Thursday, August 30, 2007

Lies Spin Hybrid Battery Undercurrent

I came across a quote the other day attributed to Mark Twain that goes something like this, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” It’s an apt description of what’s been dogging hybrid automobiles and keeping them marginalized.
I realized I needed to say something about this when my wife Susan came home the other day and asked me if it was true that hybrid automobile batteries needed to be replaced every two years at a cost of thousands of dollars.
Well, the simple answer to that question is NO.
This lie about hybrid batteries is a choice bit of misinformation put in motion by the spin doctors of the internal combustion gasoline engine lobby. They are hard at work undermining public confidence in hybrid technology.
Last winter, I first detected there was a bonafide effort afoot in some quarters of the auto industry to sideline the hybrid when a keynote speaker at the Northeast international auto show in Providence took pot shots at hybrid batteries and their disposal.
It was clear his words were meant to create doubts about the future of hybrid technology.
Looks like the spin is working when a humble consumer like my wife, who is considering a hybrid for her next automobile purchase, comes home with sudden second-thoughts.
Before I even address the “two year” part of the lie, consider this. At Toyota all hybrid-specific components on the Prius are guaranteed for at least 8 years or 100,000 miles.
Specifically, here’s what Toyota says: “Prius' hybrid-related components, including the HV battery, battery control module, hybrid control module and inverter with converter, are covered for 8 years/100,000 miles. The HV battery may have longer coverage under emissions warranty.”
You’ll find similar warranties with other hybrid manufacturers.
Regarding the alleged two year lifespan, that might apply if your driving you’re your car to death at the rate of over 50,000 miles a year. But even here there’s anecdotal evidence that a Vancouver taxi driver drove a Prius over 200,000 in 25 months and the batteries still held out strong.
But other than unusual driving like that, the average hybrid driver is likely to get well over seven years use from their batteries.
So much for the two year lie.
The batteries of a hybrid automobile system function a little differently than ordinary rechargeable batteries such as the ones in cell phones. Hybrid batteries never get fully charged or discharged. They operate in the 40 to 60 percent range of charge. This prolongs the useful life for this type of nickel-hydride battery.
In U.S. Department of Energy tests of hybrid batteries, it was determined that although the capacities of the batteries tested had diminished over time, their ability to absorb energy had not degraded even after 160,000 miles of use.
I realize that hybrid technology may not be the ultimate answer to our gas guzzling ways. It is at best a transitional technology. But it is a step in the right direction.
Consumers should be well advised not mislead. There’s a lot a stake both economically and with the environment. Lies are not the way forward.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

GPS Navigation Is the New Must Have Auto Gadget

It doesn’t get much easier finding one’s way to a destination than by using a portable GPS navigation system. Program in the location to which you’re heading and bingo, the most direct route is displayed in real time as you drive, street by street, turn by turn.
So convenient are these marvels of space age technology and now more affordable that the public has turned a niche market product of a year ago into the must-have-item-da-jour.
At Radio Shack in Fairhaven, Massachusetts sales associates Steve Slattery and Sean Landry have noticed a big upturn in sales of the devices over the last few months.
“More and more people are starting to buy them,” observed Steve.
Lower pricing and the availability of more brands has made the difference.
The GPS navigation device kiosk at Radio Shack displays three brands: Garmin (the industry leader), TomTom and Magellan. Prices range from $299.99 for the essential TomTom “One” to $899.99 for the Garmin “Nuvi 660”.
The most advanced models offer Bluetooth wireless connectivity to cellphones and headphones for hands-free driving convenience and safety. With similarly equipped Bluetooth cellphones, the phone display comes up on the larger GPS device display and audio is routed through the unit, too.
Plus, many models now include test-to-speech capability to actually recite the street names and turns as you go along with other instructions and can locate points of interest, restaurants and service stations.
Vacationers are a ready market for this level of technology. What is especially enticing is that there are no monthly service fees to use the equipment and get information.
“If I were traveling, I would probably have one,” noted Sean.
But even day trippers and commuters can find great convenience in using a GPS navigation system.
As familiar as a Boston or a Providence might be or even the winding back roads of Cape Cod, there are always new places one goes to in these locales that can be hard to find. Simply program the location into the navigation system and you’re ready to go – no guessing.
Some models also make a traffic re-routing service available for an additional subscription fee. The service will notify the driver of upcoming traffic snarls and offer an alternative route.
“Most people coming in, looking for the most features for the lowest price go for the TomTom “Go 510” or the Magellan “RoadMate 2200T”,” explained Sean. “Both are $399.99.”
Key differences are that the Go 510 offers Bluetooth compatibility whereas the Magellan holds a longer battery charge.
If you’re an iPod user, some models are fully compatible with the player and display the iPod screen on the navigation display. Other models provide mp3 music playback and memory card capability.
More than another distraction while driving, GPS navigation systems can make it a lot easier for drivers struggling to figure out where they are going.
“Definitely a nice thing to have,” said Sean. “The last time I was in Boston, I wish I had one.”

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Pinewood Derby Revs Up Youthful Creativity

The fascination with speed and how things move starts early. As children we observe, play and experiment with our toys and ultimately develop some understanding of motion.
On a practical level, as adults we apply this learning everyday when we drive our vehicles.
For the Cub Scouts of Pack 14 in Lakeville, last Saturday was the day to test their concepts of motion in the annual Pinewood Derby held at Ted Williams Camp off Route 18. Over sixty scouts participated.
The trek to the derby began three months ago. Starting with a small block of wood, two axles and four wheels, the cubs scouts fashioned small vehicles for the competition. They were bound by a strict set of competition parameters but had free reign to design and paint the vehicles to their own liking.
The cars had to conform to an overall width of 2-3/4" and a length of 7". The width between the wheels had to be 1-3/4" and the bottom clearance between car and racetrack had to be 3/8". The weight could not exceed 5 ounces.
The grail, of course, is to create a vehicle that makes it down the derby course in the fastest time. The creators of the three fastest vehicles go on to regional and possibly national competitions. Prizes are also awarded for Best Craftsmanship, Most Creative Design and Best Use Of Paint.
The standardized track presents a uniform way for the vehicles to demonstrate their mix of weight and drag.
Three at a time, the cars start on an incline at a height of four feet and pick up speed going downhill for a distance of about 16 feet. They then coast and additional 16 feet on a flat straightaway to the finish line. The results are electronically timed.
The designs of many of the vehicles stuck closely to conventional ideas of what race cars or dragsters look like but some are designed purely for speed and don’t look at all like ordinary notions of cars except for the four wheels. Some are just pure fun and imagination in their designs.
Such is the case with the coffin-like vehicle that Cameron Roberts created.
Cameron, whose father, Matt, is the Cub Master, said he based his idea on a design he saw in a television cartoon and although he wouldn’t expect to see a full-size car designed like it, the vehicle was not just an “all show and no go” design. It won its heat in the competition.
“I put weight inside the coffin and I put a lid on it,” explained Cameron.
Cameron’s mom, Cyndi, said that the event creates a lot of enthusiasm among the cub scouts and that it keeps growing each year. There’s good parent participation, she noted.
The fastest car of the day was created by Bradley Pedro. His vehicle finished with a time of 2.43 seconds. The thin, skateboard-like design was built purely for speed.
He described his feelings about winning in a word, “Good.”
His dad, Dave, was impressed with the enthusiasm everyone has for the event.
“This is the third year we’ve been doing it,” he said. “It gets better organized with more families each year.”
Plus, he’s observed how the kids put more into creating the vehicles as they get older.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Kia Finds Power In Their Surprises

I was looking through a Kia Motors catalog recently and guess what? Their catch phrase “The Power To Surprise” is right on target.
The full Kia line presents just 10 models and includes SUVs, a minivan, sedans, hatchbacks and a new crossover that redefines the word station wagon. There are no pickup trucks. But what the lineup lacks in numbers, it makes up for in style, safety and quality.
The first surprise was discovering that Kia sold its first million vehicles to the U.S. market in just 10 years. That beats Toyota, Mazda, BMW and Mercedes to name a few heavy hitters.
In the fiercely competitive auto market, that’s an amazing accomplishment these days. An automaker does not make that mark on slick marketing. It takes a distinguished product to pull it off.
It must have surprised a lot of Kia competitors last year when the Rio garnered recognition as the “Highest Ranked Sub-Compact in Initial Quality” by J.D. Power and Associates. Suddenly, this young upstart is a force in contention.
Quality is a great starting point for consumer attention. But the Rio has more that buyers like, especially in the sub-compact segment – the safety of six standard airbags; plenty of passenger and cargo space (class leading 92.2 cu.ft. for people and 11.9 cu.ft. for cargo) and satisfying fuel efficiency (29 city/38 highway with the 4-speed automatic)
Then there’s the Sedona minivan. It’s the highest safety-rated minivan of all-time. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the government agency which rates the crash safety of all vehicles using a five star system, gave the Sedona the highest five-star safety marks in all four categories that cover frontal and side crashes.
The Sedona also got the nod as “Top Safety Pick” from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The list of standard safety features for this seven-passenger people mover is impressive: dual front air bags, front seat-mounted side airbags, full-length side curtain airbags, front active headrests, tire pressure monitoring system, 4-wheel disc brakes with ABS, Electronic Stability Control, Traction Control System, child-friendly lower anchors and tethers.
Another surprise from Kia is the new Rondo. Functionally, one could call it a station wagon. But that description is dropping out of the vernacular these days. It’s a crossover vehicle – meaning that it takes styling and stature from the SUV segment but drives like a car.
The Rondo is big enough to carry seven passengers yet is fuel efficient enough to get up to 29 miles per gallon with the four-cylinder version. It designed to go toe-to-toe with vehicles like the Ford Focus wagon, the Subaru Impreza wagon and the Dodge Caliber.
The Rondo is a surprise late-entry into the 2007 lineup and is aimed to further Kia’s penetration into the U.S. market particularly in the fast-growing crossover segment.
News of Kia’s impressive level of quality, safety and value is growing. By industry standards, they are getting it right and consumers are beginning to take notice.
They’ll get a lot of mileage out of “The Power To Surprise” tagline especially when their surprises are all pleasant ones.

Monday, March 5, 2007

2008 EPA Mileage Ratings Give New Reality To Perception

If perception is everything, then automakers are going to have a job to do explaining the new EPA mileage-rating stickers that will be displayed on 2008 model-year vehicles. Fuel economy is going to show lower numbers across the board.
The new ratings are meant to better reflect real-world results. Even vehicles that have not changed anything about their performance from the 2007 model-year will show lower mpg numbers on the new 2008 stickers. Under the new way of calculating fuel economy, mileage estimates will fall between two and four mpg on average.
This is definitely for the benefit of consumers. The new way the EPA measures miles per gallon will take into consideration factors such as higher average driving speeds and more pervasive use of air conditioning. Consumer-minded AAA hails the change for addressing a truth in advertising issue.
No doubt, a change was long overdue. The last time the EPA revised the measurement system was in 1984.
But with sales of light trucks and SUVs, in a bit of a funk right now, the timing of the change is certainly inconvenient for dealers. Considering that the sales slump (total retail sales in 2006 was down 8.5 percent in this segment) likely was triggered by concerns about the price of fuel, having buyers see even lower fuel economy figures might be troublesome.
It presents more of an immediate issue for manufacturers such as Ford who have some 2008-designated models already being shipped to their dealers.
General manager Paul Neary at Ashley Ford in New Bedford is expecting his first 2008 Escape any moment. It’s so close to delivery, it’s already showing in inventory. He printed out 2007 and 2008 window stickers for comparison.
Side by side, the 2007 and 2008 Ford Escape 4WD, 4 speed automatic with a 3.0 liter Duratec V6 will show 19 mpg city, 23 highway for the 2007 versus 17 city, 22 highway, for the 2008.
Thus the perception problem.
Even the very economical Escape hybrid shows the 2007 at 32 city, 29 highway versus the 2008 at 29 city, 27 highway (hybrids typically fair better in the city than on the highway).
Now, I know consumers are pretty sharp and will quickly figure all this out. The EPA is even assisting by including the old calculations on the sticker in smaller print on the earliest of the 2008 models.
But on face value, at least for this transitional year, there’s bound to be some apples and oranges comparison between 2007s and 2008s.
For the time being, Mr. Neary is not overly concerned. Gasoline prices have been lower and he still sees a demand for Ford trucks. But he’s got his eyes focused down the road, too.
“Will fuel economy be an issue? Absolutely, going forward,” he stated. “But at $2.15 per gallon, I don’t see it.”
Mr. Neary is more concerned about what he sees as the mis-perception many buyers have about the fuel economy of vehicles coming from American automakers.
Hopefully, the lower numbers on the new EPA stickers don’t simply reinforce that perception.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Trucks/SUVs Get Even More Car-Like In 2007

As if to blur the distinction between truck/SUVs and cars, automakers are driving deeper into the comfort zone with their work and off-road vehicles in 2007.
With crossover being the vehicle buzzword that also aptly describes buying habits these days, the more a manufacturer’s truck or SUV does double duty as powerful workhorse and comfortable family vehicle, the more likely it is to attract buyers. Throw in some new technology that boosts fuel economy and that truck or SUV starts to look even more attractive.
If anything, 2007 is shaping up to be a watershed year for trucks and SUVs. Attracting and holding consumer attention in this segment of the auto industry is more challenging than it has been for the last decade.
In the showroom, many buyers had been purchasing trucks or SUVs and using them as though they were cars. But the auto industry is seeing that dynamic shift towards actual car purchases. They are responding with trucks and SUVs that are even more car-like. Take a look at some of what’s new in trucks and SUV’s and see for yourself.
One of the grand-daddies of the SUV family, the Chevrolet Suburban has gotten a complete makeover this year and has added a new engine to the lineup that employs a fuel-saving variable displacement system called Active Fuel Management to automatically shut down four cylinders while cruising on the highway.
The engine, a Vortec 5.3 liter V8, is standard in the half-ton series of Suburban. Highway mileage improves to 21 mpg. The LTZ version adds head-curtain side airbags in all rows.
The Suburban chassis has been redesigned to give a better ride and improve handling, too. Pricing starts at $37,760 for the LS. Entry point for the LTZ is $47,035.
The smaller Chevrolet Tahoe has gotten a similar makeover.
Chevrolet has scored big this year with the Silverado, winning both the prestigious North American Truck of the Year and Motor Trend’s Truck of the Year awards. The truck has gotten a completely new frame that improves handling and ride comfort. Side-curtain airbags are available as well as Active Fuel Management and GM’s StabiliTrak electronic stability control.
The WT (Work Truck) version of the Silverado is priced starting at $18,750 but there are so many variations of the model including crew cab versions that its easy to spend over $35,000 to get exactly what one wants.
Chrysler has introduced the Aspen for 2007 to go toe to toe with the Cadillac Escalade and the Lincoln Navigator. It’s available with either the huge 4.7 liter, 235 hp V8 engine or the humongous 5.7 liter, 335 hp Hemi V8 that employs cylinder deactivation to improve overall fuel economy.
“It’s the first full-size SUV that Chrysler has had,” noted Ed Pimentle, business manager at Hiller Co. Chrysler-Dodge in Marion. “It’s more of a luxury SUV.”
The Aspen really goes the route with high-end standard equipment including rear parking sensors and tire pressure monitoring but holds the line on entry level pricing at $31,490. Even with the Hemi option in the 4x2 version, the Aspen can attain 20 mpg on the highway. Other luxury features such as remote start, heated seats, navigation system and power liftgate are options.
At Dodge, the green light is on for environmentally friendly upgrades. Start with the Dakota pickup which adds flex-fuel E85 capability to the optional 4.7 liter V8 engine.
E85 is a fuel mixture of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline that many in the auto industry anticipate will be readily available in the next few years. Many gas stations already pump a mixture of 10 percent ethanol and 90 percent gasoline. Flex-fuel vehicles automatically adjust for the changing fuel mixtures to obtain maximum performance.
This year, the Dakota also adds a very useful dual position tailgate and spiffs up the interior with stain resistant fabric. Pricing starts at $19,780.
The Dodge Durango, which has seen a significant redesign for 2007, offers a fuel saving multi-displacement cylinder shutdown system with the optional 5.7 liter Hemi engine that can muster up 20 mpg on the highway. The smaller 4.7 liter V8 is E85 capable as in the Dakota.
Electronic stability control is now standard as well as side airbags. Bucket seats are available for the second row with heat. It’s best in its class for cargo storage behind the second row of seats, too. All told, the Durango can comfortably carry up to eight passengers and otherwise has numerous seating configurations. A base model with a 3.7 liter V6 engine is priced from $27,055.
Completely new at Dodge this year is the 5 passenger Nitro. This midsize SUV is clearly aimed at younger buyers with it’s “Loaded With Adrenaline” marketing tag. Off-road, the full-time four wheel drive should easily live up to the hype especially when coupled with optional 20 inch wheels.
Power in the base model Nitro is delivered by 210 hp, 3.7 liter V6. A bigger 4.0 liter V6 is available. Pricing begins at $19,885.
In that youthful vein, Honda has perked up the Element with an additional 10 hp, boosting the performance of its sole 2.4 liter 4-cylinder engine to 166 hp. The uniquely square-ish looking crossover SUV has also added a hip new SC version that has a monochromatic finish, sport suspension and 18 inch wheels. The 2WD entry level LX model comes in at $19,495. The SC is priced from $23,290.
Meanwhile, the popular Honda CR-V has gotten a complete redesign for 2007. Sleek on the outside and polished on the inside, in all categories this crossover SUV shows refinements – safety, comfort, style and performance.
Stability/traction control and ABS are standard. But that’s just the start to a long list of standard features that enhance this vehicle’s comfort level: power windows & locks, adjustable steering column, cruise control, map lights, a tachometer, air conditioning with air filtration. The list goes on. It’s priced from $21,195.
The four-door Honda Ridgeline pickup has also tweaked its level of refinements with passenger safety and comfort features including front seat side airbags with occupancy detection, side-curtain airbags with rollover sensors and rear seat heater ducts. Entry level price is $28,395.
The all-new Mitsubishi Outlander adds a hot new crossover to the 2007 lineup of SUVs. The featured-loaded vehicle belies its compact design.
Fuel consumption is maximized with variable valve timing and a six speed transmission; an electronic stability system controls brakes, engine output and 4WD to stabilize the vehicle when it detects skidding; a Bluetooth mobile phone interface with voice recognition facilitates hands free phone use; ABS brakes ensure safe stopping. All this and it’s priced from $19,990.
“People have gotten away from truck-styled SUVs,” explained Alan Hollis, sales manager at Executive Mitsubishi in New Bedford referring to the Outlander. “The new crossover SUVs are built more like cars.”
The Outlander LS will transport up to five people. The XLS version can transport seven. An available rear-seat DVD entertainment system can keep those passengers entertained.
Ford has added its own crossover SUV – the Edge - to the burgeoning list of quasi-cars now available. It’s a five passenger vehicle that offers higher sight lines than the typical car yet manages fuel with car-like economy. EPA estimates give the Edge 27 mpg on the highway.
Boldly styled and sharp-looking, the Edge offers a unique two-part panoramic glass roof as an option that will lets the sun shine in for front and rear passengers. With the back seat down, cargo space is an ample 69.6 cu. ft. Power derives from a new 265 hp, 3.5 liter V6. Pricing starts at $25,995.
This is just a start. There are lots more trucks and SUVs out there in the showrooms with new features that will impress. Go have a look.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Automakers Zoom Back In On Thriftier Cars

There is perhaps no other time in automotive history as exciting and adventurous as these. The convergence of technology, entertainment and design is producing some of the most equipped and comfortable cars ever made.
What’s more is that consumers can find luxury, power, efficiency and value on all levels. Take your pick of sedan, wagon, hatchback or coupe and there’s likely more on those four wheels in 2007 than in previous incarnations.
As if simultaneously struck by an aha! moment, automakers are collectively more focused on the car than they have been in over a decade. Yes, after years of riding in the back of the lineup behind SUV’s and trucks, the car has returned to prominence.
Much of the renewed attention on cars is being driven by fuel economy. Pound for pound, cars typically go further on a gallon of gasoline than their 4-wheel drive SUV or truck counterparts. And better mileage is what more car buyers now want.
Manufacturers are responding with hybrid, variable displacement and variable valve timing technologies that are stretching miles out of a tank of gasoline.
Flex-fuel vehicles are getting a lot more attention, too, as the industry gears up for greater availability and use of E85 fuel, a combination of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline.
Case in point is the all-new Chrysler Sebring. Redesigned from top to bottom, inside and out, the Sebring offers a 2.7 liter engine in the Touring and Limited editions that is flex-fuel compatible and delivers 200 horsepower.
But that’s not all. Clearly aiming at the technology savvy younger market, Chrysler has outfitted the Sebring with an abundance of electronics including the multi-function Harman/Kardon information, entertainment, navigation safety system.
Jay Hiller, general manager of Hiller Co. Chrysler Dodge in Marion pointed out that the Sebring brings a true competitor to the Chrysler lineup to go head to head with the Toyota Camry and the Honda Accord.
“Chrysler hasn’t really had a car in that segment that has sold well,” he said. “The Sebring is priced well under them and it drives similar to them.”
Base price for the Touring edition is $20,195. Customers driven by price alone can opt for the 4 cylinder version which comes in at $18, 995.
Toyota certainly has not missed the parade toward better fuel economy. They have lead the way, keeping themselves one step ahead of the competition with leading edge hybrid technology.
Hybrid automobile systems combine a highly efficient gasoline engine with an electric motor and a battery storage array to boost mileage (particularly in city driving) to levels no gasoline engine alone can match.
For 2007, Toyota has added a hybrid version of the Camry to its lineup. Priced at $26,200, this hybrid can squeeze 40 miles out of a gallon of gas in the city.
All models in this sixth generation of the Camry design show improvements in power and style. A non-hybrid, 4-cylinder CE version of the Camry with a 5 speed automatic transmission is available at $19,520. Even here Toyota has not skimped on standard power and safety equipment including power windows and locks and ABS brakes. There’s a 160 watt sound system, too.
Nissan has run the Altima through a complete redesign that boosts power to both the base 4 cylinder and the 3.5 liter V6 models. Plus, now there’s a gas/electric hybrid version using Toyota technology.
All versions of the Altima, now coupled with a standard CVT (Continuously Variable Transmission), show mileage improvements. The suspension has gotten a reworking, too, for improved handling. Pricing for the base S series model starts at $19,800. The hybrid starts at $24,400.
The Mazda lineup is seeing only a few tweaks here and there but significant to note is that the Mazda 6 for 2007 has bolstered the standard equipped safety package in all versions with ABS, traction control and side airbags with side curtain airbags. Priced from $19,725 for the entry level 4-cylinder model.
The Mazda MX-5 Miata gets a new fully automatic power retractable hardtop as an available option. No more getting out to raise or lower the soft top. Plus the new top doesn’t eat up any of the coupe’s trunk space. Priced from $21,030.
At Mitsubishi, the Gallant has seen the most improvements in the line for 2007 with stylish interior upgrades and changes to the look up front. Plus V6 versions see mechanical improvements with a 5-speed sport automatic transmission that adjusts automatically to an operator’s driving habits and can be quickly put into manual mode with the flick of a lever.
The Mitsubishi Lancer missed 2007 but is due this spring with an early 2008 release. It will be a bigger version of the model with an optional CVT transmission.
Alan Hollis, sales manager at Executive Mitsubishi in New Bedford pointed out that because of the missed year, savvy shoppers can take advantage of hefty closeout deals on 2006 Lancer models in advance of the 2008’s release. Availability is good, too.
Pay close attention the next time you see Miss New Bedford in a local parade and you’ll see her sitting up in the back of a Mitsubishi Eclipse Spyder, the official Miss New Bedford parade car noted Executive Mitsubishi owner, Bob Burgess. For 2007, the sporty coupe has added a fully automatic, button operated clothtop to the lineup. With a 5 speed automatic, the Eclipse Spyder is priced from $25, 389.
Ford has trimmed the lineup for both the Crown Victoria and the Five Hundred but has significantly broadened the choices for the Focus. This scaling down the high end and scaling up the low end should shed light on the ample merits of the economical Focus.
Capable of up to 37 mpg on the highway, the Focus comes as either a sedan, wagon or hatchback. Gas sipping is best achieved with the 2.0 liter, 136 hp 4-cylinder engine. Pricing starts at $14,130.
A popular step-up in the Ford line is the Fusion. Major changes were not expected for the model since its introduction last year but safety has been raised a notch with front-seat side airbags and side-curtain airbags being made standard equipment. Pricing starts at $17,995. There talk of a hybrid version for 2008.
At Chevrolet, the Malibu is the car with the most important upgrades for 2007. Of those, variable valve timing introduced in the 3.5 liter V6 engines of the LTZ and Maxx LT versions deserves special note.
It’s not often one can purchase the power of a V6 and almost get the same fuel economy of a much smaller 2.2 liter four cylinder engine. That’s what Chevrolet has accomplished with variable valve timing in the Malibu.
The LTZ with the V6 is capable of delivering an impressive 32 mpg on the highway. Pricing for this model starts at $24,265. An entry level Malibu LS with a 144hp, 2.2 liter 4 cylinder engine is priced at $17,805.
The Malibu is also improved this year with head-curtain side-impact airbags for front and rear passengers.
Volkswagen has returned the Rabbit namesake to its lineup for 2007 with 2 and 4-door versions of the hatchback. Standard in both is a 150 hp, 2.5 liter 4 cylinder engine that’s capable of 30 mpg on the highway. Priced from $14,990.
A super version of the Rabbit called the R32 is equipped with a 250 hp, V6 and all wheel drive.
Also, new at VW is the Eos. Named for the Greek goddess of the dawn, this four-seater convertible can capture plenty of sunlight while providing lots of creature comfort, too. Loaded with premium features from electronic stabilization to cruise control, the Eos is the only fully retractable hardtop that also has a fully functioning sunroof. Options include 12-way power seats, multi-function leather-wrapped steering wheel and a premium sound system. Pricing starts at $27,990.
The Saturn Aura is all-new in the lineup for this GM moniker and is based on the platform used in the Chevrolet Malibu and the Pontiac G6. But the Aura captured the prestigious North American Car Of The Year Award for 2007 for its all around performance, comfort, safety and features. Pricing starts at $20,995 for the 4 speed automatic with a 3.5 liter engine or $24,995 for the 6-speed automatic and a slightly larger and more powerful 3.6 liter engine.
The 3.6 liter, V6 in the Aura delivers 252 hp while maximizing fuel economy with variable valve timing. EPA estimates are up to 30 mpg on the highway for that engine.
With the Aura, GM plans to soon introduce its first ever hybrid sedan.

Washington's Birthday Car Sales Present Choices

There’s no way of knowing what George Washington would think about having his name linked with the biggest automobile sales marketing promotion of the year. But I imagine he wouldn’t object.
After all the automobile offers us a kind of freedom that was unavailable to him. I’m sure he would appreciate, too, that with that freedom comes choices.
In that spirit, here’s a few things to consider as you head out to the showrooms to take advantage of the Washington Birthday sales-a-thon.
• What is it that you really expect from your vehicle?
If you travel a lot with your car or make a daily commute of over 35 miles each day, your needs might be very different than if you basically use your car to shop and go to the mall with the weekly paycheck and you work for an employer who is just miles away.
• Do you do more or less city driving than highway driving?
Hybrid vehicles are much better on gas mileage in the city than on the highway. On the other hand, some of the new larger engines with variable displacement or variable valve timing are much better on the highway than in the city. There are new V6 engines that can deliver over 30 mpg on the highway and V8 engines that get upwards of 28 mpg highway.
• How big a vehicle do you need?
Buying a truck just because you might need it to move (change residences) is a little narrow if you’re not going to need it for much else otherwise. You can always rent a truck when you need it that’ll be bigger than any pickup out there. Conversely, buying a low-end minivan with a small 4-cylinder engine to save money does you little good if you plan on hauling around a van-load of people all the time or need it to haul a boat.
• How long do you plan on keeping the vehicle?
Buyers who keep a vehicle for over five years benefit a little bit financially because they lose less dollars in the end to depreciation. A five year old vehicle will likely depreciate less in the sixth year than a new vehicle in the first year. If you want a new car every two years, leasing might pay off better.
• Do you seriously expect your financial situation to change in the next couple of years for better or worse?
It helps to plan your purchase out a few years. Examine whether going with what you can afford right now will hamstring you or rein you in.
• What is the biggest down payment you can afford?
Calculate it and bring it with you. The less you have to finance the better off you’ll be especially at trade-in time.
• What kind of auto insurance can you afford?
If you finance a vehicle, your lender is going to require full coverage on the vehicle. That means you’ll be insuring what the vehicle is worth in case it gets stolen or destroyed in an accident. You’ve got to figure in those monthly payments on insurance (not to mention fuel allowance) when you calculate how much car you can afford.
Just about every driver I’ve ever met wants to own a new car. It’s a beautiful thing. But if the numbers don’t add up, don’t give up. There are great buys to be had in the used car market, too.
• Are you hung up on brand?
Shop around. Don’t let your brand prejudices blind you to good deals and good vehicles.

Friday, February 9, 2007

Is It Time To Make Your Own Ethanol?

Most days, we get in our vehicles, turn their ignitions, put them in gear and drive off on our merry way. If we think about fuel it’s probably only because we might need to put some in the tank and other than the price, we hardly pay much attention to what it is exactly that we’re pumping.
But there’s a little sticker on many pumps that points out that there’s 10 percent ethanol in the gasoline. It might easily go unnoticed.
Ethanol is getting a lot of attention these days from many in the automotive industry. Easily made from crops like corn, environmentally friendlier when it comes to putting carbon dioxide to the atmosphere and politically less vulnerable to foreign economies, the age-old fuel is finding new converts everywhere.
Turns out that some visionary dreamers have had it up on their radar for awhile.
You could say that there are two tracks that are shaping the pursuit of ethanol – environmental and financial. Sometimes they intersect and sometimes they are heading in different directions.
I recently came across an offer to build my own ethanol still. With it I would purportedly be able to easily produce enough ethanol to run my vehicle all the time at a cost of around $1 per gallon.
It’s called a still because you make it essentially the same way you make moonshine. In fact, ethanol is really ethyl alcohol or grain alcohol that has been denatured (purposely made poisonous) so that it unfit for human consumption.
Other than the denatured part of the process, you could technically use ethanol made from a still like this to stock the liquor cabinet.
But according to the offer, the still produces a refined triple-distilled 180 proof ethanol that is perfect for using in the many flex-fuel vehicles being manufactured today. The promoters do not recommend drinking the product.
The still was designed by Robert Warren, former founding director of the California Alcohol Fuel Producers Association (CAPFA), a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting alternatives to using petroleum fuels.
Now deceased, Mr. Warren’s interest in designing devices to easily produce ethanol pre-dates the current trend by many years. His research on ethanol spanned 25 years. His family continues to offer blueprints for the still.
The materials for building the still will cost upwards of $500 and the blueprints cost $30. Once it’s up and running, the still can produce about 5 gallons of fuel per hour.
So you’ll have to eventually make and use about 500 gallons to start seeing some positive financial results from the project.
I suppose the satisfaction one might get from depriving the big petroleum manufacturers of some money is a just reward for the effort of building this device. Even more rewarding might be the benefit to the environment.
Carbon dioxide released from burning ethanol that’s produced this way essentially returns the same amount of CO2 to the atmosphere as was pulled from the atmosphere by the biomass of plants used to produced the ethanol.
Makes one wonder why we’ve waited so long to make more use of ethanol.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Is it too soon for hybrid backlash from Ford?

I’m detecting a little bit of hybrid car backlash where you might least expect it – from Ford.
After posting a $12.7 billion loss last year one might think that wholeheartedly embracing hybrid technology would be in their interest. Consumers have again become very conscious of fuel economy and are showing their power in the showroom these days by switching in droves from bigger trucks to more economical cars including hybrids.
So what gives?
In his keynote address last Thursday at the Rhode Island Auto Show to a VIP crowd that mostly comprised Rhode Island and SouthCoast Massachusetts auto dealer representatives and members of the Rhode Island Broadcasters Association and their families, Bob Tasca III gave a clear thumbs down to hybrid.
Bob, from the third generation of the well-established Rhode Island based Tasca Automotive family, is one of 12 national Ford-Lincoln-Mercury dealer representatives who regularly pow-wow with Ford Motors about where the company is headed.
“Truthfully, I don’t think hybrid, as we know it today, is really the answer…,” he opined. “So, the industry is really going to technology like flexible fuel vehicles.”
He cited battery disposal issues and the premium price of hybrid vehicles as hurdles that have ultimately lead some in the industry to rethink that direction.
This was news to me.
I always understood that hybrid automotive technology was transitional. In the grand scheme of things hybrids would be positioned to move us from total fossil fuel dependence as we make our way toward hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.
But to hear the technology dismissed so soon from someone in a key position to see what one of the industry leaders is planning for years down the road came as a bit of a surprise.
Apparently, the industry is all charged up about the prospects for E85 fuel that’s primarily made from ethanol. Many of today’s vehicles are already equipped to burn the fuel and are designated flex-fuel vehicles.
Being a renewable resource, made from plants including corn, ethanol is suddenly looking like a big player on the field.
One big obstacle, though, is finding E85 at the pump. There are precious few places around the country where E85 is available on a regular basis.
“Once you see the infrastructure build around it, you’re going to see ethanol as a real serious option in the field,“ noted Bob.
But there’s more.
Where I thought the internal combustion engine was headed for its last days as we move toward the holy grail of hydrogen powered vehicles, the industry is now putting some renewed effort into making engines that better conserve the fuel we have.
“You’re going to see some tremendous advances in the gas engine,” said Bob. “From variable displacement to variable valve timing, it’s going to be a big improvement over what we have today.”
I’m pleased with the news but a little confused with the mixed signals. I wonder what Toyota and Honda think about this?

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Ride Proves 2007 Silverado Is More Than A Truck

Auto shows are great for getting an up-close-and-personal look at the most vehicles in the shortest amount of time. I plan to do plenty of that this weekend in Providence at the four-day Northeast International Auto Show.
But at some point, you’ll want to get in and take your favorites for a ride - something not usually possible on the floor of the convention center.
Last Saturday, courtesy of Ralph’s Chevrolet Cadillac in Dartmouth, I took a little ride in the new Chevrolet Silverado, Motor Trend’s favorite truck of 2007. If it weren’t for the truck label and the pickup bed, I might have thought I was riding in something with a familiar luxury moniker.
Such is the case at least in the 1500 1LT extended cab model with the Z71 off-road package. But a Silverado can be many things for many people. With models ranging in price from $16,700 to over $34,000, there’s a Silverado that can look good with bluejeans or with a suit and tie.
“There’s a wide range,” explained Ralph’s sales manager, Steve Marchand. “The WT – it stands for Work Truck – is available as a 6 cylinder automatic or manual with A/C. It’s for the typical worker who wants to throw stuff in the back.”
“Then you can go up to the crew cab and use it as a luxury car,” he added.
There’s some expectation that getting the nod as Motor Trend’s 2007 Truck of The Year will generate additional interest in the model so Mr. Marchand intends to use the Silverado as a featured vehicle.
But according to sales associate Joe Ferreira, who took me out for the spin in the truck, it’s a little too early to tell if word of the Motor Trend designation has reached the ears of customers, yet.
“For people who do their homework, it’s fine,” he mused.
However, he cautioned that with such a wide latitude of model prices and options in the Silverado buyers are wise to assess their buying power before letting their imaginations get ahead of them. He considers it part of his job to help customers with that.
“You really have to sit people down and get a feel for what they’re looking for,” he observed.
I noted how the truck we were in had a cute little third front seat in the middle with a seat belt when the console was popped up and back. It’s an option available in the 1LT that underscores Chevrolet’s aim to make the truck a versatile work, crew and family vehicle. The option disappears higher in the line with the 2LT and is replaced by bucket seats.
“It’s not really a work truck anymore,” said Mr. Ferreira. “People are trying to combine both. If you buy a 2LT you’re really not buying a truck for your workers, you’re buying a truck for yourself.”
Truck or not, the suspension in the Silverado delivers a more car-like ride than expected. The days of the hard-bouncing truck ride are over.
Plus, with a list of standard features in the 1LT that includes dual zone climate control, cruise control, tinted windows all around, an auto-dimming rearview mirror with 8-point compass and outside temperature display and a leather wrapped steering wheel, this truck is clearly built for comfort.
Buyers can take advantage of a $500 Auto Show Rebate until the end of the month, too. Makes that test drive a little more enticing.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Saturn Aura Beams Into Dartmouth Showroom

It’s that time of year again when automakers seek to take us from the post–holiday glum days and re-energize us with visions of their latest creations. I know I’m ready.
So news from the North American International Auto Show in Detroit is welcome respite. I may have to wait until January 25th for the real hands on treatment in Providence at the four-day Northeast International Auto Show but meanwhile I’ll gladly settle for the good news from the Motor City.
Saturn seems to have made quite the impression in the auto press with their new Aura mid-size sedan. Getting the nod as 2007 North American Car of the Year is bound to be a boost for the automaker.
Coupled with Chevrolet’s winning the top honors in the full-sized truck category with its revamped Silverado, the show couldn’t have gotten off to a better start for General Motors.
Saturn of Dartmouth general sales manager Edward Figueiredo sees the award as validation that Saturn is reaching out to the market segment that wants roomy mid-sized sedans with lots of standard features.
“In essence, the Aura winning the North American International Auto Show Car of the Year is very, very big for us,” he explained.
Not since the L Series which last rolled off the Saturn assembly line in June of 2004 has Saturn offered anything comparable in size and roominess.
Plus, the list of standard equipment is what one ordinarily finds in vehicles priced considerably higher. The 4-speed Aura XE has a base MSRP tag of $20,995 while the slightly more powerful 6-speed XL starts at $24,995. Standard features include On-Star navigation and the GM version of electronic stability control called StabiliTrak. The vehicle has mustered a five-star safety rating, too.
“It’s an endorsement for the Aura as a whole,” added Mr. Figueiredo.
The Aura first hit the showrooms in September 2006 but this award has become its coming out party. Dealerships like Saturn of Dartmouth fully expect that the recognition will translate into foot traffic in the showrooms.
“I think it’s going to take off like a rocketship,” beamed Mr. Figueiredo. “A vehicle of this caliber would be in the mid to high $30,000 and still have less features.”
He noted that the car feels like a full-size sedan and offers plenty of power from either the 224 hp, 3.5L V-6 in the XE or the 252 hp, 3.6L V-6 in the XR.
“The Aura is well built, safe, sound and has excellent fuel economy,” he added.
A network of six air bags protect the occupants from both frontal and side impact crashes. The more powerful XR musters 20 city and 30 highway mpg and employs Variable Valve Timing to alter intake and exhaust valve timing to maximize fuel economy.
Check out the Saturn Aura and everything else at the upcoming Northeast International Auto Show in Providence from January 25 – 28 at the Rhode Island Convention Center. Admission is $9.00 for adults, $6.00 for seniors, $3.00 for kids, and children 6 or under are admitted free. Go to for details.