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.