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Archive for March, 2010

First Look: 2011 Lincoln MKZ Hybrid

Claiming mileage crown in U.S. luxury market.

by on Mar.31, 2010

Lincoln's first hybrid is also being billed as the most fuel-efficient luxury car in North America.

Looking to build its position among high-mileage makers, Ford Motor Co. has been rolling out a variety of green products, and the latest entry into its line-up promises to give its high-line Lincoln brand bragging rights as the most fuel-efficient luxury car in America.

The marque’s first gas-electric model, the 2011 Lincoln MKZ, promises to deliver 41 miles per gallon in the EPA’s City cycle, a full 6 mpg more than its closest competitor, the Lexus HS250h.  The Lincoln also can operate in battery-only mode at speeds up to 47 miles per hour, compared with 25 mph for the Lexus in EV mode.

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“Lincoln’s hallmarks are design, technology and comfort. Now, Lincoln also delivers the best fuel efficiency of any luxury sedan in America,” Mark Fields, Ford’s president of The Americas, declared in a press release.


U.S. DOE and GM to Test Grow Jatropha in India

Oily weed holds promise as a sustainable biodiesel feedstock.

by on Mar.30, 2010

The goal of the project is to demonstrate that jatropha can produce significant quantities of oil for conversion to biodiesel.

The goal of the project is to demonstrate that the weed can produce significant enough amounts of oil for conversion to biodiesel fuel.

General Motors Company announced today a five-year partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to help develop the jatropha plant for what could evolve into a sustainable biofuel energy crop.

Jatropha plants produce an oil that can be refined into biodiesel fuel.

The drought-resistant, non-edible plant can be grown commercially with modest care on marginal land.

To explore whether new varieties of the plant can produce high enough yields to make it viable while thriving in temperate climates in the U.S. is the point of the experiment.

“Discovering new sources for biodiesel production is an important part of DOE research and development efforts,” said Secretary of Energy Steven Chu. “The expertise of this team can help speed the pace for the development of jatropha as a biofuel crop.”

Two jatropha farms will be established in India: a 16-hectare (39.5 acre) plot in Bhavnagar and a 38-hectare (93.9 acre) plot in Kalol, near GM’s India Car Manufacturing plant. An existing 30-hectare (74.1 acre) jatropha farm in Bhavnagar also will be managed under this project.

Lab-optimized strains of jatropha will be cultivated at these farms.

The joint DOE-GM funding, an unspecified amount, will also enable the Central Salt & Marine Chemicals Research Institute (CSMCRI)—an Indian Government research facility, to  manage all of the 84 hectares (840,000 m2).   (more…)

Shifting Gears: BMW’s M Division Wants to Redefine Performance

“The dogmas are gone,” says BMW M chief Kay Segler.

by on Mar.30, 2010

"Forget about dogmas," suggests Kay Segler, the new chief of BMW's performance M brand.

Forget raw horsepower numbers, don’t worry about 0 to 60 times.  To Kay Segler, it’s all about what “your butt-o-meter…tells you.”

For performance aficionados, few cars command more respect than one with the vaunted BMW “M” badge bolted onto the back.  This brand-within-a-brand is, perhaps more than anything else, the reason the Bavarian maker has been able to defend its long-standing claim to being “the ultimate driving machine.”

Yet, at a time when even the most mainstream manufacturers are emphasizing performance, and mid-market entries like the 2011 Ford Mustang are nudging past the once-unimaginable 400 horsepower barrier, M chief Segler says it’s time to rethink what his division stands for.  And the new definition doesn’t necessarily require BMW to deliver either the fastest, or the most powerful cars possible.

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“The measurement of 0 to 100 (kmh) isn’t as much a thrill anymore,” Segler proclaims during a long dinner in downturn Munich, not far from BMW’s headquarters.  What matters more than raw numbers is how a car feels, he explains.  “You can measure a lot of things by the numbers, but your butt-o-meter is what tells you” whether you’re satisfied, Segler contends, as he sips a glass of sparkling water, reminding us of Germany’s tough drunk driving laws.


Nissan Leaf Debuts in U.S. at $32,780 in December

Large Federal taxpayer subsidies reduce price to $25,280.

by on Mar.30, 2010

A question remains as to whether this is the beginning of a mass market for EVs?

Nissan North America, Inc. (NNA) today announced that the 2011 Nissan Leaf electric vehicle, starts at $32,780 MSRP before a $7,500 federal tax credit, plus taxes, title and license fees. A Leaf lease starts at $349 per month.

The pure electric vehicle needs a charging dock, which Nissan says will cost another $2,200 on average, and require eight hours to fully recharge Leaf’s 48 lithium ion battery modules.

There are also other potential subsidies for the small car – 175 inches in length – with what is claimed to be a 100-mile range. There is $5,000 statewide tax rebate in California; a $5,000 tax credit in Georgia; a $1,500 tax credit in Oregon; and carpool-lane access in some states, including California. The charging dock and installation are eligible for a 50% federal tax credit up to $2,000.

Leaf will be at Nissan dealers in select markets this December, and roll-out nationwide in 2011. Nissan will begin taking consumer reservations for the Nissan Leaf on April 20 for a refundable $99 fee.

Leaf is powered by laminated lithium-ion batteries, which provide a power output of more than 90 kW with 24 kW hours of capacity – roughly $24,000 worth of batteries at current prices. Its electric motor delivers 80 kW/280 Nm.

Nissan hopes this pricing will make its EVs more than the limited volume technical curiosities that EVs are today. However, the small car faces stiff competition from larger and technically advanced hybrid vehicles, such as Toyota Prius and Honda Insight,  as well as simpler economy cars in the $10,000 to $17,000 range, including Nissan’s own Versa and Sentra models.

“Imagine the possibility of never needing to go to a gas station again, or of paying less than $3 for 100 miles behind the wheel, said Brian Carolin, senior vice president, Sales and Marketing, NNA.


Ford Salaried Workers In Line For Bonuses

Maker promises to share the spoils.

by on Mar.30, 2010

Ford is taking steps to reduce debt -- and reward its loyal workforce.

After a three-year wait, more than 20,000 salaried Ford workers are in line to collect bonus pay again – along with a return of merit pay increases.

Though Ford officials caution the maker must hit a number of targets before the money lands in the hands of its employees, even the prospect of bonuses comes as good news for a company that has faced some serious economic challenges in recent years.  But it also underscores the apparent success Ford is having, even as its crosstown rivals struggle after last year’s bankruptcies.

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The exact size of the payout is unclear, and will likely vary from worker to worker.  In 2007, bonuses ran as high as $15,000.


Classic Cars, Modern Influence

High Museum shows 18 cars that influenced modern design.

by on Mar.30, 2010

This 1953 Porsche 550 LeMans was successful both on and off the track.

By the 1930s, motor vehicles had already proven their utility so the first stylists in Europe and North America began shifting their focus to more expressive design — leaving behind what turned out to be an indelible impression of the automobile as art.

A new exhibit at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta highlights 18 unique vehicles built between 1930 and 1965 that reflect a period often seen as a “golden era,” but which has continued to have an enormous influence on the look of modern automobiles.

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“This exhibition will showcase the greatest feats of engineering and luxury design from 1930 to 1965, when cars became synonymous with success, power and wealth,” says High Museum director Michael E. Shapiro. “Created for the privileged few, the luxurious, custom-built automobiles embodied speed, style and elegance, and influenced art, architecture, fashion and design.”


National Academy of Sciences and NASA to Study Unintended Acceleration Issues for DOT

Secretary LaHood launches two “major” investigations on a relatively rare but troublesome and controversial safety issue.

by on Mar.30, 2010

What on earth is going on with those Toyotas?

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood today announced two investigations designed to answer questions surrounding the issue of unintended vehicle acceleration.

LaHood also asked the U.S. Department of Transportation Inspector General to assess whether the NHTSA Office of Defects Investigation conducted an “adequate review” of complaints of alleged unintended acceleration reported to NHTSA from 2002 to the present.

The ongoing controversy of the problem in Toyota and other vehicles have led to numerous charges from critics that NHTSA is underfunded and improperly staffed to deal with safety matters. It appears particularly weak in the area of electronic controls and systems, as automakers continue to expand rapidly their use in all vehicles.

There are also charges that former NHTSA employees working for Toyota  prevented thorough investigations and delayed safety recalls.

The independent National Academy of Sciences will examine the subject of unintended acceleration and electronic vehicle controls across the entire automotive industry. A panel of experts will review industry and government efforts to identify possible sources of unintended acceleration, including electronic vehicle controls, human error, mechanical failure and interference with accelerator systems. The study is expected to take 15 months. See The Case for “Black Box” Electronic Data Recorders

NAS experts will look at software, computer hardware design, electromagnetic compatibility and electromagnetic interference. The panel will make recommendations to NHTSA on how its rulemaking, research and defect investigation activities may help ensure the safety of electronic control systems in motor vehicles.

NASA Specifically on Toyota Issues


Separately, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, DOT’s vehicle safety agency, has enlisted NASA engineers with expertise in areas such as computer controlled electronic systems, electromagnetic interference and software integrity to help tackle the issue of unintended vehicle acceleration in Toyotas.   At least 52 deaths are allegedly the result of  the well-publicized problems and an ongoing series of recalls for Lexus and Toyota models. (more…)

GM Delays Annual Report Filing for Two Weeks

“Fresh Start” accounting requires a huge and time consuming restatement of values. Old GM results are irrelevant anyway.

by on Mar.29, 2010

It's the new numbers, not the old ones that matter.

General Motors Company is unable to file its Annual Report on Form 10-K for the fiscal year ended December 31, 2009, by March 31, 2010, as required by U.S. Security and Exchange Commission regulations.

The delay is because it is still finalizing so-called “fresh start” adjustments, as required by Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, GM said this morning.

Under GAAP, GM must restate the value of all the assets acquired and liabilities assumed from General Motors Corporation, or the “Old GM,” in connection with Old GM’s sale of assets to GM Company under Section 363 of the United States Bankruptcy Code.

A GM spokesperson told me that the filing should be finished sometime during the next two weeks. This is ultimately a non-news story, as the numbers of a now bankrupt GM corporation are irrelevant. Financial results for the new GM’s Q1 2010 are expected in May.

Daniel Ammann has been appointed GM vice president finance and treasurer.

Daniel Ammann is now GM's treasurer.

GM’s annual report is expected to depict breathtaking losses in 2009 of old GM, leading to the bankruptcy last year that was forced on it by President Obama and his advisers at the U.S. Treasury Department.

However, the restatement of values will likely increase the strength of the new Company’s balance sheet. This is a necessary prelude to a successful offering of public stock. (See GM Has a Chance of Being Profitable In 2010 by right clicking on it.)


NSC Says All Driving Cell Phone Use is Dangerous

New white paper cites more than 30 scientific studies.

by on Mar.29, 2010

There's good reason the National Safety Council wants a ban on driving and cell phone use.

The National Safety Council released a white paper today describing the risks of using a cell phone while driving.

Titled “Understanding the distracted brain: Why driving while using hands-free cell phones is risky behavior,” it talks about the dangers of cell phones and hands-free devices, and the growing safety problems they pose. At any time, 11% percent of all drivers are using cell phones, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which has so far done little about the growing safety problem.

NSC estimates more than one out of every four motor vehicle crashes involves cell phone use at the time of the crash. Each year, this distracted driving problem results in about 1.6 million crashes, hundreds of thousands of injuries, and thousands of deaths, according to the NSC.

The white paper includes references to more than 30 scientific studies and reports, describing how using a cell phone – hands-free or hand-held – requires the brain to multitask, a process it cannot do safely while driving. Using cell phones while driving not only impairs driving performance, but it also weakens the brain’s ability to capture crucial driving cues.

Among other things, the paper describes how drivers who use cell phones have a tendency to “look at” but not “see” up to 50% of the information in their driving environment. A form of “inattention blindness” occurs, which results in drivers having difficulty monitoring their surroundings, seeking and identifying potential hazards, and responding to unexpected situations.

“Cell phone use while driving has become a serious public health threat,” says Janet Froetscher, NSC president and CEO.    (more…)

First Look: 2011 Mercedes-Benz R-Class

Try, try again…it’s still a van.

by on Mar.29, 2010

The 2011 Mercedes-Benz R-Class goes through an "assertive" exterior upgrade.

Some vehicles never quite live up to their initial expectations, and the original Mercedes-Benz R-Class was one of those.  Of course, it would have helped if the automaker did a better job of positioning the people mover.  Those who bought the R-Class were generally pleased with its van-like qualities, but the van-like looks didn’t quite live up to the official designation of “sport tourer.”

So, Mercedes is giving it another try, with a fairly significant mid-cycle update that looks more sporty – “a new level of assertiveness,” in the automaker’s words – but still maintains the original R-Class functionality. The 2011 Mercedes-Benz R-Class will make its formal debut, this week, at the New York International Auto Show.

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The new nose on the 2011 Mercedes-Benz R-Class is less droopy, with a taller hood and wider grille, as well as a revised fascia and the addition of LED driving lamps.  There’s a new rear bumper, restyled tailpipes and an updated taillights, as well.  All add up to a look that’s more macho, SUV-like.