Lutz Loses Cadillac CTS Challenge, May Win Buyers

GM's Bob Lutz in the challenge Cadillac CTS-V

In a shrewd marketing ploy, Maximum Bob Lutz, GM’s noisy vice chairman, challenged all comers (driving comparable four-door sedans) to beat him in a race at the Monticello track in the Catskills. The race was yesterday, and Lutz came in seventh, behind a bunch of other CTS-Vs (driven by GM engineers and a couple of professional drivers) and a BMW M3, driven by a young whipper-snapper (as Lutz later termed his competitors), Michael Cooper.

The event was cooked up to attract auto journalists, and Jalopnik responded first, with an entry of a Jaguar XF R, later to be withdrawn owing to brake concerns. Driver Wes Siler entered a Mitsubishi EVO instead, and came in eighth. The Truth About Cars entered a CTS-V driven by Jack Baruth, which came in fifth.

Now, from one mid-70s guy to another, let me say congratulations to the man who was not only a good loser but a good driver. We all know how badly older people can drive, but here’s a guy who’s not only kept his skills, but shown the world how to get ink for a great product. Everybody from The New York Times to Facebook has been in on this story.

Cadillac recently fired its ad agency—the one that produced spots featuring a sexy lady driving a red CTS and asking, “When you turn your car on, does it return the favor?” Lutz says stunts like his challenge are lots cheaper and more effective in attracting buyers. What do you think?


Winter’s Coming: Here’s How To Get Your Car Ready!

It's coming... are you ready?

It's coming... are you ready?

It snowed today where I live. Not a lot, and by evening there was no snow on the ground, but it was enough to get me thinking about whether or not my cars are ready for winter (which apparently has arrived, right Colorado?).

We bought a car this summer that has beautiful 18″ chrome rims, and the first thing I thought when I saw the snowflakes this morning was how quickly I could get those babies stored as far away from road salts as possible. I have a firm “no pitting” rule at my house!

I’ll definitely be making some preparations as winter descends. I advise you to do the same:

Whip out your snow wheels now and wrap ’em with the best snow tires you can afford. Naturally, there are many choices in snow tires: studded (if your state law allows), studless, and my favorite, Norwegian. I tend to prefer a brand like Nokian, since those Norwegians tend to know a thing or two about winter driving.

Speaking of tires, keep an eye on your tire pressure, too. It tends to drop as temperatures dip below freezing.

It’s also a good time to invest in some heavy duty all-weather rubber floor mats (unless you own a Toyota). Heck, even if you do have a Toyota, keeping your carpets clean and dry might be worth the risk of uncontrollable acceleration. Probably not, but your call, of course.

Then there’s the rest of the typical winter stuff:

Get your battery checked. This will help you avoid having to asking a stranger for jumper cables in a dark and scary mall parking garage. Add wiper fluid. Get your antifreeze checked. Make sure yours isn’t one of those cars driving around with one headlight out.

I know, I sound like your dad, but I care about you, so I’m going to keep going.

It’s also important to pick up some winter wiper blades. A full tank of fluid isn’t going to help if your wipers just smear it all into the mud already caked on your windshield. Once that happens you’ll be driving with your head out the window, and let me tell you, snow coming at your face at 40 mph really stings the eyes.

You should also take the time to wax your car one last time before spring. Putting down a protective layer will help spare your paint from the horrors of road-sanding trucks.

As winter sets in and temperatures plummet, even starting your car’s engine can be a challenge. Park in a garage if you can, or try an engine block heater if you live somewhere really cold. And don’t forget to switch to a lighter weight oil (consult your owner’s manual) or even a synthetic, since it tends to stay liquid in colder temps.

Finally, I’m going to mention something I would think everyone knows, but apparently they don’t. All-wheel drive or four-wheel drive will help you get going in snow and ice. It will not help you stop.

Tell that to the moron in the Jeep who gets stuck in a ditch on the highway. I promise you’ll see him this winter.

Do you have any special winter preparation or driving tips to share?


A New 928—We Hope!

New Porsche 928

We’re seeing some interesting renderings of what purports to be the new Porsche 928. The car is presumed to be built on a shortened Panamera platform, giving the company another way to spread development costs and expand its range of offerings. The Panamera is supposedly in line for a gas-electric hybrid version to debut next year in Europe, and the sportier 928 could potentially use that powertrain too. Pricewise, it will come between the Panamera and the 911.

Other details from Auto Express:

The engine line-up will mirror that of the Panamera, so a 4.8-litre V8, with or without a turbocharger, producing 500bhp or 400bhp, will be available. The naturally aspirated variant is set to come with four or rear-wheel drive, while the range-topping turbo model will be 4WD only.

At this stage, much of what we hear is speculative, but the car does seem likely to be built, and the renderings look good. The 928 would basically fit into the Volkswagen-Porsche development plan tgriffith outlined recently. For a rear view, click on “Pictures” here.

1995 Porsche 928 GTS

For those of you too young to remember, the original 928 broke the rear-engine mold for Porsche and became (after the horrible 924) its first front-engine, water-cooled grand touring car. Built from 1977-1995, the car had lots of interesting tech features, including a rear-mounted transaxle, and I desperately wanted but could not afford one.

I still can’t afford one, but Porsche could be making a very smart move in bringing back the iconic 928. Until you get into the rarefied Ferrari-Aston Martin territory, the grand touring market is wide open.

Porsche’s development plans seem to make sense, at least so far. Do you foresee any roadblocks ahead as VW absorbs the company?


Cars Coming Soon-> Treats Are On The Way!

Can you guess what this is?

Can you guess what this is?

One of the greatest parts about having kids is getting to raid their candy at Halloween. That way, I get the treats without the work of going door to door.

If you don’t have kids, or are just too ethical to steal candy from them, no worries. Cars Coming Soon has some treats for you, too. You can’t eat them, but they’re sure to raise your excitement level and give you something to look forward to in the coming months and years.

So let’s get to it!

Euro-spec Honda Accord Tourer

First, Honda isn’t known for products that create a ton of excitement. But when any company announces that a much-loved European model will surface in the States, folks tend to go a little berserk. Even if said model is a Honda station wagon. (Proof that Americans go gaga over anything we perceive as being Euro-cool.)

Expect the Honda Accord Tourer to show up in America as an Acura TSX sport wagon. Don’t confuse this with the much ballyhooed Honda Accord Crosstour that is also on the way. The TSX sport wagon, according to the good folks at Autoblog,

will be based on the TSX sedan, which is itself basically a Euro Accord. It is unclear which powertrains we’ll get, or if styling will be tweaked from its European counterpart, but it is expected to arrive next fall. Color us excited.

Ford Kuga

In other Euro news, production of the Ford Kuga SUV will move to America by 2011. Car and Driver suspects that move could lead to the Kuga replacing the aging Ford Escape. Let’s hope that’s true, because the Kuga is sleek and refined, while the Escape is bulky and well…ugly. Feel free to make your own “Kuga on the prowl” joke while gazing at the loveliness of European SUV design.

Reports have been floating around that Volkswagen is working on a U.S.-built sedan that would replace the Passat in 2011. The new midsize sedan, dubbed the NMS (shown on top!) should start at around $20K, making it much more affordable than the $27K Passat. Sketches are emerging, and it appears that Volkswagen is taking a page out of Chevy’s book. Anyone else see the Camaro resemblance here? Regardless, it looks like the NMS will be much sexier than the current Passat.

What other European models do you hope make it to the United States?


GMAC Wants $2.9 Billion More of Your Money

Grand Theft Auto Bailout

We learned today that GMAC has been looking for a third round of bailout money from the Treasury—and they may have gotten it. The latest news is that the company has just put $2.9 billion of junk bonds (rated by Moody’s “two notches above default”) on the market. However, these bonds are backed by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, thus giving them a triple-A rating. And because of the FDIC backup, these bonds will sell!

This is but the latest in a series of sand-bagging moves on the part of the Feds to make the levee hold. GMAC Financial Services, the lending arm for both GM and Chrysler dealers and customers, is really the lifeline for these companies. The government has already put $12.5 billion (35 percent ownership) into GMAC, which may have become a bottomless pit. Here are the problems, as I interpret them out of one messy situation:

1. The company was made a bank earlier this year so that it could gain access to the FDIC’s loan guarantee program, the one being used for the new bonds issued today. As a bank, it failed the government’s stress test and couldn’t raise investor capital, posting a $3.9 billion second-quarter loss. Treasury concluded “it needed to raise $11.5 billion more in capital by mid-November.”

2. GMAC also operates a mortgage lending business, Residential Capital, which has experienced enormous losses in the housing market. Its commercial successor, Capmark Financial, just filed for bankruptcy. Most of the second-quarter losses came from real estate. GMAC also has an online banking company, Ally Banking (formerly GMAC Bank), which has come under fire for offering very high rates for deposits, since they’re guaranteed by the Feds!

3. These financial tie-ins to the struggling car business and the disastrous real-estate loans are bound to result in collapse—unless Treasury keeps pouring money in. Since GMAC is now the primary financing source for both GM and Chrysler, dealers for Chrysler are in particularly big trouble, according to Freep.

Chrysler Financial, which Treasury has demanded go out of business by the end of 2011, is asserting its first-lien rights on loans to Chrysler dealers. At the same time GMAC, due to its capital shortfall, has asked those same dealers to pay additional collateral on the vehicles they order from Chrysler Group. Many of those dealers borrowed $10 million or more to expand their showrooms, and can’t sell the property for anywhere near what they owe Chrysler Financial.

The true reason for this revolving bailout is that, in a credit economy, somebody has to front the money to buy cars. The banks aren’t doing it, consumers aren’t doing it, so you the taxpayer will have to do it. The craziness is that taxpayers are lending money to themselves in hopes that the industry will finally earn a profit to pay them back.

Is the spiral endless? Are we in a financial Catch-22? Lay your thoughts on us in a comment.


Why Automotive Advertising Is All Wrong

Compare a Ford corporate ad...

Compare a Ford corporate ad...

Do you believe advertising?

TV advertising has less effect on me every day. Heck, I worked as a creative director at an ad agency, and I still don’t trust 90 percent of the ads I see. This is because companies don’t seem to sell their best attributes anymore – they’ve turned to using tactics designed to sell product regardless of how far the truth is stretched.

Advertising for the auto industry is especially complicated, because it seems to have its own set of rules. How can any company properly advertise something that has no real set price and many different features that appeal differently to many different people? It’s a tall, tricky order, and I think it’s being done wrong for these reasons:

1. The price can’t be clearly stated Consumers are confused and on guard right away, because we know a car’s price is never set in stone.

We know the price the manufacturer thinks a car is worth (the MSRP). We know we don’t ever need to pay that much. We look online and at newspaper and TV ads and see all kinds of special offers and prices. We go to the dealer and find out they would like us to pay more than the MSRP.

This is a pricing nightmare that is specific to the auto industry (you sure don’t see it at the grocery store).

2. No car does it all When consumers start car shopping, we look at the selling points of cars (and carmakers) we are interested in. Some of us are looking for the best performance, while others want the best fuel efficiency. Some want cars that are visually appealing, while others would rather have a car that can comfortably haul a family. Some want cars that will hold their value, while others simply want the lowest price up front. Some of us want all of that in one package, as promised by some car ads, and are disappointed when we can’t find it.

...with a Ford dealer ad (combined with Toyota).Where is the brand experience?

3. Advertising messages fall flat We are bombarded with car ads every day. We see ads from Ford, Chevy, Toyota, and more that strive to make vehicles look amazing while artfully showing off features and performance. But minutes later we see ads from car dealers that scream (literally) about insanely low prices. From a consumer’s point of view, this is confusing, because we are having two very different experiences with the same brand. In our eyes, dealers are extensions of the manufacturers, and any sales schemes they create are reflected right back onto the automaker, which cheapens the brand message instead of reinforcing it.

I think dealer advertising tends to cancel out manufacturer advertising, leaving consumers to trust only their judgment and the opinions of people we trust.

How to fix it The first issue, price, is something we can’t do anything about. When taken with the other two issues, though, that works itself out. We pay what we feel the car we want is worth to us.

Which brings us to the second issue: No car does it all. You know what kind of car appeals to you and why. If you’re a speed freak, you might want a Cadillac CTS-V simply because it was a few seconds faster around the Nurburgring than a BMW M5.

If you have a family, you might be in love with the Honda Odyssey because of its reputation for reliability and for holding its value. The fact that a Kia Sedona might be less expensive or a Ford Flex might be more attractive has no impact on your purchase decision.

Instead of trying to be everything to everyone, carmakers need to give it up and just honestly say what they are best at and why. Instead of searching for a new agency to produce a new gimmick every time sales take a dive (which GM is doing with Cadillac), why not work with the agency to identify core values and then build up the brand around those?

When a company focuses on its core values, the advertising falls into place (at least on the corporate level). Going a step further would be controlling dealer advertising and forcing it to conform to the corporate brand, which I think absolutely must be done.

Car consumers are smart. We know what we want. Automakers: Just tell us what you stand for, tell us what you do best, and we’ll buy your cars. Simple as that.

Does automotive advertising influence you, or do you rely on reviews and opinions of others when car shopping?


Green Update–>Electric Car Design, Mazda, Honda, Fisker, Energy—and More

MX-Libris Taxi

With a population of 20 million growing at 2 percent a year, Mexico City has long been the smog capital of the hemisphere. It’s the third-largest urban area in the world and has been fighting air pollution with greater and lesser success for years. At the heart of the problem, of course, is the automobile, and specifically the proliferation of old, stinky, polluting taxis.

Now we have a far-out proposal from industrial designer Alberto Villareal for a fuel-cell-powered, drive-by-wire, solar-paneled (on the roof) taxi called MX-Libris (above), which may be just radical enough to do the job. The car won the Red Dot Design Award in 2008, and two Mexican firms have shown interest. Funding would come from the Centro de Transporte Sustentable, which promotes green transport. Go, Alberto!

Toyota FT-EV-II

Why do most electric cars look so ugly and commonplace? Do their designers deliberately turn out plug-ugly plug-ins because of some kind of group-think? These and other questions are delightfully addressed by Alice Rawsthorn in a New York Times piece. They are boring and ugly, she says, because of the problems inherent in new-car design, the reluctance of the industry to experiment and take chances, and the fears engendered by the huge investments required. As ever, however, there can be no reward without risk. Tesla has done it. Why can’t others?

New (U.S.?) Mazda 2

The Japanese want to take the lead in green car technology and production, and they are making noises as if they can and will do it. In particular, Mazda is working on the feasibility of diesels for the U.S. and, not surprisingly, they are looking at VW’s ability to market the diesel here with some success. The Mazda2 might be a diesel candidate, and there has been much speculation on what the 2008 World Car of the Year will look like, what will power it, etc., when it comes here. The car will get to the U.S. most likely in late 2010.

Honda CEO Takanobu Ito spoke out last week to a group of journalists (we mentioned it here) on Honda’s commitment to hybrids, EVs, fuel cells, and a really green, i.e., hydrogen-powered, sports car, “not like the Lexus” (the V10-powered, $375,000 Lexus LFA supercar). Plans include hybrids for the larger Honda models (Accord, etc.), but all this will take time. In any case, the CR-Z is coming soon, and that is good news.

Proof that green technology is catching on comes with the increasing competition for manufacturing facilities. Reva, the Indian carmaker, announced it was opening a plant in upstate New York; the Nissan Leaf will be made in Tennessee as well as Japan; and Fisker is redeveloping a GM plant near Wilmington, which event will naturally be announced by Delaware arch-booster Vice President Joe Biden.

Finally, we were caught up last week by a Wall Street Journal piece on “Five Technologies That Could Change Everything.” One of these is truly pie in the sky (space-based solar power panels), and another would trap and bury CO2 underground. The rest are: advanced car batteries, utility storage, and next-gen biofuels. Each clearly involves the concept of storage, which, as all car gurus know, is what finally, instrumentally, enables our vehicles to move. The costs and engineering challenges will be enormous, but in the end what choice do we really have but to move ahead? Just where to put the bets down will be the first problem.

How about letting us know what kinds of energy topics you would like to see covered in future Green Updates? Please leave us a comment.


Ford Continues to Rise… At Expense of GM and Chrysler?


Call it a triple play for Ford.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Ford is on the cusp of turning a profit while market share is rising and resale values improve.

Doesn’t get much better than that in the car world, does it?

The WSJ says,

Another positive sign could come in a report expected to be released soon by auto guide Kelly Blue Book. Two Ford vehicles will appear on the list of 2010 model-year vehicles projected to retain the greatest amount of their original retail price after five years of ownership, said a person familiar with the matter. Last year, no Ford car or truck held a spot on the 2009 model-year list.

Naturally this has PR flacks at Ford in the mood to pat themselves on the back and promote the WSJ article on the company’s Facebook page. But Ford’s work is only just beginning. In fact, this article on BNET says it’s too early to jump on the Ford bandwagon:

So far so good in my opinion, but where I continue to be skeptical is whether Ford can keep it up, unless overall demand recovers more than it has.

Plus, I’m skeptical because I keep reading that consumers are supposedly rewarding Ford for not going bankrupt and taking a government bailout, or conversely that consumers are avoiding Chrysler and GM for the opposite reason.

Whatever the reasons for Ford’s success, consumers are flocking to the company’s vehicles while GM and Chrysler seriously struggle. But good things are on the horizon for both those companies, too. Fiat’s influence will bring a European flair to Chrysler, while GM continues to promise its vehicles are as good as or better than anything else on the market.

The bankruptcy memories will fade into the distant past, and then we’ll have a clearer image of which company’s vehicles are the bigger hit with consumers.

This news, though, from Automobile Magazine, could keep GM’s bankruptcy memories fresh a while longer:

Consulting firm AP Services charged the old General Motors, otherwise known as Motors Liquidation Co., $23 million for three months of work as the company prepared and filed for bankruptcy. The article says,

To finish such a large restructuring in only three months, AP Services had a team of 153 people working on GM’s bankruptcy case. Some team members charged up to $835 an hour in June when the whole company was in bankruptcy. In July, however, the team’s hourly rates dropped as creditors and government officials complained there would not be enough money to cover all the claims. Al Koch, head of AP Services and was GM’s chief restructuring officer [sic], alone made over $455,000 in the three-month period.

One guy made almost a half-million bucks from GM in three months because of the bankruptcy? Wow. Maybe there is a clear reason why folks are flocking to Ford.

Is Ford succeeding because of its vehicle quality, or because GM and Chrysler went bankrupt? Which company would you rather buy from?


C’mon, Guys, Is This Tank the Coming Upmarket Saab?

2011 Saab 9-5?

2011 Saab 9-5?

The recent leak of an alleged business plan for Saab coming from owner-to-be Koenigsegg has caused a flurry of interest. We provide some of the details below. But remember, the deal with GM is not yet done, though it got a shot in the arm last week when, as we reported, the European Investment bank put forward a €400 million loan, with the hope of more cash to come from the Swedes.

The ambitious Koenigsegg plan looks to create

an all electric 9-3 on market by 2012, and before that there will also have been established hybrid versions of 9-3 and 9-5, a 9-5 Koenigsegg Edition between 2012 and 2015, and a new 900 (900??) by 2016.

The idea is to drive the brand upmarket, and a new 9-5 estate (wagon) is scheduled for launch. Timelines and break-even points look pretty questionable to me and to others: The plan projects 115,000 cars sold in 2010-2011 for break-even; 80,000 in 2012-2015; and 65,000 sold in the “premium phase,” 2016 and beyond. In other words, as the brand goes upscale, profits per unit increase and, therefore, fewer cars need to be sold.

The upmarket strategy makes a lot of sense. Saab has been straddling this branding fence for a while now, and with the engineering experience of the firm and Koenigsegg’s infusion of performance tech, they should be able to produce a very exciting set of cars. The cars will need to be exciting and different in order to make any inroads against the kind of competition Audi/BMW will be sure to offer.

Saabs have always been different, but rarely (to me) exciting. I’ve never been a Saab fan, though some in my family are. Saabers tend to get passionate about the brand, and will defend to the death such things as the ignition key location, rubbery shifter, ugly interiors, and other quirky things that make Saabs what they are. Someone has said Saab owners are like Macintosh owners, and there is some truth in that.

Opel and GM haven’t done Saab any favors in years past. Let’s hope the new (to-be) owners can inject some pizazz into the languishing brand.

Are you one of those die-hard Saab fans? Do you think the proposed Koenigsegg plan has merit?


Imagine: A Volkswagen-Badged Porsche 911!

How would it look in Volkswagen dress?

How would it look in Volkswagen dress?

It’s either music to a car fan’s ears or blasphemy to a Porsche enthusiast’s heart.

According to the folks at Autocar, Porsche is prepared to share the Panamera and 911 platforms with Volkswagen.

Much has been made about Porsche’s financial troubles and VW’s quest to become the world’s number one automaker. Now that Volkswagen has announced plans to close on the Porsche merger in 2011, it stands to reason that the the two companies products will merge as well.

Imagine the possibilities: A Porsche Panamera could be rebadged as a VW Phaeton. A 911 could find new life as VW’s Bluesport concept. Porsche purists take note, though: The arrangement doesn’t extend to engines, so we won’t see the 911 Carrera’s 385-hp engine show up in a Jetta.

While injecting new sales possibilities into the Volkswagen brand, what does the platform-sharing arrangement bring to Porsche besides a dent in its exclusiveness? Money, for one thing.

The Autocar article says,

Following its failed attempt to take over VW, Porsche is now concentrating on riding out the global downturn. Before the credit crunch the firm was targeting sales of 150,000 cars a year. But this year sales have slid by 24 per cent to just over 75,000. Porsche will attempt to pursue its original target with its three basic model families (Cayenne, Panamera and 911/Boxster) but it is also looking at further additions to the range.

No word on what those further additions could be, but the arrangement with VW at least buys Porsche some time to develop them while also working on V6 and diesel variants of the Panamera.

I for one am psyched about this new possibility. Bringing Porsche-inspired design to the masses while giving Porsche new opportunity to grow is good for car lovers everywhere.

What do you think: Is Porsche’s sharing of the 911 and Panamera platforms a good thing?