Heaven, Hell or Hyundai

May 3, 2010

I wrote here a few months ago about my wife’s decision to replace her 1998 Olds Intrigue. I detailed my grand plan to give her the 2006 Toyota Avalon while I procured myself a slightly used Mercedes S550 as a new daily driver.

The interesting thing about the Mercedes S550 is that, without expensive and rarely-equipped options, it offers fewer bells and whistles than a minivan of half the price. Consequently, it was near impossible to find one with adaptive laser-guided cruise control and a back-up camera, at least one with a reasonable number of miles that wasn’t being sold by a dealer at a typical narcotics kingpin’s profit margin. I did finally find a low-mileds 2008 S600 (the model with all the bells and whistles as standard, powered by the fire-breathing bi-turbo V12 and usually purchased new by professional athletes and CEOs) offered at a sell-it-today price of $72,000, but getting it to my door and licensing it would have put it at $80,000. Still, at nine in the morning on one beautiful day I had the deal ready to go.

It’s funny how spouses have the ability to bring us back to ground-level. My wife reminded me that no matter how far under-value I could buy the S600, I was making a poor financial decision. She also pointed to the other cars in the garage and asked if I really needed another expensive car for myself. This was the point when I again got to swallow hard and use my signature line “you’re right, I’m wrong, I’m sorry, I’ll change!”

It had taken me months to get to nearly buying the S600, but thanks to my wife’s decisive nature, by 5pm that night she was at Titus-Will Hyundai signing for a brand new 2010 Genesis 4.6 Sedan–for her! A Hyundai? On my property? What the hell?

In all fairness, my wife knew I had talked about the Genesis ever since seeing a pre-production version years ago at Pebble Beach, and also was aware that I gave a stripped version just a passing test-drive before pursuing the Mercedes. For her it was a strictly rational decision to revisit a possibly overlooked option and jump on it when it met all the right criteria. I’m here to tell you, though, that as far as rational large sedan purchases go, the Hyundai Genesis is a surprisingly emotional hunk of metal.

It’s easy to have missed hearing about the Genesis Sedan, because Hyundai has opted to spend the bulk of its marketing dollars on the Mustang-fighting Genesis Coupe and its recently redone Accord-killer Sonata. The Genesis name was actually originally designed to be placed on a new luxury brand a la Toyota’s Lexus, Honda’s Acura and Nissan’s Infinity, but after realizing that a stand-alone brand added over $5,000 to the cost of each car, Hyundai elected to make the Genesis a new upscale rear-wheel-drive product line under its primary brand and dealerships.

At 196 inches, the Genesis sedan is a large vehicle sized to match the BMW 750i, Lexus LS and Audi A8. It is slightly smaller than the long-wheelbase versions of the aforementioned, as well as the Mercedes S550 and Toyota Avalon. Genesis Sedans are available with a 3.8-liter V6 or the 4.6-liter “Tau” V8 — and given the options on the 3.8 that come standard with a 4.6, a fully loaded V8 is only about $2000 more. With a real-world out-the-door price with tax and licensing of under $45,000 for this top-of-the-line Korean, it is a steal…and one that has already picked-off sales from prestige luxury brands.

At first glance, the Genesis is visually indistinguishable from the current crop of luxo-rides, and if you park one next to a same-colored Lexus ES350, you’ll find yourself looking for badges or the slightly longer car. With most of the lines stolen from Mercedes, BMW and Audi, it’s even more surprising how the overall design blends nicely into an outcome that is very muscular and handsome, especially in Black Noir Pearl paint.

The interior is very visually pleasing with contrasting leather (in this case, Cashmere,) and offers supple surfaces with nice stitching, Lexus-like panel gaps, and an uncluttered layout for buttons. Cost cutting is only noticeable to guys like me who recognize the plastic HVAC buttons as being from the same supplier as cheaper Toyotas.

Delivering niceties like a backup camera, parking sensors, adaptive cruise control, rear sunshade, iPod and USB connectivity, Bluetooth, and navigation system with a usable input device for forty-some-grand means cost cutting somewhere else. It didn’t take me long to find these areas. While the driver’s seat offers a basic level of cushion angle adjustment, lumbar support, heat and ventilation, the passenger seat is a fore-aft only deal with heat, but no ventilation, cushion height adjustment or lumbar support. Luckily, both seats are well bolstered and as comfortable as the base seats on the S550. As for rear seat room, it’s limo-like comfortable and offers almost as much space as the German long-wheelbase luxury players.

Push the starter button and the Tau 4.6 V8 comes to life. Like any modern overhead cam V8, it is as unobtrusive around town as Loggins & Messina over a department store Muzak system. Punch it, though, and it announces its presence with authority…and rear wheel spin. Gearing from the ZF six-speed automatic transmission plays well with the Tau’s 375 hp and 333 ft-lb of torque to deliver 0-60mph in 5.7 seconds. For a 4000+ pound sedan, this is quicker than a New Jersey mugging.

With minimal seat time, I still questioned if the Genesis V8 could blend all of its strengths under pressure, so I decided to take it with me to my friend’s house for our annual fantasy baseball draft. The trip has always proven a great test of cars, providing 70-plus miles of highway, a few miles of city traffic, and a final leg of a mile-long hillclimb of limited-access tight switchback road that looks like a special rally stage.

As I entered I5 North, I set the adaptive cruise control. Almost immediately I noticed the speedometer needle reading 2mph higher than the digital readout for the cruise control setting. Odd, indeed, and most certainly an unnoticed bug (or as product marketing guys say: “a feature”). With adaptive cruise control a new addition for the 2010 model and a part of the optional Technology Package, only a small percentage of Genesis owners have witnessed the different speed readouts competing for their attention. Luckily my trusty iPhone speedometer application determined that it was the cruise control display, not the speedo needle, that was correct.

On I5 the Genesis delivered a par-for-the-course 22 mpg on premium gas. A 20-and-change gallon gas tank meant the needle didn’t dip too far. During the trip the car’s easy to identify corners and lack of bad blind spots meant tightly contested lane changes were a breeze.

After the highway portion, my normally sore back was still in great shape. My ears, though, felt like I had been making the trip in my Corvette. Road noise was horrible, but can mostly be attributed to the deafening hum from Dunlop tires.

Through the stoplights and traffic the Genesis displays the smoothness of a $5 bottle of tequila. The ZF transmission tended to hunt for gear and delivered binary throttle tip-in from a stop: either waiting too long for a gear to engage or dislocating head from neck as the car rocketed away like it was being timed for acceleration. Sadly, this behavior seems to be de rigueur now as manufacturers use increasingly complicated shift logic to maximize EPA fuel mileage ratings at the expense of driver comfort.

I made the turn-off onto the final mountain climb and punch the throttle. The Genesis built speed rapidly. With the shifter in manual mode, I prodded on the brakes, which instantly scrubbed enough speed to allow a downshift as I enter the first decreasing radius turn.

The Genesis followed steering inputs perfectly. The Tau V8’s torque enabled a little tail-steer to leave the corner, as well as to deliver a quick burst of speed before needing to slow for a hairpin.

Steering in the Genesis is heavy, but direct. There’s plenty of feedback, but with springs stiffer than moonshine and strong-sidewall Dunlop tires, the ride feels more 1984 Corvette than 2010 BMW. Brakes bite too quickly, but it feels like throwing the Nimitz’s anchor out to stop a kayak.

On the gas strongly, gravel on the road gave the traction and stability control a workout. Unlike in Toyota and Lexus cars, not only were the electronic nannies less intrusive, they could be turned off if desired. Given my lack of experience with this new, large, heavy sedan, however, it was probably a smart idea to keep them on.

After a few more turns, the heavy steering began to weigh on my arms. Still, as I reached the top of the mountain, I realized that I had bested times I had achieved in my 1986 Ferrari 328 GTS and matched those of my 2002 Corvette –a pretty impressive feat.

At the end of the day, there’s no doubt that Hyundai executives tasked its engineers to create a car that could beat the handling and braking figures for BMW and Audi. On that, the Genesis is a home run. Given the cost-cutting necessary to build to a target price, however, there are some trade-offs in noise, comfort and refinement.

Think of the Genesis as to the world of executive performance sedans as the Corvette is to sports cars: the snobs might snicker at its badge and joke about the noise, vibration and harshness in comparison to German rivals, but it can wipe the smirk off their faces with its performance and still leave its owner with at least an extra thirty-large in the bank.

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BMW’s New 3-Series Cars Look Like The Protective Bags Used To Ship The Sexy 3s Of Old

February 9, 2010

Courtesy of BMW
The newest BMW 3-Series will be making its way to dealerships soon. Let’s just say that when BMW sent me the press release and photos a while back, I was ecstatic about the specifications, but upset over what the coupe and convertible actually look like.

It took years for the BMW 3-Series to grow on me. In the 1980s the 325 (on the original so-called E30 platform) was an overly-expensive boxy thing that simply had no appeal to most people. In the mid 1990s, though, the E36-platform 3-Series became a serious force. It offered great handling, fantastic ride, good quality, nice ergonomics, and most importantly, it was sexy as a red formal silk dress on Sporty Spice. I even rode shotgun to my wedding in a silver E36 328 coupe, the experience proving smooth enough for me to perfectly complete the knot in my black bow tie in the visor mirror. My friend drove down from Seattle in this very same car to visit last week. He has plenty of money to replace the old car, but can’t justify it. It still looks beautiful and is a hoot to pilot.

Somewhere along the way as the 3-Series continued becoming a better all-around sports-luxury vehicle, it also started losing its styling mojo. Some people blame Chris Bangle, but more likely it is the result of the corporate handcuffing about which most Chief Stylists and their department managers complain.

The new 3-Series is a small evolutionary step from the modern E90-platform 335i convertible I convinced my father to buy a couple years back. (No regrets on any of our parts, either.) Excuse me, though, if I do say that the changes to new 3 destoys what appeal was left. Now the cars look fat and boring. Whereas the E36 was chiseled and athletic, the 2011 3 seems to complete the move to a pudgy, out-of-shape look that started with subtle changes during the 1999-2005 E46 platform. It has no character at all — like a fuzzy shadow.

Don’t get me wrong — the specifications of the car indicate that it is as capable as Magic Johnson playing in an over-50 league at the local YMCA. But with the extra weight and additional electronic gizmos diluting that legendary “feel of the road”, the 2011 3 is on first impression the larger, indistinct version of its former self.


Mercedes Dealer’s Tactics Added To My List of Horrible Car Shopping Experiences (And I Still Need To Buy A Car!)

December 30, 2009

I’m here to tell you that automotive journalists do not like to car shop. Sure, we love most things on four wheels, but I, like most of my industry-mates would rather get a prostate check by a broken-knuckled rugby player-turned-urologist than to interact with on-the-prowl car salespeople.

For me, specifically, it’s because I know way too much. I spend more time researching cars than the frequently-wrong-but-never-in-doubt people who sell them. As for the business and sales tactics side, much of my life I’ve been surrounded by dealership owners, salesmen, service managers, and attorneys who represent them. Let’s just say that I know all the tricks, which would be enough to turn most people to public transportation.

My personal log of horrible car shopping experiences is longer than Danny Bonaduce’s 12-Step “people to make amends to” list.They range from the frustrating: arranging for a test drive of a Honda S2000 over the phone with a sales manager at a Honda dealership in Houston, only to be told upon arriving twenty minutes later at that I could “drive it after I bought it”…to the surreal: having a clown-shoe car salesman at Bruce Titus Chrysler in Olympia, WA challenge me and my 2002 Corvette “to a race for pink slips” first against his (meaning the dealer’s) Crossfire SRT6 and then against his “Shelby” (meaning 2.2-liter Turbo I-powered Dodge Shelby Charger) when all I was there to do was take a test drive of a 300 to see if I liked it better than the Toyota Avalon…which I didn’t.

I can’t even remember how many times I’ve been asked “what will it take to get you into this car today?” And if I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard a car salesman make a claim about a specific vehicle that was such a blatant falsehood that any kid with a car magazine subscription or Internet access could call the bluff, I feel like I could pay cash for a Maybach.

Still, my wife’s twelve-year-old Oldsmobile is in dire need of replacement. She’s going to take the 2006 Toyota Avalon, which leaves me needing another four-door sedan. Like it or not, that means car shopping and the chance of adding to the list of dealer horror stories.

This past weekend we set out to test drive the three finalists, the BMW 750Li, Audi A8L and Mercedes S550, and find our top choice. Our budget and sense of priorities prohibiting the nearly $100K new price, we targeted certified-pre-owned 2007 or 2008 as the sweet spot. So out I went with the wife and two daughters (take your family, and the dealers know you’re not just out for a joy ride) to the dealers in and around Tacoma, WA.

Our first stop was to BMW Northwest in Fife, where a test of a 2006 750Li quickly ruled out any pre-2009 7-Series. When I explained to the salesman that I felt the Bimmer was underwhelming with a very un-BMW-like lack of steering feel and a distracting amount of seemingly useless technology, he politely thanked us for trying the car.

Next it was on to the dealership next door — Mercedes Benz of Tacoma at Fife, where Pre-Owned Sales Manager Eric Brillhart introduced us to a 2007 S550. With black paint and a Savannah-Cashmere interior it looked elegant. During the same test loop as with the BMW, the S550 shined with prodigious power, seamless shifts from the seven-speed tranny, great road feel, and the most amazing massaging seats ever invented. Admitting to Eric that my wife was instantly hooked, I still explained that I needed to complete my due-diligence and drive the A8L. I even said “I know statistics say that if we leave, we’re not coming back…but remember, the same stats also indicate if we come back, you’ve got us.”

Courteously, he called over to Audi of Tacoma, another Robert Larson-owned dealership, to let them know we would be over for a test drive after getting a bite to eat.

Going into the day, the A8L had been at the top of my short list. After a ride in a three-year-old S550, though, the brand new 2009 Audi A8L seemed dated. The sporty feeling came at the cost of an overly tight suspension. Despite other journalists who praise Audi ergonomics, I found the interior dark, plain and lacking the comfort of the Mercedes. On the whole the Audi just wasn’t as refined. And the dealership? Had we not gone to pull a salesman away from a conversation outside the building, we would have stood there alone forever!

So we returned to Mercedes Benz of Tacoma at Fife, where we sat in the lobby for about fifteen minutes as Eric Brillhart helped another couple. (Thank goodness for Nintendo DS, or my daughters would have lost it by now.) Finally with the couple out on a test drive he invited us over to his desk. He launched us into about ten minutes of small talk discussing garage space, drums (which we both play), and then finally he asked me how much I wanted to pay for the car, since, he said, I “obviously have a number in my head.”

He had told us before the test drive that the asking price was $62,500, which Eric admitted was way too aggressive for a 32,000-mile 2007 that had sat on the lot for too long. (He was I unaware that I had seen the car offered on Autotrader.com and M-B’s CPO site for $59,900.) I didn’t throw out a number, rather choosing to note that other dealers were advertising their S550s from 48-to-58-thousand and indicating that it would be safe to assume “low fifties” was top market.

Eric got up and walked into the sales floor manager’s office and didn’t return for ten minutes. I pointed out to my wife that I had forgotten to request that he not to try the old wait ‘em out trick — the longer a mark sits in the chair the more they’ll pay at the end of the deal. In my case, it just makes me more tired and less likely to spend anything.

When he got back he said “I’ve got bad news and good news. The bad news is the car sold while you were out, but the good news is that we have this other car — same configuration, slightly higher miles and we can offer it at $53,00″.

Ah crap, here we go again!

Eric left to check the in-service date of the car’s warranty, and upon returning to the desk, my wife hit him with: “I might be young, but I’m not stupid. Do you really expect us to believe that a car you said earlier has been sitting here for a really long time actually sold in the two hours we were gone?”

Now if someone had called me a liar to my face (and I was innocent) I’d vigorously defend my honor and my practices. I’d even get some proof in the form of paperwork. The salesmen didn’t even seem to put up a fight, instead giving a half-assed emotionless line trying to claim he had nothing to gain by claiming it was sold, and that he was mad that he had gone through the effort of washing it only to have another salesman sell it. My six-year-old daughter gave a more believable performance last month when she claimed she didn’t eat any cookies before dinner, and she had crumbs all over her face.

Still there was the other “available” car that was being offered. With iPhone in hand I went down the list of CPO 2007 S550s available for under $50K on Mercedes-Benz’s own site, and simply explained the price this dealer was offering was three-grand over the advertised starting prices of identical cars, such as one offered at Barrier Mercedes less than 50 miles away. We got up and walked out.

We walked to our car, and parked next to it was the very same “sold” S550 that had lured us to the dealership in the first place. My wife walked back in and notified Eric that the car was still on the lot (and had been moved next to our car while we were in being told it was sold). “They’re doing the paperwork as we speak” he claimed. Seeing nobody else in the dealership, my wife laughed, shook her head and walked out.

Mercedes Benz of Tacoma simply wanted to maximize profit — and that’s not a crime. What they did, however, was bad for business, horrible for its reputation… and statistically a bad play. When the salesman and sales floor manager got the feeling that price was an issue with us, they saw the opportunity to bait and switch in a less desirable car with a higher margin that could look like a better deal by fitting within my aforementioned price range. Unfortunately for them, they had totally misread us. We didn’t try to negotiate down due to being cash-strapped — we could have afforded the full inflated asking price, rather it simply wasn’t a good deal based on competitive listings. Had he or the salesman simply given a slightly better bottom line price, I might have paid more than market on the original car just for convenience sake, but instead the BS led us to leave.

We will certainly be buying a 2007 or 2008 S550…just not from Mercedes Benz of Tacoma. Sure, I could buy one from an auction (I have four friends who are brokers), but I still lean towards a CPO car with a known service history given all the technology. I might also want to take advantage of MBUSA’s subsidized financing.

So here’s hoping that there’s a Mercedes dealer out there who understands that some of us are sick of the same old tired dealer tricks, time wasting tactics and scams. Can’t we just agree on a price based on the real market, after which I’ll give them the money and they can give me the car?


Bail Out the Big Three? History Suggests “Don’t Do It”!

November 11, 2008

It would be catchy to lead with something like “I’ll give you fifty-billion reasons why the US government shouldn’t bail out the Big Three automakers.” Instead, I’ll just write: don’t do it.

I need to make something crystal clear here. My views are not ideologically-based. If you’d like some Republican versus Democrat, free market capitalism over big government socialism, Apple against Microsoft rants, you’re not going to find it here.

What you will find is a simple statement: history and common sense intersect at a point with a big marker titled “STOP”.

The Meat Of the Deal

Congress has already given General Motors, Ford and Chrysler around $25 billion so they can retool for production of more fuel-efficient cars. Last week the three CEOs returned to The Hill to ask for as much as $50 billion more to keep their companies floating while they hemorrhage cash in the down economy.

It is true that consumers are not buying new cars right now. That’s a huge problem for all automakers, not just the Big Three. When they start buying cars again, fuel-efficient vehicles like hybrids and compacts will be in demand. Actually, if we’re being truthful here, these vehicles are in demand right now. Just go try to find a Prius on a dealer lot.

So the Big Three CEOs have the audacity to go to Congress and say “give us money so we can ride out the bad economy and have what the consumers will want when they are ready to buy.” Audacity? Why did I choose that word?

Simple, because unless you’ve been living in cave for the last decade, you’ll know that even when GM, Ford and Chrysler were selling SUVs and trucks faster than a Ramones drum beat, they were largely losing money. Keep in mind that SUVs and trucks had a hell of a lot higher profit margin than compact and hybrid cars could ever hope to attain.

Imagine if the CEOs told Congress: “we need money, because we couldn’t make profits when we were selling high-profit vehicles. Since we pocketed that money in salaries, union deals, benefits, and executive bonuses, and got drunk on cheap gas (although in our hearts we knew it wouldn’t stay that way, but we hoped we’d be retired by the time it hit $4 per gallon), we never spent enough on R+D, so we didn’t have vehicle products ready to go for this current marketplace.” Unfortunately, that’s the truth.

Here is a scary reality
If Congress gave $50B directly to American consumers with the condition that we went out and bought new cars, here’s what would happen: $50B would buy 1,666,666 cars, based on the current average price of around $30,000 each. Given the current market share, GM at 22.4 percent would sell 373,333 vehicles, Ford (14.8%) would move 246,666 units, and Chrysler (11%) would sell 183,333 units. In other words, with fifty billion dollars going directly into the hands of consumers to buy a new car, the best any of the Big Three could do would be to sell a group of additional vehicles equating to less than one year’s worth of Honda Accord sales in America. (392,231 Accords were sold in the US in 2007.) Think that’s enough to keep them (or dealers) from failing? Nope!!!

Inevitably, there are those out there who will say the Big Three are “too big to fail”. Television news channels are already reporting huge job loss potentials if the companies go out of business—from a few hundred thousand to somewhere around 1.5 million. For every one job at GM, Ford and Chrysler, there are seven positions at vendors providing parts and services for domestic auto production. In other words: if they fail, we’re in a depression with millions of unemployed workers.

The logical conclusion, claim these folks, is to keep the government money flowing– no matter how long it takes, otherwise the companies will implode, everyone in the industry will be out a job, and a depression is unavoidable. To these people I have just two words:

BRITISH LEYLAND

Allow me to follow up those two words with a description of why this is critical history for every Member of Congress to know. England used to be tied with America as the automotive powerhouses in the world. We had Ford and Chevy, while they had Austin and Morris. Just like the contraction of companies in America that formed Ford-Lincoln-Mercury and General Motors, Austin joined Morris in BMC. Standard joined with Triumph, which was joined with Jaguar. Finally, by 1968 most British-owned brands were rolled into British Leyland.

Thanks to equal parts ineptitude, greed and lack of ethics, BL drove the British car industry into the ground. BL executives blamed the economy (including an oil crisis) and labor. Everyone else pointed the finger at products that were inferior to foreign competition, as well as short-sighted contracts and profiteering.

Despite selling forty percent of the vehicles in Great Britain, by 1975 British Leyland was broke. The British Government sank millions into the group and became the majority shareholder. The corporation was reorganized, and millions more went to cure production and labor problems.

The company was again reorganized into saleable units. Jaguar-Daimler was sold-off in 1984 (two years later it went to Ford). The Leyland truck and bus unit was merged with Dutch DAF in 1987, which later sold bus operations to Volvo. Just a year later the Rover Group (including most of the remaining car business) was sold to British Aerospace, which turned around and immediately sold this remaining part of Great Britain’s auto industry to German BMW.

Which puts us back to GM, Ford and Chrysler

If Congress simply let nature take its course, there is a strong chance that all would fail. But we need to DEFINE “FAIL”. In this case, do we honestly think that if any of the Big Three “fail” everything the company owns would simply be auctioned off to the high bidder in front of the local courthouse? Of course not.

All three companies own valuable plant assets. All still have cash. All own products and technology that are profit centers. There is certainly a big financial value to Chevy’s Volt product, as well as Chrysler’s ultra-modern flexible plant locations, Ford’s Mustang brand, Corvette production, F150 fleet sales, the “Hemi” trademark…

Considering that Porsche just tried unsuccessfully to buy VW, it puts them back in the market for an entity that will enable them to meet 35-mpg CAFE standards. By the way, Porsche has also been one of the most profitable automakers of the last decade. (Turns out that selling overpriced sports-SUVs is a cash cow.) So even after the botched buyout, they have money to burn.

Hyundai is also a strong competitor without a good hybrid play, as is Mitsubishi. Both have money. Mitsubishi’s dedication to cars might be questionable, but Hyundai’s certainly is not. Honda could use a more diverse product range, especially upmarket. Even Toyota could make a case to buy one of the Big Three — Chrysler for flexible production facilities or GM for Volt plug-in technology (since it could take a big bite out of Hybrid Synergy Drive sales).

Then there’s BMW – the same company that at one time or another has purchased Rover, MG, Rolls-Royce, Bentley, Austin/Morris/Mini, and still retains the rights for Triumph. They have cash and good credit…not to mention a pretty good history of acquiring, absorbing, improving operations, and remarketing companies. (We’ll give them a pass on Rover, which was a debacle, only because nothing short of a neutron bomb could have solved that company’s issues.) Finally, BMW has banked way too much on hydrogen over plug-in hybrids, so they could benefit from buying the technology, rather than developing it in house.

Don’t count on Mercedes to get involved. The company is still sore from its marriage to Chrysler. It turns out Mercedes was ill prepared to deal with the complexities of a merger with such a dysfunctional corporation at a time when it was challenged with its own operational and technical issues. Consequently, Mercedes lost more money than a drunk billionaire trying to impress the hotties at the high roller baccarat tables.

Hyundai, BMW, Porsche…Any of these companies could benefit by buying GM, Ford, or even Chrysler.

All have experience designing, building, marketing, selling, and servicing in America already, and do so with high profit margins.

No doubt each and any foreign buyer would bust the unions and negotiate dumping retirement benefits on the US government. Then the companies would kill poor performing legacy products, as well as the people who continued to push losing strategies. Good niche brands and solid future technologies would be exploited, while albatrosses like Hummer would likely be closed down or sold to a greater fool.

In the end, America would have to let go the concept of the American Big Three. One could get caught up in buzzwords like “failure”, but the goal is to save money and jobs.

No matter how we look at it, American jobs will be lost. The difference is that if the US Congress pushes the Big Three to sell, more people will actually be able to keep jobs. Granted some will do so at reduced wages and most at decreased long-term benefits. Wouldn’t it be better, however, for these people to work for a competitive company again – one that isn’t in jeopardy of needing to make more layoffs or beg for more government money next year?

Congress might still decide to throw good money after bad at GM, Ford and Chrysler, just like the British did for BL, but the best course of action is to allow these dinosaurs implode under their own weight sooner rather than later, and work to convince German, Japanese and Korean automakers to bring them back to life as more efficient, better targeted and longer-reaching versions of their old selves using the American workers and suppliers who are willing to adapt to a new world with a view far beyond the self-interests of Michigan and D.C..

Editor’s Note: We here at the Four Wheel Drift realize that this whole bailout issue is far more complicated than can be summarized in one article. We expect that if Alan Mulally or Rick Wagoner read the above article, they’d accuse us of missing important details. (We’d expect that Bob Lutz would say we’ve got our heads up our asses if we thought it was that simple.) The fact is that it isn’t simple. It took nearly a century for GM, Ford and Chrysler to create the mess they’re in, and there are no easy answers. We simply are taking a stand unpopular with car folks, especially those emotionally tied to the long history of American auto producers, and suggesting that the only way to stay competitive is to admit that there is no way to stay competitive by just taking government money and tightening belts.


Proposing alphanumeric model name rules for manufacturers

May 13, 2008

I’m going to get right to the point here: I can’t stand modern alphanumeric model names. They are more confusing than what you hear eavesdropping on a conversation between two quantum physicists speaking in pig-latin.

Alphanumeric model designations are as old as dirt…or John McCain, for that matter. Actually, they’re older — think 1922 Citroen 5CV or the famous Alfa Romeo 8C 2300. Back in the old days, naming a car model after a combination of number of cylinders, displacement and/or horsepower was standard practice.

For those like me who grew up before the era of Japanese and European automobile dominance, alphanumeric names were the exception, not the rule. Model names showed the creative prowess of domestic product marketing. My family had relationships with LeSabre, LeBaron, Special, New Yorker, LTD, and the neighbors had Corvette, Duster, and even a Beetle and Rabbit.

My parents still live in the same house, but now the carport is home to a Lexus ES300 and BWM 335ic. One neighbor put his ’63 Corvette in storage, and instead drives his Mercedes Lexus LS430.

As an automotive guy holding a Bachelor’s Business Marketing (who whooped-ass in every competition against MBA candidates taking the same courses from the same professors), I certainly understand the perceived benefits of alphanumeric designations.

Among the upsides:

  • It prevents model identity from eclipsing brand identity
  • Enables dealers to have a better chance at upselling to more expensive cars and more options due to product benefit confusion.
  • Provides upsell potential due to envy of higher numbers that come with a more expensive car in the lineup.
  • Makes a model year-oriented designation publically obsolete (ES 300 vs. ES 330 vs. ES 350) much quicker, causing consumers to either lease or buy new cars on a truncated schedule to keep a new-appearing model.
  • Minimizes problems and demarketing costs associated with curing negative name recognition with failed models, such as with Pinto, Pacer, and Aztek.

    When looking at the benefits, one immediately understands why this is now common practice among the mass-production luxury car brands.

    But Alphanumerics have huge downsides:

  • Lack of convention translates to lack of model recognition and identity.
  • It becomes very hard to differentiate the intersections between product lines, products and options.
  • Most importantly – AN designations often lead to customers linking a model with the wrong manufacturer.

    The market has a right to be confused. In some cases, the letters represent the product line, while the numbers indicate a displacement or other option category. This is true for Mercedes, which offers the S, SL, C, E, CL, CLK, GL, SLK, ML, as well as other product lines with a bunch of engine options, which gets you something like a S550 or S430. Lexus (LS, LX, GL, GS, GX, IS) and Infiniti (Q, G, M, QX) follow Mercedes lead with first the letters, then the engine displacement.

    Acura once relied on AN model names — flipping the Mercedes/Lexus/Infinity convention by listing the engine size then the model line, as in 3.2TL. Now, however, they also just offer the RL (which used to be the 3.5RL), MDX, RDX, TSX.

    BMW uses a different methodology. Its product lines are numeric or alphanumeric – 7, 6, 5, 3, 1, Z4, X3, X5, and M (in 3,5 and 7 guises, as well as “M Roadster” and “M Coupe” forms of the Z4s). BMW used to also attach a number indicating the total displacement of the car’s engine and a letter for the body configuration, so a 740iL was a 7-series sedan with four-liter fuel injected V8 and a long wheelbase. Now the numbers no longer always identify the displacement, as the 3.0L sixes in the 328 and 335 prove. (For the record, the 335 has the twin-turbo engine, while the 328 has the normally aspirated engine.)

    Audi uses yet another letter-number methodology. They have the 8, 6, 5, 4, and now 3 series lines. Most can be had in A (standard) or S (sport). One can have a four-cylinder engine, six-cylinder or eight-cylinder in the 4 and 6 lines. Oh, then there’s the Q7 and R8…which has a V8 now, but will have a V10 next year.

    Since seemingly all the foreign luxury brands went away from real names, so are Caddy (DTS, STS, CTS) and Lincoln (MKZ, MKX). If I were an executive for Ford, the brain surgeons who decided to rename the Zephyr to MKZ just a year after the product launch would all be blackballed from holding any marketing or product management positions anywhere. In fact, I’d ensure the only things out of their cornholes was “Welcome to M-C-D’s, would you like fries with that?”

    The FTC needs to mandate some type of naming convention, so car shopping (or in my case – helping people car shop) is less like trying to pick up a girl in a bar who doesn’t speak English.

    So this is what I suggest: When using alphanumeric model designations, the letter must identify a series (product line) and the number following it must either represent the number of cylinders or engine displacement. Displacement can represent the total, or in traditional Ferrari-style, of a single cylinder. A letter can follow either the number or initial letter to designate a body style.

    While we’re at it, companies should be banned from using an “I” to indicate fuel injection anywhere in the model name. BMW – when was the last time someone thought your cars might be equipped with a carburetor?

    I’m not a guy who likes to yearn for “the good old days”, because as Billy Joel once said “the good old days weren’t always good and tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems”. My kingdom, however, for a model line of clever names like Studebaker’s President, Dictator and Commander.


  • Happy 60th Birthday to the Best 4x4xFar

    April 30, 2008

    Today is Land Rover’s 60th birthday. On this day in 1948, a Land Rover was first shown to the public.

    As the story goes, the owners of the British Rover car company retreated to their family farm after World War II. They used US Army Jeeps left in England for agricultural work, but spare parts soon disappeared. They decided to build a Rover version of the Jeep for personal farm use. The first prototype was even built on a Jeep platform. As requests from friends for similar vehicles mounted, the owners decided to put their Land Rover into full production.

    Rover’s cars had long been considered the “poor-man’s Rolls Royce,” due mostly to high-quality engineering. Similarly, its first Land Rovers released at the 1948 Amsterdam Motor Show gained almost immediate notoriety for bulletproof construction. The Series I featured a box section steel chassis, and due to shortages of steel, rustproof all-aluminum bodywork. Under the hood was a four-cylinder, overhead valve gas engine that drove all four wheels.

    Land Rover’s popularity also ignited due to its versatility. The Land Rover became available in wagon and pick-up forms with short and long wheelbases. A diesel engine also emerged. Other optional equipment could be added based on need, from dual-plane roof panels to aid cabin heating and cooling, to snow plows. Some vehicles were equipped with periscope carburetor air-intake snorkels to allow vehicles to cross rivers almost completely submerged. In the field, a Land Rover could even operate multiple transmission-driven winches, welders or generators

    Safety and emissions legislation caused Land Rover to abandon the American market in the 1970s. Those sold in the states prior to the retreat became instantly coveted for their rugged nature. One of my Land Rover-owning high school friends used to cruise the hills of Seattle during big snow storms looking for stuck cars and lesser SUVs to winch to safety. Great weight distribution and skinny tires meant even the most insane snow-covered hills weren’t safe from the LR’s prowess.

    When Land Rover returned in the late 1980s, its vehicles reflected the softer needs of a more upscale clientele. The company was purchased by BMW, which helped increase the luxurious nature of the product line, but did absolutely nothing to improve reliability – a nagging problem of the Rover group (and the entire British car industry since the horrible days of British Leyland.)

    Even after Ford purchased the company from BMW in 2000, Land Rover’s products were perennial basement players with the likes of Fiat and VW in global quality studies. Still, from the LR3 to the luxurious Range Rover, the brand’s models have remained among the most competent off road vehicles.

    Now going into the hands of India’s Tata (along with Jaguar), a new chapter of Land Rover’s history is in the making.

    While many of us long for the tough-as-nails, works even when broken nature of the Land Rovers of old, they are still the rides to have when you absolutely need to cross the craziest terrain. As Land Rover owners say: they’re the best 4X4XFar.


    Worthless Press Release of the Day

    February 24, 2008

    BMW sent this press release:

    “CAMERON DIAZ SET TO RIDE IN THE BMW HYDROGEN 7 TO THE 2008 OSCAR AWARDS CEREMONY Hollywood, CA – February 22, 2008… Demonstrating her continued dedication to the exploration of environmentally sustainable energies, Cameron Diaz will be traveling to the 80th Annual Academy Awards ceremony in the BMW Hydrogen 7 Series. The BMW H7 is the first hydrogen-powered luxury sedan, which emits almost nothing but water vapor, and still features all the amenities and comfort of a BMW 7 Series.”

    When a company attempts to spotlight a product by highlighting a “yesterday’s celebrity” whose best past decision-making yielded a creepy long-term romance with Justin Timberlake, a few employees in the PR and Marketing departments need to be shown the door.