Go ahead, give your husband a Euro-spec supercar for Christmas

November 28, 2007

People still discuss what most think is an urban legend – Bill Gates trying to import a Porsche 959, only to have it stuck in customs for years.  Guess what, everyone?  The story is true.

Don’t go looking for a dusty 959 on the docks of California, though.  It’s not there anymore.  Bill Gates, along with collectors and enthusiasts across the country managed to get legislation passed in 1998 permitting certain non-US-spec cars into the United States under what the DOT and NHTSA call the “Show or Display” registration.

Essentially, any car issued a registration under Show or Display can be brought into the country legally, provided it is used only for a shows, demonstrations or racing event.  It cannot be used on open public roads for normal transport.

And not just any car is allowed.  The car must have significant technical or historical value.  Unfortunately, these are fuzzy lines, so like the Classic Car Club of America, which designates an eight-cylinder Auburn a “Full Classic”, but shuns more expensive Buicks and Chryslers, the DOT is picking and choosing.  One might also say that a car’s historical or technical significance might be somewhat related to the political influence of the person trying to import the vehicle!

Keep in mind that most states will issue a title and registration to pretty much any car made prior to January 1st, 1968.  After which, the car is supposed to have smog equipment, so some states get very touchy.  The next big date is January 1, 1975, when a lack of crash safety certification is the deal killer. 

So here’s the official list of cars from the NHTSA, starting with vehicles already approved.  If you’re thinking of bringing in one of these cars, you still need to submit an application for Show or Display with the Feds.

Make Model Model Year
Aston Martin DB7 Zagato Coupe 2003
Aston Martin Vanquish Zagato 2004
Aston Martin Vantage LeMans 1999 – 2000
Audi Sport Quattro 1984
Australian Ford Falcon XC Bathurst Cobra 1978
BMW Hossack K100RS Prototype M/C 1984
BMW Z1 1988 – 1991
Bugatti EB110 1992 – 1995
Ferrari Enzo #400 (Pope John Paul II) 2005
Ford RS200 Evolution 1985 – 1986
Ford Sierra Cosworth RS 500 1986
Gruter & Gut (GG) Duetto Sidecar M/C 1997
Italdesign Aztec 1988
Jaguar XJ220 1992 – 1994
Lamborghini Diablo GT 1999
Lotus Opel Omega (LHD) 1990-1992
Maserati MC 12 2004 – 2005
McLaren F-1 1993 – 1998
Mercedes Benz 560 SEL Ex-Gorbachev armored 1991
Mercedes Benz AMG CLK-DTM Coupe 2005
Mercedes Benz CLK DTM AMG Cabriolet 2006
Mercedes Benz CLK-GTR Coupe 1998 – 1999
Mercedes Benz CLK-GTR Roadster 2002
MGTF 80th Anniversary  Limited Edition (RHD/UK) 2004
Peugeot 205 Turbo 16 1984 – 1985
Porsche 911 Carrera 4S (last made) 1998
Porsche 959 1987 – 1988
Porsche 993 Carrera RS 1996
Porsche GT1Strasseversion 1997
Porsche GT1 1998
RMA Amphi-Ranger 2800 SR 1985-1995
Rover Mini Cooper S (last 50 made) 2000


VEHICLES DETERMINED NOT ELIGIBLE FOR IMPORTATION

FOR SHOW OR DISPLAY

Based on the information presented, the vehicles identified below have been determined ineligible for importation for Show or Display.  

Make Model Model Year
Audi Avant RS2 1995
Bancroft Roadster 1993
BMW M3 Sport Evolution III 1990
Daimler-Chrysler Smart Car 2000
Hesketh V1000 1980 – 1983
Jaguar XJ 220 S (race car) 1993
Land Rover Defender 130 2000 – 2001
Lotus 340 R 2000
Lotus Elise S1 1996 – 2001
Morgan LeMans ’62 Prototype 2002
Nissan Figaro 1990 – 1991
Nissan Skyline GTS-T 1995
Pegaso Z-103 1991
Porsche 959 S (race car) 1989
Porsche Carrera 4 Lightweight (race car) 1990
Rover Mini Cooper 1995, 1998 – 2000
Rover Mini Cooper RSP / LE 1990
Trabant 601-S 1981
Trabant P601 1989
Triumph Bonneville M/C 1981
Volkswagen Beetle (Old Style) 2000
Volkswagen Beetle (Ultimate Edition) 2003

More information on Show or Display is available at http://www.nhtsa.gov/cars/rules/import/

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The Third Car Short List

November 26, 2007

Each year I field several hundred questions about one specific topic: a third car. We all used to call it a “second car”, but since most people are married (or cohabitating) with two cars already in the garage, an extra car just for sunny days and weekend trips is more often the third.

Some people are specifically interested in classic cars, but that opens up a whole different discussion. Instead today we’ll focus on the other type of third car shoppers: those that want a convertible cruiser or sports car. Maybe there are other third car shoppers – probably the truck and SUV people out there, but considering I tend to gravitate towards convertible sports cars, I think the mud and snow crowd aren’t as eager to ask me for opinions.

Usually people want to know what the best options are for a fun, safe, affordable fun car. Since the majority of consumers in the segment want a used car, I have assembled my top picks for best used sporty convertibles for the buck.

BMW Z3: Plain and simple – you’re not going to find a sportier, more luxurious, more fun to drive, better built roadster for the price. The initial anemic four cylinder cars can be purchased for $7500 or less. The 2.5 liter and 2.8 inline six cars start around $9500. Buying a 2001 Z3 will cost basically the same money as a Miata.

Z3s have plenty of options, ranging from engine (including the 2.8 liter six cylinder), to automatic transmissions, to removable hard tops.

If you plan to keep the car long-term, consider finding an M-Roadster. This was the Z3 offered with the M3 engine. Made in low production, these cars are usually around $20,000, but recently some have hit the market closer to $15,000. Not only will these M Roadsters (and the style-challenged, but more solid-handling M-Coupe) remain desirable, but they can also run door-to-door with Corvettes and Porsches.

Speaking of Porsche, if you like the idea of the Z3, but want something prettier or need more trunk room, you can go for a Porsche Boxster. Stay away from the initial year of production, because quality was lousy, but by 1999 Boxsters became fun, reliable and plentiful. Look to spend $17,500 or above. Boxster S models, which offer more horsepower, are still above $20K, but are well worth it, because they’ll continue to hold value.

Mazda Miata: Anyone who calls a Miata a “girl’s car” either never has driven one like the engineers intended, or is referring to Denise McCluggage, Dana Patrick, Donna Mae Mims, or any of the other girls that could kick your ass around any track on any day with any car. Apply partial throttle and shift below 3500 rpms, and the MX-5 Miata is a bore. Plant your foot the floor, wind it up to 7,200 rpms, rip a perfect shift, and fly through S-curves, and you’ll find out why the Miata is the best-selling two-seat roadster of all time.

First generation cars are cheap, cheap, cheap. Get a 1990-1993 for as little as $2500. There’s very little difference until 1999, when the body style changed and power increased. 1999 and newer cars still go for $9500 or more, especially with hard tops.

Miatas are almost bulletproof. Change the oil and keep coolant in them, and they’ll go 250,000 miles. There are some weak spots, like exhaust manifolds that crack, but because these are mass-produced cars that are raced extensively, OEM and upgrade parts are inexpensive and easy to find. Hoods are aluminum, and early panel fit was lousy, so just because gaps are uneven, don’t assume the car has been wrecked before.

If you want the general Miata feel, but are willing to pay for significantly more power, go for the Honda S2000. Still fairly expensive on the used market, the S2000 is a car for people who drive like F1 racers. Under 5000 rpms, the engine delivers the same experience as an Accord. Bring that tach up past 6,000 rpms, and the whole experience changes.

A great mechanical-feeling shifter and wonderful steering are offset by a claustrophobic interior, terrible LED gauges and plastic rear window on early cars. Also, with such a high-revving small-displacement engine, longevity is always a question.

Ford Mustang:Clunky, chunky, ergonomics by the guys who dreamed-up Chinese foot binding…still people love this American pony. V8 cars provide great growl, and are reasonably well built. Upgrades and replacement parts are cheap. Convertibles from the 1990s start at $6,000, but if you’re willing to put up with a still powerful, but less impressive V6, cars can be below $5000.

Cobra models are much more expensive, but are guaranteed collectables like the Boss 302 of the Trans Am era. They’re also fast, and with the right tires and suspension modifications, make fantastic autocross racers.

Mercedes SL500: If you’re more interested in cruising, and are slightly image conscious, the Merc SL500 is a great convertible. Interestingly, the sleek-looking 1990’s cars are now cheaper than the final 560SLs from the 1980s. Built like brick poop-houses, SL500s will run forever, provided they are maintained. Don’t even think of buying one with valve train clatter, though, because one design flaw resulted in the occasional engine suffering from poor oiling. Also, it is so expensive to repair the interior, that nice leather is almost more important than shiny paint.

$8500 gets you into this league. All Mercedes SLs have come with matching hardtops since LBJ was President, so make sure you get yours with the car. (Current generation SLs have a power-folding hard top.)

The obvious downside of the Mercedes SL is cost of ownership. Bosch parts are as cheap as a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon. And contrary to what you might think, the seats in the SL are not that comfortable, so make sure you take a long test drive before committing to a purchase. They’re also not particularly involving to drive, with numb controls and significant body roll. Still, they are great luxury cruisers in terms of bang for the buck.

Here are cars one might consider avoiding:

1984-1996 Corvettes: I consider myself a hard-core Corvette fan. I’ve owned plenty of them. Unfortunately, the fourth generation cars have so many issues that unless you’re well-versed in the dos and don’ts, you’re bound to have an unhappy ownership experience. All suffered from crappy ergonomics to the point that my father once described entering a C4 coupe’s interior like “putting on a full body condom”. Cheap and crack-prone plastic parts are everywhere. Digital gauges fail faster than a Bush Administration appointee, and wheel bearings are crazy-expensive to replace.

All C4 Vettes before the LT1 debuted aren’t really that fast. Convertibles have a flexible chassis, so getting great handling means ultra-stiff springing. Beyond that, the drop-tops have luggage space for no more than a change of clothes and a sandwich.

C5 Corvettes (1997-2004, with the first convertibles appearing in 1998) are a whole different ball of wax (or composite, as the case might be). Much more comfortable (even with the Z51 performance suspension) and more reliable, they are better in almost every conceivable way. Unfortunately, they’re still rather spendy, with 1998 drop-tops still commanding around $25,000. The targa-topped coupes can be had for as little as $17,000. Seats aren’t particularly comfortable, interior noise from the Goodyear Run-Flats (commonly referred to in Corvette circles as “Run Craps”) is deafening, and there’s the whole steering column lock failure problem that plagued the whole damn series production, but otherwise they are pretty great cars. Plus, the six-speed cars can get 36 mpg on the highway.

Lotus Elise: Unless you’re a die-hard racer type, the Elise will seem more like something used in a CIA Black Site interrogation center. It takes a shoehorn to get in, and the Jaws of Life to get out. With such a short wheelbase, the Elise gets very unsettled over potholes and expansion joints, plus is very easily spun near its handling limit. For those that are first class drivers, though, the Elise is the closest one can get to being in a pure race car.


Chrysler’s Product Euthanasia

November 20, 2007

Let me just say how impressed I’ve been with Chrysler since the new leadership took over. With so much action in the little time since Cerberus grabbed the reigns from an exhausted Daimler, it looks positively non-Detroit-like at Chrysler.

One of the most important factors to the progress is Cerberus’ private ownership. In a country where true success is often sacrificed in pursuit of an ever-increasing stock price, it is nice to see a company forgo the pressures of Wall Street volatility and focus on constructing financial, operational, manufacturing, and marketing foundations on which long term success can be based.

Certainly the most visible hard-core decision to come down was the one to shut-down production of four relatively young products. Not only did that show the new leadership wasn’t tied to any specific model, but also that the corresponding lines and workers were going to be held to a very strict performance model.

When the news broke a couple weeks ago, the financial news stations praised the decision to get leaner and meaner. Nobody really rolled-up their sleeves, however, and looked at the effects of the axed cars on the company and its marketing strategy.

So which cars were booted? After 2008 Chrysler will lose the Crossfire (both coupe and convertible), the Pacifica and the PT Cruiser Convertible. Dodge will no longer offer the Magnum.

Let’s look at the Crossfire first. Designed as a sports-luxury halo car for the Chrysler brand, the model never lived-up to the promise. While it actually delivered a very pretty and identifiable look, the proportions turned out to be way too small. I once attempted a test drive, but simply couldn’t find a way to fit my 6’4” frame into the cabin in a way that enabled operation of the controls.

Those who could fit found the car to be tuned so softly that it made the Audi TT and BMW Z3 look like Lotus Elises. The car’s six cylinder engine wasn’t nearly potent enough and controls were numb. Even the supercharged SRT-6 version was out of its league against competitors like the BMW M Coupe and Roadster.

The Crossfire coupe and convertible have combined to sell just 8401 units in 2007 through October…which means it doesn’t sell, isn’t profitable and doesn’t bring people into showrooms. Cutting it was a no brainer.

The PT Cruiser convertible arrived early as a 2005-model year pick-me-up for the maturing PT Cruiser sedan-ute. Chrysler never quoted convertible production separate from sedans, but based on year-to-year sales, it looks like the convertible has accounted for roughly sixteen percent of its annual 116,000ish total units. And based on PT demographics, which shows the average owners as sixty-something women, the product lifecycle seems to have little future.

The Pacifica should have been a hit. A small minivan-ute hybrid with room for a family and their crap seemed like a good recipe for success. After a few years in production, though, the Pacifica will sell under 55,000 units for 2007.

I spent a week with a Pacifica two years ago in southern California and disliked almost every moment. The car was gutless, delivered no feedback via the steering wheel or pedals and was just moderately comfortable. Most importantly, the combination of large headrests and insanely wide pillars delivered a lack of visibility only rivaled by skiing out-of-bounds after dark. Even Town Cars managed to hide in the Pacifica’s Jabba-the-Hut-sized blind spots.

Oh, and the electric tailgate refused to latch close two days in, requiring a swap for another Pacifica. But quality is not what did the Pacifica in. The higher-end and better quality Mercedes R-Class, which shares all too much of the Pacifica has also been a disappointment with just 13,000 units so far in 2007. Chalk it up to poor design throughout.

The axed model that raised the most eyebrows was the Dodge Magnum. This wagon might not have been predicted to be the choice of the country club set, but even I have been surprised at the lack of sales success among the image-over-substance NASCAR-loving demographic. Magnum sales are down 25 percent on the year to a pace that will likely come in around 32,000 units when 2007 comes to a close – a figure on par with the completely derided Jeep Patriot.

Magnum’s lack of success seems to lie somewhere around the fact that designers spent too much time styling and engineers spent too little time adding functionality. It looks sporty, but isn’t. It appears huge, but passenger and luggage space are tiny. For Hemi Magnum money, one could get one of many sportier, more capable family hauler\wagons (such as those from Audi, BMW and Subaru.)

And herein is the core problem over at Chrysler: the company must stop filling its showrooms with niche products. At some point Chrysler needs high-quality core products beyond the Town and Country and Caravan.

The magic number in the world of automobile production for break-even used to be 100,000 units annually. Anything above this mark generally was profitable. Modern flexible production lines and streamlined distribution channels have brought this number down for some products, but the number still stands as a good measure of success for a core offering not intended as a halo.

There are really only four 100,000 sellers at Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep. The 300/Charger shared platform sells over 200K, and a quarter-million Town & Country/Caravan combined units hit showrooms annually. Other than that, the only other true successes are the Ram pickup and Grand Cherokee, which surprisingly still will manage over 110,000.

In contrast, two out of four Honda cars are 100K-plus sellers, with the Accord and Civic balancing out the niche Fit and S2000 sports car. On the truck/ute side, three out of five are in triple digits. Odyssey, Pilot and CR-V are all ultra-successful, while the Element and Ridgeline have fairly underwhelming sales. Still, this is a great slugging percentage.

Let’s hope this is just the start, and that Cerberus is busy looking for other horribly designed products that have already failed in the market (Patriot, Compass, Aspen, Nitro, Caliber) to cut. From the ruins of the multi-niche strategy Chrysler can rebuild with products that appeal to the mass market.

And it’s not just good enough to take GM’s strategy of mediocrity. If Cerberus expects a good return on investment, then they better have in the pipeline sedans, minivans and wagons with Japanese-beating quality, European-beating style and Korean-beating content-to-price ratio.


Seeing more from Bentley than Mercedes

November 19, 2007

As I was driving today from lunch at the Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills, I began thinking that today’s business students need to read case studies about the resurgence of Bentley. In just two miles between the hotel and the 405, I saw seven Bentleys. In comparison, I counted only six Mercedes examples.

Beverly Hills isn’t the only place where Bentley is now in fashion. From Medina, WA to Manhattan, nothing says “I can afford to buy Mexico” like driving one of Crewe’s missals.

A die-hard British car fan, even I had little to love about the Bentley models of the last several decades. After the wonderful R and S-Type Continentals from 1952-1965, most of Bentley’s offerings were simply badge-engineered Rolls-Royces. This isn’t to say that the Azure convertibles weren’t pretty or powerful, as they definitely were, but rather that for the price, they were simply too antiquated to be a reasonable purchase for those also considering Mercedes S600s.

When VW took control of Bentley, things changed. The Continental GT turned out to be a technical and styling masterpiece. A combination of all wheel drive and a superpower W12 engine delivered enough oomph to see 60 mph in under five seconds and an indicated 200 mph flat-out. Quite simply, these were phenomenal achievements for a car weighing in excess of 5000 pounds.

Then came the Continental Flying Spur four door sedan, which used the GT’s DNA to so significantly improve ergonomics, that it could actually seat four six-footers comfortably. In comparison, the Arnage sold alongside it seems no more its contemporary as a ’46 Hudson.

Then the GTC convertible hit, which gave high-end convertible customers a sexier drop top option than the snooty Azure.

Now VW is laughing all the way to the bank. In the last 12 months, Bentley’s operating profit was up 62 million Euros to a total of 107 million. This is all due to a combination of streamlined modern production and increasing sales. In the third quarter alone, Bentley sold over 7800 cars worldwide. That’s up nearly 20 percent from last year and more than the entire decade-long production of Bentley S-Types!

Futhermore, for the first time in its history, females make up a large percentage of owners. It is not uncommon to see a woman behind the wheel of a GT or GTC. This says quite a bit about the style and ergonomics, because you’d be hard-pressed to find many other 200-mph supercars that are a hit among the day spa set.

Just to drive home how impressive Bentley’s achievements are, you need only look at Rolls-Royce. With its fine image pissed-away after the Reagan era, all that’s left is a single model. Even in its home market of England, Rolls-Royce is seen like Lincoln in America – a statement that the owner has no clue how to spend his retirement cash. Like Mercedes’ Maybach, BMW’s Rolls-Royce has continued to miss lowered projections.

General Motors and Ford should be taking notes on this, because in comparison to the big American companies, Bentley does a tiny amount of advertising and marketing. What has people buying Bentleys again is simple: damn good products.