Tuesday, September 30, 2014

We Will Buy What We Want To Buy

The power of a simple yet bold design is something that is hard to put in perspective at times. It may come as a surprise but the "Geländewagen " G class AMG is the best selling AMG model in the United States. The slowest, heaviest, worst handling AMG you can buy is the most popular one in the land. AMG is spending millions on its Formula 1 program but its most popular model relies on recirculating ball steering, live axles and aerodynamics of a box. The AMG model makes up over 60% of all Gs sold and sales worldwide are surging this past decade. Equipped with the same twin-turbo V8, the ML63 and even the larger GL63 AMG easily out accelerate the G class and slay it in every performance category. In fact even the Ford SVT Raptor and Ram Power Wagon on knobby tires demolish it on the skidpad, as does a 4 ton dually. This matters little to the G class as sometimes a design catches fire and the image it projects becomes everything. The G class enjoys tremendous popularity among image conscious celebrities many years after the Hummer lost its popularity even though the G is the thirstiest SUV on sale in America today. Brands will spend billions on developing new platforms and designs and then millions more advertising them but sometimes as the G proves one of your hottest products will be the one you don't spend any money on. It's hard to understand but people will buy what they want to buy! And all you can do is give them what they want.

The G Still Looks Great

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Outside Perspective Can Be Awesome

At times you think you know it all and you have considered all the angles to the story only to be rudely awakened when something new appears. The common perception is that the minivan segment is on a permanent decline never to be relevant again. Perhaps a Volkswagen hippie bus revival could make it exciting, but that ain't happening. Enter a little outside perspective from France that shows there is something still left to be done with the minivan shape. The Renault Espace has always had spacey styling and Renault even stuffed an 800 horsepower Formula 1 V10 into it before. Thus it's not unexpected that the newest Espace is the most stylish looking van you will ever find. About 10 inches shorter than American vans and lacking sliding doors the Espace nevertheless has an abundance of style that makes you believe that the van isn't quite dead, yet. Perhaps Nissan can take a gamble on it as you can almost pass it off as a crossover.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Baby Designs That Rule

Shrinkage in general is never a good thing whether from the warehouse, your bank account or from your favorite sweater. It's also true in design as at best a shrunken-down design ends up being cute but rarely fierce or gorgeous. Fortunately there are exceptions as the following three recent "baby" designs prove that a tailored slim fit look can do wonders at times. Not only do all three do an excellent job of adapting the brand design to their smaller proportions but arguably end up with better and fresher designs than their more expensive brandmates.

Audi A3

The A3 sedan reminds many of the popular fan favorite "B5" Audi A4 based on its size and tidy design. The A3 sedan leans heavily on the current A4 but sharpens up every angle perfectly. It is one of the rare sedans developed out of hatchbacks that actually looks better than its five door counterpart and has a completely own identity. While both are stylish compacts the A3 works the Audi design theme better than its rival CLA does the Mercedes theme.


Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Future of The Auto Industry

Even among best sales figures in a decade there has been lots of chatter of the future of the auto industry, in particular in regards to its waning interest from young adults and teens. Many causes have been cited for America's disappearing love affair with the automobile from simple to complex. Unfortunately for the auto industry the biggest reason is also one that can't be changed simply because that's how the game works. This past week has seen the release of two different phones that perfectly illustrate the difference between the auto and phone industry and the excitement each generates. The Porsche design Blackberry retails for almost ten times the iPhone 6 yet features roughly the same hardware specifications as the iPhone. And unlike with cars there is only so much that you can do with the candy bar smartphone shape. The beauty and appeal of the smartphone game is that you can post an iPhone 6 release date selfie on Instagram just like your favorite celebrity. You won't get nearly as many likes but for all intents and purposes you can own the best smartphone on the market* just like your favorite millionaire or billionaire. This is certainly something the average person can get excited and feel good about as they certainly aren't driving the same car as their favorite celebrity. It's hard for the auto industry to compete on this level and generate the same buzz. Nevertheless it's not all lost as long as the industry continues to deliver well engineered and designed products, they might not catch as many headlines as in the past but the foundation will be solid. An important followup key is then to be able to explain the technology in meaningful and relatable ways.

* if you think Galaxy or HTC or LG makes the best phone there is no difference they are all priced the same.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Put Up or Shut Up Time for Audi

Audi is the best selling luxury brand outside of the United States but like everyone the brand is not without its faults. Known for creating elegant designs that very rarely have anything really wrong with them the biggest downside for Audi is that many find them cold, clinical and conservative. The flagship A8 is perhaps the biggest offender lacking the flair and in your face panache that many expect in its segment. Over the past few years Audi executives have promised a new Audi design direction throughout numerous interviews but so far there have been more changes of the aforementioned executives than actual change. Given the promises, Audi's upcoming A9 concept carries a heavy burden of expectations and responsibility to give people more of what they want. The four door coupe is an excellent starting point for a dramatic design and Audi should be smart enough to give the A9 plenty of length to work with to develop dramatic proportions. To differentiate the design Audi should give the A9 unique head and tail lights not seen on current Audis. To complement the design it would be great to see Audi throw away all reservations when it comes to the powertrain and turbo its W12 to over 650 horsepower though a hybrid 4.0T is much likelier for the concept. A great interior is a given from Audi and should be the cherry on top if everything else goes well. The promises have been made and it's now time for Audi to deliver, at least in concept form.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Toyota FCV Spy Shots With a View

Death Valley is usually the go to place for automakers to test their new vehicles to their limits in extreme conditions away from most prying eyes. Occasionally though, you can spot new cars testing in slightly more hospitable and picturesque places as a few weeks ago the Toyota FCV was undergoing some testing in some milder climates, perhaps to see if it could handle 75 degrees and a little sea breeze! Or the test driver just wanted to go to the beach. The FCV immediately sticks out as something new and intriguing thanks to its triangle shaped lights, especially the reflector in the bumper. Unfortunately for Toyota, the first impression is not entirely favorable for something meant to carry the fuel cell banner. It is definitely a vehicle that will be noticed and has an alternative look, but the overall vibe is that of a reboot of the first generation Prius and one that is a bit too tall and narrow. Toyota knows best though given its success with the design of the Prius in the past and a unique model makes more sense for a fuel cell push than say a Tuscon.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Cars & Coffee Symbolic Round Two Highlights

Symbolic hosted another Cars & Coffee (and Krispy Kremes) event this past weekend and as always there were certainly quite a few interesting cars to check out. Along with the usual collection of Audi, Bentley, BMW, Mercedes, Ferrari and various other exotics there were certainly a few standouts in the Carrera GT, Bugatti Veyron Vitesse and the brand new Lamborghini Huracan. Follow the link for more photos and impressions.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Concept Cars That Should Be Built Right Now

It's fun and easy to pretend play with someone else's money and there is nothing better than imaging how you would run a multi-billion dollar auto company. Fantasy sports are a close second though. It's particularly fun to greenlight awesome concepts that brands have deserted over the years. Usually this involves ignoring technological feasibility or market demands but there are concepts that seem to be guaranteed slam dunks if they were produced. Here are a few concepts from the past with awesome design and strong business cases that would need minimal updates to succeed today.

Volkswagen Microbus/Bulli

 The 2001 Volkswagen Microbus Concept is still one of the best concepts to never see the light of day. It's the one that got away. Certainly the minivan market is not strong enough today for Volkswagen to make a case for the Microbus anymore and the Routan experiment doesn't help one bit.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Why You Should Not Fear Ferrari Expansion

The recent board room shuffle at Ferrari has a lot of people worried that Ferrari is about to embark on a dark path that ends with the prancing horse on a grille of an SUV or even worse, a crossover. The image is a hard one to accept but there is a strong precedence that great things can happen when brands think outside the box. Many of our favorite products, services and entertainment options exist today thanks to iconic tech and Silicon Valley companies that expanded their portfolios by entering previously foreign to them markets. Apple was a computer company first with limited success in other areas before it entered the portable player and phone business, the rest is history. Netflix was a DVD rental company before it started streaming and creating its own shows. Likewise, Amazon mailed physical boxes before creating its own products and digital services. Google was simply a search engine that has since touched just about everything and is even flirting with the auto industry. Even the comparably conservative Microsoft has expanded past software to much fanfare.

If Lamborghini goes through with the Urus it should not be faulted for creating an SUV, it should only be judged if it does not create the sharpest looking and best performing SUV out there. Likewise, Bentley should only be criticized if it does not produce the most luxurious SUV experience out there. Having already ventured off-road Porsche shows that sports car brands can certainly deliver the best driving experience in their new respective segments. Though perhaps it's best not to force your iconic design so strongly. The financial stability generated by the Cayenne has allowed Porsche to invest in its sports cars and indulge in dream machines such as the Carrera GT and the 918 Spyder. If automotive history is any indication we should all be grateful that Porsche and Lamborghini were not afraid to branch out beyond their humble origins in air conditioners, tractors and bugs.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

We Are Far Too Spoiled to Even Realize It

Considering that Jaguar has spent over 2.5 billion on the XE you might almost feel a little bad for the brand given the somewhat lukewarm meh reaction outside of the British media. Looking at the elements at play in the XE it's clear that the automotive industry has all of us just a little bit spoiled and it's becoming harder than ever to impress us. The forthcoming high performance variant of the XE will likely match the power output of the famed Jaguar XJ220 super car that was once the fastest car in the world. Much like the XJ220, the XE features plenty of aluminum and is poised to lead a growing group of aluminum intensive cars at increasingly more reasonable prices. While the design is not unexpected, the XE does take the best of the XF while skipping the strangeness of the XJ. Impressively it does so with an aerodynamic coefficient of just .26 without looking like a Prius or a jellybean. Not to mention it's light years ahead of the awkward turtle X-Type it replaces. The XE is an excellent start to take a look at the state of the auto industry in the Fall of 2014 and how we take it for granted at times.

Full size luxury sedans are breaking into the 3s to 60 all while delivering 30 mpg on the highway. As impressive as that go is, the stop might be even more so as there are 5,000+ pounds SUVs that will outbreak a Lamborghini Murcielago. And if you forget to brake on your own many new cars will do so for you. If all else fails though you are better off than ever, the IIHS had to invent a new test to keep itself relevant and not hand out a gold star to every model. The older models looked bad at first against a very solid barrier but it didn't take long for newer models designed with the test in mind to pass with flying colors. Sure it's an element of test beating but so is the entire US education system and there should be tangible real world benefits as well. While Dr. Evil might never get his wish of sharks with laser beams your car might soon if the government cooperates and lets through technology that allows you to see twice as far as before without blinding anyone on the other side of the road. If that isn't impressive enough there is also a brand out there on every other brand's radar offering a very stylish and very quick car with a very usable electric range. Sure, the auto industry feels slow compared to monthly app updates and yearly new phone releases but there is also no option for a restart at 85 in the fast lane.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Plug In Sports Cars Rated by the EPA

No long ago a hyper car's EPA fuel economy was nothing more than a specs footnote. These days however the owner and fan bragging rights might extend beyond acceleration and lap times and into EPA ratings. Earlier this year the Porsche 918 Spyder became the first plug in hyper car to be rated by the EPA to the tune of 20 mpg city and 24 mpg on the highway along with a gasoline equivalent of 67 mpg while operating solely on electricity. No longer is the 918 Spyder the only (almost) million dollar member of the plug in hybrid club as the McLaren P1 is now also officially rated by the EPA. The P1 is good for 16 mpg city and 20 highway and 17 in combined driving. It appears that while you can get up to 19 miles of plug in assisted driving from the battery, the benefits are so tiny that you will end up averaging only 1 mpg better driving as a plug in. For reference the McLaren 650S that uses a lower output version of the same 3.8 twin turbo V8 is good for 16 city and 22 highway, but of course the P1 blows it away performance wise. Thus the P1 does pretty well for greatly increasing performance while minimizing fuel economy loses. More impressive mpg wise, is the BMW i8 which is officially good for 28 mpg in the city and 29 on the highway as a hybrid and will deliver a combined gasoline and electricity usage rate of 76 mpg as a plug in in its first 15 miles. Of course the i8 is playing in the minor leagues performance wise compared to the 918 and the P1 but it's fun to compare regardless. It's unknown yet how well the last plug in hyper car, the Ferrari LaFerrari will do, but Ferrari has been able to harness the efficiency of the turbo to achieve an EPA rating of 16/23 for the California T. It's a decent improvement over the 14/19 rating of the original California.

Monday, September 1, 2014

How Mercedes Perfected Audi's Recipe

Don't look now but Mercedes has perfected what was once a unique Audi recipe of turbocharging, engine downsizing and all wheel drive. As Mercedes is about to launch its latest C-class on American roads the entry model is powered by a turbocharged four cylinder while the performance model is a turbo V6. Both models are for the time being are only available with all wheel drive, you will have to wait until next year for a rear wheel drive option. The powertrain combination of a small displacement turbo and all wheel drive that dates back to the 1997 A4 is now Benz's preferred method of doing business. At the bottom of its range Mercedes will sell you a front wheel drive turbo dual clutch CLA with an all wheel drive option from AMG much like Audi did with the A3. At AMG likewise all wheel drive is available on most models and is standard on the newest releases. When the current A6 debuted a few years back Audi cut out the V8 for all but the S6. This upcoming year the E-Class drops the V8 and replaces it with a turbo V6. Mercedes has actually leapfrogged Audi in regards to engine downsizing to a certain degree as it will equip its ML SUV with a 4 cylinder turbo diesel.

Arguably Mercedes has not only followed Audi's recipe but has improved upon the idea as it waited until technology has progressed sufficiently powerful and smooth before pairing smaller turbocharged engines and all wheel drive creating a smooth transition from Mercedes of old. It's no longer classical Mercedes powertrain underneath and combined with flowing styling Mercedes is doing better than ever.

The Antithesis of Clean Design

Cadillac went for a streamlined look with its latest Escalade, the head lights flow into a side profile with subtle fenders and devoid of any unnecessary fender vents. The design works as intended until you get to the second row window that is bisected by dividers and plastic space fillers. On a spotless profile the window sticks out as out of place. Engineering logistics certainly dictate what designers can do with the window but the last generation Escalade was able to keep the glass completely clear of any obstructions. On the other hand, Cadillac's competitor Land Rover was able to do an excellent job cleaning up the side profile on its latest Range Rover Sport model. Gone was the unsightly divider of the first generation replaced with just a small plastic space filler at the bottom. It's a small change but it helps greatly in keeping the continuity of the Range Rover Sport design.