Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Spirit Back in Civic's Eighth Generation Re-Design

Here's one of the big things I love about Hondas. The first time I got behind the wheel of the all-new Civic and grasped the five-speed stick shift's lever, I realized its top offered a perfectly shaped indention in exactly the right spot for my next-to-little finger.

Then I noticed that the overall shape of the lever's top was sculpted to fit the palm of my hand. Sure enough, moving the shift lever seemed natural and easy. A small detail to be sure, but one that is important in making driver and car feel as one.

Somebody at Honda had to spend some time studying the way the human hand holds a shift lever, the angle at which the arm is most comfortable, the right distance from the driver's torso to the shift lever and so forth. That kind of devotion to getting it right down to the smallest detail is at root a major part of the reason for Honda's spectacular success.

There is much else to talk about with this eighth generation of one of Honda's best selling models. The basic platform remains the same, a front-wheel-drive econocar powered by an economical but high revving four cylinder engine, an ergonomically advanced interior to comfortably accommodate four adults, spirited handling and an affordable price.

But new for 2006 is some very sexy sheet metal featuring a marked cab-forward sort of orientation, a very fast windshield and backlight and a stance that suggests a vehicle that is ready for all comers. It just plain looks great on the road and sitting in the driveway, at least in my humble opinion.

There is a new standard engine in the Civic sedan and coupe that displaces 1.8 liter and produces 140 horsepower. Mated to the five-speed stick, the engine feels a little short on torque in the lower and middle rev ranges, but is quite smooth, returns excellent gas mileage and makes a gorgeous sound near redline.

There is also a hot new 197 horsepower 2.0 liter in the Civic Si and the gas/electric Hybrid remains in the lineup as well. I've not yet sampled either the Si or the Hybrid but will do so soon.

Inside, the Civic's main instrumental panel is now a two-tier affair that puts a digital speedometer reading on the top tier and the tach on the lower tier that is also closer to the driver. Again, a small detail that indicates serious thinking.

I found the front seats a little difficult to fix in a comfortable position for longer drives, but outward visibility is superb, the stereo and environmental controls are all easy to use and decipher and there is more room for arms and legs front and back.

At $18,260 base retail for the EX coupe, the Civic is not as affordable as some of its strongest competitors, most notably the Chevy Cobalt and Mazda3. But the Civic is everything good it has always been and more. And that counts for a lot in my book.

This review was originally written for The Washington Examiner newspapers in the Washington, D.C. region and the Patuxent Publications newspapers in the Baltimore suburbs.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

When Did Cutting the Grass Become a Manufacturing Job?

Inspired by Delphi's Stephen Miller, Henry Payne at NRO has an incisive look at the factors that made the current job cuts and factory shutdowns at General Motors and Ford (Can DCX be far behind?) inevitable:

"Miller's frank assessment of unsustainable labor contracts is a refreshing dose of candor in an industry that for too long has talked around union-labor costs in a way that is totally divorced from the realities of the U.S. labor market - much less the global labor market."

Perhaps the real miracle is that it took so long for the economics of reality to catch up with the Big Three and the UAW.

Freshened Subaru Forester Still the Best Compact SUV?

If the title seems a little odd, it’s simply the fact that the Subaru Forester benefits from a number of design improvements for 2006 that make it even better at what it has always been - one of the best compact cross-over-type sport-utility vehicles.

Since its inception, the basic concept of the Forester was to provide buyers with an affordable, fuel efficient compact-sized package capable of doing modest off-road duty, thanks to its excellent all-wheel-drive system, carry a decent amount of cargo and keep four adults in reasonable comfort while doing so.

That’s pretty much exactly what the Forester has been and continues to be for 2006. Among the most important changes are restyled front and rear fascias that give the vehicle a bit more of a serious look, more horsepower under the hood, some suspension revisions that improve ride comfort and some material upgrades for the interior.

On the mechanical side, the standard boxer 2.5 liter four-cylinder that has powered the Forester since its debut eight years ago is now rated at 173 horsepower, while the turbo version of the same engine that is available in the more expensive models produces 230 horsepower.

Subaru continues to give you the choice of either a four-speed automatic transmission or a five-speed stick shift. My five-speed turbo tester turned consistent mid-six second 0-60 mph times. Rather impressive for a crossover SUV, wouldn’t you say?

The impressive performance is not limited to a straight line, though. The revised suspension gives the Forester a little more comfort on congested city streets but retains the Forester’s poise and confidence in the twisties.

There is also a bit more off-road undercarriage clearance, so the Forester is able to navigate logging trails and farm backroads without a worry. I wouldn’t suggest the Forester for your next boulder-climbing adventure but it’s good to know this Subaru can handle snowstorms, moderately rutted trails and endless interstates with equal aplomb.

The interior changes include a new center console with a sliding armrest and more storage space. Passengers in the rear seats get more thigh room, thanks to a forward repositioning of the bottom cushion and the quality of materials used throughout the interior gives the Forester a distinctly more upscale look and feel.

The Forester has a solid reliability record and with the rear seats folded flat there is more than 54 cubic feet of available storage room for utilitarian purposes. The exterior styling is instantly identifiable as Subaru but stands out a bit more in a mall parking lot.

Pricing remains a plus, with the loaded turbo Limited edition checking in with a base price at $27,895. Fuel economy for the automatic transmission turbo Limited is 22 mpg city and 28 mpg highway.

This review originally written for The Examiner newspapers in Washington, D.C. and surrounding suburbs and the Patuxent Publications newspapers in the Baltimore suburbs.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Is the Fuel Cell-Powered Car Coming Anytime Soon? GM Exec Says Yes, Reporter Says No Way

Tough to tell one way or the other, judging by the current Automotive News. On the one hand is reporter Mark Rechtin and on the other is Larry Burns, GM Vice-President for Research and Development and Strategic Planning. These two guys might as well be on different planets.

First, Rechtin, a veteran automotive trades reporter, notes that for at least 20 years now experts within the industry and without have been promising practical, affordable and desirable fuel-cell powered vehicles within 20 years.

He quotes Honda Executive Chief Engineer Tomoyuki Sugiyama, who said in 2003 that "it will be at least 20 years before conditions will be ready for individuals to own a fuel cell car and we can start mass production."

And he notes that researchers quoted in a recent issue of the American Institute for Chemical Engineers journal predicting it will be - you guess it - 20 years before hydrogen fuel cell powered vehicles will be a commonplace on dealer lots.

But turn some more pages and you come to an interview with Burns, who sounds like a man with all the answers. Asled if he still believes, as he did five years ago, that a commercially viable system will be announced by 2010, Burns said: "Certainly. And even in 2010 it will be able to keep up with today's internal combustion engines in performance and durability."

When the GM fuel cell powered vehicle debuts, Burns said, it will "offer a range of 300 miles, exhibit an impressive acceleration and last at least 150,000 miles. We have already invested more than a billion dollars in it."

And with that billion smackeroos has come some progress, acording to Burns, who noted that:

"In the last five years, we have driven our prototype 275,000 test kilometers (171,000 miles) and learned from weaknesses in the system. Take our most recent prototype, the Sequel. We are presenting a driveable version based on this prototype in 2006."

The design technology behind the Sequel that will be unveiled next year was fixed two years ago, Burns said.

"By 2009, we want to once again cut the fuel cell stack size by 50 percent. In the last seven years, it has been reduced by a factor of 14," he said.

Rechtin isn't impressed with Burns' promises. "GM promised one million 'full' hybrid gasoline-electric vehicles for sale by 2007. Credibility seems to be an issue here, along with advanced R&D funding, what with all the gallons of red ink pouring out of GM's headquarters."

So who is right, the cynical scribe who has been reporting the hollow promises lo these many years or the struggling veep who must know the story about the little boy who warned once too often about the approach of a big bad hungry wolf?

Like Rechtin, I covered the industry's initial foray into fuel cell commercialization during the Clinton administration. I, too, heard all the promises, saw all the mockups and prototypes and asked all the same questions.

I hope Rechtin is wrong and Burns is right. But I'm not ready to place a bet either way, yet.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Here's Why GM Won't Be Going Bankrupt Any Time Soon; Wasn't Clinton's PNGV Supposed to Fix Detroit?

Not since Lee Iaccoca got on an airplane and flew to Washington, D.C. to seek a federal bailout for Chrysler has there been so much talk of bankruptcy for one of the Big Three, only this time it's the truly unthinkable being discussed - the General filing Chapter 11.

The problems for GM - and Ford, let's not forget - are familiar: Declining market share and growing competition worldwide from lower-cost competitors; high fixed labor costs, including exploding healthcare costs, enforced by one of the most powerful unions in the world; immense pension obligations; too slow to respond to market changes, a bloated dealer universe and too much reliance upon trucks at a time of high energy costs.

Sounds like a sure prescription for bankruptcy, right? Actually, those factors may be exactly why GM is not going to be calling on a judge for help, according to The Car Connection's Jerry Flint. Also, don't miss Joseph Szczesny's roundup of the latest GM speculation here.

My view? If I was Rick Waggoner, I would leak a draft of a bankruptcy filing, then when the media frenzy is well underway pick up the telephone and tell the UAW leadership they will determine whether the papers are filed or not.

While we are on the subject of Detroit's survival, anybody remember the Clinton administration's much-ballyhooed "Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles" and the hundreds of millions of tax dollars that went with it?

That was the program that was going to give us "technologies for a new generation of vehicles up to three times more fuel efficient than today's, a technological challenge comparable to or greater than that involved in the Apollo project," according to a White House statement at its unveiling.

So, what happened?

UPDATE: 30,000 Jobs gone, Nine factories shut down

There will be more. Here's Just-Auto's report.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Zen Ze Boss Said "You're Fired, You Dumpkof!"

It's three Mercedes in a row. It's a safety demonstration for German TV. It's three Mercedes in a sandwhich. It's time for somebody to clean out their desks! Go here.

How VIP is Drag? Can You Spell C-A-F-E?

Todd Jensen at Autoblog has some interesting observations on the importance of aerodynamics to fuel economy. Drag is second only to engine friction in terms of consuming energy needed to maintain motion. Ergo, find a little bit here and there in the wind tunnel and gain a lot on the road when EPA comes calling to do its fuel economy ratings. Go here for Jensen's complete post.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Car Connection Is Really Enthusiastic About the Monte Carlo SS

But so bould the rest of us we if we experienced what those guys claim for the 303 horsepower, 5.3 liter V-8 front-wheel-drive Monte Carlo SS, a 5.6 second 0-60 mph run and the ability to go around corners and leap off the line without a trace of torque steer.

Here's the link to Car Connection's full review. I expect to have my own thoughts on the Monte Carlo SS appearing soon in this space.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Cobalt is a little Chevy that’s easy to love

It’s been a long, long time since I’ve been inspired to the four-letter-word about any vehicle bearing the Stovebolt logo, except the Corvette and first generation Impala SS. But the Cobalt grabbed me the first time I drove it.

The Cobalt is nothing like any previous small Chevy, which means it’s no Cavalier or, Lord save us, a Vega. No, this car is proof that Chevy finally is getting it on what it takes to challenge Toyota and Honda.

That’s why the Cobalt’s obvious quality struck me first. The interior panels and trims all look solid and attractive. Nothing cheezy anywhere, no glaring gaps and all of the buttons and switches work with a reassuring sturdiness. It’s the same story on the outside where the fit and finish is tight and consistent.

So the Cobalt passes the first test of critical consumers raised on generations of flawlessly assembled Corollas and Civics with flying colors. The results on the second test – does the exterior styling do anything for you - aren’t quite so clear-cut.

I like the Cobalt’s look. It’s the first Chevy in years that actually looks like a Chevy is supposed to look - fun, sporty, affordable and stylish. The rounded hood and front fenders with the big floating Chevy logo somehow reminds me of the classic 55 Chevy’s grille.

I know, that link may not make sense to some of you out there and I’ve gotten some strange looks from folks to whom I’ve mentioned the 55 memory. Others simply dismiss the Cobalt’s looks as bland, forgettable or inoffensive. I like it.

The Cobalt passes the third test impressively by reinforcing the first. Road and engine noise are well isolated and the suspension soaks up most bumps and bops with unexpected poise.

The steering is weighted right and the 2.2-liter, 145 horsepower Ecotec four-cylinder powerplant provides excellent acceleration with hardly any vibration or harshness.

Handling is moderately sporting and the Cobalt feels a little quicker than it is, so even with the four-speed automatic transmission of my Arrival Blue Metallic two-door LS coupe the Cobalt lets you have a little friskiness on the daily commute. Fuel economy is upper 20 mpgs.

On the fourth and most vital test, pricing is solid, too, with my fully equipped LS coming in at $18,900, but expect a tab more like $16,500 with GM’s employee discount pricing still in effect. That makes the Cobalt a great value. This little Chevy is a winner. And we haven’t even talked about the supercharged SS version!

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Are There Political Lessons in Nissan's Move From La-La-Land to Tennessee?

It hasn't gotten much play in the mainstream media, but Nissan is moving most of its U.S. headquarters operation from Gardenia, California, to Franklin, a suburb of Tenneessee's capital, Nashville (and site of one of the most horrendous battles of the Civil War).

The move means relocation for 1,300 employees working in Nissan's marketing, sales and finance who will be united with the 6,700 manufacturing employees already in the Volunteer State.

Why the move? Essentially the cost of doing business in Tenneessee is much lower than it is in sunny California, plus Nissan already has a thriving assembly plant at nearby Smyrna, Tenneessee and the new location is within two hours of 60 percent of the Japanese automaker's American market.

Nissan executives expect to save millions, thanks to Tenneessee's lower real estate and employment costs, plus they expect to see as much as $240 million in profit from sale of the firm's 43-acre California campus. Only the North American design team will remain in California after the move is complete.

Daniel Gorrell, a Strategic Vision analyst, told Automotive News that he thinks the Nissan move could encourage other firms to consider similar decisions. "I don't there is anything magical about where your headquarters is. This will give other companies a reason to consider similar moves for cost savings themselves," Gorrell said.

Experts predict Nissan will lose half or more of its current employees in the California location, even though housing and other living costs in Tenneessee are significantly lower. Housing in California is among the nation's most expensive, with the median sales price for a Southern California home recently pegged by The Los Angeles Times at $475,000, compared to only $159,000 in the Nashville area.

Many of the employees who opt to stay in California could eventually be replaced by former executives leaving General Motors and Ford in Michigan.

Losing a major corporate headquarters can't help California's image as a high-cost place to do business, nor is it likely to boost Gov. Arnold Schwartzenagger currently sagging popularity ratings. But he may also cite the loss of Nissan as further evidence of the need for the kinds of pro-business reforms the Governator advocates.

Automotive News suggests Nissan could find downsides in the move as a result of no longer being where many of the nation's automotive trends and fads begin.

DULY NOTED: Significant Quotes, Facts and Trends From the Auto Industry

Days Supply on Hand Shows Depth of Truck Oct. Sales Collapse

Big Three retail sales in October took a plunge, declining by more than 20 percent, with trucks taking the biggest hits.

To appreciate the depth to which sales of Detroit's most profitable trucks plunged in October, take a look at these month-to-month changes in days supply on hand inventories. Dodge's Dakota went from 106 on Oct. 1 to 209 on Nov. 1, virtually doubling the available supply, according to data compiled by Automotive News.

Dodge's Ram full-size pickup went from 88 days supply on hand to 136. Not all of the inventory on hand news was bad for Dodge trucks, though, as supplies of the Caravan minivan actually decreased from 83 days to 79.

Ford's F-Series took a plunge, too, though not as severe as the mid-size Dakota, with an increase from 78 days to 122 days. The compact Ranger went from 61 days to 120. Over at Lincoln-Mercury, supplies of the Navigator went from 109 to 142.

On the General Motors side of the ledger, Chevrolet's Avalanche showed an increase from 93 days on hand to 204. The Chevy Equinox was at 62 days Oct. 1 and was up to 122 days by Nov. 1. Silverado? From 70 days to 158 days.

Nissan Ad Director Wonders Why Chevy Not Sold as Icon

Ask Rob Schwartz, executive creative director of TBWA/Chiatt/Day where he heads creative advertising programs for Nissan and Infiniti, isn't the most diplomatic guy in the industry. Asked by Automotive News if domestic and import automakers approach advertising differently, Schwartz goes into a riff about Chevy:

"What kills me as an American is to see GM not live up to its promise. You have a magic brand in Chevrolet. It should be iconic as Jack Daniel's, Coco-Cola and Levi's. Yet GM is forcing everybody to think about employee pricing. It's a waste of agency and client resources.

"They think that somehow the price number is sexier than the Silverado. I don't think so.

"I think people are more apt to fall in love with the Marlboro cowboy image that Chevy has done so brilliantly for so long. That brand image is still relevant. In my humble, deadly accurate opinion, they got it all backward."

What I would give to see Bob Lutz when he reads those words for the first time.

Audi Confirms Plans for R8

The Car Connection says Audi has confirmed plans to build the R8, a production version of the LeMans Quattro concept:

"In production the car will be known as the R8, and the new model will issue forth from Audi's Neckarsulm plant starting in the winter of 2006. U.S. sales are expected by 2007. As TCC has previously reported, the R8 is based on the Lamborghini Gallardo.

"The V-10 engine from the Gallardo has been de-powered to 450 hp, and the two-seater will be available with a six-speed manual transmission. The basic model will be equipped with a V-8 engine, the same one already being used in the Audi RS4. Stay tuned for more pictures and information on the R8."

Want to see some spy shots? Go here.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Nissan Making Things Hot for Dakota, Tacoma With New Bigger Frontier Pickup

For a long time the only mid-size pickup truck on the market was the Dodge Dakota. But in the past year Toyota, Chevrolet, GMC and now Nissan have all upsized their previous compact offerings to give the Dakota some genuine competition.

Nissan’s Frontier came in for some heavy criticism in this space when its last generation debuted, but the move to the larger size gets all cheers. Yes, I am a sucker for high performance vehicles and my Aztec Red 4X4 tester was the “Nismo” edition and Nismo is the Nissan performance bunch.

But the brisk acceleration provided by the 265 horsepower 4.0 liter V-6 under the hood and the unexpectedly adept handling generated by the firmed suspension turned the bigger Frontier into a real fun machine on the road, while losing none of the virtues that make pickups so appealing.

The muscular V-6 is actually the most powerful mid-size pickup powerplant on the market, with a 45-horse advantage over the Chevy Colorado and even a five-horse edge on the Dakota’s strongest V-8. But the Frontier’s V-6 matched with a six-speed stick shift still manages 21 mpg on the highway.

The Nismo package includes special Bilstein shocks, skid plates for the tranny, oil and fuel tanks and transfer case. The rear suspension includes overslung multi-leaf springs and the two-speed transfer case is complimented by an electronic locking differential.

The Frontier’s exterior styling immediately calls to mind the full-size Nissan Titan, but the Frontier’s shorter wheelbase and overall length produces a crisper and more striking appearance.

The fenders are severely flared and the Frontier’s stance is much enhanced on the Nismo edition by the presence of 16-inch BFGoodrichs mounted on six-spoke alloy wheels. The windshield is wide and tall, as are the side windows, which gives the Frontier an expansive, airy interior feeling and makes it look even bigger on the outside.

Inside the Frontier, we find large gauges, easy to find and use switches and front seats that are quite comfortable and supportive. My King Cab configuration featured rear-hinged rear doors, while the larger Crew Cab has four full-size doors.

Bed length is nearly 75 inches with the King Cab and towing capacity is 6,100 pounds. Driver and front passenger front and Advanced Airbag System bags are standard, as are four cup holders, three 12V power outlets and two glove boxes.

Best of all, my very nicely appointed Nismo tester stickered at $26,030. This Nissan is a serious candidate for tops in class in my book. And I say that despite having raved about the latest Dakota and the recently upsized Tacoma.

I rate those three at the head of the class, with the Chevy Colorado/GMC Canyon twins trailing a bit behind, chiefly as a result of the lack of an available v-configuration powerplant. Don't know about the Mitsubishi Raider, as I've not yet driven that rebadged Dakota.

And is Ford ever going to do something to grow the Ranger?

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Car Connection Has Spy Shots of 07 Ford Edge

Yesterday Tapscott Behind the Wheel reported Ford plans for a new V-6 and six-speed tranny that will be used in, among many others, the upcoming crossover, the Edge scheduled to debut in 2007. Car Connection has spy shots of the Edge here.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Ford Announcing New V-6, Six-Speed Tranny, Hybrid Developments

Ford Motor Co. officials will release today information on a new 3.5 liter V-6 that will power the Lincoln Aviator and a new Ford crossover to be known as the Edge. Here's how Ford's release describes the engine and related developments:

"Ford next year will introduce two new breakthrough crossover utility vehicles (CUVs) - the Ford Edge and Lincoln Aviator - equipped with an all-new 3.5-liter V-6 engine and new 6-speed transaxle.

"The new V-6 engine will be a powertrain cornerstone for Ford Motor Company, eventually powering one in every five Ford Motor Company vehicles on the road by the end of the decade.

"The new 3.5-liter V-6 was designed to deliver the best combination of fuel economy, refinement and performance for the customer and be compact enough to fit into a variety of vehicles.

"The height and width of the engine is the same as the smaller displacement Duratec 3.0 V-6. The engine produces 250 horsepower and 240 pound-feet of torque in its CUV applications. It uses a dual-overhead cam valvetrain for peak power capability and smooth operation at high RPM.

"It incorporates intake variable cam timing to optimize fuel economy by adjusting valve timing for a smooth idle, optimal part-load driving and an impressively broad torque curve with good power.

"In anticipation of future needs, the new V-6 has been designed to accommodate advanced technologies, including gasoline direct injection and turbo charging. The engine will be built in the fall of 2006 at Ford’s Lima (Ohio) Engine Plant."

Monday, November 07, 2005

XLR is Cadillac's First-Ever Two-Seat Flagship Worthy of the Title

You know the world has changed when Cadillac’s flagship is the XLR, a two-seat roadster based on the Chevrolet Corvette and not a rolling chaise lounge with four-doors, a big lazy motor and way too much chrome.

That sentence spans the distance the luxury division of General Motors has come in a relatively short period and provides more proof that desperation borne of life-and-death competition in the marketplace can have tremendously healthy consequences.

In this case, healthy consequences for anybody who wants to drive an American-bred and built luxury two-seater that can hold its own against the likes of Mercedes Benz, BMW and Jaguar.

The XLR is based on the previous generation Corvette but is a little smaller, narrower and taller than the Chevy sports car. Another difference is under the hood where the XLR gets a 320 horsepower 4.6 liter Northstar V-8 and a five-speed automatic transmission.

The Northstar is a superb powerplant, producing gobs of torque and motion right now, but with more of a turbine-like feel than the ripping racer scream of the Corvette’s LS2. Despite weighing roughly 400 pounds more than the Corvette, however, the XLR still managed a very respectable 0-60 mph romp of 5.78 seconds.

That performance comes with silky smoothness, a very high level of handling prowess and a severely creased and exquisitely finished exterior. Inside the XLR, Cadillac has done a tremendous job of matching cowhides, eucalyptus wood and aluminum panels to create the look and feel of a genuine high quality product.

It’s also a form-fitting and comfortable interior that cossets two in a manner likely to make both think quite highly of the prospect of a long weekend drive to, say, Greenbrier. The couple can’t take much more than a weekend’s worth of stuff, however, because the XLR’s one glaring flaw is a trunk that offers quite limited storage.

My Light Platinum exterior and ebony leather interior tester stickered at $76,650, which makes it a very competitive alternative to the Mercedes SL500. Considering the high level of performance, impressive fit and finish and striking style, I’d say Caddy has a winner.