Henry Payne Blog

Cartoon: Pulitzer IRS

Posted by hpayne on April 16, 2014

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Cartoon: Late Night Comedy Men’s Club

Posted by hpayne on April 16, 2014

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Cartoon: IRS Torture

Posted by hpayne on April 15, 2014

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Cartoon: Equity Obama

Posted by hpayne on April 14, 2014

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Q&Auto: Ford’s virtual reality pioneer

Posted by hpayne on April 12, 2014

Elizabeth Baron is a Ford Motor Co. specialist in virtual reality technology.
Elizabeth Baron is a Ford Motor Co. specialist in virtual reality technology. (Ford)
At San Francisco’s Game Developer’s Conference in March, virtual reality stole the show with Facebook icing the cake with its purchase of virtual reality startup and goggles maker Oculus for a staggering $2 billion.

But Silicon Valley has nothing over the Rust Belt.

Meet Elizabeth Baron, Ford’s virtual reality and advanced visualization technical specialist, whose team used their Immersion Lab to help develop the heart-stopping 2015 Ford Mustang, introduced at January’s Detroit Auto Show. Deep in the bowels of Ford’s Dearborn tech center, Ford engineers wearing Oculus helmets immerse themselves in real time with colleagues in other labs across the globe. Sitting in virtual cars, they critique and alter everything from windshield wipers to dashboards. Watch a video here.

I strapped on goggles myself for an eye-opening look at the future of car design and American leisure. I crawled over, under, and through a ’15 pony car that existed only virtually. Where gamers might use VR to escape into characters and worlds imagined (a date with Kate Upton? You got it), Ford’s engineers use the virtual world to shape the real one.

I spoke with guru Baron about immersion, Oculus, and the future of VR.

HP: Virtual reality is cutting edge in video gaming and auto design. How are they similar?

Baron: When you are immersed in virtual reality, things respond the way you would expect in the real world. In gaming it’s a level of abstraction because you control what you do, but navigate with a game controller. In our environment you are immersed the same — in an Oculus, for example — but the way you are navigating that environment is exactly like the physical world. You are the game controller. If you take three steps in our virtual world, you are taking three steps in the real world.

HP: Do you see Ford’s technology applied to gaming?

Baron: I would humbly say that there are some things gaming could do to improve simulator sickness. But the limiting factor is cost. The cost of our immersion lab is definitely higher than an Xbox 360 with an Oculus. Oculus is doing a really good thing by putting a rotational tracker in their device and (others are) making you use your body so you are the controller — which is very similar to what we have laid out.

HP: Who makes your system?

Baron: We buy the hardware and integrate it into our systems around the world. We have a lab in Dearborn — soon to be two in Dearborn — and another in Australia and we have satellite centers in Germany, Mexico, Brazil, China, and India.

HP: How do you use the Immersion Lab?

Baron: We create a virtual space so we are tracking you in a volume. The way we track you is with motion capture cameras that are set up around the room. And we track your eyes through the headset and then we present you with a stereoscopic view of the virtual world in real time at 30 frames a second.

HP: The Mustang was the first car developed with this tool?

Baron: We’ve been doing this since 2007, but the Mustang was the first with our new software.

HP: Why is a virtual Mustang better than building an actual Mustang prototype?

Baron: We don’t have enough money to build all the prototypes we need to cover all the variation in our vehicles. Because we can bring the manufacturing process back into the design we can change the look of the vehicle, we can change paint colors, we can change lighting ... and do it all in an hour’s time. It’s incredibly efficient over building a prototype. An engineer can say: “I want a new mirror.” On a physical prototype you’d have to go and order a new mirror and by the time you get the mirror other things have changed. Now you can make those changes instantly.

HP: Multi-player gaming is global with players interacting across oceans. How does Ford VR work between Australia and Dearborn?

Baron: We do a lot of cross-continent design and engineering. So people might be working on an interior for the Chinese market and the same car for the American market. There’s a right-hand drive Mustang there and left-hand here. We do reviews in the virtual space, all the regions are dialed in. If somebody in Australia is immersed with (me here), I can literally look at their head-mounted display floating in space so I know where they are on the car and they know where I am.

HP: In the gaming world, developers have made gloves that allow you to pick up virtual objects. Do you have similar tools where you feel haptic feedback opening a car door?

Baron: We use passive haptic right now with virtual physical alignment. We also have gloves that track your hand and the articulation of your fingers. So you can put your hand around a steering wheel, for example, or touch all the components in an interior study.

HP: How did you get here?

Baron: I’ve been with Ford for 26 years. My background is computer science — I’ve always been an odd duck in a car company. I asked to be the virtual reality technical specialist. I had to earn my stripes ... like a startup company inside a major manufacturer.

 

2015 Chevy Tahoe LTZ: Nimble ocean liner

Posted by hpayne on April 10, 2014

2015 Chevrolet Tahoe
2015 Chevrolet Tahoe (John Roe)

When we were grade-school gearheads, my friend Tommy Miller and I spent summer afternoons drawing the most versatile, most outrageous vehicles ever.

I would pen a V-12-powered F1 car equipped with dish radar, monster-truck wheels, twin-heat seeking missiles and ocean-skimming water skis (mounted on the side). Tommy would counter with a 427-cubic-inch stock car bristling with a hot tub, tri-wing, tank treads and a rear-mounted, magnaflux laser gun turret to deter aliens.

Neither of us, however, could have imagined the 2015 Chevy Tahoe LTZ.

This pickup-based, 5,700-pound family-sized assault vehicle has it all: Four-wheel-drive. A 355-horsepower, 5.3-liter V-8 engine. Magnetorheological shocks. Six USBs. Rain-sensing wipers. Auto fold-flat seats. Adaptive cruise control. Blind-spot monitoring system. Eight-inch nav screen. Front spoiler. Towing capability of 8,400 pounds. An automatic rear liftgate.

In 2013, the Tahoe and its bigger brother Suburban captured more than 50 percent of the large SUV market (the Tahoe alone more than doubled the sales of the Ford Expedition). The Chevy twins are part of a GM stable that dominates the large truck market. Built on GM’s proven, body-on-frame pickup architecture, they are only getting better.

As night follows day, new ute land yachts are launching this spring just a year after champagne bottles broke over the bow of the redesigned Chevy and GMC pickups.

The LTZ is the Tahoe nameplate’s flagship. The whole enchilada. The showcase for everything Chevy is capable of putting in a truck. Its power and size make it wildly versatile.

Has GM thought about selling it as commercial living space? The LTZ’s interior is bigger than most Manhattan apartments. Its leather seats and climate control amenities are more comfortable than most living rooms.

Approach the front door — er, driver door — and the LTZ unlocks, sensing the key in your pocket. Open the latch and an automatic step swings out to ease entry. Step out of the vehicle at night and the door-mounted mirrors instantly fill the ground below with perimeter lighting to aid your step.

Can your house do that?

Gorgeous interior

Plush is the new language of truck interiors and the LTZ is no exception.

Once inside, acres of gorgeous upholstery accented with wood and chrome stretch to the horizon. Front and second row heated bucket seats beckon. The transmission selector is located — pickup-like — on the steering column, opening the center console to a variety of useful spaces from cup holders to an arm rest compartment that could hide a file cabinet. It’s a mystery to me why automakers neglect USB ports for youth-targeted compact vehicles. There is no such neglect of the families that fill big utes, the 21st century family wagon. USBs are plentiful in the LTZ’s fore and aft decks.

My wee wife was intimidated by the Tahoe’s size — she looked like Tinkerbell at the helm of Captain Hook’s ship — but she was right at home in the rest of the frigate’s cabin. While most third-row seats are smaller than airline coach class, the Tahoe’s third row is as welcoming as its second.

How big is the interior of the seven-passenger Tahoe? Its 94.7 cubic feet of cargo space behind the front seats is 50 percent bigger than a Subaru Outback. It’s more than the entire interior space of a Chevy Cruze. My wife was hanging house plants in the rear windows.

Need to furnish your house? The rear rows will automatically flatten at the touch of a button. And Chevy’s obsession with interior design carries over to the exterior.

Where the Silverado’s front grille has all the appeal of a bulldozer, the Tahoe has integrated its signature twin grille into a wrap-around mask that would look stylish on a Marvel superhero. The inspiration comes from the comely Chevy Impala sedan which has put the ole! back into Chevrolet. The wardrobe upgrade continues with a sweeping, sculpted line running the length of the big fella’s flanks. Like pant creases in Shaq’s tuxedo, it brings elegance to heft.

Price tops out at $71K

Much of the LTZ’s exterior detail, however, is the result of obsessive aerodynamics testing to meet Washington’s 55 mpg-by-2025 fuel economy requirements. This Tahoe spent more time in the wind tunnel than George Hamilton has spent in the tanning booth. The Tahoe sports a .36 drag coefficient which — together with the direct-injection EcoTec3 engine’s active fuel management system (which makes the V-8 a V-4 at cruising speed) — gains the big ute 10 percent better fuel economy.

That savings comes at a substantial cost, however. The hi-tech 2015 LTZ tops out at $71,375, well above the outgoing model’s 59 grand sticker. Is the LTZ worth the price of a convertible C7 Vette? Well, the Vette seats only two ...

Like the rear edges of a Boeing 747, the Tahoe’s hindquarters are a study in how to reduce turbulence and increase fuel efficiency. And what the heck’s a Vette-like air dam doing on the front of a four-wheel-drive truck? Another nod to fuel-efficiency, natch.

But given the Tahoe’s surprisingly nimble handling, I like to think the spoiler provides a little down force as well.

As big as this truck looks, it feels much smaller on the road thanks to some impressive engineering under the skin. The Tahoe’s athleticism defies the ocean liner stereotype.

Where pickups ride like bucking broncos on rear leaf springs, the Tahoe gets a multi-link suspension with coil springs and shocks. And not just any shocks — but the same magnetic system that undergirds the ferocious Stingray. Controlled by a CPU, twin electromagnetic coils at the end of each shock piston can change the viscosity of the magnetorheological fluid within. When the LTZ leans hard, the system instantly stiffens the suspension.

This ain’t your grandpappy’s truck.

Like a kid with a new toy, I found myself rotating the three-way track select to 4WD, scanning the horizon for Michigan’s finest, then throwing the Tahoe into corners — spurring its 355 horses on exit. The big ute loved it. Try that with an ocean liner.

So load in the high school football team, plug ’em into their favorite pregame soundtrack, then stomp the 5.3 liter V-8. What could beat this Swiss Army knife of a vehicle? Stay tuned for the outrageous 6.2-liter 2015 Caddy Escalade that I will review next week.

2015 Chevy Tahoe

Vehicle type: Front-engine, four-wheel-drive, seven-passenger sport utility vehicle Price: $45,890 base (LTZ trim: $71,375 as tested) Power plant: 5.3-liter, direct-injection V-8 engine Power: 355 horsepower, 383 pound-feet of torque Transmission: Six-speed automatic Performance: 0-60 mph: 6.9-7.1 seconds (Car & Driver est.); towing capacity: 8,400 lbs. Weight: 5,683 pounds Fuel economy: EPA 16 mpg city/22 mpg highway/18 mpg combined Report card Highs: Comfortably seats your entire offensive line; sure-footed handling Lows: Beware distracted drivers wheeling three tons of rolling metal; 70 grand for a Chevy truck? Overall:★★★

Cartoon: Recalls

Posted by hpayne on April 10, 2014

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Cartoon: April 15th Extended

Posted by hpayne on April 9, 2014

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Cartoon: Bush Self-Portrait

Posted by hpayne on April 9, 2014

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Cartoon: Supreme Court and the Campaign Finance Laws

Posted by hpayne on April 7, 2014

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Review: Second-hand King Accord

Posted by hpayne on April 5, 2014

Last decade I bought a used Dodge Neon that spent as much time in the shop as in my garage. “Big Three sedans keep me in business,” said my repair shop guru, John, who I got to know on a first-name basis. “I never see a Honda or Toyota.”

Ouch.

No wonder the Asian makers have dominated used car sales just as Detroit makers rule used truck sales. No wonder the Honda Accord was the best-selling used car (again) in America in 2013 just as the Ford F150 was the best-selling used truck (again).

We used car shoppers are proud, practical, and penny-wise. We demand reliable, utilitarian, good-handling transport. The Accord, a perennial Consumer Reports pick (the bible of used car buyers), delivers in all three areas. The average buyer prefers Honda. The average used car sells for $15,000. The average 2011 Accord sells for $15,017.

So I moseyed on down to my local used car – er, pre-owned vehicle – dealer and asked for average, please.

At $14,900 with 67,000 miles on the odometer, my 2011 Honda Accord test mule was average only in price. Indeed, the used Accord one-ups its newer sibling. Where the new Accord trails the best-selling Camry by 40,000 in new cars sales, the used Accord leap frogs its Asian competitor. One reason is surely the Accord’s lead in new retail sales — the Camry relies more on fleet sales, notes HIS Automotive analyst Tom Libby — and the used car market is (mostly) retail.

But there’s also the brand factor.

Auto salesmen tell me that Honda’s racing history matters. That when it’s time to buy a used car, buyers want a sense of thrill even as they are buying practical. Kinda like putting fudge swirl in your vanilla shake. So when you’re sitting in your Honda Accord, you feel a connection to those screaming motorbikes. Or Honda engines winning Indy nine of the last 10 years. Ya gotta dream.

The Camry? It’s just vanilla.

I like the theory. It matters to someone — especially young someones — buying their first car. Could it be that mom and dad buy new Camry? But then budget-conscious junior buys used Accord?

Whatever it is, the Accord doesn’t disappoint even with 67k miles on its legs.

The used 2.4 liter engine purred like a kitten on Detroit’s roads. In performance brand tradition, the car doesn’t sacrifice performance for efficiency. The 4-banger pulls the car’s lightweight chassis with purpose, even as the Honda returns impressive 27 mpg. Handling is sure, never numb.

The Accord’s pleasant lines won’t turn any heads, but the lack of coupe-like roof line pays dividends inside where your long-legged author can easily fold into the backseat with knee-room to spare. In the captain’s chair, the Accord is ergonomically friendly as the EX (thankfully) only has one console screen. Add nav and Accords become a riot of two screens and confusing controls. The EX package is an example of addition by subtraction.

Buying second-hand doesn’t mean second-class service.

Certified pre-owned cars come with a dealer premium, but the piece of mind that they have been reviewed stem to stern. Many dealers have upgraded the experience by building additional showrooms just for used cars.

But that’s not the best part of buying used.

As a certified motor head, I feel comfortable buying used cars from individual owners of sport models (BMW M3s, Ford STs, Honda SIs, and so on) treat their cars like their first-born child. Are you less confident about the owners of popular cars (who treat them like a common frig) but dread a visit to a dealer like you want another root canal? You can buy from individuals with the help of CARFAX records and a list of online price sites like Cars.com as long as your arm.

But that’s still not the best part. Pre-owned ponies like the Accord also come with Honda’s extended powertrain warranty of 7 years/100,000 miles (whichever comes first) on top of the 5-year.60,000 when new. Sure Hondas are bullet proof. Sure 200,000 miles is the new 100,000. But that warranty does wonders for a hand-me-down.

But here’s the best part – the used Accord costs $9,000 less than a new Accord. A 2014 EX goes for $23,700 and for what? Reliability, resale value, and a warranty already built into your not-so-old filly. Three years on a car? Heck, Kentucky Derby thoroughbreds are in their prime at the age of three.

So go forth my fellow second-hand shoppers. The Accord will make you proud, practical, and penny-wise.

2011 Honda Accord

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, five-passenger sedan Price: $14,900 used Power plant: 2.4-liter, 16-valve, in-line four-cylinder engine Power: 177 horsepower, 161 pound-feet of torque Transmission: Five-speed automatic Performance: 0-60 mph: 9.1 (Car & Driver); Top speed: 127 mph Weight: 3,350 pounds Fuel economy: EPA 23 mpg city/34 mpg highway/27 mpg combined Highs: Ol’ reliable; nimble handling Lows: Stale styling could learn lessons from sleeker Civic; More USBs, please Overall:★★★

 

Cartoon: Recall Ocare

Posted by hpayne on April 3, 2014

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Cartoon: Camera Mandate

Posted by hpayne on April 3, 2014

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Best bargain: 2014 Chevy Spark vs. 2014 Mitsubishi Mirage

Posted by hpayne on April 3, 2014

The subcompact Chevy Spark and Mitsubishi Mirage are adorable little juice boxes barely bigger than most Detroit potholes. They are also, according to Cars.com, the two cheapest cars in the U.S. market at $12,995 and $13,790 respectively.

So what does a trip to the automotive dollar store buy you these days?

Quite a bit and not enough. The Spark and Mirage represent the future and past of the subcompact market. Ubiquitous in Europe where gasoline costs an arm and a leg, subcompacts are less popular in a U.S. market where a gallon of gas is just an arm.

Still, the perky Spark is a new puppy of a car that brings attitude to the practical, fuel-sipping small car segment. The three-cylinder Mirage, on the other hand, is a cylinder short and a generation behind.

These five-door shoeboxes are surprisingly roomy inside even for 6-foot-5 auto reviewers with loafers the size of clown shoes. Both are bubble-wrapped in safety features with multiple air bags, traction stability control and anti-lock brakes. Both measure their 0-60 mph times with an hourglass. The Lions will win the Super Bowl before you get to 80 mph. Mail trucks will honk at you. Bicyclists will draft you.

But whereas the Mirage is content to give you fuel-efficient, basic transportation, Chevy goes the extra mile. Details matter. Even in Auto 101, Chevy has learned style. If the Mitsubishi is a Wal-Mart coffee table, then the Chevy is IKEA. Cheap, yes. But without looking like it.

Subcompact cuties

Five-door body styles are common in the subcompact class. They bring utility as these flexible, mini-wagons exploit every inch of their short wheelbases to offer 30-plus cubic feet of interior room for seating five or lugging your some-assembly-required IKEA boxes (though I estimate the Spark could still fit inside the glove box of its mega-wagon stablemate, the Chevy Tahoe). Also standard are color palettes right out of a video arcade. Dude, said my Chevy dealer, the Grape Ice Spark soooo clashes with your gray hair and gray slacks. Obviously, I’m not the target demographic. But how can you resist the Spark’s Lime Green, Lemonade and Denim? Or the Mirage’s Plasma Purple, Sapphire Blue and Infrared?

With its anthropomorphic baby face, the Mitsubishi is cuteness on wheels. This is an infant dressed for a Sunday stroll. Behold its big eyes and little mouth. Its grille should come with a binky.

The Spark is cute too — like a baby shark. Adorable, but with a sense of menace. Its giant, almond-shaped headlights consume the front fenders. The little Chevy’s grille dominates the front end like a leering jack-o’-lantern carved by your 6-year-old. It’s one of the most effective uses of Chevy’s signature fascia in its lineup.

Do a lap around these tykes and Spark’s style really stands out. Where the Mirage is content with a nondescript, boxy rear end, the Spark’s got back. Its integrated rear roof spoiler (the Mirage spoiler looks like it was nailed on as an afterthought) tapers south to a flared bumper, giving the Spark a wide, boxer’s stance. Chevy completes the sculpture with big, cherry-round taillights.

But my favorite Spark detail is its ingenious rear-door “locker” handles. Located high in the black rear window trim, the handles are not only recessed but — by removing the handles from the car’s skin — they give it a more coupe-like appearance.

Spark's superior interior

Chevy’s attention to detail carries over into the interior.

Both of these trikes come equipped with intuitive radio and climate controls, but the Spark adds character with a motorcycle-inspired instrument panel. Where the Mirage gets a plastic dash and cup holders, the Spark’s silver-trimmed interior recognizes that Americans live in their cars. This home-away-from-home bristles with added storage space for phones, food and coins in every nook and cranny — a tray along the dash here, a portal under the side arm-rest there. In the backseat (where I have more headroom than in a Ford Fusion or Chrysler 200) the Spark comes with a nifty center console featuring cup holder and storage tray. The Mirage? A bench seat.

Mysteriously, both cars fail to offer much in the USB port department. Big vehicles these days nod to families of electronics-carrying kids with USBs sprouting both fore and aft. But what of the 20-somethings that pile into subcompacts? More USB ports, please.

Maneuvering with a stick

Two words: Stick shift.

These are base models and their manual transmissions will mystify America’s legions of auto-tranny buyers. Too bad. Once mastered, the automobile’s equivalent of a joystick puts the fun into a small car, and these little windup toys love to be hustled. Your racing-addled car critic found himself double-clutching into corners to keep the revs up, then stomping the gas pedal.

In the case of the Mirage, this has annoying consequences. Neither car will set a land speed record, but the Mitsubishi’s shouty, vibrating 1.2 liter gas engine will be a deal-breaker for many. Turning the key feels like you’ve pulled the cord on a chainsaw. The chassis trembles, your ears buzz. This is the same company that makes the renowned Evo performance sedan?

The Spark’s 1.2-liter four is much more civilized and the cabin noticeably quieter (remember that part about Americans living in their cars?). That helps explain why the Spark is 300 pounds heavier than the 1,973-pound Mirage — though with 10 more horsepower, the Spark equals the Mirage in 0-60 mph acceleration in a snail-like 11 seconds. Both snails deliver the expected, stellar fuel efficiency — 34 mpg for Spark, 37 for Mirage. (Federal rules require that all cars average 55 mpg in just 10 years? And pigs will fly.)

Entry level cars are not just affordable transportation, they are also windows into auto brands. Win over a first-time buyer, and you can keep them for life. Unfortunately for its Japanese parent, the Mirage will turn people away from showrooms that include studs like the Evo and Outlander SUV.

The Spark, on the other hand, advertises a new, more product-focused GM. It’s a bargain. At $12,995 (more detail: they tease it under $13 grand), it shows that affordability and style can live in the same garage.

2014 Chevrolet Spark

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, five-passenger sedan Price: $12,995 base ($12,995 as tested) Power plant: 1.2-liter, dual-overhead cam, four-cylinder engine Power: 84 horsepower, 83 pound-feet of torque Transmission: Five-speed manual Performance: 0-60 mpg, 11.0 seconds (Car & Driver); 90 mph top speed Weight: 2,269 pounds Fuel economy: EPA 31 mpg city/39 mpg highway/34 mpg combined Highs: Creative design; Functional interior Lows: Molasses could out-accelerate it; USB ports, please Overall:★★★★ Grading scale Excellent ★★★★ Good ★★★ Fair ★★ Poor ★

2014 Mitsubishi Mirage

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, five-passenger sedan Price: $13,790 base ($13,790 as tested) Power plant: 1.2-liter, dual-overhead cam, three-cylinder engine Power: 74 horsepower, 74 pound-feet of torque Transmission: Five-speed manual Performance: 0-60 mpg, 10.9 seconds (Car & Driver); 102 mph top speed Weight: 1,973 pounds Fuel economy: EPA 34 mpg city/42 mpg highway/37 mpg combined Highs: Fuel-sipper; Roomy interior Lows: Uninspired packaging; Lawn-blower engine Overall:★★
 

Total Recall: GM’s Chance for Rebirth

Posted by hpayne on April 2, 2014

Before the House Energy and Commerce Committee Tuesday, the CEO of America’s biggest auto company will apologize for her company’s negligence in pursuing a defective part that has been linked to the loss of 13 lives. “As soon as l learned about the problem, we acted without hesitation. Whatever mistakes were made in the past, we will not shirk from our responsibilities now and in the future,” Barra will say of the recall of 2.5 million vehicles with potentially faulty ignition switches, according to a copy of her written testimony released Monday. “That begins with my sincere apologies to everyone who has been affected by this recall. My management team and I . . . will hold ourselves fully accountable.” Barra’a contrition is a jarring contrast to President Obama’s arrogant defense of his disastrous Affordable Care Act. America’s CEO lied about his product and has refused to recall it even as millions (including cancer patients) have suffered from the loss of their insurance and doctors. Calling for a full investigation by a U.S. attorney, Barra promises “we will be fully transparent with you, with our regulators, and with our customers.” Obama refuses anything of the sort. Such are the expectations of our political leaders vs. our business leaders. For all GM’s troubles, “Switchgate” — named for the faulty ignition switch that can inadvertently stall cars made between 2005–2011 — could ultimately benefit Barra and her company. As the first female CEO of an American automaker, Barra will benefit from enormous political  goodwill. She is assisted by the fact that none of the cars effected are still in production. They are relics of an old GM — a pre-bankruptcy GM that was burdened by excessive labor costs, pension overhead, and poorly designed sedan products. With the massive recall, Barra can help sever Old GM from New GM, putting in place safety systems (she has already announced a new veep for Global Vehicle Safety) that will assure that Switchgate won’t be repeated. Indeed, the ignition snafu is an anomaly in a company — and an industry — that is quick to recall unsafe products. For example, the 2005 Chrysler Pacifica – of similar vintage to Switchgate star, the Chevy Cobalt — also had a mysterious stalling problem. It was recalled within two years of launch. Conspiracies will abound. Did GM bury Swtichgate because of pressure to keep a new vehicle launch on schedule? Did Chevy resist the recall expense because the company was in increasing financial straits? Perhaps. But GM insiders say there likely is no smoking gun — that the Cobalt’s (and Pontiac Solstice, and Chevy HHR, etc.) ignition was considered by engineers to be a mechanical issue that never rose to the level of safety defect (thus, its part number was never changed even after the ignition was fixed sometime around 2007). The deaths associated with the ignition had muddying factors — drivers were alcohol-impaired or youngsters driving in wet conditions — preventing easy connection of the dots. By the time the ignition was definitively linked to air-bag deployment — circa 2009 – the part had been repaired. Critics — my NRO colleague Jim Geraghty among them — will rightly question whether Switchgate was further buried by a government-run bankruptcy (would NHTSA embarrass its own White House with a recall?). Fair enough. But the White House Auto Task Force was uninterested in liability — only in quickly restructuring the company’s balance sheet so that the UAW could survive andcontinue to feed the Democratic Party campaign cash. It was a UAW bailout, not an auto bailout. In crisis there is opportunity, and GM has a chance to redeem itself under the hot glare of public attention. With the best products it has ever produced in showrooms now (new Corvette, new Malibu, new Tahoe, new Caddies, etc.), a new focus on customer service would do a lot of good.

Cartoon: Noah and Gore’s Global Warming

Posted by hpayne on March 31, 2014

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Q&Auto: CEO Al Gardner, the new face of Chrysler

Posted by hpayne on March 31, 2014

Everything has gone international,” says new Chrysler CEO Al Gardner, when asked how the auto industry has changed since he came on board the company in 1986.

Nothing better illustrates that than Gardner himself.

He is the British-born head of a Michigan-based company that is owned by Italy’s Fiat. The youthful-looking 50-year old — he resembles Beck Bennett, the interviewer in those adorable “It’s Not Complicated” AT&T ads — comes standard with dry English wit. But make no mistake, after management stints in Boston, Vermont, California, and that most American of cities — Orlando — he bleeds red, white and blue.

“I am fully Disney-fied,” he says. “This is home.”

Gardner assumes huge responsibility in his new role: Making Chrysler relevant again in the midsize sedan market with an internationally-bred product: The all-new, Alfa Romeo-based, 2015 Chrysler 200. I sat down with Gardner at a 200 test drive in Louisville, Ky. to talk about “the new face of Chrysler.”

HP: Say I’m a Toyota Camry owner. Sell me the Chrysler 200.

Gardner: It’s a stunningly good-looking car. We take three years, we rip up all our designs, we’re going to build something that no one else can build. We’re going to put a 9-speed transmission in it. We’re going to put a decoupling, all-wheel-drive system in it for better fuel economy. We’re going to have a four-cylinder and a six-cylinder. We’ll give you 35 mpg or (the) raw power of 295 horsepower. You get the style, you get the craftsmanship, you get the elegance. Ford will give you a good looking vehicle and take it off an Aston Martin. We will not take it off a Maserati. We will give you something truly elegant in the midsize segment and then we will pack it with value.

HP: Quality is a key piece of this segment. Does the new Sterling Heights plant help the 200 compete with the Camry and Accord?

Gardner: It has to. You don’t build a brand new, billion-dollar plant if you can’t compete at that level. This is a long-term play, and the quality comes from a state-of-the-art plant. You can eat off the ground at this place. We have put our heart and soul in it.

HP: Ram is the gold standard of trucks. Japanese models are the gold standard of sedans. How does Chrysler become the Ram of the sedan segment?

Gardner: Honda and Toyota ... build tremendous products but they don’t put in any character. They are fairly vanilla. You can beat these guys at their own game by — at the same price point — building (cars) with heart. That’s what Ram does. Jeep Cherokee does the same. It’ll take on a BMW because it’s built with that kind of value. The 200 is no different. We know how to do it — it just takes time, effort, and priority.

HP: Does the Alfa platform help give this car character?

Gardner: The Alfa lineage certainly gives it ... performance since (the platform is) built for performance first. But it’s not the Alfa piece that’s going to make this succeed, it’s the American know-how (speaking as a Brit, naturally) that’s going to build a car for this part of the world. But without Alfa and Fiat we wouldn’t be here today.

HP: Ford talks a lot about a global car with different brands like Mondeo in Europe and Fusion here. Is this a global car?

Gardner: This was designed and built for North America specifically. We looked at going back into Europe, but the reality is that if you do that you have to change the front end on this car — make it taller — to meet Europe’s (pedestrian crash) standards. We didn’t want to compromise. We wanted to build this car for North America so you have the flattened, sporty-looking front end.

HP: You call the 200 “the new face of Chrysler.” How does the 200 inspire the rest of the lineup?

Gardner: The front end is what the image of Chrysler should be going forward — the floating badge, the beautiful silhouette, the headlights that pull everything together. As we look at replacing the 300, Town & Country, and future vehicles ... there’s got to be lineage. We don’t have an easy flow from one vehicle to another. They don’t have to look the same but they have to know each other. Continuity and discipline in how we go to market is important. We do it extremely well in the Jeep lineup. This is a genuine departure to build something different.

Cartoon: Christie Obama Probe

Posted by hpayne on March 31, 2014

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2015 Chrysler 200: A contender is born

Posted by hpayne on March 27, 2014

Historic Hermitage Farms outside Louisville, Ky.is a thoroughbred nursery where experienced horse hands raise promising foals into sleek, athletic stallions. These yearlings are the product of expensive bets by racing enthusiasts that the right partnership of mare and stallion will breed the next Kentucky Derby champion.

How appropriate that Chrysler chose Hermitage to launch its all-new 2015 Chrysler 200 this spring.

The offspring of Chrysler design and Alfa Romeo engineering, this thoroughbred is Chrysler's hope for glory in the highly competitive midsize sedan segment. A winner would reward shareholders who have patiently waited for a worthy midsize car to bring more customers to Chrysler showrooms.

Is the 200 worthy? I strapped myself into its stirrups, grabbed the reins of its 3.6 liter, V-6 Pentastar engine and held on for dear life. Actually, I dialed the dual climate control to 70, turned on the Sirius XM Radio, and sipped soda from the sliding cup holder while blitzing the Kentucky countryside. When I was done, the 200 parked itself into a perpendicular parking space.

While the previous-generation stallion is headed for the glue factory, the new 200 runs with the class’s best studs. Galloping over twisty roads, the Sterling Heights-manufactured car instantly exhibited its Italian DNA. This Chrysler is built on the athletic Alfa Giulietta skeleton – what Chrysler calls its CUS-wide architecture —made of 65 percent high strength steel. With a best-in-class 295 horsepower, coupe-like styling and all-wheel drive, the premium 200c edition signals the brand’s intent of becoming a performance leader. Let the Toyota Camry win the science fair for best sewing machine, the 200 wants to win the Derby.

Though shy of the class-leading Mazda6 and the Ford Fusion, the 200’s handling is above average – putting it neck-and-neck with the Honda Accord. And with more ponies than the others, the Pentastar will outrun them down the back stretch.

This stallion is not only fast — it is comfortable, fuel efficient, and easy to use.

The midsize 200 carries a lot of brand responsibility on its back. Unlike crosstown rivals Chevy and Ford, the 200 doesn’t benefit from entry-level compact sedans. Like your peppy Ford Fiesta or Focus? Let me show you the gorgeous Fusion or Taurus under the same dealer roof.

Chrysler’s menu, meanwhile, is a dog’s breakfast. Fiat does subcompacts; Dodge the Dart compact; and Jeep makes SUVs. The 200 is Chrysler’s midsize hauler and entry-level sedan all wrapped in one. Ranging in price from $22,695 to the mid-$30,000s, the 200 is a one-car buffet of sandwich options.

From the front-wheel-drive LX to the all-wheel-drive C, the 200 offers two engines, four trim levels, and an army of safety features (the tenacious lane departure-correcting system is particularly noteworthy).

“This car is a vital piece,” says Chrysler CEO Al Gardner. “It’s our first touch point. The first connection to the brand.”

Please, Papa Marchionne, you can hear Chrysler marketers begging, can we build a compact 100? Have an Espresso and I’ll get back to you. Meantime, the 200 must wow cost-conscious, youngsters as well as performance-hungry elders. That’s pressure.

 

It makes its sales pitch with an elegant exterior hailed as the “new face of Chrysler.” By contrast, the 200’s big brother 300 loudly arrived on America’s doorstep last decade with a Rolls Royce mug and ripped muscles like a warrior in the movie that shares its name. Its masculine pose has made it an icon among rappers and pro ballplayers. Will the 300 follow the 200’s new softer design direction? Chrysler’s designers are mum.

If the 300 was Rolls Lite, then the pretty 200 and Lincoln MKZ appear separated at birth. Like the Ford luxury brand, its thin, swept front grille is inspired by the wings in its company logo. Its rhythmic, organic lines ripple across the car’s flanks, tapering into a stepped rear end that is very MKZ.

But just as the MKZ shrinks in the shadow of an Audi A6, the 200 may get lost amid the bold stylings of the Ford Fusion or Hyundai Sonata. They light up the stage with big pouty lips and grinning grilles. Chrysler wants the sexy new 200 to rock your world, but she comes on like Sade, not Beyonce.

Form follows function, however, and the 200’s slippery lines give it a best-in-class .26 drag coefficient — part of Chrysler’s comprehensive theme of power and fuel economy. To save fuel, the 200 boasts an innovative 9-speed transmission and AWD system that engages only when needed.

But where this thoroughbred really shines is in the saddle.

Like Chrysler’s legendary minivans, the 200 brings innovation, style, and meticulous attention to detail to the cockpit. At its center is a rotary e-dial shifter and electronic parking brake. With no linkage to house, the center console is liberated as a multi-use piece of furniture with huge storage space (decorated with Detroit skyline artwork) under the shifter perfect for my wife’s stuffed purse. Sliding cup holders reveal a pass-through to more space behind the shifter where she can recharge the smart phone in her purse via a USB port.

Her smartphone effortlessly syncs with Chrysler’s Uconnect touchscreen, the planet’s best infotainment system. It anchors a sweeping, two-toned dashboard that is as elegantly designed as the car’s exterior. Its intuitive display and climate dials are a refreshing contrast to the Accord’s madhouse stack of screens and buttons. Its high-grade buttons shame the Fusion’s rubberized controls.

The 200’s backseat is less friendly. For a 6-foot 5-inch freak like myself, rear seat entry is a calisthenics class of deep neck bends and leg tucks. So scarce is knee-room that Chrysler designers carved recesses into the back of the front seats. This is by design. Chrysler marketers calculate that 80 percent of rear, midsize passengers are kids. Got teens? Buy a Chrysler minivan. The 200’s marketing sweet spot is 35-year-olds with no kids who crave the 200’s sporty, coupe-like lines.

I asked 200 marketing chief and unreformed motorhead Andy Love if Chrysler would entertain an SRT performance version. His answer: With Subaru WRX-like all-wheel drive and horsepower, the 200 is already there.

The pairing of a Chrysler mare and Alfa stallion has bred a promising foal. Raised by 1,000 shiny new robots in Chrysler’s historic, revamped Sterling Heights assembly plant — call it Pentastar Farms — this stallion deserves a look in the midsize Derby.

2015 Chrysler 200

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front- or all-wheel-drive, five-passenger sedan Price: $22,695 base ($25,940 (4-cyl, FWD) and $34,675 (6-cyl, AWD) as tested) Power plant: 2.4-liter, 16-valve, in-line four-cylinder engine; 3.6-liter, 24-valve, dual-overhead cam V-6 engine Power: 184 horsepower, 173 pound-feet of torque (4-cyl); 295 horsepower, 262 pound-feet of torque (V-6) Transmission: Nine-speed automatic Performance: 0-60 mph: 6.3/8.3 (Car & Driver); Top speed: 130 mph Weight: 3,473 pounds Fuel economy: EPA 23 mpg city/36 mpg highway/28 mpg combined (four-cylinder); EPA 18 mpg city/29 mpg highway/22 mpg combined (all-wheel-drive V-6) Highs: Brawny V-6 power; fresh styling will help you forget the old mule Lows: Tight back seat; modest face may get lost in bold field Overall:★★★

Cartoon: College Union

Posted by hpayne on March 27, 2014

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