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Tim Allen to be the New Voice of Chevrolet

TV celeb debuts next week in spots. Howie is, well, Long gone.

by on Sep.03, 2010

Cruze is a $17,000 to $25,000 offering that GM hopes will take some sales back from the Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic.

TV and movie celeb Tim Allen will be the voice of Chevrolet starting with advertising for the all-new 2011 Cruze starting next Tuesday.

Allen displaces Howie Long, who is currently running on regional 2010 model year clearance spots and has been a Chevrolet spokesperson since 2004.

The classic Friday afternoon release made no mention of Long.

However, Joel Ewanick, the new vice president, U.S. marketing at General Motors, who recently jumped from Nissan after a brief stint there – literally weeks – following a gig at Hyundai, said, “Tim Allen brings the right combination of a recognizable voice with the credibility, likeability and humor that will connect with viewers.”

The change is indicative of the ongoing turmoil at GM, which is struggling to prove that it can increase its share post bankruptcy with an impending Initial Purchase Offering of stock due in the fourth quarter.


Driving the Toyota Camry Hybrid

Delivering 36 mpg with high technology, but not without quirks.

by on Aug.09, 2010

If you are looking for fuel economy and comfort, the Camry Hybrid is an excellent choice.

There’s no question that the Camry hybrid is a technological triumph that produces stunning increases in fuel economy, particularly during urban and suburban driving that many of us face. However to achieve this Camry hybrid employs a number of sophisticated systems that affect the performance and feel of the popular family car.

These systems result in driving aspects that differ from those of any non-hybrid car you’ve ever driven, starting with the continuously variable transmission, the start/stop engine and regenerative braking. As Toyota’s mainstream entry in the U.S. family car market, this might present a customer satisfaction challenge as sales volumes increase and the driving audience widens on this extremely competent car.

Unlike the hugely successful Prius with its large following of hybrid technology geeks – and I mean that as a complement – Camry is a car that has been accepted largely because drivers can ignore it. Buy a Camry, change the oil once in a while, and keep driving it. Camry is the perfect automotive appliance.

Real World MPG!

However, there’s no ignoring the operation of the Camry hybrid system, if only because the pictorial energy monitors adjacent to the speedometer and on the navigation screen constantly tell you what’s going on and how efficiently you are driving. Annoying at first, the meters soon challenged me to increase my driving efficiency, which I did by following the monitors. Studies have shown that such efficiency “video games” do produce real world fuel economy improvements.


Honda Predicts 2011 Accord Fuel Economy Increase

New coupes and sedans have tweaked exteriors and interiors.

by on Jun.25, 2010

Mid-cycle changes bring badly needed fuel economy improvements from the 5-speed.

The upcoming 2011 Honda Accord Sedan and Coupe will receive changes that include improved fuel economy, modified exterior and interior styling and the addition of a new leather-equipped Special Edition (SE) trim level. It’s a mild upgrade of the eighth generation Accord that appeared in 2008.

The Accord, of course, was the first Japanese-nameplate car assembled in the United States in 1982 when it was being made both in Japan and in a brand-new automobile assembly plant in Marysville, Ohio. The success of the Accord set a path for Honda’s huge American expansion, and proved that building cars in America was a viable proposition.

The fuel economy improvement is significant since Accord still lacks a sixth transmission speed, unlike Toyota and other competitors. Given the competitiveness of the segment – accounting for almost 20% of the cars sold in the U.S.,  Honda is still playing catch up here, an unexpected lag for what normally is a company that resides at the top of the innovation column of the scorecard. (See Driving the 2010 Honda Accord ) More ominous is the large drop in Honda R&D spending since 2008 when the reckless practices of Wall Street resulted in the ongoing Global Great Recession and cutbacks at all makers.

New Model Analysis!

For the new model year, Honda claims that improvements to vehicle aerodynamics, engine friction and transmission gear ratios contribute to better fuel economy. It is projecting that the EPA fuel-economy rating for Accord 4-cylinder sedan models equipped with an automatic transmission will improve by 2 miles per gallon (mpg) in the city and 3 mpg on the highway, for a city/highway rating of 23/34 mpg.

Honda has already sold more than 100,000 Accords this year in sedan or coupe versions with 4-cylinder and V6 variations. Toyota Camry total sales are close to 97,000, meaning that Honda is threatening Camry’s, eight-year best-selling streak. Both Accord and Camry leases start in the $200/month range right now, and well-equipped models are offered at under $300. It will be interesting to see if Honda increases the price of the new Accord when it goes on sale in mid-August.

The 2011 Accord Sedan’s exterior has a new front grille, front bumper and rear deck lid, along with a new wheel design. The Accord Coupe’s stance is enhanced with a “bolder” front grille design, new front bumper shape, changed brakelights and a new wheel design for V6 models.


Driving the 2011 Hyundai Sonata

Excellent room, styling and fuel economy ambush competitors.

by on Jun.15, 2010

Len Katz Photography

Maintaining momentum with a strong redesign. Len Katz Photo.

Funny thing about incremental gains in automobiles, they eventually add to something big.

Last year was something big for Hyundai Motor America as it picked up more than one percentage point of U.S. market share during the worst business climate since the Great Depression.

Over the previous decade, the Korean maker edged slowly along, picking up a tenth of a point each year. However, taxpayer financed “Cash for Clunkers,” coupled with years of product refinement, reasonable pricing, along with some deft marketing of an extended warranty made for what was a ten-fold increase in the rate of gain.

The momentum has not stopped. This May marked the seventeenth consecutive month of year-over-year share gains for Hyundai. Year to date, Hyundai sales are up 23% to 205,000 vehicles compared with 2009.

The volume car at the heart of the lineup is the completely redesigned for 2011 Sonata sedan that is just appearing. So far, this sixth generation version has been well received. To find out why, I spent a week testing a pearl white Limited model – $26,315 delivered. There are leases advertised starting at under $200/month for less well-equipped models.

What emerged after several hundred miles of testing was a comfortable, fuel efficient (26 mpg average) and generally pleasant car. This bodes well for Hyundai, but not for competitors, since Sonata is, arguably, the most important launch thus far for the upstart Korean maker.

Critical Reviews!

If there is a problem here, it is caused by the companion company Kia with its Optima derived from the same corporate parts bin. However, that is a nit, and a longer-term marketing separation issue for the parent company as each brand grows.  Kia sales through May at 138,000 are up 15%. The overall market is up 17%, but that number is heavily influenced by Detroit Three fleet sales, which have doubled compared to the year before, and are running at 30% of units wholesaled. (more…)

Driving the Chevrolet Cruze

Mixing it up between the mid-size and compact segments.

by on Jun.04, 2010

The editor testing a surprisingly good small car from Chevrolet, the Cruze.

In the hotly contested family car market, Chevrolet is finally replacing its aging Cobalt with the Cruze sedan, which is already on sale since 2009 in more than 60 countries throughout Asia and Europe.

The Cruze is a design hybrid, so to speak, since its engineering was done at Opel in Germany and Daewoo in South Korea. North American versions will go into production at Lordstown, Ohio, this summer.

What’s come out of this mélange is a $17,000 to $25,000 offering that GM hopes will take some sales back from the Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic, the two class leaders, when the 2011 model Cruze appears this fall. The Nissan Altima is also a perennial contender in this game, and also needs to be reckoned with.

Nevertheless -  and how is this for a welcome change – Cruze actually has more transmission speeds and more standard equipment than some facing competitors. Toyota is just getting by with a four-speed automatic, and Honda’s manual transaxle has but five gears. If GM keeps this up, it might become a profitable car company again, and taxpayers might get their billions back.

The pricing – before any rebates or incentives appear  – is right on top of the asking prices of Japanese cars, an ambitious move – if, big if, GM can make it stick. Certainly the hardware is competitive, but there are decades of bad small cars to overcome. And I will note, briefly,  the bankruptcy and taxpayer bailout are unhelpful here in establishing badly needed momentum.

GM’s problem with this competent car will be marketing, not equipment level or quality or ride and handing. Cruze is a very, very good family car, and can run with the best. It needs some innovative sales promotion.

However, given GM’s current state, Cruze is more likely in my opinion to cause some competition among buyers inside GM since it straddles the Malibu and other upcoming smaller Chevy offerings. The demises of the Saturn Aura and Pontiac G6 provides some relief from the internal cannibalization problem, though.

The “plain vanilla in styling” Cruze will also face some tough competition from the more aggressively styled Ford Focus when it finally arrives next year, and, to a lesser extent, the aging Dodge Caliber and its incentives.

Cruze is expected to deliver segment-leading 40 mpg highway fuel economy with a new “ECO” model, equipped with a 1.4-liter, four-cylinder, “Ecotec” turbocharged engine and a  six-speed automatic transmission. This is  a tiny powerplant when compared with  the 2.2-liter engine of the Cobalt. Other Cruze models will have a 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine.

A day of test driving  pre-production – but meticulously prepped – Cruze models at GM’s Milford Proving Grounds revealed a pleasant vehicle that is more controlled in wheel and body motions than the Corolla, albeit with equally bland styling. Cruze has  better packaging (110 cubic feet interior volume) when compared to the more aggressively styled Civic (103 cubic feet).

Simply put, Cruze is refined and smooth in comparison to previous GM small car offerings, some of which were, frankly, world class awful. The powertrains are finally upgraded to levels that earlier generations of GM engineers could not envision because of  the institutional or intellectual restraints either imposed or accepted.

The 2011 Chevrolet Cruze will be offered in LS, LT and LTZ trim levels. It has ten standard air bags – the most in the segment – include frontal, head curtain side air bags, front and outboard rear-seat side-impact air bags and new knee air bags. (more…)

Driving the 2010 Honda Accord

Interior, drivetrain and dynamics make a formidable family car.

by on May.26, 2010

Accord is challenging the Toyota Camry for the top seller title in the segment.

The Honda versus Toyota question goes back for decades, not as long as the Yankees versus the Red Sox, but with almost the same intensity among fans as the ongoing diamond debate.

The latest version of the Accord, introduced in 2008, is more aggressively styled, has a larger interior and better driving dynamics than the long-time best seller in the class, the Toyota Camry. In short, the Accord, originally introduced in 1976 as a 3-door hatchback with a wheelbase of the current Honda Fit b-car has grown as its buyers aged.

The tradeoff for “more fun to drive” traits in the current car is that Accord is also little harsher and nosier than the “mostly invisible during operation” Camry. Year to date, Honda has already sold more than 100,000 Accords. Camry total sales are close to 97,000, meaning that Honda is threatening Camry’s, eight-year best-selling streak. Both Accord and Camry leases start in the $200/month range right now, and well equipped models are offered at under $300.

The 2010 Accord four-door model EX tested here – $25,380 MSRP – has its origins in a complete redesign for the 2008 model year. At that time, Honda increased Accord’s dimensions to provide for a larger interior (+3.3 cubic feet compared to 2007), attaining an EPA full-size designation at 120 cubic feet of interior and trunk space. The Accord sedan’s overall length of 194.1 inches is 3 inches longer than the 2007 model, width of 72.7 inches is 1.1 inches wider, and the height of 58.1 inches is 0.9 inches taller.

Even though the size is larger in every dimension, the Accord’s torsional rigidity  increased by 20%, Honda claims, as a result of a body structure that uses 48% high-tensile steel by volume, the most of any Accord to date. Unfortunately, weight is up 5%.

In following the American tradition of bigger is better, an optional 3.5-liter i-VTEC V6 engine is offered. The V6 produces 268 horsepower – the most ever for any Accord. The V6 also debuted a new generation of fuel-saving variable cylinder management technology and achieved a Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle (PZEV) rating – a sop to Accord buyers who think of Honda as a green company with smaller cars and engines.

The cylinder shutoff system operates in 6-cylinder mode for power, and 4- and 3-cylinder modes for efficiency, resulting in EPA fuel economy ratings of 19 city and 29 miles per gallon (Accord sedan V6 with the 5-speed automatic transaxle).

The V6 is not really needed, though. The standard 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine has more than enough oomph with its 190 horsepower to launch and merge the large car into traffic. Better still, it is rated at 21 city, 31 highway. In mixed suburban driving, I obtained just under the EP combined rating of 25 mpg, and loved every minute of it. The Accord is a slick drive.


Driving the 2010 Toyota Camry

Large, quiet and luxurious, so much so it is really a Lexus.

by on May.19, 2010

Camry is the benchmark for the class because of its long standing sales leadership.

The family sedan has gone soft during the past few years, as every entry in the segment has gotten larger, plusher, heavier and more expensive.

However, the addition of six or more airbags, vehicle stability control and elaborate electronic navigation and sound systems, among a growing list of features  – all added weight and have worked against drivers by causing more frequent visits to the pump.

Increasing amounts of sophisticated technology, such as variable timing for engine valves, six-speed automatic transmissions and direct fuel injection have helped to keep the cars reasonably fuel efficient and – for the moment – out of gas guzzler tax range, but a balancing act is underway at competing makers.

The latest iteration of the Toyota Camry, introduced in 1997, is no exception. This sixth generation Camry is classified by the EPA as a midsize car with more than 116 cubic feet of passenger and trunk volume. (Camry was introduced in 1982 as a compact replacement for the Corona, and has been a growing car in the midsize class since 1992.) As the best-selling passenger car in the U.S. for eight years running, 12 of the past 13 years, Camry is the benchmark for the class. Through the end of April, Camry total sales are at 96,509, up 5.4% percent over this time last year.

Camry’s current prices range from $19,395 for the sedan with a new six-speed manual transmission to $29,245 for the XLE with a six-speed automatic transmission. The high mileage, low emissions Camry Hybrid carries a price of $26,400. (Add $750 for delivery.)

Reviews You Can Trust!

The top of the line XLE tested, totaled $31,475, although a shopper can likely do better than that – minus 5% to 10%, maybe more – given Toyota’s current use of incentives to regain momentum lost in the marketplace caused by the unintended acceleration recalls. This massive setback to Toyota’s heretofore good image has also caused Consumer Reports to suspend its long standing “recommended buy” on all Camry models, except for the hybrid, which is not affected. (more…)