Sammy’s guide to buying a new car, truck or SUV

November 30, 2006

I spend a great deal of time serving as a consultant to clients, friends and family members during the car buying process. In fact, just as I completed that sentence, I was interrupted by another call asking me for my opinion on which midsized sedan to buy

So in an effort to prevent another person from calling me, I’m publishing “Sammy’s Car Buying Tips.” By reading this simple primer, you’ll be in a position to make a smart, decision.

The key to this guide is to always give yourself many months to research, decide and complete the deal. If at any time you absolutely have to buy a car within a specific timeframe, you inevitably lose flexibility to get a vehicle you might want, as well as relinquish leverage against the dealer/seller.

Step 1: Narrow your search to appropriate vehicles
I can’t stress this enough: you should be focused on vehicles that fulfill ninety-percent of your needs, not the vehicle that delivers specialized capabilities for the once or twice per year activities. You wouldn’t believe how many people have come to me asking about which SUV or pickup truck to buy, and through simple (yet methodical) needs analysis concluded a sedan or minivan was the correct purchase.

So to get to the bottom of what you need, rather than what vehicle fits your desired image of your needs — ask yourself these questions based on prior years:

  • How many passengers will regularly riding simultaneously and how many will need children’s car seats?
  • How many times will I be towing a boat or trailer larger than a small utility trailer?
  • How many times per year will I be going skiing, hiking or driving icy/snowy/muddy roads that are not plowed/maintained?
  • How many times per year will I be hauling materials/garbage/yard waste?
  • How many times per year will people of 6-feet or taller be riding in both front and rear seats?Bottom line is that unless you plan to haul, tow or attack nasty roads many times per year, you’re better off with a car, wagon or minivan, and simply rent or borrow SUV or truck when you need it. Similarly, if you plan to be hauling more than two small children regularly, you’ll probably need a minivan, since three booster seats won’t fit across most sedans and wagons. (Conversely, why buy a minivan if you only have two kids and don’t ever plan to own a big dog or drive a carpool?)

    A good way to think about the different segments:

  • SUV – Only if you need ground clearance for muddy roads or snow drifts, or if you need to tow large trailers while also carrying many passengers. Otherwise, SUVs are cheaply built, expensive to buy and have a fuel drinking problem. They usually fill the role of wagons and minivans for people who are too insecure to drive station wagons or minivans.
  • Truck—Trucks are really only good for people who need to haul a lot of crap without hauling people. Too many people buy trucks when they should be buying a sedan or minivan. Keep in mind that the auto manufacturers love when people buy trucks, because they are really cheap to make, are poorly built, and sell for up to $20,000 more than a sedan or minivan of comparable interior space and utility. Think of pickups like a supermodel – great for a weekend, but are too expensive and annoying to marry.
  • Wagon– A sedan for people who need to haul something big, like a dog or equipment. A much better option for most SUV consumers, because they handle better, cost less, are better built. Wagons are almost always built on small and midsized car platforms, so often the rear cargo room comes at the cost of backseat leg room.
  • Minivan – The vehicle for a driver who will regularly be carrying more than two children, or more than three adults. Those who would have driven Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser station wagons in the 1960s and 1970s are the target for minivans. Minivans are perfect for people, pets and cargo. The downside to minivans is that they are impossible to park (notice how many minivans have dents in the rear corners!) and six cylinder engines mean a limited towing capability. Often they are purchased by so-called soccer moms who would be better suited by sedans.
  • Crossover– A compromise between wagon, sedan, SUV and minivan – which translates to a compromise in just about every type of trait. With a shorter wheelbase and higher center of gravity, they tend to handle poorly compared to sedans. Crossovers are too small to comfortably haul people or significant cargo, cost more than sedans and wagons, can’t tow much of anything, but get better fuel economy than standard SUVs. Think of them as halfway houses for former SUV abusers. Due to the inherent lack of benefits, this segment will be almost entirely gone within a decade as sedans return to popularity.
  • Sedan – The core transport in every country other than the US – and they were the core transport here too until the SUV craze. Sedans include four-door and two-doors (we call them coupes, but two-door cars are still globally considered sedans.) They are returning to popularity here due to the increased strength of offerings like the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry and Honda Civic. Midsized sedans are best for families with drivers under six-feet tall. Large sedans are primarily luxury-based. There are many sports sedans, which are midsized and offer the most pleasant driving experience while still maintaining utility. Compact sedans and coupes are generally cheaply built, and deliver less power, luxury and safety.
  • Sports car – You don’t need a sports car – nobody does. An entirely selfish purchase for people who weigh driving pleasure over utility. Sports cars tend to be among the best built vehicles. If it’s just you and one other person to carry, a sports car is wonderful.A note on AWD/4WD: Most people who buy AWD/4WD vehicles are doing themselves a disservice. AWD/4WD’s only purpose is to help get the car going in slippery conditions. Once going, AWD/4WD is a liability – reducing a vehicle’s ability to stop and turn. (AWD/4WD vehicles understeer, which means they push wide in corners.) AWD/4WD is marketed as a safety aspect, but it is absolutely the opposite, because it makes it easier to crash in the snow and ice. Furthermore, AWD/4WD systems are expensive to maintain and fix. (On-demand 4WD has a habit of locking-up if not exercised regularly, as well!) Unless you plan on climbing unplowed snowy roads regularly, you’re far better off with a front wheel drive sedan with stability control and a good set of snow/ice tires. A good set of winter tires can be mounted to rims for under $600, but AWD will cost $2000 or more to add as an option where available, plus the fuel mileage and maintenance costs will suffer.

    Step 2: Research
    Buying a new (or new to you) vehicle is easier now than it ever has been. Quite simply, as much (if not more) information is available to the general consuming public as is available to the average car salesperson. This means that unlike in the past, a well informed buyer can know any vehicle’s positive and negative traits, its MSRP, the dealer’s actual cost, and what everyone else is paying.

    And due to the sheer number of brands, models and trim levels, consumers have never had so many options. This remains true on all ends of the value/price spectrum.

    So your first to-do is to read through Edmunds.com, MSN Autos, Road and Track, Autoweek and the dreaded Consumer Reports. These publications will give all the statistics, pricing, options, and opinion you’ll need to form a basic opinion about various vehicles.

    Step 3: Go for a test
    Go to the dealers and check out all the top-rated vehicles in the classes that interest you, irrespective of price. If you’re in the market for a small sedan, even if you can’t afford one, drive a BMW 3-series to make the faults of all other cars in the class stick out like sore thumbs. On the other hand, some expensive cars can also make less-expensive alternatives look even better. For instance, after driving a Mercedes S430 the Toyota Avalon will prove faster, more luxurious and more comfortable, despite being less than half the price.

    Call the dealer to arrange to have cars ready for you to inspect. This is most important with newer or limited production models, but it also minimizes wasted time.

    Get in the vehicle. Set the car’s seat to a comfortable position, then either get into the rear seat to see if it can seat any necessary passengers comfortably. If you have kids, bring them with their car seats. Car salespeople will tell you how large a Volvo XC90, Subaru Forrester, Honda Accord, Acura RL, BMW 5-series or Yukon Denali is inside, but I’ve personally proven that at 6’4” tall, a salesperson or child in a car seat can’t sit comfortably behind me if I’m driving in any of these.

    Take the vehicle on a long enough test run to understand the pros and cons. If you plan to share this vehicle with a spouse, trade positions to get enough time in each seat. Keep in mind that passenger seats rarely have the same ability to adjust as the driver’s seat, so make sure both adults are comfortable in both seats.

    After you’ve driven a vehicle, head directly to the next dealership. You want the feeling of one car fresh in your mind when you test the next one.

    Step 4: Figure in safety
    Safety is a big deal to some consumers, so instead of taking Madison Avenue’s word that Volvo builds the safest vehicles (statistically, they do not!) go out and do your own research. Don’t take the dealer’s word, either, because just having front airbags means very little these days. There are big differences between makes and models in terms of safety and reliability.

    Visit the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s web site. Skip the meaningless static ratings, because when was the last time you got into an accident in a test lab? Go to two very important reports: Driver’s Death Rates by Make/Model at http://www.iihs.org/news/2005/iihs_sr_031505.pdf and Injury, Collision and Theft Losses by Make and Model at http://www.iihs.org/brochures/ictl/ictl.html. Both of these reports can be found by searching the IIHS site, and aggregate actual statistics reported to insurance and police. In other words, these reports show how the risk of death, injury, collision, and theft relative to other makes and models (normalized for the number of cars on the road) based on real world statistics.

    As you might guess, the 30,000-foot view of the reports indicate that big sedans are the safest, while small coupes and SUVs are the most dangerous. Cheaply built economy cars don’t fare as well as well-engineered luxury vehicles. And while the statistics aren’t quite in yet, allow me to predict that the current trend of putting third-row seats in midsized crossover vehicles and SUVs will prove very dangerous. As I’ve mentioned in my columns before, a Ford Explorer has a third row seat, despite being exactly the same length as a Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. Would you have your child ride in the trunk of an Accord? I certainly wouldn’t!!!

    No matter what vehicle you consider, you should be getting one with side-impact airbags and stability control. Side-impact airbags increase survivability in t-bone crashes by such a huge margin that they should be mandatory on all vehicles. For an average cost of $500 to add as an option, it’s the best money you can spend.

    Similarly, stability control should be a no-brainer to add to your new vehicle. Stability control (aka yaw control, active handling, stability management,) monitors the rotation of the car compared to the input on the steering wheel. If the computer senses the car is not going in the intended direction, it will apply any single brake to bring the car back under control. In other words, it does what a human cannot – choose one wheel to brake. Stability control will prevent spins and roll-overs.

    If the vehicle you’re looking at doesn’t offer stability control or side airbags, you have to ask yourself if it’s worth buying a car that doesn’t care to offer the two best technologies to keep occupants safe. In other words, the car you’re looking at probably is built cheaply for people who don’t know better – so go look at something else!

    Step 5: Consider reliability
    Reliability has a different meaning now than it did a few decades ago. In the past, bad build quality was blamed on lazy or poorly trained line workers. Since the majority of lines are automated with robots, reliability is now almost entirely based on the quality of engineering and parts. In other words, faults are either engineered in or not engineered out. Manufacturers have a pretty good idea of the probability of failure of most components in their cars. (The exception to this are the computer software elements, which often surprise the automakers with bugs, hence why Mercedes and BMW (mostly the computer-intensive 7 series) have had terrible times with reliability.)

    Domestic automakers are notorious for not engineering out problems and using parts that are known to be cheaper at the cost of reliability. Good examples are the leaky plastic intakes on 3800 GM V6 engines, C5 Corvette’s failure-prone column lock, Ford Expedition’s coolant hoses that run too close to the cylinder bank and are prone to leaking , and Chrysler’s premature transmission failure throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

    There are two reliability reports to consider as the gold-standard. The first is JD Power’s Vehicle Dependability Study, which ranks actual consumer complaints per 100 vehicles over a three-year period. (This can be found at http://www.jdpower.com/corporate/news/releases/pressrelease.asp?ID=2006133 .) Don’t place too much credibility on JD Powers’ IQS (Initial Quality Study), because it simply looks at the first three months of ownership, when most people don’t want to admit the car they just spent an arm and leg on has problems.

    The other is Consumer Reports Most Reliable list. Over 500,000 CR subscribers are surveyed regarding their car ownership experiences to get statistically relevant results covering almost all models. The report delivers best and worst in each vehicle category.

    From these two lists, one can establish some serious trends. Firstly, cars are more reliable than they ever have been. Secondly, there’s still a big difference between the leaders and the rest of the pack.

    Quite simply, if you want a car that won’t be a problem, go for a Toyota/Lexus or Honda/Acura. As established by JD Power, the industry average is 227 problems per 100 vehicles. Lexus is the best with 136 and Land Rover is worst with 438. Think Germans make good cars? Only BMW beat the average! Volvo? How about 27th place? Koreans as good as Japanese now? Not even close with Hyundai at 253 and Kia ranking fourth from last with 410 problems per 100 vehicles. All DaimlerChrysler brands were below average, showing that Chrysler products continue to place more importance on the looks of its cars than on the materials and engineering of them.

    Reliability translates to how often you’ll be at the dealership for repairs, plus there’s a resale value component. Of course, Porsches are below average, but with such great dealer customer service and fantastic brand image, owners are willing to put up with problems. On the other hand, Suzuki’s horrible reliability coupled with inept dealers mean you’ll have better luck curing herpes than selling a six-year-old Grand Vitara.

    Step 6: Rank ‘em
    You need to start with creating a list of the traits that are important to you: size, comfort, luxury, looks, affordability, acceleration, handling, image, ease of service, long-term value, and anything else you can think of. Then rank all the cars you drove.

    If performance is more important than reliability, then BMW or Audi might be a good choice. Reliability and resale value the keys? Toyota or Honda! Want the best bang for the buck, but don’t care at all about reliability or image? Hyundai. All about image over reliability, price or content? Mercedes. Oh, and if you rank buying American highly, check where the car is built! You’ll find more Japanese cars actually being designed and built in America now than “domestic” cars, which are predominantly built in Canada and Mexico!

    Okay, this is the time where I tell you what I’d buy in each segment:

  • SUV: Recommend – Chevy Suburban, Toyota Sequoia

    Avoid like the plague – Land Rover/Range Rover, Ford Explorer, any “small” SUV, the Jeep brand, VW Tuareg

  • Truck: Recommend – Toyota Tundra, Toyota Tacoma

    Avoid: Cadillac or Honda image trucks. If you’re considering these – you don’t need a truck in the first place.

  • Minivan: There are Honda Odysseys and Toyota Siennas, then there are all the others, period.
  • Wagons: Recommend — Subaru (they’ll shake, rattle and creak, but run forever.)

    Avoid: Volvo, VW and Audi, because quality stinks.

  • Crossover: Recommend – Buy a sedan or wagon.
  • Sedan: Recommend – for 99 percent of the world, a Toyota Camry or Honda Accord are perfect. (A Camry does 0-60 in 6-seconds…that’s faster than a Ferrari 308 GTB Quattrovalve, for god’s sake!!!) The Toyota Avalon is the best large sedan for taller drivers. In the entry-level luxury segment, BMW 3-series, Infiniti M and G are wonderful. In the luxury large class, BMW 750LI is amazing, provided you value luxury and performance over reliability and price. In the compact space, Honda Civic’s quality, safety, reliability, and resale value make it the only reasonable option.
  • Sports Car— It’s price/value in this segment. Low price means skimping on performance or interior materials. High price means more luxury/prestige or more performance.Step 7: Make the deal
    You need to go into the dealer knowing exactly what you want and how much you’re willing to pay. This needs to be based only on the dealer’s actual cost. To get the actual cost, subtract the dealer holdback from the invoice price (and add in destination fee and advertising cost, a non-negotiable item if the dealer participates in regional advertising.) Invoice and dealer holdback are available on Edmunds.com.

    Essentially, a savvy buyer will walk in, offer the dealer a fair amount of profit (like $500-$1500.) Know that the amount of success will be based on the availability and demand for the vehicle. Paying $1500 over cost for a Camry or Accord is reasonable. Paying $250 over cost for a Saturn Ion is reasonable. Getting $1500 off MSRP is a good hit on a Lexus LS.

    You can ALWAYS get money off MSRP. Usually the trick is to find a dealer who can’t move the stock of a car they have. In August 2001 almost every local dealer had $10,000 second stickers 2002 Corvette Convertibles. I bought mine for invoice price, when no Corvette enthusiast thought one could be bought for less than $1500 of MSRP. I just sent an email to the second largest Corvette dealer in the country who at the time was choking on 50 allocations each month. My local dealer’s Corvette allocation? One per year!

    Negotiate the deal separately from a trade in or financing, if possible. Know that it is worthless to try to negotiate a deal unless you are planning to buy that minute. Statistics say that if you walk out the door, you’re never coming back.

    Furthermore, set a time limit for the deal to be done, like 30 minutes. Tell the dealer you have to be somewhere, and that you won’t have time to come back. If you can’t come to a deal in the time allotted, simply stand-up, thank them for the time, and walk away. Go to another dealer. The reason is that the longer the dealer keeps you in the chair, the more likely they’ll sell it for a higher price. If your salesman walks away to get an “okay” or “sign-off” on a deal, follow them. Explain that you don’t have time to talk to anyone other than the decision maker. This is basic negotiations – deal with the dealmaker. The last thing a dealership wants is for you to waste the sales manager’s time, but they like the sales associate wasting your time. Turn the table, and you hold the power.

    What about leases? Two reasons for a lease: 1) you want a more expensive car than you can afford and/or 2)you want a new car every two or three years. If you don’t fall into one of these camps, just say no to a lease.

    Always be nice, courteous and down-to-earth. If the dealer senses arrogance, or feels you are too demanding and inflexible, they’ll kick you out to the curb. Realize you have to give them something to get something in return, so build it into your negotiation strategy.

    Most importantly, realize that you hold ALL the power. Vehicles are commodities. The same one can be purchased at many dealers. Be ready to walk if you’re not treated with respect or the dealer is unwilling to negotiate in good faith.

    A postscript

    I once spoke with a second-generation dealership owner about car salesmen. He made the comment that most dealerships look for salesmen of unquestionable loyalty, who “weren’t particularly bright.” The reason for this was that the sales managers (who he considered shrewd and very bright) wanted people on the floor who would tell the customers anything and believe it themselves. According to this owner, the sales manager wanted to be able to teach the sales staff to tell the customers the sky was red, and have them communicate it and defend it even if the customers knew the sky was blue. In other words, dealership sales managers want sales associates to lie, b.s., and misrepresent product, yet have full faith that they are telling the truth…

    …so be better informed than the sales associate!

    In closing, take your time, be critical and be very honest about how you really plan to utilize a new vehicle. Armed with the right information, you can’t go wrong.

    Of course, you might still have questions…so feel free to contact me. Everyone else does!


  • No, Mr. Shannon, we really wouldn’t rather have a Buick!

    November 22, 2006

    Buick Enclave Concept

    The Buick Enclave Concept (Photo courtesy of GM)

    Just when you think General Motors can’t get any dumber, Buick General Manager Steve Shannon appears on “Autoline Detroit.”  Let’s just say that if GM is hoping this guy will pull Buick out of its thirty year funk, they’re as misguided as Shannon.

    As has become tradition, Shannon admitted that Buick has had some troubles recently, but that there was a clear vision, complete with strategy and tactics, to move the brand back to past glory.

    And just like past guys with his office, he pointed to its products as the main source of salvation.Shannon started with lauding the Lucerne, a car widely hailed as the second-best Buick — behind Toyota’s Avalon. Marketing research points out that sixty percent of Lucerne buyers were returning Buick buyers, indicating high brand loyalty.

    Here at Four Wheel Drift, we commend Buick for turning LeSabre owners in to Lucerne buyers, but question what will happen in fourteen years when the average Buick owner has exceeded the median American lifespan?Should we be signing the paperwork to reserve a burial plot next to Oldsmobile’s headstone… and across the walkway from the spaces Ford has reserved for Lincoln and Mercury?

    So what of the other forty percent? Shannon refers to these Lucerne buyers as “new,” but we’d bet our hubcaps that the overwhelming majority of these buyers bought the new Buick to replace an Oldsmobile, Pontiac or Chevrolet. As far as GM profitability and stock prices are concerned, stealing a customer from another division doesn’t make them new.

    But this was only Shannon’s warm-up at really impressing us. His claim that Buick would be shining again was based on that one product alone would really get consumers excited again about the brand. That product? The Enclave.

     Excuse us? We thought you said Enclave? You did? Ahhh crap.

    If Buick’s future relies on the Enclave, the brand is screwed worse than a parachuting troop of Chabads blown off-course into Jenin.

    Now we’re not certain whether he’s trying to B.S. us, if he’s believing his own B.S., or he’s just too typically GM inbred to understand the absolute foolishness of the statement, but in any event, we’re calling Steve Shannon a moron with absolutely no regrets.

    The Enclave will arrive in 2007 as a three-row SUV/Minivan type crossover ala the Chrysler Pacifica. Like everything GM does, the Enclave will have less expensive badge-engineered brothers: the Saturn Outlook and GMC Arcadia. Even though the Buick is the best looking, it is entering late into a competitive space already dominated at the higher end by Lexus (RX350) and Mercedes (ML Class,) and at the middle by Subaru (Forrester.) Shannon points out that its third row will get it the nod over the Lexus, and that its quiet interior will make it better than a Pacifica…or the Outlook/Arcadia, for that matter.

    But here’s where we have trouble swallowing Shannon’s statement: Buick is on pace to sell just under 240,000 cars for 2006 – roughly a fifteen percent decline from the 2005. (This is still good enough to put it ahead of Saab, Hummer, Saturn, and Cadillac.)

    Even if the Enclave stole ALL of the annual sales of the Lexus RX series, that would still only be 100,000 units. And let’s be real here, they have no shot in hell to sell 100,000 Enclaves, because even Lexus is seeing a two-percent decline in this segment due to the number of competitors.

    Back in 1985 and 1986, Buick sold around 250,000 Century models annually. Twenty years later, neither the Lucerne is the best seller…and it won’t eclipse 100,000 deliveries. As for the great demand for Buick SUVs?  Try 68,000 units total for three models combined! Mr. Shannon, please, we beg that you stop placing the hopes of your brand on a vehicle that likely will sell a maximum of 50,000 units in its first full year.

    Buick’s fall from grace is quite simple – its slogan used to be: “When better cars are built, Buick will build them.” Better, quieter, more reliable, and more comfortable sedans are made by Toyota and Lexus. Now only the least savvy buyers (and fleets) continue to visit Buick dealers.

    Being “as good” as Toyota and Lexus just isn’t good enough. Buick needs to get off their butts and build the best full-size and midsize sedans available south of BMWs. These cars should sit next to a mid-sized ute and minivan that are luxurious enough to be Mercedes, but sit at a sub-Caddy price point. While the platforms can be shared, the vehicles must all be unique as to not be confused with lesser models from other GM brands.

    To top it all off, they need to be NUMERO UNO in quality for the first three years. At that point, Buick will be building the best cars at the best price. Once again, families appreciating quality, performance and comfort without the need for Caddy flash will start investing in Buicks again.

    Of course, Shannon knows GM will never get its act together to give Buick the resources to do it, so he’ll have to continue going on talk shows and b.s.ing until the cows come home…with Toyotas.


    Mercedes-Benz’s Quantity over Quality Methodology

    November 17, 2006

    Mercedes just announced to the media types (like your’s truly) that it will unveil three new vehicles to the US public at the Los Angeles Automobile Show December 1-10th.  LA has become a favorite venue among world-conscious manufacturers to release new products…of course Ford and GM still do it in Detroit where they believe the center of the universe remains located.

    The three new vehicles Mercedes is pushing are the S63 AMG, CL63 AMG and Maybach 62.  The AMG models share an all new 6.3 liter V8 with variable intake runners, four valves per cylinder (how pedestrian!) and “bucket followers,” which replace traditional rocker arms.  Producing 518 horsepower and 465 lb-ft of torque, the engines share no parts with other Mercedes V8s.  They also will be made entirely by AMG, which is to say they are also made by Mercedes, since AMG is owned by Mercedes.

    If that’s not enough power for you, Mr. Deep Pockets, the new Maybach 62 S is also set to be shown.  This uber-mobile gets an upgraded twin-turbo, intercooled V12 of six-liters displacement.  Power output is a mere 604 hp and 738 lb-ft of torque.  Of course, the 62 S is the size of a house, so it can use all the power it can get.

    Mercedes must be going after a new strategy: quantity over quality.  They now have among the most powerful model lineup in the world for a mass-production manufacturer.  They also have a never-ending lineup of small, midsize and large cars, as well as SUVs and the R-Class minivanish thing.  They also go for maximum technology, with computer-aided everything packed into each vehicle.

    But making so many vehicles with such a focus on power and technology has come at a cost of quality.  Look no further than the recently released Consumer Reports list of Most Reliable Cars.  Mercedes S-Class, E-Class, and CLS ranked as the 2nd, 3rd and 4th worst for reliability in the Luxury class.  SL, CLK and SLK V6 also were, 2nd, 3rd and 4th least reliable in their Sport/Sporty class.  Not to be outdone, the M-Class took honors as the least reliable Midsized SUV.  No Mercedes model scored anywhere close to hitting the most reliable list.  The only other manufacturer to come as close to a reliability shellacking (as a percentage of total models offered) as M-B were Volkswagen (Jetta, Passat and Touareg,) and Caddy (STS, Escalade EXT and SRX.)  I’m not sure if Mercedes is up on current events, but if they’re happy sharing company with VW and Caddy (which are to reliability as the Chicago Cubs are to the World Series,) they have a big problem on their hands.

    Maybe I’m just getting nostalgic for the days when Mercedes made cars that rarely broke…and even when they did, they kept running broken forever.  I suppose I also remember a time when expensive cars were built better than the cheap ones. Now it’s the other way around, because companies like M-B and BMW are too busy trying to create the technology standard rather than make the cars actually run for 10,000 miles in between the automotive equivalent of the Blue Screen of Death.

    So my plea to Mercedes-Benz: Stop the quantity over quality crap.  Power wars are best when focused on your sports cars, of which you really only have one: the SLR. 500 and 600 horsepower is more than enough for the ten mile drive to the Country Club.  What we’d really like is to make sure that the car doesn’t need to visit the dealer for service on the way back.


    Buttons That Push My Buttons

    November 13, 2006

    Without a doubt, the worst automotive invention of the last twenty years is the steering wheel-mounted button.  Tragically, it’s also the most abused. 

    I suppose mounting buttons on the steering wheel is akin to communism – seems great in theory, but in practice is a complete disaster due to the shortcomings of those in the decision-making process.  As we’ve witnessed recently, evidently certain automotive manufacturers employ more with shortcomings than others. 

    The whole concept of steering wheel buttons is very noble: keep the driver’s hands on the wheel and eyes on the road.  By having a button for setting the cruise control and another for changing speed, it was better than a button on the dash somewhere. I’m not certain who was the initial offender, (my gut says BMW,) but seemingly overnight, steering wheels started receiving buttons to control the stereo.  That simply opened the flood gates.  Now it is not uncommon to find stereo/DVD, HVAC, nav system, cruise control and phone controls splattered all over the wheel. 

    My wife’s 1998 Oldsmobile Intrigue has controls for cruise and stereo mounted in small pods recessed from the main steering wheel.  They are easy to use, and impossible to hit accidentally.   For exhibit B, however, we have the 2006 Toyota Avalon Limited I purchased last year.  Twelve buttons are littered around the wheel hub, but only the distance control for the laser-guided cruise is recessed.  At least once a day I find myself inadvertently changing the radio station or shutting off the A/C.  Why on God’s green Earth does anyone require Temp +/-, Auto and HVAC Off controls on a steering wheel, when the same buttons are six inches away on the dash?  The bottom line is that if auto manufacturers actually designed their interiors well, all major controls would already fall naturally to the hand without looking.  Instead, they skimp on ergonomics and use steering wheel buttons as a crutch.  Now, consumers expect the crutch.   There isn’t a single control in the Avalon I can’t find with simple muscle memory, so the steering wheel controls are more of a distraction than a benefit… but the horrible buttons were added only because Hondas, Caddies, Nissans and Buicks offer them too. 

    The end result is that the buttons on the wheel require that I take my eyes off the road, but the systems they control can be accessed with ease. Plus, I can’t afford to focus my eyes on the steering wheel, because they’re too busy scanning for other motorists paying more attention to their I-Drive-esque gadgets instead of driving. 


    The Auto Industry and a Democratic-controlled Congress

    November 8, 2006

    The voters have spoken: Democrats good, Republicans bad.  Okay, great, fine – we’re car people…we only care what that means to us.  Will the new Congressional mix mean anything for the wonderful world of automobiles? 

    Yes – quite a bit.

      If life for the Big Three automakers wasn’t bad enough with declining sales, it is about to get worse.  Expect a Democratic-controlled Congress to push for higher CAFE standards, which will require that even trucks meet a reasonable mpg rating.  Since GM, Ford and Chrysler have been asleep at the wheel in terms of fuel economy, expect that they’ll be frantically buying technology from Toyota and Honda to meet any new requirements set by Congress in this arena. 

    Before you start pointing out that the Big Three can use their current diesel technology, keep in mind that Democrats will likely pass other environmental laws requiring cleaner fuels.  While diesel doesn’t cause global warming, current diesels offered by all automakers pose a more immediate threat to health: soot emissions that cause asthma and other cardiovascular diseases.  Not even VW’s next-generation diesels are 50-state legal, and they have particulate traps and clean-burning direct injection that the engines used in GM and Ford vehicles don’t. 

    Expect lots of debate over ethanol/E85, biodiesel and hydrogen.  Lobbyists will define the option that gains the most traction. 

    Hopefully any Clean Air legislation wouldn’t expand emissions requirements to classics.  Traditionally been an issue for states and counties.  It would be nasty for collectors across the country to have to abide by California-like rules necessitating original emissions equipment on all vehicles made after 1968.  I’m all for breathable air, but California’s rules are ludicrous when applied to seldom-driven old cars.

     With the subpoena power of the House, expect Democrats to investigate oil company price gouging.  It is possible that fuel costs could come down with pressure via a windfall profits tax and/or threats to sue over price manipulation. If fuel costs stay the same or retreat, it is likely that the market will continue to enjoy more years of horsepower wars. This year it’s 500 hp Viper, Vette, Mustang…in two years, expect 600 hp to be the standard, which would make my 350 hp C5 Corvette seem positively old-ladyish.

      It will be an interesting two years.  With any luck, Congress will be able to do what they usually do: pressure the domestic auto industry to create safer, cleaner, more fuel efficient cars by threatening legislation. 

    The long and short of it all is that a new Congress will actually make GM, Ford and Chrysler produce better cars… even if the executives do it kicking and screaming the whole way.


    Transmission Wars

    November 3, 2006

    I’ve mentioned many times in my Sound Classics newspaper column the current horsepower wars.  Its amazing how much power manufacturers have thrown at all their vehicles…even Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna produce more power than Corvettes of the past. 

    What has gone fairly unnoticed is the transmission arms race. It seems that all of a sudden, how many gears and how many shifting options are the key to a successful car. If you didn’t catch the news, the 2007 Lexus LS will feature an eight speed automatic.  BMW and Mercedes have both offered seven speed trannies in their high-end vehicles for a couple years.  Cars priced above $30,000 are scorned for delivering anything less than six speeds. We’ve come a long ways since two speed Powerglide automatics and three-on-the-tree manuals.  Just to think – cars in the late 1980s still came with three speed automatics and four speed manuals. 

    The product marketing trait du jour is to offer manumatic shifting via paddles or a side shift gate.  It amazes me how many educated people don’t understand that an automatic transmission with manual gear selection is nothing new.  I could select and hold low gear in my 1955 Packard Patrician then move the selector to drive with the column stalk.  Just now, every sedan and coupe seems to have buttons or a up-down push to accomplish the same thing…with the same delayed shift results. 

    Speaking of manumatics, when is someone going to institute a standard for lever-actuated shifting.  What I mean is that on many transmissions, such as Toyota and Volvo, one pushes up for the higher gear and pulls back for a lower gear.  On other brands of cars, it’s reversed.    Note to those like Toyota and Volvo:  you’re doing it wrong!  Physics kind of takes the lead on this one: if you floor the throttle, you get pinned to your seat, which means one must fight g-forces to push a stick forward to gain a higher gear.  Similarly, when the brakes are stomped, it’s easier to push forward as your brain gets tossed towards the hood ornament.  This why every single manufacturer of sequential manual transmissions for World Rally Championship competition works in a pattern of pull for higher, push for lower. 

    BMW, Ferrari, Aston Martin, and Maserati utilize true clutchless manuals.  I’ve driven the BMW, and aside from the perfect computerized blip of the throttle, I was somewhat disappointed.  Basically, when I shift gears, my brain is on clutch foot, selecting the next gear, dialing the phone, scratching myself, and trying not to drive into the ditch.  Takin away the clutch and stick maneuvers,  I was painfully aware of the time delay between gears…even though it actually takes less time for the computer to shift than I could. Dual clutch sequential manuals are out, and should rectify the time, as well as somewhat jerky motion. 

    CVT trannies are nothing new, but Audi, VW and Nissan would have you believe that they are revolutionary.  Subaru’s cheap Justy had one fifteen years ago, and it was met with the same lackluster reception. 

    As usual, the manufacturers might be focusing too much on quantity and not enough on quality.  My 2006 Toyota Avalon is plagued with a six speed automatic with sequential shifting that frequently freewheels looking for the correct gear and suffers from jerky downshifts at 32 mph.  The official company line: the tranny is computer controlled for maximum fuel efficiency and that’s “normal operation.”  Ask any Toyota service manager, and they’ll tell you that it’s just a crappy tranny that wasn’t properly tested.  Ask an owner, and they’ll say “I’ve been nearly creamed making a turn across traffic at least two or three times.” 

    The process of fixing the problem is easy – the bug is in the computer control which tries to learn how the driver tendencies. Since the Toyota Avalon’s six speed (which also goes into the V6 Camry and Lexus LS350) is integral in the EPA mileage estimates, any modification (BUG FIX) has to go through EPA certification. (A media representative confirmed this for me.)  While the feds are taking their time, drivers are out there dealing with problems that in a Turbo Hydromatic 350 could have been solved with a wrench, screwdriver and a socket set. 

    Then again, it’s evidently more important to the executives to say “I’ve got more gears” vesus “our trannys are bulletproof.”