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.