Thursday, May 26, 2011

Audi Engine Downsizing and New EPA Fuel Economy Ratings

Engine downsizing has been an industry buzzword for the past few years. The idea behind downsizing is to replace a large naturally aspirated engine with a smaller turbocharged or supercharged engine. At first this concept only applied to mainstream cars but has recently appeared on luxury brands as well. Even Mercedes AMG models are replacing their 6.3 liter naturally aspirated V8s with slightly smaller 5.5 liter twin-turbo V8s. Audi has gone one further with its all new 2012 A6 as the previous V6 model has been replaced with a four cylinder turbo and the V8 option has been dropped in favor of a supercharged V6. These downsized engines have delivered for Audi. Paired with a CVT transmission the A6 2.0T delivers 25 city and 33 highway for 28 combined, numbers rarely seen in the luxury category. The quattro 3.0 TFSI does quite well as well rated at 19 city and 28 highway.

Here are some other notable new ratings. City/highway (combined)

Aston Martin Rapide: 13/19 (15)
Audi A8 W12: 14/21 (16)
Lamborghini Aventador Coupe: 11/17 (13)
Lamborghini Avenador Roadster: 11/17 (13)
Lexus LFA: 11/16 (12)
Volkswagen Passat TDI: 31/43 (35)

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Endurance Racing Explained

Here is a nice video of Allan McNish explaining some of the physical and teamwork aspects of racing that are hard to understand when watching racing on TV. This certainly sheds some light on the effort reqired to compete at the top levels of motorsport such as the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Take a look below.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

New Volkswagen Passat Analysis

There has been a lot of online chatter about the new "Americanized" Volkswagen Passat over the past few days. Built in Chattanooga, Tennessee, the designed for America (also sold in China) Passat is larger in all dimensions than the latest European Passat which itself is just a facelifted version of the 2006-2010 Passat. As with the latest Jetta that also underwent an "Americanization" process, Volkswagen and car fans in general are disappointed with VW abandoning the standard Passat and creating a new version for America. Feeling betrayed Volkswagen owners and fans in particular are the most vocal and feel that the new Passat lacks the features (styling, interior, engine, etc) that make Volkswagens German. While the omission of the 2.0T engine could be described as a step back the media consensus is that the Passat still has a nice interior and sharp handling for a family sedan. While the American Passat doesn't have the greatest styling the same could be said about the refreshed European Passat as well. Overall the new Passat appears to be a solid competitor in the midsize category while playing a different role than the previous Passats. With that in mind let's take a look at why Volkswagen has created a new Passat for America.

While the previous Passat was a near premium sedan (in Germany it's main competitor is the Opel Insignia which is sold in the US as the Buick Regal) with near midsize dimensions it struggled to gain solid sales traction. Stuck trying to compete with mainstream competition (Camry, Accord, Altima, Malibu, Fusion) the Passat's higher price tag had it doomed from the start. Unable to follow the success of the previous generation, the 06-10 Passat saw its sales nosedive over the years as Volkswagen decided to wind down the model and replace it with something more appropriate for the market. In order for VW to meet its ambitious goal of 800,000 yearly sales in the US by 2018 a major presence is required in the midsize segment that is the best selling car category in America. The latest Passat addresses the biggest shortcomings of the last Passat (smaller size and higher price than the competition) in order to increase yearly Passat sales to over 100,000 a year. While the new Passat is a departure from the previous ones, it is a necessary one for VW to become consistently profitable in the United States.

The last generation Passat (introduced in 2005) never broke 50,000 yearly sales as it was too expensive and small against its mainstream competition. Essentially the Passat's problems boiled down to the fact that Volkswagen was unable to convince consumers to pay the extra 5-8,000 for a more premium yet smaller product.

Volkswagen saw its sales drop after 2001 because of an aging lineup and a poor quality reputation.While Volkswagen hopes for 800,000 sales by 2018 a more reasonable goal of 500,000 is possible in that frame with its new American centered lineup. A crossover vehicle would be the next step for Volkswagen to achieve the half-million mark in America.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

2012 Audi A6 Avant

Having unveiled its fourth generation A6 sedan last year it was only a matter of time until Audi would show the Avant version. Unveiled in Berlin today the A6 Avant follows the sedan with a striking LED headlight design and the latest six point Audi shield grille upfront. Past the A pillar the designs diverge for obvious reasons as the Avant features a fast sloping roof line not commonly seen on wagons. The new A6 Avant is a large wagon measuring 194 inches in length and riding on a 114.5 inch wheelbase. With aluminum comprising around 20% of the A6 body Audi was able to drop as much as 150 pounds compared to the previous generation. The lighter curb weight is certainly one of the reasons for the 18% reduction in fuel economy when compared to the last A6 Avant. Powering the Avant are four diesel engines and two gasoline. Most of the engines carry over from the sedan except the new two stage twin-turbo V6 3.0 TDI that delivers a staggering 313 horsepower. Audi claims that the twin-turbo TDI will propel the Avant to 60 in only 5.4 seconds. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that the latest A6 Avant will be sold in America. Nevertheless, take a look at over 70 photos of the new Avant below.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Best Green Car Designs

Over the past few years the number of green cars on sale has increased dramatically with new hybrids, mild hybrids, plug-in hybrids and pure electric cars available for sale. While styling still remains form follows function the automakers are finally starting to spice up their green designs with additional details and styling elements. With that in mind let's take a look at the best hybrid/electric designs out for sale today. To keep out mainstream sedans we will only be looking at vehicles that are available only as hybrids, no Camry/Fusion/Altima hybrids here.

Sixth: Honda Insight

The car that invented "hybrid" hatchback styling (the first Prius was a sedan) is back but looks stale in comparison to its competition. Having grown in size compared to the original Insight the second generation model looks like a dead ringer for the second generation Prius. While both derive their shape from the aerodynamic kammback styling the newest Insight lacks the sharper styling of the newest Prius.

Fifth: Nissan Leaf

Using a more conventional hatchback/wagon shape than its Japanese competitors the Leaf looks more like a regular car. Nevertheless the big headlights upfront and swoopy design lines throughout give the Leaf distinct styling. Overall the design is interesting and lets people identify the Leaf as an electric car but it's also an electric car that does not look particularly great.

Fourth: Lexus HS 250h

If Toyota kept its second and third generation Prii as sedans the end result would have likely been very similar to the HS. Looking like a mix between the Japan only Toyota Allion and the Europe only Toyota Avensis the HS is by far the most ordinary looking pure hybrid available for sale in America. While the overall shape is fairly clean it lacks the overall design impact one would expect from a luxury oriented brand like Lexus.

Third: Lexus CT 200h

The first hatchback Lexus is clearly designed with Europe in mind as the Audi A3, BMW 1 series and the upcoming Mercedes A-class competitor would look more at home in Europe. Nevertheless the smallest Lexus hybrid has a nice design that does a good job combining an aggressive front end with curvy lines elsewhere.

Second: Toyota Prius

While the second generation Prius achieved instant recognizability as a hybrid and was the first (and essentially only) hybrid to achieve significant sales it is the third generation Prius that finally brought some styling to the table. The Prius gained sharp creases with the third generation and overall looks significantly better than the second generation blob.

First: Chevrolet Volt

Using a fairly conventional sedan styling the Volt looks like a smaller yet better designed Lexus HS250. Overall clean styling already puts the Volt ahead most of its competition but unique elements like the faux grille that looks real, sharp headlights and taillights give the Volt a unique design. The Volt takes first place by having the best combination of goods looks while still looking different enough to stand as an alternatively powered vehicle.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Vote on a Ford GT Sucessor

The original Ford GT40 was a four time Le Mans winning race car in the late 1960s and still stands as one of the most iconic Le Mans racers of all time. Naturally when Ford decided to build a super car in the twenty first century they went with a reborn GT40. Built in 2005 and 2006 the Ford GT arrived on the scene with a tremendous amount of hype from the general public and the automotive press, fortunately for Ford the GT was able to live up to the hype with its outstanding performance. As it's been over five years since the last GT rolled of the assembly line it appears that Ford is once again looking at producing a supercar* to compete with the world's best. Take a look at these three sketches and head on over to Road & Track to vote for you favorite. My vote goes to the silver Ford GT by Radovan Varicak.

*Road&Track thinks that Ford may build a GT successor in the next few years, but this is certainly not guaranteed. However a good positive public reaction should help so go ahead and vote!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Pickup Sales Fall in April

About a month ago pickup sales were at their highest point in recent memory even with gas passing four dollars a gallon in some places. As expected the trend did not last long and every brand save Toyota saw sales of their full size pickups fall compared to last month. Spurred by high demand for its V6 engines Ford's F-150 led all with 45,435 sales in April, while this was an improvement over a year ago it could not match the previous month's sales. In second place the Chevy Silverado posted its second worst month of the year and was fractionally worse compared to a year ago. Much like the Sierra the Dodge Ram struggled when compared to March but was able to improve upon 2010 sales by around four thousand units. The biggest surprise of the month was certainly the Toyota Tundra that continued to improve its sales for the fourth month this year as it closed its gap to the GMC Sierra. Click the chart below to see pickup sales over the course of this year.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Looking at Luxury Brands Selling Prices

There is always a lot of talk about which luxury brand is the best, which luxury brand sells the most, and which brands even deserve to be called luxury altogether. To clear up some of these questions let's take a look at the average selling prices of the biggest eleven brands that claim to sell luxury cars in the United States. While the manufacturers do not release their average transaction prices in the way that they do with overall sales figures here is our best attempt to see who gets the most for their cars on average. At the top is Mercedes-Benz with an average asking price of around 55,000 per vehicle. Mercedes has by far the most models available for sale in the 75,000+ range. Second is BMW which is able to average a little over 50,000 per every vehicle sold. BMW falls behind Mercedes by offering fewer models over 100,000. Up third is Cadillac that benefits greatly by moving a significant amount of its pricey Escalades every month. Following Cadillac is Audi that sells its models for comparable prices as Mercedes and BMW but moves fewer A6 models compared to the competition. Up next is Infiniti that charges around 45,000 on average followed closely by Lexus that loses ground because of a significant amount of ES sales. Lincoln is able to average a little over 40,000 thanks to Town Car and Navigator sales. Right around the 40,000 dollar cutoff Acura suffers by not having a true flagship sedan or having a coupe or convertible version of the TSX. Opening up the premium category Volvo lacks serious firepower without a V8 in its lineup. Second to last Buick is a great example of selling vehicles at a premium but not luxury prices. Bringing up the rear is Chrysler with a majority of its sales comprised by the 200 and the Town&Country minivan.

*The data represented below is an attempt to find out the average selling prices of the luxury brands based on their product mix. The figures are averaged based on sales, thus a brand selling more flagship sedans versus entry level models has a higher average price than a brand selling mostly entry level models. Because of lack of sales figures BMW's M lineup and Mercedes's AMG models were not factored in, thus those brands likely have slightly higher transaction prices than indicated here.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

April 2011 Sales Recap

Car sales continued to surge in April with the industry up 18% overall with many brands once again posting some of their best sales ever and other brands regaining their former glory. Pacing the industry was the surprising Mitsubishi brand that more than doubled its sales thanks to its two Outlander crossovers. On the other side of the spectrum Porsche also showed an incredible 82% sales growth thanks to excellent sales of its Cayenne SUV. The new Grand Cherokee also powered Jeep sales on route to a 65% improvement. Among the largest automakers Chevrolet and Ford both posted sales increases of around 25% percent with both automakers experiencing stronger car sales than truck sales. Of note was the Chevy Cruze breaking past the 25,000 sales figure for the first time. Kia and Hyundai continued their blistering sales pace with improvements of 56.7 and 40% respectively. Japanese mainstream automakers on the other hand saw more subdued sales increases with Nissan registering a 12.2 increase, Honda a 10% improvement while Toyota only managed a a 2 percent improvement. Dwindling inventories are likely to play an even greater role in the coming months for the Japanese automakers.

April was the first month that saw the Nissan Leaf outsell the Chevrolet Volt 573 to 493. With about twice as many Volts on the streets currently it will be interesting to see how this plays out the rest of the year. Also it will be interesting to see how the mix between cars, crossovers and pickups continues throughout the year. Currently pickups and SUVs are losing market share but are not facing declining sales when compared to last year just yet. Stay tuned to see if the trend continues.