Friday, July 01, 2005

Update on Ethanol

Looking at the ethanol industry's website here, they say that ethanol produces more energy than goes into it. I don't know if this is true or not, or just propaganda. Hopefully it is true because we need to wean ourselves off oil, and this seems like such an easy way to do it. And for those hybrid cheerleaders, we could still use hybrids to add even more mileage to vehicles. The only question remaining is whether there is enough ethanol that can be grown to produce enough fuel for the entire country.

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Ethanol is Already Here

Like I said in a post just a few days ago, ethanol is already here. And it's cheaper than gasoline. A regular reader, Rob, points out that there are studies that show that ethanol takes in more energy to make it (gasoline), than it puts out. Nowhere in the Detroit News article that I link to does it say whether this is so. The ethanol "flex fuel" that is currently on sale all over the Midwest is 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline. It is also somewhat cheaper than regular gasoline. If it is cheaper, doesn't that mean that this flex fuel doesn't have a power input/output issue? Possibly, but the farming conglomerates might be artifically keeping the price low to induce Americans to become dependent on their fuel. I haven't seen a study to show whether ethanol that is transported by trucks running on ethanol and harvested by tractors running on ethanol, whether that would make ethanol usage as efficient or more efficient than gasoline. But with more and more car companies altering cars and trucks to run on ethanol, it should be looked into. I really won't be surprised if in a few years or so with the urging of farming lobbyists that the government demands that most or all vehicles in America be ethanol capable. The fuel of the future is already here.

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Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Initial Response to the New Civic

Which can be seen here. This image is owned by Brenda Priddy, AND NOT ME. I am merely linking it.

I think the design of this Civic is akin to the design of the current generation Accord. It's not offensive, but it's not anything else either. The Civic is an enormous part of Honda. I expect there to be a little more daring, especially with this market segment heating up with new competition. The Civic no longer dominates the compact car class in America. I will withhold final judgment until I see the interior. But right now I'm a little disappointed.

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Monday, June 27, 2005

Yes Retro Does Work

Jerry Flint, car pundit extraordinaire, argues in this
column that retro does not work for car companies. His argument is fundamentally flawed, but for reasons most might not suspect.

I've said it several times on this blog. The European and American manufacturers have an enormous advantage over their Asian competitors. They have a design heritage to draw from. Asian car companies really don't. What if entire lineups were retro? Would that sell? There are companies that already do this.

BMW for one. Their Mini is clearly retro, but so are the BMW sedans for the most part. With the two kidney grill, and minimal changes to bodywork, BMWs are retro simply by not changing dramatically. Can any Japanese manufacturer escape with such behavior? Not really. Take the Accord for example. There are tremendous changes to the grill, and trunk areas between this generation and the last one. In a segment of the market known for being dangerously bland, Honda has made significant changes in design from generation to generation. Granted, these designs are not dramatic, but they change the vehicle enough so that consumers will be able to tell the difference. With horsepower output, reliability, and mileage very similar in the FWD mid size sedan class, design is needed to differentiate and make sales. To rely on last generation's design, or to make subtle changes in the design risks failure. European and to a lesser extent American manufacturers have the luxury of being subtle.

In the case of the MINI, and the Mustang, these are retro vehicles that essentially represent a "movement" if you will. What I mean by that is, they evoke an era of the automobile, the 1960s, and specifically they evoke a class of vehicle from that era. The Mustang is the embodiment of the coupe/fastback/muscle car. The MINI is the embodiment of the hip small European car. Even though the original MINI was not a strong seller in the US, because of what it represents historically, it sells well here. When design evokes a feeling in customers, they react spontaneously. Emotional products lead to emotional, not rational, decisions. And that means customers buying.

I think Flint missed a popular "retro" car in his analysis. I believe the 300c is retro. First of all, the 300 moniker directly tells the consumer that this car is a continuation of the 300 series top of the line Chrysler vehicles from the 50s and 60s. Secondly, the car's design in a more vague manner evokes a style from a bygone era in America's past. The big chrome grill full size sedan is a part of America that arguably lasted 40 years. I do not believe a Japanese company could have made the 300 either in the past or now. The closest vehicle, the Toyota Avalon, a big boulevardier, just does not have the pizazz of the 300.

Flint points out notable "retro" failures. First the new VW Bug. I would argue that this incarnation of the Bug was initially very successful. VW failed to act upon that and did not introduce Bug variations like a convertible or turbo model until recently, far too late to affect overall sales. Secondly I believe VW made too miniscule of design changes to the vehicle in subsequent generations. And third I believe the Bug appealed to a different class of buyers then the original, and sales subsequently slumped. The fact that the Bug is a FWD, front engine car that is essentially a Golf underneath didn't help matters either.

The other notable failure is the Ford Thunderbird. I don't know if I would be so harsh as to call the Thunderbird a failure, as initial sales were decent, but it definitely could not be classified as a success. The T-bird suffered I believe for being too retro, and being retro to a car that itself was not enormously successful! The initial two seat T-bird was nowhere near as successful in sales as subsequent generations that could seat four. Ford fell into the trap of listening to car connoisseurs rather than consumers, because it has long been a popular opinion that the original iteration of the Thunderbird was the most beautiful of all. This new T-bird, with its too heavy removable roof, and lack of space doomed it to niche status. A retro vehicle that does not appeal to many consumers is in danger of becoming a fad vehicle, and having a very short production life. In a sense the Hummer falls into this category. It's not so much retro, but it does draw upon a uniquely American design heritage, that of the Humvee military vehicle. It's expensive price, and poor gas mileage force it to become a fad vehicle, and dropped quickly by the public.

So in short, I think Flint is wrong. If a retro car is done right, appeals to a large audience, is relatively inexpensive, and evokes an emotional response, consider it a success.

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