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2015 Ford Transit – Conquerer of the White Van Market

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Once upon a time, I was the design engineer for the advanced vehicle package of the Ford Nantucket program.  Nantucket was the code name of what would become the 1975 Ford Econoline full size van that was to continue in production with moderate updates through 2014 – about 39 years!.  So, it was particularly meaningful to me to accept an invitation by Ford to attend the press preview for the Econoline’s (now “E-Series”) replacement in Kansas City, Missouri – the Ford Transit.2015 Ford Transit Group Shot

Hugely Complex Program –  Lots of Choice  Ford’s One Ford strategy dictates that vehicles be as common as possible around the world.  While the E-Series has been the top selling large van in the USA for years, it was basically a North America only product.  The European Transit van was completely different.  Also, the American E-Series never had the breadth of product choices that the European Transit had.  Now that has changed with the American-made Transit about as complex as the European model.2015 Ford Transit Wagon F34

America has been introduced to the European white van offerings with the European Mercedes-Benz/Freightliner Sprinter van and the Ram Promaster (from Fiat).  So the 2015 Ford Transit may not take the American eye by surprise, but its complexity is near mind blowing.  The 2015 Ford Transit is available in two wheelbases, three roof heights in both cargo van and passenger wagon configurations.  There is even a chassis cab and cutaway available.  What this means is that you can have an empty box, or a high-roof wagon that can seat up to 15 people.  Ford affectionately calls this one the “Jumbo”.2015 Ford Transit Jumbo SV

(General Motors has the Chevrolet Express and GMC Savana vans that are sorely in need of updating.  At present, The General has no vehicles in the USA facing these Euro-style competitors).

Initially, Transit is available with a sliding door on the passenger side of the vehicle.  Later the van version will be available with a sliding door on the driver’s side as well.  Because the second row seat would have to be narrowed to be two passengers only, the passenger version – the Transit wagon – is only available with a passenger side slider.

Maneuverable  The Transit is very easy to drive with outstanding forward visibility through what has to be about the largest windshield in the industry.  Europe-like turning radius makes the Transit very maneuverable in tight spaces.  A tight slow-speed gymkhana course in a Kansas City parking lot helped demonstrate how nimble even the Jumbo was through narrow cone alleys.2015 Ford Transit Cockpit

Wide Powertrain Selection  Power comes from a 275HP/260 lb-ft of torque 3.7L V6, a 310HP/400 lb-ft of torque 3.5L EcoBoost V6, or a 185HP/350 lb-ft of torque 3.2L I5 Power Stroke diesel.  Of the three engines, the EcoBoost V6 has the most punch and is the most fun to drive – as if that is a major attribute a van buyer is looking for.  All engines are mated to a 6-speed automatic transmission.  The powertrains in the 2015 Ford Transit get much better fuel economy than the outgoing E-Series; a substantial operating cost savings commercial van operators are looking for.

Can Transit Be Rattle Free?  We have all ridden in vans and shuttles that are consummate rattle traps.  Of course, they probably have a couple hundred thousand miles on them and have been abused for their entire time in service.  And, of course, the vans Ford provided for the press preview had been thoroughly prepped.  The remarkable thing about these vans was how quiet and rattle-free they were.  They were very tight and solid feeling.  It will be interesting to experience one when it hits 100,000 miles.

Navigation Screen Snafu  Okay, I can understand Ford’s rationale that few commercial fleet operators would spring for an in-vehicle navigation system when most of their drivers are equipped with GPS enabled smart phones with Google Maps, but the Transit solution to navigation is Sync with MyFord Touch and a relatively small screen.  Other Ford vehicles have an 8-inch screen and the Transit loses out in comparison.  I know, its a nit-pick, but worthy of mention.

E-Series Continues in Chassis Cab Versions  Probably until the end of the decade, the old Econoline/E-Series will still be available in chassis cab configurations likely for airport shuttle use.  They are built at Ford’s Loraine, Ohio plant.


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2015 Lincoln MKC – 2nd Volume Entry for Lincoln

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The 2015 Lincoln MKC hit Lincoln dealerships in June 2014 and promises to be the 2nd volume entry for Ford’s premium brand after the award-winning Lincoln MKZ.  Lincoln is the top brand in AutoPacific’s 2014 Vehicle Satisfaction Award research and the MKZ and MKZ Hybrid are the winners of their product categories.  The MKC (getting confused with the alphanumeric nomenclature yet?) is joining a booming market for smaller crossover SUVs and, based on our brief drive of the vehicle, the MKC should do very well in AutoPacific’s 2015 Vehicle Satisfaction Award research.2015 Lincoln MKC F342015 Lincoln MKC R34

Excellent Package  The MKC is a “small” crossover SUV, but it does not feel small from the driver’s seat.  The front seating package is spacious.  Visibility forward is excellent.  Ergonomics are good.  Transmission shifting is through push buttons on the left hand side of the center stack.  The MyLincoln Touch system is more intuitive (but reading the channel numbers for SiriusXM is almost impossible because of tiny font sizes) and stable.  Losing the shifter in the center console is an excellent idea for many reasons.  It allows for more storage in the console and also allows the console to be narrower giving the front seat passengers more seat width.  The MKC is a persuasive package that will appeal to buyers across all age ranges.2015 Lincoln MKC Cockpit

Neat Features Abound on MKC  For those buyers who want the latest technology, MKC offers a lot.  Of course, there is MyLincoln Touch that sets the stage in the center stack.  There is Approach Detection where the vehicle reacts to the key fob approaching the vehicle at night and the headlamp accents, taillamp accents, door handle pockets and interior all light up.  There is even a Lincoln logo projected onto the pavement from the outside rear view mirror puddle lights.  Then there is Drive Control that includes continuously adjusting shock absorbers to provide a comfortable ride under all conditions.  Electric Power Steering and Active Noise Control are standard features that complement the Drive Control System.  Active Park Assist not only can park the MKC, but includes Park Out Assist to help the driver maneuver the vehicle out of a tight parking space.  As with many newly introduced vehicles there is a suite of electronic driver assist technologies:  lane-keeping system, driver alert system (checks driver alertness), adaptive cruise control, collision warning system with brake support, blind spot information system, and cross traffic alert.  These features may sound like overkill, but once you have used them, they become a necessity rather than a luxury.

Highly Differentiated from Escape – All EcoBoost Engines   The MKC is derived from the Ford Escape but shares no body panels or interior trim bits.  Without looking under the skin, the relationship is invisible.  The 2015 Lincoln MKC comes standard with a 240HP 2.0L EcoBoost 4-cylinder engine.  Optional is a 2.3L EcoBoost 4-cylinder with 285-horsepower (with 93 octane gasoline – in California the top spec gas octane is 91 octane so the output for the 2.3L would be about 280HP).  The base vehicle is front wheel drive with all wheel drive available as an option.

Outstanding Dynamics  Starting in Santa Barbara and driving across the Los Padres National Forest to the Tejon Ranch , the MKC proves to be nimble and athletic on the twisty roads more suited to a sports car than a X-SUV.  With the 2.3L EcoBoost and AWD, the MKC is quick and solid over all road surfaces.

Price and Competition  The base price of the MKC is $33,995, but the versions Lincoln provided for the drive evaluation were all in the $50,000 range equipped with the full suite of electronic features and the big engine.  The size and price of the MKC puts it in the competitive set with the Cadillac SRX, Acura RDX, Audi Q5, BMW X1, Infiniti QX50 (i.e. EX), Range Rover Evoque, Volvo XC60.  As if that isn’t enough competition, there is more to come:  Lexus NX, Mercedes-Benz GLA, Audi Q3, Porsche Macan.  Clearly, buyers will have a tremendous challenge sorting out which of these smaller XSUVs to select.

Now for the Nit-Picks  Ford (Lincoln) can be depended on to make mistakes in feature availability.  For a company that touts “democratization of technology” (meaning the neat electronic features found on the top of the line will be available in a Focus, for instance) the base MKC cannot be had with an in-vehicle navigation system.  Since MyLincoln Touch is standard and each vehicle has a center stack screen, and the navigation system is via an SD card, navigation should be available on all models.

Brand Challenge  The only thing standing in the way of the MKC being a whopping success may the Lincoln brand.  While AutoPacific’s research shows Lincoln is doing a great job satisfying its customers, the brand has languished and is only now starting to re-assert itself.  The MKC is an outstanding addition to the Lincoln portfolio.  Now the challenge is to get buyers into the dealerships to drive and buy the MKC.  It will be interesting to watch how Lincoln markets the vehicle in the coming months and to monitor its sales performance.


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2015 VW Golf – 7th Gen Comes to USA

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The iconic VW Golf is renewed with the seventh generation car coming to the USA beginning in June, 2014.  Having been launched in Europe in 2013, the American market has had to wait a year before getting hands on this newest generation of the car.  The Golf is very evolutionary in styling both interior and exterior.  At-a-glance, it is clearly a Golf but with a bit more attitude.  Its 5-door hatchback bodystyle has basically the same proportions as before.  Clean styling with Germanic conservatism.  The interior of the car is very straightforward with good ergonomics.  Visibility is excellent.2015 VW Golf GTI F34

Hatchback Hampers Golf Potential  The Golf hatchback is positioned higher than the 4-door sedan Jetta that is the best seller in the USA.  Americans remain pre-disposed to sedan bodystyles over 5-door hatchbacks.  Why?  Most American families are managing “fleets” of cars where each vehicle may have a specific purpose and/or a specific driver.  A hatchback is a very useful bodystyle and can serve many functions within the family fleet.  It is almost a micro-SUV.  There are also perceptions at work here.  Americans have historically perceived the hatchback bodystyle to be less safe than a sedan because there is no trunk to absorb an impact in a crash.  They perceive hatchbacks to be less secure because items in the rear area may be exposed and if a person gets into the car they have easy access to the load area.  The hatchback has historically been the lowest priced car in a brand’s line-up.  Of course, when you mention these characteristics are the same as in an SUV, the perceptions are totally different.2015 VW Golf GTI HB

Golf Launches Over a Year  The wide Golf line-up is launching in this sequence:  June 2014 – Golf GTI, August 2014 – Golf and Golf TDI, November 2014 – e-Golf (EV), first quarter 2015 – Golf R and Sportwagen.  The missing model in the first year’s lineup is the GTD – the high performance diesel version (180HP/280 lb-ft torque) of the GTI.  Volkswagen of America had hoped to get the GTD early, but because of product changes required to sell it in the USA its launch will be in 2017.

Driving the Golf  The lead car for the seventh generation Golf is the enthusiast-targeted GTI.  Powered by a 210HP 2.0L DOHC turbocharged 4-cylinder, the GTI provides spirited performance with either its 6-speed manual transmission or the 6-speed DSG automatic.  Where the GTI fails, however, is on rough roads where its suspension set-up really beats you up.  A Performance Package for the GTI gives the engine 10 more horsepower but the torque remains at 258 lb-ft.   The high volume Golf is the TSI that comes with a 1.8L DOHC turbo 4-cylinder with 170HP and 200 lb-ft of torque.  The TSI is a pleasant car to drive and its milder suspension tuning makes the TSI more forgiving over rough roads than the sportier GTI. The TSI comes with a 6-speed Aisin automatic transmission rather than the sport-oriented DSG available in the GTI and the TDI models. Over a day of driving the members of the Golf lineup, the Golf TDI SEL with the DSG automatic transmission was the most satisfying.  The diesel (2.0L 4-cylinder turbo diesel with 150HP and 236 lb-ft of torque) has plenty of torque for any driving situation we were in.  The engine is quiet inside the vehicle and the transmission shifts smoothly.  The chassis set-up is just right even though the TDI does not have an independent rear suspension.

Competitive Fuel Economy  The fuel economy for the base TSI is 24mpg City/37mpg Highway/30mpg combined.  That level of efficiency is competitive but not best in class by any means.  The GTI gets 24/34/27.  The fuel economy champ, as expected, is the TDI with 31/42/35.

Prices Range from High Teens to Over $30K  The lowest price Golf will come from a limited edition “Launch Model” in August priced at $17,995 for the 3-door hatchback with 6-speed manual transmission.  It comes pretty well equipped with the 1.8L turbo 4-cylinder, air conditioning, front and rear disc brakes, rear window washer/wiper, power mirrors, tilt/telescoping steering column, power windows, Bluetooth and a standard 5.8″ screen with radio/CD/SiriusXM.  This model has 15-inch steel wheels.  For another $1,000 you get the S model with leather wrapped multi-function steering wheel, alloy wheels, leather-ette upholstery, cruise control and Volkswagen connected services.  $1,100 more gets you an automatic transmission and another $600 gets the 5-door hatchback.  So, the lowest priced 5-door is $20,695.  If you are partial to the diesel TDI and want to check all the boxes the SEL version is $29,095.  There is a lighting package complete with HID headlamps and LED daytime running lights for $995 and a $695 Driver Assistance Package that includes front and rear park distance control and a forward collision warning system.

What Were They Thinking – 5.8″ Screen  The auto industry is in the midst of center stack screen wars.  Volkswagen chose to lose this one.  While the car has a 5.8″ screen as standard with the radio and Bluetooth, etc., it does not get a bigger screen when a navigation system is installed.  It has the same 5.8″ screen.  This is especially strange because VW’s Euro-spec Golf has an 8-inch navigation screen.  Weird.  2015 VW Golf GTI Cockpit

e-Golf Coming   An electric version of the Golf – the e-Golf – will be launched in November.  The first fully-electric Volkswagen, the e-Golf is powered by a 115HP electric motor and has a range between 70 and 90 miles depending on conditions.  The e-Golf will be covered in another VehicleVoice post later.


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2015 Audi A3 – Pocket-Sized Luxury

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2015 Audi A3 Sedans Ready to GoAudi A8 in a Smaller Platform  For a car that is slightly smaller than the Honda Civic sedan and the Ford Focus sedan, the designed-for-America (and China) 2015 Audi A3 sedan comes across as a premium piece.  The A3 previously was a slow selling hatchback.  Now adding the three-box notchback with a trunk bodystyle Audi can substantially broaden its appeal in the USA.  For decades, American buyers have perceived hatchbacks to have less safety (less rear crash protection – a perception) and less security (from bad guys seeing into the cargo area and stealing what is there).  The sedan clears those negative perceptions and gives Audi a strong platform to build the bottom end of its brand.


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GM’s 2015MY Full Size SUVs

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GM’s 2015MY Full Size SUVs  General Motors has launched its new-for-2015MY full size SUVs.  While you might wonder why they care about launching these behemoths when the segment has fallen at the hands of expensive gasoline, these are mighty profit generators for the General even at relatively low volumes.  Last year, GM launched the pickups upon which these SUVs are based – the Chevrolet Silverado and the GMC Sierra.  When they were launched these pickups were criticized because their styling was so evolutionary from their GMT900 predecessors.  But, it turns out that GM planners and engineers really know their stuff and the pickups have won kudos for their capability.  The Silverado was named the North American Truck of the Year.


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Reflections from the Detroit and Chicago Auto Shows

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Has the 2014 Auto Show Season been a bust so far? Well, with the exception of the all new Ford F-150, there has not been much to justify all the fabricated hoopla at either the North American International Auto Show in Detroit or the Chicago Auto Show. You can almost count the significant new news on one hand. In order of importance to the United States market and their manufacturers here are the most significant: Ford F-150, Chrysler 200, Honda Fit, Hyundai Genesis, Mercedes C-Class in Detroit and the Subaru Legacy in Chicago. OK, that is six significant entries. Others that might have made the list are the GMC Canyon mid-size pickup and the Lexus RC-F coupe. The Detroit Show ended up focusing on performance models or concepts like the production-ready Subaru WRX STI, Toyota FT-1 super car, Chevrolet Corvette ZO6 variant, BMW M3 sedan and M4 coupe, Cadillac ATS coupe. The only other vehicles of note at the Chicago Show were the 2015 Lincoln Navigator with new front and rear styling and the Mercedes GLA compact crossover SUV.


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2014 Mitsubishi Mirage – 3rd World Appliance

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We at AutoPacific have just completed a week’s worth of driving the Thailand-built Mitsubishi Mirage. Now we know what drivers in a third world country experience when they drive locally assembled cars. And we don’t like it much.
2014 Mitsu Mirage SV


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Volvo Growth Strategy – New Management, New Strategy, New Drive-E Powertrains, New Vehicles

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Volvo Growth Strategy: Tony Nicolosi, new President and CEO of Volvo Cars of North America says 90% of the senior management of VCNA is new since he took over in October 2013. Volvo’s marketing strategy is also going to change with the arrival in January of Bodil Eriksson as executive vice president of marketing and new advertising agency Grey London starting in March. Nicolosi says Volvo will return to its roots emphasizing safety, the environment and the family. The marketing budget for 2014 is bigger by about 50% but its emphasis will shift away from television to digital messaging.

Prior to becoming head of VCNA, Nicolosi was head of Volvo Finance in the USA, so he is very familiar with the leasing game. About 42% of Volvos are leased, well short of the leasing penetration of Audi, BMW or Mercedes. Going forward, Volvo’s lease penetration should increase with more concentration on more car for the payment and regular replacement. This will give Volvo dealers the first shot at putting off-lease customers into a new Volvo.


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2014 Toyota Highlander – Meeting Competition

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2014 Toyota Highlander F782014 Toyota Highlander R78Don’t Call it a “Crossover”  Like Ford and other makers, Toyota has largely abandoned the distinction between “traditional” and “crossover” sport utility vehicles.  “It was confusing our customers,” said Bill Fay, Group Vice President of the Toyota Brand.  Now, Toyota refers to both under the “mid-size sport utility vehicle umbrella”.  This might seem to be a small thing, but for decades (at least since 1997 when unibody “crossovers” began appearing) automakers have been making this distinction.  The customers largely did not know or care about the difference, they just bought the emerging crossovers in droves.

Toyota’s Two-Tier Mid-Size SUV Strategy  With the introduction of the 2014 Toyota Highlander, Toyota continues with a two tier mid-size SUV strategy.  The unibody 8-pasenger Highlander goes into its third generation with the 2014 model year entry in production since early December, 2013.  The body-on-frame 4Runner appeals to the traditional SUV buyer needing more off-road capability and towing ability.  Fay says, “these are totally different buyers and the 4Runner and Highlander are seldom cross-shopped with each other.

For 2014, the Highlander gets more aggressive styling, a more upscale interior and a price bump of about $1,500.  A lot of that price increase is offset by the Highlander having more standard equipment.

2014 Toyota Highlander F-Seat2014 Toyota Highlander CockpitInterior Moves Upscale  Toyota’s designers and engineers clearly devoted a lot of attention to the instrument panel.  It is a neat piece of automotive sculpture with the most up to date technology.  The base vehicle comes with a 6.1-inch touch screen.  When you get to the XLE and Limited models an 8-inch touchscreen is fitted.

A “why didn’t I think of that?” design feature is a shelf running beneath the center stack and below the glove box.  This padded shelf is the perfect place to set your smartphone while driving.  There is a slot in the shelf that allows a cord to be connected to the USB port to power the phone and connect it to the Toyota Entune app system.

The seat trim is typical Toyota.  In leather versions

The feature availability on the Highlander is impressive.  Features like adaptive cruise control, cross traffic warning, dynamic grid lines in the rear camera are just a few examples of Highlander (and many other middle- and low-market vehicles) offering features once found only on luxury entries.

Comprehensive Model Offerings  There are three basic powertrain offerings for the Highlander.  The price-leader LE (about $29,200) 185-horsepower 2.7L  DOHC 4-cyinder is perfectly adequate for around town driving in the Sun Belt.  If you do not need all wheel drive and don’t need to tow, the 4-cylinder would suffice, but you probably won’t find one at your Toyota store.  It will be 5% to 10% of the available Highlanders.

The bread-and-butter Highlander is powered by a 3.5L DOHC V6 making 270-horsepower.  This is the engine that about 90% of Highlanders will get.  It works sell in front wheel drive (with a good amount of torque steer under full throttle) and is required with all wheel drive (about of 60% of Highlanders will be AWD).  The 3.5L DOHC V6 is available on the base LE model for an additional $1,305.  Add all wheel drive to the V6 version and you increase the price by another $1,460.

The middle of the lineup includes the LE Plus for $32,740 for the front wheel drive version.  The front drive XLE model goes for $36,040 and the Limited goes for $39,640.

Hybrid Tops the Lineup  At the top of the line is the Highlander Hybrid making 280-horsepower with its Atkinson cycle 3.5L DOHC V6.  The Hybrid is available in the Limited trim level and is priced at $47,300.  Driving the Hybrid on the hilly roads around Carmel, California we saw about 30mpg – in line with its rated fuel economy.  The throttle effort on the Hybrid was high making it difficult to accelerate with traffic without really getting into it.  Maybe that is because Toyota wants you to drive the Hybrid like you have an egg between your foot and the accelerator pedal.

Evolutionary Improvements Meet Competition  All-in-all, the 3rd gen Highlander is an evolutionary, but substantial, improvement over its predecessor.  Toyota describes the Highlander as “Beyond Hero” in the SUV segment meaning it overachieves when compared to competition.  They also describe its development as “without compromise”.  It does not meet those lofty phrases, and although there are no WOW factors (with the exception of an absolutely gargantuan front seat center console), it will be a steady seller filling an important slot in Toyota’s lineup.  Toyota expects to sell about 140,000 units a year in the USA from its Princeton, Indiana assembly plant while sending another 10,000 to 15,000 overseas to another 20 countries.


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Honda Accord Hybrid – 50mpg City – A Halloween Treat

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The new 2014 Honda Accord Hybrid joins the mid-size sedan hybrid wars with a two-motor hybrid that achieves 50mpg in the city (50 city/45 highway/47 combined).  As one of the top selling cars in the USA, the Accord Hybrid has the potential to unseat the present leader Toyota Camry Hybrid (followed by the Ford Fusion Hybrid and Hyundai Sonata Hybrid in sales so far in 2013). Accord’s bragging rights are for city fuel economy – highest in the mid-size class at 50mpg.  Fusion gets 47mpg in the city (and highway).  The best-selling is down on mpg compared with Fusion and Accord – Camry gets 43mpg in the city and 39 on the highway.

2014 Accord Hybrid F34


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