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 thought 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.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Tesla As Foil To German Luxury Brands

The news that Mercedes sold a couple of thousand more cars than Audi in September wasn't particularly noteworthy in itself. It was however a great reminder at the total volume that the leading German luxury brands including BMW are doing worldwide putting them ahead of many "mainstream" brands. The brands all claim that sales aren't what they are chasing but sales are linked to profits and combined the two powers certainly impact the cars the brands produce. The other piece of news from last week, the Tesla D intro, actually serves as quite the foil for the Big 3 German luxury brands. Tesla's worldwide sales for all of 2014 will be about what Mercedes and BMW do in one month in the US alone, but it's the progression of improvement over at Tesla that makes it noteworthy. The D is set to match if not even surpass comparable AMG, M and RS models acceleration wise well up into big ticket range. The leap in performance and assistive technologies over the original Model S looks like an incredible commitment to the product and the vision of creating their version of the best possible car out there. It's the kind of product improvement that makes you question how true to words are the German brands to their famous taglines and what more that they could do if they were focused more on product rather than profit. Could they push even more performance today or make designs that much more daring and stunning? It will be intriguing to see over the next few years how the Big 3 change their products in response, if they do at all. Possibly completely uninfluenced, the Audi LA Auto Show concept is something to watch with Audi letting go of some of its design restraint. It's the kind of thinking that the established brands might need in the future.


Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Biggest Technological Failure of This Decade

Each on their own the engineering teams of BMW, Chrysler, General Motor and Mercedes have produced some amazing products over the years. In a rare case of teamwork, cooperation and perhaps desperation the four diverse brands teamed up on the Dual Mode Hybrid System in a project called the Global Hybrid Partnership. The combined engineering synergy resulted in a much hyped hybrid powertrain too complex to explain yet one promising the world. As with many overhyped projects the Global Hybrid Partnership began to dissolve literally as soon as the first models hit dealerships and saw some of the brands sell fewer hybrids than Ferraris Enzos.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Most Memorable Cars on the Screen

Cars and movies have been around for about as many years and it didn't take long for the two to form an inseparable bond that would yield many classics over the years. From James Bond and the DB5 to Steve McQueen and the Mustang and Marty McFly and the DeLorean, cars have starred in movies just as much as the actors. Likewise Miami Vice, Magnum P.I., Knight Rider, and Dukes of Hazzard have made their corresponding cars famous on the TV screen. While these iconic collaborations have withstood the test of time here are a few recent ones.

Breaking Bad: Pontiac Aztek

Before Breaking Bad swept all the Emmys this past year and Walter White entered the empire business the Pontiac Aztek's only claim to fame was making essentially every ugliest car list there is. These days the first thought spotting an Aztek is to quickly scan the area to stay clear of any possible kingpin danger. The show came too late to help the Aztek or Pontiac but it does leave the Aztek with a slightly more respectable legacy.