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Brandon Seiler's Blog on Cars

Archive for December 2012

When SUV’s become crossovers: 2013 GMC Terrain Denali

The GMC Terrain Denali has a swagger to it that’s reminiscent of the SUV’s glory days.  A happier time when gas was cheap, no V8 engine was too inefficient and crossovers were for people who thought the Pontiac Aztek was a good idea. 

As it turns out the Aztek actually was a good idea in theory on the basis it was a crossover, albeit an epically fugly one.  Utility vehicles have to play by a whole new set of rules now in a recession addled economy.  Still it’s become obvious nothing short of a combination zombie-robot apocalypse is going to make the utilitarian qualities of the SUV any less of a necessity to American drivers.  

Enter the Terrain - GMC’s best-selling vehicle through 2012, second only to the Sierra pickup truck.  The Terrains is a crossover and GMC’s smallest vehicle, which isn’t unlike saying it’s the most petite offensive lineman in the NFL.  Originally the game plan was for the Terrain to pick on smaller compact crossovers like the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4 with a superior luxury option list and GMC’s beefy truck appeal.

In essence GMC took a Yukon Denali, Frankensteined it into a crossover and set it loose in family land.  The marketing wizards at GM found the strategy worked better than they intended.  Besides the CR-V and RAV4 the Terrain is now also being considered against larger midsize crossovers like the Nissan Murano and Ford Edge.  Here’s how the Terrain Denali stays competitive in the middle ground:

POWERTRAIN

The Terrain’s two engine options ask buyers to make a clear choice between power and fuel economy:  Sip fuel or haul like a boss.  Every 2013 Terrain comes standard with a 2.4-liter four-cylinder that produces 182hp and 172 pound-feet of torque mated to a six-speed automatic transmission.  The four-cylinder, front-wheel drive Terrains is good for an EPA-estimated 22mpg city/32 mpg highway.  Those are competitive numbers with smaller compact crossovers that couldn’t rock the Terrain’s bling-happy chrome accents if they wanted to.

For the power hungry a 3.6-liter V6 good for a chunky 301hp and 272 lb-ft of torque is the better choice.  The 3.6-liter produces almost 40hp more than the outgoing V6 while maintaining nearly identical fuel economy numbers.  Equipped with the V6 the Terrain is rated to tow 3,500 pounds.  All-wheel drive is optional with either engine option.

Impressive as the Terrain’s V6 power and four-cylinder fuel economy are the plot thickens when the six is compared to those in the midsize crowd.  With the V6 and all-wheel drive the Terrain is good for 17 city, 24 highway – lackluster considering the larger Ford Edge and Nissan Murano are rated at 18/25mpg and 18/23 respectively, each using a 3.5-liter V6.  

Then again neither the Edge nor Murano currently offer a more fuel-efficient engine option as the Terrain does with a four-cylinder option.      

INTERIOR

Nothing says luxury quite like leather and legroom.  The Terrain’s most impressive interior feature is standard in any trim: A rear sliding seat that can be adjusted to maximize rear leg room or rear cargo space.  When maxed out for passenger comfort the rear bench is one of the most spacious in the midsize-crossover segment.  The impressive legroom makes the Terrain justifiable as a proper road trip vehicle even if your buddies are real heifers of the big and tall variety.

In terms of trim the Denali package has the most impact inside the Terrain.  The Denali logo appears on the front seat backs and on illuminated front sill plates.  Red accent stitching is used liberally about the cabin and faux-smoked mahogany accents appear on the leather-wrapped steering wheel and door panels.  .  

GOODIE LIST

These bullet points are important; they’re the core of what’s supposed to distinguish the Terrain Denali as a luxury crossover designed to out-flatter the competition:

  • Special Denali 18-inch chromed wheels and exterior trim with chunky chrome grille
  • Convenience Package - Heated front seats, remote engine start power lift gate
  • Eight-way power driver seat with power lumbar adjustment
  • Eight-speaker Pioneer sound system with IntelliLink touchscreen interface and voice commands
  • Optional dual-screen DVD rear-entertainment system.
  • Bluetooth phone connectivity
  • Package - Lane-departure warning, forward-collision alert rear cross-traffic and side blind-zone alert systemsand rear park assist
  • Rearview camera
  • OnStar
  • Automatic climate control

DRIVING EXPERIENCE

Steering and handling are two very different things in the Terrain.  Around town steering it’s like trying to maneuver a wheelbarrow through a mossy lawn; it’s not a rewarding experience and makes you feel you’re working too hard to do something simple. Here more than anywhere the Terrain feels more like an SUV than a crossover, a hefty luxury vehicle designed to isolate the driving experience from the driver.  For some the effect might be appreciated but the Terrain doesn’t reward drivers who want a sporty or even communicative driving experience.

Surprisingly the Terrain pulls an about face and responds impressively when thrown into a corner. It doesn’t roll around clumsily like its steering response would suggest.  Instead it feels well-adjusted and planted when run hard through aggressive turns. There might be voodoo at play here; it could also be that the Denali trim package comes with a unique suspension that uses dual-rate shock absorbers geared towards handling. 

Intended or not the Terrains is a compelling buy in no small part for its clever positioning.  It occupies a sweet spot somewhere between compact and midsize crossovers where it can outclass the little guys with luxury options and steal away midsize buyers with utilitarian appeal.  It also doesn’t hurt that it looks a lot a lot like a Yukon Denali, which looks a lot like an Escalade; there’s still a lot to be said for the style those beasts refuse to lose.  

If GM could just get the Terrain to drive less like one of their SUV’s and more like a crossover they could really be on to something.  

Merry Christmas! Feds give GM corporate jets

Most of us won’t be getting the pony we put on our Christmas list.  American taxpayers will have to decide if that makes them any less happy General Motors will soon be able to fly their executives around in corporate jets again and remove federal limitations on their pay.  The perks are corporate Scooby Doo treats the federal government agreed to throw GM for reaching a milestone towards repaying their bailout funding.

“This is good for business and good for selling more cars,” GM's finance chief, Dan Ammann, said Wednesday. (1)

The news comes on the heels of GM’s announcement they plan to spend $5.5 billion to buy back 200 million shares of stock held by the U.S. Treasury Department.  The purchase represents the first step of the government’s exit strategy from the auto maker which is planned to reach completion in the next 12 to 15 months.  

Ammann explained during a conference call that as a thank you for repaying a portion of their $49.5 billion IOU GM will be given certain allowances that were taken from them as conditions of their federal bailout.  

“There is a handful of things that have been waived,” Mr. Ammann said, “including the corporate jet aspect.” (2)

For those who have forgotten or never heard in the first place, the Obama administration told automakers who took bailout money their executives could no longer fly on corporate jets until they began to wean themselves off the federal teat. The stipulation came in reaction to a highly publicized incident in 2008 when then-CEO of GM, Rick Wagoner and his big three counterparts flew to Washington D.C.in company jets to make a case for whether they needed the money or not.

“It’s almost like seeing a guy show up at the soup kitchen in a high hat and tuxedo,” Rep. Gary Ackerman (D., N.Y.) told the executives. “Couldn’t you have downgraded to first class or something, or jet-pooled or something to get here?”  (3)

In total the U.S. Treasury gave just under $50 billion to GM.  The $5.5 billion stock purchase GM plans to execute will reduce the Treasury’s holding from 500.1 million shares to 300.1 million and lower its stake in GM from 26.5% to 19%.  

Merry Christmas, GM.  Keep up the good work.  

SOURCES:

(1)    The Wall Street Journal

(2)    The Wall Street Journal

(3)    The Wall Street Journal

2014 GM pickups are ‘real trucks’

General Motors couldn’t wait to reveal the new Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra at the Detroit Auto Show in January.  They pulled the sheets off their new full-size stallions this week at a film studio in motor city with a bold message to the truck world.   

“Our competitors may think they have smooth sailing ahead but the weather is about to change,” said Mark Reuss, President of GM North America while introducing the new Sierra and Silverado. “This is different from our competition and we think it will work.” (1)

Those are fighting words from General Motors, who for years has trailed Ford and their F-150 for the title of best-selling truck in America.  For 2014 GM decided to draw a line in the sand, and cliché as it might sound, basically declare that their new pickups are flat-out the toughest, most capable on the road. 

General Motors’ game plan is to “go after the traditional, core pickup buyer who doesn't want some newfangled powertrain or air-suspension system,” saidDave Sullivan, a product analyst at consulting firm AutoPacific Inc. (1)

“Our customers rely on their trucks to meet the day-to-day challenges of earning a living, running a business,” said Reuss,”Chevrolet is committed to giving truck customers the most refined, best-engineered pickups in the market.” (1)

The new angle is a direct reaction to the king-pin F-150, which has been breaking with traditional pickup truck standards recently in heavily-marketed attempts to keep power ratings up while significantly improving fuel economy. 

It’s been hard to watch an NFL football game recently without seeing a commercial advertising Ford’s V8 alternative, the turbocharged EcoBoost V6 now available in the F-150.  Soon Dennis Leary will be chain smoking cigarettes in the press box next to Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth.

The 2014 Sierra and Silverado won’t use a turbo charged V6 of their own to compete with Ford’s EcoBoost and GM is proud of it.  Instead they plan to hang their hat on improving efficiency without compromising the utilitarian standards truck owners have come to expect. 

At the heart of the mission are three new engine options which are part of GM’s new Eco Tec3 family: A 5.3-liter V-8, 6.2-liter V-8 and 4.3 naturally aspirated V-6.  GM expects each engine to achieve better fuel economy than its predecessor when the EPA mileage ratings are released early next year. 

“We believe these are the most technologically advanced engines ever offered in light-duty pickups, and they are 100 percent truck – specifically designed for the way customers use trucks in the real world,” said Jordan Lee, Small Block chief engineer and program manager. (2)

Fuel-saving technologies in the new Eco Tec3 engines include:

  • Direct fuel injection.
  • Continuously variable valve timing.
  • Cylinder deactivation, which under light loads will turn both the V6 and V8’s into V4’s.  (3)

Each engine in the trio use aluminum blocks and cylinder heads for weight reduction and will be mated to six-speed automatic transmissions.  Sources say GM is working on an 8spd transmission but it likely won’t be offered for at least another year. (2)

“This is technology no other truck maker can match, and we offer it in every one of our EcoTec3 engines, for every one of our customers,” said Lee. “It is not an extra cost feature. You get our best and most sophisticated technology regardless of trim level.” (2)

Although no official specifications have been released for the Sierra or Silverado as of yet GM is already talking with a lot of “toughest truck on the road” confidence. The new V-6 will claim best-in-class-torque of any base V-6.  This year’s more powerful 5.3L V8 is expected to increase its fuel economy lead over competitors’ V-8’s and engineers claim the 6.2L V8 will earn top power, torque and tow ratings of any true half-ton truck. (4)

While GM has been very clear their new Eco Tec3 engines will be more efficient than the engines they replace they haven’t been as specific as to how they will stack up to competitors’ fuel economy ratings. They did however challenge Motor Trendto compare the fuel economy of all their truck models against similarly equipped competitors while towing and hauling, claiming that their non-turbo engines will be more efficient in real world use and have lower ownership costs.

GM is sending a clear message they believe their customers want trucks that put real-world capability before fuel economy, the kind of trucks that live up to commercials where forklifts drop smaller forklifts into their beds from six feet in the air.  That’s a serious stance to take as the Silverado and Sierra are the company’s best-selling model line and biggest profit source. (1)

Will keeping it pickup truck real work for GM?  Only time will tell.

SOURCES

(1)     Autoweek

(2)     General Motors

(3)    Autoweek

(4)    Motor Trend

Original Batmobile up for auction - Packed full of gadgets

Many a weirdo has built a replica of the Batmobile, some for personal use and others to be sold for a hefty sum to passionate Batman nerds.  George Barris is their king having served as the sole owner of the one and only original Batmobile ever produced.  More impressive yet, he built it himself in 1966.  This year he’s banking on the hope it will make him a small fortune when it’s sold at the Barrett Jackson car auction in January.

Unlike most other TV show cars that are built by the dozen to be abused and destroyed the Barris’ Batmobile was the only original ever made.  Barrett, who’s anonymously famous for creating the Munster Koach for The Munsters and the Beverly Hillbillies’ car, was tasked with creating the Batmobile in a matter of weeks.

Without adequate time to design the caped crusader’s ride from the ground up Barrett decided to build upon Ford’s 1955 Lincoln Futura concept car, which was based on a Lincoln Mark II.  Looking at the two cars side by side shows Garrett really didn’t change the Futura all that much.  Nonetheless the Batmobile was a hit, in large part for packing an option list of gadgets that made James Bond’s 1964 Aston Martin DB5 appear tame by comparison:

The Bat Turn 

Batman didn’t believe in emergency brakes.  Instead he would pull a handle to release the parachutes and spin the car 180 degrees.  When the turn was completed the parachutes would detach and be left in the street.  In later episodes, after fans of the show questioned why Batman would litter in such a fashion, Alfred would show up in a maintenance van to retrieve the parachutes. 

The Bat Ray

When activated in a chase the Bat Ray will render a ne'er do well’s car stone dead.  If they tried to start up again the ignition wouldn’t work leaving them to flee on foot or face Batman to exchange ‘Blams’!  Most modern day monster trucks are now equipped with a Bat Ray that can be activated from the pits, although they’re now referred to as kill switches to avoid copyright infringement.

Automatic Fire Extinguisher

When the Batmobile caught fire as it frequently would, the car would set off an automatic fire extinguisher to keep Batman’s spandex suit from permanently fusing to his body.  This was a critical gadget as appearing in pedestrian attire for periods of time were a necessary part of Batman’s double life.

The Mobile Bat Computer

Batman invented the fax machine.  If he needed to retrieve official crime-fighting documents from the Bat Cave he could download them to the Batmobile with the Bat Computer. He may have also invented the computer.

The Bat Beam

Perhaps the most violent gadget, the Bat Beam was the thing looked like a fly swatter on the antenna.  When activated the Bat Beam could destroy anything in its path:  Buildings, roadblocks or whatever it happened to be pointing at when Batman would slap Robin’s hand away from changing the radio station.  

Emergency Tire Inflator

Batman doesn’t get flats.  He denies them with the flip of a switch.

Bat Smoke Screen

Although smoke screens are old hat by now in the world of crime fighting super cars this classic gadget was an effective evasive tool Batman had in his arsenal. It also blinded innocent motorists, but along with property damage and streets littered with errant parachutes the people of Gotham understood its necessity. 

The Battering Ram

A classic double entendre used to bash through doors to warehouses where hostages were being held.  It was a tactical alternative to the Bat Ray as well as the most dangerous gadget when Batman was drunk.

Police Band Cut-In Switch

Batman commandeered what he wanted when he wanted.  That included barging his way onto the police radio band and disrupting other emergency calls to speak directly with the force on the Bat Phone. 

Bat Phone

Talking on the phone while driving was legal in those days.

Voice Control Batmobile Relay Unit

Gotham weirdoes loved the Batmobile and would steal it more often than was normal in other shows.  Little did they know Batman usually had the Batmobile Relay Unit – (a next-level Bat Ray) tucked into his utili-belt fanny pack.  The gadget allowed him to give voice commands that operated the car remotely.  

When the original Batmobile goes up for auction in January bidders will have the chance to take advantage of all these gadgets and probably a few more we’ve never heard of – A masked man always has another trick up his sleeve.

Regardless of is rarity, Jonathan Klinger, of the collector car insurance firm Hagerty Insurance, thinks the Batmobile will probably only sell for a few hundred thousand dollars, which isn’t much considering a 1964 Aston Martin DB5 used in James Bond films sold for $4.6 million in 2010. (1)

The problem Klinger believes is that too many people have already built top-notch Batmobile replicas, the best of which sell for under $100,000.

“I could be wrong,” said Klinger. “I'll bet George Barris hopes I'm dead wrong.” (1)

If gadgets are taken into consideration he just might be.

SOURCES:

(1)    CNN Money

The feds want your new car to have a BLACK BOX!

Don’t panic. Chances are your car is already equipped with a black box, officially known as an Event Data Recorder (EDR).  According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration 91.6 percent of cars already have the little Benedict Arnold device installed somewhere inside them.

What’s scary is that only about twelve states currently have laws regulating how the information they record can be used. Worse still, even though vehicles have had the recorders since the early 1990’s the feds didn’t require automakers to disclose their existence in owner’s manuals until less than four months ago.  

What we have here my friends is a privacy concern, and a particularly large one at that.

“Right now we're in an environment where there are no rules, there are no limits, there are no consequences and there is no transparency,” said Lillie Coney, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a privacy advocacy group. “Most people who are operating a motor vehicle have no idea this technology is integrated into their vehicle.”

This month the NHTSA proposed that automakers be required to include black boxes in all new cars and light trucks beginning September 1, 2014.  If passed in congress a proposed bill would require the boxes to preserve information from vehicle sensors leading up to the event of the crash.  Data kept to be snooped through afterwards would include: 

  • Change in forward crash speed
  • Maximum change in forward crash speed
  • Time from beginning of crash at which the maximum change in forward crash speed occurs
  • Speed vehicle was traveling
  • Percentage of engine throttle, percentage full (how far the accelerator pedal was pressed)
  • Whether or not brake was applied
  • Ignition cycle (number of power cycles applied to the EDR) at the time of the crash
  • Ignition cycle (number of power cycles applied to the EDR) when the EDR data were downloaded
  • Whether or not driver was using safety belt
  • Whether or not frontal airbag warning lamp was on
  • Driver frontal airbag deployment: time to deploy for a single stage airbag, or time to first stage deployment for a multistage airbag
  • Right front passenger frontal airbag deployment: time to deploy for a single stage airbag, or time to first stage deployment for a multistage airbag
  • Number of crash events
  • Time between first two crash events, if applicable
  • Whether or not EDR completed recording (2)

Acting as a long  arm of the U.S. government’s automotive safety division, the NHTSA, says they want to get their hands on information gathered from the EDRs for drivers’ own good.

“A broader EDR requirement would ensure the agency has the safety-related information it needs to determine what factors may contribute to crashes across all vehicle manufacturers,” NHTSA Administrator David Strickland said.

That might sound fine and dandy but the concern remains who else besides the NHTSA could acquire the information in hopes of turning the screw on drivers involved in an accident.  Interested parties could likely include policemen, insurance agencies, judges and zealot car bumper advocacy groups.

“There are important safety concerns here and they shouldn't be ignored, but there are also pressing privacy concerns,” said Chris Calabrese of the American Civil Liberties Union. “Chiefly, who's going to access this information and how long is it going to be collected? I'd make sure that the owner of the vehicle controls the data.” (3)

That brings us to most important part of the bill:  It states that the car’s owner owns the data, meaning the majority of people already driving cars equipped with the boxes and those that could be required to in the future would have federal law backing up their privacy rights. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety likes that idea and voiced their opinion of EDR usage on their website:

“EDRs and the data they store belong to vehicle owners. Police, insurers, researchers, automakers and others may gain access to the data with owner consent. Without consent, access may be obtained through a court order. For example, in a Florida criminal case involving a vehicular manslaughter charge, the police obtained a warrant to access the EDR data.

For crashes that don't involve litigation, especially when police or insurers are interested in assessing fault, insurers may be able to access the EDRs in their policyholders' vehicles based on provisions in the insurance contract requiring policyholders to cooperate with the insurer. However, some states prohibit insurance contracts from requiring policyholders to consent to access.” (2)

Complaining about car black boxes at this point isn’t going to accomplish much; like the Smart Fortwo they already exist amongst us for better or worse.  If the pending bill is passed the portion of it that would require black boxes be installed on everyone’s vehicle is largely non-consequential – odds are you’re already driving with Big Brother on board. 

What’s important now is for drivers to have as many rights to protect their privacy moving forward as possible.  Creepy or not the bill will help with that. 

SOURCES:

(1)    Mercury News

(2)    Jalopnik

(3)    ABC News

Why the 2013 Ford Fusion won Green Car of the Year

The last time the auto industry was challenged by government mandates to make cars more efficient things didn’t go well.  EPA standards in the 1970’s gave us more than a decade of fugly gutless wonders, epic garbage piles unfit to even appear rusting into the front lawns of abandoned homes in nostalgic calendars. The pressure is on again now as government fuel-economy requirements will pressure automakers to nearly double the average gas mileage of the vehicles they sell in United States by 2025.   

Be excited for a show.This time around the technology exists to create real progress. Cars like the Chevrolet Volt, Nissan Leaf, Tesla Model S and everyone’s favorite – the Toyota Prius are making groundbreaking advances away from petroleum dependency.

Impressive as these cars are which green technologies will become the saving grace of the auto industry will ultimately be decided by consumers; it doesn’t matter how efficient a car is if people don’t see good reason to buy it.

The Green Car Journal understands. Each year they drop down from an emissions-free heaven to bestow their divine wisdom on a chosen vehicle with their Green Car of the Year Award. 

“We deal specifically in cars you can buy and buy now and vehicles that are affordable enough that you can buy them,” said Ron Cogan of The Green Car Journal, “We deal in vehicles that are available in significant enough numbers so you actually have quantifiable emissions reductions and oil displacement.”

The journal is a foremost authority on green car technology and their opinion has influence. Along with the Green Car Journal staff their panel of judges this year included Natural Resources Defense Council president Frances Beinecke, Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune, Ocean Futures Society president Jean-Michel Cousteau (The first son of ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau), Global Green USA president Matt Petersen and Jay Leno.

Their mission was to celebrate a green car that is also a people’s car. The competitors for this year’s award included the 2013 Dodge Dart Aero, Ford C-MAX, Mazda CX-5 SKYACTIV, Toyota Prius c and Ford Fusion. The Fusion emmerged victorious, in large part because it serves as a platform for a healthy range of efficient powertrains versus championing only one.

Using a new hybrid system with a 2.0L four-cylinder engine and lithium-ion batteries the EPA estimates the 2013 Fusion is good for 47mpg in both city and highway driving. The hybrid Fusion can travel up to 62mph on electric power alone.  

Ford is also planning on trumping every other kid on the block with their upcoming Fusion Energi plug-in hybrid. They expect the EPA will soon confirm the Energi as the most fuel-efficient midsize car in the world by rating it for 100MPGe (the EPA mile-per gallon equivalent for electric vehicles). 

That would place the Fusion Energi ahead of the Toyota Prius Plug-In (95 MPGe), the Chevrolet Volt (98MPGe), and the all-electric Nissan Leaf (99MPGe).

To keep costs down for a starting MSRP of$21,700 the entry level Fusion S comes standard with a 2.5-liter four-cylinder good for 22mpg city/34mpg highway and 26mpg combined. A step up to the SE package comes with two of Ford’s EcoBoost options – a turbocharged 1.6-liter four-cylinder that makes 178hp and 184lb-fit of torque, good for 23mpg city, 36mpg highway and 28mpg combined.

As a performance option an EcoBoost 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder is good for 240hp and 270lb-ft of torque while still managing 33mpg on the highway and 22mpg around town.

“There's no overstating the importance of what Ford has done,” said Cogan, “Many have long envisioned new car showrooms where a desired model could be purchased with one of many distinctly different and efficient powertrains, selected to satisfy a buyer's particular needs and desires.”

Indeed.  At this rate 55mpg average doesn’t seem out of reach by the year 2025. 

“This is a great testament for Ford,” said David Mondragon, Ford general marketing manager, “We've moved our brand from laggards to leaders in fuel economy.”

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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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