GM’s Strategic ADD Continues

March 25, 2007


There have been so few bright spots at General Motors that it really irritates enthusiasts when the corporation does its best to undermine any positive momentum.  One such blunder is to once again resort to huge manufacturer incentives…something the company claimed it had abandoned. 


In the same commercial touting the Saturn Aura’s win of the North American Car of the Year, it is announced that you and yours can buy one at your local Saturn dealer with 0.0 percent financing AND $1,000 cash back.  Just about 16 months ago, GM brass said they would no longer resort to financing and cash back deals, citing the practice had hurt profits and trained customers to delay purchases until incentives hit.


Furthermore, incentives indicated the models that were failing to sell.  This inherently led the market to believe that the models were seen as not as good as other competition.


How has the Aura sold?  In 2007 7,898 Auras were sold to dealers.  That’s not great at all, but it’s a good start when one considers that it will take time to train consumers to visit a Saturn dealer when they are in the market for a good midsize sedan.  It’s even better considering the Aura outsold the Buick LaCrosse, all Cadillac models, and even all Saab models combined.


Saturn is the great surprise.  It went from neglected red-headed stepchild to the brand with the second best sports car (Sky, second only to Corvette) and the best midsize sedan value in all of GM.   The Sky still isn’t a Miata, and the Aura is no Accord…but neither are that far behind, and both are extremely good alternative choices.


While receiving the North American Car of the Year helps establish Saturn’s reputation for producing high-quality, high-value cars (instead of cheap, but reliable transport) GM’s need for instant gratification will most certainly undermine this. 


GM’s actions remind of the death of Oldsmobile.  Set to be the “import killer” division, the brand got new competitive models like the Intrigue and Aurora.  Journalists swooned, awards were granted, but before second-gen cars could be designed to really set the division up for success, GM brass got cold feet.  Sales weren’t what they had “hoped for” and the division was axed (which itself cost of over a billion dollars!)


Sales take time.  Getting to Accord or Camry numbers will take a minimum of four or five years — and that’s assuming Saturn continues to make many year-to-year improvements to the Aura to smooth rough edges and get ahead in terms of features, performance and value. Even then, they have to be better than the upcoming new-generation Accord. 


One thing is for certain – putting the fire-sale image to one of the best domestic vehicles won’t help Saturn or GM.


Redescovering the king of road trip games

March 22, 2007

Last week my friend Andy invited my family over for dinner in celebration of my birthday. Anytime I’m offered an opportunity not to cook for my family, I jump on it – even if it means microwave lasagna! (In Andy’s defense, he did get me an ice cream cake from Baskin and Robbins.)

Cleaning up after dinner, I noticed a Mad Libs book sitting on his kitchen counter. Those of the pre-DVD era who spent years in the back seat of the family truckster on road trips will most likely remember Mad Libs with particular fondness.

Mad Libs was invented in the 1950s. New editions are still published, although I must admit that I had not seen a Mad Libs book for decades. I suppose Playstation Portables, i-Pods and built-in DVD players made travel games obsolete years ago. My kids had never seen Mad Libs, and I’d guess the same would be true for most primary school students.

In my current Sound Classics column I profiled some famous road trip games, such as Slug Bug, License Plate and Car Bingo. In my mind, Mad Libs was the king.

I promised my Sound Classics readers that they could find a car-oriented Mad Libs-esque example here. (It’s not a Mad Libs, because the lawyers tell me this is a trademark, so we’ll call this “inspired” by the original, only to promote that readers go out and buy a copy of the real thing to give to their kids, grandkids or neighbors.)


It’s time for Sound Classics and Four Wheel Drift fans to redescover the fun of wasting time — car trip style.

First, you have to choose these words:
1. Number less than 100
2. Name of a store or restaurant

3. Color
4. Adjective
5. Make of Car
6. Model of Car
7. Number
8. Emotion
9. Unit of Measure
10. Animal
11. Make and Model of Car
12. Verb ending in “ing”
13. Type of tool
14. Verb
15. Part of a car
16. Noun
17. Noun
18. Event
19. Verb ending in “ing”
20. Name of Person

Okay, now that you have selected these words, stick them in the appropriate spaces below in the story:

When I was (1) I bought my first car. I found it advertised on the bulletin board at (2). I immediately contacted the owner and scheduled to see it.

The (3) paint was peeling, and the chrome was (4), but underneath the dirt it was an honest-to-goodness (5) (6). He was asking only $2,500, but I offered (7). He took it, which made me very (8).

It wasn’t much to look at, but the 327 (9) engine put out a whopping 275 (10) power. I never lost a single race, and even beat a guy in his dad’s (11) by four car lengths.

The car did have a habit of (12), though. I spent many hours (13) in hand, trying to (14) the (15). Even after all the work, it still burned plenty of (16) and blew (17) out the exhaust.

Most of my friends can’t understand why I’ve been looking to find one to restore and take to (18). If they knew about all the (19) I did in that car with (20), I think they’d understand.

Mazda announces hydrogen-powered RX8 prototype

March 14, 2007

Mazda announced on Monday that it has created its first functional hydrogen-gas dual fuel vehicle. Even though they are not the first company to create such a vehicle, this is still big news.

BMW has already shipped its dual-fuel (hydrogen and gas) vehicles to customers, but Mazda gets credit for being the first to apply the dual-fuel thing to a Wankel (aka rotary) engine. Yes indeed, Mazda has chosen to make the rotary engine, known since the 1960s as “the engine of the future”, it’s engine of the green future.

Use of the RX8 as a platform is great news. For far too long, auto manufacturers applied its alternative fuel technologies to ugly little compacts. With BMW and Mazda using luxury and sports cars, respectively, the market for green technology has more potential to reach beyond those die-hard Honda Insight and first-gen Toyota Prius folks (the ones who saw “An Inconvenient Truth” four times in the theater just for kicks.)

The rotary powerplant is a double-edged sword, though. It is lightweight and can deliver big horsepower numbers from a tiny displacement. But as thousands of former NSU and Mazda customers will tell you, the engines have a habit of needing rebuilds well before conventional rivals. Although the current version found in the RX8 re-engineered the weak apex seal points, the jury is still out on if these new engines are capable of hitting 300,000-plus miles like standard inline and vee counterparts.

Rotary engines have also been knocked for poor fuel economy and horrible emissions control. Hydrogen makes emissions a non-issue (because the tailpipe emits water vapor only.) We’ll have to see how the RX8 compares with the Bimmer in terms of range on hydrogen.

Most importantly, Mazda’s move means other automakers will have to follow suit or risk missing the boat like they did with gas-electric hybrids. The more companies that commit to the technology, the more likelihood that hydrogen power becomes a real affordable alternative to gas, diesel and gas-electrics. And this time around, consumers will hopefully be able to be luxurious or sporty while also being green!