Thursday, August 28, 2014

Seriously Dramatic In Generation Powertrain Changes

Almost every brand these days has mastered the mid-cycle facelift. A quick update or two a little more than half way in to the product's lifespan to keep the model fresh and the newer competition at bay. Often this yields little more than some new lights, bumpers and other easily changeable pieces. It's rare to see significant powertrain changes for the mid-cycle facelift but occasionally automakers will have a strong urge to yank out the old and put in something completely different. At times patience runs out even before the scheduled facelift. Here are a few of the most dramatic "in generation" powertrain changes with some surprising and amazing results.

Mercedes Benz E55 to E63 AMG

It's especially rare to see an engine change for a high performance version considering the limited volume at play but that is exactly what Mercedes did when it went from a supercharged 5.4 liter V8 to a sweet sounding naturally aspirated 6.3 liter V8 for the last generation E Class AMG.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Three 1990s Designs That Still Matter Today

The 1990s seems like a long time ago and technology has progressed leaps and bounds between then and now. The smartphone in your pocket has more pixels than the finest TV of the decade and more computing power and memory than the desktops of the day to boot. Likewise, the automotive industry has progressed significantly with minivans that have more power than sport scars of the day and automatic gearboxes with triple the gear count. Yet not all is lost from the decade as the following three designs have each left a lasting legacy that is visible in many vehicles on the market today.

Volkswagen New Beetle

Introduced as a concept in 1994 and as a production car for the 1998 model year the New Beetle was a tremendous sales success for Volkswagen, particularly in the United States. The New Beetle would kickoff the retro themed design party that would last well through the next decade and into the current. Once the hottest trend in automotive design the PT Cruiser, Thunderbird, HHR, Mustang, Camaro and the Challenger would follow in the Beetle's footsteps. While not all proved to be successful in the long run and the retro theme in general appears to be losing steam, the New Beetle has certainly created a long lasting legacy perhaps only overshadowed by its famous rear engine predecessor.


Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Why Going Downmarket Doesn't Hurt

With the ability to get into a new Audi, BMW or Mercedes for less than the average new car on the market there has been a lot of chatter of the German 3 dropping down. Whether through underboosted engines or through physically smaller models the cost of entry is under 30,000 for two of them and the other gives you a 5,000 discount. With such a seemingly low price point many have wondered if the brands are diluting themselves and their heritage and if their top of the line models are still special. While some of the media has called out the brands the consumer has paid little attention. Neither the recently introduced A3 sedan nor the earlier debut of the CLA has hurt either brand's sales of its top of the line models. The people that are buying the flagship Mercedes and Audi models costing over 100,000 aren't concerned that someone else can buy a Mercedes or an Audi for only 30,000. As long as they are getting a product with power, design and technology commensurate with the price of admission the existence of an entry level model won't bother them. Even for the few status conscious that do want to show off how much their car is worth there is little to worry as it isn't hard to see that an S class or an A8 retail for a quite a bit more than 30,000.

As with everything there are practical limits and thresholds that shouldn't be breached but so far both Audi and Mercedes have introduced a new model at the lower end of their spectrum without missing a beat at the top. The second round is coming right up as both are introducing the crossover version shortly.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Five Most Influential Cars of the Past Decade

A lot can happen in a decade in the world of sports, politics, art, technology and life in general. The same can also be said about the auto industry. Aside from the Volvo XC90, every surviving model has gone through at least one complete generation and some are on their third. With that in mind let's take a look at five models over the past decade that have had the greatest impact on the industry through their design or technology. The list is in chronological order to avoid picking favorites.

2004 Toyota Prius

It wasn't the first hybrid, it wasn't even the first Prius but the second generation Prius was the one that put hybrids on the map and eventually made nearly every automaker produce their own. Even the German brands. The second generation brought about 20% better city and 10% better highway fuel economy, at the time the Prius posted an unrealistic 60 mpg city and 51 highway labels*. Even more importantly the Prius brought a unique shape to the market in a usable size. The first generation Prius had an awkward sedan shape that didn't help its cause. Toyota would commit the same exact mistake a few years later with the Lexus HS hybrid that struggled to sell as well. The second generation Prius didn't make hybrids cool but it made them mainstream relevant. The latest million dollar halo cars from Ferrari, McLaren and Porsche are all... hybrids.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Hardest Working Powertrains In the Business

As with sports teams, smartphones and cars in general, not all horsepower ratings are created equal. The more instrumented tests you see the clearer it becomes that 200 horsepower from one brand does not necessarily result in the same performance as 200 horsepower from another. There are certainly some serious underachievers in the industry but for now let's keep it positive and take a look at three of the hardest working powertrain combinations (in alphabetical order) that make a mockery of physics and their competition.

Audi S6 4.0T V8

The current Audi S6 dropped a pair of cylinders and 1.2 liters of displacement between generations. It did gain a pair of turbos but on paper it lost 15 horsepower and gained only an irrelevant 8 lb-ft of torque. On paper the S6 represents a rare case of a new generation delivering less horsepower than before, something almost unheard of for a performance model. Thankfully, the S6 is an overachiever for the ages with magical turbos, all wheel drive grip and a dual clutch gearbox with launch control working in tandem to knock of nearly two seconds (3.7) from the sprint to 60 and add 11 mph (115) in the 1/4 mile trap speed versus the previous generation. It's one thing to compare models 6 years apart but let's see how the 4.0T compares to its contemporary competition. The Cadillac CTS Vsport brings the same 420 horsepower, more torque and less weight to the table yet it's almost a second slower to 60 and about 2.5 seconds to 130. The CTS Vsport is no slouch but it's hard to believe that the S6 is only packing 420 horsepower when it delivers performance on par with the 556 horsepower CTS-V.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Predicting Tesla Model X Sales

With the recent news that Americans purchased more crossovers than sedans for the first in history it's not hard to fathom why the luxury crossover is all the rage these days. The joke is that Audi is planning to put a Q in front of every number, BMW an X and Mercedes is already almost there. Nevertheless the reality is that for the luxury brands formal sedans still outsell their crossover counterparts by a significant margin, especially at BMW and Mercedes. The gap is smaller at Audi and Lexus was perhaps ahead of the trend altogether. Still everyone sees opportunity there for the taking with crossovers and a new entrant altogether is coming next year with Tesla. The biggest question is if the Model X will become the brand's best seller for the foreseeable future. Overall I would lean towards a yes as the Model S is certainly more a long the lines of a Mercedes CLS, BMW 6 Series and an Audi A7 and those models come up short sales wise to their crossover counterparts. Yet, the Model S will still be the "sedan" option it's not reasonable to expect the model X to outsell the S by margin that the Q7 does the A7 for example. As a further confirmation the Cayenne outsells the Panamera at Porsche which until recently had one option in each category much like Tesla will.

Based on the best estimates the Model S has done around 1,350 units a month this year and considering the newness factor of the Model X when it comes out compared to a well known commodity in the Model S, it's not unreasonable to predict at least 2,000 units a month for the Model X in its first year along with a slight drop off for the model S.