Here there and everywhere.

February 16, 2007

So much is going on across the automotive landscape. Here are some of the top stories.

The British-Malaysian-German three-way?
From the international grapevine department: there is widespread speculation that an announcement could happen at any moment indicating that Volkswagen has inked a deal to purchase 51-percent of Malaysian automaker Proton. Proton and VW have been working together closely since 2005.

While this means absolutely nothing to most American consumers, die-hard car people know that Proton is the parent company of Lotus. Like many small-volume sports car makers, Lotus has been shuffled around between more parents than an average American foster child.

VW’s rumored investment is obviously fueled more by interest in Proton’s small car production than in anything about Lotus. VW, however, would certainly get access to one of the best automotive engineering firms, Lotus Engineering, as well as the Elise platform. This could make an interesting VW sports car much more plausible.

Proton did a great job helping the oft money-troubled Lotus turn things around. It seems just like yesterday when a lack of cash and company-wide disorganization translated to no US-spec Elise and an Esprit with roots dating back to the Ford administration. Under the Proton ownership, Lotus and Lotus Engineering thrived with a successful American market Elise program and a wonderfully responsive American marketing group.

With so much exciting innovation (including working on the ZAP prototype discussed earlier on The Four Wheel Drift,) hopefully VW will keep funds and other support flying in.

New Tundra hits the streets

I was driving my family to dinner when I pulled up to a large truck at a light. I instantly recognized it as the new Tundra. Describing the Tundra in one word is easy: huge. Actually, it compares pretty well to the Silverado, F-150 and Titan, but for some reason, it appears so much larger.

Despite what it looks like in pictures, the Tundra looks better in person. It won’t win any beauty awards – it has nothing on the great aggressive looks of the F-150 and Titan. Consider it like the first Bangleized BMW 7-Series, awkward in pictures, but actually somewhat interesting in the flesh.

I had the opportunity to sit inside the Tundra yesterday — unfortunately time and weather did not permit driving. First impression is that it is quite comfortable. The interior is very car-like, with a lower ceiling than one would expect in a full-sized pickup. (Tall guys will need to take off their hardhats or Stetsons prior to entering.) Ergonomics are excellent.

One concern is the amount of faux-aluminum painted plastic. In a truck designed for work, this material will scratch and look horrible within weeks.

Chrysler announces jobs cuts and plant closures…and since GM might be buying them, can count on more in the future.
By now you have probably heard about Chrysler’s job cuts and proposed plant closures. Before anyone starts calling DaimlerChrysler the next GM and Ford, one must keep in mind that DCX is in much better shape.

While DCX’s stock price has gone down since the 1998 merger, the stock price is actually up significantly since September 2001. Looking back, the early stock decline was based on the financial reporting irregularities. Mercedes then ran into quality and sales issues.

There is speculation that Dr. Z’s comments regarding the job cuts and plant closures mean they are looking for a buyer for Chrysler Corp. With the extent of engineering and part sharing, don’t count on this. Furthermore, the only companies in a financial position to swing a buyout Chrysler Corp are Toyota, Honda, VW and BMW. None of these companies have any need for Chrysler, even though it outsold Ford last month.  Of course, this hasn’t stopped GM…which just leaked that it is in talks to possibly buy Chrysler from Daimler Benz.  

We’ll admit — a GM-Chrysler merger caught us totally off-guard.  Maybe, it’s because there isn’t a good reason for either company to go through with it.


Lotus Engineering and ZAP announce a 350-mile, ten minute recharge electric vehicle

February 3, 2007

Even though founder and innovative mastermind, Colin Chapman, has been dead for around a quarter of a century, Lotus hasn’t stopped working towards the seemingly impossible. At the North American Dealer’s Association, Lotus Engineering, the automaker’s consultancy arm, and ZAP announced its partnership to create the ZAP-X performance electric car based on the Lotus APX.

Since it burst onto the competition scene in post-WWII England, Lotus has been at the forefront of automotive technology and design. Lotus and Lotus Engineering companies’ list of innovations include the first all-fiberglass monocoque production car (Lotus Elite) and the first use of aerodynamic wings in Formula One.

Before you remind me that I have downplayed Chevrolet’s Volt, as well as the Lotus Elise-based Tesla, allow me to explain that according to Lotus, the ZAP-X will be capable of up to 350 miles on a single electric charge with full recharge taking just ten minutes. In other words, the vehicle could deliver similar usability behavior to other performance vehicles, trucks and SUVs that deliver nearly identical ranges and take 10 minutes to fill the full tank at the gas station.

The heart of the project is the all-wheel-drive Lotus APX crossover concept. Instead of the concept’s original gasoline engine will be replaced with in-hub electric motors, delivering 644 horsepower in all wheel drive mode. According to the press release the combination of the APX’s light aluminum body and projected gearing offers a theoretical top speed of 155mph.

Lotus Engineering will serve the role of consultants to ZAP in project R+D. There is no firm timetable for when customer cars might be available.

Like the Volt, the ZAP-X is currently vaporware. Nothing but the body really exists. The difference, however, is that ZAP is committed to this car, and this car only. GM has a habit of letting a project die on the vine as executives shift priorities. There is always a chance that ZAP or Lotus Engineering could hit money troubles, and heaven knows Lotus’ past is filled with casualties caused by under-funding. We can only cross our fingers that ZAP has deep enough pockets to see the project through.

We can only guess that the initial cars will be extremely expensive, but if the concept proves viable, it is just a matter of time before a Toyota, Honda, GM or Ford applies economies of scale to the technology — making it affordable to the masses.

The Reason It’s No Longer Here

February 1, 2007

After some real soul searching I decided to take down the posting regarding Barrett-Jackson. I was not going to offer an explanation to readers, but after widespread rumors, many emails and telephone calls, I wish to set the record straight.

Steve Davis, President of Barrett-Jackson took the time and effort to read the article, and then posted a comment that argued that the content was “reckless.” I firmly believe that in writing it I far exceeded the standard of conduct applicable to opinion pieces published on the internet. Each of the allegations made in the piece was already published in print, on message boards, around the blogosphere, through email lists, or had been circulating via car club events. I have additional sources who provided other information regarding most of the points.

That being said, as I reread the piece and gave it a lot of thought, I came to the belief in retrospect that while a valid piece of journalistic workmanship, it could be arguably seen from Barrett-Jackson’s standpoint as unfair. I had aggregated claims and allegations from sellers and participants over the years, yet had not leavened the piece with B-J’s side of the story. In taking it down, it offers B-J time to respond, educate, investigate…I even provided B-J the name and contact information of the now-famous judge (with his consent,) who sold his high-profile car on Saturday of the event. Hopefully, they can communicate and come to an understanding, and both report back.

Since I have no personal animosity against B-J (I believe it to be one of the most entertaining auto events of the season,) and I realize there are two sides to this and every story, I felt the better course of action was to pull it down and integrate anything they chose to communicate within a new article.

Furthermore, the article brought out many additional people (including some names car enthusiasts would recognize) who have taken time to tell me their personal stories of interaction with B-J and other auction companies. So like an artist who looks at his painting after the fact, this story, if and when it is updated, can look so much better, in my opinion, with all of the information provided by these sellers, attendees, as well as auction company representatives. (I also thank Drew Alcazar from Russo and Steele for taking time out of his busy schedule to communicate with me. I look forward to hearing more from him, as well as representatives from other auction companies, who have contacted offering to share information regarding their experiences.)

My final reason for pulling the article was that it was getting too personal on many levels. From threats of lawsuits against me to attacks against those posting on the blog with differing views, it simply was not what The Four Wheel Drift was intended to be about.

I personally thank all those who have sent their stories and support, as well as those many great, trustworthy sources who were the basis of the original story.


Sam Barer
The Four Wheel Drift