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Observations From an Auto Show

January 28th, 2011 admin Comments off

The Washington, DC Auto Show kicked off today.  And although it’s not the premiere event on most automakers’ calendars, it is an important occasion, given the vast intersection between the auto industry and policy makers.  It’s also the auto show that’s easiest for me to attend, given that it takes place in the city in which I work…

So, as I wandered through the automakers’ displays, taking note of the new models on the floor (…and I’m talking about the cars, not the barbie-esque spokespersons demonstrating how to recline the seats…), I made a few observations.  And here they are.

Fiat 500 Sport

Fiat is here. Yes, I’ve been excited about the arrival of the Cinquecento for some time.  And Chrysler … err, Fiat had quite a few on display in various colors and trim levels.  This is a nice car. ..It’s a small car.  (Grown people may not be able to fit in the back seat.)  But I think it will sell at least as well as the Mini Cooper (its only real competition) has done.  Molto bene!

Chrysler may be back from the brink, but its future isn’t certain. One of two automakers that the government saved from complete collapse (the other being GM), Chrysler finally has an updated line-up reaching the market.  It is much improved (the new Jeep Grand Cherokee is awesome, and the new Durango and Charger are impressive as well); but I get the feeling their first step post-rescue, while big, is still a little shaky.  I’m skeptical that any of these vehicles (other than the Cherokee) will sell in large numbers.  And it’s telling that their Fiat 500 display was the most crowded spot in the entire Chrysler/Dodge/Jeep/Fiat area while I was there.

Buick is relevant. GM started turning Buick around not long before the General found itself at the edge of the cliff.  Through their restructuring, the Buick brand was saved, and now has an expanded (and impressive) model line-up.  The Enclave is arguably the best looking vehicle in its class, the Regal GS is bad-ass (yes, I said a Buick is bad-ass), and the upcoming Verano is a small car for grown-ups.  Now, if only they could come up with better model names…

Acura isn’t. Honda’s premium brand, for some reason, has decided to make cars that nobody wants to buy.

Ford C-Max

Ford is on a tear. From where I stood, Ford had the biggest presence at the Washington Auto Show, and had the vehicles to back it up.  They’re making great cars lately – the new Taurus, Focus, Fiesta, and Explorer (not to mention the EcoBoost powertrains, as well as hybrids and pure electrics) are at the top of their class.  The new C-Max is impressive as well.  Ford was the only Detroit automaker that didn’t require government assistance – and now they’re flaunting it.

The Mercedes Benz SLS AMG isn’t nearly as attractive in person as it is in the pictures. Sad, but true.

Hyundai Sonata Hybrid

Right now, I’d rather be Hyundai than Toyota or Honda.  It used to be that the Korean imports could only hope to match the quality, performance, styling, and reliability of the two biggest Japanese brands.  Now Toyota and Honda would do well to aim for Hyundai.  Hyundai claims that the Sonata hybrid is designed to be the first hybrid you want to buy.  They may be right.

Mini is a brand. Sure, the modern Cooper has been around for a few years now, but it’s basically been thought of a sub-brand of BMW.  Now with the (ugly) Clubman and the (still ugly but I want one anyway) Countryman, they’ve got a whole line-up. And they don’t have any competition.  (Well, scratch that, due to my first observation above!)

Nissan may be a one-trick pony. With all the (well-deserved) hype about the Leaf, people may have forgotten that Nissan makes other vehicles, too.  Apparently, so has Nissan.  They still make some good cars, but their design language – which had gotten just a little avant-garde in a desirable sort of way – has taken a wrong turn.

2011 Audi RS5

Audi makes the best interiors.  And exteriors. VW’s premium brand gained a reputation for making the inside of their vehicles one of the most eye-pleasing environments into which a person could deposit him (or her) self.  That’s still true.  And the exteriors have followed suit.  Add to that cutting edge technologies such as Quattro, TDI, TFSI, and the aluminum space frame, and it’s no wonder Audi saw sales increase last year more than rivals BMW or Mercedes.

And finally, people need to be informed by folks who understand. The official auto show guide, in describing the 10 most efficient vehicles (as rated by the EPA), said that if a (all-electric) Nissan Leaf had a 14-gallon gas tank, it could travel over 1300 miles… What?  How does that work?  What good is a gas tank on an electric vehicle?… (OK, it works by calculating the energy content of gasoline – approximately 33.7 kWh per gallon – and falsely assuming that, because the EPA fuel economy label says that the Leaf uses about 34 kWh to travel 100 miles, it could travel over 1300 miles on the energy content of 14 gallons of gasoline.  The EPA fuel economy label also says the Leaf gets 99 MPG.  Which is a nonsensical metric for an electric vehicle.)

Single File, Please

December 6th, 2009 admin 1 comment
VW L1

Volkswagen L1 Concept

Back in September, at the 2009 Frankfurt Auto Show, Volkswagen displayed its L1 Concept vehicle, claiming an astounding fuel economy of 170 mpg.  How did they do it?  Well, they start off with an ultra-efficient hybrid powertrain comprised of a 0.8-liter turbodiesel (TDI, which I discussed here) and a 10kW electric motor.  (No plug needed here!)  They use an ultra-light-weight body of carbon-fiber and plastic.  And they designed it with an incredible drag coefficient (Cd) of 0.195.  Improving on the aero efficiency (a topic I discussed here), is a small frontal area, accomplished by arranging the two occupants of the L1 in tandem.  (Remember, the amount of power needed to overcome the air resistance when moving a vehicle is directly proportional to the frontal area, just as it is to the Cd.)

Nissan Land Glider Concept

Nissan Land Glider Concept

At the Tokyo Motor Show a little over a month ago, Nissan unveiled its Land Glider concept.  Unlike VW’s L1, the Land Glider is a pure electric vehicle, with two motors powering the rear wheels.  (No word on the energy efficiency of the vehicle.)  It also has novel technology, such as the handling-improving capability of leaning in the corners, and crash-avoidance sensors to maneuver the vehicle around objects with which it would otherwise collide.  The Land Glider also (presumably) is aerodynamically efficient – at least it looks that way.  And like the L1, this is achieved partly through the use of tandem seating.

Could this be the shape of things to come? Two-passenger vehicles have existed for a while, from sporty roadsters (like the Miata) to econo-boxes (like the Smart).  So, why not cut the frontal area down, and place the passengers fore and aft?  Is this just too impractical – or too unusual – for the average consumer to handle?  With many pushing for purpose-driven vehicles (rather than cars that can do everything, like what most of us drive today), we may eventually see a lot more variety in the types cars on the market.  It’s not so far-fetched that we may see a derivative of the L1 or Land Glider for sale in a few years.  And although tandem seating doesn’t really lend itself to a romantic time at the drive-in, it certainly can play a part at improving the fuel-economy once the wheels are in motion.

The Public Option, Good Karma, and the Mainstream

September 23rd, 2009 admin Comments off

If you’re keeping up with the goings-on in the alternative vehicle world these days, you might be as optimistic as I am.  As the economy starts to emerge from the sewer of the past year, indications are that momentum behind electrified vehicles is starting to increase – especially that of the financial variety.

a123-logoThe Public Option OK, so healthcare has taken center-stage for a number of weeks now, but that’s not what this is about.  I’m talking about the Initial Public Offering of shares of Li-ion battery maker A123 System’s common stock.  Without doing any rigorous financial analysis, I’m excited about the IPO.  A123 is a good company with an appropriate battery chemistry and some degree of demonstrating that it can mass produce battery cells at high volume.  Their acquisition of Hymotion gives them a test-bed and demonstration platform for using their battery technology in automotive applications.  They’ve received grants from both the federal and Michigan state governments.  Plus, they have a nice website.  The fact that the IPO was estimated to be priced at $8.75/share just a couple of weeks ago, and is now likely to be more in the $10 – $11.50 range, illustrates the excitement behind this IPO.  (This, in a time when folks are still reluctant to let go of their cash.)  We’ll know today or tomorrow what the price is, and it’ll be fun to watch what happens going forward.

fisker logoGood Karma It was announced this week that Fisker Automotive, maker of the Karma high-end PHEV, has joined the ranks of Ford, Nissan, and Tesla Motors and received federal loans from the DOE’s Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing program, to the tune of $528-million (slightly more than the amount awarded to Tesla).  These funds will be used to complete the development of the Karma, as well as a second previously unknown model codenamed Project NINA, targeting the more mainstream lower-cost market.  Hopefully, private money will follow public, for Fisker and for the other companies receiving DOE grants and loans.

The Mainstream I hereby declare that electric vehicles have become mainstream!  The proof is that Stephen Colbert’s guest on the Colbert Report last night was Shai Agassi, the technologically brilliant and business savvy founder and CEO of Better Place, the company planning to deploy massive electric vehicle charging and battery-swap infrastructure.  Some might say Better Place’s task is more daunting than that of the automakers.  They have certainly received, and will continue to receive, a lot of attention from the industry.  But now Shai is visiting Stephen Colbert?!  What next – will Elon Musk appear on Letterman?!…