Bob Elton

By on May 10, 2006

 Mitsubishi Motors is on the ropes. US sales are in the basement. Aside from the new Eclipse and the niche-market EVO, they haven't got a winning product in sight. A line of forgettable sedans and me-too SUVs does not a viable car company make. DaimlerChrysler's decision to pull the plug on future financial aid doesn't bode well either. In fact, Mitsubishi is knocking on the door of bankruptcy. Desperate times call for desperate measures. It's time for them to build a "real" pickup truck: a Mitsubishi Freightliner.

Despite the recent surge in gas prices, the US pickup truck market remains relatively robust. And even if it's contracting slightly, the profits aren't. The average profit on a pickup is $13,000 per unit. No wonder Nissan threw their hat in the ring with the Titan, and Toyota's promising all-new Tundra is due out next spring. Mitsubishi's entry, the Raider, is a badge engineered Dodge Dakota, but not nearly as memorable. It has some of the right stuff, including a V8, but cowers in the darkest corners of the marketplace, ignored and little missed. To make the grade and mint some money, Mitsubishi needs a full-size competitor to the Ford Super Duty.

By on May 4, 2006

 Anyone remember Buick? You know; "doctor's car", big, expensive, highly-styled, just this side of a Cadillac? Well, today's Buick is going head to head with… Hyundai. No really. Even Hyundai's website knows the truth. It compares their new Azera Limited to a Buick LaCrosse. And here's the really strange part: the Buick kicks the Azera's ass. This triumph would be all well and good for GM if anyone was actually buying a Buick, but they aren't. At last count, on average, each Buick dealership sold eight new cars per month. Eight. Something's very right here, and something's very wrong.

Let's look at that comparison again. At $25,535, a Buick LaCrosse is cheaper than the $27,495 Azera Limited. That's almost two grand less than the import before you begin bargaining with the dealer (So Ricky… how many new Buicks did you guys sell this month?). And don't forget that GM sweetens the deal with 2.9% financing. Or how about Buick's flagship, the new Lucerne? At $25,990, it's still about $1500 less than the Hyundai. The Lucerne has features Hyundai hasn't even thought of (yet): rain-sensing wipers, heated washer fluid, OnStar, etc. The Lucerne also has a much larger cabin and the quietest ride this side of a casket. And portholes.

By on April 24, 2006

 Anyone who's shopped for a Toyota Prius knows that the gas – electric sedan comes complete with a 'hybrid premium': a theoretical surcharge included in the manufacturer's suggested retail price. Although there's considerable debate on this point, it is possible for a mileage-conscious Prius driver to save enough money at the pumps to recover the extra cost of purchasing a hybrid– eventually. But no matter how the customer makes out, Toyota still comes out on top. This despite the fact that the cost of developing and manufacturing hybrid technology– batteries, drivetrain, controls, brakes, etc.– means that Toyota makes a loss on every single Prius sold. But by losing the battle, they win the war.

It's no secret that hybrids get a lot more media attention than actual sales. Gas may be cresting $3 a gallon, but Americans still love their big cars, pickup trucks and SUV's. And while manufacturers love the profits on these large vehicles, they've all got to meet federal Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards. Otherwise, the automaker must pay large fines. [Since 1983, the EPA has collected $650,831,288.50 in CAFE fines from BMW, Jaguar, Mercedes, Porsche, VW and others.] The US Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1975 currently dictates that an automaker's US passenger cars must achieve a combined fuel economy average of 27.5 mpg. The combined average for their 'light trucks' (that's SUV's and pickups) must be 21.6 mpg.

By on April 20, 2006

 If anyone doubts that product is the key to success in the car business, just look at the new Ford Mustang– if you can find one. While The Blue Oval's US dealers watch 500's and Fusions pile up in their lots, the only signs of Mustangs are the smoking rubber streaks in the driveways leading out. And the money's not bad either. While Ford has placed huge incentives on just about every other car, truck, minivan, crossover, hybrid and SUV in their arsenal, Mustang GT's are selling within shouting distance of list price. Insiders are still amazed that a hot car like this could emerge from Ford's normally moribund new car development process. The answer is simple: Ford hired a capable, inspired product planner named Chris Theodore and set him loose.

Ford put Theodore in charge of the Mustang program, and later the GT. When Theodore punched-in, the Mustang program was in the doldrums; no one was willing to buck Ford's long-winded product development process to make a great car, instead of another example of humdrum transportation. Convinced that Ford's designers were devoid of new ideas, Theodore told the studio to make a clay model that represented a brand new interpretation of the old Mustang theme. The result is perhaps the best rendition of 'retro' on the market today. More importantly, Theodore then set to work resolving the problems of actually making the car– problems that have hamstrung Ford's creativity for decades.

By on March 2, 2006

 Automotive pundits in these parts have lauded the new Audi DSG (Direct Shift Gearbox) as if it was the Second Coming of Dr. Ferry Porsche himself. In reality, the "dual clutch" design has long been discredited amongst most modern automobile engineers. Don't get me wrong. BorgWarner and The Volkswagen Group have created a truly impressive version of a 50-year-old concept. But the dual clutch transmission is still nothing more than a wonderful toy, a mechanically elaborate dead end.

By on December 29, 2005

1959 Cadillac Coupe de VilleLess than a half century ago, every carmaker offered at least one two-door automobile. Entry level coupes were often a young married couple's first car. Sportier coupes were a suburban staple. Coupes like the Ford Galaxy and Chrysler New Yorker offered ordinary Joes a chance to own a car with an extra touch of class and panache. And no luxury marque could thrive without a fabulous Coupe de Ville, or equivalent thereof. The coupe's lack of rear seat room, window leaks, and interior noise were considered a small price to pay for high style. Then things got serious…

The convertible was the first to go. Perhaps the move away from ragtops reflected the uneasy tenor of the times: inflationary belt-tightening, divisive foreign policy, Cold War jitters, the Arab Oil embargo, presidential scandal. Maybe Ralph Nader's seminal work "Unsafe at Any Speed" and blood and guts high school Driver's Ed programs got US car buyers thinking about decapitation. In any case, the topless car was suddenly seen as a needless, dangerous extravagance, rather than a bold and fun statement of personal prosperity. From Corvairs to Cadillacs, convertibles disappeared from American highways. Coupes followed thereafter.

By on December 17, 2005

Spring is in the air.In Ford's latest ads, Mr. Bill touts The Blue Oval as a tireless automotive innovator. In reality, Ford has seldom, if ever, taken the technological lead. The Model T's accomplishments owe more to its production process than any mechanical advance. Later successes– like the original Mustang and the first Explorers– broke new ground in marketing and style, not engineering. And lest we forget, Ford still relies on relatively unsophisticated engines to propel its products, ceding both fuel efficiency and powertrain refinement to their competitors. Fortunately for Ford's new focus, the company is a real leader in at least one key engineering discipline…

By on October 24, 2005

Lincoln Mark LT dashIf The Big Three are really serious about paring their production costs to the bone, it's time for them to take a good hard look at the basics. Some of the "standard" features on today's automobiles are either unnecessary or antiquated. While removing or re-engineering these items may sound like a trivial pursuit, American automakers simply can't to afford to ignore the potential savings. They should be ready, willing and able to click, drag, highlight and delete.

By on September 30, 2005

The 1953 AC Ace.  Anyone remember the AC Ace? It was a nicely balanced British sports car with a space-frame chassis, four-wheel independent suspension, aluminum body panels, a high-revving straight six powerplant and perfect weight distribution. Car magazines of the day raved about the machine's ideal blend of performance and handling. And yet the delightful little Ace has disappeared into that special memory space reserved for die-hard Anglophile automobilists. Blame the snake.

When GM started cleaning Ford's clock in the early '60's, a Blue Oval man named Carroll Shelby went and stuffed a big old V8 under the hood of the AC Ace and re-badged it a Cobra. The resulting sports car brought fame and fortune to both man and machine, on track and off. Forty-years later, Shelby is still trading on the reputation generated by his modified two-seater. Forty years later, companies are still fabricating Cobra replicas in their thousands. Forty years later, the Cobra is still burnishing Ford's image. Needless to say, nobody worships the well-balanced little sports car that gave birth to a legend.

By on September 20, 2005

Magna Steyr's Mila CNG ConceptIn the last century, US car buyers have watched some three thousand automobile companies come and go. Today, Ford, GM and Daimler Chrysler represent the remaining fortunes of the US auto industry. But The Big Three needn't be The Only Three. With modern manufacturing and management tools, another US company could enter the fray. A partnership involving original equipment suppliers and an existing dealer network could be just the ticket to change the rules of a game that Detroit seems determined to lose. The prospective players…

Magna International Inc. supplies automakers with a wide range of OEM (Original Equipment Manufacture) parts. Founded by Frank Stronach, the worldwide conglomerate consists of seven groups: Cosma (chassis), Decoma (plastic body panels, exterior trim and fascias), Intior Automotive (cockpit modules, seats, doors, panels, locks and window systems), Magna Donnelly (mirrors, windows, door handles, automotive electronics), Magna Drivetrain, Magna Steyr (powertrains and general engineering) and Tesma (engines, transmissions and fuel components). Magna has considerable experience co-coordinating complete automobile production, from initial design to final assembly.

By on September 3, 2005

Advanced engineering is not the key to Toyota's success.  Toyota is the most successful automobile company of modern times. By some calculations, they've passed Ford as the world's second largest automaker (a position Ford held since 1952). It's only a matter of time before Toyota surpasses GM for the number one spot. And no wonder: the Japanese company builds an impressive number of highly popular cars and trucks. While its rivals study Toyota's stars– the Camry, the Lexus SUVs and the Prius hybrid— the real recipe for their dominance is found elsewhere.

The most interesting aspect of Toyota's business is how they handle their failures. Take, for example, their forays into the US minivan market. Chrysler invented the genre with the introduction of their Dodge and Plymouth minivans. A few years later, Toyota responded with a small, boxy, mid-engined van, reminiscent of the cargo vans that Chrysler, Ford and GM had sold for years. Needless to say, Toyota's entry didn't even appear on the minivan buyer's radar screen. Toyota then spent a huge amount of money and restyled this van into the smooth and bulbous Toyota Previa. Again, buyers were lined up none-deep.

By on August 12, 2005

Should the Lincoln luxury brand set its sights on Acura?Joint ventures are nothing new in the car business. Toyota makes cars for GM in California, Ford makes trucks and SUVs for Mazda, Subaru and Mitsubishi used to share an assembly plant and Mercedes sends over the underpinnings for the new Chrysler 300. So how about Lincoln and Acura? Despite Ford's recent problems, their legendary luxury division has a lot to offer Honda's underperforming luxury brand. By the same token, Acura has a few tricks up its sleeve that could help Lincoln regain much of its lost luster.

First and foremost, Lincoln has a V8. While Honda's free-revving six-cylinder engines have earned them justifiable respect and popular success in the American market, the lack of a suitable eight has hamstrung its luxury division since it invaded US shores in March of '86. Despite Acuras' undeniable quality, refinement and relative value-for-money, there's simply no getting around the fact that US consumers view a V8 engine as a luxury car basic. The latest RL is a perfect example: a superb vehicle with a 300hp, 3.6-liter V6 that's two cylinders short of a full order book.

By on May 3, 2005

Would a blown Bimmer still spin so sweet?BMW recently surprised enthusiasts by announcing that they're adding a turbo-charged 3-Series to their line-up. For a company famous for its sweet-spinning, normally aspirated six-cylinder engines, a turbo-3 seems a quirky development– to say the least. Twenty years ago, sure. Back then, [gasoline powered] turbocharged cars were THE answer, promising all the power of a big engine with the fuel economy of a small engine. Of course, it wasn't true then, and it's not true now.

By on April 1, 2005

The 1936 120 Junior Packard marked the beginning of the end for the luxury car maker. Once upon a time there was a luxury car manufacturer in America. The company virtually owned the luxury car business, both at home and abroad. Their cars were the gold standard for expensive cars, and rich and powerful people the world over bought and used them. They easily sold more luxury cars in America than most of their competitors combined. Their reputation for engineering innovation and excellence was unsurpassed. All of the best custom body builders clamored to make special show cars for them, in hopes that they could make it into the sales catalogue this company published every December.

Then came hard times. The stock market bubble popped. Thousands of people lost their jobs. And, the market for luxury cars started to dwindle. To make matters worse, the company's major competitor in America started to build bigger and more luxurious cars, and developed a reputation as a true engineering innovator in their own right.

By on March 17, 2005

The Ford Five Hundred features a CTV transmission. Why?I can't figure out the appeal of the Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT). Currently featured in the new Ford 500 sedan, the transmission system consists of a pair of cones and a steel drive belt to transfer power. The CVT offers a continuous ratio change (similar to changing gear with a standard manual or automatic) by varying the diameter of the cones, without a step in ratios like a conventional automatic transmission. While conceptually simple, the actual hardware is tremendously complex and expensive. What's more, supporters' claim that the CVT increases economy and performance simply doesn't bear close scrutiny.

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