Monday, December 17, 2007

Disappearing wagons

I thought about titling my post "Why are Americans so damned stupid?" but only a few people who know me well would connect that to the topic, so I chose a bit more tame headline.

I want to know why it's so hard to find a good, affordable station wagon in the US. Note that I said affordable... the BMW 5-series wagon is available (for now!) so there's a non-SUV option from them, but the bloody thing STARTS at US$54,000 and it's probably the rarest BMW currently available in the US. There are 10 listings for 2003 or newer 5-series wagons within 300 miles of DFW, a whopping 3 of which are equipped with manual transmissions, and all 3 of those are brand new at BMW of Tulsa, OK.

Why does every mouth-breathing idiot want to drive an SUV to work, by himself, on a paved road in rush-hour traffic? I assure you the majority of SUV/CUV/SAV/SUT/whatever owners don't own a boat or anything else requiring a tow (except the SUV itself when it sucks down all its fuel, but that's another sort of tow...) I can transport as many people and about as much cargo in my Legacy Wagon as Joe Dirt in his Explorer and get there faster. Subaru has decided anyone who wants a wagon really wants an SUV, though, and has eliminated the Legacy Wagon in the US, selling only the Outback SU-wanna-V.

You can buy SUVs from nearly every manufacturer who officially sells cars in the US, and from nearly every marque from those manufacturers. Bentley doesn't have one yet, but parent VAG sells the Audi Q7 and VW Touareg. Rolls Royce is much to posh for that, but the X5 and X3 and the upcoming abomination X6 are from BMW, Rolls' corporate parent. If Ferrari, the last holdout (only because FIAT doesn't sell any of their other lines in the US these days) brings out an SUV I think I'll fly to Italy just to slap Luca di Montezemolo.

Many of these manufacturers sell interesting wagons in other markets, but here it's all trucks or sedans. Even GM and Ford have good wagons they could offer if their showrooms weren't choked with everything from Chevrolet Equinoxes to Lincoln Navigators. Hopefully by the time I am willing to part with my Legacy, Pontiac will be bringing the Holden VE Commodore Sportwagon as a companion to the Commodore sedan they'll be importing as the G8. Of course, by then I may not find a big V8 in a full-sized car a very appealing option... $3+ for Super is annoying enough.

So, if my Legacy got squished today, what would my options be?
Audi A3: the car that lost out to my Legacy when I compared them... almost a wagon
Audi A4: a bit pricey and heavy, but a nice car and still available with a manual transmission
VW Passat: soft, unattractive in this iteration, ends up pricey for VW reliability
Saab 93 Sportkombi: strong contender, even with the GM influence. The advent of AWD helps this one.
Saab 95 Sportkombi: odd-looking, BASE price over $38k.
BMW: both the 3 and the 5 are a bit pricey... the 3 just because key options are wrapped up in expensive packages so you end up around that magic $40k mark quickly. Never mind the idea of owning it after the bumper-to-bumper maintenance ends at 40k miles...
Volvo: stereotypical wagons, but the V50 is short on rear legroom and the V70 is expensive and slushbox-only.

So yeah, there are still wagons to be had (though you have to go looking for one to find it on the lot... the BMW dealer in San Antonio lost a sale to a colleague of mine who was willing to wait for a special order, because they weren't willing to order it!) I just wonder why Americans think gargantuan gas-guzzling SUVs are more desirable than a wagon that's lower, leaner and more fun to drive.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Change in direction (lack of direction?)

Okay, I think part of my problem has been a too-narrow definition of what I should write about. Yeah, I'm a gearhead and a geek. LOTS of people are writing about those two areas, though, and it feels depressingly "me too!" to just post a bunch of links to articles written by others and say "Cool."

So, before the 3 people who look at my blog take it off their RSS for eternal inactivity, I thought I might loosen up and do some random "What Really Grinds my Gears" stuff. Besides, I have a couple of weeks off work so I can pretend I'm in the habit of writing before I forget about it again when I go back to work in January.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Ooma dumma

I've been reading today about the "Ooma", a VoIP device that's supposedly revolutionary and will bring P2P advantages to VoIP. I think the most charitable impression I have is that they're not looking critically at their potential customer base.

I think I'd have to characterize myself in most instances as a "not late" adopter. Very-new tech is always more expensive and often less stable than I'd like. Hell, I haven't even bought a TV designed to hang on the wall yet (soon, and doubtless the subject of a boring blog post, but not yet.) Still, in my new old home I don't have a POTS line. I'm thinking of getting one for fax if the workarounds for that begin to annoy me, but I just have no real need for one more number for the telemarketers. I'm very happy with my "old school" VoIP service that's proven quite reliable and very feature-rich (VoicePulse if anyone's curious.)

For Ooma to work as advertised, a significant fraction of their "customers" will need to keep their landline. (I say "customers" because under the Ooma model, all the company's revenue is front-loaded in the overpriced Ooma Hub, there are no future payments to them unless they offer international calling at per-minute rates or somesuch service.) For it to be cost-effective for the "customers" in a market that is the destination for lots of calls, they might not even want the least-expensive phone service, which is "metered" and has either a maximum number of free calls per month, or a per-minute charge even for local calls.

It seems to me that lots of their customers are likely to be people who have no real desire to keep their landline. If someone's paranoid about their ability to reach 911 but too lazy to research or test a prospective VoIP provider's ability to provide 911 service, they may not want to rely on a black box (it seems to be gray from the pictures, but you get the idea) to route their call locally, and what does the thing do if you're one of those bad "customers" who doesn't maintain a POTS line to share with the Ooma community? What does it do with 911 calls then, complain to you that it wants to route via POTS but you don't have a landline plugged in?

I'll stick with regular VoIP and a mobile phone for now.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

In-car surveillance

Okay, so this will probably get me branded as a member of the foil-hat crowd, but I'm getting concerned about the amount of surveillance we're under in our cars. I'm not quite to the point where I think it's Alberto Gonzales' idea (I'd be REALLY worried if that were the case!) It just seems like more and more little things are coming together to allow someone to forensically build a pretty good picture of what's been going on in your car.

Many cars today have a "black box" that records many different types of events. Since car manufacturers are still using older, stable technology, there's not a tremendous amount of storage in these boxes so they're not keeping a running account of your driving (yet), they're just recording major events. Basically any car with an airbag has some form of event data recorder, and it's likely that every new generation will be more capable and store data on more events and over a longer period of time.

Some readers are thinking "But I have nothing to hide, why should I care about this?" Well, let's take as an example a minor fender-bender. You are convinced that the other driver is completely at fault because he failed to yield when he pulled into the major road from a side road, and you're sure your insurance rate is safe. How happy will you be when his (or his insurance company's) lawyer subpoenas the data from your car's black box and shows that you contributed to the collision because you were driving 5 mph over the speed limit?

I think the best hope for keeping manufacturers from putting all sorts of collectible data that's not necessarily pertinent to maintenance and service will come from my least-favorite source, a lawsuit (or fear of a lawsuit.) If the manufacturer feels that collecting unnecessary data within every customer's is a potential liability, they'll think twice before collecting it "just because they can."

Monday, January 01, 2007

Still glacial progress in practical cars

I suppose there is only a certain sized market for reasonable cars, and people who are thinking practically about their ride are willing to buy boring. This is fine for the everyday transportation unit, but I think if the American car-buying public had some different options, it might not be considered punishment to buy a practical family car.

Don't get me wrong, there's some nice stuff out there these days. The Saturn Aura is actually a very appealing car, and for the not-quite-enthusiast it's a compelling product. I'm still not going to consider one, because there's no manual transmission. I'm one of those crusty anachronistic types who thinks everyone who's physically capable should be taught to drive a manual transmission vehicle. I'm not stupid, I realize that it's easier to learn to drive with a slushbox. After all, you really only have to point the car in the general direction you want to go and remember which pedal does what you want, and you have a 50/50 shot at that. People only rarely run down crowds of people or crash their cars through the walls of buildings because they pushed the wrong one, and it's NEVER their fault, right? I think that if more people actually had at least a vague clue about how the car works, they might be able to figure out that if you put the bloody thing in neutral it'll eventually stop, even if you have your idiot foot planted firmly on the accelerator. Wait, this is starting to sound like an earlier post, that's not what I set out to say.

Chevrolet has actually released pictures of a Malibu that aren't painful to look at. Ford's Fusion is not the prettiest car I've seen recently, but it's a damned sight more appealing than a Taurus, and is almost modern. The thing that mystifies me is the fact that the Aura method isn't used more often. Here we have international companies spending billions on design and engineering of different cars around the world. GM has brought over a SINGLE version of a SINGLE model, their Opel Vectra and Americanized it less viciously than usual to produce the Saturn Aura. It's a nice enough car, but they have available on that same platform hatchback and wagon versions, with efficient gasoline engines, clean, highly-efficient diesels and 6-speed manual transmissions. I recognize that there are certification issues with bringing engines over, but the return on that is the reduction in total number of different engines around the world, and the potential to offer a line of efficient cars in the US that someone would actually want to drive. I'd certainly consider a Saturn version of the Vectra Signum 4-door hatchback someday when it's time to replace my Legacy Wagon.

People in Europe voluntarily buy Fords, and not just because their daddy was a "Ford Man." None of the many Fords models people actually WANT over there are even available here. Their Focus isn't on a platform that's nearly old enough to vote, and their larger cars (equivalent to our midsizes) are unrelated to the Fusion and Five Hundred. Americans will buy any shiny thing you market effectively to them, you just have to deprogram them from the "Big SUV is better" brainwashing Detroit's been doing for the past decade. Gasoline that costs nearly as much as a latte at Starbucks is starting to wake some people up... when the bottom of the middle class have maxed out their cards filling up the Tahoe, they may look around and see that there's something modern, quiet and comfy that gets 3x the mileage without hauling around 500 lb of batteries or requiring occupants to pedal. The automakers need to be ready to fill that need, and someone should tell them that if you make a desirable product people will buy it without being expensively bribed.