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Archive for May, 2009

Is GM on the verge of inventing a new kind of engine?

May 26th, 2009

GM-hcci-engineIf GM can pull off this new bit of technology, I’ll officially recommend the company as the new definition of awesome.

It seems the General is experimenting with ways to combine the fuel efficiency of a diesel engine with the cleaner burning traits of a gas engine. It’s being called an HCCI engine, which stands for homogeneous combustion compression ignition. 

A traditional gas engine uses a spark from spark plugs to ignite the fuel. A diesel engine uses compression to accomplish that goal, essentially squeezing the diesel and air mixture until it ignites.

Until now no one has been able to create a gasoline engine that works on compression, which is more efficient because it burns the available fuel all at once rather than from a source point (the spark). To save all the other technical details, it translates into about a 15 percent jump in fuel economy. 

GM is developing the engine to run on combustion from idle to about 3,000 rpm, above which it would switch over to traditional ignition for power at highway speeds. While the HCCI engine will run like a diesel, it won’t provide the massive torque of diesel and will power only small cars. GM hopes to have the technology available within the next decade, but I wonder if by then it’ll be too little too late. 

It’s been a long time since a company has changed the way fuel is burned in an engine. While I commend GM on their innovative thinking, HCCI is the kind of technology we desperately need right now. 

Come on GM, get this thing to market in two or three years! Do that and we’ll all think you’re awesome.

How much extra would you pay for a vehicle equipped with a four-cylinder HCCI engine?

-tgriffith

Car Industry News, Car Minded, Domestic Cars, Gas for your car..., General Chat

GM: The Death Watch Begins

May 25th, 2009

Old GMC TruckJust think what kind of Memorial Day weekend GM bondholders are having. Everyone else is waving flags and barbecuing with friends and family; these guys are inside, alone, drinking heavily. On Friday, their creditor committee turned down a debt-for-equity swap of some $27 billion in bond holdings for a 10 percent share in the drowning company.

Can you blame them? The proposed restructuring would give the government a 50 percent share of GM and the UAW 39 percent. This is similar to the deal that drove Chrysler to the bankruptcy courts. To put it plainly, creditors are getting screwed.

So are the dealers and, possibly, the suppliers—who supposedly will follow the pattern set by a Chrysler restructuring. If things work out as the Washington Post and other sources report, we may see GM filing before the June 1 deadline—meaning, this week!

2009 Opel Insignia

2009 Opel Insignia

Opel is the other shoe to drop this week. A decision on three offers to buy the company will be coming in a few days, says a spokesperson for German Chancellor Angela Merkel. There are offers from Fiat, Magna International (Canadian parts maker, with financing from Russia’s Sherbank), and a New York buyout firm, Ripplewood Holdings. GM will have final choice of who wins (or whether the firm should be allowed to go into bankruptcy), but the Germans will decide whether and how to lend state support in loan guarantees.

German officials are contradicting themselves about whether bankruptcy for Opel is possible or desirable, and they claim they need “considerable clarification from the American government, such as on brand rights and intellectual property.” Magna appears to be winning, say some, and others point to “movement in the positions” of the potential investors.

Opel has 25,000 workers, about half of GM’s European workforce, and so plenty of politics are involved in the decision, which seems to be the norm these days. Enjoy what’s left of your weekend.

Did anybody out there think about GM this weekend? If you did, heaven forbid, what were your thoughts?

—jgoods

Car Industry News, Car Minded, Domestic Cars, General Chat

What Are the Two Best SUVs to Take Camping?

May 25th, 2009

Happy Memorial Day! Today is the day we celebrate the unofficial arrival of summer, and for many of us that means camping! But what are the very best cars to take on your camping trip? After considering everything from your full-size 4×4 truck to your run-of-the-mill Subaru, I’ve narrowed it down to two of the very best vehicles to take on your next trip.

Honda Element

2003-Honda-Element

If your camping trips keep you within state park systems or only slightly off the beaten path, the Element could be the perfect all-in-one vehicle. With available AWD, a removable skylight with shade screen (to keep the bugs out) and ample space to lay a mattress in back, this little SUV could be all you need for a quick weekend away.

Land Rover LR3

2008-Land-Rover-LR3

This is is the SUV that will take you anywhere. Oh sure, you can drive into the state park and look as rugged as any of the thousands of other people there. But if you want to get somewhere where you can guarantee there won’t be another human for miles, the LR3 is the way to go. Plus, you can get a really cool tent that attaches right to the tailgate area. Awesome!

What car or truck will you take camping this summer? Any advice for other campers?

-tgriffith

Car Minded, General Chat, Trucks & SUVs

How Many of You Would Kill for This Car?

May 23rd, 2009

2010-aston-martin-vantage-v122I probably wouldn’t either, but if the new Aston Martin V12 Vantage belonged to a drug kingpin, well, who knows? This has got to be just about the sexiest GT ever, and it’s also long on technical sophistication. You can find a full set of photos here and here.

2010-aston-martin-vantage-v12-interiorWith its very smooth 6-liter V12 power, the Vantage will get to 60 mph in 4.2 seconds in unbelievable style and comfort. Drivers can toggle between an everyday driving mode and a sport mode that gives better throttle response and a “sportier exhaust note.” Switchable Dynamic Stability Control permits better handling. And it has carbon ceramic brakes, a six-speed manual transmission (no automatic will be offered), and a top speed of 190 mph.

Delivery begins this fall, and price is yet to be announced. You can be sure it ain’t gonna come cheap.

What’s the most desirable element about the V12 Vantage, in your opinion?

—jgoods

Car Minded, Exotic Cars, Foreign Cars, General Chat

Here’s $7.5 Billion. Have a Nice Weekend.

May 22nd, 2009

CBUSINESS-US-GM-UAWGMAC got another big handout from the feds last night. The car finance company, now a bank, received $5.9 billion in December of last year. Along with yesterday’s $7.5 billion from Treasury, the lender will now be permitted to issue debt insured by the FDIC (Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation) to the tune of $7.4 billion. That money will help it finance daily operations, according to the New York Times.

If you want more details, here they are. The good part: Both buyers and dealers need to finance car purchases, and GMAC will now provide a good chunk of that money for Chrysler and GM vehicles. The government badly needed to prime this pump. The bad part: GMAC failed the recent stress tests appallingly, coming up $11.5 billion short of what it needed to withstand a still-worse economy. And it desperately needs new capital. The ugly part: The feds have made a very big commitment to support the auto industry, and they probably aren’t done yet.

What do you think? Is enough enough, or will the government need to do more to get the industry on its feet?

—jgoods

Car Industry News, Car Minded, Car Politics, Domestic Cars, General Chat

The Five Most Expensive Cars Ever Sold at Auction

May 22nd, 2009
The most expensive car ever sold at auction

The most expensive car ever sold at auction

What would you do with $12.2 million?

You might buy yourself a really nice car, but still only drop a couple hundred grand and have plenty left to give to family you’ve never met. Or you could blow it all on ONE car. Yes, that’s what I would do.

A 1957 Ferrari 250 Testa Rossa sold this month at auction in Italy for a world-record $12.2 million. The sale broke a record set a year earlier at the same auction, also for a Ferrari. That one was a 1961 Ferrari 250 GT SWB California Spyder that sold for $10.9 million.

So Ferrari now owns the top two spots in the most-expensive-cars-ever-sold-at-auction contest. What cars round out the top 5?

Number 3: 1931 Bugatti Royale, $9.7 million

1931-bugatti-royale

Only six of these babies were ever built. It had a 12.7-liter engine and was 15 feet long. Hey, that’s under $1 million per foot!

Number 4: 1962 Ferrari 330 Testa Rossa, $9.2 million

1962-ferrari-330-testa-rossa1

This car was driven at the 1962 Le Mans and was the last Ferrari race car to have its engine in the front.

Number 5: 1937 Mercedes-Benz 540K Special Roadster, $8.2 million

1937-mercedes-benz

Some say this is the world’s finest example of a 5.4-liter sports car.

Of the top 5 most expensive auctioned cars ever, 3 are Ferraris. Even more interesting, Ferrari owns 5 of the 10 most expensive. A 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO sold for $6.2 million in 1991 (put it up for sale today, and I’ll bet it would take the number one spot!), and a 1953 Ferrari 340/375 Berlinetta Competizione that won the 1954 Le Mans sold in 2007 for $5.8 million.

What do you think: Is a cool $12 million a good deal for a collectible car? What cars from today might end up on this list in the future?

-tgriffith

Car Minded, Classic & Vintage Cars, Exotic Cars, Foreign Cars, General Chat

The Most Satisfying New Cars

May 21st, 2009

2009-ford-f150What makes a car satisfying? According to AutoPacific’s recently published 2009 Vehicle Satisfaction Awards, a car is deemed satisfying if the owner would recommend it to a friend. Makes sense to me! They surveyed 25,000 new-car buyers and asked them that question. The results are below. If your car’s missing and you want to recommend it to your fellow CarGurus, let us hear it!

Most satisfying cars

Premium luxury car: Lexus LS
Executive luxury car: Jaguar XF
Aspirational luxury car: Infiniti G37
Large car: Toyota Avalon
Luxury midsize car: Lexus ES
Premium midsize car: Toyota Camry
Midsize car: Volkswagen Jetta
Image compact car: Toyota Prius
Mainstream compact car: Subaru Impreza
Economy car: Honda Fit
Premium sports car: Chevrolet Corvette
Sports car: Nissan 350Z
Sporty car: Ford Mustang

Most satisfying trucks

Large light-duty pickup: Ford F-150
Large heavy-duty pickup: Ford F-250 Super Duty
Compact pickup: Toyota Tacoma
Luxury sport/utility: Lincoln Navigator
Large sport/utility: GMC Yukon XL
Premium midsize sport/utility: Toyota 4Runner
Midsize sport/utility: Dodge Nitro
Compact SUV/off-road vehicle: Jeep Wrangler
Luxury crossover SUV: Land Rover LR2
Large crossover SUV: Ford Flex
Premium midsize crossover SUV: Ford Edge
Mainstream midsize crossover SUV: Honda CR-V
Compact crossover SUV: Honda Element

There you have it! There are a couple of winners that make me wonder if someone, somewhere got paid off. The Dodge Nitro? Seriously? I rented one once and was tempted to drive it into a river and claim it was stolen, just so the next person would be spared driving it.

What car(s) do you drive? Would you recommend it to your friends?

-tgriffith

Car Industry News, Car Minded, Domestic Cars, Foreign Cars, General Chat, Hybrid Cars, Trucks & SUVs

Pay Inside or Pay at the Pump?

May 21st, 2009

spring-roadtrip2The glories of spring are generally accompanied by rising gas prices—and outraged motorists. The price hike is usually explained by the fact that people are (or will be) driving more, which creates expectations of rising demand. This spring is no different, and we’re seeing the usual complaints about speculators and being fleeced at the pump.

But some things are different this time around—namely, that supply is way up and demand is at a 10-year low while crude oil prices have climbed 70 percent since January. Some blame the new pain at the pump, once again, on Wall Street banks and speculators for buying up futures contracts to hedge against inflation. These guys do seem awfully active in the oil markets now, and the big banks don’t have limits on those sorts of investments. A good question would be, “Why don’t they?”

One oil futures analyst defends his industry, naturally, by saying that:

Oil is going higher because of rising demand expectations. Oil is rising due to seasonal factors. Oil is rising because the dollar is weaker. Oil is rising because of the effect of quantitative easing. Oil is rising as countries and investors are diversifying themselves away from the dollar. Oil is rising because OPEC is cutting production. Oil is rising because rig counts are falling. Oil is rising because of India’s election. Gas rose on a refinery outage!

And these are only some of the factors, he says.

Still others want to see higher gas taxes imposed over time, and so it will be hard to see gas prices coming down any time soon. And they probably shouldn’t. Here’s why:

The Obama administration’s new standards, announced on Tuesday, are long overdue. But they will not come free of charge. Yes, the government has set aside funds to help carmakers with R&D, but buyers paying that additional $1,300 per vehicle will recover that amount only if gas prices go higher. And what’s the motivation to buy green cars at higher prices if gas remains inexpensive?

I think higher gas taxes are inevitable for a number of reasons: 1) To stabilize the price at the pump. It’s better to pay out front than inside, better to pay a defined than a hidden tax. 2) Tax revenues could be distributed in the form of rebates to those who buy new fuel-efficient cars, helping both buyers and the industry. 3.) Obscene oil industry profits should become a thing of the past. Gas taxes would constitute a form of control on these villains.

Gas taxes may be the sole means the government has to keep things fair, not only for citified hybrid buyers but also for farmers who buy pickups. This is a complicated topic, and we don’t pretend this will be the last word.

Where do you stand on gas taxes? Do you think their rise is inevitable?

—jgoods

Car Industry News, Car Minded, Car Politics, Domestic Cars, Gas for your car..., General Chat

Costco Auto Buying Program: Scam or Good Deal?

May 21st, 2009

costcoauto

I’m paranoid about getting scammed.

It’s almost to the point where I don’t even want to answer the phone out of fear I’ll accidentally blurt out my social security number to someone claiming to work at my bank.

When it comes to car buying, my guard goes up like I’m a schizophrenic at a CIA interrogation. 

That’s why I was intrigued when I discovered an auto buying program at Costco. The company’s website claims Costco saves members a lot of hassle and an average of $1,000 off a typical transaction price. It works like this:

Members choose the make and model they’re interested in, then Costco refers them to a local dealer who shows the customer the vehicle’s invoice price, the MSRP, and the Costco no-haggle price.

A no-haggle price with built-in savings sounds pretty good on the surface, but still my paranoia wasn’t eased by browsing Costco’s website. Digging a little deeper online, I found a lawsuit filed in January by a New Jersey woman who says the program is deceptive.

Her main accusation, according the paperwork, is: 

The Costco auto program is misleading and deceptive because its “members only” price is exclusively defined in reference to the “invoice price” of authorized dealers. The Costco auto program does not control the underlying invoice price, and its participating dealers can and do manipulate that price in any number of ways.

A-ha! I knew there had to be something. Everyone knows dealers try to squeeze every ounce of cash they can out of people, so if there’s a price they’ll immediately accept, they must have a good amount of profit built in. Still, I trust Costco….

So I decided to put its auto buying program to the test.

While I was shopping to replace my wife’s car a few weeks back, we looked at getting a 2009 Honda CR-V EX AWD. It was black with a window sticker price of $25,635. We got pretty far into the negotiations before they broke down over the value of our trade-in. The purchase price we arrived at: $23,600.

With this in mind, I contacted the Costco Auto Program with no intent of buying, but to research this story. I wanted to see how close their offer was to the price I negotiated myself. I filled out the online form and waited 24 hours. They never called. So I called the “specially trained” Costco-approved salesman I was referred to and asked what my price would be.

He asked me to come in and see the car. I told him I’d seen it already and just wanted to know the Costco price. I eventually convinced him I wouldn’t come in unless I knew the price was acceptable. 

Then he told me: $23,900.

I admit, I was impressed. I came  to the conclusion that programs like Costco’s just might be worth it if you’re the kind of person who cowers at confrontation and despises negotiation. The deal, at least in this case, wasn’t too bad!

If you’re a negotiation pit bull, though, go after ‘em, and take every hundred you can get!

Would you consider, or have you used, something like Costco’s auto buying program?

-tgriffith

Find Used Cars in Your Area at CarGurus

Car Industry News, Car Minded, Domestic Cars, Foreign Cars, General Chat

A New GM Division?

May 20th, 2009

2010-corvette-grand-sport1

Here’s another brilliant idea I came up with in the shower, incubator of my genius.

GM has obviously had some recent success with its new high-powered specialty and sports cars: the Corvette (Grand Sport, above), the Cadillac CTS-V (below left), the Camaro (below right), and the Pontiac G8. We’ve given them great reviews, as have others in the automotive press. The public likes them: Witness the 18,000 Camaro orders tgriffith recently wrote about. This could be a strong niche market at several price points.

2009-cad-cts-vYet bankruptcy will likely doom them all (except for the Corvette, says GM). It’s ironic and unfair that these are some of the best cars the company has ever built. But somebody, somewhere is going to buy the tooling and technology from GM to keep building them.

Here’s my idea: GM should keep building them—in a new specialty division dedicated to producing affordable performance cars for buyers who can and will pay the freight. There are many people still in the market with cash to spend who will buy such cars, notwithstanding the tremendous social, political, and economic pressures to go small, green, and efficient. By the way, the Camaro trim with a V6 gets 29 mpg.

2010-camaroBesides, the American market is never going to accept the overpriced Volt or the Korean-built Cruze. If GM bets the farm on these, it can’t survive. A sport specialty division could at least help fill the gap until better fuel-efficient small cars that people want come to market.

There would be production synergies, since Corvette engines power the CTS-V and one version of the Camaro. Some parts and platforms could interchange. One or two assembly plants could produce all these cars, keeping at least some GM folks working. Setting up dedicated dealerships would stanch some of the bleeding from that wound. Mileage improvements, per the new Obama proposal, would apply to these cars as well.

My idea won’t rescue GM, but may keep it breathing a while longer while the company comes back to life. People clearly want to buy these cars, and they should have the opportunity to keep doing so. If they won’t eat multi-grain bread, let ‘em eat cake.

Do you think there is a viable market for these cars that would help GM stay alive?

—jgoods

Car Minded, Domestic Cars, General Chat