Archive for March, 2011

Today I read the statistic that Detroit lost 25% of its entire population in the last decade.  That number is insane.  It is now down to roughly 719,000 people, from its peak of 2,000,000 or so.  Wow.  What caused this?  Obviously, loss of jobs and an exodus of people.

I know its been quite popular to pick on the domestic manufacturers, particularly General Motors, but I don’t care if they’ve revamped themselves and become a brand new company, I’m not going to give them a free pass for what they did in the past, so walk with me down memory lane and some of GMs greatest failures, the results of attempts at badge engineering – building a “world” car – or more simply put, taking a car and slapping a different brand name on it.

To me, the very first car that comes to mind when I think of badly badge engineered is the Cadillac Cimmaron, introduced in the year of my birth – 1981.  Put bluntly, the Cimarron was a J-Body (Cavalier) that had Cadillac badges pasted to it.  Now, aside from the fact that the Cimarron was everything that Cadillac wasn’t (FWD vs. RWD, small vs. large, cheap vs. luxurious), the attempt to pawn off a Cavalier on the buying public as something other than a Cavalier spoke volumes of the greed, avarice, and arrogance that engulfed the management at General Motors during this era.  They truly thought the American consumer was too dumb to notice and rather than seeking excellence and creating a car that deserved the old Cadillac adage of “The Standard of the World“, they delivered to the unsuspecting consumer the bottom of the barrel.

The base price of a Cimarron was $12,181.  For comparison’s sake, the base price of a Cavalier was about half of that.  This is standard practice for GM though – short term profits at the expense of long term damage to the brand’s reputation.  As buyers caught on to the scam that GM was perpetrating, sales fell off – the long term fate of this car? CANCELLED.


They apparently didn’t learn their lesson with Cadillac and repeated this again 20 years later with the XLR – essentially a rebadged Corvette with a 4.6L Northstar engine rather than the efficient and capable pushrod V8 from the Vette.  Not to mention, Cadillac charged twice as much for a car that was heavier and slower (and uglier).  This car was a miserable sales failure.  As a result . . . CANCELLED.

I could probably fill a book with the badge engineering sins against God that GM continued with Pontiac.  Suffice to say, I don’t have all day to blog, so lets just touch on this.  Essentially, since the early 80s, the vast majority of Pontiac cars were nothing more than rebadged versions of Chevrolets.  There was nothing to distinguish the brand from Chevrolet other than tacked on hoods and scoops in a garish attempt to play to Pontiac’s past history as the “excitement” division.  Unfortunately, in the process of scraping off the Chevy bowtie and gluing on the Pontiac arrow as well as some silly venting, they forgot to actually inject any excitement into any of Pontiac’s cars.  The end result for the entire brand? CANCELLED.

Now, on to the really good stuff – the transplanted crap.  Cars from other countries that GM dumped on our shores after slapping a new badge on the grill.  One would traditionally assume that with a rational, sane, individual with average intelligence, one learns from one’s mistakes and then does not repeat them.  Unfortunately, GM was not an individual, but rather a bunch of egos crammed together, fighting each other for dominance with the end result being that the same mistake was repeated again and again.  Let’s go down the list.

First up, the Holden Monaro.  A great idea, in concept.  Stuff a Corvette engine into a large bodied coupe with an independent rear suspension, and sell it for a reasonable a mount of money (more than a Camaro, less than a Corvette – add leather to make it “fancy”).  This worked ok in Australia, but then GM decided to bring it to America with two changes.  First, they switched the badges and made it a Pontiac (still a rebadged GM car and not a unique platform to Pontiac itself – par for the course).  Then, they decided to equip it with larger tires.  This resulted in a TSB and rubbing/suspension damage because GM never bothered to test the car as equipped – they just threw it at the marketplace.  The GTO lasted from 2004 to 2006 with miserable sales, and then?  CANCELLED.

But wait, there’s more!  Lots more.  As if throwing a big V8 powered coupe at Americans and telling them that it was what they wanted (it wasn’t) weren’t enough, GM decided to give it another go by importing the Holden Commodore – essentially a big, V8 powered Sedan, again from Australia.  Named the G8 and given some hideously ugly hood scoops, this car was foisted upon the market in the midst of gas price spikes.  Never mind that American consumers were shifting to fuel efficient, front wheel drive four door sedans like the Camry, Accord, Fusion, Altima, and Sonata – GM was going to pawn this car off and hope we bought it.  We didn’t.  The car lasted on the market place for the entire year of 2008 and 2009 until it met its fate.  CANCELLED.

Next, a car that was actually quite good – the Saturn Astra.  Essentially an Opel (GM in Europe) Astra with no changes whatsoever, this car was TOO good for Americans.  It traded some ride quality for zippy handling and sported a free revving engine.  This isn’t what Americans want – Americans want a wafting, wallowing ride with an engine that develops its torque down line – we don’t like to wait and we don’t want to rev.  On top of that, the car scored marginal at best in many safety ratings.  The final nail in the coffin is the body style – hatchback?  Really?  Americans hate hatchbacks.  Give us sedans!  After dismal sales in 2008 and 2009 . . . CANCELLED.

How about fun, sporty cars?  Well, GM decided that they would import the Open GT and call it the Pontiac Solstice.  They decided what the hell, we already badge engineer all our other cars, lets also turn it into the Saturn Sky.  Unfortunately, they forgot how lazy Americans are.  We don’t like to get out of our convertibles to put the top down.  The convertible top mechanism on this car was so convoluted and complicated it required the user to get out of the car and manually open clamshells and stuff the top down there.  The closest competition, the Miata, had one twist knob and then the top threw back, from inside the car.  It was a bad car, badge engineered, and couldn’t compete on function.  Not to mention it couldn’t match the Miata’s performance due to about 300 extra pounds of pork on the body.  It lasted from 2007-2009.  CANCELLED.

Last, and certainly worst – the Chevy Aveo.  GM has never been able to build a competitive small car, and when they decided they wanted to compete in the smaller-than-small segment currently dominated by such fun-to-drive vehicles as the Honda Fit, Ford Fiesta and Mini Cooper, their solution was that instead of developing a competitive car, why don’t we just import the biggest piece of crap we can get from Korea in the form of the Daewoo Kalos.  This car was miserable.  Terrible to drive, horribly unsafe, not enough power to safely merge into a 25 mph school zone – it was and still is unsurprisingly a miserable sales failure.  GM’s theory on this car was that it was better to have an uncompetitive competitor in the segment than to have a good car that would actually take time and money to develop.  The end result is that this car is a rental fleet queen, a penalty box – a car for people who want a new car but probably should be driving a quality used car.  I can’t imagine that anyone intentionally or deliberately wants to drive one of these things.

Oddly enough, the Aveo hasn’t been cancelled.  It is currently GM’s only offering in the super-small car segment and as such it fights on as a disposable soldier, thrown into the fray with vastly more competitive offerings.  Nonetheless, it is the worst of the worst when referring to GM’s decision to import a small car rather than develop one of their own, and the sales figures prove it.

Lessons learned – while it may be easy and cheaper to import some car that is totally inappropriate for the American buying public, the damage to the brand’s reputation and loss of market share compared to actual competition is damaging.  Old GM had no long term vision, they could only see short term profits.  This is why they relied on large SUVs prior to the recent oil crisis.  This crisis merely exposed GM’s weakness and reliance on uncompetitive vehicles, which eventually drove them to bankruptcy.  I don’t see these sins being repeated with regularity, but I believe that given time GM will continue on the same path and won’t disappoint us by foisting uncompetitive crap on unwary buyers who don’t know any better.

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I Can’t Drive 55

Posted: March 10, 2011 in Rants
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Recently I’ve been lusting for a genuine, 186 mph grand tourer.  However, that gets me thinking – despite being able to cop-proof the entire car, there is still a very real risk of legal repurcussion should one decide to actually stretch the legs of such a car.  The reality is that despite today’s roads being safer than ever, despite today’s cars being more capable than ever, the anachronism that is the 55 mph speed limit still exists across the nation, despite the option to choose otherwise.

The original 55 mph speed limit was imposed by Congress in March of 1974 as an attempt to deal with the 1973 oil crisis and reduce energy consumption.  It has since been repealed, allowing states to impose their own speed limits – so why are speed limits still so artificially low, particularly when one considers the capability of modern cars on modern roads?

There is lots of data indicating that reducing one’s speed does increase one’s fuel economy – its simple math, because the faster one goes, the more power required to maintain that speed.  This formula in fact squares the velocity – so if you want to go twice as fast, you would need 4 times as much power, etc . . . This is why the European Union has continued to place pressure on Germany to remove its unrestricted segments of the Autobahn.

However, this is legislative nannyism.  Who is the state to dictate its people’s environmental policies – well, obviously the state looks out for the welfare of the people.  So, assuming the state does have the right to dictate environmental policies, would it not make more sense for the state to impose a higher tax on gasoline, thereby encouraging fuel efficient driving behaviors and purchasing choices, rather than mandating that ALL members of its society conform to an absolutely ludicrous and artificially low speed limit?  That way, if I want to drive a V12 supercoupe, that’s my choice, and I can pay for the privilege of that externality while everyone else gets to benefit from increased tax revenue due to a higher gas tax.  That’s true liberal economics (people today use the words liberal and conservative without understanding what they actually mean).

So, from an environmental standpoint, yes, it makes sense but the consumer should be able to make the choice.  However, from a safety standpoint the 55 mph speed limit makes little to no sense.  The danger is not speed.  The danger is variances in speed, and distracted driving.

The German Autobahn (and pretty much all of Europe, with much higher speed limits) has again proven that high speed is safe.  An intense federal study found that speed limits in America are set too low, and do next to nothing for safety.  In fact, it found that the speed limit should be set to the prevailing speed of traffic, or higher – finding that those who travel outside the prevailing speed of traffic (both faster and slower) were the cause of accidents and dangers on the highway.  It found that the vast majority of roads in America have limits far lower than what is safe, reasonable, or prudent.

Furthermore, if our government were truly interested in protecting us from ourselves, it would raise the penalties on distracted driving.  There are hundreds of studies out there showing that the act of talking on the cell phone (hands free or not) is dangerous.  And no one is in debate that texting while driving is dangerous.  In fact, one study found texting while driving was worse than driving drunk.  New York State has recently upgraded distracted driving from a simple revenue generating fine to one that carries points, and I honestly believe that this is a step in the right direction.

Finally, consider that speed cameras and red light cameras actually cause accidents!  Motorists who are aware of these traps slam on the brakes, dramatically increasing rear end collisions, or drive erratically to avoid these traps.  Despite the knowledge that speed cameras and red light cameras actually increase danger to motorists, municipalities across the nation are increasing there use – why would our own government want to harm us?

Money.

The 55 mph speed limit exists to generate revenue.  Nothing more, nothing less.  The same with speed cameras and red light cameras.  The 55 mph speed limit does not improve safety.  The red light camera and speed camera decrease safety.  The government maintains them under the pretense of safety in order to engage in random acts of taxation.

Now, I would be less pissed off if our governments simply came out and said that they were doing this for money – or at least came up with the pretense that artificially low speed limits are there for environmental purposes.  The sad reality is that speed limits across the nation are artificially low simply as a means for revenue generation.  Cash strapped municipalities refuse to take the austerity measures necessary to lower spending, or increase taxes on their own people and insist on spending above and beyond their means, instead supplementing their revenues with random acts of taxation, frequently on people other than their own citizens (who usually know where the speed traps are).

The final insult to injury are driver assessments.  States across the nation (the most high profile one being Virginia) have started imposing surcharges upon motorists for bad driving records.  This is not a fine imposed by a court.  Rather, it is an act of double taxation which I question the legitimacy of, whereby when an individual accumulates a certain number of points or is charged with certain offenses (reckless, DWI, etc) they are then hit with an astronomical surcharge.  What is done with the money?  Is it used to deal with the externalities of these bad behaviors and remedy the problems that result from antisocial actions?  Doubtful.  More often than not it is used to pad failing budgets that are the direct result of incompetent and thoughtless individuals with the fiscal discipline of an 8 year old.

So what can we, as drivers, do in the face of such draconian speed enforcement in America?  I don’t propose a solution because I don’t have answers.

Autoblog Copied Me

Posted: March 10, 2011 in Rants
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Yesterday (March 9, 2011), Autoblog posted an article entirely outside their usual regurgitation of readily available automotive news, entitled “Opinion: Is BMW Becoming Too Soft”

http://www.autoblog.com/2011/03/09/opinion-is-bmw-becoming-too-soft/#continued

“Stops copies me!”

Of course, yours truly posted such an article on February 13th, 2011.

https://autophiliac.wordpress.com/2011/02/13/bmw-is-dead-to-me/

That said, I felt it was necessary to share this article with you – but I also felt it was necessary to point out that I said it first – but more importantly, its necessary to point out that I’m not the only one who thinks BMW has jumped the shark.

The 2011 Porsche 911 Speedster is everything that is wrong with Porsche today.  It is one of a 20-odd model lineup of the 911, which in and of itself is a farce.  But the real issue I have with the car is that it is a blatant attempt to play on Porsche’s heritage and storied history, while pawning off a bloated charicature of the original car to consumers who don’t know any better.  And the worst part is that it will be profitable – which is why Porsche is doing it in the first place.

Which brings me on a small tangent – automakers do all sorts of things that qualify in my mind as sins against god – but they do these things because they are in the business of making money.  If some fat, arthritic middle aged ninny thinks there’s a connection and heritage between the current Speedster and prior Speedsters, and buys it, waxing it, washing it, staring at it, maybe taking it to a show or two but rarely actually driving it – then Porsche doesn’t care – they made money off that ignorant rube, despite polluting their brand’s gene pool and committing an atrocity against the original car.

Now, lets get one thing straight.  Take a look at that car.  It gives me a giant, pulsing boner.  It is VERY hot.  The color alone is jaw droppingly gorgeous.  It has the throw back cues.  The hump, the lowered wind shield, even black wheels similar to the Fuchs on the 3.2.  But reading the spec sheet, we start to realize what this car really is – its just a gussied up Carrera Sport Classic / Carrera GTS with a less practical top.  Lets look at the weight – 1540 kg – that’s 3,388.62 lbs to my non-metric friends out there.  Big deal, you say.  Big deal indeed.

What’s the big deal?  Lets start with the original car – a no frills, stripped down, light weight car.  The original intent was to distill and purify the essence of the 356 (and with later Speedsters, the 911) by removing components that interfered with the message of the vehicle.  The original Speedster weighed in at a svelte 760 kg – that’s  1,672.30 lbs.  That means the new car is essentially DOUBLE the weight of the original car.  Now, granted, the new car also has 6.8 times as much power (408 hp vs. 60) . . . . but power isn’t everything – power does not convey the experience of the drive, and more importantly, weight dulls performance – you can’t fight physics.

Porsche didn’t follow up the original Speedster until the Carrera 3.2, arguably one of the finest 911s ever made.  Option M503 designated the car as such and featured the same formula – low windshield and a hump back for the simplified top.  Again, it was light weight – no electric windows, seats, or other contrivances.  It was said to be about 70  kg (154.02 lbs) lighter than a regular 911 of its day.

Responding to consumer demand and once again sensing an opportunity to make big bucks (you have to pay more and you actually get less – classic Porsche genius marketing resulting in enormous profit), Porsche revived the Speedster for one last time with the 964 generation.

In standard practice, this car eschewed a practical soft top for a complicated, albeit light weight top and the raked windshield.  This time around the car retained wide bodywork from the turbo as opposed to allowing the car to stay the narrow bodied, although this is clearly what consumers wanted as it was the best selling Speedster of all time.  It had almost none of the conveniences of the traditional soft top Cabriolet, and as a result, despite the  extra weight from the wide body work and extra chassis bracing required for an open top car, it weighed in exactly the same as the regular 911.

Now I’m not going out and arguing that the original speedster or any of its following iterations were superior cars.  In fact, I’m quite confident without having to drive the new car that it is superior in every way, shape, and form.  But it doesn’t meet the requirements for a Speedster.  It is not in line with a vehicle carrying this badge.  It is essentially like having a minivan with the SS badge.  There is no stripping down, rather, there is dumbing down.  The car is essentially made to LOOK like it fits in with the heritage of the Speedster line, and one might assume it is even a lighter, stripped car from the looks – yet  the new car is actually HEAVIER than a standard 911 by 314 lbs – blasphemy!  This car is nothing than a marketing exercise – it is delivering hype without any substance.  It is like those “ricers” that people love to mock – the appearance of performance while actually decreasing the vehicle’s performance.

No, my closing argument is that the 2011 Speedster should not be marketed as the spiritual successor to the original Speedster.  That honor should go with the Boxster Spyder – a stripped (although nowhere near simplified), lightweight top, use of lightweight materials, the removal of essentially all amenities (including door handles), and a resulting loss of 176 lbs.  This is the purest Porsche made right now.  This is the car carrying the torch for all the original cars.

Furthermore, at a cost differential of $204,000 versus $61,200, I know which is the better performance bargain as well.

So – I might have had a little to drink tonight.  Ok, maybe I’ve had a lot.  Who knows.  This is the “Charlie Sheen writes about cars” style blog, so lets do it.

First off, this won’t be an actual dirge.  Why?  Because I’m not going to sing it.  Its really more of an elegy, although I’m not going to make it poetic so lets just call it a eulogy.   My cat is currently muscling in on the keyboard and I’m engaged in a battle for dominance on par with the Soviets versus the Wermacht in Barbarossa circa 1941.

Ok, do it to it.  The Evo.  Rumors are that Mitsubish has decided to terminate this car because it no longer fits with their new brand identity.  They want to build cars that are green and focus on EV technology, not cars that originally stemmed from rallying but no longer have any rally heritage since Mitsubishi left the WRC.

So, I hear the collective scream from the fanboys (as well as the grins of glee from the flat brimmed DC hat wearing, Monster energy drinking Subaru douches).  Oh noes!  The Evo is gone forevers!  Jeez guys, where’s the sadness from the death of the Eclipse?

Nonetheless, all kidding aside, this does sadden me.  You see, the Evo is one of the best driver’s cars out there.  I’ve had the privilege of driving both the Evo IX and the Evo X, and these are serious cars.  They make very little concessions in the way of comfort or convenience.  I mean, yes, its a 4 door car with a large trunk – but that’s about all you get.  There’s minimal sound deadening and lots of drone.  The steering ratio is VERY fast – not the best wafter on the highway if you know what I mean.  The engines are quite high strung – high boost small displacement turbo fours (which make insane power if done up right).  The suspension is not soft – its not unbearable but you will feel the road.  The gas mileage is horrible.  In exchange, you get a car that goes and handles like sports cars costing far far more (although those cars are generally better as liveable, day-to-day cars than the Evo – you get what you pay for).

I’ve always thought the Evo was one of the best street cars out there – it has just the right amount of power, just the right amount of performance to be usable on a public road – the AWD helps immensely with putting the power down.  I’ve never had the joy of driving one on a track or at the autocross, although the ride along in an Evo 9 that I took was pretty terrifying – the car was three wheeling and scraping the front lip with the stock suspension in place.

That said,  I do understand the death of this car.  Its a car that caters to an extremely small amount of individuals – people who are sick in the head such as myself.  People who don’t mind horrific drone on the highway or terrible fuel economy or demolished stock clutches.  But who am I kidding – I test drove the Evo X, supposedly the softest, most refined, driver friendly Evo out there, and I still chose the GTI over it simply because the Evo was still too raw as a daily driver.  As a devoted track beast?  Perhaps – but I already have a track car that I find to be absolutely perfect and to be honest, I would still choose something like a Porsche over an Evo simply because I’m a pretentious snob – that doesn’t diminish the accomplishments or capabilities of the car in any way.

But Mitsubishi is not in the business of pleasing warped enthusiasts.  Mitsubishi is in the business of making money – and they, just as Honda, have determined that if they’re going to remain competitive in a harsh marketplace they have to abandon any pretense of sporting inclinations and focus on efficient, reliable vehicles such as brand new EVs (although I’ve already discussed how electric vehicles are just a shell game that shifts the carbon emissions from the vehicle itself back to the power plant producing the power).

The problem is that enthusiasts are being crowded out.  Honda used to be a stalwart of the enthusiast driver – then they abandoned their double wishbone suspension setup for cheaper Macpherson struts and essentially killed off any sporting cars they made, leaving the consumer with nothing but an economy car tarted up in the form of the Civic SI, or the CRZ, which is supposed to be the second coming of the CRX, except that with 24 years of technology and progress, the modern car doesn’t deliver any more performance or any better fuel economy.

So, enthusiasts are left with the Mustang and Camaro as the budget options – but not everyone wants to grow a mullet.  The alternative is to hand in one’s testicles and purchase a Mini Cooper or Mazda Miata.  Every current attempt at a “performance” EV or hybrid has failed miserably (Accord V6 Hybrid, CRZ, Tesla Roadster).  History is repeating itself – we were in this position immediately following the last gas crisis of the 70s when we were left with 180 hp Corvettes, 4-cylinder Mustangs and emissions choked Ferraris.

I don’t know – this should upset me more but I don’t really care – all the cars I want were built before 1995 anyways.  Perhaps its just the booze that’s blunting my rage.  I’m going to sleep.