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Brandon Seiler's Blog on Cars

Archive for May 2009

$30 billion more to GM?

The recent announcement that the Obama administration plans to throw another $30 billion of taxpayer bailout money to GM in addition to the $19.4 billion that’s already been lent to the drowning giant… doesn't seem at all out of the ordinary.

Either our government is just that good at spinning a story or the steady stream of mind bending news pouring out of the recession has eroded an accommodating lobotomy hole in our brains where numbers like 30 billion can be tucked away like a handful of Skittles. Maybe it’s a combination of the two.

Automotive News called the extra $30 billion, “part of a sweetened offer to bondholders,” that are holding out on GM’s restructuring deal. According to a source familiar with the matter, GM still plans to file for bankruptcy protection on June 1 (1). Most reputable coverage of the story agrees it's inevitable. But look on the bright side - bankruptcy has the potential to be a good thing when it comes to the big three these days.  

Summertime News

Memorial Day weekend produced enough sunshine to call it summer, the seasonal anti-depressant strong enough to cast even the most horrific auto news in a more flattering light. Throw some cow on the BBQ, crack a beer and get ready for four pieces of pleasantly prepared car chow that’s fit for the season of taking it easier. 

Well, this first one mixes the beans a bit. GM spokesman Terry Rhadigan wants you to know that there will indeed be a Chevy Camaro CONVERTIBLE! But if all goes well it won’t hit the streets until early 2011 because the supplier of the convertible tops closed. 

Damn you recession! 

“The convertible was never canceled,” Rhadigan told Automotive News. “It was retimed. … We always thought it would be one year after the coupe. Instead we are going two.” (1)
  

I’ll tell YOU when I’ve had enough!!

There’s been a lot of talk lately that the V-8 is a dying breed, big cars are going the way of Artie Lange’s liver, that the auto industry is sobering up and apologizing to those it hurt during its decades-spanning blackout. Good for you Artie, err, carmakers, we wanted you to get help for a long time. It’s such a relief to know that your days of showing up blurry-eyed and bloated to international auto shows with 400+ hp cars and barn-sized trucks are over, it was tough to see you like that. 

But you know, the straight efficient life can be a blast too. Just look at how Toyota is managing to dress the Prius up without actually making it more fun to drive. 

What? You didn’t think the little hybrid knew how to party? Think again buster. For 2010 the third generation Prius is stepping out with a full lineup of factory backed tuning parts. Modellista, a Toyota subsidiary offers three versions of a jazzy aero kit designed to take the Prius from ugly to… better. 

For a little extra spunk, the base-level Aero Tourer replaces the Prius’ front grille, sides and rear clips. Version 1 and Version 2 of the kit includes add-on under-lip spoiler sets and if you’re feeling particularly randy, opt for two lightweight wheel designs and a lowering spring kit.

For some, ‘Clunkers’ are a better deal

I’ve never thought of my 1991 Dodge Dynasty as being a “clunker.” She’s been referred to as a “grandpa” car, a “drug dealer” car even, but certainly not a clunker. Then, the muffler and every inch of piping to the rear of the catalytic converter fell off as I was driving to a movie Friday night. 

Cars swerved and honked behind me as the wreckage bounced to a stop in the middle of an intersection that connected a residential street, two freeway onramps and two off ramps.

That’s about when I began to seriously consider cashing in the Dyno for a $4,500 voucher good towards the purchase of new more-fuel-efficient car as part of the increasingly popular “cash for clunkers” proposal. 

The bill already passed in the House on May 5, and a slightly different version is under review in the Senate. If all goes well, any “clunker” that gets 18 miles per gallon or less will qualify its progressive-minded owner to receive up to $4,500 for a new car that gets 4-9mpg more than the old one (1).

Hmmm, considering that my muffler was nowhere to be seen after the four hour rush hour subsided, I began to poke through just how viable a plan turning the old girl into government scrap metal might be.

As it would turn out, a 1991 Dodge Dynasty, void of a hubcap, muffler, and the ability to be driven through a school zone without arousing the attention of a neighborhood watch did not meet the standards to help with the purchase of a fuel-efficient new automobile. 

According to Kelly Blue Book, the Dynasty racks up an impressive 20/26mpg, well above the 18mpg needed to bring home the voucher. Adding to the problem, the loss of the muffler reduced the resistance on the exhaust flow, most likely increasing the efficiency of the 3.0L V6 even further above the acceptable benchmark. 

Kelly also informed me that a mint condition Dynasty of that year retailed for about $1,625-$1,800. Considering the performance enhancing modifications listed above (missing hubcap = weight reduction + the yellow racing stripe courtesy of a Highway 12 guardrail), we’ll say my ride is worth a solid grand to a person with a poor sense of smell. 

Is this not a clunker? Once the sparkplugs crap out I can get 18mpg, I promise!

Unfortunatley, even if I were to somehow finagle the maximum $4,500 prize out of the feds, realistically, the cheapest new car I could buy would still start at a bare bones minimum of 8-9K and get a maximum of about 35 mpg highway. In the time it would take the fuel savings from the new car to make up for the difference I paid out of pocket for it, I would probably be looking for another car, or living in a Chevy Aveo. 

Catherine Holahan of MSN Money summed up the common dilemma in her own dissection of the bill:

“The obvious winners would be the owners of virtually worthless older cars who had plenty of cash or the ability to obtain financing. Though the bill would do little to free up financing for strapped buyers, it would give relatively affluent consumers the push they might need to feel comfortable about purchasing this year.”

Despite the current elitism of the bill, the Dynasty and cars like it will indeed be considered a legitimate burden on society in the years to come as President Obama recently announced a national program to cut new vehicle carbon emissions and raise mileage by 30 percent. (2) In all likelihood, it will make the cars of the future, well, signifigantly better than the cars of the present. 

Cue futuristic music. 

In the future (if the plan comes to pass), it will be required that an automaker's fleet of cars and light trucks get an average minimum 35.5 mpg. By 2016, cars will be expected to ramp up efficiency to 39 mpg, light trucks will need to jump to 30 mpg (2). 

“The status quo is no longer acceptable,” Obama said at a White House ceremony. “We have done little to increase fuel efficiency of America's cars and trucks for decades.”

“As a result of this agreement, we will save 1.8 billion barrels of oil over the lifetime of the vehicles sold in the next five years,” Obama added. “And at a time of historic crisis in our auto industry, this rule provides the clear certainty that will allow these companies to plan for a future in which they are building the cars of the 21st century” (1). 

Great. But what does this mean to a guy who considers it a cost-saving measure when his muffler falls off? 

Cash for clunkers, increased fuel economy requirements for new vehicles, it's all pushing in the right direction, but for those of us who still couldn’t afford to buy a new fuel-efficient car even with the aid of a $4,500 government voucher, the idealized push towards the cars of tomorrow loses more than a bit of its luster.

Sources: 

(1) http://articles.moneycentral.msn.com/SavingandDebt/SaveonaCar/Cash-for-your-gas-guzzler.aspx
(2) http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/30810514/wid=18298287

4,000 Horsepower Engine Rocks Your World

The crankshaft is 10 feet long and weighs over a ton, a piston is the size of a pumpkin and just one of the twin turbo chargers is bigger than the engine in a Mazda RX-8. It’s a V20, and oh yeah, it’s built in the Detroit Diesel plant in Detroit, Michigan… on an assembly line made of trailers. 

Generally, the MTU Series 4000 finds a home in the belly of a ship or is used for power-generation in mining and offshore drilling. By next fall the diesel swilling monster will be put to use propelling our Navy battleships around the world, presumably at sufficient water skiing speeds (it looked like fun in “Down Periscope”). 

But don’t flip your wig over a Navy dreamboat and join the YMCA just yet; the Series 4000 isn’t even the biggest engine MTU makes. The king pin of their arsenal is the series 8000. 

4,000hp? Childs play. Cranking up the 8000 produces a sea splitting 12,000hp. Sadly, it probably won’t fit beneath the hood of the average muscle car. 

(1)http://jalopnik.com/5241443/mtu-series-4000-engine-as-in-4000-hp
(2)http://www.autotrader.co.uk/EDITORIAL/CARS/FEATURES/monster_4000bhp_engine_and_a%20_v8_bubble_car.html
(3)http://www.mtu-online.com/

Ford of Kirkland Test Drive Event

It was a definite sign of the times over the weekend when I accidentally handed my passport to a Ford of Kirkland salesman in place of a valid driver’s license and was still allowed to test drive not four, but five of their vehicles. * 

Luckily, the dealership was sponsoring a test drive event for charity at a local high school. Anybody 18 years of age or older with proper documentation and a general air of competence was encouraged to take multiple spins in nearly a dozen fresh off the lot blue ovals. Also, there were free bagels and popsicles. 

First up:

FORD FUSION (2.5L Inline 4)

The first thing that struck me about this car was the bumper. Momentarily blinded by the sun's reflection off the handsomely crafted hood, I smashed my shin Nancy Kerrigan hard against the front of the car as Ford’s salesperson/human lo-jack device was handing me the keys. 

He paused, most likely considering whether the passport fandango that had occurred several moments earlier combined with my apparent inability to notice where the car began and ended might be an indication that I intended to navigate the Fusion solely by the vocal cues of the GPS and the taps of a cane out the window. 

But no, the drive went without incident and the Fusion proved to be about what you would expect from an economy sedan. That is to say, it drove like a big Focus. 

Likes: 27/34 mpg, starts at under 20k and doesn’t look like an economy sedan.

Dislikes: Definitely drives like an economy sedan. 

FORD ESCAPE HYBRID

If there were one car at the event I could take home, this would be it. Ford’s self-proclaimed, “most fuel-efficient SUV on the planet” shocked me because it was actually fun to drive. Not just because it wasn’t gutless, or that it was supremely satisfying to drive about town getting thirty-four miles to the gallon in a small SUV, but because it had that special somethin’ that the Fusion didn’t: Charisma. 

Try it, you might like it. 

Likes: 10-year warranty on the batteries + Fun Factor 

Dislikes: Starts at $29,645. 

FORD F-350 CREW CAB

Ford of Kirkland thought it would be a good idea to throw a massively lifted F-350 Power Stroke Diesel into a mix of cars that were supposed to represent Ford’s new progressive lineup. Bringing the gargantuan diesel pickup along was like arriving at fat camp in an ice cream truck, but the crowd loved it and there was a twenty-minute line to take it for a drive around the block. 

Once my turn came, the true size of the 350 came into focus as I approached the cab. I’m 6 feet tall, and the top of the hood was a good six inches above my head. 

Fun? Yes. Practical? 

Yes, according to the ride-along that accompanied me on my monster excursion through the stratosphere. Sitting at roughly nine feet above the pavement as we rumbled along a 35mph stretch of road, I asked him jokingly what kind of mileage the beast was getting at the moment. 

“Good,” he retorted, “not bad, because it’s a diesel, diesels usually get better mileage than the gas powered cars.”

I let an awkward pause unfold as the sound of the whistling turbo charger and howl of the off-road tires hinted that my intelligence had just been insulted. 

“Well,” I asked, “Is there a way to check our mileage on the computer system?” 

Sure enough the command center screen had a function for that. 

8.6 mpg.

I pinned the accelerator to the floor to see what that kind of compensation there might be for such a gruesome figure. The turbo charger wound up, the transmission down shifted and a wonderful surge of torque thrust the Detroit dinosaur out of the hole and across half a lane of traffic. 

No matter. Several ant-like compacts darted out of the way as if it were old hat for them to be chased off the road by a teetering mass of noise and blinding chrome accents. 

We each knew our place. 

Likes: Completely ridiculous.

Dislikes: Could have been more ridiculous (Semi Stack Dual Exhaust?)

FORD F-150 PLATINUM

Ford’s Platinum package for the F-150 is mostly about an ultra-posh interior upgrade and noise dampening. For some reason the sales people let me take the luxury pickup out on my own to see just how quiet it could be. 

I nearly lost my mind; it was eerie quiet. 

Likes: It is quite luxurious.

Dislikes: Not sure if a Platinum package for an F-150 makes sense. Recording studio acoustics are weird and uncomfortable. 

FORD FLEX

For the grand finale, I got to take a spin in the Flex. You know, Ford’s crossover station wagon type of thing? It’s cool, it’s fun, it works. 

262hp gives it some respectable scoot and 17/24mpg isn’t bad either, considering the interior is lined with several rows of captain’s chairs that resemble first class seating in an airplane. With up to four optional sunroofs, it's easy to add to the atmosphere. 

For all the family guys out there this could be the best alternative to the dreaded minivan since the dreaded station wagon because the Flex really doesn’t fall into any sort of “whipped” category. Like the Escape, it’s fun to drive. Unfortunately, also like the Escape, it’s pricey. 

Likes: Anything but boring and decent mileage. Will haul people/cargo in style. 

Dislikes: Starts at $28,550, might be more car than most people would need.

*It should be noted that after sharing a chuckle over the passport, Ford of Kirkland did in fact check my driver's license. They're good people. 

Sources: 

Fordvehicles.com

All the muck that’s fit to rake

Big news is tossing the auto world like a dryer set on crazy. There will be no salad references here. Without further ado, here’s a good cross section of the action:

-Fiat CEO to take over Chrysler (and the world?) 

“Fiat Group CEO Sergio Marchionne will become the chief executive of Chrysler after the U.S. automaker emerges from bankruptcy, a Fiat spokesman confirmed Thursday. (1) 

Check source #1 below. That’s an AP story folks, not just Internet rumor. 

Chinese Knockoffs Won’t Quit

 

Bah! Chinese automakers are ripping off the world’s cars and there doesn’t seem to be much anyone can do about it. It’s no secret that China churns out a preponderance of second-rate regurgitated products, everything from clothing lines to cameras. In fact, it’s respectable, because it’s normal, because they do it so frequently. 

“In Asia, in general, the culture does not define copying as something bad or unethical,” said then Chairman of DaimlerChrysler, Dieter Zetsche in 2007. (1) 

Unfortunately, automobiles are no exception to the consensus that once a brand name or model is popular enough, it’s entirely acceptable to rearrange the parts just enough to dodge the legal ramifications that can result from cannibalizing an existing product. The trick is to make sure the “new” car still resembles the original closely enough to feed off the original’s popularity. That way, the parasitic company is spared the burden of having to compete on a level playing field with the competition. 

In 2007, BMW filed a suit to prohibit sale of the CEO, produced by Chinese carmaker Shuanghuan Automobile. It didn’t appear that Shuanghuan even made much of an effort to cover its tracks; their emblem is quite obviously a variation of the classic BMW badge (see new videos). What made the CEO a true threat to sales of the X5 is that Shuanghuan pawned the CEO off for a base price of $35,483 while a luxury X5 could break the bank at nearly $126,040. 

That same year, DaimlerChrysler also took legal action against Shuanghuan in an attempt to halt sales of the Noble, a Chinese version of Daimler’s Smart car. While the Chinese copy cars aroused some negative attention during the time period, it didn’t sway their further production. 

“Naturally, our cars are inspired by European carmakers,” said Karl Schlössl, a German who is the chief executive of China Automobile. “But we reject the charge that they are copies.” (1)

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About this blog

Brandon Seiler is a bonafide car guy, member of the Northwest Auto Press Association and proud Washingtonian. He covers the latest auto news, technology, and pretty much anything having to do with car culture. You don't have to like cars to read his blogs, you just have to be able to read.

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