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.