard for Chrysler to say no. Chrysler’s dealers, meanwhile, are long used to not having the option either way.

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Too Good To Be True: How Toyota’s Success Caused Killer Decontenting Thu, 28 Jan 2010 22:26:44 +0000

The ongoing kerfluffle over Toyota’s recall of over 2m vehicles for a gas pedal defect which (allegedly) caused unintended acceleration has caught much of the automotive media flat-footed. How could it be, many have wondered, that the automaker most associated in the US market with the concept of quality has slipped so badly? As TTAC’s Steve Lang recently discussed, Toyota has been on a decontenting binge since the mid-to-late-1990s, putting profit above the quality obsession that had defined its operations up to that point. As a result, the current generation of decontented Toyotas and accompanying quality issues and recalls can be seen as the culmination of a long-term trend. But why did that transition take place? Though it’s easy to blame greed and mismanagement for the decline in Toyota’s quality, the decline in standards was actually a natural progression of Toyota’s constantly-evolving, efficiency-obsessed production system.

Since the 50s, Toyota had been introducing management techniques such as kanban (just-in-time inventory management), shusa (heavyweight product managers), and kaizen (continuous improvement at all levels of production, including assembly-line problem solving). In the 1960s, what is now known as the “Toyota Production System” came into its own, as Toyota integrated suppliers into its product development and established Total Quality Control over every area of its operation. These developments led to huge efficiency gains, allowing Toyota to launch its full-scale assault on the US market in the 1970s.

By the 1980s, the principles of the Toyota Production System were well-established, and the global auto industry began to take notice of Toyota as the automaker made increasing gains in the US market and elsewhere. The first half of the 80s saw the introduction of export limits in the US, which limited production expansion but kept Toyota’s profitability high thanks to artificially inflated prices. In 1985 however, a sharp jump in the value of the yen put major pressure on the Toyota system and reduced its competitive advantage relative to US manufacturers.

In the short term, this challenge was masked by bubble-driven Japanese economy, which added another 2m units of annual demand in the late 80s, but as Takahiro Fujimoto writes in The Evolution Of A Manufacturing System At Toyota,

as appreciation of the yen eroded their cost competitiveness, Japanese firms had to increasingly rely on the quality side of their strength. Real-term productivity growth had been slowing since the early 1980s, but total quality continued to increase.

The Japanese market took back its volume gains in the early 1990s as it entered recession, and the yen rose again in 1993-94, putting even more pressure on Toyota’s Japanese production. Though the rise of transplant production is the best-known result of these challenges, it’s no coincidence that Toyota made major changes to its product development philosophy in this turbulent period.

These changes were a response to the emerging concept of “fat product design,” a term that consciously clashes with the “lean” ideals of the Toyota system. The “fat product” critique held that Toyota’s increasing reliance on quality advantages resulted in product “overquality” in terms of design “overquality,” relatively lower component sharing, frequent model changes and product variety run amok. In short, a weakening Japanese market and upward pressure on the yen created conditions in which Toyotas strengths with its customers were systematically turned into a concept that was anathema to the Toyota system: the “problem” of “fat product.”

Fujimoto explains the subtle rise of the “fat product problem” thusly:

…these problems didn’t emerge because the Japanese makers built a wrong set of capabilities in the first place. To the contrary… “overbuilding” of the same capability that created new competitive advantages in the 1980s has been the source of new problems in the 1990s. Overall, the dilemma of fat product designs provides us with new insights about the subtle nature of the capability-building dynamics: effective manufacturing routines are difficult for a firm to acquire, but once it gains momentum to build them, it is also difficult to avoid overrun.

Fujimoto illustrates this dynamic in a number of areas. First, he argues that high product development efficiency aided by supplier integration into the design process (heretofore a competitive advantage) resulted in too much product variety. This efficiency was also measured in terms of shortened development lead times as facilitated by standardized development processes, a phenomenon that Fujimoto maintains was a contributing factor in fat product design as it prevented improvements in design efficiency by emphasizing routine practice. “Heavyweight product managers,” another Toyota innovation that allowed high levels of product integrity (and therefore success in the market) also became overemphasized, creating more unique components and requiring an accompanying increase in prices that could not be sustained when the Yen’s value took off in the mid-80s and early-90s.

Another area of product development “fatness” that is especially resonant in light of recent developments, is Toyota’s emphasis on the consumer satisfaction index (CSI) as a measure of customer satisfaction. The use of CSI results in product development was problematic in the sense that it emphasized the elimination of points of customer dissatisfaction. Fujimoto writes:

elimination of customer dissatisfaction does not automatically mean higher customer satisfaction, as the two are often different dimensions. As a result, the pursuit of the CS technique based on the dissatisfaction list may create high-cost [i.e. "fat"] products that have no problems– but no fun built in, either.

What did “fat product” mean in real terms? Around 1990 Toyota’s global output was about 300k units per month, comprised of no fewer than 60k product variations, 25k of which were assembled only once per month. The worst-selling half of these variations made up only five percent of total sales. This variation proliferation was caused by Toyota’s ability to respond to the market’s demand for product differentiation, but in the cutthroat global car business, this was not a sustainable state of affairs.

In addition to overbuilding variety in response to consumer demand, there is evidence that Japanese firms also overbuilt for quality in this period as well (although this is often difficult to objectively quantify). Fujimoto notes:

When I interviewed a product engineer at a German car maker in the late 1980s, he commented that one of the leading Japanese models was about $500 more expensive that the equivalent German model owing to overquality and excessive designs, other things being equal.

Whether this phenomenon existed across Toyota’s product range is nearly impossible to prove, but one thing is certain: in the early to mid 1990s, Toyota’s managers clearly believed that it suffered from “fat product” and moved aggressively to limit its effects.

In 1993-94, Toyota lost about 100b yen due to currency fluctuation alone, making lean product design a jarring necessity. Over those two years, Toyota saved about the same amount in cost-cutting alone, preventing the need for right-sizing capacity or cutting jobs. Instead, Toyota reduced product varieties, increased component-sharing and generally introduced more “value engineering” into its designs. Again, this was not obviously a product of  cynicism on the part of Toyota’s management, but a realization that reforming Toyota’s super-lean manufacturing system would not yield the kind of savings the firm needed. In Fujimoto’s words, the focus of competition had changed, and Toyota’s response was to de-emphasize individual, product-focused development in favor of multiple project development which would allow greater component-sharing across models, and fewer variations of each individual model.

In theory, this sea change in Toyota’s culture could have been effectively managed to prevent the steady decontenting of products and declining quality. And, in the interest of fairness, it could also have led to even more dramatic drops in quality and content. Fujimoto’s analysis of Toyota was published in 1999, when Toyota was still (if only by reputation) the king of quality in the automotive world, a fact that at the time was still attributed to its manufacturing, rather than its product-development system. However, Fujimoto does leave the reader with a warning that should probably have been posted on every bulletin board in Toyota City:

Achieving product integrity and product simplicity at the same time is not an easy job. As of the mid-1990s, there have been some cases in which excessive simplification of the Japanese new models, which apparently resulted in loss of product integrity, lack of product differentiation and perceived deterioration of design quality, have created customer dissatisfaction and loss in market share, despite their competitive prices. This seems to indicate that lean designs actually involve a subtle balancing and that there is always a risk of overshooting– or oversimplifying product design.

Obviously, we need to know a lot more about the specifics of Toyota’s recent quality woes before we can establish causal links between the rise of lean product design in the 1990s and the current rash of bad news. The fact that Denso-built pedals do not appear to suffer from the same problem as CTS-supplied pedals indicates that this might be a supplier-specific problem, rather than the result of a systemic de-emphasis on quality at Toyota. Still, the Toyota practice of working closely with suppliers in the development process indicates that there’s more than enough blame to go around.

The real extent of this cost-cutting, decontenting and “design leaning” won’t be easy to quantify, but the fact that it’s been taking place since the early nineties and is only now yielding negative effects suggests that it’s been relatively well-managed. But Toyota’s reputation was built on those “fat” products of the mid-80s to early-90s, and it won’t be returning to the old practices that created them anytime soon due to their competitive disadvantages. This seems to suggest that, once damaged, Toyota is unlikely to ever recover its former quality halo.

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Product Review: Harbor Freight Hydraulic Scissor Lift Thu, 07 Jan 2010 20:22:50 +0000 The New Beetle of Damocles?

Having lead a life of high adventure in my youth, scaling pinnacles of rocks and ice, I never imagined that I’d meet my end, flat on my back crushed beneath a falling car. I was setting a new land-speed record for butt-shoulder-shuffling on my way out from under the creaking, swaying mass of 1999 Volkswagen New Beetle-shaped steel groaning menacingly above my body. Moments before the VW started moving it was resting firmly on my tried, and until-that-moment trusted ramps and jack-stands. But now I was going to die, life flashing before my eyes, staring swaying death in the face as my wife’s “cute bug” transformed into Damocles’ Sword, or Poe’s Pendulum, my garage floor playing the Pit. The tremor ceased as my head cleared the oil pan, and the Beetle slowed, then stopped making the horrific creaking noises as the jack-stands stopped wobbling. I cleared the bumper and leapt to my feet in a single motion, and relief swept over me like the expected post-quake tidal wave should. “Damn, I’m still alive!… in fact… I’m completely unharmed!” Running into the house I yelled at the family: ‘Did you guys feel that?!” … only to be met with a non-chalant: “feel what?”

In retrospect the tremor which scared me out from under the car was only a barely-rattle-the-china 3.2 on the Richter Scale, but it drove home an indelible lesson to this DIY mechanic living in a region where three tectonic plates meet: I NEED to get a lift!

flatWith kids heading for college in a few years, the budget was tight, but the family’s financial committee agreed that my life and future earning power were worth an investment of about a thousand bucks or so. Armed with that vote of confidence I perused the web for advice and good deals on a better platform for the home mechanic to raise his car off the ground.

Most of the work I do on my family’s cars involves basic maintenance: Fluid Changes. Tire Rotations. Brake Jobs. Occasionally tasks are a tad more involved, especially with my hobby car, a vintage British sports car, which always seems to have some little thing, and occasionally a big thing wrong with it. Major engine overhauls and complete restorations however are out of my league, so in reality the lift I required could be a light-duty model. Sure, I’d love a deluxe two- or four-post lift, but at the time I was shopping I really had no place to put one, and they were all priced out of my budget. Scissor lifts however seemed to be a good compromise: small, semi-portable, usable in a small garage, and far safer than ramps & jack-stands, while being reasoraisednably priced

At the suggestion of more than one like-minded cheapskate wrench-turner I settled upon the “US General” 6000lb Scissor Lift from Harbor Freight. (Item #46604) It is likely the lowest-price lift on the market. Using a Triple-Word-Score combination of coupons, online specials, and shipping discounts the total price came to about $850 in 2003. I live in the boonies 60-some miles out of Seattle and due to the size and weight (~750lbs) of the lift Harbor Freight would only use a freight forwarder for shipping.

This meant I had to pick it up at a loading dock in Seattle in my battered old farm pickup. It arrived in two pieces: a large wooden crate, with a cardboard box containing the hydraulic control unit strapped to the top of it, which fit right into the short bed of the old Dodge. I borrowed a neighbor’s tractor with a backhoe to unload the bulky unit from the truck’s bed and set it on the concrete floor of my garage. A few months later I relocated it to our barn, which became my workshop after the last of the domestic livestock were moved to better accommodations elsewhere. Moving the whole unit around is unwieldy, yet once upon a concrete slab it is very easy for a single person to maneuver the lift around an open space due to the magic of leverage and physics. The Control unit is essentially designed as a wheeled lever, and the lift is equipped with sturdy rollers at one end, and a lever-eye at the other end.

First, theProblem solved! bad news: Two minor parts failed almost immediately. The original plastic wheels of the control unit are just not up to the task of holding the weight of the lift when used as a lever. They literally crumbled after a few tries moving the lift around. I replaced them with sturdier units from my local hardware store with actual bearings in them. Secondly the control unit is very top-heavy and with the broken wheels it tipped over, falling right onto the fitting for the hydraulic pipe, breaking it. At first I tried calling Harbor Freight’s customer service department to have the pipe replaced. Eventually I gave up that fruitless exercise and had a new pipe fabricated at my local NAPA store. Both repairs have held up for almost six years.

The good news: It is simple to operate, safe, and makes common automotive maintenance work a breeze. Low clearance cars such as my vintage Jaguar require help getting over the folded lift, so I have collected some long 4×4 & 4×6 lumber to arrange around the lift for that purpose. Vehicles with more ground clearance can just drive over it. Moveable arms with adjustable rubber-topped pads provide the lifting surfaces under the car. The pads are scored with right-angled grooves to mate up to the body work of cars like VW, who use flanges as lifting points. The lift has several pre-set ratcheting safety latch points as it goes up, providing safe, stable levels to perform work. To raise the car you operate the hydraulic pump, which runs from a standard household electrical outlet, with a push-button. To lower the car you must hold two levers, one retracting the safety-catch, the other slowly releasing the hydraulic fluid.

Oil changes, tire rotations, and brake work are now super-easy, and so much safer and faster when performed on the lift. Instead of spending lots of time raising, lowering and fiddling with jacks and stands, I can now get right to work. However, since the lift itself is positioned directly under the car working on things like transmissions or exhaust can be problematic depending upon the car. For these applications a traditional lift would be much better, but for the home mechanic on a budget this small lift is a wonderful luxury. I’ve used it countless times for oil and filter changes, and when it came time to sell the New Beetle I was able to do it right with numerous photos of every nook and cranny to put it on eBay Motors.

Had that tremor in 2003 bloomed into a genuine 6.0 or larger quake I might not be here today to enjoy life. Even if you don’t live in a “geological entertainment zone” like I do the peace of mind provided by such a simple and safe working platform is well worth the cost.

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