Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Where to Go from the Bailout

A bailout is shaping up. GM, Chrysler, and Ford will all be capable of receiving funds from the US Government. These loans are coming from tax payers' pockets: Mine, yours, and the guy's next to you. Instead of complaining about why we should bail out the Big 3, now it is the time to look at the Big 3 as an investment. This is our tax money; you want it back? Then the Big 3 need to succeed in a 'new' market.

Yes, this is a new market. Toyota, Honda, BMW, and others have been chipping away at the American auto industry for years. Now the Big 3 have fallen behind, and yes they made some of their own issues: poor quality, low MPG, and other issues. However, this is a new market and GM, Ford, and Chrysler are making some of the best cars in the world now. They are building better, more reliable cars with higher gas mileage. So I ask the taxpayers to stop complaining and start getting behind your fellow Americans and their companies.

Monday, November 17, 2008

GM Facts And Fiction

GM logo
GM has launched a website at http://gmfactsandfiction.com/ that seeks to dispel the myth that a collapse of the U.S. auto industry would only affect Michigan and other mid-west states. The site is well-constructed and is a useful resource for both those looking for more information about the impact an auto industry collapse could have on the entire U.S. economy, as well as those looking to try to help in some way.

The site includes a video that is heavy on numbers, although most of them are so large that they may be difficult to absorb. The message is clear: a collapse of the U.S. auto industry would be a significant blow to the health of the economy as a whole, although as the site and video are clearly commissioned by GM it may be difficult to sell the data as unbiased and accurate.

Common opinions regarding the actual effect of the possible demise of the U.S. auto industry, as well as the popularity of the various bailout plans circulating Washington span a wide range, and accurate information is difficult to come by. This site represents an attempt by an auto manufacturer to speak directly to the general public in an attempt to inform us about the severity of the situation as seen by GM. It will be interesting to see if Ford or Chrysler follow with similar efforts, and even more interesting to see if they have any effect.

Thursday, August 07, 2008


So once again its time for me to come out and explain to everyone the slim margin of automotive dependability. Lexus takes the top spot again, makes sense because that's what your paying for. But wait shouldn't the Toyota brand be #2? No. Mercury takes #2 this year. Followed by Cadillac. Wait I thought American cars were trash. Nope most American brands actually sit above the industry average. The other key thing to note is that even the best cars have 1.2 problems. The average is 2 problems per car. And there are only 2 brands that hit the 3 problem per car territory. Does it really make sense to pay top dollar for a brand when the margin of dependability is so slim? A Toyota has 1.59 problems per car and Chevy has 2.39 problems. Sounds like either way I'm still going to the shop for some warranty work.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Rental Bliss: 2008 Dodge Magnum SXT

2008 Dodge Magnum SXT

During a recent trip to Baltimore, I was able to spend time behind the wheel of a rented 2008 Dodge Magnum SXT. Attracted by its aggressive appearance and apparent utility, I had dubbed it one of my favorite cars long before actually getting any seat time.

One of the first things I noticed was the short greenhouse and wide pillars, although proper adjustment of the seat, steering wheel (with tilt and telescope), and mirrors solved any visibility problems and resulted in a rather cliche feeling of tank-like security.

The interior was nicer than expected, with tasteful chrome lines breaking up the dark grey plastic interior. The controls for the satellite radio and climate controls felt good and not cheap. I had no trouble figuring out how to work either although some of the passengers had some slight trouble. The dashboard was easy to read and was uneventful without being dull, and there was enough space for four people and a weekend's-worth of luggage for each. As gimmicky as it may sound to some, having the hinge for the liftgate so far forward is an effective way to enlarge the rear cargo opening and makes loading bulky cargo easier.

Once underway, I was pleasantly surprised by the grunt of the 3.5 liter V6. It was able to hustle the Magnum up to highway speed without delay, although the relationship between my right foot and the rear wheels wasn't quite as direct as I prefer. The Magnum is very stable at speed, and wind noise was less intrusive than I expected given the blunt front end. Looking in the rear-view mirror gave the impression of staring into a tunnel, and the Magnum's road manners did nothing to dispel the impression that this is a long vehicle; not particularly unwieldy, but definitely occupying a sizable chunk of road.

Shod with all-season tires there wasn't an abundance of grip, although I was never wanting for brakes and, with one exception, I was never in a position to even determine which end of the wagon would slide first. Once in the upper rev range the engine sounds like it means business, and the transmission shifts before the grunt becomes a buzz.

Driving in and around Baltimore, I found myself either on the highway or in the city. Following a rain shower one afternoon, I decided to switch off the Electronic Stability Program to see if it had a noticeable effect. Much to my chagrin, while turning left through an intersection, and while going rather slowly, the back end of the Magnum came around with surprising ease under power. It was easy to catch, and easy to prevent at the next turn, but I nonetheless switched the apparently-quite-effective ESP back on.

My overall impression of the Magnum was decidedly positive and I am discouraged by Dodge's decision to axe the wagon from their lineup, however that was not an opinion shared by those I was with. There were aesthetic remarks ranging from simply "ugly" to the more descriptive "looks like a hearse!" More significantly, there were usability complaints about the aforementioned greenhouse: One driver complained that not enough light came into the cabin, and two proclaimed they "couldn't see a thing" because of the pillars, long hood, and distant rear. I was able to solve those issues through careful adjustment of the cockpit, but your results may vary.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

If I Ran Project Genesis

Chrysler has undertaken Project Genesis, an ominous-sounding plan to merge all its brands into a single cohesive product line. It hopes to elminate rebadging and coerce all its dealers to become combined Dodge/Chrysler/Jeep dealerships.

This naturally leads to two questions:
  • what role and image should each brand take?
  • which models should be kept, and which should be killed?
Here is what I would do if I were Chrysler King for a day.

Chrysler: mainstream, volume cars and minivans.
  • 100: subcompact sedan/hatchback, built by Nissan instead of the Dodge Hornet
  • 200: midsize sedan; current Sebring, overhauled to resemble the 300 and actually be competitive. Keep the sedan and convertible and add a wagon trim.
  • 300: flagship large sedan, as is
  • PT Cruiser: compact crossover, based on current Caliber/Compass
  • Town & Country: minivan, as is.
Dodge: macho trucks and muscle cars.
  • Caliber: compact, economical unibody pickup, like the ones from the 1980s. Current Caliber transformed to a two-door with an open pickup bed.
  • Ram: full size pickup, as is
  • Charger: 4 door muscle car, as is
  • Challenger: 2 door muscle car, as is
Jeep: rugged SUVs, exclusively.
  • Wrangler: compact offroad SUV, as is
  • Liberty/Cherokee: midsize SUV, as is
  • Grand Cherokee: large SUV, as is
Retire: Avenger, current Caliber, Grand Caravan, Journey, Dakota, Durango, Nitro, Magnum, Sprinter, Sebring, current PT Cruiser, Pacifica, Aspen, Crossfire, Patriot, Compass, Commander.

Plymouth: revived to be exclusively fleet sales.
  • Initially, rename all the retired models to Plymouths and sell them as rental-only vehicles until it becomes more economical to retool their factories for the surviving models.
  • As the old models are phased out, replace them with a barebones Plymouth Aspen/Duster/Fury/Voyager corresponding to the Chrysler 100/200/300/T&C, still for fleet sales only.
  • keep the GEMA naturally aspirated 1.8L and 2.4L for smaller cars
  • keep the 2.4L high output turbo (285 hp) for an AWD SRT4, based on the Chrysler 200 and targeting the WRX and Evo
  • make a low pressure turbo I4, around 210 hp, to replace V6s in cars
  • standardize on the old 3.8L as the only truck/jeep/minivan V6.
  • keep the HEMI V8 in various tunes for the Ram, larger cars, and Grand Cherokee
  • Develop a 6 cylinder HEMI as a new truck/jeep/minivan V6. Then engine R&D can be focused on only two engine families, the GEMA I4s and HEMIs
This is a what I'd do with current and in-development products, which is substantially different from a dream lineup given limitless resources. Each market segment ends up with only one product which stands a fighting chance.

What would you do?

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Nardelli's long lost twin

Has anyone else noticed the uncanny resemblance between Chrysler CEO Bob Nardelli and Mr. Twinkacetti, the boss of Larry and Balki on Perfect Strangers? Or for that matter, the similarities in their approach to retail management?

Tuesday, June 10, 2008


BMW GINA Lightweight Visionary Model
If you haven't seen BMW's GINA Lightweight Visionary Model in motion, it is a must-see.
BMW's polarizing designer Chris Bangle is at it again. He has pushed his team to re-examine the purpose of the body of a car, and has come to the conclusion that it need not be structural. Thinking far outside the box, the BMW design team has developed a fabric body, stretched tight over a frame that can be shifted and adjusted according to the conditions. The doors appear to bend open, the spoiler grows out of the rear deck, eyelids open to reveal headlights, and the hood parts in the middle for access to the engine while suggesting strongly what a Terminator autopsy might look like.
Autoblog has an extensive writeup of the car, but to really appreciate how radical the fabric body is, you need to see it in motion.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Nuerburgring Webcam

Nuerburgring Webcam
Curious to see what's lapping the Nuerburgring? Check out the webcam. It's pointed at the entrace to the track, so you can see what's waiting in line to take laps. If you're lucky, you may catch a glimpse of something exotic flying down the straight in the background.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Indy 500 Primer

92nd Indy 500 Logo

It's that time of year again: You're laying out your plans for the long weekend, and someone invites you to an "Indy 500 party." You know it'll be fun, but you also don't know an Indy car from a train car. Read on for some helpful tips and answers to frequently asked questions.

What will I be watching?
The Indy 500 is an auto race, so you'll be watching 33 cars go over 200 mph around a big circle for a few hours.

Who should I root for?
Danica Patrick is a young, attractive, American woman, which is usually enough to get almost everyone's attention. You may have seen her recently on TV or in Sports Illustrated. She drives a black and blue car, sponsored by Motorola. She stands some chance of winning and the cameras will follow her progress closely.
Helio Castroneves was on Dancing with the Stars last season and is a happy, smiling, handsome guy with a great Brazilian accent, which is usually enough for anyone not watching Danica. He drives one of two red and white cars, sponsored by Marlboro. Helio has won the race twice before and has a good chance of winning, so the cameras will follow him closely as well.
Michael Andretti, Marco Andretti, Grahm Rahal, and A.J. Foyt IV are all the kids of famous racecar drivers from 20 - 30 years ago that you or your Dad may have heard of. Michael Andretti is Marco Andretti's dad, and looks like he's about 50 because he's about 50. The Andrettis always have a decent chance of winning, although if Rahal and Foyt even come close the TV cameras will pay them very close attention.

Is this like NASCAR?
Yes, it is a lot like NASCAR, except with very different-looking cars. NASCAR cars look like boxes, Indy cars look a little like weird airplanes with wheels. Those wheels are out there on the corners of the cars and aren't covered by anything. For this reason, this kind of racing is called "open-wheel." NASCAR is not open-wheel, but some other racing is.

Didn't Danica Patrick win Indy a few weeks ago?
No. Danica Patrick has not "won Indy" ever, including a few weeks ago. The word "Indy" comes from the word Indianapolis, the city in Indiana. "Indy" is used to describe a few different things:

The Racetrack - "Indy"
There is a racetrack in Indianapolis, IN. It opened in 1909, and is an oval shape that is 2.5 miles around. For more information, check out the track's website.
The Race - "The Indy 500"
The race on Sunday is a 500-mile race held at Indy and therefore called the Indy 500. This year will be the 92nd running of the race, which makes it one of the longest-running races in the world. For more on that history, check out the race's website.
The Series - "The Indy Racing League" or "The IRL"
A group of drivers and their cars travel around the world together to race at different tracks a few times per month. The drivers get points depending on how well they do, and at the end of the year a champion is crowned. The Indy 500 is the most famous and most prominent race in the series, and so the series is named after that race. NASCAR fans should think of the IRL like the Sprint Cup Series. Stick-and-ball sports fans should think of the IRL like MLB or NFL, but with "drivers" instead of "teams," and with only one "game" going on every weekend. You may hear someone mention that a particular driver is part of a particular team, but the "teams" in the IRL are completely different from the "teams" in MLB or the NFL. More on that later.
The Cars - "Indy Cars"
Like NASCAR, all of the drivers in the IRL use similar cars, called "Indy Cars." They are open-wheel cars with prominent wings on them, and they all use 3.5 liter V8 engines made by Honda which are not turbocharged.
The Races - "The Indy Japan 300" or "The Iowa Corn Indy 250"
Most races in the IRL have "Indy" in their name, even when they do not take place at Indy. This is simply to tie the name of the race to the series. Formula 1 fans can relate this to the inclusion of "Grand Prix" or "GP" in the names of their races.
So, Danica Patrick is a driver in the Indy Racing League, and she drove her Indy Car in the Indy Japan 300 a few weeks ago. She won that race, the Indy Japan 300, which takes place in Motegi, Japan. She has not yet won "Indy," or the Indy 500, which takes place in Indianapolis, IN, this coming Sunday.

The race is 500 miles? How long will that take?
Indy cars can go more than 230 mph under the right circumstances. The speeds during the Indy 500 will be closer to 220 mph for most of the race. If there is an accident, the rules say that all of the cars have to slow down to about 60 mph until the accident is cleaned up, which usually takes 5 - 10 minutes. Overall, the race will probably last about 3 hours.

Accidents? Do people get hurt or die?
The cars, and the race itself, is actually very safe. If there is an accident, the cars involved will stay on or very near the track, and there are lots of walls and fences to keep them away from the crowds, crews, TV cameras, etc. The walls around the outside of the track are metal guardrails attached to foam blocks, so while they are not squishy, they are not rock-hard either. The cars themselves are designed to basically explode into lots of pieces, except for the parts right around the driver. Think of those exploding pieces like a big crumple-zone. Drivers can get hurt, but usually the most serious injury is a sprain or bruise.

Can drivers keep racing even after they've been in an accident?
They can, but they usually don't. Indy Cars are fragile, and all of the parts are critical. NASCAR fans might expect to see sledgehammers and duct-tape come out after a crash, but usually if a piece on an Indy Car breaks, it takes literally all week to fix.

Someone just said "teams"
When the drivers and cars are on the track, they are all racing against each other. Race cars are expensive, and it turns out that there are only a few people with the money and interest to pay for them. Because of this, those people usually pay for more than one. All of the cars and drivers that get paid for by the same person are on a "team." Some of the "teams" have only one car and one driver, but some "teams" have several. Usually, all of the cars and drivers who are on the same team go back to the same research facility between the races, so if someone figures out how to make one of the cars a little faster, the other drivers and cars on that same team will probably hear about it first. Also, a driver is less likely to act like a jerk on the track towards another car on the same team. You will probably hear about how many cars and drivers each team has, how many times each team has won the race, and how "teammates" are helping each other out on the track. As much as you will hear those things, at the end of the race, every driver is racing every other driver.

Will this be fun?
Yes, it will probably be fun. Even beyond the fun people and good food you're likely to be surrounded by, the race itself is very exciting. The cars are going very fast, and they are very close to each other. Driving the cars is difficult, and it is exciting to watch the drivers try not to make any mistakes at all for three whole hours.

And maybe you'll get to see Danica actually "win Indy."

Friday, May 16, 2008

Rental Bliss: 2006 Saturn ION2

Last summer I had an ION for a business trip from Orange County to the Silicon Valley and back. It's a long trip that puts a car through a lot of scenarios: the worst of LA traffic hell, two mountain ranges, a vast expanse of flat highway, and twisty country roads around Gilroy (garlic capital of the world!).

The ION's exterior styling fits with Saturn's current design trends of understated geometric designs and vaguely European modernism. I think it's handsome for a small economy car, but that's subjective. The interior continues the geometric theme of circles, arcs, and ellipses. Mine was furnished with grey cloth, hard grey plastic, and silvery gray accents. It is thoroughly unexciting, but that's to be expected in a value-oriented economy car. The gauges are mounted in a center pod and have a classic-looking typeface. I expected the location to be distracting but after a few minutes it became second nature.

The ION seems to be tuned to drive like a larger car. The steering has a heavy feel and mushy center. It's easy to keep pointed on the highway but can be annoying in city driving. The suspension is incredibly loose for a car this size -- on the highway it's dreamboat smooth, but there is an immense amount of body lean on onramps or even 90 degree turns from a stop. Acceleration is good for a car in this class and I had no problem merging, passing, or climbing hills. The engine is very loud and coarse-sounding, especially at higher RPMs. I found myself limiting throttle just to avoid the noise, which would get grating in a daily commute. The ION automatic is rated at 24/32 mpg. I lost my mileage log but recall getting mileage consistent with those numbers.

The interior ergonomics are generally fair. It has a high door sill that's easy to trip on, and the cup holders are positioned such that a medium-sized fast food cup will block all the HVAC controls. The AC is surprisingly powerful, which is common for GM vehicles. Visibility is good.

There was a lot riding on the ION's 2003 debut. Saturn had been waiting a very long time for an updated compact car, and the ION was the first example of GM's Delta-body / Ecotec engine combo that would be the basis of small GM cars for years to come. The ION was unilaterally slammed as a horrible failure, which I think is unfair. It's the same size as a Cobalt or Corolla, and compared unfavorably in that class. But it was actually priced priced closer to an Aveo or ECHO, and looks good against those. I would also argue that the outgoing S-series was meeting consumer expectations better than the Cavalier was, so the incremental S-to-ION transition was easily upstaged by the earth-shaking Cavalier-to-Cobalt transition.

The ION was the last model designed around Saturn's original ethos of friendly, economical basic transportation. It lives up to that promise. It drives like a floaty midsize car and gets compact car mileage. It's not flashy or fun to drive, but that's not the point. It would be a fine choice as an everyday car, especially for someone who is downsizing from a larger vehicle or doesn't really care about cars. Conventional wisdom is that a Civic or Corolla does this better. That's probably right, but only by a thin margin. The ION's price advantage makes it a defensible choice.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Rental Bliss: 2008 Scion xB

For various reasons I rent a lot of cars. I'd like to extract some greater good from these experiences, so I'll be writing up quick-take reviews of the cars I rent.

Recently I needed to rent a Flexcar to drop off a car at the garage, and ended up with a 2008 Scion xB. This was my first experience with a Scion product, so I was eager to see what I thought of the brand. More on that shortly.

The xB is essentially a brick on wheels. It is tall for its size, but rides low on small tires. The interior is styled in a sport compact tuner aesthetic. The gauges are arranged in a pod of four circles resembling a pillar gauge pod, positioned in the center of the dash. Most of the visible paneling is black plastic molded to resemble carbon fiber. The contours are geometric, giving the whole thing a goth/industrial feel. I don't care for it. Even if I did, I'd be leery of styling this distinctive, since it rarely wears well over a car's entire 10+ year lifetime. Look at the interior of any 10+ year old Buick to see what I mean.

Given the mundane FWD chassis, tiny wheels, and tall body, my handling expectations were low and I was not surprised. There is a lot of body lean in corners, and the tires start to chirp very quickly. The steering has a heavy on-center feel reminiscent of a truck or van. Acceleration is adequate in leisurely driving. I didn't have an opportunity to flog it. The engine is loud and appliance-like, rather like a cordless power drill. Overall the driving experience is unremarkable but perfectly adequate for everyday use.

The interior ergonomics are pretty good. The xB's upright seating position makes effective use of space and makes it roomier than it would be otherwise. There is a convenient iPod port in the center console, and a phone-sized nook next to the steering column. There's also a shallow shelf above the glove box. I'm not sure what it's intended for, but my fiance and I put a bag of donuts there, so we called it a "donut shelf." As expected the rear cargo area is huge, and the large hatch door should make loading and unloading convenient. Visibility is excellent.

The xB would be a decent commuter. It is an economical alternative to a CUV or small SUV due to its cargo space and high seating position. It could work as a family's only car. It is not a performance vehicle in the slightest. The car has a strong tuner/Emo/industrial vibe to it, which is a love-it-or-hate-it proposition. I hate it. But there are surely people who love it.

Now, back to my take on Scion. Let's see here. We have a mundane chassis, mundane engine, mundane suspension, and mundane steering feel, gussied up as a performance vehicle with polarizing exterior styling, boy-racer interior styling, and a loud exhaust. The whole package is targeted at adolescents, but has broader appeal because at its heart it's a practical vehicle.

I sense something. A presence I have not felt since...

Ah yes, Pontiac circa the 1990s. Look how well that worked out. Maybe the xB will succeed where the Trans Sport failed. Good luck, Scion.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Indy Racing League Winners

Indy Racing League

The Indy Racing League is now truly in the midst of its first season since the much-vaunted "unification" between itself and the Champ Car World Series. Five races into the season, we have already seen some significant results:

  • Grahm Rahal won the second race of the season, the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. As his name might suggest, G. Rahal is the son of legendary open-wheel driver Bobby Rahal, who is frequently spoken about in the same conversations as Foyt and the Andrettis. Having a Rahal back in victory lane is a significant step towards recapturing the attention of old-school fans of the sport. As unfortunate as it is, the fact that he an an American certainly doesn't hurt either.
    Making the feat more significant is the fact that G. Rahal is one of the drivers who came over from the Champ Car World Series. While the airport/street course of St. Petersburg would seem to favor the Champ Car drivers, the race has always been on the IRL calendar. Rahal won in an unfamiliar car on an unfamiliar track, and in the rain. This left little doubt that when right turns are in the mix, Rahal is a threat.

  • Danica Patrick won the fourth race of the season, the Indy Japan 300. Anyone who has seen an IRL race in the past few years, as well as anyone with a Sports Illustrated subscription, is familiar with Danica Patrick. She is one of three women currently competing in major-league open-wheel racing, although her win is the first by a woman. Her win proves not only that Patrick herself is capable of the ultimate success, but that women in general are capable as well, something that has unfortunately been rather hotly debated. Patrick is an American as well, and again that has shown to help the ratings. In fact, Rahal and Patricks' wins are the first back-to-back wins by American drivers in recent memory.

The success of the former Champ Car drivers on ovals remains to be seen, but two drivers getting their first series win in only the first five races is a great sign that things are going to be interesting.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Goodguy's Hot Rod & Custom Car Show

Last Saturday I made it out to Goodguy's Hot Rod & Custom Car Show at the Orange County, California fairgrounds.

For the most part it was your typical hot rod car show. There was the "show & shine," featuring a wide variety of American muscle cars and trucks, some in crisp showroom condition, others modified to an extreme. A rockabilly band played, and there was a swap meet in case you're still looking for motor mounts for your '71 Charger Super Bee. A bunch of aftermarket vendors had convention style displays. Edelbrock's stood out since they had actual physical parts to look at and fiddle with. Chip Foose was there with his daughter, driving around in his Hemisfear.

This show had the highest proportion of kids in rockabilly getups, and rat rods on display, of any show in recent memory. Maybe it's Orange County, or maybe that stuff is picking up steam.

The highlight of the show was definitely the autocross. It seemed to be open to anyone who wanted to participate, and the participants were all manner of wild street rides. About half the cars were spare-no-expense Camaros and Chevelles; other notables were a couple hairbrained rat rods, an honest-to-goodness Ford GT, a Z06, an 80s C/K pickup truck from Car Craft magazine, and a Jaguar XJ with a Chevy 502 big block swapped in.

What can I say? Top three impressions:
  1. Reading, thinking, and talking about cars is great and all, but there's no replacement for seeing them actually tear around a track. Driving around a track is even better.
  2. In autocross skill is at least as important as hardware. The fastest cars on Saturday were definitely not the fastest cars on paper.
  3. Why was every single hot rod a Chevrolet? It would have been nice to see a classic Ford, Mopar, or even non-Chevrolet GM make a showing.
If you have the opportunity to attend a show like this, by all means do. It really gets the juices flowing.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Here is Your Future Car

The future is now. The solution to solving foreign oil dependence and air pollution is not going to be corn based ethanol or fuel cells that mix oxygen and hydrogen to provide energy. The soultion is in advanced lithium battery technology. An American company, based in Watertown MA, is the leader in lithium battery technologies that provide power to automotive electric engines. This company, A123 Systems, already has a deal with GM to help produce the batteries for its much anticipated Volt. Now they have released an upgrade kit for a normal Toyota Prius at the price tag of $10k. Why isn't Toyota producing a Prius that allows it to be plugged into the wall already and has advanced batteries? Either A123 Systems is a technological leader far ahead of the world, including Japan, in battery technology or there is not enough profit in it for Toyota.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

12 Hours of Sebring

12 Hours of Sebring
The 56th running of the 12 Hours of Sebring has been run. A previous Street Level entry covered particular things to watch for. Here's how they turned out:

Peugeot vs. Audi
As predicted, the diesels had problems with reliability. although admittedly almost none of the issues were engine related. A hydraulic pump failure eventually ensured that the lone Peugeot would trail the Audis across the line. The Peugeot's fastest lap was quicker than the fastest Audi lap, so the 24 hour French classic in June should be a close fight.

Porsche RS Spyders vs. Audi, Peugeot
Also as predicted, the Porsche RS Spyders were just as fast as the Audis and the Peugeot despite being in the "slower" LMP2 class. Few people were surprised by Porsche's overall victory, although just as few predicted the podium sweep of LMP2 cars. An Acura squeezed its way between the first- and third-place Porsches, relegating the lead Audi to fourth.

Risi Competizione vs. Flying Lizard Motorsports
The Risi Ferrari was poised to take a second-straight Sebring victory until about the halfway point of the race. Jamie Melo, the driver who took the Ferrari across the line at the incredible end of last year's race, got into the grass on the inside of turn 7, then came across the track into the front corner of Dirk Werner's Porsche. Both cars limped through the grass in an attempt to get back to the pits, but both cars ended up parked in the grass. Jörg Bergmeister and Flying Lizard Motorsports took full advantage and the class victory.

Chevy vs. Ford vs. Dodge
This classic battle played out roughly as expected. The LG Corvette seemed to have the edge and posted the fastest lap time of the three, however it succumbed to overheating problems after less than 100 laps. The Viper then pulled from the Ford, which planted itself into a wall about 100 laps after the Corvette's exit. All three are expected to improve over the course of the season, so look for this battle to heat up.

The final class victors of the 2008 12 Hours of Sebring were:

LMP2: Romain Dumas - Porsche RS Spyder - Penske Racing
LMP1: Tom Kristensen - Audi R10 - Audi Sport North America
GT1: Johnny O'Connell - Corvette C6.R - Corvette Racing
GT2: Marc Lieb - Porsche 911 GT3 RSR - Flying Lizard Motorsports

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Formula 1 - What To Watch For

Formula 1
Early Sunday morning will mark the start of the 2008 Formula 1 season. After an incredibly exciting championship battle last season which saw Kimi Raikonnen edge out both McLaren-Mercedes drivers in the last race to win the season, several changes to the rules and teams should keep this season entertaining. Here's what to watch for:

Traction Control
For the past few years, drivers have employed the use of electronic traction control to get their cars off of the line and out of the corners. Starting this season, traction control of any kind is banned, and should add quite a bit of spice to the races. Drivers who have previously just powered out of corners or through difficult sections will have to carefully modulate the throttles on their cars or lose control of the back end. Watch closely during wet races or on tracks with limited grip, like the season-opening Australian GP.

Fernando Alonso
After winning two consecutive world championships, Fernando Alonso left Renault for McLaren-Mercedes, where he placed third in 2007 and had a much-publicized feud with his rookie teammate. This season, Alonso is back at Renault where he is apparently much more comfortable. Unfortunately, Renault has lost their way and did not regularly compete for podiums in 2007. Watch for Alonso to try to right this listing ship in spectacular style.

Lewis Hamilton
Hamilton put together a sensational rookie season in 2007, very nearly becoming the first ever rookie world champion. Now the darling child of McLaren-Mercedes, look for him to try to prove that his success was not a fluke.

Sebastien Bourdais
Winning four consecutive Champ Car World Series championships finally scored Bourdais a Formula 1 ride. Driving for Scuderia Toro Rosso, Red Bull Racing's "little brother," Bourdais brings plenty of talent and open-wheel experience to the table. STR has had trouble scoring points, let alone fighting for podiums, so Bourdais will certainly have his work cut out for him. Ex-F1 backmarker Robert Doornbos had a moderate amount of success in Champ Car (winning Rookie of the Year in 2007), so few are expecting Bourdais to catapult STR to the front of the field. Like him or not, Bourdais is essentially representing the full might of American open-wheel racing, however ailing it might be, so it will be interesting to see how much success he finds in open-wheel's top tier series.

Friday, March 14, 2008

2008 12 Hours of Sebring - What To Watch For

12 Hours of Sebring Logo

The 56th running of the 12 Hours of Sebring begins Saturday, March 15th, at 10am. The race is almost always exciting and this year should be no exception. Here are a few specific things to watch for this weekend:

Peugeot vs. Audi
Last year, Audi stood alone in the (competitive) diesel camp, but will be joined this year by one of the diesel Peugeot 908s that ran at LeMans last year. While the 908s couldn't stay with the Audis last June, the practice times in Florida have been incredibly close. Reliability will be a factor here, as the close competition will push the still-relatively-new engine technology to its limit.

Porsche RS Spyders vs. Audi, Peugeot
Last season, the Porsche RS Spyders of Penske Racing were constant threats for overall wins, scoring several over the theoretically-faster Audis. Look for them to continue to pressure the bigger, more powerful LMP1 cars. Audi is going for its ninth-straight win at Sebring, and may get as much trouble from Porsche as from Peugeot.

Risi Competizione vs. Flying Lizard Motorsports
Last year, Jamie Melo in the Risi Competizione Ferrari 430 beat Jorg Bergmeister in the Flying Lizard Motorsports Porsche 911 by a scant .2 seconds in what was one of the most exciting finishes in the race's long history. The Risi Ferrari ultimately took the championship as well, but look for Flying Lizard to try to take back what they feel was stolen from them last March.

Chevy vs. Ford vs. Dodge
For the first time in ALMS competition, Chevy, Ford, and Dodge will all be represented in one class on Saturday. Operating outside the factory-backed GT1 effort, three-time Speed World Challenge champions LG Racing are bringing their Corvettes to Sebring to compete in the GT2 class. Robertson Racing has brought a Ford GT-R to the party (one of the first to compete in the U.S.), reminding us of the mid 60's when Ford developed the original GT40 specifically to beat Ferrari on the racetrack. Also unrelated to past GT1 efforts is Primetime Racing's Viper Competition Coupe, which ran in a few events last season in preparation for a full 2008 campaign. All three of these efforts are without factory backing or extensive ALMS experience, so none are considered significant contenders for a class win, however the fight to be the Fastest of the Slowest should be entertaining.

While we can only hope for a finish as riveting as last year's GT2 battle, the 56th running of the 12 Hours of Sebring is almost certainly going to be one of the best races of the season.

Pontiac Spy Hunter Ad is Badass

Pontiac G8 Is Car
Pontiac has a new ad for their new car, the G8, that is a must-watch. Click here to check it out on Jalopnik.com. There's a story about Pontiac's ad agency trying to force the video to go viral, but the real meat is the ad itself. It is a positively genius play on the classic game Spy Hunter, proof that all is not lost in the realm of automotive advertising.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Muscle Cars

Muscle Car
This morning in his blog, Dilbert creator Scott Adams hypothesized about how the efficiency of the human body could translate to alternative automotive propulsion. His theory is that a human body can "eat a pork chop and run 26 miles," which far surpasses the efficiency of the internal combustion engine. Other creatures such as ants exhibit even better efficiency. Further, scientists have been able to create working muscles from cells grown in a lab. Putting all of this together, could muscles be grown and used in some form of power-generation system for cars?

Mr. Adams' hypotheses are typically well outside the box and this is no exception, however it does provide an interesting alternative to consider (along with some great mental imagery). Is there a place in automotive technology for "living" components like muscle motors, plant-based upholstery, photo-luminescent marker lights, etc?

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Open Wheel Racing Merger Details

Indy Car Series Logo

Today's IRL press conference provided the official details of the "merger" between the Indy Racing League and the Champ Car World Series:
  • The "new" series will keep the name Indy Racing League
  • Teams will use the IRL's Dallara-Hondas.
  • The season will start with a race at the Homestead-Miami Speedway on March 29
  • The Long Beach Grand Prix and the Indy Japan 300 will both be run on April 20.
    • Old Champ Car teams that are making the switch to the IRL will contest the Long Beach GP for IRL points and prize money using their equipment from the 2007 season
  • All events scheduled to be on the 2008 Champ Car calendar are under consideration for possible integration into the 2009 IRL calendar, and in fact as many as possible will be integrated into the 2008 season
    • Long Beach is confirmed to have a place on the 2009 calendar
  • Champ Car teams that can commit to the full 2008 season are receiving $1.2 million, plus leased cars and engines to aid in the transition

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

American Open-Wheel Split Over

Indy Car World Series Logo


The persistent dream of any fan of either the Champ Car World Series or the Indy Racing League has finally arrived: The two series are set to merge in time for the start of the 2008 racing season.

For 11 years the series have been separate entities, fighting for teams, sponsors, and fans. Originally a matter of ovals vs. road courses, each series diluted itself to become all things to all people, with neither accomplishing the desired result.

Robin Miller's article at SpeedTV.com has all of the currently-available details, but the important points follow:
  • Tony George, founder and current leader of the IRL, has offered free cars and $1.2 million to any Champ Car team that wishes to defect and is able to commit to the entire season.
  • Four current Champ Car teams have committed to the switch, with at least one more probable, bringing at least eight cars to the current IRL lineup.
  • The IRL is planning to integrate four current Champ Car race locations and dates into the 2008 calendar, including the Long Beach GP scheduled for April 20.
The result isn't so much a merger as Champ Car finally going under and the IRL salvaging the larger pieces. Few people, even die-hard fans of Champ Car, would argue that even this result is significantly better than two independent series. With any luck, the combination of the best open-wheel drivers, teams, and venues will attract long-lost fans and sponsors and return North American open-wheel racing to the top shelf.

The deal is officially done, per Robin Miller's follow-up article.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

The end of Viper

According to Jalopnik, the Dodge Viper will be discontinued, presumably as part of Cerberus-owned Chrysler's "Project Genesis" turnaround plan.

It's always unfortunate when a performance car goes extinct, if for no other reason than thins out the "biodiversity" in the car ecosystem. Gearheads like to compare stats, pros and cons, and pit cars against each other, both in reality and in our heads. But frankly I think this is the right business decision. Continuing the Viper just doesn't make sense.

The Viper made a lot of sense when it debuted back in 1992. Let's think back to what the performance car world was like in 1991. Horsepower was on a different scale. The Corvette made 245 hp. If you wanted a performance Mopar your choices were a turbo K-car (e.g. the 224hp Dodge Sprit R/T) or a rebadged Mitsubishi (e.g. the 195hp Eagle Talon). Then the 1992 model year rolled around. The 'Vette was upgraded to the all new, high-tech, "Gen-II" V8 making 300 hp. And the Viper debuted with 400 horsepower. That 400 was an ungodly, extravagant, jaw-dropping number. Dodge finally had a car that could sell posters and make it into video games. It was an exotic beast.

Over the following 16 years, that exoticness became the Viper's Achilles' heel. GM kept the Corvette's development costs low by using a highly tuned variant of their workhorse GenII/GenIII/GenIV V8s, and spread those costs among tens of thousands of sales every year. Meanwhile just about every major component of the Viper was unique to the Viper (except for the flash-in-the-pan Ram SRT10); the snake sold a few thousand units in the good years, and a few hundred in the bad. Over time GM's R&D outpaced Mopar's, and the Viper's initial performance advantage eroded to nothing.

How do things look here in model year 2008? Well, horsepower is up. Plebeian family cars like the V6 Chevy Malibu or V6 Dodge Charger make more horsepower than that '91 Corvette. In 2006 the 500hp, $63,800 Viper was bested by the 505hp, $60,300 Corvette Z06. After massive effort, the Viper was upgrated to 600hp, only to be toppled again by the forthcoming 620+hp Corvette ZR1.

To Chrysler's credit, it has a whole crop of legitimate enthusiast cars in its SRT lineup. Like the Corvette and unlike the Viper, the SRT cars use hopped-up variants of volume production engines, are mass produced in quantity, and are priced within reach of middle class buyers. And they're just hot enough to sell posters and make it into video games -- especially the SRT4 and upcoming Challenger. So what's the point of the Viper? Why bother developing the single-application engine, or keep that factory open, when Chrysler has other halo cars and can't hope to keep up with the Corvette?

There's also the business reality that higher CAFE standards loom, Chrysler leans heavily on its pickup truck and large car sales, and its latest generation of small and midsize cars are generally considered failures. Even worse, every other major manufacturer has some kind of fuel-saving technology up its sleeve: direct injection, hybrids, smaller turbocharged engines, or a small diesel. Chrysler doesn't. Shifting resources makes sense.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Taurus SHO

1994 Ford Taurus SHO
Recently a hilarious Craigslist ad for a 1994 Ford Taurus SHO made its rounds on the Internet (and has now been unfortunately removed). The SHO seems like a laughable concept now, and it's possible that it was laughable at the time as well. However, the idea of a factory-tuned sedan is hardly a bad one as shown by the Cadillac V, Mercedes AMG, Audi S, and BMW M cars. Further, Ford could certainly use a kick in the pants, as they've been churning out nothing but yawners (with the exception of the various Shelby Mustangs) for a few years.
The Big Three have admittedly been against the ropes for those same few years, but Ford is doing the best of acting the part. GM responded to the announcements of their imminent death by peppering the market with incredible cars and trucks of nearly every variety. Chrysler is riding the wave of optimism generated when they were pulled (thrown?) from the clutches of Mercedes Benz. Ford, on the other hand, has made careful and effective improvements to their products while somehow managing to avoid telling anyone about them.
A return of the SVT program would certainly help to draw attention to some of their better products. The Focus and the Fusion (and the Milan and MKZ) would respond well to a performance boost, and would draw attention to their capable platforms. A current-generation Taurus SHO may not have the same flavor as those from the 90's, but there is certainly room in the Ford lineup for a power boost. John Coletti, where are you?

Friday, February 01, 2008

The next time you laugh at a scooter....

9 times out of 10, when I see someone riding a scooter around town, I have to laugh. It just looks funny. I don't know why but it does. However after seeing an article for the Piaggio MP3 500, I will have to eat my own words. This scooter moves with a 500cc engine making 40HP. That is not too bad for a small scooter. The real interesting part to this motorized bicycle is that it is really a tricycle. Thats right 3 wheels. With two wheels in the front and the one rear wheel this scooter is built for cornering. Similar to swaying on a normal motorcycle. Take a look at the Piaggio website. Oh did I mention the top speed is 90MPH.
Piaggio MP3 500

They Don't Make Cars Like They Used To

Leafing through an auto mag from sometime around 2003 revealed the following ad:

Ford Mustang Ad

The obvious intent is to imply that the Mustang has old-school power, brawn, and attitude. Looking at it through the eyes of a 2003 Mustang driver, who is all-too-aware that the underlying chassis is from 1979 resulting in old-school (meaning archaic and ineffective) handling and body control, it takes on an entirely different meaning.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

With No Star To Guide Them

GM has just announced the cancellation of its plans for an advanced DOHC V8. The premium engine was the presumed replacement for the Northstar V8, which ceases production in 2010. Rumors and speculation abound, but the consensus seems to be that Cadillac will soon find itself without a V8. Two years ago that idea would have been preposterous, but the success of the direct injection 3.6 liter V6, along with the looming demands of CAFE legislation suggest that this might be just what the General ordered.
The current 3.6 liter engine produces 304 hp, which places it above the Deville's Northstar, and just 16 hp shy if the STS's V8 powerplant. Sales have shown that this is sufficient to attract STS buyers, and is clearly on par with engines in midsized offerings from BMW and Mercedes. But one must wonder what has happened to GM's plans for offering a large luxury sedan to compete with the S Class Mercedes and Seven Series BMWs. Just a few short years ago, GM officials were dropping hints about a 7/8 scale version of the V16 concept car, powered by a DOHC V12. With Cadillac's recent success in the market it seems that now is the time to carry out that plan and re-establish Cadillac as one of the world's premier luxury marques. Yet it seems that GM is heading in the opposite direction. Have they lost their way, or is this all part of clever plan? We'll see.