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Archive for March, 2010

First Look: 2011 Acura TSX Wagon

The wagon is back...maybe.

by on Mar.31, 2010

Acura is betting a new generation of buyers will embrace the 2011 TSX Wagon.

To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the death of the station wagon have been greatly exaggerated.  But so have stories predicting the comeback of that hallmark of the Leave it to Beaver era.

But that isn’t stopping Acura from giving one more try.  The luxury arm of Honda used the New York Auto Show to unveil a two-box version of its popular TSX model.  And the maker’s top U.S. executive, John Mendel, says he’s cautiously optimistic that changing tastes and lifestyles will help generate demand for the 2011 Acura TSX Wagon.

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“We see growing potential for this type of alternative in the U.S.,” said Mendel, citing a forecast projecting that in the luxury segment, wagon sales will grow by as much as 40% between 2010 and 2014.

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First Look: 2011 Infiniti QX56

“Arresting presence,” but will buyers agree?

by on Mar.31, 2010

Infiniti hopes to improve upon the minimal success of its original full-size luxury ute with the new 2011 Infiniti QX56

Nissan had big plans for its two full-sized SUVs, the Nissan Armada and Infiniti QX56.  Unfortunately, potential buyers didn’t agree, turning a cold shoulder to the twin offerings.  Now, with an all-new version of the big luxury ute, the Japanese maker is giving it another try.

Describing the new look as an “arresting presence,” the automaker’s Executive Vice President Carlos Tavares pulled the wraps off the 2011 Infiniti QX56 at the New York Auto Show, Wednesday, describing it as “the future of luxury SUVs.”

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Once again, the market will have to decide, but there’s no question the 2011 remake is a substantially more distinctive offering than the original model.  That, at least in part, is due to the fact that the 2011 Infiniti QX56 no longer shares the exact same platform as the Nissan Armada, allowing the luxury maker more flexibility in its design, which has at least a bit in common, visually, with the latest-generation Range Rover, including the new front fender louvers.

The 2011 Infiniti QX56 no longer shares the base platform -- and key body panels -- with Nissan's second-generation Armada.

Full-size truly means something with the 2011 Infiniti QX56, which boasts enough space for eight adults.  Even the third row features electrically-reclining seatbacks.

“Our goal,” said Tavares, “is to create the interior feel of a private jet.”

To achieve lift-off, the ’11 QX56 relies on a 400-horsepower, 5.6-liter, Direct-Injection V-8.  That’s 25% more horsepower than the old model, even though mileage is itself up 10%.  For those who might want to pull a boat or trailer, the new QX has a rated towing capacity of 8,500 pounds.

The interior of the 2011 Infiniti QX56 is markedly upgraded with lavish use of leather and wood.

As one would expect of a vehicle carrying a base price of $56,700 — $59,800 with the optional all-wheel-drive – the 2011 Infiniti QX56 is loaded with standard comfort, performance and safety features, including the new Hydraulic Body Motion System, which Infiniti claims can reduce body lean by 40%.  There’s a blind spot detection system, active cruise control, a new Distance Control Assist, lane change monitor, and optional dual 7-inch video screens for the rear seats.

The 2011 Infiniti QX56 will hit U.S. showrooms this coming Summer.

Mazda Reveals Plans for High-Mileage Powertrains

Japanese maker also sets price on pint-size 2011 Mazda2.

by on Mar.31, 2010

Better mileage, better performance, Mazda hopes new powertrains like the Sky-D diesel will help it cut global fuel consumption 30%.

With a goal of boosting its global fuel economy 30% by mid-decade, Mazda is under pressure to deliver – and fast.  And that prompted the Japanese maker to pull the wraps off its new line-up of advanced powertrains, dubbed Sky – “which means the sky’s the limit,” said CEO Takashi Yamanouchi.

These were first revealed last year at the Tokyo Motor Show in the Kiyora concept car.

A gasoline version, dubbed Sky-G, will be the first of the new engines to reach the U.S. market, the executive announced, during a news conference at the New York International Auto Show.  Though Yamanouchi was reluctant to provide many details, he hinted it would reduce fuel consumption 15%, even while delivering an equivalent, 15% boost in performance.

The Sky-G will make its world debut in the U.S. market, in 2011 – most likely in a mid-size model like the Mazda6.

A year later, it’s to be followed by the launch of the Sky-D, a new, high-efficiency diesel that Yamanouchi said would reduce fuel consumption by 20% compared to Mazda’s current, 2.2-liter diesel.  Perhaps as significant is the plan to introduce the Sky-D to the U.S.

Mazda appears to be favoring basic work on combustion efficiency, lightweight materials, and low friction engines and transmissions, while other companies, including now minority shareholder Ford, are pursuing more expensive forced induction designs with one or more turbochargers, or expensive plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles with $10,000 -$20,000 battery packs. (See Mazda Simplifies, as Ford Complicates for a more detail analysis.)

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Scion Reveals Two New Models at New York Show

Targets “urban” market with iQ; “early successes” with second-generation tC.

by on Mar.31, 2010

At just 10 feet, nose-to-tail, the 2011 Scion iQ will be the smallest four seater on the market.

Hoping to reverse a sharp, if unexpected decline in sales, Toyota’s youthful Scion division rolled out a pair of new products at the New York International Auto Show, each targeting a distinct, if potentially promising, niche.

Even for a brand that has traditional pushed downsize products, the little Scion iQ is downright tiny, measuring just a fraction of an inch over 10 feet, bumper-to-bumper.  The unusual 3+1 design, according to Scion General Manager Jack Hollis, will be the smallest four-seater in the U.S. when it reaches showrooms during the first quarter of 2011.

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Big Ideas - Concentrated!

The 2011 Scion iQ “is about big ideas – concentrated,” proclaimed Hollis, during an auto show preview.  The vehicle, he added, is designed to reflect what the executive called the “new urbanism,” young buyers who have decided to return to the nation’s big cities and want vehicles that minimize the hassles of struggling through urban traffic or finding parking.

“Yeah, size matters,” said Hollis, describing the Scion IQ as a “premium micro-compact.”

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Insurance Firms Push “Access to Repair Parts Act”

Automakers want to keep monopoly selling high profit parts.

by on Mar.31, 2010

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Automakers use patents to stop sales of what they say are inferior parts from independents.

The National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies (NAMIC) is pushing a coalition of consumer groups to support the “Access to Repair Parts Act” – H.R. 3059/S. 1368 – appear to be tied up in the legislative committee process from which they might never emerge for a full and open debate.

The bills (Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., introduced HR 3059 in the House. The  Senate version, S. 1368, was introduced by Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.) provide an exception to the U.S. design patent law to provide continued access to “affordable, automotive collision replacement parts.”

The latest clash between the insurance industry and automakers was apparently set off by an International Trade Commission ruling that enforced a car company’s design patents on several crash parts, excluding them from the replacement crash parts marketplace.

Automakers use patent law to prevent the sale what they deem to be inferior parts from independent suppliers, many of them based offshore. The resulting lack of a free market – a monopoly according to critics – costs consumers an estimated $2.8 billion per year in increased repair costs, typically when buying bumpers, fenders, and hoods.   (more…)

Ford, Microsoft Partnering to Charge Up EVs

“Easier and more affordable” ownership promised.

by on Mar.31, 2010

An EV, says Ford CEO Alan Mulally, will double the energy consumption of the average home.

Ford Motor Co. will team up with software giant Microsoft in an effort to make it “easier and more affordable” to purchase an electric vehicle, the automaker’s CEO Alan Mulally announced during an appearance at the New York Auto Show.

The big buzzword in the auto industry, these days, is “electrification,” with Ford and most of its rivals unleashing a wave of hybrids, plug-ins and battery-electric vehicles.  But the transformation is likely to be a difficult and costly one, Mulally cautioned, during the 2010 auto show’s keynote speech and again during a Ford news conference.

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The cost of battery technology is part of the problem, along with limited range.  But there’s also the challenge of simply plugging in – and making sure there’s a ready and affordable supply of energy.  That’s where Washington-based Microsoft comes in.  The software giant plans to adapt its HOHM application to work on future Ford products, starting with the 2012 Focus Electric, a battery-powered version of the maker’s new compact passenger car.

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First Look: 2011 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG GT3

German maker sets SLS base price and reveals new race car.

by on Mar.31, 2010

The track-ready, custom-built Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG GT3 should be ready well in time for the 2011 race season.

Supercar fans can finally head down to their nearest Mercedes-Benz dealer.  The German maker has set the price for its new, gullwinged SLS AMG sports car at $183,000 – barely half the price of the old Mercedes-Benz SLR, which it replaces.

But those with a bit more cash in the bank and a serious need for speed could always put an order down for the Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG GT3, a fully “customized race car,” which Volker Mornhinweg, outgoing head of the maker’s high-performance AMG brand, promises to have ready for the 2011 racing season.

The GT3, unveiled at the New York International Auto Show, will share the 6.3-liter powertrain in the standard-edition SLS, but will boast custom bodywork emphasizing aerodynamic performance.  The chassis will be modified to handle the needs and stresses of the track.

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According to Mornhinweg, the 2011 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG GT3 will be able to launch from 0 to 60 in just 3.5 seconds and hit a top speed of 180 mph.

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Department of Energy Rejects V-Vehicle Loans

Louisiana politicians “ask” DOE to reconsider. It says it will?

by on Mar.31, 2010

A virtual car company now with virtual funds.

V-Vehicle Company’s (V-VC) two loan applications for $321.1 million from the Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing Loan Program (ATVMLP) from the Department of Energy were rejected last week, but that does not mean taxpayers are off the hook yet. (See A Closer Look at How DOE Spends Your Tax Dollars )

The fledgling venture capital startup, which plans to make four-passenger economy cars 40% cheaper than major automakers, was hoping that taxpayers would subsidize the gamble, and had been in discussion with DOE for about a year.

The first loan application was for $79.9 million to complete engineering integration with V-VC’s 30 U.S. suppliers. The second was for $241.2 million to re-equip and tool a former General Motors parts manufacturing facility as V-VC’s first regional assembly plant in Monroe, Louisiana. About 1.400 jobs would have been created if the company were successful.

The company raised $86.5 million in private capital, and another $87 million in state, local and federal grants had been promised if V-Vehicle obtained the loan.

Aides to U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu and Congressman Rodney Alexander, both of Louisiana, have met with federal Energy Department officials to see how startup automaker V-Vehicle can reapply for $321 million in federal loans, according to the Baton Rouge based NewsStar.   (more…)

Clean Energy to Run CNG Fuel Stations for AT&T

Applications growing for natural gas as an alternative fuel.

by on Mar.31, 2010

CNG seems best suited for fleets rather than individual consumer use.

AT&T’s plans to spend $350 million to purchase compressed natural gas vehicles moved forward today as Clean Energy Fuels Corporation (Nasdaq: CLNE) said it would build and run the CNG fueling stations required.

At 8,000 vehicles, this is the largest corporate commitment to CNG vehicles to date in the U.S., and is part of a $565 million, long-term strategy at AT&T to deploy more than 15,000 alternative-fuel vehicles by 2019.

“AT&T’s commitment to alternative-fuel vehicles reflects our long-term goal to minimize dependence on imported sources of fuel and explore new automotive technologies,” said Charlene Lake, AT&T chief sustainability officer.

Last year at the start of the program, AT&T purchased 600 Ford E-Series vans converted CNG fuel from Dallas-based BAF Technologies, which is owned by Clean Energy. The CNG vehicles will be used to provide and maintain communications services for AT&T customers.

Proponents of CNG claim that the fuel results in lower emissions since natural gas contains less carbon than any other fossil fuel, and, therefore, produces lower CO2 emissions per vehicle mile traveled.

However, natural gas contains  methane, another principal greenhouse gas. Methane traps more than 20 times as much heat as carbon and accelerates climate change. Proponents claim that the increase in methane emissions from the use of natural gas is offset by a substantial reduction in CO2 emissions compared to other fuels.   (more…)

UAW Membership at Lowest Level Since WWII

Declining membership complicated by financial problems.

by on Mar.31, 2010

Bob King, the incoming president of the UAW, will inherit a union that is now less than a quarter of its size 31 years ago.

Membership in the increasingly troubled United Auto Workers Union has dropped to its lowest level since the end of World War II, even as the union struggles to deal with worsening financial problems.

The UAW lost some 76,000 members just between April 1, 2009 and March 31, 2010, according to reports filed with the U.S. Department of Labor.

The union finished fiscal 2009 with 355,000 active members, the union report said, less than a quarter of the 1979 peak, when the UAW’s dues-paying ranks topped 1.5 million.

The decline in membership is only part of the Detroit-based labor organization’s problems.  It ran $2 million over budget, last year.  Meanwhile, disgruntled UAW members recently filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Labor Management Standards, charging top union officials with using their offices to give friends and family members jobs.

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