Sunday, December 14, 2014

Audi As The Most Conservative Brand

It is tough to watch your favorite team have an excellent season, defeat its greatest nemesis on its way to the big game and then deliver nothing when it counts most. Broncos fans everywhere still haven't recovered from last year's Super Bowl. As much as you try to stay objective you will always have a brand or two that you will be partial to and as with sports it is hard to see one of your favorite brands deliver a disappointing product.

After years of development Audi has released its second generation Q7 to the world brimming with technology and stuff to shame any Chevy marketing guy. Unfortunately all that technology is wrapped in a design that for the majority of the buying public is far too conservative, especially for an SUV. As with many Audis, a subsequent look reveals design aesthetics hidden at first and it's almost guaranteed that the Q7 will end up looking quite alright once you see it on the road. Park it next to the first gen and the differences will become obvious. Still, first impressions are extremely powerful and the second gen Q7 is too reminiscent of its predecessor and that of an A6 Avant that's been going to the gym too much. The conservative design makes you think what could have been given all the rumors of a super aggressive initial design scrapped by new Audi leadership. Given all the technology, the Q7 deserves a little more pizzazz on the outside. At first glance it's a supreme pizza engineering effort that someone stole all the toppings leaving just a cheese design. And in a competitive segment a cheese pizza might not cut it.

Monday, December 8, 2014

No Time For Half Measures

Mercedes and BMW have shown the world their visions for the future of electric mobility with the B-Class Electric Drive and the i3. That future however might be further out still. Both models have received generally positive reviews and a bit of market buzz but somewhat lukewarm sales. As Breaking Bad's Mike Erhmantraut famously said, half measures never work. In this case, both the upconverted B-Class and even the bespoke i3 are nothing more than half measures from Mercedes and BMW. Considering its pricing, the Model S took EV sales to a new continent when it hit Tesla stores two years ago. Perhaps a luxury touch was all that was needed, to ease some of the electric price premium. The truth is that no half measure, half hearted, effort will cut it if you want to duplicate Tesla's success, no matter your badge. After its own half measure effort with the Roadster, Tesla went full in with the model S matching the best of the luxury brands in design, engineering and performance and racking up sales equal to its top three competitors.

Nothing less than fully matching or exceeding Tesla's range and performance will cut it for any electrified model from the established luxury brands*.

The Tesla powered B-Class Electric Drive and the i3 are two of the more impressive (non Tesla) EVs on the market today but they still fall for all of the established EV shortcomings. The B-Class has a punchy electric powertrain and a tiny bit extra range but it's housed in Mercedes' least exciting model. One whose IC version was never good enough for the US. BMW went all in on i3's carbon fiber chassis to create a bespoke and very light model but then gave it styling more expressive than the Leaf's with no extra range. Both models are very reminiscent of how the brands handled hybrids previously. Late to the party and not truly representative of the storied brands' engineering prowess.

Much like Mercedes and BMW, Audi took a very cautious half hearted effort with its hybrids, see the Q5 hybrid. It really does exist! The A3 e-tron plugin looks to be more of the same. However, Audi's cautious approach to EVs might just be coming to an end in a big way. There are strong rumors about Audi creating a Model X fighter with 300 miles of range and a unique design of its own. The brand would be smart to take the long rumored Q8 in that direction. If true, Audi would be the first to assemble the ingredients needed for a legitimate Tesla competitor. An EV built from the start as an EV would be key as Audi isn't going to successfully make one out of an A model that matches an S for performance without costing more than the RS and still delivers Tesla's range. Nor is it going to come up with a conventionally styled sedan or coupe that will be more gorgeous and impactful than existing models without it becoming its flagship. And neither Audi, Bentley nor the market is quite ready for that yet. An EV only crossover coupe can stand on its own in the Audi lineup without really competing with its existing sedans, coupes or SUVs. Likewise, Mercedes will need to search for a segment that can take advantage of its latest gorgeous styling direction and not compete with an existing AMG model. BMW seems to be set up the strongest with its i sub brand, it's still far away as the i8 barely outruns the Model S and it takes a supercar profile and proportions to make the i styling work.


* The Porsche Panamera S E-Hybrid is technically the closest Tesla competitor. In its plug in form the Panamera has about half the MPG and a tenth of the range of the Model S, isn't any quicker and is seriously aesthetically challenged in comparison at a significantly higher price.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Neatest Thing at the 2014 La Auto Show

With lights shinning on world debuts and hundreds of models around it is hard for any car in particular to stand out by the end of the night at a major international auto show. Lines are blurring between segments it's not unusual anymore to see more advanced technology in a 15,000 entry level model from a big box brand than what is available from "handcrafted" legendary brands. Materials and craftsmanship is harder to execute or fake but brands are getting better every day at making their interiors look expensive. Leather (like) covered dashes with French stitching on mainstream models create a marketplace where it takes a truly unique feature to stand out. Unique in this case means simple and elegant. Volvo XC90's frameless rear view mirror was by far the most memorable feature at the 2014 LA Auto Show. It's a fresh take on something that is in every car and one that makes a true design statement. Much like an edgeless flat screen, the mirror looks great and makes you wonder why no one else has done it sooner. Volvo is proud of the neat touches it has put in the long overdue XC90 but the all glass mirror is the one that works the best. It won't push anyone to buy the very nicely done XC90 but it is something the rest of its very strong competition does not have and that is a win for Volvo.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

A Teaser Done Right

With nearly every brand releasing one before every major auto show it's hard to get excited by a teaser these days. Audi does score a win with a video about its vital upcoming LA concept that is more about telling a story rather than just a visual tease. The video puts the spotlight squarely on Marc Lichte, Audi's new design chief. The concept is entirely his work and Audi appears to have given Marc significant freedom in shaping its future design. It's refreshing to see a supremely successful brand admit that it has erred and could do better with its design. Although its closest competitors have recently leaned more on the Audi design formula (clone and evolve) than their fans want to admit, it appears that the brand has extracted all that it could from it. The few glimpses of the concept promise the most powerful and impactful Audi design since the Walter de Silva designed A5. The future looks promising but Audi could have a mess to explain if the long overdue and delayed Q7 and the comparatively just slightly overdue A4 aren't true products of the new design direction. If the concept is as great as anticipated, good luck explaining to the public why your newest products don't match it. An awkward moment to have for a brand whose cars supposedly "all look alike". Of course this could all be a real tease and the change might not be nearly as drastic as promised.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Escaping The Dead Zone

The dead zone between mainstream and entry level premium is the automotive equivalent of the friend zone, an area which no brand wants to occupy. You cars are generally nicer than those of regular mainstream brands and correspondingly priced a little higher than the popular competition. Your badge isn't worth much though and therefore your sales aren't that much better than some full price luxury brands. It isn't hard to see that this is not a great recipe for financial windfall for a brand as your profit per each car sold is on the low side and you aren't doing volume either. It's an area that most brands avoid and consequently there are only a few brands that find themselves trapped in this area. Over the past few years the three brands trapped in this area have all made efforts to escape and grow their sales, let's see how well they have done.

Volkswagen: Compact 62%, Midsize 22%, CUV 7% of Market Leader

Volkswagen is the world's best selling brand outside of America by a million or two (literally) and to jumpstart its US operations the brand recently went very mainstream with its core products, the Jetta and Passat. Closest to entry premium of the trio in their last generations there is no denying that both models were cheapened both figuratively and literally as Volkswagen moved down market, cut the price of admission at retail but also made obvious sacrifices to get there. The immediate payoff was fantastic for Volkswagen as the Jetta and Passat posted their best sales ever in a then still recovering marketplace. VW's progress has since stalled against fresh competition even with VW retreating back from most of the ruthless cost cutting. There is hope though as the USDM (and China) Passat is a better effort than the Jetta and its upcoming crossover looks promising to be an even better made for America product. Here's to hoping it arrives while crossovers are still a trend.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Subaru: The Most Baffling Brand In America

As a fan of excellent design this blog is an ardent supporter of the idea that if you make a great design they will come. A great design will usually yield benefits in sales for the brand and it doesn't even have to be beautiful, a properly boxy SUV or pickup can work just as well. With that in mind this blog was a pretty big fan of the fourth generation (2003-2009) Subaru Legacy and Outback. Featuring a crisp and sophisticated design far beyond your standard midsize, the Legacy could have passed as a near premium product. Its Subaru signature all wheel drive, decent interior and stronger than usual available engines let it play in a niche between mainstream and entry level luxury. Unfortunately for Subaru that generation had niche sales figures as well. A funny thing happened next, Subaru design deserted the brand but its sales have surged ever since. It's not hard to figure out the design direction of almost any brand as some lean towards bold, outrageous and swoopy. Others are clean, sharp and lean towards conservative while others still are boxy and purposeful. Subaru design direction on the other hand is impossible to read, its cars lack true beauty, clean lines nor do they make a bold statement. The brand has just enough awkwardness sprinkled throughout to separate itself from mainstream. The Subaru redesign philosophy seems to consist of blowing up its cars in every dimension and adding enough random jagged lines to meet a mandated quota. There are definitely some very redeeming qualities about Subaru that have certainly helped its surging sales over the past few years but it baffles this blog to see Subaru so hot with so little eye towards design*. Nevertheless it certainly looks like Subaru knows what it's doing in the US as it successfully escapes the sales dead zone between mainstream and luxury.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Can The Tesla Model S P85D Really Outperform the McLaren F1?

Having considered how legendary luxury brands can both be challenged and learn from Tesla and its continued drive for improvement let's take a closer look at what the dual motor P85D can do against its competition. And perhaps more importantly can it really outperform the legendary McLaren F1? Officially Tesla quotes the P85D and its combined  691 all wheel drive horsepower as  needing only 3.2 seconds to reach 60 mph and 11.8 for the quarter mile. Given the right conditions we can see someone dip under 3 seconds in the signature test, once though to be an almost unbreakable performance barrier.

This essentially puts the P85D slimly ahead of its closest competition, 3.2 seconds is coincidentally the best times recorded by the all wheel drive Audi RS7 and Mercedes CLS/E 63 AMG S models. Given that the P85D will do these numbers "mash and go" versus the launch control and brake torquing gives Tesla the advantage here. Things should stay close through the quarter mile as the RS7 and AMG S models have posted 1/4 times as quick as 11.5 seconds with most tests showing a tenth or two advantage to the Audi and Mercedes, still that's close enough to call it even with the driver's reaction time making the bigger difference. Looking at the trap speed things begin to change as the RS7 and AMG models have a trap speed of around 123. Tesla didn't provide a trap speed estimate but it should come in under 118. For reference the Tesla will be about half a second quicker to 60 than everyone's favorite 707 horsepower Dodge Challenger Hellcat and post an almost identical quarter mile time. The Hellcat does dominate with an unbelievable 126 trap speed. The gas powered cars should pull ahead past the quarter mile towards their higher eventual top speeds but you need an airfield to have that kind of fun. The AMG, M, and RS competition will trounce the Tesla around the track and not overheat after one lap, but the Model S wasn't really made for that.

In its marketing materials Tesla claims that the P85D's goal was to outperform the McLaren F1, one of the greatest supercars of all time according to Tesla. According to this test the P85D will in fact match the McLaren F1 to 60 as both do it in 3.2 seconds, the F1 though will obliterate it going forward making the comparison very short lived if technically true.

*Update: Motor Trend ran the numbers and 0-60 was in 3.1 seconds and 1/4 in 11.6. Kudos to Tesla for being spot on in its estimates. As predicted trap speed was below 118 @ 115.2 (115 was my internal though all along!) which does mean that the quickest gas competition will pull ahead above 100. Still the dual motor upgrade would certainly qualify the P85D for a spot in our seriously dramatic in generation powertrain updates list.