Honda’s Shot in the Arm: the CR-Z Hybrid

2009 Honda CR-Z Preproduction

We last talked about this one in July. But today bloggers are babbling like babies about the Honda CR-Z concept, which reportedly is finally to be released for production, first in Japan (February 2010), then in Europe and the U.S. They are right to be excited: This is (I think) the world’s first hybrid sports car slated for production in any quantity. It looks good, and what specs have been revealed sound good.

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Toyota’s Recall of 3.8 Million Vehicles Proves Point: Toyota Still Builds Quality

toyota logo

Next week, Toyota will issue the biggest U.S. recall in its history.

For floormats.

Not engine problems, not transmission failures… but floormats that don’t quite fit just right.

Granted, those floormats can interfere with the accelerator pedal and cause uncontrolled pedal-to-the-metal acceleration, but still the flaw is in the floormat.

As far as serious issues go, this one’s about as minor as it gets. The fix? Take out the driver’s side floormat. I’m guessing there won’t be a flood of appointments at Toyota service departments on this one.

Let’s compare Toyota’s latest recall with some other recalls this year:

In April, GM recalled 1.5 million vehicles because of the possibility of engine fires.

In February, Chrysler recalled 13,350 minivans for risk of fire in an electrical circuit.

Also in February, Ford recalled over 11,000 2009 Rangers because the wheels could fall off.

Toyota had some bad floormats.

If anyone questions Toyota’s quality these days, I’m thinking a quick look at this should be convincing enough to prove that the company is still building the most reliable cars on the road.

The models affected are:

2007-2010 Camry 2005-2010 Avalon 2004-2009 Prius 2005-2010 Tacoma 2007-2010 Tundra 2007-2010 ES 350 2006-2010 IS 250 and IS350

Now, in all seriousness, should you ever encounter a stuck accelerator pedal, Toyota provided some suggestions on what to do:

First, if it is possible and safe to do so, pull back the floor mat and dislodge it from the accelerator pedal; then pull over and stop the vehicle.

If the floor mat cannot be dislodged, then firmly and steadily step on the brake pedal with both feet. Do NOT pump the brake pedal repeatedly as this will increase the effort required to slow the vehicle.

Shift the transmission gear selector to the Neutral (N) position and use the brakes to make a controlled stop at the side of the road and turn off the engine.

What company do you think builds the most reliable cars? If you own a Toyota vehicle that’s part of the recall, have you ever experienced a stuck accelerator?


Green Update: If We Build It, They Will Come

Think City

The Cars

We talked about “Volt Contenders” back in March; one of these was the Think City, a less than Volt-sized EV that may be coming to production in the US in 2011. The Detroit News reviewed a pre-production version (around $30K in Europe, not cheap!) and found the car “almost adequate” for driving around the city: good interior space, OK acceleration, easy and quick recharging. The top speed was only 63 mph, however, and so accelerating onto a freeway was something akin to exercising a death wish. Passing? Passing what? But the car is good for the city and for short hops. Still not the “electric car for the masses… [which] no one has offered yet.” Figure another two years at least for that.

Myers Motors has been around for a while. They are trying to make a splash with another pint-sized machine, this one a glorified motorcycle really, again for in-town use. The three-wheeled, two-passenger NMG2 will go on sale late in 2010, and the company is running a contest for a name (no maligna gasolina?). The car has a 60-mile range, will do 75 mph and costs less than $30K. I like it. The letter from Myers’ president (on the website) makes the point that some 70 million people commute alone and drive less than 40 miles to work. That sounds like a reasonable niche market—if they can be convinced to ride in an enclosed three-wheeler.

E-Wolf E2 Concept, Electric Ferrari-killer

E-Wolf E1 Electric Roadster, for 150-lb driver

At the other end of the madness scale is a concept from German firm E-Wolf called the E2, supposedly to evolve as a supercar in two years (544 hp, 2000 lbs, “to compete with the likes of Ferrari in the performance arena”). Well, guys, judging from the E1 which was shown at Frankfurt (150 hp, 1100 lbs, “can only accommodate drivers weighing up to 150-pounds”), you’ve got a ways to go.

More practical, maybe, is Volvo’s move to put more plug-in hybrids on the streets and a fleet of test cars. The firm announced it would start selling plug-ins by 2012 and showed a V70 with two charging ports—one in front for home charging, the other at the rear for fast-charge (1.5-2.5 hours) stations.

The Power

In order to get electric cars to a sizable market, you must have power companies that not only feed the grid but use the product. Otherwise, it’s a Catch-22. The New York Times reports that

FPL Group, the company that includes Florida Power and Light, and Duke Energy, which serves 11 million people in the South and Midwest, together operate about 10,000 vehicles. And they said this week that by 2020 all new purchases of fleet vehicles will be plug-in hybrid or all-electric.

Clearly, that is putting one’s money where one’s mouth is. The ridiculous situation with ethanol is just the opposite: Farm-state senators (Ben Nelson, D-Neb., among them) are pushing to increase the amount of blended ethanol in gasoline to 15 percent, while the automakers are fighting it, citing the many cases where too much ethanol damages or disables engines.

It isn’t bad enough that we use corn almost entirely for ethanol, which is terrible for all kinds of environmental, agricultural and economic reasons. The industry has been totally unwilling to commit to biofuels or cellulosic ethanol, and is now getting set to inhale some $787 million in federal money for biofuel research, which it would not do on its own. Instead of priming the biofuel pump, federal money is serving as a substitute for private capital and encouraging the farm states to continue their misguided policies. End of rant, for now.

Applause, however, for GM which announced last week that it was partnering with the Reva Electric Car Company of India to develop the market for electric vehicles in India. Well, why shouldn’t they, you ask, with over a billion people as a market? RECC, we understand, has done work on infrastructure, biofuels and has test marketed electrics in many countries as well as India. Working on alternative propulsion strategies and fuels, GM has also reached out to world markets. It could be an ideal combination: Volts in Mumbai!

How soon can we expect EVs to penetrate the market for short-commute cars in our cities? We know you have an opinion. —jgoods

Please, Don’t Ban Texting While Driving!

Sometimes, I think it's safe to text while behind the wheel

Responsible texting can be safe

I live in Washington state, which is one of many states to ban making phone calls on handheld devices while driving. No one actually pays attention to the ban, as evidenced by my recent count of six cars in a row with drivers chatting it up with phones glued to their ears.

An easy way around that ban is to send a quick text rather than having an entire conversation. Texting is faster and can be done at a red light in the time it takes for it to turn green, leaving time to devote the required attention to driving while still meeting my communication needs.

Now though, a group of 11 automakers has formed the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers (AMM) to push for an all-out ban on texting while behind the wheel.

I’m not going to say that I think texting while driving is completely safe… it’s far from safe when the car is moving. But I do believe there’s a time and a place where it’s OK, such as while stopped at a red light. In those few moments when I have nothing else to do, I don’t want anyone telling me I can’t send a note to my wife telling her I’m x-ited 2 C her 2 nite.

Then there’s this little contradictory gem: Some states offer a service sending text message updates on traffic and weather conditions. Will that be outlawed too? Reading a text message is probably more dangerous than sending one, as seasoned text pros can compose messages without even looking at their phones.

Texting while driving is often compared to drinking and driving, which I think is absurd since texting can done responsibly. (I’ve never known anyone who could be drunk only at red lights.) Drunk driving is a serious and dangerous offense… texting doesn’t have to be any more involved than changing the radio station or adjusting the iPod (uh-oh… watch iPod bans come next).

If I want to send and read texts when I feel it is safe to do so, I want that right. The biggest consequence I see is getting honked at for being a moment late in realizing the light turned green, and that’s a risk I’m willing to take.

What are your views on texting while driving? Should it be outlawed to text while behind the wheel?


Chrysler’s Two-Year Gap

2009 Chrysler PT Cruiser Special Edition: for Australia only

2009 Chrysler PT Cruiser Special Edition: for Australia only

The most interesting news coming out of Detroit is still from Chrysler. So we’re going to give you another dose. By now, you have probably heard the drill: Any totally-new, Fiat-based product is two years away, and that leaves the company facing some very difficult times. What it has in the pipeline, except for the new Dodge Ram line, is unexciting, to say the least, and just isn’t selling, to say the most.

There’s a big question as to whether Chrysler can survive this drought and much discussion about what it can and should do. Apparently, the brand strategy, as we reported, is to go big-time luxo with the Chrysler marque (yes, I can hear the laughter from the gallery), sporty driver’s-car with Dodge (where the Fiat-based product will fit best), with Jeep remaining, well, Jeep. Minivans may fill a bit of the two-year gap but not much.

So, we learn today, the Sebring and the Avenger will be reborn in 2011. These dorky cars not only deserved to die, but their names should be forever banished from the Chrysler catalogue. Carport Confidential, like many other blogs, pillories the Sebring:

Ranked dead last in Consumer Reports compilation of 39 family sedans, this meager challenger in the critical mid-size segment has sold a whopping 34,700 units to date in 2009. Compare that with the 238,000 Camrys told by Toyota and you begin to see what sloppy engineering and deplorable design begets.

This is a godawful situation, and about as comfortable for Chrysler as Hugo Chavez at a Sarah Palin family picnic.

But the company appears to be stuck with it, and there was news last week that it would continue the facelift process with other cars too.

The Detroit Free Press reported last week that Marchionne wants to face-lift several other models by mid-2011. Those include the Dodge Grand Caravan minivan and Caliber small car, the Jeep Compass and Patriot crossovers and the Chrysler PT Cruiser.

Regarding the latter, if you live in Australia, you’ll be thrilled to know that you can now buy the new PT Cruiser Special Edition, all tricked out, for around $30K. Maybe that should be the strategy: Rebadge and recycle old product for foreign/subsidiary markets, and let the rest of us buy Camrys.

Can Chrysler survive the two-year drought? Give us your thoughts.


Best Buy Could Sell Electric Cars

Aptera 2E

Aptera 2E

Imagine heading to Best Buy and picking up a Blu-Ray DVD player, a 52″ LCD TV and a new electric vehicle.

At first it might seem crazy, but think about it for 30 seconds and you’ll realize that a large electronics box store selling the ultimate electronic appliance just makes sense. I mean, Best Buy sells washers and dryers so why not electric cars?

According to this, rumors persist that Best Buy will indeed make the jump into electric vehicles, which already sells electric bikes and scooters in Los Angeles.

Here’s what’s even cooler: the futuristic-looking Aptera 2E is featured in a Best Buy promo video here, raising the possibility that the Aptera folks and the Best Buy folks are busy creating an alliance. It’s certainly not a done deal, but the possibility of going somewhere other than a traditional car dealer to buy a new car could revolutionize how cars are sold.

I’d expect that if the rumor ever becomes true, Best Buy would need to invest in an entire maintenance system to keep new cars in good running order. Or even better, outfit the Geek Squad with the tools and knowledge to come to customers and make repairs without ever requiring a trip to the maintenance shop.

What do you think: is it a good idea for Best Buy to sell electric vehicles?


Is this the End of Dodge Ram?

The Dodge logo is coming off!

The Dodge logo is coming off!

The shakeup of the world’s auto brands continues!

GM has dumped or is dumping Opel, Hummer, Saturn and Pontiac. Volkswagen has added Porsche and is considering buying part of Suzuki. Now comes this news:

Chrysler appears ready to turn the Ram nameplate into its own brand.

According to the well-informed folks over at Edmunds, Ram will be developed into a brand that sells pickup trucks, vans, SUVs and commercial vehicles. That in turn would leave Dodge open to evolve into an affordable performance brand.

A year ago I might have scoffed at such an idea. Now though it kind of makes sense, for these reasons: Chrysler is owned by Fiat. Fiat owns Alfa Romeo. Alfa Romeo makes great cars. And Alfa Romeos could become Dodges, thanks to the Italian ownership of Chrysler.

Separating the line of trucks from the line of sports cars seems like a good move, and Ram is a name that’s been around long enough to be able to stand on its own.

If this is a glimpse into the future of what Chrysler will become, I’m excited about it. How long have us Americans been asking for some European flair in our cars? A long time. And now it’s coming in the form of Fiat and Alfa Romeo.

I’m not a Dodge guy, and never have been, but put the Dodge logo on an Alfa MiTo, 159, Brera or 8C Spider and I’m all over it like hot butter on a dinner roll.

Is making Ram its own brand a good idea?


Technology Parents Must Have in their Cars: No DVD Players?

Now try confining them to a car

Now try confining them to a car

Sometimes I just wake up in the morning full of ideas and wisdom.

Of course, most mornings I find myself in a blurry fog while doing things like accidentally pouring cough syrup instead of creamer into my coffee. Lucky for me, and the entire auto world, today wasn’t one of those mornings.

Today I woke up with brilliant ideas swirling in my head about how to build cars more parent-friendly. I was equally delighted when I saw that Ford would be hosting a chat with marketing manager Amy Marentic about automotive technologies important to moms.

I’ll tell you what Ford, you don’t even need to have that chat. You just need to read this; because this is what all parents, not just moms, need in their cars:

Invisible force fields separating all seating positions.

Any parent will tell you that kids fighting in the car is an instant mood changer. I don’t care if you’re driving with your freshly bathed children to meet the pope on Easter morning while listening to The Wheels on the Bus, if one kid reaches over and pinches the other, suddenly your fuse explodes and you’re screaming like Glenn Beck discovering his kids are democrats.

All parents know: kids touching each other equals fights. Automakers: figure out how to make it impossible for kids to touch each other. Parents will buy your cars.

Sound deadening glass separators

This would be kind of like what you see in a limo. Even though the force fields are installed in the back seats already, we all know a kid determined to pinch his brother will break through all known technology. When this happens, a parent should be able to push a button (not unlike closing a sunroof) and become encased in a soundproof cockpit, along with the sounds of soothing jazz and the scent of sizzling bacon. Because bacon makes everything better.

Built-in customizable booster seats that self clean

This is so obvious I shouldn’t even have to mention it. Why do parents still have to mess with infant seats that never fit correctly then move on to booster seats that always sit too far to one side and cover up the seat belt attachment? If an automaker developed a seat that was:

Comfortable and safe for the kids Able to adapt to infants, toddlers and big kids Could be removed when no longer needed Resistant to crumbs

Every parent in the country would be knocking on dealer doors to get one.

Parents don’t need much in their cars. All they need is a safe place for the kids to sit and a way to keep kids from fighting. That’s it. DVD players, video games, refrigerators… those are all just modern conveniences getting in the way of our commute while training kids to believe that they must watch TV at all times while always being within reach of a cold drink.

That shouldn’t be expected until marriage.

What parent-friendly features would you like to see in a car?


Land Rover’s New Offerings: Tata for Now

2011 Range Rover LRX

We wrote a rather contemptuous piece back in March panning Land Rover’s LRX concept for its ugly styling, squashed-down rear end and exaggerated front end. Our readers, however, had other ideas. Of the 14 comments they made, 11 were positive about the car’s looks and design. Shows to go you.

Well, now the company has announced that the LRX will go into production late next year as a 2011 model (shown here)—and we hereby acknowledge what we should have known all along: Nobody can presume to predict what the public will like when it comes to car design. De gustibus, and all that.

Based on our small sampling, maybe Tata Motors (LR’s new owner) is making a smart move. The LRX 2-door + hatch will be the smallest, lightest and “most efficient” in the Land Rover line, though power plants have yet to be determined. They talked hybrids and “electrification” when the concept was introduced in 2008. It will be branded as a Range Rover and priced, it is said, “below the $60,495 Range Rover Sport.”

The company needs a shot in the arm. In addition to its happy LRX news, Tata announced it was going to close one of three Jaguar-Land Rover plants in England by 2014 since “combined sales of the two brands dropped 52 percent in its first fiscal quarter.”

Overfinch Range Rover "shooting brake"

Of course, one way to boost sales is to go to a niche market—for example, how about hunters and drinkers? TopGear reports that specialty maker Overfinch has taken the big supercharged V8 Range Rover, fitted it out with a Holland and Holland walnut gun cabinet and a “self-replenishing drinks cabinet” so customers can drink, drive and shoot, all from the comforts of a £140,000 vehicle.

Let’s give them some other markets to think about. What about cars for those who refuse to give up texting? Cars for the visually impaired? What others can you suggest?


Say it Ain’t So: Aston Martin and Rolls-Royce Among Clunkers Casualities?



The official Cash for Clunkers website has released a list of cars that were traded in on the program, and some the vehicles on the list are downright shocking.

Most are not… there are at least 60,000 Ford Explorers on the list, most of them from the early to mid-90s, though a couple of 2008 models were turned in.

But check out these cars that were on the list, and keep in mind that the law requires the engines of these vehicles to be permanently disabled. Try not to weep:

1997 Aston Martin DB7 Volante (I found one for sale here for just $69,500. ) 2006 Audi A4 Cabriolet Quattro (OK, so it’s not a supercar, but still…) 1992 BMW 850i (For sale here for $24K.) 1987 Buick GNX (Only 547 were ever built.) 2007-2008 Chrysler 300 AWD (There were 3 of these.) 1987 Excalibur Autos Phaeton (No joke, but still hard to believe.) 2000 Jaguar XK8 convertible (I would’ve gladly paid that guy 5 grand for his car rather than see it killed just to get $4,500 off a Hyundai.) 1985 Maserati Quattroporte (You just don’t junk a Maserati.) 2005 Mazda RX8 (Still worth about $15K) 1997 Rolls-Royce Continental R (Ever heard the words “Rolls-Royce” and “clunker” in the same sentence?) 2008 Scion xD (Wait a minute. This thing is rated at 29 mpg, for one thing. Secondly, it’s still worth about $16K. How’d this one slip through?)

You can see the full list here, but I’m warning you, it’s got everything. Corvette and Camaro fans may want to stay away.

Would you have taken any of these cars off owners’ hands before they were sent to the crusher?