Saturday, January 21, 2012

Dark Days are Over - A Glass Half-Full Look at NAIAS 2012

By now dozens and dozens of reviews and lists on the good and the not so stellar have been published on this year’s North American International Autoshow. But while North America’s premier automotive event is receiving major buzz, underneath the bright lights and shiny metal, the publicity is part of a bigger dialogue – One that hasn’t been in the forefront for some time.

It’s quite obvious really: People are talking about Detroit again.

Four years ago, the cornerstone of American manufacturing was on the verge of complete collapse.  The Big 3 watched in horror as the perfect storm gathered – Fuel prices went up, as did the cost of raw materials, and banks froze credit in the wake of the economic crisis. Profitable sales of larger SUVs and pickups plummeted as consumers defaulted to more fuel efficient offerings from overseas competitors. While Ford managed to keep the Big B at bay by essentially re-mortgaging the company, General Motors and Chrysler were forced to take on billions in taxpayer money and undergo drastic consolidation to stay in business. 

But the present made up for past sins. A leaner Big 3 armed with a meaner, more CAFÉ friendly product line-up has slowly rebounded as a leader of America’s manufacturing and engineering prowess.  Sales are up as prospective buyers started returning to Big 3 showrooms and factoring in the domestics as genuine contenders in their purchasing decisions.  The once vilified Detroit automotive industry is once again brimming with confidence and optimism for the future.

Feast your eyes, then, on some of the must-see highlights of the North American International Autoshow.

Ford Fusion / Fusion Hybrid / Fusion Energi

To say Ford owned Cobo Hall with its 2013 Fusion trifecta would be an understatement. The latest version of the Blue Oval’s midsize sedan is a continuation of the ‘One Ford’ strategy, as the Fusion will be sold as the Mondeo in overseas markets.  It is truly a stunning vehicle to behold, enamouring onlookers with its stylish, yet timelessly handsome looks.  Chief Designer Chris Hamilton eschews the much derided Edge design language and builds upon the more modern principles of Ford’s kinetic design.  Paying homage to luxury marques like Aston Martin (Front Grille) and Audi (Front Lip), Ford seeks to democratize premium design by bringing the same aesthetic previously reserved for the affluent to the masses.

On the power front, Ford is following the vein of its competitors, ridding the V6 and substituting it with more efficient, MPG friendly 4 Cylinder powertrains.  Ford is also covering its bases and catering to every taste, offering a Hybrid model which will achieve 48mpg on the combined cycle, and a Plug-In Fusion Energi Hybrid that will go the distance at an astronomical 100MPGe sans gasoline.

With the new Fusion Ford has proven that affordable motoring doesn’t have to come at the expense of style. No need to hedge this bet – The new Fusion is the head of the class and a sure fire winner.

Acura NSX Concept

The NSX was originally scheduled for a revival in 2009 to do battle against Toyota’s LF-A Supercar.  While the car was actually built as the V8 powered HSV GT Concept, it remained forbidden fruit to the public. The global economic crisis ultimately forced Honda to prioritize on volume sales instead of funding halo projects, and production plans were scrapped.

But now the NSX is making a comeback - albeit a painful three years away from production - and it’s greener than ever. Honda ditches the thirsty V8 in exchange for a V6 powered hybrid setup with AWD as standard.  Expect terms like VTEC, Direction Injection and lightweight materials to pad Honda’s green credentials when the car rolls off the assembly line.

Speaking of assembly, the most significant announcement from the NSX revival is that the car will be engineered and built in Ohio.  A strong yen has rendered Japanese exports into a very expensive proposition.  Given that the vast majority of NSXs were sold in North America anyway, it makes sense for Honda to relocate the manufacturing to the NSX’s core market.

The various creases and shapes in the concept’s design are an amalgamation of various existing sports cars (458 Italia? Esprit? Gallardo? It’s all there). But all of that superfluous critical claptrap means very little to the large scheme of things - The People’s Supercar is making a comeback, and it’s here to stay. Long live the NSX.   

Dodge Dart

A quick look through Dodge’s compact car history reveals forlorn nameplates like the Aries, Shadow, Neon, and the recently certified Caliber. While they were responsible for fattening Dodge’s bottom line, none of them were particularly good cars.  Chrysler hopes to change its streak with the revival of the Dart name. Riding atop an Alfa Romeo Giulietta platform, the Dart is the first fruit of Chrysler’s merger with Fiat and Dodge’s answer to anchoring its foothold in the crucial compact sedan market.  It’s an attractive little car - The Charger cues scale well on the Dart, and the blacked out front grille on the R/T model lends a sporty touch a la the Golf GTI.

The interior however is where the Dart really shines. Gone are the fridge binnacle grade plastics and in its place are plush, soft dash materials. Fully digital gauges replace traditional instrument cluster, along with a big 8” touchscreen that operates Chrysler’s UConnect infotainment system. It’s an unprecedented feature on a small car, and made even more incredible as it is slated to go on sale at a smidge under $16,000.

Perhaps the best feature on the Dart? The fully customizable instrument cluster has the speedometer surrounded by virtual flower petals. The petals blossom as a reward for frugal driving, and fall off if the driver has a heavy right foot. 

Falcon F7

The F7 actually debuted at NAIAS last year as a concept, and this is the first chance the vast majority of the public will get acquainted with America’s ‘boutique supercar’ in production guise.  In a world where environmental responsibility has become the norm, the birth of any high powered supercar is enough cause for celebration. The F7 is here to prove that America is no slouch when it comes to supercardom, and on paper it looks every bit as promising as its Hot Wheels inspired looks.  Powered by a modified LS7 engine from Chevrolet that now churns out 620hp and a monstrous 585lb/ft of torque, the F7 will rocket on well north of 190mph. Weight is kept to a svelte 2,785 pounds thanks to liberal swathes of carbon fiber on the bodywork, giving the car a palatable 445 horsepower per ton.  That power to weight ratio is right on par with the best of the best – The Bugatti Veyron gets 446hp / ton, while the 458 Italia manages 378hp / ton.

Don’t think for a moment the F7 is some crackpot millionaire’s supercar fantasy fulfilled.  Falcon Motor Sports has had years of experience as a supplier for the Dodge Viper, and that turned out rather well. To that standard the F7 is on track to become every bit the road beast its spec sheet makes it out to be.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Peugeot Suspends LMP1 Programme for 2012

Peugeot has announced it is immediately suspending its LMP1 Program and will no longer compete in the 2012 24 Hours of LeMans.

The unfathomable news came on the final day when teams had to submit their applications to compete in the World Endurance Championship and the 24 Hours of LeMans.

In a public statement released early Wednesday, Peugeot cites a lagging economy as the reason for the decision. The company is refocusing its priorities on sales growth and a revamped product portfolio, which comes at the expense of its involvement in sports car racing.

‘The Brand has decided to close its 2012 endurance programme and will not be taking part in the next Le Mans 24 Hours,’ said the statement. ‘This decision has been taken in the context of a difficult economic environment in Europe. Peugeot has chosen to concentrate resources on its sales performance in 2012.’

Things had not been rosy for Peugeot and its parent company Peugeot-Citroen (PSA). Stagnant sales in a down European Economic climate forced the French automotive conglomerate to undergo drastic consolidation. As part of its €800 million cost-cutting plan in order to stay in business, Peugeot-Citroen was forced to lay off over 6000 employees. The cancellation is the latest round in PSA’s continuing efforts to eliminate as much extraneous expenditure as possible, and casts doubt over the long-term viability of its World Rally Championship programs. 

Peugeot’s absence in LMP1 means Audi Sport will soldier on as the dominant factory effort in the prototype class. The Audi / Peugeot rivalry has been the subject of much controversy over the years and a publicity dream for the ACO, spurring much renewed interest in endurance racing.  The titanic battle between the two giants became the subject of a dramatic documentary in 2008 titled ‘Truth in 24’.

The program’s cancellation also means some of its factory drivers are left unemployed with no seat for the looming 24 Hours of LeMans. Alex Wurz will be joining the new Toyota LMP1 factory team alongside Kazuki Nakajima and Nicolas Lapierre and will campaign at select races for the 2012 season, while Sebastien Bourdais and Simon Pagenaud both found salvation in full time rides in the IndyCar Series in North America. The fate of Peugeot's remaining drivers however remains up in the air. 

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

A Quick Note on Ford's Stance Regarding SOPA / PIPA

Last May, democratic senator Patrick Leahy introduced a bill to the senate titled ‘Preventing Real Online Threads to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act of 2011’ (PIPA for short). The goal is to broaden the power of government and owners of copyrighted content, giving them the authority to shut down websites that engage in activities constituting piracy and copyright infringement as defined in the bill.  

Many corporations wrote to congress in support of the proposed ‘rogue sites’ legislation, with Ford Motor Company listed among them. The letter of endorsement condemns piracy’s negative impact on the American economy and encourages legislation that will curb fraudulent activity and inhibit copyright infringement.

The United States cannot and should not tolerate this criminal activity. Not only are jobs and consumers at risk, but rogue sites contribute absolutely no value to the U.S. marketplace. The operators of rogue sites break laws, do not pay taxes, and skirt accountability.

A similar bill titled the ‘Stop Online Piracy Act’ (SOPA) has been introduced in October 2011, which builds upon PIPA and details on what is considered illicit activities of piracy and infringement of intellectual property, along with specifics on what can be prosecuted criminally. Due to the similar wording and ultimate intent of the two proposed bills, there was much confusion over who was in support of whom, leading some to believe that Ford Motor Company, who supports PIPA, is now also in favour of SOPA.

Not so, says Ford, who has publicly stated that they do not hold a formal position on SOPA via their official Twitter account.

When asked for clarification on Ford's stance regarding SOPA / PIPA on Google+, the company’s global head of Social Media Scott Monty replied with the following statement:

Ford has expressed the need to protect our intellectual property - there are hordes of counterfeiters out there who make Ford parts and goods that are not officially licensed. Plus, we have a pretty significant commitment to the technology field, with lots of efforts that result in proprietary information that, if it were compromised, would be counter-productive. This hurts our licensees and our customers and is not tolerable. While we want to ensure our IP is protected, we do not encourage legislation that fundamentally changes the Internet. 
We have expressed interest in working with Congress to find a balance that keeps the Internet open yet protects intellectual property.

Meanwhile, many websites including Wikipedia and Reddit will be shutting down service for 24 hours on January 18th to protest the proposed legislation, the day unofficially dubbed 'National Blackout Day'.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

#NAIAS: The Goodies

There are lots of priorities to choose from at an auto show. Some go for the star-sightings, while others make a beeline for the catering. Some go for the partying, and some (shock horror) even go for the chokeful of cars and trucks on display. But for those more tangibly minded, and as a way to appease our inner hoarder, the auto show is about one thing and one thing only – Swag.

It comes in all forms. Start off with a keychain, along with a lanyard or two. Then advance onto a tote bag, and perhaps some lavishly binded brochures - Not the generic full range ones of course (how pedestrian!). Always go model specific. And if you’re lucky enough to get a press pass and attend the unfettered media days before the big show opens to the public, you are awarded the most coveted swag of all – The Electronic USB Press Kit (EPK).

In a digital age where interactivity has become the norm, pulp and paper no longer suffice when it comes to press material. Lamborghini was one of the first manufacturers to realize the oncoming digital revolution. So when the Murcielago debuted in Geneva in 2001, Lamborghini included a CD along with its thickly laden press kit. Seared onto the disc were a plethora of glossy promo videos, hi-resolution press photos as well as technical specifications on the new model.

Since then CDs have made way for USB Drives. The information is pretty standard fare these days: Photos for the blog, Videos for those who want to see it go sideways, and some pdf copies of the facts and figures for the pedantically inclined.  

What becomes unique is the clever ways automakers have come up with on packaging the drives. Creativity counts when everyone is vying for attention. It comes full circle back to priorities again – A thoughtfully designed EPK might just win over the jaded, over-caffeinated journalist into prioritizing one presser over another.

With that in mind, here is a shortlist of the clever and thoughtful at work at this year’s North American International Auto Show:

Is it a latch? Or is it something else? Hyundai takes a Spooks approach for its Genesis Coupe / Veloster Turbo EPK with this stealthy USB Drive masquerading as a lanyard.

Buick went with a wooden approach to its USB Press Kit for its Encore SUV, fusing the electronic with a touch of organic flair.

While it doesn’t carry any credit, Chevrolet went with a credit card like USB EPK (just this once) maxed out  on information about its Code 130R and Tru 140S concepts aimed at the younglings. The packet also comes with some badges with the letters ‘R’ and ‘S’ on them, which is the bow tie’s designation for its high performance models. Suddenly the cars’ random alphanumeric names make perfect sense.

This year Ford let it be known that it is possible to make the foam in its car seats from recycled plastic bottles. Keeping in line with the recycling theme, the Blue Oval went with the same design for its Fusion press kit as last year’s show, which is *drumroll* a USB stick enclosed in the shape of a blue oval.

At first glance it seemed like Kia got a bundle deal on its USB Drives with Chevrolet. Closer inspection reveals a nifty colour display that serves as a portable digital gallery showcasing Kia’s latest vehicles for 2012. When it comes to card-shaped USB Drives, the Black Card, much like its unrelated but payable sibling, trumps them all.

The Dart was an important car for Dodge, and the press kit made sure to reflect that fact. The sumptuous dual pane box contains a Dart (Literally)-shaped USB Drive along with a swatch book showing off the myriad of customization options for new compact sedan. In terms of content and presentation, the Dart Press kit handily hits the Bulls-Eye.

One would be forgiven for mistaking this as a key fob to a Nissan, because that is exactly what Nissan’s press kit for the New Pathfinder was modeled after. Sadly pressing the 'unlock' button does not grant fabled access to a GT-R.  Or anything resembling a full sized Nissan.

Mopar’s USB kit was the darling of the automotive press, and wins on being one of the more elaborate giveaways at the show. The USB drive mimics the classic spark plug to a tee, neatly packaged into a little paint tin. As if that wasn’t enough, Mopar also included a screwdriver keychain for those impromptu tightening jobs.

Special mention goes to this Top Gear USA Branded Pen, which looks more like something from a high speed run at the Bonneville Salt Flats. The TG Contingent was on hand to promote its third season, set to premiere on February 14th on the History Channel.  The wheels roll, and the pen works. Just in time for filling in those dull credential request forms.

#NAIAS: GM Goes After the Youthful Shopper

During a weekly automotive roundtable last week it was revealed that General Motors will debut several cars at the North American International Auto Show. The blogosphere turning from impenetrable firewall to a colander in the face of imminent embargo lifts meant three of them were already known as the Cadillac ATS, the Buick Encore, and the Chevrolet Sonic RS. But a mysterious fourth vehicle piqued interest. There was nothing production ready in the works, leaving the conclusion of a possible clean sheet concept design.

Those suspicions were confirmed on Monday by not one, but two concepts from GM. Cryptically named Code 130R (Pictured Left) and Tru 140S, the Chevrolet-branded design exercises are GM's latest efforts in appealing to a more youthful demographic. Like every other competitor on the market, GM is trying desperately to turn the tide and capitalize on younger buyers at a time when sales are languishing and the median age for a buyer continues to rise. According to GM's own market research, the 20 something buyer is looking for a vehicle that sports an economical powertrain managing 40 miles to the gallon, high creature comforts in connectivity and convenience, and priced in the low $20k mark.

Reception on the two concepts has been mixed. Most applauded GM’s commitment to building cars that focus on small, thrifty fun but questioned their likeness to other vehicles - The Code 130R was compared to a BMW 1-Series and the Tru 140S, Chevrolet’s answer to a coupe version of the Cruze, bears a striking resemblance to the Mitsubishi Eclipse.  The harshest critics derided the styling as 'derivative and underwhelming'. One journalist even unleashed a diatribe on the 'diluted' concept cars of today, claiming they are no more than dressed up versions of their production-ready counterparts.

Adding insult to injury, albeit unintentionally, GM brought along the Chevrolet Miray Concept that evoked the fantastical imaginings of a Star Trek like future. The comparisons were inevitable -  In the Miray's presence, the two newer concepts looked downright archaic.

Then there are the names. Allegedly a product of focus group research, the cars’ names were said to resonate with auto enthusiasts. Yet even the most pedantically inclined will find themselves confused from the arbitrary string of alphanumeric characters. Where 'Miray' finds meaning in being the Korean word for 'The Future', '130R' and '140S' sound more at home on a tax return than on any concept vehicle.

GM is playing it safe and claiming the concepts are simply that – Concepts. The ultimate goal is to start a dialogue amongst the prospective Gen-Y shopper and help shape them into something appealing that GM can bring to market at an affordable price. The competition however waits for no one – The Scion FR-S and Subaru BRZ coupes are set to go on sale shortly, and Hyundai is reaffirming its foothold in frugal fun in the  Veloster Turbo. GM must keep up if it wants to stay relevant as a viable contender for young would-be buyers, and it remains to be seen whether the answer lies in the 130R and the 140S.