Martin Schwoerer

By on July 14, 2009

What’s the deal with these small cars and their self-righteous names? I’m talking about the Smart, the iQ, and the Think. Does anybody really believe that making a car diminutive turns it into some kind of Einstein? If anything, I’d be happy if car makers showed they understand they have some really stupid machines out there. The Fiat Cretino, the Ford Fiasco, the Opel Idiot, the Mercury Moron: now that’d be Truth in Naming.

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By on June 24, 2009

After a few seconds in the Mindset, I was thinking: Whoa, this thing is fast. And Goddamn, it feels good. And then I remembered a movie I hadn’t thought of in a decade, and it struck me: this doesn’t seem like 2009, this is more like Gattaca. You know: the sci-fi movie starring the Studebaker Avanti, Rover P6 and Citroen DS Décapotable—all running with electric motors. They are breathtakingly, inimitably beautiful cars. In the movie, they only make a whirring noise. It’s all very 2030, and somehow, it works. Of course, if you had an electric droptop DS at your disposal, then why would you drive a Swiss-made, electric Mindset? But I’m getting ahead of myself. So, what is this car about?

By on June 24, 2009

Hydrogen-fueled propulsion has been the Next Big Thing since the 1970s. Recently, it has also been assigned to the past, at least by US Energy Secretary Steven Chu, who said, “We’re going to be moving away from hydrogen-fuel cells for vehicles.” Thus, hydrogen propulsion seems to be one of those things that are everywhere in the time-space continuum except in the present. Some hydrofans are refusing to give up, though. VW’s evil genius boss of bosses, Ferdinand Piëch, has a nephew, Sebastian Piëch, who is a grandson of Ferdinand Porsche. Seb seems to be a smart, rich guy who speaks four languages, has an engineering and marketing background and lives in Shanghai and Tokyo. He’s a big name among big names at Riversimple, an alternative-car company which recently presented its first car in London. If Piëch had a monkey-man slogan, it’d be “ideas, ideas, ideas.”

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By on June 11, 2009

My first car was a 1970s–era Opel Rekord. It was one of the most beautiful cars GM ever made. It was also roomy, reliable, as well as cheap to own and service. Those typical brand values made Opel a star player in Europe, and demoted Ford and many others to the status of also-rans. Later, Opel lost the reliability and beauty part of the plot. Is today’s Rekord – the Opel Insignia – good enough to lead an almost-dead company to the future?

By on June 1, 2009

The New York Times introduces 31-year-old Brian Deese, a near graduate of Yale Law School, as President Obama’s pick to re-shape General Motors—and American capitalism along the way. As a special assistant to the president for economic policy, he was pretty much the only full-time member of the Presidential Task Force on Automobiles from November 4 through mid-February. He comes to the job with no automotive experience, or business experience, or much experience at all, if you put his resume up against the insanely vast and critical task before him. Making him perfect for the job. Maybe a real outsider is just what the General needs. Deese seems to have earned the president’s ear with competence. By all reports, he sees the challenges of GM’s tumble holistically, in terms of the effect on the economy in general, Medicaid and unemployment insurances in the specific, and understands the political ramifications of every thing he eats, reads or wears from here on out. No one older than 31 would want this job. And you’d be hard pressed to find anyone younger. So he’s perfect.

By on May 25, 2009

The Web as we know it is a teenager, but car makers seem to think it’s a baby: cute, with much potential, but inscrutable and insomnia-inducing. One could think of numerous, obvious new applications for automotive marketing, but we don’t see them in practice. Click on a manufacturer’s site to get an instant, confirmed test drive appointment for a car of your ideal configuration? Nope. Can you publicize your satisfaction or disatisfaction with a dealer on a maker’s site (similar to what yelp.com is enabling for all kinds of services)? No dice. Indeed, most commercial car stuff on the web is conventional, and boring. But recently I’ve heard of some Web-based brand-building that is supposed to be better. Here are three examples from the UK.

By on April 30, 2009

For the past 60 years or so, Fiat has had what amounted to a compulsive gambler’s business model: invest tons in one single car, cross fingers that it sells like hotcakes, and run the rest of the company with disinterest. This one-pony strategy has often delivered  what, in the end, were the most desirable small cars of each decade. How else to describe the 1950’s 1100, the 1960’s 124, the 128 from the 70s or the Uno from the 80s? All, as well as the Punto from the 1990s and the Panda from the present decade, adhered to a simple but elusive formula: cheap to buy, brilliantly packaged, surprisingly robust, and a hoot to drive. (Most other Fiats, let’s not fail to mention, have been crap).

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By on April 21, 2009

Are electric cars a dead end? Just as Ho Chi Minh said when asked about the French Revolution, it’s probably too early to tell. In the meantime, interesting things are happening. Der Spiegel reports that a European consortium of car makers and utilities has agreed on a standard for plugs. That means you’ll soon be able to drive from Lappland to Sicily, or from Lisbon to Moscow (albeit in 50-mile spurts), without worrying about compatibility. The plug will be in a three-phase, 400V configuration. But what about loading stations connected to the plugs? The news here: a consortium including Volkswagen, Daimler, BMW, Ford, General Motors, PSA, Fiat, Toyota, Mitsubishi as well as major western-European utilities are working on a standard electric “filling station.” So much for infrastructure. But what about the cars?

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By on April 17, 2009

Everything has unintended consequences, but sometimes they are positive. A new study commissioned by T&E, the European Federation for Transport and Environment, says there is an overlooked element in the public discussion about corporate fuel economy. Lower overall fuel consumption as caused by more economical cars, T&E says, would lead to lower fuel prices. “Economic benefits of energy conservation policies in Europe are consistently underestimated. But until now very few have made the point that a policy-induced decline of demand for oil could also result in lower oil prices, and hence greater economic benefits.” They’re not talking about the flawed US CAFE system, however.

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By on March 18, 2009

In its perpetual quest to expand into new profitable fields that have little to do with its core business, Daimler is now running a used-car dealership. No, they wouldn’t call it that; it’s the “Mercedes Young Classics Store.” (Sorry, at the moment this news item only applies to European markets). The concept is interesting. Mercedes thinks its products have such a great heritage and are engineered so well that they’re both practical daily drivers and desirable collectables. The not-quite vintage (i.e., birthdate 1970-1990) vehicles can not only be purchased, but also rented via a website that demonstrates what happens when you apply German principles of over-engineering to HTML design. Although the supply yet is quite small, there are some pearls to be found (if you can actually find the “gallery” button which allows you to see the cars on sale).

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By on March 16, 2009

If you’re in the automotive business and can understand German, then A M und S (as the cognoscenti know it) is the must-read bi-weekly. Auto Motor & Sport offers features with brilliant technical detail about the snazziest innovations and highest-tech automotive gadgets. For me, it’s always a chore, never a pleasure. The Stuttgart- based periodical is dour and relentlessly auto-centric. If something is pro car industry, then they like it, if not . . . they don’t. Reading AM&S is as about as much fun as a listening to a cocktail party-goer going on about the Swabian way of sweeping sidewalks. Anyway, here’s my beef . . .

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By on March 13, 2009

When I read in Auto, Motor und Sport about a concept car that looks great, claims 110 mpg (city) and a top speed of 210 mph, I was intrigued. But skeptical too, of course. Since the boffins at the UK’s Frazer-Nash Research (and not just some garage geniuses) are behind the “Namir” Rotary-engine hybrid dream car, I thought it would be worth a call. So, I spoke with company Director, Gordon Dickson. Why Wankel? “A rotary engine is extremely compact and is also extremely energy-efficient at its RPM sweet spot. The Namir is a serial hybrid, meaning there is no mechanical connection between the combustion engine and the four electric motors, so it’s easy to keep the 814cc Wankel engine within its sweet spot. We have already employed this technology in our Metrail system.”

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By on March 12, 2009

Channel Web says a quite simple adaptation of lithium-ion battery technology could make electric cars a hell of a lot more convenient. As reported in today’s issue of Nature Magazine, MIT researchers Byoungwoo Kang and Gerbrand Ceder have found that coating batteries with a thin layer of lithium phosphate allows small batteries to be loaded in twenty seconds, while car batteries could be good to go in just five minutes. That sure beats the six to eight hours plug-in vehicles currently need—provided you have access to an electricity outlet with a lot more than 110 or 220V. Anyway, MIT engineers have taken existing battery material and changed it to create what it calls a “beltway” that allows for the rapid transit of electrical energy.

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By on March 5, 2009

Last year in Geneva, I grumbled about how the annual car show was all green talk and no green action. This year, in contrast, I found few new cars worth writing about: the VW Polo is a bore, the Daewoo/GM Spark is a joke, exotics are an anachronism, and the A4 Allroad is a good sequel — but why waste any bandwidth on it? On the other hand, there are some pretty exciting alternative-fuel vehicles on display. (And, predictably, some big disappointments, too).

By on March 4, 2009

For the past few car shows, Hyundai has been displaying mock-ups of a future Tuscon light-SUV. Boring enough one might say, except that the concepts have been so swoopy/gorgeous that even my SUV-hating girlfriend gets wanna-have pangs for what she calls the J-Lomobile. Here in Geneva, Hyundai is showing what they now call the ix-onic, a lower-case technical whiz kid. It has a 1.6L turbo gasoline engine, 170 hp, but emmissions of only 149 g CO2, a DSG transmission and all kinds of other technical gobbledygookery. We can expect it for 2010 with few changes to the highly atractive concept except for the usual smaller wheels and lower chrome content. But what about the name? A Hyundai spokeman said all future 4WD models will use the ix-nomenclature, as in “ix-1”, “ix-2”, etc. That’s a relief—I was almost expecting something along the line of an upcoming Hyundai ix-otic, Hyundai er-otic and Hyundai ex-tatic (the latter being a sports car, of course). Tu-tonic plays with words, I know . . . .

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