Why Snow+Toyota+Hill=Going Nowhere

December 25, 2008

One thing I’ll never understand is why Toyota now insists on building cars with traction control systems that cannot be deactivated. The person who gave final approval to such a system should be banished from working in the auto industry ever again…or at least be forced to drive one such Toyota in the mountains for a year.

Whether it’s the Four Wheel Drift’s own ’06 Avalon (with integrated Vehicle Stability Program) or the Prius owned by one of our technical contributors, all it takes is a small hill and a bit of snow to stop one of these Toyotas cold. In any other car one can simply deactivate the traction control and use momentum and some spinning tires to crest a snowy hill. In Toyota-ville, however, the fuel is cut-off the moment the wheels start spinning, which means momentum is killed.

It’s a sad day when my wife’s 1998 Oldsmobile Intrigue – a car designed and built on a dead-company-walking budget, has an easier time ascending the hills covered by the Pacific Northwest’s record snowfall than the much newer Avalon. To up the ante, the Intrigue rides on four-year-old chewed-up Z-rated Continentals, while the Avalon has brand new all-season Michelin Pilots (which on small grades and flat ground actually cuts through the deep powder snow like Stevie Nicks circa 1979.)

I’d love to hear the reasoning from the Toyota PR machine for this terrible design flaw, and indeed I’ll be contacting the Media Relations guys after the holidays to get the official response. (I can see it now – something about “safety”, even though we all know the real answer is “we found a way to cut costs and/or increase the fuel mpg rating on the window sticker by leaving the traction control deactivation button out.”)

Given Toyota’s recent transmission issues (and its botched response to these issues), it’s alarming to see how the Japanese giant is beginning to act so much like one of the American Big Three. A couple more decades of poor design decisions like not allowing people to deactivate traction control for snow and maybe Toyota will be in line for a little bailout money of its own!


“Sammy’s Unofficial Template for Listing a Car or Truck for Sale on Craigslist” (or “How to sell a car in a crappy economy”)

December 9, 2008

With the economy in the smelliest of train station crappers, hundreds of thousands of used and classic vehicles have flooded web sites like Craigslist and eBay. While these sites have made listing a car for sale so easy that the dumber brother of the guy who copied off George Bush at Yale could do it, unfortunately, these sites don’t explain the critical information each listing needs to call potential buyers to action.

For the benefit of both sellers and buyers, we at The Four Wheel Drift present “Sammy’s Unofficial Template for Listing a Car or Truck for Sale on Craigslist (or other site)”.

Crazy as it might seem, you actually need to tell people what you’re offering for sale. These are all essential pieces of information:

  • Model year of the car – This is on the title and registration. If the car is a classic car, make sure that the year on the title matches the date code on the car’s data plate. (Most car VINs can be decoded to establish the date of manufacture.)
  • Make of the vehicle – Chevrolet, Ford, Dodge, Hummer, Hupmobile, Porsche, Dort, Crit, Steyr… For searching purposes, if you’re selling a Chevrolet, it’s not a bad idea to also include “Chevy” and “Chevie” in the listing. For most cars it should be absolutely obvious what make it is, however, for that wildly modified hot rod that remained in your garage after you kicked the cheating bastard out, simply look on the registration or title for the manufacturer of record.
  • Model – Just saying it’s a Mercedes, ’67 Chevy or ’30 Cadillac isn’t enough. (There were no less than 113 officially produced model and body styles for a 1930 Cadillac!) You need to list which specific model it is.

    The model name is usually evident (like Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, MG MGB), but it can get tricky for cars built before WWII. For instance, in 1936 Cadillac offered four different series of “Fleetwood” models corresponding with three available wheelbases. Make sure that you always include the series number with the model, such as “Series 85 Fleetwood” to avoid confusion. Any model or series number usually appears on the registration/commission plate on the engine firewall.

  • Trim-level sub-designation – Models often have an additional sub-designation to differentiate equipment levels. Don’t just say it’s a Chevelle if it’s a more desirable Chevelle Malibu. If it’s a Toyota Avalon, is it an XL, Touring or Limited? This is also the time to indicate if the vehicle has an all-wheel or four-wheel-drive option.
  • Body style – Don’t make the reader guess whether it’s a sedan, coupe, wagon, convertible, crew-cab, long bed, step-side… For cars before the 1970s, ensure you get the specific body style name correct, because it can be misleading. Taking the 1936 Cadillac as an example again, there were 21 different body styles of coupes, sedans and convertibles. In the 1950s and 1960s some manufacturers offered coupes and sedans, but also hardtop versions of both with no pillar to hold the side windows. The bottom line is to look for the VIN or commission plate on the firewall or body tag on the driver’s door and use a Google search to find how to establish via your VIN or body code that you are describing the vehicle’s body the same way the factory did (like sedanette, club coupe, club sedan, formal sedan, two-door sedan, phaetons, Victoria, town sedan, roadster…)
  • Engine – For most cars with multiple engine options, just indicating the number of cylinders will suffice. If the car you are selling was offered with multiple displacements and/or states of tune, such as a 1969 Corvette, list the important details (350ci or 427 ci V8 delivering 300, 350, 390, 400, or 435 hp?)
  • Transmission – For cars that offer optional transmissions: automatic, 3spd, 4spd, 5spd, 6spd manual, and list if the gear-change is steering column or floor-mounted for older vehicles.
  • Interior – Leather, cloth, bucket seats or bench.
  • Options – You don’t need to list every last option, but it’s important to list larger and more important equipment packages. Certain vehicles are more valuable with specific options, such as a truck with towing package, luxury car with heated/ventilated seats, BMW with Sport Package, British roadsters with wire wheels and/or Laycock overdrive.

You should always look at your own vehicle with a seller-calibrated eye. Intentionally misrepresenting the vehicle might be against the law, but unintentionally misrepresenting it is also bad, as it wastes the potential buyer’s time and money.

  • Body: Disclose in the listing if there are any sizable dents, scratches, faded paint, or areas of previous damage that were not repaired to as-new condition…this includes the presence of excess body filler (Bondo). If there is rust, please list the major areas and extent of the rust in detail. This is VERY important. Holes in the floors, trunk or disintegration of frame metal is something people want to know about before they take time out of their schedule to inspect a vehicle! To describe rust, you can use:
    • Surface rust: a light coat of orange on exposed metal pieces that can be scraped-away with a fingernail or light sandpaper.
    • Bubbling: Places where the paint is literally bubbling underneath. Usually you’ll find it low on the car – on fenders, doors and around the wheels. A small poke with a small screwdriver will reveal if the bubble is an indicator of rust through. If your car has bubbling, don’t claim it’s “rust free”.
    • Rust-through: Where the rust has destroyed an area enabling a screwdriver to go through the panel. The only cure is to cut out these rusty areas and weld in new metal.

    This is also a good time to detail if any chrome needs replating or if there are cracks in windows or exterior light lenses.

  • Interior: Describe any wear to the seats (splits, tears or burns), carpets, top, dashboard (cracks). If the car has never been smoked in, indicate it for the benefit of the asthmatic set. If any gauges don’t work, list it. For cars with a kickin’ stereo (that’s what the kids call them, right?) this is the place to describe it.
  • Mechanicals: Does the car run? If not, explain (as best you can) why it doesn’t? Does the engine smoke? When running at operating temperature, is the oil pressure gauge showing in the normal range? Detail any major component that needs addressing, as well as any recently completed major servicing. For collector cars and exotics requiring expensive services, indicate when (time and mileage) the services were last done.
  • Originality: If the car has been significantly modified, not only describe the changes, but also identify what was originally equipped. This is most important for clones/tributes of more exclusive high performance models. Not disclosing that your 1969 Camaro Z28 is actually the love child of a six-cylinder coupe mated with the drivetrain from a wrecked authentic Z28 is fraud. The same goes for more modern cars like Honda VTECs.
  • Mileage: How many miles on the car? If the engine is not original to the car, then how many miles on the engine, as well?

Don’t expect to get calls or reasonable offers without listing a price. Research what the value of your car is and set a realistic price. Don’t forget that asking prices of cars on Craigslist are just asking prices, not selling prices. Go on eBay and see what similar cars are actually bid to. The more you ask, the longer it takes to sell — and if you ask too much, people simply won’t call.

Don’t forget to explain where the car is located, because if you leave it blank, people will think it’s a scam. If you live in a small town that the city folks have never heard of, explain how far away you are from the nearest big town.

Include your email address and maybe even a phone number.

This is one of the most important parts of the listing! Take pictures outside in daylight. The most important shots are front ¾-view, rear ¾ view (showing the other side), interior, and engine. It’s also good to take detail shots of wheel wells, undercarriage, trunk floor, door bottoms and other areas so that you can email these to people when they inevitably ask.

People, people, people… please check your spelling! The chances of getting your asking price for your car if you misspell the make (Alpha Romero instead of Alfa Romeo), model (Camero instead of Camaro), body style (convertable instead of convertible), or important items (bumber instead of bumper), are Slim Whitman-to-nun chucks.

It might seem like a crazy suggestion after all of this, but be concise! Use bullet points and stay away from long narratives. If the car was only available with a single transmission, don’t waste space with the number of gears or if it has a manual shift mode.

The bottom line: be honest, direct and accurate.

If They Can’t Sell The Cars, How Do They Expect To Sell The Car Companies?

December 5, 2008

The Big Three CEOs are back in front of Congress to again ask for money. This time, the boys left their jets at home and drove in cars. They also brought the plans for returning to profitability that Members asked them to supply.

Pluck me bald and call me Telly, but what the executives are shoveling doesn’t seem to be nearly enough fertilizer to make this garden grow again.

Central in plans from each company is the sale of at least one brand. Ford wants to sell Volvo, GM admits Saturn, Saab and Hummer are on the block, and Chrysler is waving Jeep in the wind. Now I’m not an automotive executive…and I didn’t even stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night, but I’d like someone to explain to me how if none of these brands are successfully selling individual cars to consumers, then how do the Big Three execs expect to sell the freaking brands themselves?

Let’s break it down: Volvo is on track to sell roughly 72,000 cars. Ford sold-off Volvo trucks many years ago, so the value of the brand is based only on consumer vehicles. Over at the General’s place, Hummer is on pace for just under 45,000 vehicles, Saab at 90,000 and Saturn at 230,000 cars. Jeep is the largest contributor of any of the brands, looking to deliver in 2008 for Chrysler just under a half-million vehicles.

Nobody in their right mind will buy Hummer. Its place in a 2015 35 mpg CAFE America is non-existent. Some Arab prince might buy it on a whim, but no automaker wants that brand hanging on its CAFE results like an anchor.

Saturn is like Mazda, just not as sporty. It is possible that a BMW or Porsche could buy them for their mpg and stand-alone dealership network. Don’t expect them to pay too much.

Saab and Volvo might as well look to the Korea, Malaysia or India for a buyer. No German, French or Italian company will touch these quirky Swedes.

Jeep is a more interesting play, because it’s a respected niche brand without the horrible CAFE strain of Hummer. Some company will make a play for Jeep.

In the near term, though, selling these companies creates costs for the Big Three. GM, Ford and Chrysler have traditionally spent way too much money in concessions to dealers after selling or closing brands. Also, don’t expect any companies to pay much for these brands when it is well known that a) the brands are for sale and b) nobody else is bidding on them. Despite skipping all those economics lectures in college, I do remember the whole supply and demand concept.

Obviously there is much, much, much more the Big Three’s plans for profitability than just selling these brands. Labor union concessions, plant closings, pay reductions, job cuts, supplier contract renegotiations, and dealer closings (why is it when you ask about dealer quality, Big Three executives always are quick to point out that dealers are independent, and it’s impossible to better control service and sales capabilities, but when dealers are a part of larger plan for money, they are no longer seen as rogue entities?) are all part of the deal.

Maybe the Big Three will offer “Zero Down, Zero Percent Financing”, “Factory-to-Dealer Rebates” and “Employee Pricing” for any company interested in buying Saturn, Saab, Hummer, Jeep, or Volvo?

With now $34 billion in bailout (call it loans, investment, or whatever – it’s a bailout) requested, and now talks about “government managed restructuring” which sounds way too much like British Leyland version 2008, Americans should be screaming to let the companies sink or swim on their own. If it really is as easy to sell brands, lower labor and supplier costs, and most importantly – create new cars that people will actually buy over the competition as the Big Three claim it will be with the funds Congress provides, then certainly these companies should be able to do it without getting involved with inefficient government red tape that will come with any bailout money.

No More Wings With GM’s Prayers

December 2, 2008

General Motors finally has found things to sell that are harder to get rid of than its cars: its corporate jets. In a thinly-veiled attempt at wooing Congress and smoothing the public relations disaster from the last Congressional appearance, GM just announced that it is ending its aviation program:

GM Ceasing Corporate Aviation Operations

DETROIT — GM today announced that it is ceasing operations at General Motors Air Transportation Services (GMATS) at Detroit Metro Airport.
Due to significant cutbacks over the past months, GM travel volume no longer justifies a dedicated corporate aircraft operation.

GM is currently exploring options for transferring its aircraft to another operator. The company is pursuing sale of four of the aircraft so it can terminate the leases.

GM will shutter the facility at Metro Airport effective January 1, 2009. GM will work with the airport to seek a tenant for the balance of the lease, which expires in 2009.

I wonder if any of us can get factory-to-dealer incentives on these planes…Zero down, zero percent financing maybe? In any event, while GM will lose its shirt selling the planes, it probably won’t lose more money than it has selling its own vehicles through dealers.