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Archive for January, 2011

First Drive: Chrysler 200 Convertible

More than a rental car.

by on Jan.28, 2011

Chrysler restyles open-air motoring with the new 200 Convertible.

Convertibles are back in style at Chrysler Group.  The maker that helped spur the revival of open-top motoring, back in the ‘80s, has updated its Sebring into a much more stylish and desirable offering that means it won’t just land with a thud in the daily rental fleets but actually appeal to retail customers.

The new Chrysler 200 Convertible has been given  a complete makeover for 2011 as part of the company’s far reaching effort to rebuild its product line and the effort has paid off handsomely, bringing  new life into what had been a neglected part of the company’s product line.

The welcome exterior changes first seen on the Chrysler 200 Coupe have been carried over – and include a new, well-integrated fascia as well as a new hood that gives the vehicle a remarkably improved appearance.  The changes to the front continue with the new, more elegant rear fascia as well as the new, redesigned Chrysler badges, which seem to fit nicely into the car.


Ford Fills a Hole

Torque Hole Filling technology smooths shifts in '12 Ford Focus.

by on Jan.28, 2011

The 2012 Ford Focus' dual-clutch automated manual transmission will feature Torque Hole Filling technology, to help make shifts smoother.

When the Ford Focus goes on sale later this year, drivers should notice the next level in transmission shift quality.

The 2012 Focus will have what Ford calls Torque Hole Filling technology, a concept the automaker first patented a quarter century ago. While Ford has had a patent on the concept since the ’80s, it had to wait for computer technology to catch up.

Ford introduced the dual-clutch automated manual transmission on the 2011 Fiesta. Even without the THF, the transmission, which Ford calls PowerShift, was remarkably smooth. Still, traditional torque-converter automatic transmissions have an edge in smoothness compared to automated manuals.

Time to Shift!

But automated manual transmissions promise better fuel efficiency because they use computer-controlled automated clutches rather than inefficient torque converters.

So what is the torque hole? Typical transmissions have a break in power delivery between shifts. So every time the transmission shifts, no tractable power is going to the wheels, so there’s a hole in the acceleration.

THF adds a little engine torque to the driveline to smooth shifts.


GM Withdraws Request for $14 Billion in U.S. Loans

Maker also planning expanded roll-out of Chevy Volt.

by on Jan.27, 2011

GM is in much better shape, says design chief Welburn.

General Motors has withdrawn a request for $14.4 billion in low-interest loans it was seeking through the Department of Energy, proclaiming it has enough cash to fund the development of battery cars and other high-mileage models.

The news came on the same day the maker said it will speed up the roll-out of its highly-touted Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid.  The original plan called for GM to provide about 10,000 Volts – recently voted North American Car of the Year – to dealers in select markets this year, then expand nationwide in 2012.  GM is now looking to boost production to 25,000 or more in 2011 and to get some of the battery-based vehicles to all its dealers before year’s end.

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“We’re confident of our progress and the strong global performance of our company,” GM’s global design director Ed Welburn said during an appearance at the Washington Auto Show.


Pink Floyd’s Mason Betting on Car Fund

Investment fund focusing on sheet metal rather than stocks and bond.

by on Jan.27, 2011

A Ferrari Enzo owned by Pink Floyd's Nick Mason.

Nick Mason has always been good at banging on the skins, but now he wants to drum up some business through an unusual investment fund betting on the prospects of classic cars.

The drummer for the rock band Pink Floyd, Mason has signed onto the advisory board of IGA Automobile, which intends to invest $150 million on the world’s finest automobiles.  The group believes that it can yield annual returns of 15%, a figure not entirely off-the-wall considering what has happened in the collector car market, over the years.

Indeed, with the economy recovering there are signs that high-value auto collectors are looking to upgrade their garages.  Though it fell short of an all-time record, the annual Barrett-Jackson Auction, held in Scottsdale, AZ, last week, generated $70 million in sales, well ahead of 2010’s weak performance.

The IGA Automobile fund, which went into operation this month, is being described by director Nick Lancaster as “the first classic car fund that’s purely for financial returns, rather than passion.”


Honda Earnings Flounder?

Maker’s $180 million fish tale.

by on Jan.27, 2011

Maybe Honda should stick to what it does best?

Honda has always like to position itself as an engine company that also makes cars – and motorcycles and power tools.  But it turns out the Japanese maker has also gotten into the seafood business.  But its latest earnings report shows the dangers of doing things outside your normal comfort zone.

Some questionable deals for overpriced seafood have given the maker a serious haddock, its balance sheet floundering to the tune of $180 million written off as it crabbed about “inappropriate activity” involving a small and generally unknown division that trades in seafood.

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Seems the fishy operation was committing one of the cardinal sins of the business world, buying low, selling high, and hoping to make money by fluke.  Unable to sell their stock, Honda cooked the books, claiming to net a buyer for its seafood inventory.

The scale of the deception was not enough to seriously offset the maker’s third-quarter earnings, but did lead the maker to issue a statement in which it “apologized deeply for causing great worry and trouble.”


Automakers Want Vehicles Talk to Each Other

"Intelligent vehicle" systems could save lives.

by on Jan.27, 2011

Listen up! A signal from another "Intelligent Vehicle" alerts a motorist to hidden dangers ahead.

While auto regulators might be pushing to get motorists to hang up their cellphones and concentrate on driving, they’re encouraging efforts to get cars to talk to one another.

A consortium of eight manufacturers has set up shop in the Detroit suburb of Farmington Hills to work on car-to-car “Intelligent Vehicle” communications systems that would help stave off accidents.  Such technology could, for example, be used by one car to make sure it won’t run into another passing through an intersection.  A vehicle experiencing black ice might also flash the alert to other nearby automobiles.

“If every car had it, it would be like another pair of eyes,” Ford Motor Co.’s Mike Shulman, a technical research leader, said prior to the demonstration of a prototype system by four makers at this week’s auto show in Washington, D.C.


VW Tops 250 MPG With XL1 Concept

Who cares about fuel prices.

by on Jan.27, 2011

Using lightweight materials, slick aerodynamics and a diesel-hybrid, VW's XL1 achieves 250 mpg.

You could dole fuel out with an eyedropper and ignore the latest pump prices were the Volkswagen XL1 sitting in your driveway.  The newest VW concept vehicle claims a fuel economy of a seemingly impossible 250 miles per gallon.

Unveiled at this week’s Qatar Motor Show, the prototype uses a variety of techniques to reduce weight and minimize wind resistance, while turning to a plug-in diesel-hybrid powertrain to squeeze out every last bit of energy.

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Among the various steps taken to improve aerodynamics are a closed front end, extensive underbody covers, closed wheels and pin-sized cameras that replace conventional sideview mirrors.  The VW XL1 yields a drag coefficient of just 0.19, compared to 0.25 for the relatively slick Toyota Prius.

There’s less than 400 pounds of steel or iron on the XL1.  The chassis is a monocoque made of Carbon Fiber Reinforced Plastic, or CFRP, a material normally found on extremely low-volume supercars, such as the Lamborghini Sesto.  That and other lightweight materials, such as aluminum and magnesium, and the ceramics of the prototypes brakes, and VW has been able to hold the mass of the XL1 down to just 1,749 pounds.


White House Plans For 1 Million Plug-in Hybrids

“Sparking whole new industries,” proclaims VP Biden.

by on Jan.26, 2011

The White House wants to get 1 million plug-in hybrids - like this Chevy Volt - on the road.

Saying the administration hopes to “spark…whole new industries,” Vice President Joe Biden outlined the White House goal of getting 1 million plug-in hybrids on the road.

Since taking office in January 2009, President Barack Obama has expressed strong support for the nation’s nascent battery industry – the administration providing billions of dollars of financial assistance, in both grants and loans, to spur the development of advanced batteries and the vehicles that will put them on the road.

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The White House wants to nearly double federal subsidies to buyers, make it easy for customers to collect those payments, and then provide as much as $200 million in assistance to as many as 30 cities to put in place the infrastructure to support a growing fleet of battery cars.

The payoff will be felt not just by the environment but by a nation looking to create jobs, Vice President Biden suggested, during a tour of the New York-based lithium-ion battery manufacturer Ener1.

“We’re not just creating new jobs, but sparking whole new industries that will ensure our competitiveness for decades to come — industries like electric vehicle manufacturing,” said the Vice President.


First Drive: 2012 BMW 650i Convertible

Good timing.

by on Jan.26, 2011

Put away your mukluks and roll the top down on your new BMW 650i Convertible.

BMW is nothing if not ambitious, and this year is aiming for record global sales — rolling out the products it thinks can get it there, including the 2012 BMW 650i Cabriolet.

We got the chance to take the convertible for a drive around balmy Cape Town, South Africa, sharing some seat time with senior officials including BMW board member Klaus Draeger, who is confident the market for premium convertibles will remain stable, as it has been since the boom year of the last decade.

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Perhaps that explains why BMW reversed the normal cadence of its product program, first rolling out the cabrio version of the new 6-Series, which will hit U.S. showrooms in May.  The 2-door will follow later this year, and a distinctive 4-door coupe will only be ready in 2012.

The new 6-er Convertible grew by 3 inches in length and 2 inches in width, though its roof is 0.31 inches lower compared to the outgoing model. This was possible, since the height of the dashboard could be lowered because of the use – for the first time – of a free standing 70-inch navi display.


Toyota, Subaru to Reveal Jointly-Developed Sports Car in Geneva

A "reborn passion" for sports cars.

by on Jan.26, 2011

Toyota hints at what's to come in Geneva.

Struggling to overcome not only its safety-related problems but a reputation for building boring appliances, Toyota hopes to demonstrate a “reborn passion” with the roll-out of its FT-86 sports car at the upcoming Geneva Motor Show.

For those who think of the automaker in terms of models like the Sienna minivan and Camary sedan the unveiling could deliver some surprises – especially considering that the FT-86 is the product of a significant new joint venture with smaller Japanese maker Subaru.

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That company will also view for the attention of a harried press corps, on media preview day, with its own version of the new rear-drive model, which it recently referred to as the tongue-tiring, “Subaru Rear-Wheel-Drive Sports Car Technology Concept.”  (Insiders promise the production version will adopt a name that can fit on a badge.