Air Apparent

If cars that fly through the air don’t move you, maybe you’ll go for a model with an air-powered engine. Indian automaker Tata Motors will build the predictably named “Air Car” and plans to have 6000 models driving around in India by 2008. Top speed will hit 68 mph and a fully powered engine will take you up to 125 miles.

So how does it work? Think of the new model as an electric car without the batteries. Compressed air powers the pistons in the 4 cylinder engine. Without relying on high-temperature combustion like traditional cars, engineers can utilize an aluminum powertrain that weighs less than half as much as a traditional engine. The net benefit comes in the emissions, which consist of warm air instead of noxious exhaust. Filling up should only set you back about $2. For an in-depth look at the mechanics and design, watch this YouTube video.

With releases planned in 12 more countries, will the Air Car ever make it to America? Probably not. The lightweight frame wouldn’t do well in U.S. crash tests. However, Air Car developer Guy Negre says that sometime in the not-so-distant future, we may see a gas-air hybrid that can go cross-country on one tank of gas. Until then, we’ll just have to wait and see whether the latest environmentally-friendly technology isn’t just blowing a lot of hot air.

– posted by Taeho Lim

A Century of Elegance: The Rolls Royce Silver Ghost

Rolls Royce Silver Ghost Centenary

This seems to be Dream Car Week here at the CarGurus blog (quite a change from last week’s hybrid and flex-fuel focus). My own wish-button was pushed by a press release I received about a Rolls-Royce gathering that marked the centenary of the luxury automaker’s Silver Ghost model.

According to DueMotori.com, sixty classic Silver Ghosts (and, of course, their owners) assembled at the Rolls plant in Goodwood for a 17-day tour of the United Kingdom in honor of the classic car’s 100th anniversary. The event was organized by the 20-Ghost Club, a group devoted to restoring and celebrating pre-war Rolls Royce cars.

You can see how a car this beautiful could become your passion, let alone your hobby. But the amazing thing (to me) about Rolls-Royce is that they still do make them like that. One of the advantages of the Rolls market niche is that their reputation and cachet allows them to charge premium prices, which in turn enables them to hand-craft their cars to an enduring standard of elegance.

The heir to the Silver Ghost legacy, the Phantom Drophead Coupe, has the same meticulous craftsmanship that made the Rolls Royce brand a synonym for luxury; when the 2008 Phantom Drophead Coupe was unveiled at this year’s Detroit Auto Show, gawkers and collectors alike were mesmerized. According to our friends at Autoblog.com, the first 2008 Phantom Drophead Coupe to be shipped to the US belongs to a Florida gentleman who paid $2 million for the privilege in a high-end charity auction (quite a premium over the 300,000-pound list price, but it’s for a good cause!

So one might ask: what does this have to do with the rest of us, who don’t have a couple of million to drop on a handmade Rolls? One lesson I think that the enduring success of Rolls Royce (now, of course, owned by BMW) can teach the auto industry as a whole is to build on strengths, and to incorporate history in a company’s future.

The British and European auto industries had to learn this tough lesson before the US auto industry, but the wake-up call is long overdue on this side of the Atlantic. The US isn’t going to be able to keep competing with Asian manufacturers (especially now that China has launched its automotive sector in a big way) on cost, volume, or efficiency.

What US carmakers can offer is a heritage of excellence, of powerful muscle cars and innovative, rugged trucks, of a century of redefining family transportation for the world. Ford’s revitalized collaboration with Carroll Shelby, the designer behind its classic Mustangs of the 1960s, is one positive step in this direction; I’d like to see more of this energy from GM, and perhaps the new management at Chrysler will be inspired by that brand’s past glories in creating its future. Let’s see what the next few years bring!

Hail a Hybrid!

Ford Escape Hybrid Taxi

We’re very green this week at the CarGurus Blog, aren’t we? One of the week’s biggest stories on the green automotive front was the announcement by New York’s Mayor Mike Bloomberg of a plan to turn all of New York’s yellow cabs green: by 2012, according to His Honor, all licensed taxicabs in New York will be hybrids.

Right now, says City Hall, 400 of New York’s taxis are hybrids. Bloomberg’s plan, based in part on an earlier proposal by City Councilman David Yassky, would phase the environment-friendly new vehicles in over time, with a target of 1,000 hybrid cabs on the street by this October. A headline-friendly appearance on NBC’s Today show, in which Bloomberg unveiled ten Ford Escape hybrids donated by Yahoo.com, launched the initiative.

Response to the initiative has been quite positive, with praise from the New York State Federation of Taxi Drivers as well as the American Lung Association of the City of New York, whose president, Louise Vetter, said “Putting more clean cabs on New York City streets is an important step in our fight to improve air quality.”

Hybrids are great choices for city taxicabs: they can idle on battery power, and use gas for higher-speed driving. The gas/electric model is extremely well-suited for the stop-and-go nature of most taxi driving, especially in highly congested New York. And the Ford Escape Hybrid is a roomy, comfortable SUV whose 36 city miles per gallon EPA rating is head and shoulders above the city’s existing taxi fleet.

But where is the hybrid sedan that’s going to replace the backbone of New York’s yellow cab infrastructure, the good old Ford Crown Victoria? And while we’re thinking about the Crown Vic, wouldn’t a hybrid version of that sturdy warhorse make our cities’ police departments a lot greener?

The New York initiative is an important first step. We’ll have to wait and see if the automotive industry–especially the beleaguered U.S. automakers–take this nudge in the right direction. And hybrids alone may not be the answer; by 2012, it may make more sense for a city’s taxi fleet to have a range of alternative-fuel vehicles, including rechargeables like the Chevy Volt and small runabouts like the SmartCar or the ZAP Zebra. But for now, I’m looking forward to hailing a hybrid!

The 100 MPG Prius

As the previous entry intimated, the world’s #1 automaker maintains its global dominance on the strength of its top-notch sedans and innovative hybrids. At the top of the lineup sits the Prius with its sleek design and industry-best 60 mpg on the highway and 51 in the city. But just when you thought the news couldn’t get any better for Toyota, it turns out that the Japanese automaker has a 100 mpg Prius in the works for 2009. 

This potentially industry-altering development comes in response to Honda’s plans to develop a 2008 version of the Fit hybrid that would cost only $1700 more than the model’s gas-powered predecessor. Toyota only recently ascended to the top of the automotive industry and won’t feel the same sense of entitlement that ultimately undermined the Big 3.

But forget about Honda for the moment. Can anyone touch the Prius if Toyota’s development team executes the plan? We’ve seen the Audi A2 and the Volkswagen Lupo get 80 mpg over in Europe and the Honda Insight gets 102 mpg in Japan. However, those vehicles don’t meet U.S. emissions standards and no other domestic model has even approached triple digits. With the increased emphasis on fuel-efficiency in today’s market, the 2009 Prius would break new automotive ground and effectively lap the competition.

In the end, we’ll have to wait and see if Toyota can make good on the buzz it just created. 100 mpg in Japan won’t necessarily equal 100 mpg in the U.S., especially with different testing standards and driving conditions in the two countries. Hopefully for us, the 2009 Toyota Prius won’t lose anything in the translation when it hits our shores.

– posted by Taeho Lim

Topless!

Mazda MX-5

It’s spring, and so a young woman’s fancy naturally turns to thoughts of…convertibles! And even though I’m not as young as I once was, the good news is that there are quite a few new, redesigned, and just generally super-cool convertibles out there for me to drool over.

My convertible-lust was first piqued by Royal Ford’s review of the redesigned Mazda Miata MX-5 in last week’s Boston Globe. I hadn’t seen the new Miata’s (optional) hardtop in action, and though it looks a bit weird (Ford describes it as a “Goldbergesque” contraption), it appears to work smoothly and make this zippy, sporty little convertible a year-round option for those of us who live in the Snow Zone. Best of all, the price for the most tricked-out MX-5, with all the options, is around $26,000: not super-cheap, but not bank-busting for what you get.

So this got me thinking. What other affordable convertible options are out there right now? Gen-Xers like me remember the dark, practically convertible-less days before the original Mazda Miata, when people who longed for the wind in their hair were doomed to spend their last dime on a pricey import or to nurse a vintage classic to health (again, often at the cost of that last dime).

Well, there’s some good news. Of course, if you’ve been lucky in the lottery/hedge fund/inheritance sweepstakes, the BMW Z4 Roadster or the Porsche Boxster are always an option. But for those of us trying to find top-down thrills on a budget, there are definitely some lower-priced choices. Even if we limit our options to American cars, there’s a wealth of good picks!

Pontiac’s G6 Convertible, alas, is still a work-in-progress. But the Pontiac Solstice, with a base price under $23,000, is already attracting a following. You’ll find Solstice owners celebrating their cool cars at SolsticeForum.com, with galleries of the sporty little roadster in action. Oh, it’s cute. And has plenty of power, to boot.

GM’s best-known convertibles, the Dodge Viper and Chevrolet Corvette, are fantastic cars, but sadly out of our price range. But if you want more oomph than the Solstice, but still want to keep your sticker under $30,000, be sure to check out the Saturn Sky, which reviewer Aaron Robinson called “a Corvette junior petite”.

Now, when you’re talking about affordable convertibles, you’ve got to mention the Chrysler PT Cruiser Convertible. With a base price under $20,000 (!) it’s definitely the buy. Not everyone loves the Cruiser’s retro-styling, but I think the convertible version is probably the most attractive. And unlike the roadster-type convertibles, the Cruiser works for families.

Chrysler’s also got the Sebring and Crossfire, both with sticker prices under $30,000; let’s hope that the new management continues to offer this range of selections for convertible fans.

And what about Ford? Well, they have only one convertible, but heavens, it’s a beauty. The 2007 Ford Mustang, priced in the mid-twenties for the base model, is the original pony car. And the folks at Ford have had the good sense not to mess too much with Carroll Shelby’s vision for the ‘Stang. This year’s offerings (which include the Shelby GT500, successor to the Cobra, which I’ve already spotlighted here) are looking good, and reviewers and drivers alike are singing their praises. So what are any of us waiting for?

Infiniti Crosses Over with the 2008 EX35

These days, it feels like automakers inundate the marketplace with more crossovers than Allen Iverson and Tim Hardaway combined. The latest vehicle to defy conventional classification comes from Nissan’s Infiniti luxury line in the form of the EX35, a mix between an SUV and a coupe. While you may have seen the Infiniti EX concept that debuted at the New York Auto Show last month, don’t expect the same vehicle in the showroom. Infiniti built the EX concept for the sole purpose of showcasing some of the EX35’s innovative features in the body of a taller G35 sedan.

One of the most intriguing features involves a lane departure prevention system. Simply put, peripheral cameras work together with the stability control to paint a picture of your surroundings. When you park, the system relays the data to the screen on your dashboard so you can see everything around you and avoid doling out an unintended love tap to another vehicle. On the road, the system notices if you stray too far out of your lane without signalling and lets off a warning noise to keep you on track. This feature should make driving a little less stressful and a lot safer.

With a capable 3.5 L V6 powertrain, 5 speed automatic transmission, and room for 5 passengers, the EX35 presents an interesting new addition to the Infiniti lineup. Expect this killer crossover to hit your local showroom sometime this fall.

– posted by Taeho Lim

Volkswagen’s Bringing SexyBack

I’m going to admit right now that I am old. Yes, I am old enough to remember the original Volkswagen rear-engine Bugs, with the rattle-clangy suspension and the doors you sometimes had to rope shut and the floors that were allergic to Massachusetts road salt and broke out in rust. (Note: I am not old enough to have driven one of these, but one of my coolest baby-sitters had a blue one. With daisy decals and a peace sign hanging from the rear-view. The 1970s were a scary, scary time.)

But if there’s one thing that leggings, The Producers, and Flavor Flav have taught us, it’s that there’s nothing too offbeat for a comeback. Not even rear-engine drive. And so, in the endless cycle of reincarnation that is automotive design today, Volkswagen is coyly letting it be leaked that they have a rear-engine car in the works. Automobile magazine has the inside English-language scoop on this new spin on an old idea.

According to the German magazine Auto Bild, Volkswagen’s joining other European manufacturers in trying to compete with the Smart Car and the Mini Cooper. However, in the race to get smaller and smaller, Volkswagen has one advantage on its side–years of engineering lightweight, affordable cars with rear-engine drive. And that boost in the rear means more power with a smaller engine. Which translates to fuel efficiency, and that’s an idea looking better and better as gas vaults over the $3/gallon barrier with no end in sight (make that $4 for all of you CarGurus in California).

The leaked stories suggest that the sexy new rear-engine nanocar is the brainchild of Ferdinand Piech, nephew of Ferry Porsche and grand-nephew of Ferdinand Porsche, designer of the original Volkswagen. If so, it’s an interesting switch for Piech, whose tenure as VW’s chairman (from 1993 to 2002) was marked by a move to heftier and more upscale models. On the other hand, that’s where the whole industry was going in those days!

According to Automobile, only two models are slated for release in the US market: a 130-inch two-door sedan and a four-door notchback. Sticker prices are projected between $10,000 and $15,000. No power steering with these little econoboxes; however, the inside sources want to make it clear that an improved stability system will make these cars easier to maneuver and safer than the original Beetles.

I wish I had a great photo of the new/old Volkswagen to show you, but that’s only been released to Auto Bild so far (you can see it here; it’s the very very green one). Instead, this beautiful blue old-school Beetle will have to do; I’ll leave the daisy decals to your imagination!

The General Lee Sells for $9.9 Million

Back in the days when people talked about horsepower and meant it, General Robert E. Lee rode a trusty steed named Traveller into battle. If the famed Civil War commander could’ve lived to witness the popularity of the Dukes of Hazzard television show, he’d probably beam with pride at the merchandising franchise spawned by his automotive namesake. The 1969 Dodge Charger often stole the show from the human cast members and the latest testament to the show’s legacy came when actor John Schneider, who played Bo Duke on the TV program (and Clark Kent’s dad on Smallville), sold off the car last week on eBay for $9.9 million.

For tuners wondering what could warrant such a high price tag besides the sentimental value, they need only look at the General Lee’s key specs. While Traveller could only muster 1 hp on his best day, the customized orange whirling dervish with the politically incorrect Confederate flag painted on the roof has an 8.3-liter, 725-hp V8 powertrain and only 16,000 miles on the odometer. It looks just as good as I’d always thought it would when I used to carry my diecast toy version to kindergarten for Show and Tell.

In any event, keep in mind that Warner Brothers sacrificed hundreds of other General Lees in various stunts in order to build the current version’s vaunted reputation. The recent big screen adaptation of the show and high-profile sale of the car confirm that the effort paid off. As pop culture goes through its extended retro phase, rest assured that the General Lee will remain in the hearts and minds of Generation X for years to come.

Update: Looks like I spoke too soon. The man who placed the winning bid on eBay now claims his account got hacked and he refuses to pay. As a result, the General Lee is once again up for sale as of 5/13/07.  Good luck to those with a little extra cash on hand. 

– posted by Taeho Lim

Days of Future Past

Duesenberg Torpedo

The Duesenberg marque is synonymous with old-school automotive glamour. Daddy Warbucks rode around in a chauffeur-driven Duesenberg; you’ll see them in black-and-white movies, with Myrna Loy or Jean Harlow relaxing into their leather seats. Have you ever heard someone say “It’s a doozy”? Now you know–the origin of the expression is, indeed, the astonishing Duesenberg luxury car.

So I was a bit surprised to get an email about the Duesenberg Torpedo, a new custom car slated for production this fall. The last Duesie (which was quite a doozy) shipped in 1937. What’s the story?

It turns out that a company called Duesenberg Custom Coach, Inc., is reviving the Duesenberg brand. They’re working with designers to produce retro-glam versions of the original motorcyle and estate car; the Torpedo, though, is a new design that combines the look of a sleek ’30s speedster with some twenty-first-century green engineering.

Designer Jeff Teague was inspired by the Duesies of the 1930s; you can see that in the curve of the front end, and in the grille styling. But the fabrication of this car is all 2007; carbon fiber makes it light and sleek.

The car’s built on the Mercedes CL500 platform, and its first incarnations will be powered by a Mercedes V12 engine. Which makes one wonder, “Why does it need to be so light?”

The answer is that Duesenberg Custom Coach plans to equip future models with high-tech, flexi-fuel engines. Apparently, they’ve been in discussion with Eddie Paul and his E.P. Industries wizards: the idea of something as tasty as this Duesenberg Torpedo coupled with Eddie Paul’s CEM, which is projected to deliver 300 horsepower at 70 miles per gallon, is pretty dazzling.

Not that one would need this level of design excellence and luxury fabrication to make a car popular if it had a CEM under the hood. This new powerplant technology has the potential to transform the marketplace (and the roadways!) if it can be harnessed successfully for automotive production.

Eddie Paul, the visionary behind the CEM, has been a fixture on the Hollywood scene for years, building stunt vehicles for films including The Fast and the Furious. He’s not publicity-shy: in fact, he webcasts his shop at DeadlineTV.net, and you’ll see him as a guest expert on the Learning Channel.

His CEM, though, could make him a household name. He’s been working on the air pump/engine for 20 years; first patented in 1993, the engine’s now used to power firefighting equipment and in the aeronautics industry. Paul’s dream is to create a CEM (Cylindrical Energy Module) designed for mass automotive production. When (or if) he succeeds, the impact can only be imagined. With a projected yield of 2 horsepower per pound, the air-cooled, self-lubricating CEM would deliver the same power as a conventional engine, but at one-sixth the weight and half the cost.

In times like these, when the American automotive industry is in crisis and the Big Three are seemingly flailing for ideas, it’s reassuring to see smaller businesses looking to the past and future for distinctive, innovative ideas. I don’t know what’s going to happen with the Duesenberg or the CEM, but it’s awfully good to see people thinking outside the box for a change!

For more about Eddie Paul and the CEM, see this Gizmag.com article. AutoBlogGreen.com looks at the Duesenberg Torpedo here.

General Motors Drops the GMC Sierra and Chevy Silverado Hybrids

Chevy Silverado Hybrid

In this blog, we usually talk about new cars ready to hit the market in the near future. However, older models often fade into obscurity as car companies replace untenable lineups with new technology. The latest replacement involves General Motors dropping the hybrid versions of the GMC Sierra and Chevy Silverado despite rising gas prices.

The recent decision reflected General Motors’ realization that simply slapping the hybrid tag on a rugged pickup wouldn’t cut it in a market where consumers demand true fuel efficiency. The Silverado and Sierra hybrids never ran on electricity alone and saved drivers only 2 mpg compared to gas-powered trims.

In any event, fans of the aforementioned hybrids won’t have to go too long without their favorite models. GM plans to re-introduce the Silverado and Sierra hybrids in late 2008 with a twist: two-mode hybrid transmission. GM, Daimler-Chrysler, and BMW have joined forces to work on new technology that will give drivers the same smooth electric engine performance they’d get with a Toyota Prius without sacrificing towing capacity and fuel efficiency when driving uphill. Early tests show a 25% increase in fuel economy, enough to convince the more environmentally conscious among us that the technology really does save wear and tear on our planet.

With GM losing its spot as the world’s top automaker to Toyota last week, the lineup shuffle represents one small part of a larger movement designed to bring the heavyweight title back to its rightful owner.

– posted by Taeho Lim