Friday, November 23, 2007

Honda FCX is a go

Honda's FCX sedan is coming this summer, and will be called the FCX Clarity. The hydrogen fuel cell-powered vehicle will be available to qualified customers in southern California at a three-year lease price of $600 per month. The lease payment includes all scheduled maintenance, as well as collision insurance.

I wasn't jazzed about the styling of the show car. I think the adjustments for the street vehicle are nearly universally positive, though I'm still not sure about that bright fascia bit on the front.

Many more photographs and details here. Do go check it out; it's nifty.

Honda is the least whimsical large car company out there. That they are jumping into hydrogen so forcefully is a strong indicator of where we're headed in general.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Congratulations on your new Chevrolet!

I wish I were as good at this as Jeremy is. In fine (and irreverent) comedic fashion, he deconstructs his girlfriend's car's owner's manual. Biggest laughs in a couple of weeks for me. Enjoy.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The 2007 Mustang Shelby GT: $894.74 per additional horsepower

Carey and I went to check out the Mustang Shelby GT at lunch today. It's pretty, isn't it?

It carries a $17,000 premium, give or take, over a run-of-the-mill Mustang GT ($26,000 vs. $43,000). For that $17,000, you get this front:

This rear:

This side:

This tower brace:

This cold air intake:

This prettiness under the hood:

This prettiness on the dash:

...and 19 more horsepower. That's it. All of that costs SEVENTEEN THOUSAND DOLLARS. Cool stuff, to be sure, but that's a huge pile of money, folks.

My advice to the car-buying public:
  • If all you're after is Mustang performance, buy an off-the-shelf GT and spend $8-10K at the speed shop, which will easily get you to 400-425 horsepower. You'll barbecue this car and have $7,000 in your pocket.
  • If you just gotta have a Shelby, wait for the GT500 or GT500KR, with 500 and 540 horsepower, respectively. They'll be a bit dearer, but if you're seriously considering a $43,000 Mustang, that's not terribly important to you.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

The 50 Worst Cars of All Time

Time has a feature so titled online.

They pick on one of the first cars I lusted after--the Aston Martin Lagonda (pictured, from the piece). But it's witty and engaging, with considerably more savvy than I'd expect from a mass-market automotive article. There are a few truly horrible cars on this list that are little-known to society at large, and their inclusion speaks well. It's heavy-handed in its political attack on SUVs, though (I don't like them either, but you can't beat a bit to death, guys).

A few favorite turns that stuck with me:
  • On the Amphicar: "A vehicle that promised to revolutionize drowning."
  • On the Triumph TR7: The carburetors had to be "constantly romanced."
  • On the Yugo GV: "Malcolm Bricklin...wouldn't be satisfied until he had forced every American to walk to work."
  • On the Pontiac Aztek: "Holy hell! This car could not have been more instantly hated if it had a Swastika tattoo on its forehead."
Go check it out. It's a good read.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

The draw of the original

My dad bought a 1967 Buick Riviera when I was a baby, and he had it until I was 24 years old, when he sold it to me. I drove it daily for two years and had to sell it because it was costing me too much to keep it on the road. I had budgeted for the fuel mileage, which was abysmal, but I hadn't budgeted for a $200 thing here and a $300 thing there all the time. I was out of pocket a few hundred dollars every month above and beyond normal operating costs, and I just couldn't swing it.

Fortunately, it went to a good home. The guy who bought it pulled up in a '64 Wildcat, and from the way he was talking I knew he'd write me a check as soon as he got back from his drive in it. That's indeed what happened.

I'll talk about the Riviera at length sometime soon, but today I want to talk about a highly specific aspect of it: the left high-beam headlamp. It was original equipment. It had been on the car on the showroom floor, and there it still was. When I sold the car, that headlamp had soldiered on in its left inboard position, doing its job night after night, for 30 years.

There's no doubt the lamp's performance was subpar. It was yellow, noticeably weaker than the other side, and probably didn't do much for the driver to help spot a deer on a country road. Moreover, sealed-beam technology had come a long way in those 30 years. And yet, Dad wouldn't dream of replacing it, and neither would I. Why not? It was original.

What is the draw of the original? I mean, there's undeniably something special about a whole car that's 30 years old and still in operational condition, but what about a silly little thing like a headlamp? It's not like the Riv was all original. It had been painted, the engine had been rebuilt, the front seat had been replaced, and the like.

So why would we do that? I'm mostly about efficiency and effectiveness in the way I live my life, and there isn't a Luddite bone in my body. It wasn't pining for the "good old days," either; 1967 was a few years before I was born, so obviously I didn't have any corresponding memories. Yet I never had to explain to any car person why I left that headlamp in service. They just got it. It was the thing to do. I could have put a technically superior solution in easily, but it wouldn't have been as cool.

What is that coolness? Is it simply that it's a portable and easily applicable standard for comparing cars? Is it marveling at something so well-manufactured that it still performs acceptably? I don't know, but it's undeniable.

Sunday, July 22, 2007


Folks don't give Saturn enough credit these days. I don't mean the cars, but the marketing job.

Saturn debuted for model year 1991 with competent, but unremarkable, small cars. The Saturn gimmick was the touchy-feely treatment you got at the dealership. No haggling; you pay what the sticker says. No pressure; we're in this with you and want you to make the right decision. No commissions; our salespeople are salaried. No vending machines; you get fresh-baked cookies in our service lane. No scary industrial midwest factories; all of our cars are built in beautiful Spring Hill, Tennessee, and you can come to our barbecue/homecoming/love-in every year. You get the picture.

The cars were just okay. We had a '91 SL2 on the used lot when I was selling Acuras for a living, and I drove it a bit. It was a bit plasticky inside. I was never charmed, but neither was I particularly offended, until I gave it full throttle on the way back from lunch one day. Sheeeeeesh. Is it supposed to sound like this? What's out there under the hood--a blender full of roofing nails? Didn't matter. It's a Saturn. You don't have to negotiate, and a Toll House is waiting for you back at the dealership. Just buy it, man.

In my view, Saturn was one of the greatest marketing successes of the 20th century--right up there with Coca-Cola, McDonald's, and Disney. The lesson: with sufficient aura, the product need not be excellent. It must merely be acceptable.

Slam-dunk. Saturn was a juggernaut through about 1995.

Then, GM got lazy. They overvalued the Saturn mystique, and thought it an acceptable substitute for keeping its product competitive. The cars languished, receiving no significant updates for far too long. The numbers suffered.

So Saturn entered the family market with the L-series. It was an unqualified sales disaster. Too many someones at GM were convinced that merely showing up in the mid-size segment with a Saturn badge would be enough to send the Accord and the Camry running. Nope.

Oddly enough, after a decade of marginalizing itself, Saturn seems ready to play today. They have a competitive family sedan in the Aura, a competitive crossover in the Outlook, and a competitive sports car in the Sky. Small Saturns that look promising are on the way. All are on shared platforms, hence all are thoroughly enmeshed in the behemoth that is General Motors. (And most of them aren't buit in Spring Hill.) I've not driven a current Saturn, but I understand the engine noise isn't so unpleasant as to be a defining characteristic anymore, either.

Congratulations, GM. You've made Saturn what Chevrolet should have been 15 years ago.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

The highly specific American minivan

The old Chrysler Corporation knew they had something special when they debuted the modern minivan in November 1983. The "success car of the '80s," Lee Iacocca called it. For 2008, they'll be the last American minivan standing. GM and Ford have exited the segment.

There had been small vans before, of course. The Volkswagen Type 2, aka "VW Bus," was/is probably the most recognizable. The critical difference between a "small van" and a "minivan" is in the direction of the scaling. Essentially, a small van is a smaller copy of a big van, complete with engine doghouse, bus-like driving position, and mediocre-to-poor road dynamics. (I include the VW in this description because even though it was rear-engined, it took no significant ergonomic advantage of the recovered space in the front.)

A minivan starts from a car platform, and is scaled up from there. The seating position is preserved, as is a substantial portion of the driving experience. It's a car that looks and acts like a van.

There is a lot of size and form variation on the minivan in other markets. But somewhat surprisingly, the United States tolerates essentially no deviation from the basic Chrysler minivan formula. There are only three unambiguously successful minivans in the U.S. market right now--the Chrysler, the Honda Odyssey, and the Toyota Sienna--and only a car geek can tell them apart at a glance. They're far closer to cookie-cutter cars than any of the blobmobiles that followed the Ford Taurus ever were.

Many vehicles that deviated substantially from this formula have come and gone. Some came out in the early days when manufacturers were trying to understand this new kind of car, and others appeared long after manufacturers should have known better. A few examples:

The Old Small Van
Toyota and Nissan both tried these, the former more successfully (particularly given that the Nissan was prone to engine fires). The Chevrolet Astro/GMC Safari fits the description too, though calling it "small" is pushing it. It's oldthink at 5/8 scale, and it doesn't work. (Though if you're going to build a replica of the Scooby Doo Mystery Machine, I suggest starting with a Toyota Van. It looks an awful lot like it.)

The Tall Wagon
All minivans are tall wagons in a sense, but I'm talking about a vehicle that's very much like a station wagon with a tall roof, including four conventional doors. Mitsubishi tried hard to make these stick with the Colt Vista, and later (with added sliding doors) the Expo. Honda's first Odyssey was the same kind of vehicle.

I understand this market failure the least. It's a practical package, and Honda had already had some success with a four-door Civic with much the same form factor. Moreover, most of the same thing is making it with some crossover SUVs, like the Chrysler Pacifica and Toyota Highlander/RX-series. Go figure.

The Spacecraft
In hindsight, it's difficult to understand a manufacturer choosing what it should consider a bread-and-butter family vehicle as a platform for radical experimentation, but that's what several of them did. GM's first car-based minivans were just weird, with pointy snouts, four-foot-deep dashboards, and taillights in the greenhouse. Especially in white, they looked uncannily like Dustbusters. Nissan built a flying doorstop called the Axxess, and Toyota's graduation from old small van-dom was the Previa, a jellybeanish contraption with the engine mounted in the middle of the vehicle, under the floor.

Manufacturers, if you're going to build us Americans a minivan, here are the things to remember:
  • American minivans are all the same size.
  • They're all conservatively styled.
  • They all have similar handling and power.
  • They all have the same sorts of creature comforts.
  • They all have dual sliding doors.
  • They all have customizable seating for up to seven people.
Right or wrong, that's what an American minivan is. Copy what's succeeding already. Deviate from this formula at your considerable peril.

Thanks to for the VW image, for the Town & Country image, for the Toyota image, for the Colt Vista image, and for the Lumina APV image.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007


My sister got my younger son an Automoblox C9 for his third birthday this past weekend. Thanks, Aunt Jenny!

I'd never heard of the company or product before. Man, this thing is trick. Aaron loves it, the quality is outstanding, and the concept is fresh. I think Dad may have to score some more of these.

If you have children, or even if you don't, go check Automoblox out. These kits are like seventh-grade study hall brought to three-dimensional life. I'm looking forward to having a few more kits to mix and match with.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Miss Belvedere: Pretty rough, even for a 50-year-old hag

In June 1957, the city of Tulsa placed a time capsule underground near the courthouse. The most famous item buried was a 1957 Plymouth Belvedere. Contest entrants wrote down what they thought the population of Tulsa would be in 2007, with the closest (or his/her closest living relative) winning the car when it was unearthed, 50 years forward.

Said unearthing occurred recently, and the winner is R.E. Humbertson, who put Tulsa's 2007 population at 384,743. (The official U.S. Census count is 382,457.) Think he wants it?

Its vault was said to be able to withstand a nuclear attack, but apparently not water. Clearly a concrete vault above ground would have made more sense, but that lacks romance, doesn't it? Oh, well. At least the phrase "low miles" can be accurately applied to "Miss Belvedere," as it's being called.

Still, I expect someone will restore it. Several pieces will be fine once cleaned up. Objectively it's a slam-dunk that it will cost more to put it right than the car will likely be worth, but at the same time, the car's history may offset more of that difference than I think.

Thanks to for the images.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

RIP, Accord Hybrid

Honda just killed the Accord Hybrid. They sold about 25,000 of them in a little less than three years.

It was not a bad car. In fact, it was a great car. The problem was that it offered two divergent primary features that were each individually available for significantly less money in conventionally-powered Accords, and not enough somebodies wanted both of them badly enough for the market to support a $31,000 Accord.

Essentially, the Accord Hybrid offered the performance of the Accord V6 and the fuel economy of the Accord 4-cylinder. But see, here's the thing. The conventional Accord V6 fuel economy isn't bad, nor is the conventional Accord 4-cylinder performance bad--certainly not bad enough in either case to attract undue attention. Consequently, a customer who wants guts is going to save a few thousand and get a conventional V6, with acceptable gas mileage; and a customer who wants economy is going to save several thousand and get a conventional 4-cylinder, with acceptable power.

And you can forget the hardcore green crowd. A hybrid that can't be worn like a badge has no traction in that arena. The Accord Hybrid looks almost exactly like a run-of-the-mill Accord, and that's no good. If it's not obvious at a glance How Much You Care, as it is with the iconic and, ahem, distinctive Prius, then why buy it?

To me, the thinking person's choice has always been the 4-cylinder anyway. I send lots of people to drive Accords, and I always tell them to drive a 4-cylinder first. It's one of the sweetest 4s on the planet. Its fuel economy, both in town and on the road, is impressive, and it's got plenty of power for most people. It's also a highly refined engine in terms of NVH.

Mind, Honda's not abandoning alternative powertrain technologies. The Civic Hybrid is going strong, and Honda still plans to be first with a mass market hydrogen-powered vehicle (the FCX, due next fall). But the Accord Hybrid is no longer part of the vision.

Cause of death: insufficient market convergence.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Man, you can see for miles in here

Hey, guess what? Almost nobody reads this blog!

Nevertheless, I'll keep it around for when I do want to wax automotive. That's going to happen once in a while, and WmWms doesn't quite seem like the place to do it. However, if I write something I'm proud of that I think has broad appeal, I may link here from there.

In my view, part of the problem has been a lack of documentation of the cars of my past. I have a reconnaissance trip to Birmingham planned to get some photos of the more notable cars in my childhood. (There are a couple of folks there who likely have such photos.) That will help. I haven't written about our '53 MG-TD at all, primarily because I don't have photographs to accompany the story, and the car definitely deserves them.

Actually I'd like to have included some photos of Big Red and Frankenvette in the previous post, but again, I don't have any. Jay (in Birmingham) probably does. I'll add them if I get them.

Anyway, here Cowl Shake is and here it will stay, but for the moment I've dropped any expectations of building any sort of substantial readership. Nevertheless, if you are interested (and "thanks!" if you are), check it out occasionally. I'll write something once in a while.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Big Red and Frankenvette

Back before we moved to the Huntsville area in 1986, Dad spent most all of his spare time restoring cars. He and his partner in most of these ventures, Jay, owned a single-car hauler named Big Red.

Big Red was a beast. It was a '66ish heavy-duty Ford, something like an F700, maybe. It was hard and tedious to drive. It rode like the cabin was bolted directly to the frame, particularly when not carrying a car. If you could coax 6 mpg from it, you were doing very well. It wasn't particularly pleasant to use, but it got the job done. Jay and Dad had built a lot of the truck themselves, so there was a certain parental pride too.

On the plus side, the Mustang under-dash air conditioner Dad had installed would run you out of the truck, even in the middle of July.

To load or unload Big Red, you unbolted huge steel ramps from each side, and set the ends of them in grooves at the rear of the bed. I don't remember a loading or unloading ever taking any less than 20 minutes, and 30 was typical. The ramps were grooved, but they were narrow, so there wasn't much margin for error. Alignment was critical.

For most of the time we had Big Red, I was too little to do much but be underfoot during a load or unload. But I was pressed into service one Saturday morning at about age 8. The mission: direct Dad, in a recently-acquired '71 Corvette convertible, up Big Red's ramps.

"Ratty" didn't begin to cover this particular 'Vette. The nicest thing I could say about it was that it had a decent set of white-letter Dunlop GT/Qualifiers on it. There was a little silver paint here and there, but most of it was gone. The interior looked to have been set upon by rabid beavers. A Caprice radiator had been installed with a sledgehammer. (Really.)

Particularly complicating our specific endeavor for the day: there was almost no oil pressure, and there was no exhaust system. Also, it needed to be pushed off. This was a hideous, snarling, stinking, demon of a car that was drivable only in the most liberal sense of the word.

So, let's review. Minimal oil pressure means we have to do this quickly. No exhaust system means we won't be able to talk. Needing a push-off means Dad has to pop the clutch halfway down the street, circle the block, and return.

Establishing some hand signals before the car was running would have been a great idea, don't you think? Didn't occur to either of us.

He coasted out silently. I watched him go. I waited. The engine fired about 30 seconds later, sounding like the beginning of the end of the world, and I knew he'd be back in about that much time again.

Here it came. It was so damned loud my sternum was resonating. He rolled up to the ramps, and I started trying to direct him up. It already smelled hot. Fruitlessly, I yelled. Fruitlessly, he yelled back. He started up. I pointed him back down. He turned to the left and started back up--oops, too much. He coasted back down. And so it went. After a couple of minutes, he waved me off violently and gunned it. The dilapidated piece of Corvette squirted up the ramps and, miracle of miracles, landed on the bed pretty straight. He killed the engine and got out.

"I had to stop. See?" Dad pointed at the wisps of smoke coming from the engine compartment. I smelled what I would later learn was metal on metal, starving for lubrication. No long-term harm done, though. Albeit sloppily, we'd accomplished the mission. Dad had left part of the sole of his cheap sneaker on the padless clutch pedal; that was how hot the car got.

That was the last time I saw that car in that shape. Dad and Jay had begun restoring it as a '71, but when they figured out what that was going to cost, they took a different tack. They began using whatever C3 parts they could find, and ultimately built Frankenvette. When finished, it was a '71 Corvette with '79 front and rear clips; '76 instruments; '80 seats; and an '81 steering wheel. There were other contributing years, but those are what I remember. It was charcoal gray with a red interior and white convertible top, and quite sharp. It was great fun watching someone walk around it at a show or sale, finally giving up and asking "What year is this car?"

Alas, that one-of-a-kind Corvette was sold at an auction several years ago. Big Red's gone, too; it was headed for a fourth or fifth life as a logging truck. Oh, well. Can't keep 'em all.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Crossing over

What is a "crossover" SUV, do you think?

For a while, starting about ten years ago, it seemed to mean any SUV with car-based, rather than truck-based, mechanicals. The Honda CR-V, the Toyota RAV4, and the Toyota Highlander/Lexus RX-series were all "crossovers" according to this definition, based on passenger cars in their respective manufacturers' lineups and with unibody construction. All were essentially tall cars, but for the most part they retained SUV looks and proportions.

Today the term seems to be applied the same way--to car-based SUVs--but to so many disparate vehicles that it's essentially meaningless.

Some are station wagons. The Ford Freestyle/Taurus X (its new name for 2008), the Chrysler Pacifica, and the Subaru Forester are good examples. They have tallish rooflines, but that's it. They're unambigously cars, both in appearance and in the driving experience, and everyone knows that cars that are squared off in the back like that are called station wagons (or shooting brakes, or "Touring" models in the case of BMW).

Such is the power of persuasion. They're not marketed as station wagons, because station wagons are dowdy relics of the '70s. But that's exactly what they are.

The sustained popularity of SUVs continues to amaze me. When they really got going, about 1992 or so, I figured they'd be a six- to eight-year fad. I thought such because the practical need for traditional, truck-based SUVs is fairly narrow. If you need to tow or go off-road while carrying a lot of people, they make sense. Otherwise, something else is a better answer. A minivan is a better people (and stuff!) hauler. Almost any car is a better driving experience. A pickup is better for a Lowe's run.

But SUVs are cool. People like being cool. And ten years ago, when they started to get tired of the abysmal fuel economy and poor handling, instead of moving to other vehicles, the crafty manufacturers had "crossovers" waiting for them--with all of the look and a lot less pain.

Some will do better than others. The aforementioned Pacifica is well thought out and has been a modest success. The Highlander/RX-series has been a runaway hit for Toyota. On the other hand, I expect Mazda's new 5 to sink quickly, because it demonstrates that Mazda doesn't understand what sells SUVs. It has sliding doors, and sliding doors on anything make it look like a minivan, and minivans are vehicles people are trying to get away from when they select SUVs. It doesn't matter how well it drives, how reliable it is, or anything else: it looks like something Mrs. Anderson drives carpool in.

So we've got vehicles that look like trucks but drive like cars; we've got vehicles that are station wagons but called something else; and we've got something begging to be called anything but what it is: a mini-minivan. Who knows what previously unimagined vehicles lie ahead to wear the name "crossover" in the future?

Sunday, April 29, 2007

The sexiest sedan in the world

If I had the price of admission and the ongoing cash flow to maintain it, which I don't, my daily driver would be the 2007 Maserati Quattroporte:

Somebody's got a black one 'round these parts, but I haven't had the pleasure of an up-close in-the-metal look; just a glance at opposing traffic.

Warren Bell over at National Review Online drives one daily, and occasionally tells tales of mega-expensive routine services, worn-out clutches and rear brakes at 18K because "Maserati doesn't really design these things for stop-and-go city driving," and what-not. Ouch.

Car and Driver just tested it, and it's $104,950, which would make it an extremely attractive alternative to the top BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Lexus sedans, were it not so painful to maintain.

Nevertheless, I expect that more than once its owners have gone out to their respective garages, had a wistful look, and cooed "all is forgiven." Sheesh. Has any car been more blatantly sexual since the Jaguar E-Type?

Thanks to Car and Driver for the photos.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Invasion of the Tatas!

Tata Motors, India's largest commercial vehicle maker, has announced amibitious plans to build a new four-place, four-wheel car that will come to market for $2,500.

It's unlikely the $2,500 wondercar will come to the United States immediately. But it's only a matter of time--if not for this vehicle, then for another Tata offering (home-market Indigo Marina pictured below).

The super-cheap new car has been tried before, of course. There was the Yugo, a dismal little roller skate that listed for $3,990 when it arrived on American shores in the mid-'80s. But India is not a third-world country still reeling from decades of communism; it is a vibrant, explosively growing country in the midst of a full-on industrial revolution. I suspect Tata's initial offering will be considerably more impressive than was the Yugo, though I have my doubts they can hit that price target. $2,500 today is considerably less money than $3,990 was 20 years ago.

It's useful to examine what has happened in the U.S. market as different countries' industrial complexes have ramped up. Japan's initial American offerings were completely devoid of sybaritic appeal and dreadfully unreliable. By the late '60s, they had a lot of it down, and by the late '70s to early '80s they had all of the big stuff solved. Now they're in virtually every segment, from econobox to full-size pickup to ultra-luxury sedan, and their entries are at or near the top in each one. Did you ever think you'd see a day when Toyota felt like a more American company than Chrysler?

Fast-forward 20 years to 1985, and it's eerie how closely Korea has mirrored Japan in the U.S. market. Subpar products to start, mostly good products to follow, and thoroughly comparable products now--with the segment assault fully underway. There are fine Korean offerings in the economy car, family sedan, sports coupe, near-luxury, minivan, mini-SUV, and mid-size SUV segments, with full-on luxury sedans and probably pickups on the way.

India and China are next. Both are building on extensive supplier relationships with existing automakers, as well as lessons learned from the growing pains of Japan and Korea before them.

Though the notion of an Indian or Chinese car in the U.S. seems quaint now, I'd bet on respected, full-line offerings from both in the U.S. market in perhaps as few as 15 years. All you have to do to believe it is look at a Hyundai Azera (below) today and try to imagine it as an eventual Korean offering 15 years ago.

Images are from respective companies' literature.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Name it well and leave it alone

Bad car names are to automotive journalism what air travel is to stand-up comedy--a standby you can always go beat up for a few laughs. To be sure, naming vehicles is difficult. There have been a bunch of cars, and a bunch of consumer products that share naming territory with them, so there are considerable legal challenges.

Worse, car names can really only hurt. An average one makes no difference. A good one can make a difference, though not an easily quantifiable one. But a bad one can turn customers and wallets the other way, either because they don't know what to ask for, or because they just don't want a car with a stupid name.

Meaning at the Expense of Understanding
I've largely grown accustomed to names that "almost" mean something, like Aveo and Sentra. The ones that drive me nuts are the ones that do mean something, but hardly anyone knows what except the manufacturer.

Can I interest you in a B9 Tribeca? That's Subaru's crossover SUV, named for the TriBeCa (Triangle Below Canal Street) neighborhood in New York. Rolls right off the tongue, doesn't it? Did you know it was supposed to evoke sophisticated urban living? And is the "B9" supposed to convey safety? (They're dropping "B9" for 2008, by the way.) Such a stylish thing, too (cough).

How about a Touareg (pronounced TWAR egg)? It's Volkswagen's SUV, named for an African tribe. That might be appropriate, connoting ruggedness, independence, and the like--if anyone knew what the hell it meant. Did you until I told you? Did you know how to say it?

I get the feeling names like this see release because they're the pet causes of "important" people. They remind me of personalized license plates that no one but the owner understands.

Jettisoning Names Altogether
What do you notice about Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Audi, Volvo, Lexus, and Infiniti models? None of them are "named" per se: they're all a hodgepodge of letters and numbers. Consequently a guy with a 325i usually just says he has "a BMW." Other luxury manufacturers wanting to be called by their makes noticed this and followed suit (and I remember John Phillips of Car and Driver likening this to "beating your smart son until he's as dumb as your dumb son").

Floundering Ford luxury division Lincoln thought this was a good idea, so the car that was the Lincoln Zephyr is now the MKZ. Their version of the uncompetitive-from-day-one Ford Edge SUV is the MKX. In Lincoln's case it probably wasn't such a bad idea--names like "Continental" and "Mark VIII" sound 100 years old--but Lincoln's problems are considerably deeper than what their cars are named, and the new naming scheme is just more icing on a stale cake. It also makes me think they didn't learn anything with the Merkur XR4Ti, a fine car of 20 years ago done in partially by its awful name.

Acura, on the other hand, inexplicably jettisoned "Legend"--a name with which it built considerable equity over just ten years--and went with "RL" for its top sedan.

The Integra coupe (now discontinued altogether) became the RSX. The Integra sedan was replaced by a car called the TSX. The Vigor became the TL. The cars holding these names are generally pretty good, and there doesn't seem to have been any long-term damage, but I still question the wisdom of eliminating "Legend" from the U.S. market.

Did you know there's not a Miata on the market anymore? Mazda's iconic sports car has been called the MX-5 Miata by the company since inception, and the Miata by absolutely everyone else. But the new Miata is called just the MX-5. So Mazda threw the shirt in the fire and held up the empty Christmas box for all to admire. Uh, yeah. Good luck making that one stick, folks.

Interestingly, Porsche has run the other way with all of its latest models. The only number model it has left is the 911, and that number is as iconic as any name could be, so that's the right call. As for others, its lower end convertible is the Boxster, a combination of "boxer" (describing the horizontally opposed engine configuration) and "roadster." Its SUV, sharing underpinning with the Volkswagen African Tribe, is the Cayenne. The new hardtop version of the Boxster is the Cayman (perhaps the most beautiful new car in the world for the money).

The Best Names Don't Change
Moreover, they're usually words, not number-letter combinations, though 911 is a notable exception. The name "Corvette" is 55 years old. "911" is 44. "Accord" is 32. "Camry" is 25. Ford was on the way with "Taurus" until some numskull decided all of the Ford car names had to start with F and rechristened the large Ford sedan the Five Hundred. (In one of the very first executive decisions of his tenure, new CEO Alan Mulally announced that the name "Taurus" is returning for 2008.)

When a car company is too interested in what its cars are called, and particularly when it makes large and questionable changes like the above, I always think of a company that has a reorg every six months. What are they not spending energy on that they should be because they're occupied with this crap?

Thanks to for the B9 Tribeca image. Thanks to for the 3.5RL image. Thanks to for the Cayman image.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Don't stand down until you're done

After I graduated but before I started working as a writer, I sold Acuras and GMC trucks for Jerry Damson. Told a couple of stories already on my primary blog, here and here.

I was young and new to the business, so I relied heavily on the advice of my colleagues early on. Among many other things that I didn't believe and later discovered were absolutely true, my colleagues told me that there was often little rhyme or reason to the way someone negotiated. A few customers would do anything as long as the payment was agreeable. Others might lie down on the price and then fight a steel cage match with you over half a percentage point on the interest rate. You just never knew, so you had to be ready for anything.

Jim illustrated that well. He was shopping for a new car for his 16-year-old daughter, and an Integra was on his short list. Oh, I had my heart and soul invested in Jim. He'd been coming in for two months. I'd met his entire family on multiple occasions. I'd taught his daughter to drive a manual transmission (which I had a financial interest in, as the 5-speed was $800 less than the automatic). He was a jovial fellow and fun to visit with, and he kept coming back to see me, but I'd begun to think I was never going to sell him a car. He was just never ready to do anything.

Finally one day he pulled up, and I started walking toward him. He held his checkbook up and smiled. "Yes!" I thought. "Today's the day!" I'd had a bad week, and I needed this one.

We sat in my office. "Bo, I have a number," he said. He wrote it down and passed it to me. "We're not going to talk about it. If you can do it, I'll buy the car. If you can't, I'm buying the car down the street." I looked at the number, and it wasn't ridiculous, but I was going to have trouble selling it to my boss. I opened my mouth, and he said "no, I said we weren't going to talk about it. Go see if you can do it."

I took my boss the number. He looked away from his screen for three seconds and said "you know we can't do that. Let him go and catch somebody else." I said "Steve, I estimate I've got 14 to 16 hours in this guy, and three minutes ago is the first time he's ever talked price. If he leaves without our car, he says he's going to go buy a Celica, and I believe him. Please go talk to him one more time." He looked at me, looked across at my office, took my clipboard, and got up.

I sat in the other chair so I could see. Steve walked across the showroom to my office. I swallowed hard and tried not to think about the ice cream I'd bought, the times I'd experienced his daughter stalling the car in the YMCA parking lot trying to learn to drive it, and the customers I hadn't been able to talk to because I was trying to close Jim.

Watch for a handshake, and watch the faces. The handshake itself doesn't mean much--could be "thanks for coming in"--but the handshake with two big smiles was good news. And finally, that's exactly what happened. I knew it was only $100 in my pocket--a "mini-deal"--but it was a unit, and it was fruit from this long, involved cultivation.

Steve opened the door to his office, and he had information I didn't have. "It's a mini, but have Ken look at his trade."

"Trade?" I'd asked him three or four times; he always said no.

"Yeah, that Astro." He pointed. "He thinks it's worth $1000, so this may get better for you yet."

Well, what do you know? The Astro was pretty damned nice. No six-year-old GM anything was worth much, relatively, but this was a straight, clean car with reasonable miles and everything worked. New white-letter tires. Looked ready for a trip to the beach.

Looking at my eventual commission on that sale, which wasn't huge but was significantly more than $100, I'd guess that Astro was worth $1800 wholesale.

Who's looking out for you? Nobody but you. What do you want to pay when you buy a car? As little as possible. That's axiomatic. What does the dealer want to get when selling you a car? As much as possible. That's axiomatic, too. Both statements are morally and ethically neutral: they just are. Keep it in mind until you're all the way done!

Images are from respective company literature.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Clever execution of required elements

Whether it's cars, electronics, wristwatches, or whatever, I don't like stuff that doesn't do anything functional. With a few exceptions like cars that people use like jewelry and/or art, we purchase durable goods because we need them to help us perform a set of tasks. Usually I find any styling or other purely aesthetic consideration that interferes with that performance offensive.

On the exterior, cars generally require bodies, wheels, lights, vents, windows, and bumpers. Inside, cars generally require seats, an instrument panel, a steering wheel, and door panels. Designers that derive most or all of a car's styling from clever execution of required elements always have my respect, even if they go in a visual direction I don't particularly like.

Character line through the sheet metal all the way down the side? Sure, why not? The car has to have fenders, doors, and quarter panels; putting a stylized crease in them is trivial. Wood on the instrument panel? No problem. A car interior's wiring and controls need protection from everyday stresses, and if said protection is aesthetically pleasing, so much the better.

Today's lighting clusters, both front and rear, are often complexly styled. That's another legitimate arena in which a stylist can work, as cars have to have lights. They're also small and light, so the possibility of creating problems with other systems is remote. Look at the rear cluster on a first-generation Lexus RX300:

There were a few baby steps toward making rear light clusters a significant styling element before the RX300, but in my view this car was the first one on which designers said "hey--as long as it works, we can do all kinds of things with taillights and turn indicators."

So what happens when form trumps function? You get cars like the Infiniti J30. What likely happened with this car is that someone drew the profile and said "this is what the car will look like." Over the wall to engineering it went; "make it work" came the declaration. It's pretty, isn't it?

Unfortunately, with the J30, Nissan forgot something fundamental: above all, a mainstream car has to work. It has to be suitable for the way its customer will use it. This one wasn't. Prices paid for that swoopy backlight and droopy rear: no headroom in the rear seats and a tiny trunk.

Remember the severely oval Ford Taurus, ca. 1996? "If it can be oval, make it oval," seemed to be the guiding principle on that effort, both inside and outside. Check out the stereo and HVAC controls:

Think you could use that easily at night? What's involved to put an aftermarket stereo in there? User considerations be damned; it was oval, and that's what was important.

So how do you get style without sacrifice? The Chrysler PT Cruiser isn't my cup of tea, but it's an excellent example of a distinctively-styled car that sacrifices no function for its form.

Essentially it's a tallish station wagon: a practical but decidedly unhip concept. Yet it's made appealing by minor (from an engineering standpoint) touches that successfully evoke much larger, more extravagant cars of 60 years ago. The styling grabs attention and puts warm bodies in showrooms, but it's the car's massive interior and usability that keep it a hit. If looking cool was the only thing you could do with a PT Cruiser, it would have already died. But it works, so it sells.

The Honda Accord has been a benchmark of form following function ever since its introduction more than 30 years ago:
From the factory, everything on an Accord does something. (I say "from the factory" because in response to demand, Honda must offer $700 wads of resin called "spoilers" as dealer-installed accessories, for example.) Stimulating few and offending none, the Accord has always been one of the purest expressions of a vanilla family car available. (Don't forget, vanilla is #1 because it's plain, but also because it tastes good).

Automakers, keep your scoops (unless they actually increase airflow). Keep your spoilers (unless they actually increase downforce at speed). Give me something stylish and memorable using only what has to be there anyway, and I'm impressed.

Thanks to for the RX300 image. Thanks to Main Street Motors for the Taurus center stack image. All other images are from respective company literature.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Cadillac's near-death and rebirth

"The Standard of the World." That's chutzpah, isn't it? It was once Cadillac's slogan.

GM's luxury division has known huge triumphs and equally huge defeats. But in all of Cadillac's 105-year history, few would dispute the '80s were rock bottom.

No, It's a Cadillac, Really
Pressed by rising gas prices and the increasing threat of smaller German cars like the BMW 3-series, Cadillac moved its small car timetable up and hurriedly introduced the Cimarron, based on GM's J-platform that also underpinned the Chevrolet Cavalier, in 1982.

The J-platform cars improved to merely "mediocre" by the end of their lives in 2005, but when they were introduced in 1982 they were horrendous. They were underpowered, noisy, and handled poorly. What a great starting point for an entry-level luxury car, eh? Onto this, GM slathered leather, exclusive colors, and all of the electric toys, and christened it a Cadillac.

If you think it sounds like a whored-up Cavalier at twice the price, you nailed it. And Ernest Borgnine in drag that makes him look like a $1,000 hooker is still Ernest Borgnine.

Of course, manufacturers still share platforms among different models. But today the starting points are better, and more effort is usually made to differentiate. The Cimarron is possibly the worst example of platform-sharing ever. In fact, according to Car and Driver, current Cadillac product director John Howell has a picture of the Cimarron on his office wall captioned "Lest We Forget."

When the Cimarron was introduced, Cadillac had already laid a few recent eggs--the V8-6-4 cylinder deactivation was a technical fiasco, and the bustleback Seville was, uh, controversial--but the Cimarron was the first and worst in a series of true turds that nearly killed the division.

Small and Styleless, But Still Expensive as Hell

In addition to this insult, GM was busily shrinking all of its larger cars, including Cadillac, dramatically. Acting largely on the bad advice of a single consultant (perhaps apocryphal, but oft-repeated), GM became convinced that $3/gallon gasoline was a sure thing by the late '80s. So the "large" cars GM starting trickling out in 1985 were anything but. Further, they all looked alike, with pinched front ends and near-vertical backlights. A Cadillac Seville looked way too much like an Oldsmobile Ninety Eight with a bunch of Cadillac crests and an eggcrate grille slapped on (because that is essentially exactly what it was). The Pontiac Bonneville of the era was a little more distinctive, but its corporate roofline still gave it away.

A Beautiful But Average Car, Built Very Inefficiently

Cadillac even blew the Allanté, its exclusive Italian-bodied convertible introduced in 1987. Few deny it was a gorgeous car, but it was front-wheel drive and still only marginally competitive with its target, the Mercedes-Benz 560SL. Also, in what was then called "the world's longest assembly line," the car required two transatlantic flights to build. The chassis was assembled in the U.S.; it was flown to Italy to have the body installed; and then flown back to the U.S. to be finished. Sounds efficient, yes? The car was beautiful but underpowered until its last year, when it received Cadillac's new Northstar V8. GM then promptly killed it. So far, despite total Allanté production of only 21,000, 1993 has been the only Allanté year to be even somewhat collectible.

Worse, the Allanté was the wrong car. Cadillac desperately needed a competitive 4-door sedan, not a low-volume plaything for the rich (the '87 Allanté stickered for $54,000, roughly $96,000 today). Hopes that it would make a good "umbrella" car were misguided, as everything under it in the line was too mediocre to be credibly elevated.

Finding the Way Back
Cadillac's renaissance started with the 1992 Seville.

It drove, rode, and handled well. It was well-equipped, competitively priced, and a stunning styling success--the first truly pretty 4-door Cadillac in many years. With the addition of the Northstar V8 in 1993, it became the first credible alternative to the European and Japanese luxury cars of the time that an American manufacturer had ever fielded. (All trims are called STS today.)

They didn't rest. The DeVille was next and retained the "poshmobile" role in the line, but with modern attention to detail and engineering. (It's called the DTS today, and if your grandmother has always had Cadillacs and won't drive anything else, this is the one to recommend.)

The Catera, a rebadged (and therefore sometimes compared to the Cimarron) Opel Omega MV6 from the European market, was introduced. Though it was not very successful, its successor, the CTS, has been. (Incidentally, comparisons to the Cimarron are largely unfair; the Omega MV6 was a much better car than was the Cavalier.)

They've done the Allanté correctly. The Cadillac XLR is stylish, fast, and luxurious. It shares its platform with the Chevrolet Corvette and is built in the same plant in Bowling Green, Kentucky. No transatlantic flights are required for assembly.

The Escalade has gone from hurriedly-rebadged GMC Yukon Denali to icon status. For a big blingy SUV with a lot of buttons to push, which is exactly what its buyers want, it has no equal. The SRX crossover SUV, though a fine car, has been less successful. How Cadillac reacts will tell us a lot about its crisis management skills in this new, successful world.

Cadillac's new V-Series division produces even higher-performance versions of the CTS, STS, and XLR, with dramtically upgraded suspensions, engines, and styling cues. The V-Series cars are intended to compete with other manufacturer "tuner" houses, like Mercedes-Benz's AMG.

Restoring Distinction
Cadillac has rediscovered a consistent design language as well, giving the line its most distinctive visual identity in decades. During the '60s (and for some of the elements, the '70s and early '80s), the cars had a long hood and short deck; stacked headlights; distinctive grills; and narrow, vertical taillights. To these, a modern addition is a long center high-mounted stop lamp (CHMSL), requiring most of the width of the car.

When I first heard that Cadillac was going to restore these visual cues to their cars, I had my doubts that they could all be pulled off attractively in a modern styling idiom. But restore them they have, and though the look is not universally loved, was it ever? Cadillacs look like nothing else again, and in a new car world in which it's impossible to purchase a truly bad car, distinction is critical.

Keep It Up
So, is Cadillac "The Standard of the World" again?

No. But no one is, really. All of the major manufacturers build good cars, GM included, and the key is giving the consumer something s/he will want to choose. Cadillac is doing that magnificently, with cars that stack up well within their segments, and yet are not substantially similar to any of the competition. In many niches, including luxury cars, that is success in today's auto industry.

Cadillac's back and hitting on all cylinders, even if there is an occasional bump in the road. Though history is less than fully encouraging, let's hope GM leaves the division alone. There is much wrong with the American auto industry, and though sustained successful products can't save it singlehandedly, they are a necessary component. Keep it up, Cadillac.

All images are from GM literature.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Wow, dude, your front end sure is tall

It's gorgeous, isn't it? Form following function, with character lines in all of the right places and an appealing, aggressive stance. Let's go for a ride! Honda swears it's the 2008 Accord.

I think the current Accord coupe is an attractive car, but this one is swoonworthy. To me it has a British gentleman look about it; certainly not something you'd expect to discover a Honda badge on. I could see this automobile labeled the newest Jaguar or Aston Martin coupe and never have a second thought about it.

Unfortunately, I fear it's a harbinger of monotonous styling to come. How can that be? Well, see how high the front end is? You don't really notice it until it's pointed out, and then it's all you can look at. (That's true for me, anyway.) In any case, that's to meet new pedestrian safety standards in Europe that require a lot of empty space between a car's "skin" and anything underneath it. This car is novel; ten followers that look just like it won't be.

So we have this regulation, which works directly against a lot of other recent advances (most notably to me, lighting technology that permits extremely low-profile, yet still effective, headlights). What's it mean to styling? Well, we'll have a lot of broad-side-of-the-barn front ends. Hopefully it will be temporary; just until the designers draw a car from the beginning of its cycle with this regulation in mind and we have unusually-located radiators and what-not to permit a swoopier face.

Perhaps it will be like the new bumper regulations in the mid-'70s, that gave us weirdness like the '73 Corvette and the oh-so-homely "bumperettes" slapped on the 911. Automakers had trouble with the changes in the short-term, but gave us pleasing designs on the following cycles. Perhaps this new regulation is an impetus for styling that we can't predict, but will enjoy.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

It's not like it comes when you call it

That's some bratty 20-month-old kid standing next to Herkemer, my mother's '69 Chevrolet Brookwood station wagon, in December 1972. Mom had a '62 Impala before this that overlapped a little bit with my first days, but Herkemer is the first car I can remember her driving.

Mom named all of her cars. After Herkemer, the '77 Buick Estate Wagon she had was Osnoggle. Her Caprice Classic was Rosemary. Her '92 Accord was Camelia.

I tried it for a while, probably a little bit because a close friend had named his car. His last name is Dickerson, and his ultra-cool '69 Ford XL was the Dickmobile (DM in mixed company). My first car, a '77 Celica, was Ben. My '87 Taurus was Annabelle. I half-heartedly named my '88 Integra Liza, but I think by then I was largely disinterested in the idea, and that was my last car to have a name.

The only one that stuck was Ben, and my bud Charles and I still just say "Ben" whenever we have occasion to talk about my first car.

Maybe I'll have a fun car one day for sunny weekends, and feel compelled to name it. But I can't see naming my daily driver anymore.