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First Drive: 2011 Honda Odyssey Minivan

Number one for good reasons and revised to stay there.

by on Sep.09, 2010

Like all automakers Honda is attempting emotional styling. The real rational story is on the inside.

The success of the minivan was likely the reason for the subsequent irrational success of sport utility vehicles. Minivans screamed “mom-mobiles,” sending the kids raised in them – as well as more fashion conscious suburbanites – into hard riding, gas guzzling trucks to avoid the perceived stigma. Then when “crossovers” appeared, the easier riding, more fuel-efficient van segment took a further hit. Sales dwindled, and mainstream makers such as General Motors and Ford Motor (given their badly outclassed products) abandoned minivans entirely. No surprise then that during the last six years, sales of minivans have plummeted from more than 1.1 million units annually to about 500,000 today.

Minivans are now largely a three, maybe four company contest, depending on your bias. Honda with its Odyssey has led in sales for most of the past decade, averaging 145,000 annually over the last five years, but tracking at 100,000 today in a depressed market. Still, this allows it to retain leadership, but it is down significantly from more than 170,000 Odysseys sold in 2006 and 2007. Chrysler, even though it invented the modern minivan back in the 1980s, lags Honda by roughly 10,000 units a year on its Town&Country and Dodge Caravan models taken separately, although if you add the two together, it leads. Then there are, arguably, the real competitors in many shopper’s minds, the Toyota Sienna, refreshed last year, but still lagging aging Odysseys sales, and the also old Nissan Quest, due to be replaced next year.

Honda is placing a couple of large bets with the 2011 Odyssey, a heavily revised version of  its third generation people hauler that appeared in 2005. I do mean large.

No other current minivan interior comes close for packaging efficiency and versatility.

The new Odyssey is wider and longer than its predecessor, in a calculated effort to take minivan utility even further. To be fair, it is also lower and more efficient in a powerful demonstration of incremental engineering changes compounding into a salubrious effect. Moreover unlike Detroit automaker engineering habits, Honda took weight out in the process.


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…)

Top Picks and Nits for Commuter Cars?

AAA releases its version of practical cars for daily driving.

by on Mar.23, 2010

If you can get past Toyota's recall and safety troubles, Prius remains a great commuter car.

AAA released its top vehicle picks for commuters today based on practicality, safety, comfort, fuel efficiency and affordability criteria.

The non-profit motoring organization, with 51 million members, says the average motorist spends roughly 41 minutes a day traveling about 22.5 miles round trip to/from work in personal vehicles.

Its top picks for commuting – with my comments, and please add yours – are:

  • Honda Insight: This car is among the ultimate in gasoline fuel economy while being reasonably comfortable for the driver and front-seat passenger. It is also less costly and more fun to drive than some of its hybrid competitors.

(Well, maybe since the promised low-price version of the Toyota Prius has never appeared. However, my trips to Honda dealerships revealed that most of the cars offered are higher trim levels, so the alleged price advantage is confined to press releases.)

  • Ford Fusion: Four-cylinder versions offer an appealing combination of power, riding comfort and handling competence. The Hybrid offers even more economy, but the fuel savings come with a major bump in the purchase price.

(No kidding the hybrid is more expensive. Be sure to drive the four-cylinder before you buy it. its performance is, well, leisurely.)

  • Volkswagen Jetta TDI: Everything that you ever hated about diesels has been exorcised in this latest version of the Volkswagen diesel engine. It is quiet, with just a trace of diesel clatter at idle; peppy, especially when underway; and every bit as economical as the most miserly hybrids. It also is great fun to drive. Comfortable front seats are a plus.


(I do not think the Jetta is every bit as “economical” as most hybrids. Our testing shows Prius with a roughly 10 mpg advantage in urban, suburban and highway conditions. See also Road&Track, March 2010 for an even more rigorous testing data. And fueling a diesel, especially at truck stops, is a less than fun experience.)   (more…)

Mercedes-Benz ML450 Hybrid Finally Debuts in U.S.

Up to 46% better fuel economy claimed for “lease only” SUV.

by on Nov.13, 2009

Mercedes-Benz ML450 HYBRID 4MATIC

Mercedes plans to sell the ML and subsequent Hybrid-powered SUVs only in the U.S.

Next Monday, Mercedes-Benz will officially launch the ML450 Hybrid, the first European marque full Hybrid vehicle to be offered in the U.S.

It is based on the technology developed by General Motors for its dual-mode Hybrid models, which the company subsequently licensed to BMW, Chrysler and Mercedes, all of whom were and are desperately behind in the Hybrid technology race long dominated by Toyota and Lexus.

The Alabama-built ML450 Hybrid joins the S400 Hybrid, which cannot run on electricity alone, and existing “BlueTec” diesel models in its growing portfolio of, relatively, fuel-efficient vehicles.

Mercedes plans to sell the ML and subsequent Hybrid-powered SUVs only in the U.S., global marketing chief Klaus Meier told TDB. The technology is meant to supplement, rather than replace Mercedes’ diesel offerings, which currently account for about 20% of its SUV sales, in the U.S.

ML450 Hybrid will be offered as part of a special lease only option (no purchase allowed!) for a lease price of $659 per month for 36 months and $549 per month for 60 months. A down payment of $5,200 or $5,000, respectively, is required.

A  Mercedes spokesperson told us that it is too early to say what will happen to the vehicles at the end of the lease period, and whether they or later production models will ultimately be available for sale.

Readers may recall the  huge controversy around Saturn’s lease only EV1 electric cars at GM, which to the outrage of happy owners were taken back and shredded at the end of their leases, in spite of pleas from the owners to buy them.

Whether this is lawyer-generated problem at Mercedes, as it was at GM, or Daimler’s doubts about the life and performance of the ML’s nickel metal hydride batteries, or an attempt to limit the volume of what most assuredly is a large loss-making vehicle, among other possibilities that I haven’t thought of, I’ll leave as open questions.

No Purchase needed!

No Purchase Needed!

Mercedes is marketing the ML Hybrid as having V8-like power with four-cylinder fuel economy. Although, Mercedes provided data show that at 7.8 seconds zero-to-60 mph acceleration time, the Hybrid is a full 2.2 seconds slower than the V8. And at 5,000 pounds rated towing capacity, it has 2,200 pounds less capability. I have not driven the SUV but look forward to doing so.


Mercedes-Benz Slashes E-Class Pricing

Price cut aimed at undercutting BMW and other competitors

by on Apr.30, 2009

Mercedes plans to slash the price of its new E-Class models by 10 percent, despite the addition of significant new hardware -- and a complete interior and exterior redesign.

Mercedes plans to slash the price of its new E-Class models by 10%, despite significant new hardware -- and a complete interior and exterior redesign.

Aiming to undercut the competition, and stop a precipitous sales drop, Mercedes-Benz is taking the dramatic step of cutting prices on its all-new, 2010 E-Class sedan by about 10%, despite the addition of “significant” amounts of new content on the updated model.

The 2010 E350, with its 3.5-liter V-6, will start at $48,600, the automaker announced, during a media preview of the sedan, on Thursday. The ’09 E350 currently goes for $53,200. (The figures don’t include destination and delivery charges, which will come to $875 on the 2010 E-Class.)

The more powerful E550, meanwhile, will start at $56,300, also a cut of about 10% compared to the 2009 model.    (more…)

First Drive: 2010 Hyundai Genesis Coupe

Affordable? Yes. Cheap and cheerful? Not anymore.

by on Apr.01, 2009

Turning heads and leaving tire tracks, the 2010 Hyundai Genesis Coupe should redefine the Korean brand.

Turning heads and leaving tire tracks, the Genesis Coupe should help redefine the Korean brand.

If you’re a comedian, there are some things that automatically ensure a laugh.  You can slip on a banana peel or take a pie in the face.  You usually only have to mention New Jersey – and before you Joisey boys write me hate letters, know that I grew up off Exit 117 – or you can say the word “Hyundai.”

Since its American debut, two decades ago, the Korean carmaker has been the butt of Leno’s late night jokes, and not taken very seriously by automotive aficionados.  That was well-deserved in the days of the original Hyundai Pony, but not anymore.  If you hadn’t heard, the automaker’s first luxury car, the Genesis sedan, was named North American Car of the Year by a panel of 50 U.S. and Canadian autowriters, early this year.  (I’m one of those judges.)

Now comes the second car to bear the Genesis badge, in this case a striking blend of styling, power and sporty handling dubbed the Genesis Coupe.  Its debut should have the competition seriously concerned.  And that’s no joke. (more…)

First Drive: Infiniti G37 Convertible

Good looks, great performance. Sorry about the trunk.

by on Mar.27, 2009

Infiniti traded off trunk and rear seat space to deliver a convertible that maintains the looks of the sleek G37 Coupe.

Infiniti traded trunk and rear seat space for a convertible with the sleek look of the G37 Coupe.

As I set out on a beautiful, early Spring morning for the winding open roads north of Los Angeles, my mind turns back to the frigid cold morning, just a wee bit more than 20 years before, when Nissan formally pulled the wraps off its new luxury brand, Infiniti.

The event overlapped the similar announcement, at the 1989 Detroit Auto Show  by Toyota, which used the well-attended show to introduce its own luxury marque, Lexus.  The similarities continued from there.  Both brands would come to market with a pair of new products: a small and reasonably affordable “entry-luxury” sedan, and a high-line saloon car aimed directly at the European makers, such as BMW and Mercedes-Benz that had long dominated the upscale automotive market.

But those nearly identical debuts soon diverged, Lexus quickly becoming one of the most powerful players in the luxury market — indeed, it has been the segment’s best-seller, here in the U.S. for most of the decade – while Infiniti all but vanished from popular perception.  Indeed, in the late 1990s when parent Nissan was struggling for its very survival, it gave serious consideration to killing off the moribund brand.

CEO Carlos Ghosn ultimately relented, and his renewed focus on product has slowly begun to pay off.  Though Infiniti remains an also-ran in the luxury segment, it’s slowly — belatedly — gaining traction.  It’s in the midst of a global product roll-out, one that gained significant notoriety during the recent Geneva Motor Show, thanks to the unveiling of the Essence concept car, judged by many in the media to be the Swiss show’s most striking introduction. (more…)