Tuesday, May 02, 2006

What the ... Ford?

Lots to talk about in this month's Car and Driver. But, the most curious might be the road test of the Ford Futura Sprint. Lots of clues that the car and test are fakes.My favorite was the steering wheel without an airbag.

Big question is why?

Very interesting thread at focaljet.com. The posters seem to capture the little moments of absurdity, like this from the technical specs:
Type: unit construction with 4 rubber-isolated dwarf-like subframes made by Home Depot
Body Material: welded steel stampings and fiberglass reinforced papier-mache

It's probably the driest piece of humor that Car and Driver has ever published. Still, why?

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Wham! Pop!

Even if it's staged, this pedestrian v. car battle is hilarious.

Go granny!

Link is from our buddy Aaron, who claims, without proof, that it's better than honku. (Click on the "Story of honku" button.)

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Define serious (or super-luxury)

Doesn't a thirteen-year run building the Aston Martin Lagonda count as a "serious stab at a super-luxury sedan"?

Monday, April 17, 2006

I got it! I got it!

We feel just like we did in our law school days when the professor posed a tough question and we knew the answer.

About the increasingly unreliable electronics in expensive cars and trucks, Professor Kaus asks:
The interesting question is why the rich tolerate this--why doesn't at least one European luxury automaker back off the iffy, cutting edge electronics and market a car that, you know, keeps working?

Answer: Because then they'd have a hard time distinguishing this year's model from last year's. (This also answers why BMW would Bangle-up some of the most handsome sedans on the market.)

If you want to get someone to trade in their 2005 7-series (which will probably give reasonable service for a good decade) for the '06, you've got to offer something new and different. Unfortunately for the manufacturers, automobiles, particularly those at the high-end, are assymptotically approaching maximum utility, as measured in typically vehicular terms. Except at the margins, there's limited value in pumping up the horsepower volume. (See the Downshift Limit of Power Theory.) Handling, ride, braking, even safety, are about as good as one can reasonably expect.

What does that leave you? Bells and whistle. Almost literally so.

Why do buyers put up with it? Why does anybody put up with any of the sacrifices of fashion?

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

What took them?

Remarkably, it's front-page news on the Wall Street Journal that Chrysler has upgraded its factories so that they can make more than one car without extensive retooling (subscription required).

Haven't the Japanese manufacturers been doing that since, oh, forever?

Friday, April 07, 2006

Fairy Bad Ad

We want to weigh in on the "too tough" Dodge Caliber ad. (Jalopnik's got a post. Leftlane News focuses on Chrysler's response.

The ad is bad on so many levels.

The controversy, such as it is, is entirely predictable and avoidable. Whether or not outrage is justified, Dodge's surprise that anyone would be offended is either disingenuous or willfully naive. We do not live in a homophobia-free country. There are plenty of ranches on both sides of Brokeback Mountain.

The problem is structural. The ad sets up the dichotomy between tough and not tough (not well or not consistently, see below). There are not too many ways to show the opposite of a tough guy without making the guy effete. And, when your punchline is an effete man, your predictably going to tap into associations with homosexuality, on both sides.

There are two other problems. First, the tough guy/effete guy is not consistent with the previous pre-fairy dust/post-fairy dust pairs: skyscraper/gingerbread house, real train/toy train. If the conceit is the difference between real-world tough and storybook cute, why not turn the tough guy into a cartoon character? It's inconsistent (and unnecessary) to go the effete route.

Second, it's not a stretch to interpret the fairy's shot at the guy as I'll-show-you-who's-a-stupid-fairy. A guy gets a turned up collar and four lap dogs moments after saying the word fairy and people think it's gay bashing? Quel surprise.

Is this reading too much into a thirty-second ad? Nope. Think of the time and money Dodge and its agency spend developing and producing the ad. How many script drafts? How many takes? How much post-production? Think how many times how many people saw this ad it aired. Once it was aired, most people figured out the ad's problems on the first viewing.

There's no excuse for crap like this.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Sometimes, you gotta go big

The Downshift family is planning a two-small-car strategy (Golf for her, 3-series for him). For ninety percent of our travel, we don't even need the room of the incument Passat wagon.

But, what do you do when you would really like some room? Trip to New Jersey to visit Grammy Downshift. Costco run. Dinner with a couple you'd like to impress.

In the spirit of the exotic car clubs, we're thinking collectively owned land yachts.

Buy some late model luxo sedans. (You can get a Phaeton with 30K miles for under $40K.) A mini-van or two. Maybe a truck.

A member drives his Prius to the garage and takes a barge home.

We know you could rent. And ZipCar has some big 'uns in inventory. This just feels like it would be easier and allow for more interesting cars to drive.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Horsies to the rear, please

Dodge is putting 300hp through the front wheels of the Caliber SRT, even though AWD is an option with less potent motors.

Okay, the argument that it's too costly to upgrade the AWD workings to handle the SRT's power and torque makes sense. But, doesn't the DCX parts bin have some relatively cheap parts available to put the power to the rear wheels? The platform's already configured for a driveshaft and rear end.

They could have made a $20K M3 fighter.

Something tells us the original skunk works team might that built the Omni GLH would have figured this out.

(Why are the links at the top to month-old Jalopnik and Autoblog posts? The issue didn't dawn on us until we read the latest Car and Driver, which discusses the reasons for not offering AWD.)

Monday, March 06, 2006

Not a surprise -- The list of the slowesst moving models includes the Chevy SSR. It sneaks in at ninth, the average unit cooling its heels for 197 days. (From Jalopnik.)

Bit suprised to see the Mazda MPV in eighth (206 days), but hope to use that to our personal advantage.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Quicker Croc -- The first (?) tuner Cayman is upon us (via Jalopnik).

Looks nice, but it's all show parts. We'd really like to see a hey-Stuttgart-shoulda-done-this message mobile: a stock Cayman save for a motor tuned as closely as possible to the specs of a Carrera S. (One assumes you could drop a Carrera S motor into the Cayman, no?)

Thursday, October 27, 2005

How's-that tires -- Love the XC-70 concept car we saw on Jalopnik. (J'nik caught it on swedespeed).
But what's with those micro-profile off-road shoes? They can't be functional, can they? (Defining functional as useful for the ostensible purpose.) Does it matter? Would slapping them on a dub-wearing H2 make it any more likely that it would travel off-road? Nah.

Monday, October 10, 2005

If there were no Bangle -- The new Z4 Coupe has none of the charm of the old Z Coupe. Fortunately, Audi picked up the option on kinda-ugly/kinda-cool breadbox.

The Z4 coupe is still a massive improvement on the roadster.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Wrong question -- Jalopnik asked a high-profile Porsche salesman whether the Cayman would be a 911-killer. He answered no, sort of. The question ought to have been be: should the Cayman kill the 911?

The 911 (and its variants) has been our favorite car since our toddler days when we would pass the time sitting on the step identifying (accurately, we're told) every car that passed by. But sentiment has no place in the hard-hearted world of amateur automotive criticism. We think the death of the 911 is long overdue.

As a compromise, keep the 911 around as a pseudo-GT for the old farts who get all moist at the shape. Make the Cayman the new heart of the Porsche's lineup. Give it the best engines. Make it the Porsche-supported car to race. It's a better platform.

On a related note, we love the name Cayman, but we would have been fine with the Boxster-like contraction Bocoup (pronounced like the French beaucoup, as in "a lot").

Friday, September 23, 2005

It's a Unibeca -- At various times, various companies have followed the "same sausage, different lengths school" of brand management attributed to pre-Bangle BMW. (We've linked to an unintentionally hilarious Fast Company moist smooch to Bungle Bangle profile.) But check out this electro-Subie posted on Jalopnik. The Mini Me to the universally derided Subaru B9 Tribeca takes the practice to a new level. No mere sharing the design DNA, here. It's like they took a Tribeca out of the oven a few minutes early. The likeness is remarkable, and more than a bit disturbing.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Odd Jetta This New York Times review nicely makes the case against the Jetta that grew up. It's fat and the chrome slathered smile is ridiculous.

But the review confuses the target audience for Jetta marketing and the of marketing for previous Jettas and the buyers. Unquestionably, the Jetta was a favorite among urban youth, but

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

What's that? -- Jalopnik compares the Cayman to a 1982 911SC. Yeah, if the Cayman were built on a VW Golf chassis and were going to be part of a decades-long run of sports cars with a fundamental design defect.

In 23 years, we're all going to look back at the Cayman as the model Porsche should have built in 1982 instead of the 911SC.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Not a good week -- Mini loses its marketing agency Crispin Porter to VW and it reveals that its next variant will be longer but otherwise essentially the same as the base hatchback.

The Mini's great and it remains a big seller, but we still think BMW is missing out on the larger brand equity represented by the "Let's Motor" campaign. Lost geniuses and lost opportunities in the same week.

That said, the Clubman does look cool.
Frankfurting -- Three good places for Frankfurt coverage: Jalopnik, Autoweek, and cars.com.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Hallelujah, brother Csabe -- We fondly recall a golden age at Car and Driver when the editors kept a keen eye on the scale and never failed to castigate automakers for letting cars get porky. In particular, we remember them getting on Mazda as the RX-7 put on the pounds over time. Nowadays there's the occasional tsk, tsk about increased avoirdupois, but none of the withering scorn of our reminiscence.

So good on Csabe Csere for issuing a call for lighter cars in this month's Steering Column (not yet online). Not better power-to-weight, but lower weight (or at least a halt to the always-fatter trend).

But, Csere's comparison to the contrary trend in motorcycles, while interesting, is ultimately inapposite. Motorcycles are engines and wheels with a connecting frame and a seat. Engines, even car engines, are getting lighter even as they get more powerful. Motorcycle frames, while obviously critical, involve relatively little material, so wicked light and stiff alloys and composites can be cost effective on a motorcycle. What makes cars fat is also what distinguishes them from motorcycles: big ol' frames, sound deadening, luxury appointments, safety equipment. So, yeah, it's great that motorcycles are getting more powerful, stiffer, and lighter all at the same time. But there's not much of a lesson there for the four-wheel world, other than the benefits of slimming.

Ultimately, it doesn't matter what got the Editor-in-Chief of the most influential car magazine to start caring again about weight. We hope he makes it his -- and the magazine's -- cause.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Stupid Truck Full Employment Act -- We've figured out why GM keeps extending the Employee Discount program. They haven't yet cleared the lots of all those woeful SSRs.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Brock's obsession -- Given that, in his own words, hybrids "are stuck at about a one-half-percent market share of the roughly 17 million annual new car and light-truck domestic sales," why has Brock Yates devoted a disproportionate amount of his precious column space to castigating the green machines? ("He's long since had anything meaningful to contribute to the automotive discourse" is not a fair answer.)

In July 2003, he bravely took on Hollywood types and the political correctness of driving Priuses to the Academy awards. (Has any phrase been more drained of meaning than "politically correct" in Yates' hand?).

In October 2004, Yates heroically revealed the truth that, get this, early adopters of hybrid technology don't realize a cost benefit compared to traditional stingy-mobiles. (Note to Csaba: Brock is more enviro-friendly than he lets on. Much of this column was recycled from this column he penned for Tech Central Station a few months earlier.)

This June, he courageously slew the straw man that "hybrids are the future." (But, if he's betting, we'll wager that hybrids account for more than 3% of the market by 2011.)

And now, he fearlessly recaps the cost-benefit argument, complete with the Yates-requisite vacuous nonsense about political correctness and the liberal media.

And, don't miss the the snarks here and here.

We have no idea why this tiny little sliver of the automotive universe gets Yates so exercised. If it weren't so irresponsible, we'd speculate that it was some sort of inadequacy that only driving a Hummer could compensate for.

What interests us more is Yates' persistent blindness to the irony of his attack. If nothing else in his tenure(s) at Car and Driver, Yates has been a high priest of the religion that worships cars as statements, screw the cost. For chrissakes, he bought a Hummer H2, which carries less, tows less, uses more gas, accelerates slower, corners worse, brakes worse, and costs a load more than its Chevy Suburban cousin. Cost/benefit-driven decision or rolling screw you?

Prius owners aren't morons. They're far more educated than the average vehicle buyer. They know what they're doing. They're not trying to save money, they're making a statement about something they believe in. And, it isn't mere political correctness, because they're willing to sacrifice to make the statement. Toyota gets this. That's why the Prius looks like more like a spaceship than a Camry. It helps make the statement: conservation is good and necessary.

Brock, this is your Patrick Henry moment. Disagree with Prius owners' politics, but defend to the death their right to use their cars to express them.

One more point. The president's an oilman. Congress is captive to the extractive industries. Americans buy more small trucks than cars. Whose anti-establishment, now?

Monday, August 15, 2005

It's like art -- Forget the wet kiss to Bob Lutz rulebook-tearer-upper that opens this Car and Driver preview of the HHR. (Note to Aaron: Lutz has had four years. Name one Lutz product that's a segment leader or near leader.) What blew us away was the fact that the hood on Chevy's entrant into the now over retro craze "with its deep concavity and delicate accent lines requires five separate 'hits' from the presses and ranks as one of the most complicated sheetmetal parts GM has ever produced[.]"

When you're building a sub-$20K econowagon with sales forecasts that have been scaled back from 100K to 60K units, having one of the "most complicated sheetmetal parts" is not a fact to be proud of. It's a poorly designed econo-anything that is colossally complicated to produce.

As one point of comparison, consider the Honda Accord. Its hood looks like what they put on the development mule until a production hood was ready. The thing barely bends, and then in one direction only. There's nary a crease or character line. They can probably do ten hoods with a single hit of the presses. Doesn't look like it's prevented them from selling a kazillion.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

That's more like it -- Mercedes will be selling special Signature Edition R-class minivans sports-tourers as part of Saks Fifth Avenue's Key to the Cure breast-cancer fundraiser (from Jalopnik)
Baffling -- Seriously, how come Bob Lutz still has a job and Phillip Murtaugh doesn't?

Friday, August 05, 2005

How not to create repeat customers -- A company called Scala-Rider has created a bluetooth hands-free headset for a motorcycle helmet. As if there's not enough else to concentrate on while you're riding a motorcycle.

Repeat after us: It's the conversation stupid!

At least the morons using the headset will be wearing helmets.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Defining value -- GM's doing what we hoped/expected with its Employee Discount For All program (officially over, as of today): they're recalibrating. Instead of the ceaseless rebates/financing deals/dealer incentives, they're going to lower MSRPs. If the EDFA was a transition to stickers that resemble out-the-door prices, great.

Farago has an excellent summary of the likely problems (and at least one teensy-weensy mistruth) with the General's new "value pricing." One thing he omits is the likely beneficial effect on product content.

As the costs of incentives go up, GM has had no option but to pull content out of its cars, which further widens the gap with competitors products, which heightens pressure to increase incentives, etc. Presumably, with MSRPs that better reflect what the customer is ultimately going to pay, product planners should be able to do a better job of setting equipment levels in a more rational, planned fashion.
Not sitting well -- We were just about to post a wet kiss to the lovely seats in the Nissan Quest, when we saw this in Autoweek and this at Jalopnik.

We love those seats. So styling, so Gallic, so not-Chrysler minivan.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Somebody's in trouble, now -- Mercedes goes to all that trouble trying to convince the world that its new minivan is not a minivan (primarily by omitting the minivan's best feature: sliding rear doors) and what do we get on the doorstep of casa de downshift? The latest Pottery Barn Kids catalog, with a promotion to win a new Mercedes R-class minivan sports-tourer. Fortunately for our loyal readers without toddlers, the same promotion is featured on the PB Kids (as we in the diaper-set refer to it) web site.

Funny, we just don't think many "socialite empty-nester, late-forming affluent families" get the PB Kids catalog. We'd venture that better than 80% of PB Kids catalog get delivered to whenever-forming, kid-hauling, play-date-arranging, too-busy-to-be-bothered-by-perception families. In other words, the heart of the minivan demographic.

Really, the promotion is just a symptom of a larger problem. Why does Mercedes (and everyone else trying to fit the virtues of a minivan into a non-minivan shape) accept the received wisdom that a minivan can't be cool? Instead of trying to weasel around the perception -- "No, really, it's not a minivan" -- they could have confronted the prejudice head on -- "We're going to change the way you think about minivans" -- and given the damn thing some sliding doors.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Nope, Bangle just sucks -- Rich Ceppos does an admirable job attempting a flying-in-the-face-of-conventional-wisdom rehabilitation of Chris Bangle and his hatchet job on the BMW marque. But, he comes up a little short.

The automotive world is a little better place because the current generation of the Mercedes S-Class abandoned the gunship slab sides of its predecessor and introduced curves and sinew that led to the terrific CLS. Our roads are a little nicer to travel because Mazda and Acura can't seem to build a car without character and solid good looks. And, there may be no finer rolling sculpture than the Bentley Continental.

But, to credit Bangle with leading the way to the current design renaissance is confusing coincidence with cause. As we approach car commodification, there are going to be fewer and fewer ways to distinguish offerings, and a strong design is a good start. This was obvious to anyone with half a brain.

This may be particularly problematic at BMW, because not only were they facing increased competition from other brands, but they also had to deal with the generally feeling, not quite dispelled, as driving machines BMW's sedans were already as good as they can get. So, the new 3- and 5-series have the added burden of competing with the previous generation. The big changes in this generation are a little more power, more weight, the idiotic iDrive, a computer-controlled replacement for the finest steering ever, and way-out-there styling. Only one meaningful improvement in the lot, the rest amount to a marketers answer to why you need to trade the old one in.

So, Bangle had fewer options than his counterparts. He had to go long.

The problem with Bangle is not his ambitions, it's his designs. They just suck. And, they suck in a particularly rational, tricky way. If you describe the designs with words, there's nothing objectionable. The curves make intellectual sense. There are the flame-surfacing gimmicks that should be interesting. Every crease on every model is thoroughly thought through and carried exquisitely through every panel and light housing. Etc. It's just that none of the hyper-rational effects add up to a coherent, attractive design. (With the exception of the 7-series, which we've always found unduly criticized.) Do a Robert Cumberford break down of a Mazda 3, the Acura TL, or the CLS, and the individual features aren't as rational or worked-through as those on a Bangle BMW. The cars just look good.

That's not to say that there isn't a defense of Bangle to be made. At least he isn't J Mays. Whatever offense against good taste Bangle has inflicted, he hasn't hobbled BMW with backward-looking designs that invoke the Retro Roadblock.

BMW will have a nice opportunity for some nifty clean-sheet designs with the next generation.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Relax -- According to the New York Times, greenies are aghast that manufacturers are using hybrid technology to deliver better performance, not better fuel economy. Exhibit A is the Honda Accord hybrid that boasts more power than the regular V6 at mileage that rivals the base four.

While it may seem an epic feat of managing cognitive dissonance, the performance-loving Downshift considers itself very green, after a fashion. But, we are not at all worried about impure uses of hybrid technology.

First, every Accord customer who wants the performance of a V6 and buys a hybrid has contributed to better fuel economy. At $2000 more than the V6, the hybrid version is not cannabilizing sales of stripper four-pots.

Second, the quest for every greater power has an end. See the Downshift Limit of Power Theory. The Accord weighs 3501 pounds, so the power-to-weight ratio is 13.7 lbs/bhp, approaching the LPT magic 13.0 lbs/bhp. The LPT posits that Honda will not be rewarded in the market for delivering power beyond about 285 horsepower (allowing for the Accord to put on another 200 lbs). At that point, it will make more business sense for Honda to focus engine development on fuel efficiency gains rather than power gains.

Third, Honda's spreading the love. Every model line that gets a hybrid is a model line that is more fuel efficient. Soon enough, there will be a base-model, four-cylinder hybrid Accord that gets the same performance out of fewer gallons of gas. And, it will have a smaller price differential than today's hybrids. We just gotta get there.

Doe it make sense to give a tax credit to a 255-horsepower Accord? (We remember driving our college friend's Accord in 1984. A 255-horsepower Accord would have seemed a laughable fantasy. But, we digress.) Sure, because the hybrid Accord is a direct alternative to a more fuel-thirsty model. That's the immediate benefit. Looking down the road, it improves the market for Honda (and others) to build more hybrids, driving the price of the technology down, and making it more likely that hybrid versions of mainstream, volume sellers will show up sooner.

And, that's a good thing.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Seven strikes -- Need evidence that GM is structurally unfit to compete effectively on the world automotive stage? The for-now world's largest automaker has seven minivan nameplates that combine for just 14.1% of the mini-van market. With the Odyssey alone, Honda sold just 2,931 fewer minivans.

Clearly there's an execution problem. GM has brought nothing innovative or class-leading to the segment (other than the Warner Brothers co-branding). But, the fact that it would take minivan fans even greater than ourselves to distinguish among the General's newest offerings has to be a big factor.

How could GM settle for four singles and not swing for the fences on at least one new model? Our guess is Azteck-phobia and the dealer tail wagging the GM dog. Nobody wants to be the guy who green-lights the next Azteck, so they steer clear of what could be the next, say, Dodge Caravan. And, no single-branded dealer wants to get saddled with the high-risk entry if another dealer on the automile is getting the more conventional model.

Shame really that GM hasn't figured out how to use it's brands and dealer network to deliver a mix of safe and out there that Honda (see CRV and Element), VW (Golf and Beetle), Toyota (Echo and Scion xB), etc. manage to do routinely.

At one point, wasn't Bob Lutz castigated for saying that, in the end, he thought the Azteck wasn't so bad? Maybe it's time to instill some more Azteck-like thinking.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

We can't be trusted -- For years, various Car and Driver editors have been railing against the command-and-control nature of traffic regulations. As one example, the regular drumbeat to get rid of the arbitrary, one-size fits all national speed limit in favor of road-specific limits that reflect the 85th percentile speed. The argument: traffic finds a rational compromise between speed and safety.

Now comes Patrick Bedard to criticize roundabouts, the poster traffic device for letting motorists take care of themselves. His concern? Morons can't navigate them. The solution? Traffic lights.


The beauty of a roundabout or rotary is that it relies on driver discretion, self-interest, and survival instinct to manage traffic. No government regulation. No arbitrariness. Few opportunities to turn traffic control into revenue opportunities. In most cases, if the dopes can't figure it out, only the dopes suffer.

How to explain Bedard's apparent philosophical about-face? His big bugaboo is traffic calming -- efforts by traffic engineers to design roadways to slow traffic by infrastructure rather than fiat. Traffic-calming devices include speed bumps, raised intersections, chicanes, and roundabouts. All are designed to discourage traffic to travel slower than it would otherwise by appealing to self-interest. If you travel faster than the devices intend, you won't get a ticket. You'll get an uncomfortable jolt, or find yourself up on a curb, your undercarriage a mass of twisted metal. (Roundabouts and rotaries are not only traffic-calming devices. They are often used where traffic management is a goal. In some cases, they can be effective in allowing traffic to move more freely and, ultimately, faster.)

Bedard apparently thinks traffic calming is never legitimate. He values "the quick flow of traffic" above all else. We at Downshift Central recognize that there are roads for which the quick flow of traffic ought to be the secondary goal (behind a reasonable level of safety). On arterial roads, any tertiary goal lags far behind.

But there are by-ways where there are higher priorities than a quick flow of traffic. In some residential and commercial neighborhoods, traffic moving at the 85th percentile speed creates unacceptable noise; limits the use of the road and abutting sidewalk and yards for pedestrian, commercial, and recreational activities; and constrains the movement of non-vehicular traffic across and around the road.

Put more plainly, a Cadillac Escalade (hell even a Toyota Prius) barrelling down a narrow residential street at 40 mph may not constitute a safety risk, but such traffic changes the character of the neighborhood. Sometimes, there are bigger issues than how fast you can drive.

Our go-to traffic engineer has a far more productive saying than Bedard's -- the right traffic on the right road. People and goods need to be able to move freely across town and across country. So a network of quick-flowing traffic, effective mass-transit, and multi-modal freight shipping is essential. But not every slab of bitumen is essential to those ends.

We don't know enough about the approaches into and out of Sedona to know if there are legitimate reasons to calm traffic. Might be. Might not be. But the problem isn't roundabouts. The problem is the narrow thinking that every car on every road is entitled to go as fast as is safely possible.

What's the opposite of alfalfa-smoking?

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Name game -- All the beefing about Mercedes calling a four-door sedan a coupe, nobody's noticed the little nod to truth on the rump of the car: CLS. We at Downshift Central (DCS) feel certain it stands for coupe-like sedan.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Limits of Power -- Kevin Wilson and Autoweek staffers query some big names (Mays, Lutz, Ghosn, among others) about the future of horsepower in an era of 400 hp Corvettes and Mustang Cobras. Not suprisingly, the consensus is that the horsepower wars are likely to rage on ...

Unfortunately, the inquiry seemed to be looking for a specific horsepower number -- 600, 700, 800 -- that will find its way into a production car. Such a figure only really applies to high-powered sports cars, a slice of automobilia whose total yearly sales probably don't add up to a week's worth of Camrys.

Of course there's no foreseeable limit on sports car power. Acceleration is probably the defining attribute of a sports car. Power is essential, not incidental. And, given the ego-gratification inherent in the purchase of any mega-motored two seater, which mid-life crisis sufferer isn't going to succumb to the lure of more, more, more.

Keep in mind that the nearly 1,000bhp VW Veyron is months away from first delivery.

The more interesting question is what's the limit in cars where power is a nice-to-have, not an absolute requirement. The top model of the next-gen Passat promises 280 bhp compared to the 170 bhp the Downshift family P-wagen (2000) boasts. At an estimated weight of 3600 lbs, that works out to about 12.9 lbs/bhp, just below the Downshift Limit of Power Theory.
We remain convinced that more power than 13.0 lbs/bhp will be a purchasing non-factor for consumers of all but the most specialized models. Manufacture investment is better targeted to increasing fuel efficiency, ride and handling, safety, comfort, and reliability.

Sure, it's interesting to learn that Lutz the showman and walking sound bite thinks "Too much power is never enough." But how many ponies is he willing to put in next year's Maxx?

A corollary to the Downshift LPT is that in the near future most models will offer an engine package that provides close to 13.0 lbs/bhp. Look out for the Honda Odyssey Touring capable of 5.5 sprints to 60!

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Get Motoring -- While BMW has been hailed for brilliantly executing the revival of the Mini, a look at another resurrected British classic -- Triumph motorcycles -- demonstrates how BMW probably has not taken full advantage of what they (re)created. While BMW has gotten good mileage out of the Mini Cooper model, it has not capitalized on the brand it created.

What is remarkable is not just the success of the Mini Cooper, but how the combination of the actual car and the marketing of the car have created, practically overnight, a distinct brand identity: the friendly hipness of the Let's Motor campaign. The campaign is not fungible. It would have fallen flat on its face without the charming Mini Cooper. But, and here's where BMW is missing an opportunity, the brand identity could easily extend beyond the current Mini and its variants and apply to a broader line of thematically similar cars.

The answer is not, as suggested by photos in this months Automobile photo gallery, taking the physical Mini and stretching, twisting, and jacking-up into an SUV model, a coupe model, etc. Better to take the Mini brand and create a clean-sheet SUV, coupe, etc. that share the Let's Motor gene with just the minimum physical resemblance to the Mini.

Triumph is a great case study.

The current incarnation of the Triumph motorcycle company started with a modern Bonneville. Where the Mini is a modern reinterpretation of the old Mini Cooper, the new Bonneville is almost a slavish reproduction of the classic. (To be fair, the different approaches probably reflect the greater change in the automotive regulatory environment.)

Once out of the gate with the new Bonneville, though, Triumph started churning out new models, particularly sport bikes and cruisers that bear only a passing resemblance to the Bonneville, if there's any resemblance at all. What they share is the same attitude, articulated in a modern idiom. (You can, however, still get your Modern Classics -- three 60's era lookalikes.) The awesome Speed Triple looks nothing like the Bonneville -- new or old -- but is unmistakably a Triumph.

Triumph took the essence of the Bonneville and built a modern lineup. BMW needs to do the same with the Mini.

Maybe the Automobile Mini variants are off the mark and BMW has a bunch of fresh, new models to introduce that extend the Let's Motor franchise. Let's hope.
Time to kill the 911 -- No car has occupied the fervid Downshift automotive imaginative universe like the 911 and its variants. The ultimate dream car.

Now it's time to kill it.

That the 911 continues to be one of the best performing, particularly best handling, cars in the world is testament to Porsche's engineering brilliance. But, what if they didn't have to overcome the handicap of the engine hanging over the ass?

Well, we know. In two very different comparison tests, the Boxster S came out on top. In Road & Track's search for the ultimate sports car, the Boxster S beat out, among others, the 911 Carrera. The Boxster also won Car and Driver's comparison of four convertible sports cars.

No Carrera in the Car and Driver contest, but the Boxster did beat a Corvette, while a Corvette beat a 911 in a head-to-head shootout a few months ago. By a rough transitive property, the Boxster beat the 911 in Car and Driver-world.

And, why wouldn't it? With the engine amidship, the Boxster starts out with an advantage (more fairly, without a disadvantage). The only thing the 911 has on the Boxster is power, but that's simply the consequence of a marketing decision by Porsche. They could put the Carrera's 320 bhp motor in the roughly 300 pound lighter Boxster, but that would cannabalize sales of the more expensive 911.

Note to Zuffenhausen: it would be a blessing, not a curse.

The 911 has for decades had a monopoly on the drivable exotic. A better all-around package than cheaper cars like the Corvette. And more livable than exotics like the entry-level Ferrari.

But, the Corvette's performance has become world-class while maintaining a 30K advantage on the 911 and nobody complains anymore that the Ferrari 400 has the temperment of an Italian tenor while requring a body-builder's left leg (especially because you can buy a clutchless manual).

What your left with the in the 911 is a timeless body form covering a dead-end chassis design. Eventually, hanging more than 60% of a car's weight over the rear-end is going to catch up to you.

So, let the ponies loose in the Boxster engine bay. If the 911 is going to get eclipsed, keep it in the family. Put enough power in the Boxster to make it a comparo-test winner because of, not in spite of, it's straightline performance.

But what about people like the Downshift patriarch, who once described driving a Boxster as akin to "kissing your mother"? (Since we know he actually and happily kissed Downshift's mother, we'll assume he butchered the standard "kiss your sister" epithet.) He was referring to the general level of appointment in the Boxster compared to his 911 Cabriolet.

Putting aside the improvement in cabin luxury in the latest version of the Boxster, if you care more about the Boxster's inferior dashboard quality than it's superior handling compared to your 911, you're using your 911 as a GT. So, Porsche needs a credible GT to meet that luxo-cruiser demand. A 928 for the 21st Century.

The 20th Century 928 was not an enormous success. But, two things have changed. One, as discussed, if it hasn't already, the 911 is about to lose it's performance mantle. That only a rear-engined car is a true Porsche isn't going to matter to the market when front-engine and mid-engine cars are squeezing the 911 from both ends of the price spectrum. Two, for a host of reasons, it took years before Porsche put a real motor in the 928. Now, Porsche has the Cayenne's 450 hp twin-turbo V8 it could drop in a front-engine car, all-wheel-drive GT from the git-go. And what git-go!

The 911 has served its time well. Time to move on.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Rev on -- Not only is the BMW M5 ugly, it sports a torque-challenged, high-revving race motor. Just the thing to power a two-ton sedan.

The M5, the four-door S2000.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Let the sunshine in (just not through the windows) -- More on the increasing fortification of our mobile environments. Automotive News reports that ACS is going to show an open-roof SUV at the upcoming Detroit Auto Show. (Link requires registration.) The roof consists of a series of fabric panels that can apparently be moved forward and back in a variety of open-air configurations.

We've previously noted our discomfort with the high-beltline, narrow-wind design trend exhibited by lots of new models, most notably the Chrysler 300C and Hummer S2. Are we close to a model where your exposure to light and air is completely through the windshield and roof, enabling you to completly insulate yourself from the messy (and oh so dangerous) world around you?

Friday, December 10, 2004

Halo cars are stupid -- According to Automotive News, Chevy's got a 301-day supply of SSRs. Small surprise.

Not only are SSRs poor sellers, we're willing to bet they've had no positive effect on sales of other Chevy products. If halo cars ever contributed to the sale of other models, they almost certainly do not now, the wicked cool ad with the bootleg turn, notwithstanding. Here are a few reasons why:
  • The automile

  • The Internet

  • Rolling model releases

You can imagine a sepia-tinged September day when Dad took the family (or at least the other male members) by the local dealer to see the new zippy new offering from Brand X and the salesman talked him into trading in the family wagon for the latest model. But, that ain't the way things work early in the 21st century.

Now, folks aren't dropping by the local dealer, they're trekking way out-of-town to the automile. They're making the trip when they've already decided to buy, not just to check things out during some manufacturer-invented model-year rollout, which has been made obsolete by rolling releases. They've done research on the Internet before they go to the dealer; they already have a short-list of models they are considering.

In sum, today's consumers are not going to buy one car because they were lured into the dealership by some wackadoodle, low-volume halo car.

By the way, the Corvette and the Subaru WRX don't count as wackadoodle halo cars because both are legitimate, money-makers on their own, even as low-volume models.

Thursday, July 08, 2004

Beltline indicator -- Hemlines are supposedly good economic, social, and political indicators. What does it say about the country that vehicle beltlines keep going up? Exhibits A through C: the Hummer H2 and it's slits for windows, the high-shoulder Chrysler 300C, and the new Mercedes CLS.

In the Downshift P-wagen, the sills are so high, it's impossible to hang out an arm out the window without dislocating the left shoulder.

Besides ruining an all-American pose, it strikes us that this new look caters to an anti-social proclivity, especially on an already intimidating SUV. This can't be good.

It's ironic that while the high beltlines are reducing the vertical greenhouse, fixed roofs are becoming more and more open to the skies. Exhibits D through F: the panoramic roof on the E-class Merc, the multi-sunroofed Subaru Outback, and the various sky-vista Nissans.

Keep out the marauding hordes, but let the sun shine in.

Monday, June 14, 2004

The End of Power -- Rich Ceppos has an interesting column about his mother's '67 GTO v. the new one. His bottom line is hard to argue with: today's average car takes a smaller bite out of an average family's yearly income and delivers a lot more than the average car of yesteryear.

But, he makes two errors. First, he equates his mother's Goat with the current model. Okay, every column needs a hook, but in 1967, Ma Ceppos bought a plain-jane family sedan with a big motor. Today's GTO is a premium personal luxury coupe. Only the nameplate's the same.

The second error is more consequential. He closes with this sentence, "Power, it seems, is one thing almost everyone’s looking to invest in." Wrong. Today's cheap power herald's the end of power as a meaningful car-buying criterion.

Herewith the Downshift Limits of Power Theory: Car buyers will not pay a premium for power beyond 13.0 pounds per horsepower.

At 13.0 lbs/bhp, you get 0-60 performance of about 5.5 seconds. Apart from buyers of low-volume specials like the BMW M-series, the Audi RS6, the big 12-cylinder luxobarges, there's no use for more power than that. Actually, there's really no need for more power than what will get you from 0-60 in about 12 seconds (enough to merge you and your Toyota Prius on the interstate safely). But the Downshift Limit of Power Theory (henceforth "LPT") posits that the average consumer won't perceive any marginal benefit beyond 13.0 lbs/bhp and will shift power down or off his or her list of comparative features.

How's this going to play out in real life? Subaru has introduced the 2005 Outback 2.5 XT Wagon and is touting a 0-60 time of 5.9. At Downshift Central, that's mind-boggling. A family wagon, from Subaru no less, that is as quick as or quicker than a Boxster or an RX-8. That doesn't turn the Outback XT into a sports car -- we are not blind to the fact that there are lots of other qualities that distinguish the Boxster from an Outback -- but that's an interesting benchmark. For the record, the Subaru's 250 bhp haul around 3400 lbs, or 13.66 lbs/bhp.

Cheap power and still relatively cheap gas will mean that Subaru's competitors will offer more ponies, too. But, beyond a certain point, the average car buyer won't feel an appreciable difference in performance. Then, power will yield to price, economy, reliability, styling, features, etc. We think that certain point is 13.0 lbs/bhp, though we could be on the low side.

The LPT is heresy to those who, like Ceppos apparently, believe that power always matters. But, clearly it already doesn't. The Camry and Accord are not the most powerful cars on the planet. And, almost every nameplate has a tiered strategy with lower-powered versions that outsell the more powerful and more expensive. What the LPT means is that there is a point at which more power will not matter at all at even the upper tier. Nobody's clamoring for a 250 bhp Camry (with a curb weight of 3046, 13.0 lbs/bhp means a 237 bhp motor is enough).

A corollary to the Downshift Limit of Power Theory is that engines will become commoditized. The economics are such that it probably still makes sense for the big automakers to design and build proprietary engines (though those engines are increasingly being used across more and more brands). But, at a certain point, the engine won't matter any more than the tires.

Is it time to start thinking about the virtues of an open-source 2.0L I4 or 3.0L V-6?
Of course -- VW has announced that the New Beetle will be a "one-cycle" car, meaning that they aren't going to redesign it. Tweak it, yes, but nothing new.

Surprised? Shouldn't be. We predicted the Beetle demise as a function of the Downshift Retro Roadblock: Resurrect an iconic design, and you've locked yourself into the end of a model. (The brief second life of the T'bird is exhibit A.)

Instead of a new New Beetle, VW is going to add a hip, cool, and affordable car to the low end. We respectfully submit an existing model: the Caddy Shuttle (which will undoubtedly have to be renamed and re-outfitted for the US market).

A tall Golf with three-row seating and two sliding doors, this thing has xB fighter written all over it.

We'll take two.

Thursday, June 10, 2004

Hatchback comeback -- Since the days of the GM X-cars it's been received wisdom that Americans don't buy hatchbacks, they prefer sedans. The point was made most pointedly when the latest Saab 9-3 came to market in only sedan variant, foresaking years of Saabness being equated with hatchbackness.

This "Not for U.S. Sale" review of the Opel Astra revisits the point, wondering why the Astra isn't the new Chevy Cobalt and answers that it can't only be because the Astra's a hatchback and Americans want sedans.

We think that it's outdated thinking and that hatchbacks, the right hatchbacks, could become a much larger part of the market. Why? Legroom.

The Chevy Equinox and the Maxx, among others, have sliding rear seats. Need more storage, slide the seat forward. The majority of the time, when you aren't carrying a full load in the "wayback", slide the seat back. Can't do that with a sedan.

Americans will figure this out and the market will shift.

Thursday, January 15, 2004

What ails ya? -- So, Ford wants a national health-care policy that will help relieve it of its burden of providing medical insurance to its workers and retirees. (According to the article, only 1/3 of the cost covers current employees.)

According to Ford's vice chairman Allan Gilmour, it's a competitive problem. Ford's substantial health-care burden adds about $700 to the cost of every car it sells.

Downshift is a good liberal and recognizes that the health-care "tax" on every Ford is the positive consequence of strong unions negotiating for quality health benefits. Downshift further recognizes, like Ford, that the private sector is not capable of providing quality health care at a cost the nation can afford and that Ford (and the other automakers) compete against companies in countries where the government shoulders the healthcare load. (To the extent that the foreign automakers build cars here, much of the pre-assembly is still outside the US, the unions are not as strong in the newer American factories, and that companies like Toyota or Honda have not been building long enough in the US to have a substantial retiree population to support.) So, we're generally sympathetic.

Only generally because it strikes us as particularly hypocritical to recognize the failure of the free market with regard to health care and so vehemently resist government regulation that would improve auto and truck fuel economy and safety.

Time for a little linkage. Democrats should rush to help Ford (and other American companies) on the healthcare front, but only in exchange for higher (and better) CAFE numbers, a national gas tax, more stringent safety measures (particularly on the SUV compatibility front), or some substantial mix of the above.

Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Lutz Reads Downshift -- He must. Check out the Chevy Nomad concept, then our 8/10/03 post.

Okay, they must have had it cooking longer than four months ago, and we clearly don't recommend any retro-styling, so it's tough to take too much credit. (Though, the Nomad may be fresh enough to avoid the Downshift Retro Roadblock.)

It is a good-looking car. Who would ever imagine that the Nomad nameplate would end up as a Mini competitor?
VW Bug-gy -- When we first saw it, Downshift and some colleagues could only laugh at the audacity of the VW Concept T. Bold, muscular, modern. More pics here with superbly overheated PR prose to boot.

But, the glow hasn't even lasted a week.

After a few looks, it's not much of a stretch from its inspiration, the Bug-powered Meyer Manx. Sure, the new VW family face (from the Toureag) is neatly integrated with the nifty cut-away headlights. But, there's not much more there.

We're all for practically useless concept cars -- the Tokyo show always has a few good weirdos -- but VW needs to demonstrate a little more product focus. Especially in the US. Let's see VW's wildest ideas in categories they might actually build in. The Concept R was a good start. (Where's the new Thing?)

VW is not in a great position for growth. Universally considered a bargain brand, its cars -- though roundly lauded for build, driving character, and interior fitments -- sell at a premium in every class. It's got to be tough to sell into that disconnect.

Their answer is to go the time-honored Acura/Infiniti/Lexus route and create a line of premium cars. But, uh, they've already got a premium brand. It's called Audi. So, they're selling $96,400 Phaetons with the same hood ornament that graced millions of Bugs, Westmoreland-made Rabbits, etc.

There are no marketing whiz-kids at Downshift Central, but this brand-confusion has disaster written all over it.
Subie-do -- If there are any doubts that the regulatory landscape distorts the market for cars v. light-trucks, let Subaru's latest gambit put them to rest.

Subaru's going to jack the Outback sedan and wagon's height from 7.3" to 8.7" so that they will qualify as light trucks. As light trucks, Outback sales will not count against Subaru's obligation to have its car fleet average 27.5 mpg. Instead, Subaru's light truck fleet will have to average 21.2 mpg.

There's absolutely no market demand for a higher Outback. We're willing to bet the Downshift family hand-me-down Camry that no person in history has ever said, "You know, I'd really go for one of those Outback sedans, only its ground clearance is about an inch shy of what I find minimally acceptable."

The outcome is not so bad in this case. What it means is that Subaru will be able to put some more power across their whole, generally miserly line. This is not like DaimlerChrysler calling a PT Cruiser a truck so that it's woefully inefficient truck fleet can manage to make it's number.

Monday, January 05, 2004

The Mustang's back -- The production version of the new Mustang is in print and it looks every bit as handsome as the concept. We'll leave the detailed styling analysis to others. Suffice it to say that it's clean, crisp, handsome, and distinctive. Ford will sell a ton.

Then they'll have to kill the brand.

The new Mustang is the ultimate Mustang, the quintessential execution of the Mustang essence. It is also likely the ultimate Mustang, as in the last in the series.

Where does Ford and it's retro-addicted styling honcho J Mays go from here? The Downshift Retro Roadblack law says that once you've committed to homage, you can't go forward again. With the 2005 Mustang, Ford is saying that the best Mustang design -- indeed the soul of the marque -- can be found in the mid-60's models. There's not a single meaningful new design element on the entire car. It's going to be awfully tough to break out an all-new Mustang to follow.

Say what you will about the new Corvette (and we will in due time), Dave McClellan and his crew have never played the nostalgia card as a one-shot boost to sales. Each generation lives or dies on its own merits, while still maintaining the family bloodlines.

Maybe Ford has a retro-cyclical plan in mind. This new version is a 60's do-over. The next generation will bring back the kamm-back, big-butt 70's look. That'll follow with the "new" Mustang II. Once around with the 90's busy look and we can return to the 60's.

Sunday, January 04, 2004

Detroit links -- Two good places to get the latest from the Detroit Auto Show:
Another Ford rehash -- Somebody please stop J Mays. Seriously. Now.

Bill Ford introduced the new Mustang (more later) and the Ford GT as part of a Power Trilogy. What's the third prong of the trinity? If you guesses another modern-day execution of a Ford icon, congratulations. It's an all-new Shelby Cobra!

Unlike the unquestionably handsome Mustang and GT, this one's is a bit of a dog. But, unlike the GT, it appears to be a truly new take on the old form. And, unlike the Mustang, it's not a cycling back to old forms after intervening models.

So, the Downshift Retro Roadblack law might not apply.

Still, this retro-fetishism is not healthy. It's not a good sign when the more attractive two-seater introduced today is the kissing cousin of a minivan, not the son of arguably the coolest sports cars ever built.

Fittingly, the new Cobra is the product of a guy -- Mays -- who's best known for warming over old ideas, and a guy -- Shelby -- who's spent the last forty years milking a single -- albeit fantastic -- idea to death.
Holy Crossfire -- Chrysler unveiled a supercar prototype at the Detroit show. Enzo-like specs: quad-turbo V-12 by AMG, 850 bhp, 2.9 seconds to 60. Enzo-like price: $450,000 (less trade-in on the Town & Country, presumably). Enzo-like pedigree: Not!

Thought 1: This is forward-looking design. A clean-sheet design that incorporates brand cues. Of course, Chrysler doesn't have a LeMans winner to look back to. Still ... (more on this later).
Thought 2: Porsche's justification for building the Cayenne was that nearly all of it's sports car owners owned SUVs, so there was a natural market. Are Chrysler's mini-van families looking for a same-brand Carrera GT-fighter? Maybe, Chrysler's looking to provide a follow-on product for empty-nesters.
Thought 3: Does the passenger seat fold flat into the floor?
Thought 4: Just as auto show debuts are getting to be mere physical confirmation of press-release photos, Chrysler drops another bomb. Wait to go Wolfgang!
No cameras? -- Last month, the IRL released its report of the crash that killed Tony Renna on October 22 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. All of its conclusions are based on telemetrics and eyewitness accounts. Remarkably, there is no video footage.

Given the millions spent racing and testing at IMS and the frequent crashes (some of which, unfortunately, are fatal), we just assumed that there would be something low tech like complete and overlapping camera coverage of the 2.5 mile circuit. In fact, there's not a single permanent camera.

If there's any outrage about this video deficit, we haven't seen it. You can't rewind a tape and bring back Tony Renna, but wouldn't video analysis of his and every other crash help prevent other crashes?

Tony George, before spring testing begins, install a full video system with enough clockwise and counter-clockwise facing cameras on the track that a car can never go out of range of at least two cameras. Make sure the record button is on every time a car takes the track.
Look, Ma, no brains -- The grossly disproportionate CAFE standards applicable to cars and trucks, while criminally stupid, is at least historically and politically explicable. What Downshift has never understood is why there are different rules about tinted glass.

Most SUVs and minivans have dark glass from the factory, while sedans and wagons don't. That's because light trucks can have tinting on all but the windshield and the two front side windows, while cars cannot. Certainly, tinting would make the Downshift family station wagon more bearable, particularly for the sensitive-eyed 2-1/2 year-old in the back. Look for a post when Mrs. Downshift approves a budget item for after-market tinting.

Recently, however, a thought occurred to us. Perhaps trucks, particularly SUVs, require tinting to camouflage how little most trucks are used for truck-like purposes. Without dark windows, you'd really see that most of the time what's being hauled in your neighbor's Escalade could fit in a Mini.

Saturday, January 03, 2004

Less Acclaim -- Much less happening at the LA Auto Show than is promised at the Detroit show in a few days. Check out the official show site or a pre-packaged roundup of pre-show press releases from Car and Driver. Still haven't found a page with pictures from the show.

Among the more interesting debuts and concepts: Lotus Elise (gotta have one), Maserati Quattroporte, Volvo S40, RX-8 look-alike Chevrolet SS, Hummer H3T (smaller is better, even if it's a Hummer).

Friday, January 02, 2004

Bangle bungle -- If anything encapsulates the arrogance and cluelessness of Chris Bangle, it's this quote in a Car and Driver article on the new 6-series:
    "We've decided we can't figure out how to design a car that looks good in pictures," he says with a shrug.
We get it. The forward thinkers at BMW are so pure in their pursuit of design perfection that they are incapable of something as vulgar as worrying about how a car looks in print.

Memo to Chris: You don't know how to design a car that looks good in person, either. The Z4 is a disaster. And, the 5-series, which is popping up on streets near Downshift, manages the seemingly impossible task of being thoroughly creased and lacking any tension whatsoever. It's actually less offensive in pictures. The M5 adds to the limpness with a face that looks like it's sucking on a lemon.

To be fair, we like the new 7-series and the 6-series looks pretty good in photos.

Tuesday, December 30, 2003

We're back -- Downshift's new year's resolution is two posts a week, at least. Enough said.
Power Gglut -- A while back, Missed Shift's favorite writer, Gregg Easterbrook, had a good blog entry essentially bemoaning the fact that recent powertrain improvement has been focused on power rather than efficiency and suggesting that power should be regulated in the name of reduced fuel consumption. Easterbrook's headed in the right direction, but nobody's going to limit power. Fortunately, Downshift has a better idea.

First, though, how can Downshift, the site for the automotive enthusiast and dedicated to the pursuit of automotive fun, cotton to the notion that power can ever be a bad thing? Here's why: Cheap power + cheap gas + uncultivated automotive tastes = SUVs and other light trucks purchased for no rational reason. Without cheap power, auto makers couldn't build enormous vehicles that meet some modest minimal performance expectations that the market has (sub-10-second sprint to 60, for instance). And, the market distortions of CAFE -- where the standards for light trucks are significantly less restrictive than those for passenger cars -- means that cheap power has fueled the SUV craze rather than produced cheaper, faster four-door sedans.

Easterbrook wants to regulate power because he wants fuel comsumption to go down and he is sympathetic to the notion that heavier vehicles are safer. If you want fuel economy to go down and weight to stay the same, restricting power is certainly a way to do it. But, it's not going to happen.

First, the obvious. Politically, nobody's going to put a cap on horsepower. We're talking about a defining quality of the American talisman. Second, the less obvious. In trucks, power has a meaningful benefit. Those people who buy trucks for legitimate purposes -- hauling and towing -- can haul and tow more with a single truck if the truck has more power. While you might want to restrict power available to the poseurs who don't haul or tow but want to look like they could, there's no way to do it. If you make a 350 hp Dodge pickup available to your local contractor, the moron up the street who makes a few trips a year to Home Depot is going to be able to buy one, too.

The answer is to go at the problem from another angle altogether: vehicle dynamics. In the name of safety, put governors on vehicles that can't meet certain objective, safety-related standards. If a vehicle cannot stop from 70 mph in under 185 feet and negotiate a standardized slalom course at the same speed as an entry-level Camry, cap its speed at 65 mph. The tests should be cheap and easy to perform. Auto buff books have been measuring such stuff for years.

A car or truck that can't stop or turn with sufficient alacrity ought not be driving at speeds where a lack of agility poses a threat to others.

There's no negative consequence for those who legitimately buy trucks as beasts of burden. If you're hauling and towing, you've got no need to go over 65. Practically speaking, there's no negative consequence for the poseur either. The speed limit is 65, so what need has he of a chariot that goes faster? But, psychologically, the impact will be profound. Lots fewer people will buy trucks and SUVs if those vehicles perform like the limited purpose workhorses that their special CAFE status assumes.

The practical effect should be a seismic shift back towards car buying. Fuel consumption should go down, even if the auto manufacturers continue to focus on power over efficiency, because the average weight of vehicles will go down. Car driving should be safer with fewer SUVs and light trucks on the road, and those on the road should pose less threat. And, ultimately, there will likely be a pronounced improvement in large vehicle braking and handling, which might undo some of the shift to cars, but would still be a good thing from a safety perspective. Of course, the easiest way to improve truck braking and handling would be to pare a few pounds, which would be a good thing from any perspective.

Thursday, September 18, 2003

No More GM Minivans -- GM has announced that they are changing the names of their Chevrolet and Pontiac minivans from Venture and Montana to Uplander and Montana SV6. Apparently, Venture and Montana without the SV6 are just too closely aligned with the minivan as mom-mobile.

First, GM's got neither enough minivan sales or so-called mindshare to have too close an association with its products and the category. Caravan and Odyssey are names that connote minivan. Downshift ventures that there are not 100 people among potential buyers who even remember what GM's minivans are named. Second, if the Montana name is really a problem, uh, is adding SV6 going to make any difference? Third, Uplander? We can imagine the conversation a couple's going to have. Uplander? Say, isn't that the Toyota SUV? I've heard it's pretty good. Let's go check one out.

But the truly bold move? According to GM, the replacements for the old minivans aren't going to be minivans. They'll have sliding doors. They'll be tall, in fact even taller. (Taller? What the center of gravity wasn't high enough already?) But they'll be crossover sport vans.

If some company wants to break the Dodge/Honda stranglehold on the minivan market here's how to do it. Get over the fact that a minivan is a minivan is a minivan. Approach the minivan the way BMW, and subsequently Porsche and Infiniti, did the SUV. Take a seemingly dynamically challenged vehicle. Goose the motor. Massage the suspension. Give it big tires. Change the way people view the category. A 540i wagon will outperform and outhaul an X5, but nobody's confusing the X5 with an Explorer.

Another time, Downshift will explain why no one should be ashamed of minivans.

Tuesday, September 09, 2003

Frankfurt! -- Nothing like a major autoshow to get the blood flowing!

Can we start with the new Ford concept, the Visos? Was someone channeling the early 70's Volvo P1800ES, especially the back? (Here's another view).

Certainly, Ford's entitled to harken back to early examples from the family archives, even to a car that was built well before Volvo married into the family.

There are worse cars to imitate.

Tuesday, September 02, 2003

Objectively Subjective -- In the September issues, both Car and Driver and Road & Track pulled together big comparison tests of high-dollar convertible sports/sporty cars. Makes sense. See how the new Cadillac XLR stacks up agains the rest of the world. No suprise that they gathered the same cars (except, surprisingly, Car and Driver neglected the Maserati Spyder without comment). What's really surprising are the rankings.

Car and Driver (not online yet):
  1. Mercedes SL500

  2. Porsche Carrera 4 Cabriolet

  3. Cadillac XLR

  4. Lexus SC 430

  5. Jaguar XK8
Road & Track:
  1. Porsche 911 Carerra Cabriolet

  2. Cadillac XLR

  3. Jaguar XK8

  4. Mercedes SL500

  5. Lexus SC 430 and Maserati Spyder GT (tied)
What's really interesting is that the obviousness of the test creates an apples-to-apples comparison of the two rating regimes, right after Car and Driver changed their methodology.

The Car and Driver comparo is the first using its new ranking system, a system that actually tallies the scores from "the objective and subjective categories to produce an overall point total that will determine the finishing order" instead of the old system in which "final scores are determined independently of the individual ratings." Downshift wonders if they have the weighting quite right.

In any case, there's clearly a meaningful difference in what matters to the two magazines.
No kidding -- You're going to have to trust us on this one, but Downshift has been planning a post on the new VW Touareg, about how cool it is (despite its being a truck-based ute, and one of particularly weighty weight), and how the family Downshift might just have to get an Airstream International CCD to justify buying a Touareg. (Yes, Downshift knows that the Airstream figures in the Touareg ad campaign. We thought of the Airstream independently.)

Here's the zippy closing line we had planned: Now that they've shown the world what they can do in the luxury-ute category, we'd love to see what the VW product wizards can do in a cute-ute aimed at the Jetta crowd. Call it the New Thing.

Turns out, Downshift and VW share the same wavelength. They are going to build a "rugged-looking Golf-based off-roader." (The article is about a Boxster-fighter, more on that in another post, but scroll down to the seventh paragraph for a tease about the coming ute.)

Downshift's still first out of the gates with the "New Thing" crack.

Thursday, August 28, 2003

Fat, ugly, and slow -- Porsche's going to build a V-6 Cayenne. All the zip of a 914 and the desirability of a 924, at about twice the weight of both combined. They ought to sell like hotcakes.

Sunday, August 10, 2003

New Bowties -- Chevrolet is about to unveil a slew of new cars, including a tall, wagon meant to evoke the 1949 Suburban.

A tall wagon, like the PT Cruiser, is a great idea. Cheap-to-buy, cheap-to-own, useful, versatile, and playful. A truck look on what's emphatically a car. May they sell a million.

The retro-look may be a mistake, however. Undoubtedly, the 40's era Chevy truck styling will fare better on a mini-mini-van for the masses than it does on the ridiculous, low-volume SSR. (What everyone's not asking for: two-seats, an enormous trunk, weighing in at just shy of 2-1/2 tons, riding on a SUV frame.) But, it seems to the design analysis department at Downshift HQ, that retro is a short-term strategy that won't survive the long term. You build the New Beetle, everyone loves the iconic shape, but what do you do for an encore? VW's seen slipping sales and the best they can do is pump up the power and chop the roof. The essential styling is locked in by its retro roots.

Similarly, Chevy's going to be hard-pressed to freshen a car based on a late forties truck. What do you do five years into the product cycle, make it look like a 1954 Suburban (nearly indistinguishable from the 1949 model)?

Better to buck the retro-trend and create a new Chevy look that incorporates elements of the past (like Cadillac has done with its Arts & Science look).

If Chevy's committed to retro-styling a tall wagon, Downshift humbly suggests they look to the 1955 Chevy Nomad. It would be no more immune to the Downshift Retrostyling Roadblock, but the Nomad is even cooler than the 1949 Suburban.

Thursday, August 07, 2003

Cost of Cayenne -- Here's the consequence of Porsche spending it's limited R&D money on the Cayenne: we won't see this spiffy Boxster coupe until mid-2006.

As much as Downshift can't wait for the fixed-head Boxster, he couldn't help but notice the Pontiac Sunfire-esque rear quarter panel. Looks better on the Porsche.

Wednesday, August 06, 2003

Good, bad, and good news -- Lincoln's pulling the plug on the Aviator. No tears shed at Downshift Central.

Mercedes is not sending us the A Class, but might send us something based on the platform. Downshift can't wait.

Thursday, July 31, 2003

Wagon Ho! -- Just check this out.

Tuesday, July 29, 2003

This can't be good -- The next head of GM design, Ed Welburn, is the man responsible for the execrable Chevy SSR.

Not promising.
Do you think so? -- Downshift's dear friend Missed Shift writes:
    Admit it. You criticize the perception that the Element is for old folks who think they are somehow "hip" or "urban" because YOU are thinking about buying one. You are old. You think you are hip. The mirror is painful here.
Well, duh!
Hohummerdinger -- The Sierra Club's Hummer H2 satire site is, well, just plain lame. Yes, it's big and thirsty, but that doesn't make the H2 an example of 50's-era technology. Showing identical Hummers with different fuel economy ratings makes no sense. The fuel economy sticker that the GM executive stands in front of is a red herring. As the Times points out, the H2 is so heavy it doesn't have to be EPA tested. (A page within the site makes the same point.) And, as a Hummer spokesperson said, the volume of H2 sales is truly trivial.

There is one really funny section, though: "What if the Hummer replaced famous vehicles in famous movies?"

The problem is that the H2 itself is just not a great target. It is, by all accounts, remarkably capable for what it was built to do: go way off-road. It's the people who buy Hummers -- or any other hard-core SUV -- to do nothing but drive on-road who ought to be mocked within an inch of their lives. The Hummer H2, the perfect vehicle for taking a 65 lb. 10-year-old and her friend to ballet class and then picking up some fresh ravioli on the way home.

At Downshift Central, we hold no brief for the SUV-driving citizens of Moronica -- hold your e-mails, those who actually use them to tow and haul are excepted -- but the hummerdinger site fails to advance the cause.

Friday, July 25, 2003

China focus -- Seems that every issue of the Automotive News Daily Update has some item or items about auto manufacturers plans/expectations/hopes for sales to the Chinese. Makes sense. The very definition of an untapped market: Lots of people, not a lot of cars ... yet. (Sign up for the update here. It's often deeply inside baseball, but the product related information is generally fresh and interesting. Much of the product news also makes its way to the Car News section of the Autoweek home page).

Best China-related item yet: Hoping to sell cars in China, Toyota's bought the naming rights to a new indoor stadium ... in Houston. The new arena will be the home of the Houston Rockets. The Rockets' center is international marketing phenomenon and part-time NBA star Yao Ming. The road to Chinese car sales goes through Texas.
Scion Youth -- It's only based on a month's sales, but according to this Edward Lapham commentary, Toyota's claiming that the average age of Scion buyers is 36. That would make it the winner in the youth-movement sweepstakes, a year younger than the VW Golf GTI.

Downshift still thinks the Element is an old fogey's car argument overblown, but with a 41-year-old average buyer, the Element is markedly behind the Scion. And, the closing-in-on-40 Downshift would never consider the Scion. It's a kid's car.
The Meme that Swallowed the SUV -- Can coverage of the Honda Element escape the "missed-the-demographic" analysis? This Autoweek long-term test update adds a few more column inches. For more on the issue: Mickey Kaus (scroll down to the bottom of the June 4 Element entry), Automotive News's Mark Rechtin (very funny), and Business Week.

While interesting, the assumption's wrong -- Element buyers do skew young. As this other Rechtin story explains, the average age of the Element buyer is 41, which seems geriatric, but ranks the Element 15th youngest of 253 models measured. (The VW Golf GTI boasts the youngest average buyer: a not-exactly-youngster 37.)

Young drivers are rarely buyers of record, even of cars they drive regularly or exclusively. So, the average age figure is not a totally reliable indicator of how well the Element is doing among the flat-belly set. And, anecdotal evidence supports the conclusion that older folks like the Element just as much or more than young folk. For instance, Downshift's definitely outside the demographic, but the Element is on the short list of cars to add to the Downshift family fleet. (Downshift has a short list and likes to pester Mrs. Downshift to review the list whenever possible even though we're not buying a new car any time soon.)

But, in the end does it matter? Maybe Downshift's missing something profound, but isn't the primary measure of a car's success how many get sold? And, aren't a 40-year-old's dollars worth as much as a 22-year-old's?

Update: Mark Rechtin writes for Automotive News, a sister publication to Autoweek, and Autoweek links to some of the Atomotive News stories.

Thursday, July 24, 2003

Rollover Update -- Interesting Autoweek article about a Continental-Neves road show of their stability control systems. Continental is the company that supplies Ford with the rollover prevention system in the Volvo XC90.

Downshift guesses it's not Bill Ford's technology to give away.

Tuesday, July 22, 2003

New Golf -- VW Vortex has pictures and a description of the new Golf. Looks neat.

Update: Mrs. Downshift says, "It's looking a little less signature-Golfy." Make of that what you will.
Modu-car -- Honda is pondering a youth-oriented brand, like Toyota's Scion. An unsolicited game plan:
  • Build a relatively conservative looking car. (The 2002 Honda Civic Si comes to mind.)
  • Make all the exterior part that are popular to customize -- headlight clusters, taillight clusters, bumper, grill, sills, etc. -- simple and easy to replace. Make it easy for third-parties to manufacture modules to spec. Make it easy for owners to swap them.
  • Do the same for the interior.
  • Make the engine easy to customize. Publish the chip specs. Make room for mounting a turbo-charger and related plumbing.
  • Build it to be lowered.
In short, build a blank canvas.

The folks at Saturn designed a car, and asked themselves, "What could we make modular to make it more popular to tuners?" The best they could do was interchangeable roof-rail trim. Better to ask what customizing tuners already do and build a car to meet their clearly articulated priorities.
Really Useful Technology -- SUV deaths by rollover are up by 14% to 10,666, according to the National Highway Safety and Traffic Administration. And, more than 60% of deaths in SUVs involve rollovers.

Makes the Volvo XC90's Roll Stability Control pretty significant. RSC notices when the XC90 is beginning to roll (sensors detect excessive yaw) and applies brakes as needed to make the thing understeer its way out of trouble (or at least a rollover). Even assuming that RSC won't prevent all rollovers and that preventing a rollover won't always prevent a fatal accident, you gotta figure that this is technology that should markedly decrease the number of deaths by SUV.

Note to Bill Ford: Give it away! (Ford owns Volvo). As a big centenary celebration gesture, give every carmaker a free or nearly free license to the RSC technology. Better yet, give them an open-source license so they have to share any improvements they make.

Note to Csabe Csere: How could technology that makes SUV parking (QuadraSteer) and loading (Mid-Gate) easier make your list of significant innovations, but RSC doesn't?

Wednesday, July 16, 2003

What coulda been -- Reading the Car and Driver review of the Porsche Cayenne was disheartening. If you are a Porsche-phile, even if you oppose a Porsche SUV on principle (and there are so many principles to choose from), you had to hope the Cayenne was every bit the category killer a Porsche ought to be. Apart from it's stupendous acceleration, awful design, and stunning weight, there's nothing that really distinguishes it from other luxury SUVs. Not even handling. Porsche came late to the party and delivered an ugly lard-ass that isn't even the best dancer in the room ... but will win every race to the punch bowl.

It's not just that -- given Porsche's size and niche -- it probably can't survive delivering merely okay cars (or trucks). (This Autoweek "Drivers Log" entry delivers a similar "So what?" verdict.) What breaks our hearts at Downshift Central, is the opportunity cost of Porsche's SUV distraction. Articles in the same issue of Car and Driver vividly illustrate what Porsche could have done.

Porsche's a small company with limited development money. Even though the Cayenne was developed on a platform shared with the VW Touraeg and the coming Audi SUV, Porsche couldn't bring out the Cayenne and do anything more than freshen the growing-long-in-the-tooth Boxster. The result: a "new" Boxster that is mechanically and visually almost indistinguishable from the original. In a comparison with the soon-to-be-updated SR2000, the 350Z, the Z4, and the TT, the Boxster finished a disappointing third.

Imagine what Porsche could have done to the Boxster with the Cayenne money? A stiffer shell, more power, a clutch-less manual, a coupe version, a better nose, all of the above. The irony is that the Boxster is widely credited as the model that got Porsche through the tough times. Tough to understand the corporate decision to shortchange the Boxster for an SUV.

If Porsche had to share a platform with Audi, why couldn't they share a platform with the A8, which is also tested in the same issue? The luxury sedan market may not be as big as the luxury SUV market, but it's big enough to draw Audi, Mercedes, BMW, Jaguar, Lexus, Infiniti, Rolls, Bentley, etc.

Again, imagine what Porsche could have done. The review of the A8 notes its bland looks, surprising weight (given that it's mostly aluminum), merely adequate power, and decent handling. Okay, given the Cayenne, it's unlikely that Porsche would have done much better on the looks and weight fronts. But, stuff in the engine from the half-a-ton heavier, but a second-and-a-half quicker to 60 Cayenne Turbo, rub a little Porsche magic on the steering and suspension bits, and that's a car that flies and dances.

Dream bolder and envision an Arnage-like two-door coupe. (Kinda what Audi's promising with the Nuvolari.) Or, how about a station wagon like the wild A8 Avant show car.

It's a shame, really.
Cream of the Crop -- Csaba Csere distills the experience of driving "several hundred cars and trucks ... over the past couple of years" to produce a list of his favorite and least favorite "powertrain or structural components."

What tops his list? BMW's active steering or SMG shifter? Audi's dual-clutch sequential shifter? Mercedes emergency braking anticipation thingy (you lift of the gas quickly, the braking system assumes you need to slow in a hurry and starts to apply the brakes before you actually hit the pedal)? Any of the structural advances that have made every manufacturer's new model stiffer? Regenerative braking and hybrid technology? The ubiquity of all-wheel and four-wheel drive performance cars?

Nope. The Chevy Avalanche's mid-gate. First, it's hardly an innovation. Anyone with a station wagon recognizes it as a folding rear seat. Second, it's mere marketing fodder, likely to be used rarely if ever by the vast majority of truck and SUV owners (putting it in the same company with any components designed for off-road use). Third, it has nothing to do with driving. (Csaba, you do remember driving? That activity you engage in behind the wheel of a car designed to go, stop, and turn in an entertaining and responsive fashion.)

His second choice? Quadra-steer. No kidding. Parking assistance for your oversized pickup or SUV. Csere, even acknowledges that the technology won't improve handling, because "too many cars do just fine without its weight, complication, and cost." Irrelevant when actually scooting down the road in a real car but handy maneuvering your Suburban when dropping off the ten-year-old at ballet class, and it makes his list.

To be fair, third and fourth place on Csere's list go to variable displacement engines and variable-geometry manifolds. But, fifth spot goes to a cellphone holder. When I'm blasting down some two-lane country road, I ignore a ringing phone because it interferes with the driving experience.

The list of bad items is only marginally more relevant. But, it's worth noting that he derides bumper-mounted parking sensors, because real drivers ought to know where their cars ends. A good point. But, the people buying the SUVs and trucks with the parking sensors are not real drivers. And, whatever it is about the sensors that annoys the driver in Csere who was AWOL in the first eight paragraphs can't possibly stack up to the shared benefit of lower insurance premiums that result from the prevented fender benders.

Csaba, maybe you've been at C/D too long and cars bore you. Time to see what editorial openings they have at Light Truck and SUV.