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.