2006 Explorer – Healey Likes It!

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If you are used to reading critiques of new vehicles in USAToday, Jim Healey can often become a curmudgeon over nitpicky details. It’s always interesting to see where his perceptions differ from those of AutoPacific’s staff. Sometimes we agree. Sometimes we disagree.
Well, we had the chance to drive the new Ford Explorer a couple of months ago and came to generally the same conclusion as Healey (http://www.usatoday.com/money/autos/reviews/healey/2005-11-03-explorer_x.htm). The 2006 Explorer is certainly the best Explorer ever. It is quiet and it rides well. The pumped up 4.6L V8 now puts out almost 300-horsepower and gives the Explorer the ooomph it has always needed. Inside the Explorer has become one of the quietest of the traditional body-on-frame SUV on the market. It will give luxury SUVs a run for the money.

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Hybrids – Do People Understand Them?

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VehicleVoice (http://www.vehiclevoice.com) panelists responded to a survey concerning what people really understand about Hybrid-powered vehicles. The conjecture has been that folks are really pumped about Hybrids because of the Toyota Prius and the outstanding public relations and advertising job being done by Toyota but that they don’t understand what a Hybrid is.
In research projects conducted by VehicleVoice partner AutoPacific, people say that they want a hybrid, but clearly they have not known why. Hybrids are the newest, coolest auto technology and they want it. When forced to do the arithmetic, it finally dawns on them that it will take years for a Hybrid to pay for itself in terms of fuel cost savings (since the Hybrid cost is appreciably more, you have to save a lot on gasoline to make the arithmetic work). Of course, in some places you can now drive a Hybrid in a HOV/carpool lane with only one person in the car.
VehicleVoice Panelists Weigh In With their Opinions on Hybrids
The VehicleVoice survey asked the panelists to compare gasoline engines, diesel engines and Hybrids in eleven categories. Hybrids were perceived to be “best for the environment”, “most technologically advanced”, “gets best fuel economy”, “most expensive to buy” and “has the most positive image”.

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Chrysler Pacifica "Poor Thing"

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Riding with the spousette the other day, we were cruising in the blindspot of a Chrysler Pacifica. Even though the Pacifica has been on the road for a few years now, and AutoPacific has had a Pacifica in several research projects, it had never really registered with her.
She asked, “What’s that?” I said, “Well, that’s a Chrysler Pacifica.” “Poor thing,” she responded, “It doesn’t know what it wants to be. It looks like a station wagon, a minivan and maybe a little like an SUV.” “Well, Chrysler used to call it a Sports Tourer, but now they are trying to call it an SUV,” I observed. Showing her ability to cut to the chase, “Nice try, but it doesn’t appear to be anything special.”
These observations are not too much different from reactions to the Pacifica in research clinics, focus groups and individual interviews with consumers. Even Pacifica owners seem confused about what it is. That Chrysler has been able to sell a respectable number of them (many at a deep discount from its initial pricing) is a testament to Chrysler’s marketing and incentive programs.
Over the years, we have found that American consumers really want a product that they can quickly put into a category. Either it is a minivan or not. Either it is an SUV or not. Begs the question of what folks will think the Mercedes-Benz R-Class Grand Sports Tourer is?


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Civic Leverages "Hybrid-Like" Styling

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Has anybody noticed that the styling of the new Honda Civic gives the car a look like it is powered by a Hybrid powertrain? A couple of Honda competitors have commented that the Civic sedan has styling cues that shout “Hybrid” much like the wildly popular Toyota Prius. Of course, Civic has a hybrid model available, but the plain-Jane 4-door sedan could be mistaken at-a-glance for a Hybrid.
In an interesting move, the new Civic is bigger on the outside than its predecessor, but smaller on the inside. Extremely aerodynamic styling with a low cowl and sloping hood give the car its Hybrid look, but compromise its interior spaciousness.
The new Civic goes back to its roots in providing a well-styled, distinctive compact car that its buyers can be proud to drive. It may return to the ranks of the “aspirational small car” that was abandoned by its immediate predecessor – an card-carrying blandmobile.


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Hyundai Azera Shines

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Azera Tackles The Best from Japanese Mainstream Brands at a Surprising Value
When Hyundai launches its new Azera (http://www.hyundaiazera.com) entry luxury sedan in Fall 2005 it could have a real winner on its hands. The Azera replaces the XG350 with a much more distinctively styled and believable car. Unlike its blandmobile predecessor, the Azera is distinctive. Maybe it’s not head-turning, but it is an excellent piece of work from a company that is now beginning to reach its stride.

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Value-Priced Luxury
Base priced at about $25,000 you can load an Azera up to about $30,000. That is well below cars that may be considered to be competitors (Hyundai thinks it will compete with the Toyota Avalon and the Nissan Maxima). Azera is fully equipped and features safety equipment usually optional on competitive models. Azera has eight airbags, ABS, active head restraints and electronic stability control standard.

Sales Volume Objective Ambitious

“OK, we have given you this very nice car at a very attractive price,” says Hyundai Motor Company management. “Now, Hyundai Motor America, you can sell twice as many.” This means that HMA is expected to sell well over 30,000 units of the Azera and HMC would not be disappointed if they hit 40,000 units. The value proposition is there, the car is pretty darn nice. They just may make 40,000 units.

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VehicleVoice Beauty Contests

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Every month VehicleVoice (http://www.vehiclevoice.com) panel members give their reactions to the styling of eight to ten newly introduced cars or trucks and interesting concept vehicles. The Internet panel is shown photos of the vehicles without identification. Their badges are Photoshopped out so only the cogniscenti might really know what the vehlcle really is. At the end of the Beauty Contest the vehicle names and manufacturers are revealed.
Over the months, we have become pretty good at predicting what will juice up the panel members. Usually a really hot sports car will do the trick. The Saturn Sky and Pontiac Solstice were tops for “great styling” ratings in the months they were shown. Some interesting recent results show the Ford Fusion and Lincoln Zephyr being strongly rated for having “great styling”. This is an impressive result for mainstream sedans.


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Ford Fusion Surprises?

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Fusion Hot Out of the Blocks
Fusion is Ford’s new mid-size sedan and is a very respectable piece of work. It has distinctive styling, a good sized interior and a large trunk. This combination puts Fusion in the hunt to attract buyers of mid-size cars that have been unable to consider a Ford since the demise of the easily forgotten Ford Contour (and who can’t forget its predecessor – the Tempo). For the first time in years, Ford has a competitive mid-size entry worthy of consideration. The first full month of sales for the Ford Fusion was October, 2005. Fusion, right out of the blocks, looks like a surprise winner with slightly over 4,000 units sold.
In a departure from conventional mid-size car marketing, Ford says they are not going after buyers who would consider the high volume Japanese entries like Toyota Camry, Honda Accord and Nissan Altima. Instead, they think they can have a pretty healthy business selling to Mustang owners who are moving into a mid-size sedan after their fling with the most popular sporty coupe on the planet.

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Ford Gives Explorer Major Facelift

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After the all-new Fusion mid-size sedan, the most significant product in Ford’s 2006 lineup is the Explorer. Ford focused on three primary areas and revised nearly all systems for this heavy mid-cycle change. The program updated power, comfort, and safety.
Its all-new frame borrows engineering tips from the F-150, specifically the larger truck’s tube-through-tube design. This stiffer frame is the base that allows the overall safety and NVH improvements, improves ride and road feel, and should reduce long-term squeaks and rattles. Explorer’s 4.6L V8 is upgraded to three valves per cylinder and mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. This combination improves power to the tune of an additional 53HP (to 292HP), while improving fuel economy, Ford says, by about ten percent. The six-speed auto performs smoothly and quietly on the road and extra power is nearly always appreciated. Revisions to the V6 result in 74% cleaner emissions, but no extra power.
Exterior changes include a redesigned front grille that clues you in to the trim level you’re seeing. Most models feature a grille with two openings; the larger upper opening holds four bars. The XLS grille is grey, while XLT and Limited get chrome grilles.

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Hyundai Writes a Check… Hyundai Assembly Plant in Alabama

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Hyundai Launches New Alabama Assembly Plant

May 19, 2005, Montgomery, Alabama: AutoPacific attended the opening celebrations for the new Hyundai assembly plant in Montgomery, Alabama on May 19, 2005. This was a great, gala event, complete with a chartered Boeing 747 full of Hyundai executives, Korean press and government officials and featured remarks by no less than George H. W. “Big” Bush, 41st president of the United States! (And yes, the place was swarming with Secret Service, a SWAT Team and even a sniper team on the roof with a Barrett 50-caliber sniper rifle).

It is estimated that no less than 4,000 people were in attendance, including Hyundai and supplier employees. The 98-degree, 100-percent humidity day only dampened the event slightly.

The star of the show wasn’t the party, but rather the assembly plant itself and the commitment it represents.

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Lexus – Nissan Wins 2005 AutoPacific Vehicle Satisfaction Award for Top Brand – Most Wins

Lexus Wins AutoPacific 2005 Vehicle Satisfaction Award for Top Brand – Nissan Has Most Wins Overall

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“Lexus’ win comes from an especially strong showing by its LS430 Premium Luxury Car and RX330 Luxury Sport Utility. Strong vehicle scores combined with real luxury-level customer handling at Lexus dealerships edges Lexus ahead of other luxury brands like Cadillac, Jaguar, Lincoln, BMW and Mercedes.”
While Lexus won the statistical battle, Nissan won the battle for the most entries winning Vehicle Satisfaction Awards. In an unprecedented performance, seven Nissan vehicles won VSAs. Often criticized in pure quality surveys where things like fit and finish, wind noise and squeaks and rattles are measured, Nissan products certainly satisfy their owners.
Nissan North America has seven winners this year, tops among the various corporations. Nissan sweeps the pickup categories with wins in both segments. The Nissan Titan takes the Full Size Pickup category and is the top-rated vehicle overall. Completing the pickup sweep is a win by the Frontier in the Compact Pickup category. Nissan Maxima is at the top of the Entry Luxury Car category and also the top-rated car, the Nissan Armada takes the Large SUV category for the second year in a row, Nissan Altima is the winner of the Premium Mid-Size Car category (tied with the new Buick LaCrosse), the Nissan Murano wins the Premium Mid-Size SUV category. The Nissan Quest is in a 3-way tie as the most satisfying Minivan.


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