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Envision an Autonomous Car Chase Scene

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Source: George Peterson

Volkswagen XL Diesel Hybrids in Wolfsburg, Germany. Not Autonomous

I was watching “Live Free or Die Hard” recently.  As with most of the Bruce Willis “Die Hard” genre, there were exciting chase scenes where dozens of Crown Victorias get smashed up or full of bullet holes.  That is the name of the game for the “Die Hard” movies.  Chase scenes where the hero invariably gets injured but comes back to battle the bad guys after no recuperation time are the norm.  There were five “Die Hard” movies.  There were 8.5 “Fast and Furious” movies.  Epic chase scenes abound from “Bullitt”, “The French Connection”, Ronin, every James Bond movie, “The Blues Brothers” mall chase scene.  Chase scenes are too numerous to count, but what impact is the autonomous car going to have on screenwriters going forward?

Some films have dealt with that in the past. In 1990’s “Total Recall”, a frustrated Arnold Schwarzenegger rips the robot out of the Johnny Cab he was trying to use as a getaway car.   Speech recognition was not the same in 1990 as it is in 2017.  Siri could have handled Arnold.  “Demolition Man” uses a non-autonomous car to wreak havoc through the self-driving police fleet.  Agent Coulsen, the head guy in Marvel’s “Agents of Shield” franchise carries his 1962 Corvette roadster where ever he goes.  When there is an Electro-Magnetic Pulse that puts modern cars out of commission, the Corvette runs just fine.

Questions for Future Screen Writers – Smart Cars Impact on the Chase  If the mobility world changes the way the prognosticators are prognosticating, what will the films in the future look like?  Will they all be set in the past so Crown Vics can still duel it out with today’s Chargers?  Are they set in the “now” where old vehicles interact with new autonomous vehicles?  Are the bad guys hackers that can control not only their own autonomous car, but also control the surrounding traffic and the vehicle(s) chasing them?  Maybe the government outlaws a person driving a vehicle on public roads at all.  Driving becomes restricted to special tracks.  This will change the face of crime dramatically!

Smart Streets Impact on the Chase  Will the streets be so smart they could defeat the bad guys themselves?  Controlling stop lights and opening and closing lanes will probably be simple tasks for a smart street in the future.  Anti-traffic bollards could be raised from the streets to stop the chase.

Ethics of Vehicle Autonomy  Those are simple questions for the movies.  There are real world ethics questions over vehicle and traffic control.

Autonomous Vehicle MUST Follow the Law, or Must They?  If an autonomous car is programmed to exactly follow the speed limit, you can envision four abreast autonomous cars on a Los Angeles freeway traveling at exactly 55mph.  They may be driving at the speed limit, as per law.  But they are creating an extremely dangerous situation unless every vehicle is autonomous and following the same programming.  During the Jimmy Carter presidency, after implementation of the 55mph federal speed limit, drivers from Ann Arbor to Detroit drove the I-94 freeway two-or-three abreast at exactly 55mph.  This lasted a few days with motorists passing them on the shoulders and giving them the finger.  They were eventually cited by the Michigan State Police for impeding the flow of traffic.

Source: Los Angeles Times

OJ Simpson Slow Speed Chase – Los Angeles 1994

Autonomous vehicle ethics need to accommodate the reality of chaotic traffic flow, different vehicle capabilities, and, until everything is autonomous, different driving styles.

Remote Vehicle Control  Over the past twenty years in automotive research, AutoPacific has been asked by automakers and suppliers to research all sorts of autonomous car and autonomous-like features.  In Europe, a discussion of driver opinions of GPS systems with vehicle tracking capabilities results in,  “Sacre bleu!  I don’t want my boss to know where I am!  I don’t want my wife to know where I am!”  While drivers might not want vehicle tracking in their car or on their body, they may be too late in resisting.  After the Boston Marathon bombing, Mercedes-Benz USA located the Mercedes ML the bombers car-jacked.  So, today, vehicles with a navigation system can probably be tracked.  Most action thrillers on TV have the authorities or the bad guys locating folks on their smartphones. No problem.  It’s tough to hide anymore.

Another scenario is when the police are chasing the bad guys.  Think about OJ Simpson and his famous slow speed chase.  Today, if he had a fully up-to-date SUV, could the authorities put it into limp mode, and then into stop mode?

The certainty is that driving in the United States is going to dramatically evolve over the next ten years as technology, communications, regulations and consumer sentiment all converge on the idea of autonomous driving and its impact on our lives and culture.


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Honda Odyssey Leapfrogs Minivan Competition

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Has the new 2018 Honda Odyssey leapfrogged its competition the way Chrysler’s second generation minivans did in the early ’90s?  After spending several days with the Odyssey on the Big Island of Hawaii, the case can be made that the Odyssey is the best minivan out there.  Up until now, the clear leader was the new-for-2016 Chrysler Pacifica.  Its advanced styling, stow-‘n-go seating and available plug-in hybrid make Pacifica a persuasive choice in the minivan category.  Only the Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna are real competitors.  Other minivans like the Nissan Quest and Kia Sedona don’t have the volume to be mainstream players.  Ford and General Motors abandoned the minivan market years ago to concentrate on SUVs – a good move.

Odyssey a Cornerstone of Honda Brand  Honda has a relatively narrow and focused lineup for a mainstream brand.  The Honda Odyssey is one of its cornerstones.  The new 2018 Honda Odyssey is the fifth generation of the minivan.  The fourth gen Odyssey was with us for seven model years which is long for a Honda product.  Based on Honda’s Global Light Truck platform, the new Odyssey shares major components with the Honda Pilot crossover SUV and the Honda Ridgeline pickup.  From AutoPacific’s assessment, all three of Honda’s new truck products are fully competitive and compelling.  The new Odyssey checks most of the boxes to make it the best minivan available today.

Still a Soccer Mom Image  Lets talk about minivans a minute.  Minivans are the perfect vehicle for a family.  They carry kids, their friends and their stuff.  They are seen as suburban taxis driven by a mom schlepping her little darlings from LaCrosse practice to Little League to band practice.  When we note in focus groups of suburban mothers that they should be driving a minivan, most women strongly disagree.  When compared with the active image of even the tamest crossover SUV, the SUV wins and the minivan loses.  The soccer mom image of the minivan cannot be avoided.

2018 Honda Odyssey Elite

Evolutionary Design With Bold Cues  The new 2018 Honda Odyssey comes pretty close to avoiding the minivan image as does the Chrysler Pacifica and the “swagger-wagon” Toyota Sienna.  The styling of the new Odyssey is evolutionary but more  interesting than before. Odyssey continues with the chrome “lightning bolt” window surround that has been a distinctive design cue since the previous generation.  Now, however, the bodysides get a few more curves to add more personality to the design.  The front end design is a swath of brightwork similar to the Pilot and Ridgeline.  This look is being adopted throughout the Honda lineup and adds interest to the Honda “face”.

Magic Slide Seats Compete with Chrysler’s Stow-‘n-Go  The interior is very comfortable and accommodating for any size family.  Gone is any pretense of a walk-through from the front seats to the rear.  There is now a very usable console including excellent cupholders and a deep console box.  Honda has made interior flexibility one of its hallmarks.  The very small Fit and HR-V crossover SUV have interior flexibility that can accept many different sizes of cargo.  The Odyssey “Magic-Slide” second row seat counters the Chrysler Pacifica’s stow-‘n-go rear seating design.

In the Honda design the individual second row seats can be moved from side to side and fore and aft.  The center position is good for children in child seats which can be fixed toward the center of the vehicle – a good location in a side impact.  One of the rear seats can be positioned in the center and pushed forward so the driver and/or front seat passenger can tend to a baby in a child seat.

2018 Honda Odyssey Center Stack w/Apple CarPlay

Ergonomics Top Notch, But Nav Screen Display Needs Work  Ergonomics are always a Honda forte and the 2018 Honda Odyssey does not disappoint.  The instrument cluster gauges are bright and easy to read.  The center screen is large and bright with navigation by Garmin.  I found the information display on the screen to be hard to read because the fonts were so small.  While Garmin provided the guts, Honda designed the display graphics and could have made the font size bigger, contrast better and included the city name in addition to the road name on the display.  (Why is it so hard to get the city name on the display?  Everyone should do it!).  I ended up using Apple CarPlay maps and streaming in lieu of the Honda system.

Loaded Odysseys Want for Nothing  95% of the 2018 Honda Odysseys (EX and above) will have the full suite of Honda’s safety features standard including Honda Sensing and blind spot monitoring with cross traffic monitor.  The top level Elite model includes acoustic windshield and side glass that Honda contends makes the vehicle the quietest minivan on the market.  In fact, when you opt for the Odyssey Elite, there is very little missing from its equipment list.

Engine Upgraded – 10-Speed Transmission  The 2018 Honda Odyssey is powered by a 280-horsepower 3.5L single overhead cam V6.  The additional 32 horsepower over its predecessor gives the new Odyssey the power to pass at will.  On a long stretch uphill climb on the Daniel K. Inouye Highway on the Big Island, the engine strained a bit.  On anything but steep grades the power is adequate.  The Elite model includes a 10-speed automatic transmission – all others have 9-speeds.  The shifting is transparent in the 10-speed model.

~$30,000 – $47,000 – Is There Room for a +$50,000 Model?  The base price of the 2018 Honda Odyssey is $29,990 with a $940 delivery charge.  The Elite model is $46,670.  Honda pays particular attention to vehicle price points as do all manufacturers.  As a high volume, mainstream brand keeping prices affordable is paramount.  However, some automakers are wrestling with ways to charge even more for their top of the line products because buyers want more stuff.  The Odyssey Elite is $46,670 – $3,230 below $50,000.  Could there be a place for a $50,000 entry in the very price-conscious minivan market?  While Honda competitors are moving mid-size SUVs into the low $50,000 range could there be a place for an even higher spec Odyssey?  It would be interesting to do the analysis.


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Chevrolet Bolt EV Surprises – Range Anxiety Gone

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Image Source: George Peterson

When a Chevrolet manager refers to the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid, they inevitably hold up two fingers to guarantee you know they are referring to the Volt.  When they mention the Chevrolet Bolt EV electric vehicle, they always say “Bolt EV”.  “Bolt EV did well in focus groups,” one PR manager stated.  Having done thousands of focus groups over the years, I know how that can be done.

Well, enough of that.  The Chevrolet Bolt EV is the real deal.  It is an electric vehicle purpose-built around a five module battery pack that forms the floor of the car.  These batteries give a maximum range of 238 miles.  AutoPacific’s research on electric vehicles over the years has concluded that the holy grail for EV range is 225 miles to avoid range anxiety.  So Bolt EV achieves that range with a little to spare.

The designed-in-South Korea Bolt EV is a crossover SUV in Chevrolet’s mind.  I see it as more of a 5-door hatchback, but Chevrolet contends its higher seating position and relatively high roof deserve a crossover classification.  Besides, crossovers are selling like hotcakes these days and cars are not.  Bolt EV looks modern with forward sloping character lines that you could see on a crossover today.  OK, it’s a crossover.

The Bolt EV is spacious enough for four people.  Getting in and out is relatively easy but the front A-Pillars are so fast that you have to be careful to duck or else you will hit your head.  The instrument panel in the top model includes a reconfigurable instrument cluster and a 10.2 inch screen in the center stack that provides all the information concerning its electric operation and the usual connectivity features like Bluetooth.  Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are how you get navigation in the car.  There is no resident NAV.  The Bolt EV is available with the typical General Motors driver assistance features like adaptive cruise control, lane keeping assist, lane keeping warning, surround view camera, blind spot warning, etc.

The real surprise comes when driving the Bolt EV.  Its powerpack provides 200-horsepower and 266 lb-ft of torque.  This output is like a peppy 1.6L or 1.8L turbo 4-cylinder in a hot hatch small car.  Bolt EV does not have to apologize to anyone on the freeway.  The car can be operated in “one-foot mode” where regenerative braking is activated.  This would be my normal driving mode.  When you lift off the accelerator, the brakes engage to put electricity back into the batteries.  The deceleration can be controlled by a paddle behind the steering wheel.   Using regen, you rarely have to actually press on the brake pedal.

No new car is perfect and the Bolt EV is not.  Where it falls down is in the material selection in the interior.  Lots of hard, glossy plastic.  The lightweight front seats are very hard and the side bolsters are stiff.

The base price of the Bolt EV is $37,495 that results in a $29,995 price after the federal government tax credit (you have to earn about $75,000 to qualify for that tax credit).  If you load the Bolt EV up with all the options, it will top out at around $44,000.

Bolt is on sale now in California and Oregon and will roll out nationally over the year.


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Auto Industry is Ahead of Fuel Economy Technology

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The Midterm Evaluation of Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) Standards report issued in July 2016 by the Environmental Protection Agency(EPA), National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the California Air Resources Board (CARB) set the stage for comments on 2022-2025 CAFE standards.  The comment period ends on September 30, 2016 and some congressional leaders have asked for a further 60 day extension to receive comment.  Reading the details of the report is very enlightening and has largely been overlooked by the media.

Fuel Economy to Double from 2012 to 2025  In the rules established in 2012, fuel economy is to double by 2025 and green house gas emissions are to be cut in half.  This would save 12 billion barrels of oil over the lifetime of 2012-2025 model year cars and light trucks and save consumers billions of dollars in fuel costs.

Report Under-Estimates Truck Percentage of Light Vehicle Market  At the time the initial rules were set, the truck mix was assumed to be 33% of the light vehicle fleet.  Given today’s low gas prices and the popularity of crossover SUVs, the light truck mix is over 60% of the market today and is projected to grow to over two thirds of the market by 2020.  In the Midterm Evaluation the government agencies show the highest truck mix to be 52% with low fuel prices continuing.  If fuel prices return to peak levels seen during the last decade (not projected), the light truck mix is assumed to be 38%.  Given the reality of the market, both of these estimates are conservative and very low.

Automakers Ahead of Schedule in Meeting Future CAFE Requirements  To date, the Midterm Evaluation concludes “auto manufacturers have over-complied with the program”.  This is a surprising statement from agencies that often accuse the industry with foot dragging in fuel efficiency and safety technologies.  They note that “fuel economy technologies are entering the market at rapid rates” and that the costs of adding these technologies have not been as high as estimated back in 2012.

Consumers Have Accepted Enhanced Powertrains  The report also notes that consumer acceptance of advanced fuel efficiency technology has largely been positive.  Ford’s EcoBoost turbocharged powertrain technologies have been well accepted (and strongly advertised).  Stop/Start technology is becoming more accepted according to AutoPacific’s consumer research.  Stop/Start shuts the engine off when stopped and then restarts the engine immediately when the accelerator is applied.  Some Stop/Start systems are seamless.  Others are rough on start-up. As the systems improve acceptance will improve.

Enhanced Gasoline Powertrains Can Meet 2025 CAFE Standards  To meet 2025 CAFE requirements, the agencies identify several technologies that will play an important part.  Most are enhancements to gasoline powertrains.  Tops on the list are transmissions with 8-speeds or more (70%) .  General Motors and Ford are working together to develop multi-speed transmissions.  More engines will be turbocharged (54%).  Stop/Start will become more commonplace (38%).  The most interesting fact is the report assumes less than 2% of the vehicle fleet will be full electric vehicles and less than 1% will be a plug-in hybrid.  Mild hybrids are estimated to be 14% and full hybrids will be 14% to meet 2025 CAFE.  There is only passing mention of fuel cell vehicles.

Substantial Cost Increases to Meet Future CAFE Standards  Improving fuel economy is not free.  Back in 2012, cost increases of over $3,000 per vehicle were estimated to meet 2025 standards. The cost is now estimated by the agencies to be around $1,250 (over a 2021MY vehicle).  Nowhere in the report does it mention how much the cost to get from 2012 to 2021 is.  The report estimates that meeting the 2022 to 2025 standards will increase lifetime vehicle costs by $87 billion.  This is estimated to be offset by fuel savings of $120 billion and other benefits of $55 billion.  The net benefit is estimated to be $88 billion.  Like many government reports, the arithmetic is vague and the conclusions are shaky.

AutoPacific’s bi-monthly Fuel Price Impact Study shows that consumers are not particularly willing to spend more for a vehicle that is more environmentally friendly.  Consumers also say that their present vehicle is clean enough and the focus should be on cleaning up other sources of pollution.  The Midterm Evaluation does not mention that there has been any research conducted to determine consumers’ willingness to pay substantially more for higher fuel economy vehicles.

Plug-In Electric Vehicles Not Needed to Meet Federal CAFE  Perhaps the most interesting conclusion in the report is that plug-in electric vehicles are not needed to meet the Federal 2025 CAFE standards.  This is not welcome news to Tesla’s Elon Musk or Nissan’s Carlos Ghosn.  The primary reason electric vehicles (EVs) and plug-in hybrid vehicles (PHEVs) will impact the overall vehicle fleet are to satisfy California’s mandate for zero emission vehicles (ZEVs) in the fleet.  California’s regulations also are shared with northeastern states.

Even Tougher Standards in the Future?  The report is very complimentary of the auto industry’s progress in adopting enhanced technologies to meet future fuel economy requirements.  While some might hope that this would lead to a reduction in future standards, it might result in even tougher fuel economy goals.


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Super Duty – Ford’s Super Capable 2017 Pickups

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Ford’s F-Series Super Duty pickups are all new for the 2017 model year.  The Super Duty line includes the F-250, F-350, F-450 and F-550 heavy duty pickups.

All-New For Real  The term all new here is an actual fact because the last time the Super Duty was all new was over a decade ago.  The high volume F-150 light duty full size pickup was all new and all aluminum for 2016.  The Super Duty follows a year later, but Ford says the product update cadence should be shorter for both the F-150 and the Super Duties in the future.

2017 Ford F-250 Super Duty King Ranch

Image by: George Peterson

Borrows from F-150, Then Goes on Steroids  For this iteration the Super Duty pickups share the aluminum cabs of the F-150 – regular cab, Super Cab and Crew Cab.  Each of these cabs is longer than that on the old Super Duty.  Then everything changes.  The front end styling is very different, tougher and stronger looking than the pretty darn strong looking F-150.  The pickup box is upgraded to handle the more severe workload of a vehicle designed for construction crews and trailer towing.  The fully-boxed frame has been substantially upgraded with the center section frame rails 1.5 inches taller than previously.

Venerable Twin-I-Beam Suspension Retained and Upgraded  The Twin-I-Beam front suspension has been upgraded and remains a very important Super Duty unique selling proposition.  According to Doug Scott, head of Ford truck marketing, there was a lot of discussion about retaining the venerable, but very strong Twin-I-Beam front suspension.  There was one contingent within Ford that wanted a more contemporary front suspension similar to Chevrolet Silverado.   But buyers of the Super Duty rely on the over-designed Twin-I-Beam for durability in extreme abuse situations.  Super-computer simulations of the suspension design have eliminated the quirkiness of the previous set-up that tended to wander a bit on the open road.

Unique Interior  Although the Super Duty shares the F-150’s cabs, the interior in the Super Duty is unique to the line.  The “Active Motion” seats are designed for heavier duty application and long seat time.  They are comfortable for hours on the road.  The instrument panel is unique and much more industrial looking than in the F-150.  There is a wide center console that can accommodate files or a laptop computer.  The console top is an armrest in normal driving or a desk when necessary.

Feature Laden  The list of available advanced features is an arm long.  Most would be expected in an up-market car, but in a heavy duty pickup they are extraordinary.  Super Duty gets Sync 3 available with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.  There is a 360-degree camera set-up that is extremely useful when parking or off-roading.  Activating the camera allows you to see the obstacles near the vehicle and avoid them.  The Super Duty can have as many as SEVEN cameras.  Lane departure warning, blind spot information and adaptive cruise control systems are available.  Adaptive steering is available that adjusts the steering ratio based on driver input.

Powerful Power Stroke Diesel is the Volume Engine Choice  The available powertrains include the second generation Power Stroke diesel that will be the high volume engine.  The 6.7L V8 diesel has 440-horsepower and 920 lb. ft. of torque.  That’s right – 920 lb. ft.  The diesel is mated to a 6-speed automatic transmission.  The diesel pulls, and pulls, and pulls.  There is a 6.2L V8 gas engine with 385-horsepower and 430 lb. ft. of torque.  On chassis-cab models Ford’s 6.8L V10 is available.

Driving the Super Duty  The Super Duty is a delight to drive for such a big truck.  The 4×4 King Ranch F-250 Crew Cab (~$78,000) was easy to drive and easy to maneuver if you have a lot of space.  The unloaded ride was good depending on road surface.  Because of the stiff 4×4 suspension the ride over choppy roads was a bit uncomfortable.  The power of the 6.7L Power Stroke diesel was very impressive.


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“Trucks” to Continue to Outsell Cars – XSUV Segment

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500 wide Car Truck Sales 1987-2021500 wide Car Truck Mix 1987-2021AutoPacific, an automotive specialist research and product planning consultancy, forecasts that trucks, including XSUVs will be about 60% of the market for the foreseeable future.  In fact, reading the crystal ball for the next five years, this percentage of the mix may be low.  The charts above detail how cars and truck sales and market penetration have evolved since 1987 and the forecast for the future.

The hottest product segment in the American light vehicle market is the crossover SUV (XSUV).  A crossover SUV can be as large as a Chevrolet Traverse or as small as a Chevrolet Trax.  There are dozens of XSUVs in between.  And there will be more.

The XSUV segment has become so hot because this type of vehicle corrects the criticisms buyers had of traditional SUVs which sold very well, but were not optimal.  Buyers wanted products that were not hard-core off-roaders, but more civilized and city friendly.  The SUV market exploded in the early 1990s with the introduction of the Ford Explorer and Jeep Grand Cherokee.  It wasn’t until 1996 that the crossover SUV began slipping into the marketplace.  First the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V appeared.  They were followed by the luxury crossover RX300.  Clearly the manufacturers were listening and reacting.

Here are just a few of the things we know about the evolution of the SUV market over the next five years…

Cadillac  Cadillac states that it has too few XSUVs (one, the upcoming XT5) and wants to add two or three more to its lineup while adding one more car as a range topper between now and 2020.

Buick  Buick is adding the small Envision XSUV to its lineup this Spring.  Envision is assembled in China.

FCA Drops Cars to Add XSUV and Pickup Capacity  Fiat Chrysler Automobiles is dropping its Chrysler 200 and Dodge Dart in favor of more capacity for XSUVs and pickups.  The Ram pickup will take over the FCA Sterling Heights, Michigan Plant when the Chrysler 200 is dropped.  FCA’s huge Belvidere, Ilinois plant will be populated by XSUVs when the Jeep Compass and Patriot plus the Dodge Dart fade away.

Toyota Pushing RAV4  Toyota Motor Sales has stated that they would not be surprised if the RAV4 XSUV overtook the Camry mid-size car as its best selling product.  Camry was the best selling car in the USA in 2015.

Lexus will add a 3-row XSUV above the RX350 in the next few years.500 wide SUV XSUV Sales 1987-2021500 wide SUV XSUV Mix of SUV 1987-2021

 

The charts above show the impact of crossover SUVs on the light truck market.  Huge volume increase and market share increase.

Hyundai Aggressively Adding XSUV Capacity  Hyundai is replacing 50,000 units of car capacity in its Montgomery, Alabama assembly plant with the Santa Fe Sport.  That drops capacity for the Hyundai Sonata and Elantra from 400,000 to 350,000 units per year.  Hyundai admits that they underestimated the demand for XSUVs years ago.  This capacity move reacts to market demand and dealer pressure to get Hyundai dealers more XSUVs that are easier to sell and require less incentives and discounting.

Hyundai will add 45,000 units to its Tucson compact XSUV volume this year.  Built in South Korea, Tucson has been limited because it is popular around the world and the vehicle was capacity constrained.

Hyundai also recognizes there is a hole at the bottom of their XSUV lineup and are adding a sub-compact B-Segment XSUV to fill that hole.  There is a possibility that a smaller A-Segment XSUV will replace the Hyundai Accent hatchback.


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Expressive 2016 Lexus RX350 on the Way

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Lexus RX350 SnoutsLexus Spindle Grille Gets Even Bigger  You might have noticed that Lexus products are getting a bit more expressive as the brand tries to broaden its customer base.  A bit more expressive may be an understatement for the new RX350.  The now-trademark Lexus spindle grille goes to new lengths in the 2016 Lexus RX350.  The gaping snout is so large that it impinges on the approach angle of the crossover SUV.  It is gigantic!  This is the fourth generation RX350.  If you can remember back to 1998, the RX350 was the first premium brand crossover SUV.  It started a trend that almost every premium brand has since copied – car-based, unit body, good ride, maneuverable, fuel efficient, quiet, good performance.

The predecessor to the 2016 Lexus RX350 was clearly a derivative of the Toyota Camry/Lexus ES350.  In fact the instrument panel was so plain it looked like it was right out of a Camry.  The styling was essentially characterless, but it remained the top selling Lexus.Bouncy Castle Pentagon Princess buy

2016_Lexus_RX_350_SVNew RX350 Designed to Broaden Appeal  Lexus’ top engineer described the new RX as being derived from the Toyota Highlander, but contends it is dramatically different.  Compared with its predecessor, the new Lexus is about 5-inches longer with a 2-inch longer wheelbase.  The character of the vehicle has been moved up a notch and the 2016 Lexus RX350 looks like it will easily remain the top selling Lexus nameplate.  In addition to the grille, the exterior styling approaches “wild”.  It has a “floating roof” where a black glass panel crosses the D-Pillar to give the impression that the roof hovers above the rear quarters.  There are character lines swooping from the front fenders, the rear quarters, the rocker panels.  Busy, busy, busy.

All of this new “interest” is designed to broaden the appeal of the RX.  Previously, the RX was primarily a woman’s car.  It was a car that took kids to school and to soccer practice and was seen parked in front of the beauty salon.  But the new RX is designed to also appeal to younger males while not turning off the traditional RX buyer.  Brian Bolain, the Lexus Corporate Manager of Marketing, says that research conducted by Toyota Motor Sales confirms that they have met the objectives: 1) keep traditional buyers, 2) attract more males, 3) attract younger buyers, 4) and with the F-Sport attract buyers wanting a more sporty look that is different from the base vehicle.

2016 Lexus RX350 IPIts instrument panel looks like it is out of a Lexus GS350 rather than a Camry.  The ingress/egress is easy.  Visibility is pretty good.  The seats are comfortable.  The interior trim is upgraded compared with its predecessor.  All in all, the 2016 Lexus RX350 comes across as completely new crossover SUV with more distinction inside and out that should appeal to a wider range of buyers.

Power Upgraded  The base vehicle is powered by a 295-horsepower 3.5L V6 engine that operates on either Otto cycle or Atkinson cycle depending on engine loads.  The V6 is mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission.  The hybrid RX450h has 259-horsepower V6 that when combined with the hybrid motors yields a total 308-horsepower.  The sporty F-Sport package is available on both the RX350 and RX450h. The F-Sport has upgraded interior trip, sports seats, unique grille and exterior ornamentation.  The F-Sport chassis is upgraded and an optional adjustable suspension is available.

Mark Levinson Clari-Fi Premium Audio  As usual, Lexus has teamed with Harman Automotive’s Mark Levinson sound system team for a very high quality premium audio system.  Using Mark Levinson’s Clari-Fi technology, the system analyzes and improves the audio quality of all types of compressed, digital sources like SiriusXM radio or MP3 tracks.  The idea is to fill in the up-to-90% of the original audio content lost through compression.  The system works very well delivering clear, full music, but what would you expect from an 835 watt, 15 speaker/12 location, 10-channel system.

Dynamics – Seamless  Driving the 2016 Lexus RX350 is seamless.  The ride is smooth, handling flat.  Performance is adequate.  It is very quiet in the cabin except when some road surfaces excite the Michelin Ever Grip Technology tires.  Ergonomics are good.  Circling back around to performance.  The F-Sport package is a trim and chassis option only.  There is no performance upgrade with F-Sport.  To really appeal to the younger, more enthusiastic male buyer it would be appropriate for the F-Sport to have power output above the 308-horsepower hybrid.  A 10% power bump from 295 to 325-horsepower would be nice.

The one bitch several members of the media voiced was that a navigation system should be standard on any vehicle base priced over $30,000.  Optional on the 2016 Lexus RX350.

Base price for the 2016 Lexus RX350 will be below $45,000.  The vehicle is still assembled in Cambridge, Ontario.  It will be in dealerships beginning in November 2015.


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Cadillac CTS-V – Brilliant Brute

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2016 Cadillac CTS-V SVThe new 2016 Cadillac CTS-V is a gentle brute of a car.  Loaded with every available option and priced nearer $100,000 than I would like (jealous, you see), the CTS-V can do about everything well.  Lumping through the quiet village of Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, children did not cower, mothers did not scream and pull their tykes closer, dogs did not howl.  Pleasant drive, even showing 22mpg on the readout.

The 6.2L supercharged V8 has all boxes checked.  Cylinder de-activation.  Gasoline direct injection.  Electronics up the wazoo.  Mated to an 8-speed automatic transmission that is one of the crispest shifting on the planed, the powertrain is smooth and potent.  640-horsepower with 630 lb ft of torque.  There is an electronic limited slip differential that guarantees the power gets to the rear wheels (no all wheel drive available).

Now, I normally do not test drive cars on a track when they require wearing a helmet.  Head’s too big, big helmets hard to get into car.  Cannot hear wll with helmet on.  Cannot see well with helmet on.  Headrest interferes.  But the CTS-V is the exception. And another opportunity to drive Road America’s outstanding road course cannot be denied.

Man, you can do anything with this car.  Blow an apex and it does not matter.  Just point it where you want it.  Lead car wants you to give chase?  125mph in a snap.  Braking signs coming up, theh huge Brembos (with calipers in matching colors) bring the speed down effortlessly.  Wow!  What a fun car to drive!

There are those among us who will say the Dodge Hellcats are more worthy.  After all they have 707-horsepower.  They are certainly selling above expectations with FCA cancelling outstanding 2015 orders and doubling production of 2016 models (better profits from a higher price anyone?).  I submit, however, the CTS-V is more of a piece.  More solid.  More capable.  More trustworthy.  And better screwed together.

Just do not check the Recaro seat option box.  Go for everything else.  On dealer lots in mid-August 2015.


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Manual Transmission RIP – Let ’em Die

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We keep watching the hand wringing of automotive enthusiasts (of which we are a member) about the manual transmission fading from the American vehicle fleet.  In fact, in 2010 our friends at Car and Driver created a Facebook page entitled “Save the Manuals” moaning about the “paucity” of manual transmissions offered in new vehicles.  The latest issue of Car and Driver continues to advertise the site.  At a recent new model introduction, a wizened old auto journalist railed on about how the car maker was killing the manual transmission.  They were not offering one on the higher priced models of the car.  Well, as experienced as he may be, he is out of touch.

Over the years, we have been proponents of automatics especially since they have become so efficient.  Based on AutoPacific research we have the data.  Here are the tidbits from the latest year’s survey (the data have changed only slightly year over year):Manual Transmission Shifter

81% of New Vehicle Acquirers Can Drive a Vehicle With a Manual Transmission  Frankly, we thought this number would be much smaller.  For the sake of their ego maybe these respondents claim they can drive a manual when they actually cannot or do so very poorly.  About 89% of men and 68% of women claim they can drive a vehicle with a manual transmission.  By age group, 52% of respondents in their 20s and 71% of those in their 30s say they can drive a vehicle with a manual transmission.  Over 40 years of age, over 85% say they can drive a manual.  We are surprised that so many in their 20s and 30s claim they can drive a manual.

94% Want an Automatic in Their Next Vehicle  81% of the respondents say they want an automatic transmission in their next vehicle.  About 14% say they want an automatic with paddle shifters.  Only 5% want a manual transmission.Automatic Transmission Shifter

Highest Preference for Manual Transmissions are in Sports and Compact Cars  About 20% of sporty car (Camaro/Mustang) owners want a manual in their next vehicle.  About 13% of sports car owners (Porsche 911, Corvette) want a manual transmission.  About 11% of compact car owners want a manual transmission.  The sports and sporty car owners want a manual because they perceive the manual gives them a more sporty driving experience and better control over the car.  Compact car owners perceive that a manual will give them better fuel economy and also a lower price.  We might have thought pickup truck owners would want a manual transmission but this is not the case.  Only 5% of pickup owners want a manual transmission in their next vehicle.

Manuals to Fade Away  In many press events AutoPacific attends, members of the automotive press continue to argue for more manual transmissions to be added to newly introduced vehicles.  This is contrary to what the people who actually buy cars want.  While there will be some bitching and moaning from the media, automakers should save their resources and concentrate on making outstanding automatics and dropping manuals in the future.Paddle Shifter

Sidenote on Paddle Shifters  Manufacturers have been adding paddle shifters to automatics to give a sportier ambiance.  In AutoPacific research over the years, we have found that drivers might use this feature for the first couple of weeks they have their vehicle.  Then they never use paddle shifters again.  While implementing paddle shifters is now an inexpensive proposition, it still might not be worth the trip.


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Mercedes Sprinter Updated for 2015MY – Additions to Mercedes Van Lineup

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The Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van was the first European-style full size van sold in the United States.  Ford has added the European-style Transit van to its huge plant in Kansas City, Missouri.  Ram is importing ProMaster vans from Europe.  Nissan manufactures its NV vans in Canton, Mississippi and it is somewhere between a traditional American van and a European van.  Only General Motors is left with a traditional American van with the Chevrolet Express and GMC Savana.  In the overall scheme of things, Ford is the top dog by a wide margin and Mercedes is in fourth or fifth place depending on the month.2015 Sprinter 4x4 VehicleVoice

Mercedes Sprinter Update for 2015  For 2015, the Mercedes Sprinter is getting a minor update including new front end appearance with more distinctive headlamps and grille.   Optional safety features now commonly found in cars are available: blind spot assist, lane keeping assist, collision prevention assist and highbeam assist.  On the Sprinter 2500 model, Crosswind Assist is standard.  Because big vans present a large flat surface to the wind, they are susceptible to being knocked around in crosswinds.  The Crosswind Assist system alleviates Crosswind threats at speeds over 50mph.

Of significance, the Mercedes Sprinter receives a 4×4 model for 2015.  The base 4×4 system is prices at $6,500 with an additional $300 for low range capability.  The 4×4 will likely be popular in the Snow Belt and Mercedes predicts between 6% and 9% of its mix will be 4×4.  Sounds a bit low.

Diesel Engines  The base engine in about 50% of Sprinters is a 161HP 2.1L 4-cylinder diesel with 266 lb-ft of torque.  The 4-cylinder diesel is mated to a 7-speed automatic transmission.  The optional 188HP 3.0L V6 diesel has 325 lb-ft of torque.

Re-Assembly Strategy for US Cargo Vans  Mercedes Sprinter cargo vans are “re”-assembled at a small plant in the suburbs of Charleston, South Carolina.  The former Western Star/American LaFrance plant is now the sole source for Sprinter cargo vans in the USA.  Only about one third of the plant is used at present with plenty of room for expansion.

Now with 3 Roof Heights

Now with 3 Roof Heights

Chicken Tax Avoidance Strategy  Because of the 25% “chicken tax” (tariff) in place since 1967, truck manufacturers have used various schemes to avoid the crushing price penalty.  At one point, Toyota added pickup boxes to its small pickup at the port in Long Beach, California.  Ultimately, the major Japanese truck manufacturers added assembly capacity for their trucks in the USA.   Toyota manufactured Tacoma pickups at NUMMI (a joint venture with General Motors) in Fremont, California and now manufactures Tundra and Tacoma pickups at a plant in San Antonio, Texas.  Nissan has a huge truck plant in Smyrna, Tennessee and another in Canton, Mississippi.  Even Honda has truck capacity for its Ridgeline in Ohio.

Mercedes avoids the chicken tax by re-assembling Sprinter vans in the USA.  They are first completely manufactured in a plant in Dusseldorf, Germany.  They are disassembled so that the powertrain is separate from the body.  The bodies are loaded into containers (one or two per container depending on configuration) and shipped to Charleston.  The powertrain components are shipped separately in lots of eighteen.  Unloaded at the plant in Charleston, the body moves through thirteen six-minute stations.  The Charleston plant can re-assemble between 60 and 75 Sprinter cargo vans per day.  In 2013, the plant produced over 14,000 units.  The top customers for these vehicles are FedEx (who insisted Mercedes add the vehicles for the American market) and Winnebago.

Saving the 25% chicken tax results in a 12% to 13% increase in the cost of the Sprinter in the USA, but the savings are still 12% to 13% lower than if the tariff had been paid.

Future Mercedes Vans in the USA  Mercedes is adding more vans to its lineup in the future.  The European mid-size Vito van (with the “Metris” name in the USA and Canada) will be added in Fall, 2015 in passenger and cargo versions.  Another passenger van – the V-Class – was introduced in Munich in January 2014 and on sale in Europe from Spring 2014.  Think of the V-Class as a van equivalent to the Mercedes S-Class sedan.  Also in the offing for the USA is the smaller Mercedes Citan van introduced in Europe in 2012.  Given the capacity available at the Mercedes van plant outside Charleston, it would not be surprising to see the Metris cargo vans assembled there similar to the Sprinter cargo vans.

 


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