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New York Auto Show – A3 and Cherokee Most Important

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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.


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2013 Toyota Avalon Shifts to Youngsters

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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.


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2013 Ford C-Max Trounces Prius V

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2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid

During a brief drive from Hollywood to Malibu and back through the Hollywood Hills to Sunset Boulevard, the 2013 Ford C-Max showed what a small hybrid-powered people mover could be.  Ford, of course, touted the clear advantages of the C-Max over its designated competitor the Prius V.  C-Max has 50 more horsepower.  C-Max has 7-miles per gallon better fuel economy through its third generation hybrid powertrain.  And, C-Max is priced $1,300 lower than the Prius V.  While earlier Ford hybrids had used a similar hybrid system as Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive, Ford was clear to state that the C-Max lithium-ion batteries are an in-house development as is the all new CVT (continuously variable transmission).


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2012 Scion tC Most Satisfying Sporty Car

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Best in Class 2012 Sporty Car:  Scion tC

2012 Scion tC Wins AutoPacific Vehicle Satisfaction Award

Owners of the 2012 Scion tC give the car top ratings in thirteen of forty-eight characteristics included in AutoPacific’s Vehicle Satisfaction Award research.  The tC has won the VSA in five of the past six years, an incredibly impressive result. Scion tC gets top marks in Exterior Size, Seating Capacity, Rear Seat Comfort, Cargo Space, Ease of Loading Cargo, Brand of Audio System, Tire Brand/Size/Appearance, Wheel Size/Style, Feeling Safe While Driving, Safety Features, Safety Ratings, Overall Quality, Price and Recyclability.  With a possible high score of 5.0 rating points, a rating of 4.6 or higher can be considered very good.  Scion tC owners give the car a rating of 4.6 or higher in:  Overall Satisfaction, Exterior Size, Brand’s Reputation, Exterior Color, Exterior Styling, Fun to Drive, and Safety Ratings.


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2013 Nissan Altima Mid-Size Game Changer

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Going on sale in July 2012,  the new Nissan Altima joins the most competitive car class in the market.  Representing the second largest car segment (after small cars), the mid-size car class is critically important to each manufacturer in the class; volume, profits and image are on the line.

It is hard to believe that the AutoPacific 2010 President’s Award Winner, the 2011 Hyundai Sonata, is about to be the oldest major competitor in the class.  The 2013 Nissan Altima joins the new Toyota Camry (new for the 2012MY) and Chevrolet Malibu (2013 Eco model is on the market now) and awaits the launches of the upcoming 2013 heavyweights – Honda Accord and Ford Fusion in Fall 2012.

First seen at the 2012 New York International Auto Show in April, the Altima drew “WOWs” from the media at its unveiling.  The management of some competitors gulped and looked a bit nervous.  Most were very complimentary; the new Altima has gone upscale in a big way without adding much to its price tag.

Traditionally, the mid-size car class has been noted for its relatively bland styling.  That changed with the launch of the 2011 Sonata in early 2010 where over half of the buyers indicated that exterior styling was extremely important in their selection of the car.  Sonata’s swoopy styling broke the mid-size car mold.  The 2011 Kia Optima that followed the Sonata is strikingly handsome in its own Euro-Korean way.  Toyota stayed very conservative with its new 2012 entry and Honda is rumored to have continued its very conservative streak with the next generation Accord coming this fall.  The 2013 Ford Fusion is another game changer in the mold of Sonata and Optima, but even with Fusion’s advanced styling, Altima may have pushed the envelope the farthest.  Nissan calls it “Altimaness”. 


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Toyota Prius c: PC Car for the Masses

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Conspicuous conservation is for the rich. Or at least that’s what the data show. In general, AutoPacific research shows that buyers of hybrids make more money than buyers of comparable vehicles. Not surprising, since hybrids are more expensive than single engine vehicles and generally do not reap the economic rewards of their fuel efficiency before they have been traded in.

But now that there are more than 2.5 million Prius’ on the road worldwide (1.1 million in the US), economies of scale might help make having a PC ride possible for the masses. In fact, by the end of the decade, the Prius family of vehicles may be the leading nameplate for Toyota sales in the US. At least that’s what’s Toyota is betting on with the Prius c.


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AutoPacific’s 2011 Plug-In Car Supertest

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Without question, one of the most buzzworthy topics surrounding automobiles this year has been plug-in cars.  Issues like fuel price instability, dependence on foreign oil (or oil of any sort!), and the environment have stirred the imaginations of many people.  Could we really rid ourselves of oil-powered transportation?  Could America really free itself of its addiction?  At the very end of last year, the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf went on sale (retailing at $41,000 and $32,780, respectively, minus a $7,500 Federal tax credit), finally bringing plug-in transportation to the masses and, plug-in fans hope, heralding a new era in automotive history.


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2012 Toyota Camry: Automotive Version of iPhone 3G to 3GS

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A few weeks ago I ventured to the middle of no where in Washington to feast on all of the new Camry variants for the 2012 model year.  Did Toyota churn up a revolution or an evolution?  With the Camry tattered and torn during the past few years I was excited to see what Toyota had done to turn the page on the next chapter for the Camry.


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Analysis: Ford & Toyota’s New “Hybrid Synergy”

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If you think back, GM developed the 2 Mode Hybrid system in collaboration with BMW and Daimler-Chrysler.  Chrysler had about a two month run of Durango and Aspen hybrids.  If you see one on the road you might consider it to be an exotic due to how rare it is.  BMW has a hybrid system in their X6, but it is for performance more than fuel economy.  Daimler has a RWD hybrid system in the Mercedes-Benz S Class, but the fuel economy hasn’t been anything to make headlines with.  While not being much of a success for any party involved in that collaboration, one GM engineer described the 2 Mode hybrid system to me as a “very expensive science project”.  What Ford and Toyota teamed up to do today looks to be more than a science experiment.


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Toyota RAV4 Wins AutoPacific Ideal Vehicle Award for Mid-Size Crossover SUVs

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The evergreen RAV4 achieves the highest ranking among Mid-Size XSUVs based on owner ratings in AutoPacific’s 2011 Ideal Vehicle Research.  As winner of its class, RAV4 owners want little significant changed with the notable exception that 35% want more infotainment technology.  This is confirmation that, even as you move down in vehicle classes, buyers today want all the bells and whistles available in more expensive vehicles.  Slightly over 20% of RAV4 owners want better interior lighting, better safety features, better visibility and more roominess.  About 15% of RAV4 owners want a softer ride.  RAV4 owners most like its seat comfort.  RAV4 nosed out the even-older Mazda Tribute to win its class.


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