Some naysayers are already preparing their eulogies for the electric car. They say that have failed. They say that consumers don’t want them. They say the market’s not ready for them. Our view? To date, they’ve been a tough sell, but there’s some real progress being made. We’re not ready to start cuing Mozart’s Requiem just yet.
Consider if you will the new Fiat 500e, the Italian brand’s new entry into the electric car segment. It’s great to look at. It’s fun to drive. It’s quick. It’s well equipped with lots of features. And the whole package incorporates some very convincing and innovative motivators to consider one.
From our point of view, there are two major reasons why electric cars haven’t taken off yet. One is price. Electric cars cost far more than their gasoline powered counterparts. The other is range anxiety. Consumers are (rightly) concerned that electric cars won’t get them where they need to go and that they could be left stranded, with no backup in sight.
The 2013 New York International Auto Show was full of important reveals this year… renewed crossovers - Toyota Highlander, Acura MDX, an all new Range Rover Sport, the new BMW 335GT, freshened Dodge Durango, the all new Cadillac CTS and many more. The most important, however, were the Audi A3 and the Jeep Cherokee. Why? Both vehicles are very important to their brands and have the potential to generate substantial sales.
Audi Takes the Safe Route with A3: The 2015 Audi A3 really was not at the New York Auto Show. The A3 will be officially introduced at the Shanghai Auto Show in late April 2013, but there was a reveal for about 120 journalists the evening before the first press day. It will be launched in the USA in early 2014.
The smaller Audi A3 has anchored the Audi lineup with a five-door hatchback (“Sportback”) that never had much sales potential in the USA. American buyers continue to perceive liftback cars as cheaper, flimsier and less desirable. In Europe, the five-door is the preferred bodystyle primarily because European car-owners do not have the American-style family fleets where there is a vehicle for every purpose. For a one vehicle family, the hatchback can carry out a multitude of duties.
Recognizing that to really succeed in the USA market, the 2014 Audi A3 becomes a much more traditional three-box four-door sedan. This gives Audi an opportunity to really step up sales in the face of the upcoming front wheel drive Mercedes-Benz CLA and the already-on-the-market BMW 1-Series. Audi did not stray from its own winning formula. Audi DNA is present in the exterior styling and the interior with an A8-like sweep at the front of the instrument panel. Very nicely done, but not one obvious risk.
The A3 comes with four 4-cylinder engine choices – 170HP 1.8L turbo, 2.0L turbo (we’re guessing at about 230HP), 150HP 2.0L turbo diesel and high output 2.0L turbo (we’re guessing at about 275HP). The high output goes in the S3 model. The Sportback will return in the 2014 calendar year with e-tron plug-in hybrid technology.
The A3 will not be a Spartan A-Segment car. Audi is positioning it as a fully-featured Audi – just smaller. It will offer Audi’s MMI system, 4G LTE connectivity and even Audi’s Bang & Olufsen audio system.
One key takeaway from the A3 reveal is that the car is the same size as 1994 model year A4. A very successful car with solid sales results, the A4 was key in establishing Audi as a very desirable premium brand in the USA.
Something tells us that the A3 will not be an inexpensive car with its impressive standard equipment load (leather seating, bluetooth, rain sensing wipers and panoramic moon roof standard). With the slightly larger Mercedes CLA announced at a sub-$30,000 price we are wondering where the new A3 will be positioned?
Jeep Cherokee Returns While the Audi A3 is a low risk opportunity for volume growth, Jeep’s new Cherokee is at the polar opposite on the risk scale. Jeep describes the Cherokee’s styling as “polarizing” and it certainly is. Mike Manley, President of Jeep cautioned journalists in a December briefing before the Detroit Auto Show that “you might not understand” the vehicle. This was somewhat reminiscent of Wayne Cherry’s (head of GM styling in the late ’90s) statement that “you are too old to understand the (Pontiac) Aztek. In Manley’s defense, he describes the styling direction for the Cherokee as “something that will be fresh in 2019″. So Jeep has not taken this path lightly. It is a calculated step.
What is so polarizing about the Cherokee? First, it takes the name of one of the most successful SUVs ever produced. The 1980s Cherokee was the first high volume SUV to add a 4-door bodystyle to the lineup and soon proved that 4-doors, not 2-doors, were the way to go. The Cherokee had the seven vertical slot grill that is part of Jeep’s DNA, but it had rectangular headlamps that, while modern for the time, broke away from the traditional round headlamps Jeep used.
While the new Cherokee is relatively conventional from the A-Pillar rearward, its front end design is the most surprising and, yes, controversial. Instead of round headlamps, the Cherokee has horizontal units styled into the front fascia and fenders. Cherokee still has the seven vertical slots in the front fascia – part of Jeep DNA since the beginning – but they now are bent in the center giving the vehicle a more aerodynamic appearance. The story of the capability of the vehicle is being lost in the commentary about its front end styling.
Under the skin, the Cherokee uses the same Alfa/Fiat platform used by the new Dodge Dart. It has a 9-speed automatic transmission and three advanced 4×4 systems. The Trailhawk model is fully “Trail Rated”. Think of Trailhawk as the Cherokee Rubicon. Powered by a 184HP 2.4L Multi-Air TigerShark 4-cylinder engine, Jeep claims a cruising range of up to 490 miles and highway fuel economy of 31mpg. The optional 3.2L Pentastar V6 gets 271HP.
Cherokee has a full array of Chrysler’s latest features available from its UConnect information system with an 8.4-inch center screen and programmable instrument cluster, new steering wheel controls, parking assist systems, blind spot monitoring, cross path detection and adaptive cruise control with stop and go capability. These features are becoming the price of entry in mid-size vehicles and even some smaller entries.
When Bob Lutz was a Chrysler he once said (of the early 2000′s Peterbilt style Ram pickup), “I don’t care if people love it or hate it as long as 15% of them love it enough to buy it”. That may be the case with the new Cherokee. A Polarizing design will certainly get people talking and writers writing. So far, it seems that the negatives are outweighing the positives on the Cherokee. It won’t take long to tell if the vehicle is a sales success. It begins production in April 2013.
Almost There – IS350 F-Sport Nears 335i Performance Feel The all new 3rd Generation Lexus IS is a near luxury sport sedan to be launched during June 2013 as a 2014 model year entry (the 2013 IS C hardtop convertible based on the 2nd Gen IS continues for another year selling along side the 4-door sedan) . The major question is whether it is ready to take on the Germans in its class. To answer that question, Lexus served up three IS350 F-Sports, a BMW 335i and Mercedes C350 and a nice little track outside Austin, Texas – Driveway Austin Motorsports. You could drive each car for two laps per outing as many times as you wanted or time allowed. The conclusion is that the BMW retains the Ultimate Driving Machine crown, the IS350 F-Sport is very, very civilized and competitive, and the C350 approaches land barge category. The 335i is very sporty, very precise and tuned for performance. The IS achieves its competitive position only when you opt for the IS350 with the F-Sport package giving the car upgraded suspension and steering. The more mundane IS models – IS250 and IS350 – are softer and more tuned to the casual driver. But, the F-Sport is a gas to drive. Unfortunately, an Audi A4 was not available for the track exercise. It would have provided an interesting comparison.
So, with the excitement of the track experience out of the way, we were able to drive the IS on the great Texas Hill Country roads around the area.
The 3rd generation Mitsubishi Outlander will be introduced in mid-2013 as a 2014 model year product. The new Outlander is based on carryover architecture, but has all new sheetmetal giving it a much more mainstream look. Where its predecessor has a very distinctive front end theme – admittedly controversial because of its “shark nose” style – the new Outlander goes decidedly mainstream. This is an example of Mitsu taking a very conservative approach and attempting to sell a style that no one will find controversial.
Viewed from a lower angle, the lower grille opening reminds some of Lightning McQueen in Disney/Pixar’s Cars movies. The key distinguishing feature for the new exterior style other than the toned-down front six inches is the deep character line stretching from the front fender through the doors and ending at the rear quarter. There is a horizontal bright trim piece on the liftgate stretching between the taillamps that looks like a bit of an afterthought.
Overall, the new Outlander is not displeasing, it just doesn’t grab you with its styling. For a vehicle Mitsubishi hopes will be a strong seller, the Outlander blends in rather than stand out. One way to make a statement is through pricing and it appears that Mitsubishi will drop the base price of the Outlander while adding equipment providing a stronger value statement.
Award Winner Gets Major Changes After Only Three Years The 2012 Grand Cherokee has been arguably the best affordable “real” SUV on the market since the latest generation was launched for the 2011 model year. The Grand Cherokee was so good that its owners rated it higher enough against its competition to win AutoPacific’s Vehicle Satisfaction Award in 2011 and 2012 AND AutoPacific’s Ideal Vehicle Award in 2011 and 2012! This sweep in these tough-to-win owner awards is testament to the excellence of the Grand Cherokee.
Developed in Time of Hardship The 2011 Grand Cherokee was developed during the dark days of the reign of Cerberus Capital Management. Their ownership of Chrysler steered the firm to the bankruptcy courts and a bailout by the U.S. and Canadian government, UAW and CAW. Ultimately, Fiat took control of Chrysler and Jeep and the firm is now prospering. It is surprising that under the eyes of Cerberus, the 2011 Grand Cherokee turned out to be such a good vehicle.
Best Gets Better Like other Chrysler products (Chrysler 300, Chrysler 200, Dodge Charger, Ram 1500), Jeep’s product team has reinvigorated the vehicle but mostly under the skin. The front fascia is new. Taillamps are new. A couple of wheel designs are new. And the interiors are new and much more upscale. Grand Cherokee gets Chrysler’s latest iteration of its excellent and easy to use UConnect system. Gone is the 5-speed automatic transmission replaced by a silky smooth 8-speed unit. A 240HP 3.0L V6 diesel is available for the first time. So, the Grand Cherokee is a substantially upgraded version of the 2011 vehicle. And it works!
The last time I drove an “entry level” luxury car that shared bones with some of Ford’s European DNA was my 2002 Jaguar X-Type 2.5 Sport with a manual transmission. Haters can hate but I liked that car because it was more Ford than Jaguar. Before the X-Type I had a 2001 Focus ZX3 and before that I had a Mercury Cougar. The front-wheel drive one that was made in Michigan and exported to Europe. Before that I had a 1996 Contour Zetec 5MT. A 1999 SVT Contour was also in there somewhere. Regardless, I’ve always been jealous of what Ford has offered in Europe. I did what I could to get my hands on the closest thing to a European Ford, even if it wasn’t always the real deal.
OK, OK… the new 2013 Toyota Avalon will not be targeted at teenagers when it goes on sale in December, but the age of the more than 100,000 Avalon hand-raisers has been about 52 years down from 67 years of present Avalon owners. Toyota has a monicker for these people – “Trail Boomers”. Toyota plans to double Avalon sales to about 70,000 units per year.
No Longer a LARGE CAR – Now Avalon is a Premium Mid-Size Car The 4th generation car is slightly smaller with much more expressive styling. It goes a long way in changing the perception of the vehicle. Based on the Camry platform, the Avalon shares much under the skin with the Camry and Lexus ES350. The Avalon is the product of Toyota’s Calty Design Research in Newport Beach, CA and the huge and growing Toyota Technical Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It is, of course, assembled in Georgetown, KY.
The body and exterior are unique to the Avalon. The front of the car combines a strong T-Bar upper grille with center Toyota logo with a (2013) Fusion-esque lower grille giving the car kind of a gaping face. In the side view, Avalon is much more aerodynamic than its predecessors. The windshield is faster making ingress just a bit more difficult for the older edge of its traditional buyer base. The backlite is much faster too, resulting in a relatively short decklid. Toyota describes the feeling of the car to be “athletic, elegant, intelligent and powerful”.
The Avalon is a bit smaller than the 3rd generation car. That car was described as a Large Car. The new one is described as a Premium Mid-Size Car. Riding on a 111.0-inch wheelbase – the same as its predecessor – Avalon’s overall length is cut by 2.2-inches. It is one-inch lower and a half-inch narrower. The result is that most interior dimensions have been squeezed a bit. Front headroom is 1.3-inches less. Front shoulder room is 1.2-inches less. Front hip room is 0.7-inches less. Only front legroom is a bit longer by 0.8-inches. The formerly generous rear seat room has sacrificed the most: 1.7-inches less legroom, 1.5-inches less hip room, 1.2-inches less shoulder room. Only rear headroom is up slightly by 0.4-inches.
“I can’t underestimate how important the Fusion is to Ford,” — Mark Fields, Ford president of the Americas, to workers at Flat Rock, Michigan assembly plant.
The mid-size car segment is filled with able competitors and most are either new or recently updated. The oldest, Hyundai Sonata, is a 2011 model and each new model is being launched with a wider range of features than ever before. Honda Accord, Nissan Altima, Toyota Camry, Kia Optima, Volkswagen Passat, Chevrolet Malibu and next year’s Mazda6 represent the best collection of mid-size cars ever available in the United Sates.
What makes this competition interesting is the different approach that each manufacturer is taking. The Nissan Altima enters the race with a cost conscious four-cylinder engine with no turbo or direction injection. Despite this, the Altima has superior fuel economy and excellent power. Add in attractive styling cues from the Maxima, and you get a pretty compelling offering at a great price.
The Ford Fusion takes a different tack with six powertrains, including two hybrids. We got a chance to drive four of them in Santa Monica this week. Our impressions are positive, but we wonder a bit about the complexity of all these offerings.
2.5-liter inline four-cylinder with a 6-speed auto: This might be the best combination of price and attributes of the four we drove. While not as powerful as the EcoBoost options, it works well for a vehicle in a segment where dynamics are less important than price.
1.6-liter EcoBoost inline four-cylinder with a 6-speed manual: While Ford won’t sell a lot of manual transmission Fusions, this vehicle clearly has a European feel and would be our choice for fun. You clearly feel the small size of the 1.6, but pushing it hard and gliding through the gears with the smooth shifter makes this a fun ride.
2.0-liter EcoBoost inline four-cylinder with a 6-speed auto: More fun than the 2.5 liter four, but will buyers in this segment buy-in? Ours had the stand-alone start-stop feature, which worked better than other executions we’ve seen. It’s a good glimpse into the positive future of start-stop fuel saving technology.
2.0-liter Atkinson-cycle inline four-cylinder with an electric motor: As fun to drive as a hybrid! The hybrid version has received an EPA certified 47 miles per gallon for both city and highway driving, giving the vehicle the highest fuel-efficiency of any hybrid in its class. Toyota Motor Corp.’s Camry Hybrid LE gets 43 mpg in the city and 39 mpg on the highway, according to Toyota.
Building a hybrid can get you to about $38,000. A Titanium All Wheel Drive can get to you to $39,000. Start saving now.
Honda will add a plug-in hybrid version of the Accord for the 2014 model year with launch in the first quarter of 2013. As part of its Earth Dreams Technology initiative, the PHEV represents the toughest powertrain challenge for the Accord according to Plug-In Hybrid Large Project Leader Yasuyuki Sando. Later, a pure two-motor hybrid version will be added.
The all new 2013 Honda Accord is Honda’s most important vehicle EVER. That’s right, EVER! It comes after lackluster reviews of the latest cost-reduced mind-numbing Civic. It enters the mid-size car product segment where the oldest high volume competitor was launched as a 2011 model in early 2010 (Hyundai Sonata) and each new model is more impressive than the one that came before it… Toyota Camry, Kia Optima, Volkswagen Passat, Nissan Altima, the coming-soon Ford Fusion, Chevrolet Malibu and next year’s Mazda6. Each new mid-size entry is better, more finessed, more technologically capable and available with a wider range of features than ever before. The question is “Did Honda bring their ‘A Game’ to the 2013 Accord, or is it another misstep like the Civic?”
Bring their “A Game”? Wow, did they! This Accord is a take-no-prisoners attempt by Honda to reclaim leadership in the premium mid-size car class. With this car, Honda appears to have its MOJO back!