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Saturday, November 13, 2004

The Hybrid Experience

Yesterday I drove a Civic Hybrid. It was a very interesting experience.

I've heralded alternatives to the standard ICU engine, because I feel that there will be fuel shortages in the future. I've seen the Civic Hybrid as one of those alternatives. Of the four hybrids on the market as of this writing, it is the third cleanest, and arguably the most useful overall. Sales have been strong, though not nearly as strong as the Prius, and here in California, they are everywhere.

My friend let me drive it for around 10 miles, mostly on the freeway. The most immediate comparison that came to mind was with my Nissan Sentra. Basically I saw my own car as the "full engine" alternative to the hybrid, which replaces some engine with a battery.

In terms of power, the car felt just as powerful and fast as my car. It's not a sports car by any means, but any fears that the car will be anything less than a regular old compact should be alleviated.

Aesthetically, the car looks just like a regular Civic, but with a small subtle spoiler on the rear, and the word "HYBRID" in chrome. This is a car that is trying to mimic being a regular car, and not using the hybrid powertrain as a gimmick. I think that is the future of the hybrid car. Simply a trim level for a model of vehicle. The interior is much higher quality than my own car, but this is really a top of the line civic. Though it tries to be a regular vehicle, the completely electronic dashboard reveals that you spent a little extra to buy this car. I'm sure future models will do away with that to save money, but for now it looks amazing.

Handling was a little inferior to my Sentra, but I don't think that's hybrid related at all. My main concerns were with power, and overall vehicle feel. Are hybrids here to stay, or are they a passing fad? They are here to stay, completely, and utterly.

All is not perfect. There is one great drawback to the Civic Hybrid, that people may not know about. In fact there are several, and they are all related to the fact that the vehicle is a hybrid. The car makes strange sounds. I would like to drive a high end luxury hybrid, and see if those sounds are still there. But in the Civic, the battery and the electronics make for an incessant humming. Nowhere in the media have I heard a mention of this. I first noticed the humming, and thought that it was an ambulance in the distance approaching the vehicle. It is somewhat loud, but could be easily drowned out by the radio or A/C. But it is an issue.

And when the car is turned off, the battery stays on, whirring quite loudly, as it charges. This could be an annoyance to owners as well.

It's a technology that is in its infancy. It has severe enough drawbacks that I think were it not for the high price of fuel, people would eventually stop buying hybrids. But because of fuel's cost, we are forced to turn to hybrids as an option. I think and hope, as the years pass, that new generations of hybrids will overcome these problems, just as new generations of diesels are less polluting, more efficient, and dramatically quieter. I'm sure it can be done.

All in all it was an intriguing experience, my time with the Civic Hybrid. It showed to a great extent how strange and jarring it will be for most to say goodbye to the standard gasoline ICU engine. But we'll have to adapt.


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Tuesday, November 09, 2004

An Answer to a Previously Postulated Question

And more. I looked up the Mercury Montego on the Internet, and in fact the taillights do look like an improvement over the Ford 500's, with brighter LED bulbs. At least that's what they looked like, living in Los Angeles means nary a Mercury on the road.

From merely a product standpoint, it seems strange that Mercury has so many while Lincoln has so few. I remember a year ago when Mercury was having to deal with little or no new products except the Marauder, which was a total bomb. Everyone felt this was the end of Mercury. Now they are saying the same thing about Lincoln. Lincoln has only four products in its lineup, Mercury has six. If Lincoln can add a car or two to the lineup to replace the ancient Town Car, or at least update it and the LS, they could be in business. The Navigator is far superior aesthetically to the Escalade, and for a time was the best interior in an American vehicle.

And to continue with the Ford theme, I saw a Mustang today. The 2005 Mustang. It was cherry red with gold lettering stickers on the door sills that said Mustang. It looked incredible. If I didn't think that the world was running out of gas it would be my next car. Period. It was a GT as well. Absolutely amazing vehicle. It will save Ford.

I'm keeping up with my theme of near daily updates, so many of these will be random thoughts on cars and the auto industry. See you soon.

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Monday, November 08, 2004

Saw a New Car Today

It was a Ford 500. I only saw it from the back. Still had dealer ad plates. The brake lights look somewhat cheap. I wonder if the Mercury Montego's brake lights are an upgrade.

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Sunday, November 07, 2004

The Reign of Lutz

A fantastic article has been written surveying the effect Bob Lutz has had on being essentially the product guru at General Motors. It's arguably the most powerful position in the American, and World, auto industry. Three years into it, Lutz's changes don't seem to be that substantial.

About a year before Lutz was hired as head of GM, I learned of him through various quotes attributed to him in automotive pieces written on the industry. I was fascinated by a man I thought was cutting edge, and at the same time very wise. He was quite a bit more conservative politically than I was, but I thought his beliefs on automobile products were very interesting and right on the mark. I even read his autobiography. The cars I felt he had had a hand in designing at Chrysler were to my eye, quite beautiful. Among them were the original Dodge Viper, the Plymouth Prowler, and the Dodge Intrepid. I felt even before learning of Lutz's existence, that Chrysler was creating the best looking cars of the Big 3, and perhaps of all manufacturers in the American market. They weren't by any means the most reliable, or the best driving, but they were the most asethetically daring. And they were very American, all the more strange considering Lutz is not an American at all, but Swiss. But seeing him in interviews on television, and learning something of the way he acted, he seemed to embody all those things of a classic American executive, that of a brash, tell it like it is conservative, who at the end of the day has fired someone and raised the stock price a dollar.

So that is why it is all the more surprising that I find his affect on GM to be somewhat of a failure. When GM hired him, I thought this would mean a turnaround for GM. GM, historically the greatest car company in America, and the world, and yet the most troubled in both lands.

Three years into his tenure, Lutz has produced or influenced, the Corvette C6, and the Cadillac STS. They look great. They sell to small markets.

He has helped or influenced the Chevrolet Malibu and Pontiac G6. They are acceptable, but hardly the cars that can compete against the likes of Honda and Toyota's progeny.

He has created rebadged SUVs like the upcoming Pontiac Torrent. Also he has introduced SUV-esque Minivans for Saturn, Chevrolet, and Pontiac. To my eye, and to many others, they look terrible.

The only winners I see are of low volume, high quality. I see many C+ efforts, and I see many vehicles with longstanding problems that have not been corrected. There are still many SUVs at GM, and many cars, that have interiors from the 1980s, and have sheetmetal long overdue for an update.

I see General Motors like the broken Roman Empire. It is overextended, and its efforts are few and far between. Hiring Bob Lutz to fix it is like having Rome hire an old General to run things, a General whose past glories are long ago.

Lutz is in his mid-70s, travels to work by helicopter, and lives a lifestyle far different than most of GM's customers live. I have read he collects many exotic and rare European cars. These cars probably influenced Lutz to make positive changes to high end cars like the Corvette or STS. But they probably did not do much for the Pontiac G6.

GM still has the ancient Impala and Monte Carlo in its lineup. The new minivans it produces are problematic, evidence that whatever flaws that pervaded car planning in the past, still exist today. GM still makes too many different vehicles, for a small number of market niches. And it is still too dependent on SUVs, when future fuel crises are around the corner. High fuel consumption Corvettes are not the answer.

There is hope. The Chevrolet Cobalt is very consertatively done, but it is the first high quality small car GM has probably ever done. If there is a fuel crisis, people will drive it and be impressed. Also, plans to make Saturn essentially Opel America are right on the mark. Let GM take the place of VW in this country, with beautiful relatively inexpensive European vehicles for the masses.

But all in all I see a lot of problems with Lutz's time at GM. It's only been three years, the jury's out until at least three more have passed.

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Another Auto Blog

Grant is a writer for the lobby group that represents Automotive dealerships, and whose link I have already posted. He also has his own blog here. He is also an independent consultant in various areas.

As an aside, I was thinking today, actually daydreaming, of what will be my next car. Like most who make no money, and are overly educated, my dreams are often ridiculous. They range from the bizarre (a nearly new original MINI from the gray market, the one's that the Rover company built), to the extreme (a BMW or Triumph motorcycle), to the absurd--for my pocketbook at least. (the new 320E Diesel Mercedes-Benz).

I drive a 2001 Nissan Sentra, with automatic transmission. It's a sturdy car, I drive the hell out of it, but I want something more exciting. This is probably several years off, but I'd like a car with similar MPG (26 City, 33 Highway) because I'm a guilt-ridden liberal, but with more horsepower. I don't want a MINI, because it's a little too small for my tastes, and seems girly, though I do think they are very cool. I can't really get a classic car, because of insurance costs, reliability issues, and fuel mileage issues. I'm also a terrible driver, so a small car will be more nimble. I think I've limited it down to a Mazda 3, specifically the 160 HP version, with DVD navigation and five speed manual transmission.

The fuel costs are similar, but a little worse than my current Nissan. The interior is WAAAAAAAAAAY higher quality (poor grammar, I know). It comes with DVD navigation, which is a total waste of money, but looks and sounds completely awesome for anyone who's seen it in action. It has significantly more power than my Nissan as well, which is a necessity. My Sentra is just too underpowered to get onto a freeway without flooring, and that is dangerous here in Los Angeles. Also the car looks pretty cool. It's four door, and relatively inexpensive to insure, and purchase.

I looked over the Civic Si, which had the same horsepower, with similar fuel efficiency, but it's a two door, and just didn't seem as high quality, though it was close. The Acura RSX looked good too, but the interior just didn't seem as well done as the 3's, and as a two door it would be more expensive to insure. Also once I get my career started, whatever that may be, I'd like to buy the loaded model of whatever model I buy, not the entry level version. Buying the entry level version just seems so nouveau riche, and an attempt at buying something out of reach, a very real American problem. I want something I can afford.

So it's settled. In three years, I will purchase a 2006-2008 Mazda 3, loaded, but without leather or sunroof. And a week from now I will change my mind again.

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An Attempt at More Updates

I'm going to be making more and more updates based around personal opinions, rather than articles. I'm very picky about finding articles to write around, and I feel that merely writing around an auto article is somewhat like plagiarism, and takes away from my true opinions. Also, creating links is tiresome, and I am basically a very lazy person.

A poster below commented on MINI being another small car that is of high quality in the US market. They're totally right, and I overlooked them. That was a mistake. But I still have to stand by the fact that VW is the only car company that is committed to making high quality small cars. Whether they're committed to making high quality small cars that are reliable like Honda is another matter altogether.

Before the current fuel crisis erupted, and continues to erupt, I was rather uninformed on the fuel dilemma this country faces in the short term and long term future. When BMW announced that it was bringing the 1-series to our shores, I jeered. Now I cheer.

You can count on one hand the 4 cylinder cars that offer DVD navigation. The Mazda 3, and the MINI are the only ones I can find. Let's throw in the Prius and the Honda Civic Hybrid as well. They don't have DVD navigation or leather interiors, but they have a gimick that adds considerably to the price of the vehicle. And that's about it.

All the other high end small cars that are expensive, are expensive because they offer large engines that give them increased speed. Those are high quality small cars, but they will not sell well because of increased fuel prices.

So as the American market slowly morphs into the European market, only those car companies that are offering small cars that are of high quality are going to enjoy these turbulent times. Mazda, BMW/MINI, Honda, Toyota, and VW are companies to watch. I've seen jpegs of the Euro versions of the VW lineup, and know that the Jetta and Golf of the near future have DVD navigation. Whether they'll be offered in America is another matter. But they're probably engineered for those deluxe options, and could be easily transported over if the need arises. VW's adventure with turning a company famous for the 3rd world fun rides of the Beetle into a luxury brand is now coming to an end. As middle class families refuse to pay 3000 dollars a year in fuel costs, and downsize their vehicles, they'll want small well built cars. The companies I've listed above are already there. Certainly people in Los Angeles are already ahead of most of the nation.

As "Rocketboy" noted below in the comments section, Ford made a terrible move with the new Focus. The Euro-Focus, in the pictures I've seen, looks amazing, and has a great interior with all the amenities. The 2005 Focus for North America, is uglier than the vehicle it replaces, and has a Cavalier interior. Not a smart move. Why couldn't the Ford Focus continue to be a a world car, made the same for every market? For a company that makes an intelligent move with the Escape Hybrid, they make a dumb move with a vehicle that is going to sell in much higher numbers. Not smart.


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