Friday, December 30, 2005

Small-car outlook improving in the US

I guess one good thing about 2005's increase in US gasoline prices is the increased interest in small cars. I've always liked smallish cars (small for the US, at least) but they've been largely ignored and vilified by American buyers. I know we're fat as a nation, but so am I (just look at my picture!) and I like fairly small cars. Most of the time I'm the only one in the car, after all... driving to work, the grocery store, etc. All things are relative, of course. My Subaru Legacy Wagon would be considered a fairly large car in Europe, but in central TX it's dwarfed by the Tahoes and H2s the 5'5" soccer moms are herding around.

Toyota's new Yaris is encouraging, as is the surprising popularity of the Scion xA and xB. The Kia Spectra5 seems to actually sell, I see quite a few of them around, and I'm guessing most of those are bought because people actually want one, if they're going for cheap the Spectra sedan is significantly less expensive. Even American companies are putting a little effort into it! Ford's Fusion isn't going to make me give up my turbo Subaru, but it's much more interesting than the Contour it (belatedly) replaces. Chevy's Cobalt is trying to be a car someone would buy voluntarily, as opposed to the ancient Cavalier people bought because it was cheap. Chrysler's PT Cruiser has strangely been a sales success, and I guess it's going to have to carry water for the Neon until they have a newer small car.

Yeah, I realize the cars I'm pointing out are all over the map... the Yaris is roughly xA sized and the Fusion is much bigger. They collectively represent a realization that Suburbans don't make efficient one-passenger commuter vehicles. The change will be slow, of course, because Americans will keep putting gas on their credit cards for a while and for many people it would cost more to dump the Expedition in the current SUV-unfriendly used market and buy something practical. Also, lots of people are stuck in lease-type arrangements in which they'd have to pay a big penalty to ditch their H2 before the end of the term, so as those deals come to a close I hope my view down the road will be less choked with lane-filling dark-tinted-window SUVs carrying one person and their cell phone.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Manual transmission axe-grinding

That's what these blog thingos are for, right? Personal axe-grinding?

The demise of the manual transmission in the United States concerns and saddens me. I realize that a higher percentage of cars all around the world are coming with various forms of automatic and automated transmissions, but the US is where the manual transmission is really disappearing. I think this says something negative about Americans' attitude about the car.

Driving a car with a manual transmission is simply more involving than driving the same or similar car with an automatic. I realize that as traffic crawls slowly to a halt in cities all around the US, most people are more comfortable with a slushbox. They don't have to think about driving (?!), they don't have to put down their beverage and/or cell phone, they don't have to do all that awful exercise with their left leg. I am lucky enough to only rarely drive in heavy traffic, because I made the heretical choice to live near my work.

I think that driving a car with a manual transmission is more likely to lead to an understanding of how the car really works than driving an automatic. I'm sure it's possible to know that moving this stick thing and pushing that clutch gadget in this certain sequence causes the car to move forward without thinking about what's really happening, but I like to think that at least a few of the few remaining drivers of manual transmission cars in this country are actually cognizant of what happens inside the black box.

One of the reasons this strikes close to home for me right now is that I couldn't replace my current car with a new one like it... Subaru, which of late markets its products as something appealing to enthusiasts, came out with a very interesting vehicle for the 2005 model year, the Legacy GT sedan and wagon with a retuned version of the North American version of the WRX STi. I liked it so much I bought one. I have a 50-lb Bull Terrier who travels with me sometimes, so I bought the wagon and you've guessed from the preceding paragraphs that I bought the 5-speed manual. It is my favorite of all the daily-drivers I've ever owned, and I have no regrets about buying it.

Subaru, however, has decided that I don't need to remain one of their customers, because for 2006 they no longer offer the Wagon with a 5-speed manual in the US... it's slushbox-only. The sedan still comes with it, the Wagon is offered with the 5MT in Canada, but in the US apparently wagon owners only want automatics. How depressing. I can only hope that Subaru comes to their senses before I'm ready to buy another car, because I'll certainly consider another Subaru but I'm not ready to give up on choosing my own gears.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Autoblog owns up

After a day of having several incensed readers posting comments related to the deleted ipod nano contest on all of their top articles, Autoblog eventually posted this message to say "oops, we never meant to make anyone suspicious by refusing to announce the winner and deleting all of the entries and posts related to the contest." I'd say that at the very best, they are quite naive about people's response to a perceived scam. At this point I will wait to see them post the URL for the winning blog before I decide what I finally think about it all, but at least they've admitted they made a mistake in deleting all trace of the contest in a peremptory fashion.


Saturday, October 08, 2005

Autoblog contest scam

Well, I wanted to give Autoblog the benefit of the doubt, since I know that delivering on commitments can sometimes take longer than estimated. However at this point I have to believe that have perpetrated a minor fraud on the automotive internet community. Several weeks ago they announced a contest to give away an ipod nano to the blogger who created their favorite page of links to the blogger's 10 favorite articles on Autoblog.

Now, it was obvious that their intention was to increase links to their site, and it seemed to me to be a quite legitimate means to do so... it got people to dig through their archives to find articles they liked and link those articles with commentary on their respective blogs... nothing wrong with that, right?

During the contest, Autoblog posted several updates, listing the count of unique entries, etc. This indicated to me that it was a serious contest and the contest they had announced to the public was legitimate. On the announced end date, they posted an article stating that they had received 100 unique entrants with the last one being right before the midnight deadline, and would have all the autoblog writers reviewing the list and posting the results by the "middle or end of the week" which I believe all the entrants took to mean around the 30th of September.

Another week has passed since then, and I for one have posted several queries to their "contact Autoblog" page to find out why there has been no announcement of a delay, of a tie, of cancellation of the contest... no notice at all. Several people (including myself) had posted comments to the contest-closed blog entry asking why there was no information forthcoming, and a few were speculating that the contest was created in bad faith from the beginning.

Now Autoblog has removed ALL trace of the contest from their site... from the original announcement to the final contest-closed (with the incriminating queries from various contestants.) This smacks of bad faith. Whether it was the case from the beginning or one of the autobloggers fell in love with the nano I cannot say, but I for one find it inexcusable that no message has been sent to the entrants or posted on Autoblog's website, and I intend to see that they are excoriated in online forums for their dishonesty.


Wednesday, October 05, 2005

How many gadgets are too many?

I watched an hour-long show about the Frankfurt auto show on Speed recently and one of the vehicles that figured prominently in the show was the upcoming S-Class from Mercedes-Benz. Now don't get me wrong, I like German cars, and I'd love to have so much money that I could convince myself I needed an S-Class. At this point, though, I think I'd buy an older one.

The new S-Class has gone all BMW on us... the odd bustle trunk style like the 7-series BMW (though of course Mercedes cites the Maybach as their trunk inspiration) and the dreaded iDrive. I know, I know, it's COMAND and it's totally different and better and has dedicated buttons for things. Still, I don't see the need for a mouse in my car. Call me old school (I edit with vi, so I guess I am) but a mouse between the seats controlling a display that distracts people from the road is not a positive development.

Car manufacturers' lawyers will tell us that these systems are intended to be used when the car is not in motion, but then newspapers are also intended to be read when one's not driving a car, and I've seen numerous people doing just that. I'd like to claim I've seen someone doing the crossword puzzle, but I can't quite swear to that... I'm sure it happens, I just haven't witnessed it yet.

Do I think we should go back to the AM radio? Hell no! I think steering-wheel-mounted controls for the stereo are a great innovation, a gadget that makes it EASIER for people to drive well, since it offers a simplified set of controls for primary functions in easy reach without releasing the wheel. Navigation systems are a great help to the map-challenged, and some of these have usable voice activation and confirmation to help people watch the road instead of the pretty map display.

I guess it's strange for a gadget guy who's a gearhead to complain about too many gadgets in the cars, but that's the source of Mercedes' recent quality issues, and it's just plain excessive. I must be getting old, and waxing nostalgic for a simpler time.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Maybe the 3-series conspiracy theorists are right

In the interest of full disclosure, I'll state straight away that I don't like the looks of the new BMW 3 Series. I've liked a few in the past, and I wouldn't mind driving an older un-Bangled model if someone else were paying the maintenance and insurance, but I wouldn't spend my own money on it. Still, I've always thought the people who write to Car and Driver and howl that they must be on BMW's payroll because the 3 Series always wins comparisons were just a mite paranoid.

Now, well, I'm not so sure. The October issue's article Sport Sedans in Heat leaves me mystified as to how they can justify their choice. Their BMW was a functional disaster, the sort of car I'd be sorry I bought for $25k (I'd be FURIOUS to have paid $40k for it!)

Here's an excerpt of what Car and Driver had to say about their "winner":

"Our 330i labored hard to lose. The electrical ticks began shortly after it was delivered. The new 3-series has a push-button start. Ours would work only after several exasperated pushes and fiddling with the key. Why, we wondered in the free moments this created, must you even insert the "key" into the dash when many push-button systems, including the IS350's, allow the radio-transmitting key fob to roam free?

Then the ABS lamp lit. We tried to execute one stop on our high-desert test road and nearly executed a 360 spin at 70 mph instead (thus, our braking number is from a previous test). Shortly thereafter several airbag-malfunction warnings lit up. Maybe it was just a coincidence."

Okay, so they must have been sucked in by their 330i's styling, since they obviously couldn't be impressed by its mechanical perfection... could they? Well, it's not that either apparently, since they had this to say about the interior: "The new 3's interior, although beautifully tailored with wood accents and leather sport seats, didn't satisfy all. The radio display is hard to read and harder to operate, the A/C struggled in the heat, and the dash is a meniscus that curves coldly away from you." So much for styling perfection.

Yeah, I know these guys don't have to pay for their cars. Still, they could at least do us the service of choosing a car that can stop controllably. A Kia Spectra can do that and leave you with enough change left over for a 12-day cruise in a Royal Suite on the Queen Mary 2, why can't the $40k BMW?


Saturday, September 24, 2005

Hybrid Hype: Balance is the key

Okay, so if you read my review of a few of the many articles on you can see that I think SUVs are a pox on our roadways. Lest you think me some rabid treehugger high on herbal tea and brainwashed by Greenpeace, I need to point out that there is hypocrisy and waste at the other end of the automotive spectrum as well.

I'll start by conceding that there is definitely a niche for hybrid vehicles. City cars that spend most of their time at low speed and/or in stop-and-go traffic benefit greatly from hybrid technology and for drivers who put LOTS of miles on their cars in those sorts of conditions might even save enough fuel to offset the extra cost of the hybrid car (after it's sold at a loss by the manufacturer and subsidized with tax credits from the government, of course.)

Average American drivers, however, would be better served by buying an efficient "normal" gasoline-powered car, or perhaps a diesel as low-sulfur diesel becomes available in the US. (In a classic case of bullshit bureaucracy, the federal government has mandated more stringent emissions for diesel vehicles a year before they put more stringent requirements on the fuel itself that are necessary to use the current cleaner, more-efficient diesel technologies that are in use in Europe.)

Why do I say that? Well, let's take the Jones family for example. They live in a suburb about 20 miles from the city center and are looking for a vehicle for Mrs. Jones that will be used primarily to commute to work and drive around on family errands. Their previous car was totaled in a wreck, so they can't wait too long too long to replace it, the insurance company will only pay for the rental car for a few more days. This pretty much rules out the Prius with its long wait list, so let's consider a Honda Civic.

The Honda Civic Hybrid lists for $19,900 and the Civic LX Sedan (the comparably equipped car) lists for $15,610, a difference of $4290. If you want to whinge about the $2k tax credit you can get currently for hybrid vehicles, I'll take a reasonable negotiation discount off the price of the LX (I don't think you'll get much off the hybrid) and let's just call the net difference $3,000.

To reasonably compare the two cars, let's estimate that the mostly-suburban driving Mrs. Jones does falls halfway between the city and highway cycles... so we'll take an average of the EPA rating for the two cycles (even though there are lawsuits from people claiming their hybrids don't achieve the EPA ratings, but that's another entry.) That gives us 48.5 mpg for the Hybrid, 35 for the LX. If Mrs. Jones drives 15,000 miles per year and her fuel price averages $3 per gallon, it will take more than 8 years for the Hybrid to pay for that $3k differential in cost to the Jones family. No one is really sure that the batteries will still WORK in 8 years! Please note that I'm not even applying net-present-value calculations, so I'm offering charity to the Hybrid by suggesting that $1 in fuel savings 8 years from now is worth just as much as $1 in savings today.

It's simply not realistic to compare H2 consumption to a Prius and say that electric hybrids are The Way to cure our energy consumption habit. The two cars I describe are very similarly equipped and their performance is very similar as well... the hybrid has slightly more peak torque but the LX has a 115-lb weight advantage which probably more than offsets that, and at prolonged highway speeds the LX won't have its available power sapped by a discharged battery pack.*

Ah, yes, battery packs. Have you heard anything about what's going to HAPPEN to those battery packs when they no longer hold a useful charge? How much will it cost to replace them? Will the parts be available, or are these cars to be disposable? Another interesting difference between these two cars is that the Hybrid carries its battery pack in a location that precludes folding rear seatbacks, so the LX will be more practical for carrying larger objects from Home Depot and Target.

So, you can buy a less-expensive, lighter, probably more-reliable and longer-lived car for less money that returns comparable or better performance while still getting nearly 4x the fuel mileage of your neighbor's yellow H2, or you can spend your hard-earned money to make a pro-environment political statement that will probably end up creating toxic waste disposal problems when it's time to scrap those hybrid batteries. What will you do? What WILL you do?


* A reader commenting on this post stated that cars don't need all their power on the highway. I must admit that on a FLAT highway, this would not be a problem. Driving around LA or San Francisco, or in the Texas Hill Country where I live would eventually discharge the batteries and leave you with just the (small) gasoline engine, as has happened in road tests run by car magazines. 26 Sept 2005

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Panic on the roads

So, nearly 200 miles from here it's likely that Hurricane Rita is going to wreak havoc on the coast around Galveston and drive northward, ransacking the border lands between Texas and Louisiana. Gas stations in the Houston megalopolis have sold all their fuel, and that makes some sense since everyone and their dogs are trying to get to ground that's likely to stay drier.

What DOESN'T make sense to me is that many (perhaps most?) stations around San Antonio are running out of fuel too. What the hell? Some people are coming through here on their way to points west (it's ALWAYS dry in West Texas, and all the hotels around here seem to be full already.) Many of them need gas because the usual 3.5 hour drive from Houston is taking people 9... are San Antonians hoarding for themselves? We won't need to go anywhere, most likely, the NWS says we're going to have some rain and that's about it. I think people like to panic. They enjoy it. They like standing in line for an hour at Wal*Mart to buy all the bottled water and flashlight batteries. They're jealous of people from the coast who are really at risk and fleeing for their lives from a hell of a storm.

It happens that my tank is full... filled up on the way home from work yesterday because it was time. My neighbor told me the 2 closest stations to my neighborhood are both out of fuel, so I figure when they have fuel to sell again it's going to be at some stupid price. FUN! Let's give Cheney's homeys some more money, they need a new Gulfstream G-550.


Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Check out Autoblog sometime

Now 8 October 2005, 19:06

Previously in this slot there was a posting about articles I have enjoyed on Autoblog's site.

Since the time I created this posting, Autoblog has acted in bad faith with respect to the contest they were having (see my posting on that topic above.) Since their likely reason for having the contest in the first place was to get more links to their site out there, I have removed that posting and replaced it with this one to remove any directly links to Autoblog from my site.

I regret having to do this, but my personal integrity demands that I do something about it. I have in the past enjoyed their site but I will now restrict my visits to it because of their actions.


Now 9 October 2005 18:20

In a postscript to this, autoblog FINALLY posted this message on the ipod nano contest. The fact that they waited until I and others started posting "What's up with the scam?" comments on all of their top articles trying to get an answer is a bit disappointing... even leaving a "lawyers are working on it" sort of message would have avoided some suspicion.

Let's Get It Started

Okay, I'm finally doing this blog thing... I guess it's past time to do it, I'm a professional geek after all. Now I have an incentive, and besides since I like to bitch about all sorts of things, this will make it easier for my friends to ignore my kvetching. I'll probably write lots about cars and gadgets (I'm a Gearhead Geek, right?) and see if anyone cares.