Current Electric Cars…And Why We Don’t Drive ‘Em

June 30, 2008

Everyone seems to have that one person in their life that seems to drive them up the wall by questioning everything commonly deemed logical. In my life this person is a nice 50-year-old boy named Danny.

Danny is actually easy to sum up: the favorite cars he has owned have been his Karmann Ghias, Maserati Biturbo sedan and his current Checker Marathon wagon. Danny has a degree from Harvard and served for many years as a telecommunications consultant. One might say that he’s smart, but just a tad eccentric.

Danny is a strong advocate of electric cars. He has bent my ear regarding this topic for years. Unfortunately, Danny just doesn’t “get it” when it comes to the reasons why electric cars haven’t yet caught on.

Every single time we discuss the acceptance of electric transport he questions why people don’t buy current electric-only cars. His rationale — since the average 40-mile range is fine for almost 90-percent of the average urban worker’s travel, everyone should own one.

My standard line is that people often purchase new vehicles to accommodate their perception of how they intend to use them, rather than the reality of how they indeed will. This explains why so many people bought SUVs and trucks despite using the cargo, hauling or 4WD capabilities.

The scary reality with the current electric cars is that if one needs to exceed 40 miles just once, then another car is needed. Unlike the move away from SUVs with an average consumer needing the capabilities less than once per year, a transition to electric-only is faced with an average user target that actually needs to exceed 40 miles in a day several times per month.

Danny’s follow-up is: when you need to do that, switch with your spouse or significant other. He doesn’t seem to understand that many people either aren’t married, don’t allow their spouses to drive their car (my wife can’t drive a stick), or have a spouse who also routinely drives beyond the range of a traditional electric vehicle.

So that leaves the option of owning two cars for one driver. Despite the low sub-$15,000 price point of many current electric car options, maintaining two cars can be quite expensive. Insurance is nasty and cars require maintenance even if they sit. Furthermore, for those in apartments and condos, additional parking can be a significant hurdle.

There is also no way around the fact that current electric cars are made to the standards of low-volume producers. Think Lotus in the 1950s, Lamborghini in the 1950s or De Lorean in the 1980s. This means inferior quality control, lack of available service and sub-standard safety. I’d hate to see what the pedal boxes and b-pillars look like after these little pieces of tin are subjected to front, offset and side impact testing.

I told Danny about my discussion with GM’s Bob Lutz about the future of plug-in hybrids that starts with the Chevy Volt in about 16 months. The Volt does the 40 miles on electric power, while providing the flexibility of running for another few-hundred miles on gas or E85. It also will meet federal crash standards and be built to the level of quality of a high-volume producer. (Chevy’s quality looks like Rolls Royce’s when compared to most boutique automakers.)

But Danny can’t see the justification for the $30,000-plus it will take to buy a Chevy Volt, when there are electric-only cars available for less than half. Chalk it up to heart over mind, because he still doesn’t see why anyone would view any of the aforementioned issues as non-starters for owning a pure electric vehicle.

This is case and point to the lack of traction current electric car manufacturers have in the contemporary market. Even though gas prices are high and interest is rising, the target is still made up of small vocal group whose members are quick to talk about how everyone should be driving electric cars by small volume producers, but slow to spend their own money following their own advice.

Maybe Danny will understand what it takes to succeed with an automotive product when the big automakers start selling millions of long-range plug-in electric/gas hybrids like the Volt, and the little oddities he loves so dearly (but still hasn’t purchased an example of) wind up as footnotes in automotive history books.

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Dinner With GM’s Bob Lutz Exposes GM’s Bold and Innovative Strategic Shift

June 23, 2008


General Motors’ Vice Chairman Bob Lutz might have a reputation for pushing the production of performance cars, but high fuel costs and tough new CAFE regulations have him leading GM towards a leadership position in the hybrid revolution with 100-plus-mpg cars.

I’m not one to turn down a meal at a fine restaurant, especially when it’s on the dime of a corporation trying to spin its latest message or show new products. When I received an invitation to have dinner with General Motors Vice-Chairman Bob Lutz at Seattle’s famous Edgewater Hotel, I couldn’t confirm my attendance quickly enough.

If Lutz isn’t the most powerful and important person in the auto industry, then he’s a close second. Even though he is below GM CEO Rick Wagoner on the corporate org chart, Lutz has more influence over product direction. And because of his extensive experience in the automotive industry, journalists often look his way for answers before turning to Ghosn, Mulally or Zetsche.

And let’s face it – anyone who can take credit for green-lighting cars such as the BMW 2002 Turbo, Dodge Viper and upcoming Corvette ZR1 is someone I need to meet with over dinner.

Lutz has been in the Northwest selling the media on the future of GM. In a world that has been critical of GM’s financial woes and reliance on sales of trucks and SUVs going into an era of costly fuel, it hasn’t been an easy task. Passage of the 35-mpg CAFE standard in Congress has just made his job even harder.

Joining me for the dinner discussion are five other selected journalists. Three are from Cardomain.com, while the other two are environmental bloggers from the Northwest. Also in attendance are other GM heavyweights — who even without the presence of Lutz would make for a great evening of car-related banter. On my left is Dee Allen, the good-humored Staff Director Global Product & Brand Communications Integration. Across from me is technical/engineering guru Mark Labaere. Sitting beside me on the right is Dave Barthmuss, GM’s impressive Group Manager for the Western Region, Environment & Energy Communications. Dave is best known for being painted as a villain in his role overseeing the EV1 project in “Who Killed The Electric Car”, a film that I liken to “Tucker: A Man and His Dream” in ratio of facts to creative license for the sake of storyline.

The tall, commanding Lutz walks into the room. He overhears my comment to Dee Allen about declining the opportunity to drive a 1964 Lotus Elan to the meeting for fear that the few ominous clouds would require me to spend too much time fumbling with the Erector-Set top in the middle of a sudden downpour. He comes back with a story about the miserable tops on the pre-production Viper RT/10, as well as how one blew off at 175 mph during media testing on the Autobahn. You have to love any top executive who is as at home doing car small talk as when standing at a podium.

As we sit down, Lutz dives right into the major topic of his West Coast swing: GM’s commitment to making its Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid the standard of the world. Unlike Toyota’s Prius, the Volt will have the capacity to run on battery-only mode for around 40 miles. Considering the typical commuting pattern, Lutz believes that this can translate into real-world 100 to 200 mpg fuel consumption.

Driving the decision are federal regulations. In Lutz’s opinion (as well as mine and any other sane person in the world), combining 35-mpg CAFE standards with the added weight that comes with airbags, electronics and sheet-metal required to meet federal crash and safety requirements translates to a limited future of traditional gas and diesel-powered vehicles.

Like many journalists, I was outright skeptical when the Volt concept was first unveiled. It required lithium ion battery technology that didn’t exist at the moment. It also sounded more like somewhere between a marketing gimmick and a test of concept play (ala the EV1) rather than a technology on which many GM products would soon be based. The need to hit 35-mpg CAFE standards and fuel hitting near five dollars per gallon have changed opinions.

On the important topic of battery technology, Lutz immediately exhibits his indispensible value to GM. For those who forgot what he did after leaving Chrysler, Lutz was the CEO of Exide Battery. Yes folks, this is one of the few executives in the auto world who actually understands the production of batteries cradle-to-grave, as well as the business side of storing and delivering power – such as that it takes four minutes of man-hours to make a modern battery unit.

While Lutz believes that cellulosic ethanol provides a great potential for being a part of energy independence in the future, there’s no doubt that Chevy – and soon GM as a whole will be relying on the Volt’s next-gen hybrid technology. When I ask if and when the technology might make it into a Cadillac (to fight the Lexus hybrids and BMW 7-Series hydrogen cell vehicle), Lutz is quick not to say “no” or “yes”. Instead, like a good salesman, Lutz questions if I think a hybrid Cadillac should be in the works. I respond that as a former marketing guy, I’d want to see the segment research statistics.

“If you’re a marketing guy, you should know that you should make decisions with your gut, not statistics.” Lutz replies.

“With all due respect, even the best guts can lead them towards a bad decision” I say with a smile, eluding to a few of Lutz’s past plays that didn’t work out as planned – such as the recent Holden/Pontiac GTO disappointment.

Lutz comes back with a zinger — asking me how many baseball Hall of Famers have 1.000 batting averages…and then again asks what my gut tells me.

Obviously, I think it’s “a no-brainer”. Applying the Volt technology to an upscale, luxurious Cadillac (or Buick, for that matter) would have minimal cost, yet pay huge dividends in expanding into a segment where additional people would be willing to spend money for both the value and image of owning a green car. Being green is fashionable, and those with money are willing to spend more on fashion. From Lutz’s facial expression to my answer, I would guess that GM is already hard at work preparing to produce hybrid front-wheel-drive Caddies.

Lutz is a realist, though, and knows that the transition to electrical cars will not be without challenges. When I question about the trouble Chevy has traditionally shown servicing Corvettes (especially since the gizmo-laden 1984 model) in relation to the more high-tech Volt, Lutz admits that training and reducing the role of traditional dealer service for the non-standard technology are hurdles.

There is absolutely no doubt that the whole GM contingent strongly opposes the 35-mpg CAFE standard, which is the driving force to the Volt. (They cite the $6,000 of extra cost it will apply to cars – similar to the figures when the federal government has mandated safety and emissions requirements in the past.) GM and the other auto manufacturers have a history of predicting doom and gloom with each large federal and state regulatory step – and historically these regulations have actually helped, not hurt GM. The list of foreign manufacturers that left the market in 1968, 1975 and other years of tightening emissions and safety standards is long.

This increased 35-mpg standard has forced their hands to taking what looks like GM’s first leadership position in years. When the Volt comes out in 2010 — Lutz projects cars will start hitting dealerships in November, it will certainly have beaten all of the other next-gen hybrids to market. In other words — what is seen by everyone in the auto industry as a great pain might actually be a true gift to GM.

Lutz talks about his decades-long support of increasing the federal gas tax as the fairest way of reducing gas consumption. He feels this can funds the renewal of dilapidated interstates and state highways, (as well as possibly helping to cover better national health insurance, another large cost on GM’s shoulders). Yet while a gas tax is better policy, substituting a large tax for the 35-mpg CAFE legislation could have never forced the hands of the major automakers to produce discontinuous innovations.

The question comes up if the American automotive manufacturers are currently selling gas guzzlers, because that is what makes the most money. Lutz is quick to point out that GM has been selling what customers have wanted.

“All the marketing and advertising in the world won’t make someone buy something they don’t want. People have wanted big SUVs and trucks.”

With high gas prices this has all changed. Thanks to Congress, even if people want big rigs in America, no manufacturer will be able to sell them in great numbers without offsetting it with the sale of ultra-efficient cars. The GM crew is obviously not happy about this part!

Maybe Lutz should see the federal regulations like I do: a vote of confidence that when pushed into a corner, that the brilliant engineering minds working for the automotive manufacturers can create a solution.

And if what Lutz says is true, the future of GM and auto consumers worldwide is quite sunny. By as early as 2010, cars will be available that will deliver 200-mpg averages, will be serviceable at any local dealership, and carry the quality and style of GM brands. Even better, these front-wheel-drive cars will enable small-volume rear-wheel-drive performance cars like the Corvette and Sky to continue.

So for the first time in a long time – GM seems to be taking the lemons of high gas prices, slumping sales and stringent regulation and using very strong and bold leadership to make some pretty sweet lemonade for auto consumers around the globe.


Car Names That Can Never Be Used Again

June 19, 2008

Brand names are important in the world of marketing. Corporations spend millions of dollars annually attempting to find the perfect name for products.

Some names are worth a fortune, due to high brand name recognition and positive image. Others are worth less than a pound of sand in the Sahara, thanks to being outdated, tainted, or just plain bad to begin with.

The automotive industry has plenty of long-running strong brand names. From Suburban (the longest-running brand name), Corvette and Mustang, to 911, Beetle and Accord, there are plenty of valuable ones. For every strong name, however, there are two or three that can never be used again.

Here is the Four Wheel Drift’s Top List of Unusable Car Brand and Model Names:

Edsel — Reason: Bad from the get-go, Tainted: Let’s get something straight here: even in the original market research (it was the first car to use extensive focus group testing for development), the Edsel name scored abysmally low. Still, naming the car line after Henry Ford’s son was green-lighted. If that wasn’t bad enough the brand name would go on to be synonymous with failure. It will never be used again for cars…and if I were a member of the Ford family, I’d push to stop naming so many descendants Edsel, as well.

Luckily, the Edsel name never tainted the brand’s models, which included the Ranger (later used for trucks), Corsair, Pacer, and Citation. It took AMC to ruin the Pacer name and Chevy to destroy Citation with their respective horrible little import-fighters.

Pinto – Reason: Tainted: The Pinto was a good name attached to a pretty good car. A few exploding gas tanks, though, ruined it. In terms of brand recognition for a design flaw disaster, Pinto is second only to…

Corvair – Reason: Tainted: Thanks to Ralph Nader’s Unsafe At Any Speed, the Corvair name will never be attached to another vehicle. Of course, this a moot point, since the likelihood of GM ever producing an air-cooled gas-burning car is less than those for me being drafted by the Boston Celtics this year.

Midget – Reason: Offensive: Both MG and King Midget have used this name, which is now considered a slur towards dwarves. If the Chinese-owned MG wants to build a junior model to complement its MGF, it might consider the MG Little Person to be more politically correct.

LaFemme – Reason: Bad from the get-go: In 1955 Dodge released a sub-model of its Custom Royal Lancer targeted to the growing group of female drivers. With a pink and white color scheme and a bunch of standard interior accessories like a cosmetic case, color-keyed raincoat and umbrella, the thing was inherently a marketing disaster. When Dodge picked the LaFemme name, that just solidified it as a major blunder of epic proportions. After production of less than 1000 units in ’55 and ’56 (which was lavender and white), the car and the name were killed forever. Now if you want a car targeted to women with feminine colors and accessories, you’ll have to buy a New Beetle.

Actually, come to think of it, the Lancer wasn’t a really great name, unless your garage also includes a Ford Probe and a cabinet full of alcohol wipes and KY Jelly.

Chevette and Vega – Reason: Tainted: The Vega was a great name for a fantastic concept. The car looked good, performed well, was pretty comfortable…too bad it was less reliable than Lindsay Lohan’s sobriety. Same was the case for the Chevette, except that the mini-Corvette name would never fly in a modern image-conscious society.

Cimarron – Reason: Tainted: Actually, it was too goofy to begin with, often being called the “Cinnamon”, but Cadillac’s expensive version of the lowly Chevy Cavalier became the poster child for badge-engineering gone horribly wrong.

Dictator – Reason: Offensive: In the pre-WWII era, Studebaker had one of the greatest lines of product names. Studie’s names made sense: Dictator, Commander and President. It’s amazing how just a decade later, Dictator became associated with Hitler, spelling the end of the name’s use.

Wasp – Reason: Offensive: In the context of Hudson’s lineup, the Wasp made sense next to the Hornet. In a modern world the Wasp would be confused with the offensive acronym.

JAP – Reason: Offensive: JAP made motorcycle engines that were used in Morgan’s three wheelers, which is how it is eligible for the automotive list. (Yes, we know that the Morgan trikes were also considered motorcycles to get around British automotive taxes.) As an acronym, it is offensive to Jewish women. It is more associated with a slur towards Japanese…and in a modern world, that’s not considered at all cool.


Can cars be “pretty, but not good” or “ugly, but great”?

June 16, 2008

1962 Fiat

The 1962 Fiat 1200 Spider was beautiful. Unfortunately, it also was slower than evolution and less reliable than your bi-polar cousin

The old line goes: “a girl is either smart or pretty, but not both.” Of course, I stopped believing this when I met my wife. (Okay honey, you can stop reading now.)

In the world of cars, an almost reverse belief exists: only pretty cars can be great. In fact, people sometimes go under the assumption that pretty cars can’t be bad, and ugly cars can’t be great. Let’s put this to rest: pretty, smart, great…none are dependent or mutually exclusive.

The list of pretty and great cars is long and distinguished. For every Jaguar D-Type, however, there is an XJS coupe – a beautiful car that for many reasons (including weight-challenged handling, torture-chamber ergonomics and reliability from hell) was anything but great.

Sometimes being considered pretty, but not great can be attributed more to being held to the same standard as the rest of the family. Case and point is the Mercedes 190SL, which while pretty, was a letdown next to the 300SL coupes and roadsters. In fairness, the 190SL was designed to be a cruiser, while the 300SLs were sports cars.

When I think of pretty cars that cannot classify as great, Fiat comes to mind. I recently saw a ’62 1200 Spider, almost identical to the ’61 my father bought new. (The dealer tried to sell him the alloy-bodied 300SL Gullwing originally owned by Lance Reventlow for about $4000 out of pocket, but in a decision of monumental stupidity, he instead saved a few bucks and went for a new Fiat.) The 1200 looks like a 250GT left too long on high-heat tumble, which is to say it is smaller, but just as beautiful. By any standard, though, the car was (and continues to be) far from great. Despite its fine handling, the car was brutally slow and terribly brittle in confounding ways, such as generator mounting brackets that wouldn’t stop breaking.

Fiat is also on the hook for the 124 Spider (and Spider 2000). Few cars of the Nixon-through-Reagan era were as pretty, but literally hundreds of vehicles were far greater. Fiat’s Lancia division also had pretty, but rather lame cars during the same time period. The Beta Zagato was among the best looking little cars of its late-seventies period, but unfortunately, it rusted faster than a nail on an ocean beach.

Trying to identify other cars that were great, but not pretty is a tough task, mostly due to cars being beautiful in the eyes of their beholders. Minis aren’t pretty, but are cute enough to miss this list. With sporting dynamics and tractor reliability, Triumph’s TR2 and TR3 were truly great cars, but the looks have always been polarizing. Some see British bulldog, while others see dumpy and drippy.

Some cars are just ugly enough to meet with little resistance. The Packard/Studebaker Hawk was uglier than Roger Clemens beanball. With the Studebaker Golden Hawk’s supercharged engine, lower weight and great appointments, it was a pretty great car… which was almost enough to offset that horrible catfish-looking face.

For some reason, when it comes to ugly-but-great, Volvo and Saab both pop into my head. Volvo’s mission for decades seemed to be producing cars like the Amazon, which were dreadful to look at, but couldn’t be stopped by any terrain. Similarly, Saab’s two-stroke-powered inverted bathtubs were simply amazing all-around vehicles.

It’s probably a tie for the two best examples of “ugly but great”. The first would be Tatra’s long-running line of air-cooled rear-mounted engine sedans. Some might say they were streamlined, but even this lover of the creative has always looked at Tatras with a grimace. Still, one would be hard-pressed to find more luxurious, capable executive cruisers in the days surrounding WWII.

Similar is the case for the other winner – the Chrysler Airflow. With mugs that only a mother (or mechanical engineer) could love, Chrysler’s Airflow line (including those with Imperial and DeSoto emblems) contained vehicles so ahead of the time that in terms of pure driving dynamics, there was little comparison to contemporary coupes and sedans. Speed records and safety tests proved the Airflow’s greatness, but alas, the ugliness doomed it. True, there are plenty of people who love them for their looks (my father included), but the overwhelming majority of folks (car enthusiast and non-car hobbyists alike) find the looks atrocious.

At least we won’t touch on the subject of “ugly and bad”. Otherwise, we’d be here all day discussing the Pontiac Aztek, Bricklin SV-1, Renault Alliance…


Farewell Good Friend — You Will Be Missed!

June 3, 2008

Ron Lee in the Ferrari 328 GTS

“The Great Ron Lee” was a cherished friend and contributor to “Sound Classics” and “Sam Barer’s Four Wheel Drift”. He is seen here prior to a couple laps around Pacific Raceways back in 2006.

All of us here at Apex Marketing Strategy are mourning the loss of one of our own. Our close friend, contributor, mentor, vintage motorsports expert, and partner in crime, Ron Lee, passed away this morning at the age of 79. Ron had been fighting aggressive esophageal cancer for a number of months.

Ron was a true car guy. When my father met him in the 1950s, he was selling and servicing Fiats in a Seattle import car dealership. His profession provided him with opportunities to drive some pretty amazing automobiles. Due to managing one of the initial Lotus dealers, Ron was one of the first Americans to drive the revolutionary all-fiberglass Elite. He told me: “It was like driving in a plastic garbage can. It was noisy as hell.”

One of his favorite cars was the lightweight-alloy-bodied Mercedes 300SL Gullwing originally owned by Lance Reventlow of Scarab. The car found its way to the dealership in which Ron worked in 1960. When the dealership’s owner wasn’t trying to sell it, Ron was out driving it — hard. Just last year we got back on the topic of that car, and Ron reiterated how it was such a pleasure to drive fast.

Beyond his day job, Ron was a well-known driver during the early days of Pacific Northwest sports car racing. Starting out in an Austin Healey 100, he soon graduated to a Lotus Eleven Club. After success with the solid-axle “Club” (as he called it), he upgraded to an Eleven Le Mans (which had the De Dion rear). Ron sold the Club to friend Roy Sender – another well-known name to historians of Northwest racing. Ron, Roy and my father went from city to city racing, hanging-out and raising hell with guys like Pete Lovely, Wade Carter, George Keck, Dave Tatom, Ray Reardon, Jerry Grant, Tom Meehan, and Don Jensen.

Ron had a great sense of humor – and one of his favorite topics was my father’s inability to drive well. Actually, he had to have a good sense of humor about it, since it was my father who nearly destroyed the Eleven Le Mans by spinning it during testing at Shelton Raceway. After snapping back hard coming out of a corner, the Eleven took my father screeching into the grass, which pulled a fuel line loose, causing gas to hit the hot exhaust. While the flames were quickly extinguished, the mileage Ron got out of the story lasted damn near fifty years!

Not too long ago, I almost repeated my father’s mistake during a rather aggressive parade lap in the 1986 Ferrari 328 GTS that serves as the logo banner for this site. Ron and I were out covering the SOVREN Pacific Northwest Historics for Apex’s “Sound Classics” newspaper column when we had a chance to pilot the Ferrari around Pacific Raceways. With Ron riding shotgun, I followed a rather fast group of cars around the circuit. On the second lap, the 350Z in front of me lagged, then hit it hard leaving the final turn before the straightaway. I took the opportunity to ring-out the Ferrari, squeezing on full throttle as we left the decreasing radius turn. The off-camber exit, however, caused the rear end to step out wildly. Some quick opposite-lock and throttle input got the car under control.

Instead of getting a strange or stern look from Ron for almost putting it into the ditch during a parade lap, I glanced to the side to see him looking straight ahead towards the correct driving line. When I pulled off with the group, I apologized for the excitement, but Ron simply said: “You’re a great driver. You had perfect lines, and had quick hands to bring it back in after it stepped out… If it would have been your dad driving, we would have been in the grass and on fire.”

As much as Ron liked to poke fun at my father, the two were the best of friends. They often ate lunch together, and were always up to go cover any car show. A couple years ago, they went down together to cover Pebble Beach, Monterey Historics, Concorso Italiano and the other associated events. It might not have been the beer-drinking, hell-raising days of racing in the 1950s, but the events were the type of experiences with which Ron and Arny were more comfortable given their respective AARP-eligible ages.

Vintage events just won’t be the same without Ron. He won’t be there to tell me how the greasy track food (he was a Vegan long before it was popular) isn’t good for me, nor will he be there to give me period perspective on the special cars on the tracks and show fields. He raced with some of the best racers, knew the executives of many of the legendary car companies, and was respected and liked by all of them.

Mostly Ron cared – telling me how lucky I was for my family, friends and life, while expressing how lucky he was for his.

Ron Lee was a good friend – the prototypical nice guy. If there is a Heaven, Ron picked up at the Pearly Gates the keys to a Lotus Eleven Le Mans with a never-empty fuel tank and always-warm tires so he can tear-up the race tracks on the Eternity Racing Circuit.