The 2007 New England International Auto Show

Nissan GT-R on display at the 2007 New England International Auto SHow

Yesterday, a group of CarGurus personnel attended the press preview for the 2007 New England International Auto Show. For those of you who haven’t gone to a press preview, that means an event where the cars perhaps outnumber the people. And since this was the first time it was held in the new Boston Convention & Exhibition Center, it almost reminded me of a sci-fi movie.

In this one, earth is inhabited by machines, and humans are few and far between. The machines all roll on perfectly clean, mostly large tires, have flawlessly waxed bodies, and are of a higher intelligence level than the zombie-like humans who are left – otherwise, why would the humans go around wide-eyed, paying the greatest of respects to these machines, photographing them from every conceivable angle, and listening to other humans spout mostly nonsensical words of adulation (aka marketing talk) about the machines, while the machines just sit and stare blankly until a journalist pays her/his respects with a flash and gets acknowledged with a headlight or taillight wink?

You, the general automotive enthusiast public, however, will have a very different experience. Pouring through those glass doors at the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center, attendees will outnumber the machines. You will vie for chances to touch, sit in, and play with the controls of the machines. You will let your excitement flash when you see, in the “flesh,” the fabulous new Nissan GT-R supercar – yes, it came to Boston direct from Tokyo (and it’s a right-hand drive version)! This car is probably one of the fastest machines in the great hall, but it can be driven by anyone, anyplace, anytime. As Nissan likes to boast, try that with your Z06 in a Boston snowstorm. After all, the GT-R has all-wheel drive.

And, yes, the 2008 Corvette Z06 is also there, along with its movie-star buddy, the new Camaro – in the same great yellow zinger makeup it wore in the movie “Transformers.” And Ford Mustang and Dodge Challenger fans will also be excited, as the latest editions of your heroes are also waiting for you.

Moving around in that cavernous hall (you may want to wear hiking shoes and bring water) you might or might not recognize the Japanese “muscle car” that can show its taillights to most American nostalgia burners either at the drag strip or through the twisties – and this one isn’t the GT-R, which is much further up the Mt. Olympus of performance. This car is a four-door sedan, built by a Japanese manufacturer of luxury sedans that can go head-to-head with the best Teutonic sports sedans. V8-powered, with an eight-speed “automatic” transmission that can outshift a Ferrari (those are also in attendance), and more beautiful than any metal sculpture has the right to be, this Japanese “muscle car” costs a hell of a lot less and gets a hell of a lot better gas mileage than Italy’s finest.

It’s the Lexus IS F! Why not drive in full comfort as you blow off almost everything outside the sub-4-second 0-to-60 level of supercars? The IS F has 416 horsepower and a race-tuned suspension with Lexus comfort and quality – amazing.

Subaru is also there with its new WRX STi, along with a full-fledged Subie rally car. Its “dark” rival, the EVO X, unfortunately, didn’t show. But BMW has the new V8 M3 on site – a natural rival to the brand-new Lexus IS F. Figuring out which to buy will be a hard choice for those who can afford one.

Those with less need for speed and more cargo to carry can check the great MINI Cooper Clubman – those rear mini-barn doors are neat. And they are neighbors in the great hall to the beautiful – almost Italian in its fluid lines – Audi S5 and the incredible Audi R8.

Are you a Saab fan? Check out the limited-edition 2008 Saab Turbo X. You won’t have to sit through the droning corporate adulation we journalists did just to see it. (Or the even worse corporate-speak presented at the journalists’ luncheon – what we writers must do to eat!)

So be happy – you’ll be among fellow enthusiasts, and that’s what really makes a car show, not acres of open space with more cars than people. Those machines need us!

– Albert A. Dalia

U.S. Government Sponsors Automated Automotive Race

As a young adult straddling the line between Generations X and Y, it feels strange to read how scholars and authors from years past envisioned the effect of technology on our society in the first decade of the millennium. Personally, I’m still waiting for the transforming robots, floating cities, and an inexpensive cure for just about every serious disease known to man. However, while technology may not move as quickly as some of us would like, a unique auto race sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense reminds us that self-driving vehicles may replace their human-driven counterparts sooner than we think.

Since 2004, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has sponsored a driverless road race called the Urban Challenge. Teams from around the world compete to design an “autonomous ground vehicle” that can successfully navigate a simulated urban environment under specific rules without the help of a driver or a remote control. These cars depend on sensors and other built-in mechanisms to maneuver.

This year’s Urban Challenge took place in Victorville, CA on November 3 and featured 11 finalists who had to conquer 60 miles of potholes, downed power lines, rocks, and other obstacles in under 6 hours while following California traffic rules. A team from Carnegie Mellon University finished first and claimed the top prize of $2 million. Their entry averaged 14 mph during their championship run, finishing nearly 20 minutes ahead of the second place team from Stanford. An entry from Virginia Tech finished third.

In the big picture, the Urban Challenge shows that autonomous ground vehicles can save lives in times of war by taking soldiers off the battlefield. This technology could also pay huge dividends when it comes to rescue missions and damage control in the event of natural disasters. Regardless, money talks and the more DARPA offers for events like the Urban Challenge, the more likely we’ll see advanced versions of these groundbreaking new vehicles going into the line of fire in the near future.

– posted by Taeho Lim

Now You Can Drive In Peace

So it’s midnight, you’re on the road, and you have no idea where you are. You look for a map, but frantic searches in the glove compartment and trunk yield nothing. You ask Scotty from the Starship Enterprise to beam you over some directions, but he’s apparently in sick bay. So what do you do? Pull into the local gas station and print out directions from Google.

Starting next month, gas pumps made by North Carolina-based manufacturer Gilbarco Veeder-Root will have a small computer screen where you can Google your directions via touchscreen, then print them out. Initially, you’ll find 3,500 of these machines across the nation , but expect this idea to expand if you and your fellow drivers like the idea enough. While the maps come ad-free, retailers will offer coupons through the service.

Personally, I like the idea. I’ve taken a number of road trips where I got lost in my destination city and had to ask for directions from gas attendants who didn’t speak English. And when it comes to people more stubborn than me, gas-pump Googling should present a welcome last resort that relieves stress on-demand.

– posted by Taeho Lim

How Often Should I Change My Oil?

Oil change

So it’s about that time when you notice that the mileage on your odometer has just exceeded the figure written on the sticker from your last oil change. Which makes you wonder: should you change your oil as often as the sticker says, or can you wait a little longer?

Like many people, I get a little skeptical when someone who has a vested business interest in working on my car tells me I should come by as often as possible. Many shops will tell you to come in every 3,000 miles. That number may seem like a lot, but what if you reside outside the urban sprawl? Maybe you commute 10-15 miles to work and take a road trip every month. That means you could end up driving nearly 1,000 miles per month. So if you go by the recommended 3,000 miles/change, you’ll need to change your oil every 3 months. At $30 a pop, you pay $120 per year based on potentially biased advice.

Read literature on the subject and you’ll find that you can hold out beyond 3,000 miles per change. For example, Consumer Reports says that you can typically go around 7,500 miles between changes without negatively impacting your engine. Many cars also have an oil monitoring system to tell you when to change your oil.

Regardless of the numbers, conventional wisdom says you should change your oil based on the kind of car you have. Fivecentnickel.com recommends dispensing with the “one-size-fits-all” mentality and simply reading your owner’s manual to learn about your car’s unique needs.

In any event, you can save money by going above and beyond your local lube shop’s recommendations. Knowledge is power, so stay well-read and proactive.

– posted by Taeho Lim

Green, Green, Greenbacks

Toyota Hybrid X

The J.D. Power and Associates forecast released today tells us something that isn’t much of a surprise: the hybrid-vehicle market in the US is hot and getting hotter. We talk a lot about hybrids and other green approaches to driving here at the CarGurus blog, but a couple of other press releases that arrived in my in-box around the same time as the Power projections made me realize that this stuff is getting to be big business.

AutoTrader Publishing, it seems, is launching a spinoff called AutoTrader Green–which, according to the press release, is going to be devoted to “fuel-efficient vehicles….including Alternative-Fuel Automobiles (AFAs) such as hybrids.” AutoTrader, as you may or may not remember, publishes classified and dealer advertising in magazine form; their line of publications, including TruckTrader, CorvetteTrader, and SuperRVTrader, is produced and distributed locally across the US. It’s a solid cash-spinner for Atlanta’s Cox Enterprises, too.

This is a watershed moment, I think. You can’t get much more mainstream than AutoTrader, after all. If a savvy company like Cox thinks that there are enough people bringing a green emphasis to their car-shopping that they can support an entire title…well, something big must be happening.

Something less groundbreaking, but still very interesting, is this week’s launch of Earthcars.com, a green car “one-stop shopping portal.” This seems like less of a departure, because a lot of the interest in hybrids, electrics, and other green cars has been driven by (and expressed on) the Internet. Sites like Greenercars.org and AutoblogGreen.com are all green, all the time; most of the other Internet car sites (us included) devote a lot of attention to the green sector, and environmental websites like Treehugger.com cover new developments in automotive technology.

But the thing that made me sure that the market momentum was squarely in the green zone was the announcement that Toyota was introducing a new, bargain-priced Prius. They still haven’t broken the $20,000 barrier yet (so close, though!) but the writing seems to be on the wall: with more competition in the hybrid market, prices are bound to drop further. Then it’ll be a whole new playing field for the green car segment.

So, who knows? Maybe there’s a Toyota Hybrid X in my future…well, I can dream, can’t I?

Plug In Your Prius! Vroom Up Your Volt! The Race Is On!

Toyota Plug-In HV (AP photo)

One bit of good news on the automotive front this week came from Toyota, who finally unveiled their plug-in version of the Prius hybrid. The plug-in car, called the Toyota Plug-In HV, is going to get real-life roadtesting over the next three years, starting in Japan, with some limited testing in Europe and the US. Thanks to the Toyota Prius’s high profile (and big market share), this is attracting still more attention to the plug-in hybrid market sector.

On-road beta-testing is a big step for a new technology like this, and it’s a smart move by Toyota in terms of grabbing headlines. Of course, Ford announced a road-testing partnership for its plug-in hybrids earlier this month; still, the prospect of Southern California Edison using some plug-in vehicles (plans are for a fleet of 20 by the end of 2009) hasn’t captured people’s imaginations as much as the Toyota project.

And where’s our friend the Chevrolet Volt in all of this? Some industry watchers suggest that GM’s plug-in technology is the most potentially robust; are Bob Lutz and his colleagues wussing out on a challenge, or playing a waiting game?

The bottom line is that none of these vehicles are ready for prime time yet. The issue is the battery: nickel-hydride batteries just don’t have the power needed to run a car (much less an SUV) very far for very long. Lithium-ion batteries seem, right now, to be the answer (though some carmakers appear to be focusing instead on hydrogen fuel cells). The question is, how long will it be until someone develops an Li battery that’s safe, powerful, efficient, and affordable enough to make sense for people to want to buy it?

We spend a lot of time ooh-ing and ahh-ing at plug-in car design, but the cornerstone to making this work is lightweight, durable, and safe battery technology. Without it, the plug-in race is going to be stalled at the starting line.

The good folks at Tesla Motors seem to have worked this out–their Tesla Roadster goes 200 miles on a charge and tops out at 135 miles per hour, thanks to its nearly 7,000 lithium-ion power cells. Of course, all that oomph comes at a price; at over $90,000 and with a year-long waiting list, the Tesla Roadster isn’t likely to be the 21st century’s Model T!

What is to be Done? Or, A Guide for the Perplexed

Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid

Sometimes I like to put the student loans to work (by borrowing titles from classic literature, for instance). But, as the coffee ads used to say, “it’s to prove a point.” This spring and summer have seen lots of green-car headlines, which makes me happy; however, if you look at the big picture, you see a lot of different directions.

For instance, I’ve been meaning to write about the Mercedes E320 Bluetec being selected as the 2007 World Green Car of the Year since the award was announced in April. The Bluetec is a fuel-efficient clean diesel; it gets 36 miles per gallon, and thanks to high-tech catalytic converters, its emissions are significantly lower than a gasoline engine’s. And it’s available in the US! (But good luck finding a gas station with diesel in most major cities.) Another finalist for the year’s Green Car honors was the Volkswagen Polo BlueMotion, a 60-mile-per-gallon clean-diesel family hatchback. Yes, you read that right. Sadly, the Polo BlueMotion isn’t scheduled to come to the US anytime soon.

Although clean diesel is all the rage in Europe, here in the US it seems that most of the emphasis when it comes to green driving is on hybrids. We’ve talked about New York City’s hybrid taxi initiative, led by the Ford Escape Hybrid; the Escape’s twin, the Mercury Mariner hybrid is generating buzz as well. GM’s jumped into the hybrid market with the Saturn Aura Green Line and its twin, the funky Chevy Malibu hybrid, which launched at baseball’s All-Star Game this week:

And Chrysler is getting into the act, too, with a 2008 launch of hybrid Aspen and Durango models. Meanwhile, Toyota continues to rule the US hybrid market with its Prius, as stateside sales of the distinctive gas-electric snubnose top 400,000.

But wait…what about the plug-in car? The Chevrolet Volt concept car is exciting us here at CarGurus and in the media at large. Ford’s plug-in HySeries drivetrain grabbed fewer headlines, but may beat Chevrolet’s E-Flex plug-in to the market; a test fleet of plug-in Escapes is being tried out by a California utility company. Right now, the plug-in field is dominated by Ford and GM, which may make a difference when it comes to US government incentives going forward.

And let’s not forget some of the other technologies out there, from biodiesel and flex-fuel to hydrogen-powered cars. It’s enough to make your head spin…wait! Maybe I could power a flywheel with that!

Seriously, though, the automotive industry is in a time of incredible transition. I don’t think anyone knows what fuel(s) are going to be powering us down the highway in 20 years. Is the fuel of the future hydrogen? Biomass? Clean diesel (whether biodiesel or petroleum)? Battery power, either hybrid or plug-in? Some combination of the above?

Only time will tell. And speaking of “time”, this reminds me of a similar moment in automotive history: the very beginning.

Yep, when cars first started being manufactured commercially, there was a similar wealth of choices when it came to powertrains. Who remembers the Stanley Steamer, a gorgeous automobile whose engine was an adaptation of the plants that drove trains down tracks, and powered ships along the rivers and across the seas?

And while we’re looking backward, let’s not forget the early electric cars, either. These beautiful machines were thought by many to have more staying power than the “coarse” and “unreliable” gasoline-powered competition. A hundred years later, electric cars are the New New Thing. Who says history doesn’t repeat itself?

Nissan’s Electrics: On or Off?

Tesla Roadster LA Times Photograph

I’m an unabashed electric-car fangirl. Well, maybe I’m slightly abashed, but I really believe that all-electric vehicles, along with hybrids, are an important piece of transportation and environmental strategies for the future. (And electric cars are just so cool!)

And that’s why I was so excited to read the reports of Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn’s recent press conference in Bangkok. Mr. Ghosn, a native of Brazil, has been credited with pushing Nissan (and its subsidiary Renault) toward a greener focus in the past year or so; some observers suggest that his internationalist perspective has helped shake up entrenched thinking at Nissan, which lags well behind Toyota and Honda in embracing green initiatives.

Ghosn sounded like all systems were go at the Bangkok presser, with statements like this: “We continue on the lithium ion battery. We think for us it’s a competitive advantage [….] We have a lot of technology in this area, and we think this is going to be very helpful, not only for hybrids but also for electric cars.”

When questioned further, Ghosn declared, “If you have an efficient battery for a hybrid, why not go all the way and go for electric cars? It has zero emissions of anything.” (These quotes come courtesy of the Associated Press; the CarGurus budget doesn’t run to overseas junketing quite yet.) Ghosn also announced a collaborative project with the Japanese government, slated to place “hundreds” of all-electric cars in municipalities around the country.

This is exciting news for us electric-car junkies. With Toyota and Honda (and, in the US, Ford) so focused on the hybrid segment, the all-electric development territory is dominated by GM and a handful of small companies. Nissan entering the field would mean a dramatic increase in competition, which might well lead to faster development and production. With two major players, as well as some very innovative independents, in the field, the electric-car dream would be that much closer to reality.

And, alas, as I was putting this post together, today’s WhatCar? headlines a statement from Chris Lee, Nissan’s general manager of product planning and strategy, saying unequivocally that Nissan isn’t planning electric–or even hybrid–models any time soon. “Electric or hybrid cars are not returning the investment costs yet, so it is not a route to pursue for us,” is how Lee’s quoted.

Now, I don’t know what’s going on here, but it sounds as if Ghosn got a bit ahead of himself in Bangkok. I hope, though, that whoever’s really in charge of this stuff at Nissan will reconsider. Only time will tell, I guess. It was a nice dream to have for a few days.

And just to give us all something to dream on, here’s the Tesla Roadster burning up the test track.

If you’ve got $90,000 (and the juice to leapfrog a bunch of movie stars and other VIPs on the waiting list), you won’t have to wait for the automotive dinosaurs to go electric–the Tesla Roadster’s first production models are shipping this summer! Sometimes it’s not easy, or cheap, being green.

eTaxi Makes It Interactive to Cab It

Your typically hectic Manhattan cab ride may get a lot more automated with the introduction of the eTaxi interactive system from TaxiTech. The New Jersey-based advertising/payment-system/ground transportation company just got permission from New York City to offer its touchscreen infotainment and payment system to the city’s 13,000 cabs. Based on early indications from tests on 50 cabs, it looks like the technology should add a positive new dimension to the 20-30 minute ride you’d expect on an average trip around Midtown.

So what would drivers and passengers get in an eTaxi-equipped cab? First off, drivers can text message each other without needing a phone. The uniform console should improve safety, increase cooperation among drivers, and make it easier to locate and return any lost items. On the passenger side, you’ll get the latest news and information on eTaxi’s touchscreen unit. Best of all, the system enables you to pay your fare by credit card, saving you the half minute or so it takes to leaf through your wallet.

As for the future, look for eTaxi to eventually enable consumers to buy movie tickets and even make reservations at a restaurant or hotel directly from their cab. eTaxi represents the latest example of the market bringing the outside world to consumers as they travel. TaxiTech officially started its NYC promotion on June 12, so look for the technology to hit a cab near you in the near future.

– posted by Taeho Lim

Red, White, and Blue…and Green?

Mitsubishi i Car

General Motors idea guy Bob Lutz appeared on the NPR radio show “On Point” yesterday. If you missed it, it’s well worth catching on the podcast: host Tom Ashbrook asks cogent questions, as do the other expert guests and the listeners who call in.

Now, we talk a lot about green driving and environmentally friendly design here at CarGurus, so sometimes I take that perspective for granted. But when I heard Bob Lutz — Bob Lutz, the guy who dreamed up the Dodge Viper! — talking about this on the radio, it seemed like an important moment in a cultural paradigm shift.

But in a week that started with George W. Bush talking about climate change and emissions targets, it seems like anything can happen. Sure, the President’s stance at the G-8 summit didn’t make environmentalists happy, but compared to his “Global warming? What global warming?” stance of just a few years ago, it’s clear that things have changed a lot in a very short time.

And so back to Bob Lutz. As you might expect, he spent quite a bit of time talking about the Chevrolet Volt, the plug-in wondercar coming in 2010 (we hope). But Lutz also addressed overall fuel-efficiency initiatives, the challenge of providing power and size without guzzling gas, and the future of the U.S. auto industry.

“And not a moment too soon,” you might be saying. You’d be right, of course, but until Detroit comes up with a workable time machine, all we can do is move forward from where we are. The American automotive-industrial complex is a big, unwieldy contraption that can’t turn on a dime (h’mm…perhaps this explains the Ford Explorer and the Cadillac Escalade?) and, to be honest, I’m surprised at how quickly the mindsets of consumers and manufacturers alike are changing.

And yet, I somehow doubt we’re ready for the Mitsubishi i Car quite yet. This nanocar has been a megahit in Japan; next week, Mitsubishi will start selling a limited run of the tiny car in the United Kingdom. Priced at a bit over 9,000 pounds, and getting more than 56 miles to the Imperial gallon (that’s 47 miles per gallon US if you don’t have a calculator handy), the i Car’s hotter than a Page Three girl in a sauna.

But will we ever see it on U.S. streets? Stranger things have happened; and after all, who would have thought, back when the SUV was king, that there’d be more than 25,000 Mini Coopers sold in the U.S. every year?

As for me, I’m trying to make our Honda Civic last as long as it can. Maybe my next car will be a Chevy Volt!