Spannerhead Dot

Posts filed under ‘Car Industry’

Why Can Mazda Not Break Through?

March 9, 2012 by Matt

Mazda Logo Miata Shifter

A recent Left Lane report that Mazda will be cutting back its US workforce revived a question that’s been rolling around in my head for some time: Why is Mazda not more successful? Why can they not break into the “upper tier” of Japanese automakers, a plane occupied by companies like Toyota, Nissan and Honda?

Granted, all automakers have to lay off workers from time to time in order to adapt to changing demand, or an underperforming product, or increased competition. But Mazda seems to be a perpetual underachiever, almost always turning our cars that are among the best in their respective class, and well put-together at that, but unable to vault their manufacturer into the upper echelon of Japanese makes. As a result, they seem to experience crises every half dozen years or so where they’re compelled to pare down their workforce or seek a business alliance, never actually entering bankruptcy, but certainly experiencing hard times, with little surplus development money available for the projects they’d actually rather be working on, such a next-generation rotary engine, or putting together a factory race team and adding to their already-enviable racing pedigree.

Mazda MX-5 Miata Roadster Green Silver NC

A quick mental scan of Mazda’s product line over the past decade or so offers some insight into the company’s fortunes. As much as GM would like us to believe otherwise, an automaker’s success or failure is tied pretty directly to the quality of the cars they design, engineer and manufacture, and a glance at Mazda’s output—the 3, 6, RX-8, MX-5, CX-7, CX-9 and Tribute, among others—reveals vehicles that are almost always a joy to drive, but in terms of mass-market appeal, are a little out-of-step with mainstream tastes. They’re not boring transportation appliances, and as much as we enthusiasts would consider that a selling point, the hard truth is that much of the buying public is looking for the anonymous beige box to tote them around, never breaking down and getting 30 mpg and playing their MP3s via Bluetooth. That being the case, consideration of Mazda cars requires a bit more of a “leap of faith” from the consumer than say, an Accord or Camry, vehicles that all their friends have; known quantities. Success, no matter how it’s arrived at, begets success, and as such Toyota, Honda and Nissan occupy enviable positions atop the podium, leaving Mazda and other Japanese makes nibbling around the edges.

Is that the whole story, though? Interesting cars that are lovely to drive but are cursed by the fact that the words “Camry” or “Accord” aren’t affixed to their trunklids? Or is there more to it? Why do you think Mazda isn’t more successful?

4 Comments on Why Can Mazda Not Break Through?

Out of the Frying Pan…
Edmunds’ Take on New Energy Plan

March 8, 2012 by Matt

Honda Insight 2010 10 Blue Rear Taillights Trunk

In response to the Obama administration’s latest push for subsidies for electric and hybrid vehicles, Edmunds offers a classic example of how to refute a bad idea with a worse one. They write:

Rather than government pushing technology, we might all be better off if government policies — and spending — were directed at creating consumer demand. If use of oil in private transportation is the problem — from the viewpoints of national energy security and/or environmental concerns — then we need to make the use of oil-based fuels distasteful enough, through pricing and fuel efficiency regulations, that American consumers demand that automakers provide alternatives. That would bring useful and affordable alternative technologies, including electric and natural gas vehicles, into the mainstream market a lot quicker than will the present system.

What an awful, awful idea. Not only does it put forth a different method of achieving exactly the same end—distorting the marketplace and pushing vehicles that consumers simply don’t want—it takes money away from families already struggling in the slow economy in the form of an added energy tax, euphemized as “pricing and fuel efficiency regulations.” Edmunds‘ solution to the lack of green vehicles on the road isn’t to shovel truckloads of taxpayer cash at them to make them affordable enough for the average family to consider—the current administration’s agenda—it’s to force consumers to want the new vehicles. If Edmunds decries the government’s efforts to pick winners and losers in the marketplace, as they do earlier in the editorial, how is their solution not to do precisely that, except with whole segments of the industry rather than individual companies? You tell me which take, Edmunds‘ or the Obama administration’s, would do more damage to the economy in general. It’s not rocket surgery.

In the end, it’s all the same wherever the government intervenes in the economy in order to engineer an outcome or push an agenda: Frequently poorly-engineered products, more expensive than we can often afford, and that we don’t want in the first place. Memo to the current administration and Edmunds: Leave the industry alone, and we’ll all be better off.

No Comments on Out of the Frying Pan…
Edmunds’ Take on New Energy Plan

Will BMW buy Saab?

February 22, 2012 by Matt

BMW Kidneys Grille Nostrils Blue Saab Grille Fascia

Saab’s body isn’t even cold yet, having just filed for bankruptcy and liquidation a few months ago, and yet, as Left Lane reports, BMW appears to be in the running to be the one to perform a Dr. Frankenstein-style reanimation of Saab’s cadaver, jolting new life into the Swedish automaker.

The article points out:

The association between the two companies wouldn’t be as random as it might seem. In 2010, BMW agreed to provide Saab with 1.6-liter four-cylinder engines. The cooperation between the two was supposed to start this year.

Furthermore, the Munich-based company has announced recently that it needs extra production capacity in order to expand its MINI brand. Picking up the Trollhättan facility could be a viable solution to the problem.

If they decide to acquire Saab, BMW would undoubtedly be a better partner than GM had been. During its 20-year partnership with the Swedish automaker, GM drained from it every last ounce of brand identity, shamelessly rebadging Cadillacs, Chevys and even Subarus as Saabs in a series of flailing attempts to create a successful model. BMW’s history of alliances with other automakers is a bit spotty (Rover got the shaft), but chances are much better they’d give Saab more autonomy and restore at least some of its brand identity, as the German concern has done for Rolls-Royce and MINI. BMW would likely supply engines and provide engineering assistance when needed, rather than completely manhandling Saab’s product line, a la GM.

Unfortunately, GM holds the patents to many key Saab engine and chassis components, since all recent Saabs have been built on GM platforms, and for any sale to proceed, the American giant would have to give their blessing to the union. That said, I can see GM being a bit less hesitant about a BMW purchase than one by a Chinese firm, given the fast and loose relationship between many Chinese companies and international copyrights and patents, and thus the increased likelihood of GM having to compete against its own innovations in the Chinese domestic market, an area of exponential growth for the American automaker. BMW faces off a bit less directly with GM, and access to certain proprietary GM technologies by BMW wouldn’t put the former at as much of a competitive disadvantage.

We’ll see what happens. I for one hope BMW goes through with the sale and keeps Saab alive.

6 Comments on Will BMW buy Saab?

The Joys of a Paid-Off Car

February 15, 2012 by Matt

Mazda MPV 05 2005 LX Grey Gray Gunmetal

We paid off our minivan yesterday. It was our first—and to date only—car to have been financed, and after 2 years and 10 months, I’m proud to say we’re in the clear again, considerably earlier than the term of the loan. The extra money in our pocket will be helpful for a whole host of things, from kid activities to home improvement and assistance in paying off other debts. It’s incredibly liberating and satisfying to know that we now hold our cars’ titles, not the bank.

It also makes me want to take better care of the minivan. It’s an ’05 Mazda MPV LX, powered by a 3.0l, 200 hp V6, and it’s been incredibly faithful. 3,000 more miles to go to hit the big 100K, and our only failures to date have been:

  • A PCV hose around the back of the intake manifold a year ago. $50 worth of parts and tools later, and it was good as new.
  • The door handle cable inside the drivers’ door. Found a gentleman online (I love the internet for sourcing car parts) with a spare and was able to fix it for around $20.

Mazda MPV 05 2005 LX Grey Gray Gunmetal Rear Taillights Back

Other than that, it’s been bulletproof, with a couple of trips to the beach and many, many errands around town under its belt. It does have to sleep outside, unlike its siblings (the 240Z and the BMW get the garage), but it doesn’t seem to mind too much. It does need a good wash and wax and clean-out, though, along with a potential transmission service at 100K. Debating about that last one.

Having the minivan paid off makes me think about the ways in which car acquisition and ownership have changed since my parents’ day. My dad always paid cash, and almost always bought new, even if he had to sell some stocks or dip into his other investments to do so. To my knowledge, my parents have never had a car payment, and I have a feeling it was like that for many more families than just mine. New car prices have increased significantly over the past 30 years, and not just because of inflation—modern cars are packed with electronics and safety features, a dozen airbags, traction and stability control, navigation systems, and so on. It makes me wonder how far the avalanche of features and gadgets can really go, how far the market can really sustain the one-up-manship between automakers.

Mazda MPV 05 2005 LX Grey Gray Gunmetal Interior Inside Cockpit Dashboard Dash Console

If I had to put forth a prediction, I really do see car ownership going in the same direction as home ownership in the sense that 20-30 years out, everyone will finance their cars; they will simply be an investment on the same level as buying a house. Debt coaches will advise their clients on another type of “acceptable debt” besides a home loan: the car loan. Between cars’ rapid increase in sophistication, the growing complacency (the past few years excepted) toward consumer debt and the looming specter of federal regulations that threatens to hike the price of the average car even more, only a very small percentage of buyers will pay entirely out of pocket for a new car. It’s unfortunate, really, symptomatic as it is of the decline in the average consumer’s purchasing power, even as the shift has the potential to be a boon for the used car and auto repair industries. I really don’t think we’d be surrendering a great deal by shifting our buying habits toward smaller, simpler, less expensive cars and simply taking more responsibility for ourselves behind the wheel in terms of driving safely, entertaining ourselves and finding where we need to go.

6 Comments on The Joys of a Paid-Off Car

Chrysler Super Bowl Ads:
Misadventures in Promotion

February 7, 2012 by Matt

Chrysler Super Bowl Superbowl Ad Advert 2012 Clint Eastwood Halftime

One of the larger “controversies” (if you can call it that) to emerge from our NFL-sanctioned Super Bowl entertainment spectacle this past Sunday evening was the hubbub generated by Chrysler’s latest TV spot.

Reprising the rah-rah pro-America theme from last year’s ad, Chrysler’s 2012 effort aired during halftime and features narration by Clint Eastwood. In his inimitable voice, he extolls Detroit’s “revival,” extrapolating that to the country at large and encouraging us to “pull together” to fully recover from the economic malaise of the past few years. Chrysler isn’t explicitly mentioned other than brief glimpses of their cars and trucks throughout the clip, and the ad seems to focus more on drumming up latent positive feelings of patriotism which the viewer may or may not then translate to the automaker’s cars in particular.

Most of the online hand-wringing over the ad centered on the impression that it was a sort of thinly-veiled campaign spot for President Obama’s reelection. Tenuous parallels were drawn between the “halftime in America” line and the fact that a reelection campaign is a kind of “halftime” of a two-term president’s tenure. Also, the ad’s pleas for Americans to “pull together” seem to echo some of the administration’s rhetoric as they chastise Congress for its (in their eyes) intractability.

Rich Lowry at NRO, on the other hand, takes primary aim not at the ad’s tone, or at perceived implications of certain phrases, but at the spot’s revisionist history:

[It] is a half-baked tale about the revival of the automotive industry wrapped in economic nationalism: Dirty Harry does chest-thumping corporatism. Eastwood says that Americans are hurting and that “the people of Detroit know a little something about this. They almost lost everything. But we all pulled together. Now, Motor City is fighting again.”

We all pulled together? As euphemism, this is clever; as history, it is false. Congress never approved the bailouts. Given the option to do so explicitly, it declined. The Bush and Obama administrations acted on their own, diverting TARP funds to Detroit regardless of the letter of the law. In Eastwood’s telling, a legally dubious act of executive highhandedness qualifies as patriotic collective action.

This is the correct line of criticism: Not directed toward vague implications of the ad, but at what it calls out explicitly. We can debate all day over what Chrysler may or may not have suggested, but when actual facts are presented, we have solid ground on which to build an argument.

In any case, in response to the flurry of conversation, Eastwood himself debunked speculation about his loyalties, and by extension, the actual meaning of several debated phrases in the ad:

l am certainly not politically affiliated with Mr. Obama. It was meant to be a message about just about job growth and the spirit of America. I think all politicians will agree with it. I thought the spirit was OK.

There you have it, from the horse’s mouth. If critics want something more substantial to seize upon, perhaps they should target last year’s Chrysler ad, which features rapper and Detroit native Eminem. The 2011 spot is a paean to Detroit’s resilience, much like this year’s ad, only it features an actual Chrysler product more prominently: the then-new 200 sedan. The spot is well-produced, to be sure, but I’d be hard-pressed to find a genuine car guy who wasn’t a little put off by the image of a gritty rapper cruising through downtown Detroit behind the wheel of a very un-thug-like vehicle, the kind of car more likely to turn up in a Kroger parking lot or be the mainstay of a rental fleet. For car buffs, that juxtaposition is more jarring than anything that graced the small screen this year.

Click on the jump below to watch this year’s and last year’s Chrysler Super Bowl ads:

Watch the clips!

3 Comments on Chrysler Super Bowl Ads:
Misadventures in Promotion

BMW’s Dabblings with Semi-Autonomous Cars

January 24, 2012 by Matt

BMW CDC ConnectedDrive Connect Self Driving Autonomous

This is a joke, right?

BMW wants to spearhead new automotive technology. Okay.

They want to be at the forefront of the eco-car trend. Fine.

But a self-driving car from the automaker synonymous with driver engagement? You’ve got to be kidding.

Alternate title for this post: Worst idea ever, or simply worst acronym ever? BMW’s ConnectedDrive Connect (CDC) system festoons an unsuspecting, innocent BMW with an array of sensors, cursing the vehicle with a kind of unwanted self-awareness as it navigates its own way through traffic, crosswalks and city centers.

Particularly in BMW’s case, given the erstwhile emphasis of their cars, but overall, I simply fail to see the purpose of the self-driving car. Is it to make us more safe? If so, it’s difficult to perceive how dangling a kind of electronic sword of Damocles between the driver and sudden, high-speed death would make him any safer. That’s asking us to place an awful lot of faith in our digital overlords, so to speak. Is it, as with the PDA or smartphone, to unburden us from one of our daily “chores” and so enable us to relax and/or be more productive? If that’s the goal, then again, you’re asking a lot of the occupant-of-the-car-formerly-known-as-the-driver to place complete and utter faith in the vehicle’s electronic helmsmen to point where he will be able to relax enough to, well, relax and/or focus on other tasks. I, for one, would be a white-knuckle basket case at Autobahn speeds.

Here’s an idea, BMW: How about spending the money otherwise allocated to the CDC program on dealership-based driver’s ed courses? It would save development resources on the cars themselves, make the eventual buyers better, safer drivers and teach them to appreciate the finer points of what makes driving a BMW such a sublime experience More people than you think actually crave the responsibility of driving a car, especially one of yours.

No Comments on BMW’s Dabblings with Semi-Autonomous Cars

The “Best-Handling Car Ever” Wears Donuts?

January 15, 2012 by Matt

Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG Donuts Spare Tires Tyres

In my July 15 post, I wrote:

I believe a “de-militarization” of the sports car arena is needed. Automakers need to take a deep breath and announce that the next iteration of a particular model will have *gulp* less power than the outgoing model. But in that same breath, they can hopefully also announce that its weight is lighter, it’s more efficient, and most significantly, that it’s more fun to drive. That lowering of the bandwidth would improve the cars we drive by bringing them back into focus for the average driver, and bring the driver up by encouraging and rewarding his involvement of in the act of driving. Win-win.

Chris Harris agrees, by way of an unusual experiment. Making the case that the absurdly narrow 255-section rear tires are completely inadequate to control the 480 hp emanating from the great whacking 6.2l V8 under the hood of the Mercedes C63 AMG coupe, rather than add more tire, he decides to go the other way and fit a set of 4 125-section space-saver spare tires (“donuts”) all around.

The results are entertaining, to say the least. He makes a great case for predictability as a handling attribute, noting that prodigious levels of tire grip can lull a driver into false sense of security—not to mention entice him to drive beyond his ability—until they abruptly let go at speeds where “things” could occur quite rapidly on the track, to say nothing of the street environment. Click on the jump below to watch the segment. It’s worth it.

Watch the clip!

2 Comments on The “Best-Handling Car Ever” Wears Donuts?

New Lincoln MKZ Concept: Staying the Course

January 11, 2012 by Matt

Lincoln MKZ Concept Red

In a recent editorial for Jalopnik, Matt Hardigree offers an insightful take on the new Lincoln MKZ concept, unveiled at this year’s Detroit Auto Show. Here’s the takeaway quote:

So long as Ford continues to build upscale, cheaper cars on the same platform, why buy an MKZ when you can spend less money and get an equally attractive 2013 Ford Fusion? What’s the compelling case for Lincoln?

There is none. Almost none of Lincoln’s arguments were about product. They were about image. The didn’t even commit to building this car because that would mean talking definitively about Lincoln’s future.

Late last September I wrote a post in which I brainstormed a few paths to Lincoln’s revival. Unfortunately, as the Jalopnik post points out and the MKZ concept itself gives evidence for, it seems the automaker has decided to double down on the style-over-substance-based, badge-engineered-Ford approach.

Lincoln MKZ Concept Red

It’s difficult to understand how parent company Ford could have any reasonable expectation that this strategy would lead to Lincoln’s success. All evidence points otherwise: The automaker has used the same product planning and marketing strategy for years, and has experienced a decline in sales to the point where the brand is barely afloat. In one magazine comparison test after another, the cars generated by this approach have been utterly trounced by the competition, building a negative brand perception in enthusiasts’ minds which eventually trickles out into the larger car-buying population. And just across the way, Cadillac, which had adhered to a remarkably similar image-based marketing game plan for years, has experienced a near-miraculous reinvention by focusing more attention on the dynamics and details of their cars than on creating some kind of illusory image in a would-be buyer’s mind about “the kind of man/woman who drives a Lincoln.” It would be charmingly archaic if it weren’t pitched with a straight face.

The evidence is all around that the “new” product development scheme has little chance of success. At this point, it’s difficult not to think Ford deliberately wants to kill Lincoln.

No Comments on New Lincoln MKZ Concept: Staying the Course

3 Cars to Look For at Detroit 2012

December 26, 2011 by Matt

Cadillac ATS Teaser Profile Concept Detroit

Opening in two weeks on January 9, the 2012 Detroit Auto Show promises to be one of the more exciting in recent years. Here are 3 concepts or new car introductions to look out for:

Cadillac ATS. Shown at top in a teaser photo, Cadillac’s long-awaited BMW 3 series fighter is set to be announced with nearly as much fanfare as the Corvette ZR1; that is to say, with “special feature sections” aplenty in every major automotive publication, loads of technical cutaways of the car and soul-searching interviews of every last engineer involved, all thrust forward in a kind of “look what we can do!” quasi-patriotic dog-and-pony show. Color me cynical, but I’d have a lot more respect for many of the products that emanate from GM if each new one wasn’t hailed as the Second Coming in its respective category. I understand they’re hawking their wares, but a little discretion would go a long way, especially for a car intended to compete with one of the all-time great “substance over style” dynasties. In any case, now that the admittedly-nice CTS has grown into a 5 series opponent, a niche previously occupied by the STS, the ATS arrives to fill the void further down in the lineup. As stomach-churning at the marketing machine can be, oftentimes there’s an actual good car underneath the hype, and I’m eager to see what Cadillac has cooked up.

Honda Acura NSX Concept Iron Man Avengers Purple

New Honda/Acura NSX Concept. Bandwagoning on the company profile-raising success of the Lexus LFA and Nissan GT-R, Honda will retract the veil ever so slightly on their plans for a resurrection of the much-missed NSX namplate. Teased in Iron Man 2 and the upcoming Avengers movie, Honda looks set to reveal a concept showing basic design and engineering direction, if not a production-ready vehicle. I think I speak for a lot of enthusiasts when I say after well-nigh 10 years of rumors and smoke signals, we’ll take anything.

Lexus Design Concept Red Detroit

Lexus Design Concept. Perhaps stung by dual criticisms of the astronomically high price of their excellent LFA and the lukewarm reception of their new “pinched mouth” styling theme, Lexus commissioned their studios in California to whip up a new design direction for their entry-level IS range. I’m optimistic about this for a couple of reasons: One of my all-time favorite Japanese designs, the first-generation Lexus SC coupe, was penned by Toyota’s California facility, and it’s a potential sign Toyota has recognized the oh-so-trendy “tortured fascia” look—sported by at least one car from seemingly every east Asian automaker, from Hyundai to Nissan—is a non-starter. Show us something classically gorgeous, Lexus.

2 Comments on 3 Cars to Look For at Detroit 2012