Saturday, November 20, 2004

Rounded versus Flat

In an attempt to be philosophical about the design journey of the automobile in the US, I'm going to write briefly on how the look of American vehicles has changed over the years, and what it means for the future.

Basically, all cars in a class look the same in a generation. That's a gross generalization but in general it's true. All four door mid-size sedans in America kind of look similar, and definitely have similar lines.

I guess when cars started becoming popular around 1900, they had flat faces. This lasted until the 1930s, when they started to get round. The round phase lasted until the end of the 1950s. Then they went back to flat faces, which lasted through to the early 1990s.

There was always a car that was a blockbuster that changed the design focus. In the early 90s it was the Ford Taurus. Don't ask me what it was in the 1960s, or 1930s, but it's apparent that something popular changed the whole design viewpoint of those eras.

I think we're about to hit a new era. The 300c is the first car in awhile to have a flat face. Every other sedan sold in America has an angled face, and a "jelly bean" shape. The 300c is a complete three box car. The front and back are quite flat faced. It's the next big design change.

I expect to see a great deal of cars in the next few years with flat faces, and chrome. GM is notorious for copying competitors, as well as any Japanese manufacturer. Flat will be in. It'll be a gradual transformation, but 10 years hence, virtually every new car will look "300c esque". Just like every new sedan sold in America now sort of looks "Ford Taurus esque". I know that sounds crazy, but think about it. Look at American sedans in the mid-80s and compare them with the first generation Ford Taurus. The difference is remarkable.

We're already seeing the limits of the jellybean shape. The Pontiac GTO is a lackluster seller, and has been labelled as boring. It's got a great interior, isn't offensive aesthetically, the cheapest RWD v8 four seater car on the market, and yet it can't sell. All because of a bland inoffensive exterior.

The 300c is trashy looking, comes from a car marque that is not known as a market leader, and yet is selling like gang busters. Flat is back.

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Thursday, November 18, 2004

European Cars Unreliable

My family, specifically my parents have had European cars for as long as I can remember, and a good mix of Japanese and GM cars. By far the worst reliability came from the European cars.

Consumer Reports agrees. They feel that European cars are the least reliable across the board, and for American buyers that basically means German and British.

What interested me in the above article, which by the way is an article analyzing the Consumer Reports conclusion rather than the Consumer Reports survey itself, was the quote from an analyst. He felt that since German cars were filled with all kinds of gizmos, it was likely that one of them would break down.

Whatever happened to the European car that drove well, looked good, and basically just had a really nice interior with leather seats, and no gizmos? It is gone? Here's an idea for ailing Jaguar, instead of making a 3-Series clone with the X-type, that is by all accounts wildly inferior, make a 30-40 thousand dollar roadster, with no DVD navigation, just a six speed transmission, a V6 engine, and leather seats. And make it look good. They had a prototype of this vehicle a few years back when Jacque Nasser was head of Ford, and with his firing the vehicle disappeared. Boy would it save the company.

More on Mini Cars later.

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Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Mini Cars are Coming!

The Detroit News has an article concerning the plans of future mini cars. I don't have time to write about this now, but I fear they may have jumped the gun. These cars seem like blue state buys, rather than red state buys, if you get what I mean...

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New Alternative Energy Blog

James commented below, and I have decided to add him to my links list. He writes the Alternative Energy Blog. His blog is interesting, and has a lot of potential. I do think he is a bit optimistic as to viability in the short term of hydrogen cars. Honda I think has one several million dollar prototype, and so do some of the other big companies. And there is I think one filling station in California, maybe two. The car companies say they are a couple decades off from hydrogen, which basically means, they have zero idea when it will come to fruition. James also writes on battery powered cars being an alternative, as well as hybrids that you can hook up to your home, rather than merely gas powered ones. Those ideas have merit, and I agree. Check him out!

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Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Welcome New Readers

I was recently linked by Autoblog concerning my write up of Peak Oil. To whomever runs that site, thanks! I don't have a lot of graphics and I haven't put nearly as much effort into my blog as they have, nor am I as comprehensive. That's why they get a bunch more hits than I do. But to all who see my site for the first time, read through my posts and see if you like it.

I want to create a cereberal website rather than a visual one, that covers the automotive industry. Sort of a car philosopher if you will. It's an artificial analysis because let's face it, cars are a visual beast for the most part. We see them, hear them and smell them.

And also I'm really bad at html programming, so I have no idea how to put up pictures.

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Monday, November 15, 2004

What is Peak Oil?

In the coming months and years, you're going to be hearing a lot about this term. Peak oil is the term given to the belief that in the near future, world oil production will peak, followed by a steady, or perhaps dramatic fall in production. The result will be extremely high prices. And that could have drastic consequences for the American economy, and the American car.

To get a cursory introduction to peak oil, you should google those two words.

Websites will come up, and unfortunately, many of them are extremely melodramatic. Some will argue that this will lead to an end of civilization. It won't.

But it will be tough times.

Before I continue, I want to make clear what I view peak oil as, and why I think it is real. A man by the name of Marion Hubbert in 1956 predicted that in the early 1970s, the US domestic production of oil would peak. Many thought he was wrong, but the early 1970s came, and indeed, American domestic oil production did peak. It has since declined, even with new field finds, and the potential of the Alaskan oil fields. This has made us increasingly dependent on foreign fuel.

If we use Hubbert's methods, which are somewhat complex, and not completely understood by me, on world oil production, we can determine that sometime between the year 2004 and 2008, world oil production will peak.

We've seen various geographic areas of the world already peak. Some of these oil fields show sharp declines in production, others less so. No one knows how rapidly the world will decline.

THIS DOES NOT MEAN WE WILL RUN OUT OF OIL. It does mean that oil will get very expensive.

What does this mean for the automakers in the US? It means that they should prepare for the worst, and start designing vehicles that are fuel sippers, not fuel guzzlers.

This isn't a liberal rant trying to get people to pollute less. I am in full support of diesel cars, that get great mileage, but make a lot of pollutants.

I do think however that big SUVs are soon to be a thing of the past. And quite frankly I'm for it. There's been a bit of research that shows they aren't as safe as cars, they have similar, not greater cargo space, and they block my view of the horizon. Ok the last part was selfish, but SUVs do consume a great deal of fuel. Let's let businesses that really need them get tax breaks, but for regular joe who uses a V8 to go 10 blocks for his morning coffee be forced to downgrade to a perfectly adequate great sedan.

So I welcome my readers to educate themselves on Peak Oil, and what it might mean to them. I also ask that they not panic, but if clever, invest in car companies that are prepared to deal with the issue, by making high quality small cars.

GM is not one of those companies, though the Cobalt is a step forward. Ford is getting the idea with its hybrid Escape. The Chrysler Group might benefit some from people dropping SUVs for the 300c, but their small cars and medium sedans are hardly competitive. Honda, Mazda, and Toyota are staking a claim.

I really believe the first car company to come out in the US market with a cool looking two door hatchback that is reliable and not overly expensive like the MINI is going to make a lot of money. The MINI sells incredibly well, but it's still a fringe market kind of purchase. When oil prices continue to rise, cars like it are going to sell like hotcakes. And trucks like the Surburban are going to sit quietly on dealer lots.

So expect more writing on this topic in the future. In the next few days I plan on updating my link list and adding some websites that write about Peak Oil. Believe it or not there are many conservatives, as well as liberals who believe in Peak Oil, so this goes beyond being a one sided issue. I welcome input from my readers on this topic as well...

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Yes, it's a problem, but...

The latest development in the car safety world is the issue of whiplash. Cars according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety for the most part offer little to no protection for the neck when the car is hit in the rear.

The Volvo S40 is mentioned as a good car for preventing whiplash. It certainly may be, I've been in one. Volvo's idea to prevent whiplash is to make enormouse padded headrests. Now these may prevent whiplash, and the Insurance Institute is obviously advocating them for all cars, but they also block vision. Because they are large, it is harder to see out the back when you are driving in reverse. Which do you do more of, driving in reverse, or getting hit in the rear? Hopefully the former. I hope large headrests aren't the only solution to whiplash prevention, perhaps there is an alternative. Maybe pop up head rests that come up from the seat in a crash? They have anti-roll bars like that for convertibles. Just a thought.

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