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.