Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Diesels Are Coming! The Diesels Are Coming!

Rudolf Diesel's engine has had a rough time gaining much more than limited commercial acceptance in America. Widely popular with trucking companies for their monstrous torque and million-mile durability and with railroads for their greater efficiency and less maintenance over steam, the clattery compression cycle engine is viewed as a novelty to a majority of American motorists. Derided as smelly, noisy, and slow, diesel cars sold in America have never been very popular with the Volkswagen Golf and Jetta TDI often being the only diesel-equipped family cars, frequently sold without competition although the tides appear to be changing.

My current job maintains a fleet of some three hundred mini-buses, all of them diesels. The newest ones are a Chevrolet chassis motivated through life by GM's latest Duramax diesels while the older buses are Fords equipped with the venerable 6.0 liter Powerstroke. Although they are durable with many older examples showing close to 300,000 miles, the Powerstroke engine is exactly what the average American consumer thinks about when somebody utters the words 'diesel engine'. They're uncomfortably noisy when you're on the outside, even at idle, they smoke considerably and take an eternity to come up to temperature when it's cold outside and they lack the oomph of a gas equivalent chassis. The Duramax, on the other hand, starts and runs like a gasoline engine and is so quiet that you can even hear the turbo spool up under throttle. I've yet to see one smoke thanks to the exhaust fluid after-treatment and even though they've been tasked with hauling a vehicle weighing around 20,000 pounds fully loaded, they're no slouch off the line. However, there are drawbacks. During a cold snap this past winter when we were starting buses in temperatures close to zero, the Chevys would require six or seven glow plug warming cycles before coming to life while the Fords were cranking over first time out albeit with a longer glow plug warming times (around ten seconds). Despite this, engines like the Duramax diesels powering our newest buses are the future of diesel engines.

While public perception and inherent flaws of the diesel engine kept all but the most astute stingy buyers away from the rare US market offerings, emissions regulations did the rest to keep the remainder from even reaching showrooms. As emissions standards grew increasingly strict, import manufacturers began to refrain from providing them at all as the size of the market would never allow them to recover the costs to bring them up to spec. As a result, the availability of diesels has been restricted to larger cars with higher profit margins such as the Mercedes E-Class with the exception of the aforementioned Golf and Jetta. Currently the only diesel car available for under $30,000 in the United States outside the VW family is the Chevrolet Cruze 2.0 TD.

Now anyone over the age of fifty will likely remember what happened the last time GM tried to put a diesel engine in a passenger car in this country and is probably already cringing. For those who don't, it was such a disaster that it made the Titanic's maiden voyage look like a Hollywood success story. Rather than starting from scratch and building a purpose-built diesel engine, the general had what must have seemed like a great idea at the time and took the Oldsmobile 350 Rocket engine, made some tweaks and voila! Instant diesel power. What resulted was one of the most awful diesel engines ever made and served only to turn several generations off of diesel engines for good. As diesels operate off compression and not spark, their connecting rods, head bolts and studs associated with the big boom have to be considerably stronger but GM simply used the parts from the gas model with predictable results. Engines began warping heads, cracking head gaskets and causing hydrolock and when repaired like a gasoline engine, the problem went uncorrected for the rest of all time. Couple the atrocious reliability with acceleration times matching that of the average glacier (around 16-21 seconds to sixty for the worst offenders) and it's not hard to understand why older folks cringe and yell out, "WHY?!" when I tell them my friend just bought a Chevy Cruze with a diesel engine.

But there's no need to fear. The diesel engine in the Cruze is the real deal, straight out of GM Europe, a continent that knows a thing or two about diesel power. At idle it is a little clattery but certainly nothing like that of a 1980 Oldsmobile Cutlass Wagon Diesel which sounded a bit like that corner of a rest stop reserved for semi trucks of the same era. But once you're on the move, there's nothing to indicate what's going on under the hood. In addition to being quieter, the Cruze Diesel is quick at right around 8.5 seconds to 60 mph and gets amazing fuel economy. On a brief stint on US-26 with the cruise control set at 55, I saw a steady 64 MPG average over just a few miles. Now whether that could be maintained on a longer drive remains to be seen but one GM engineer claimed to have gotten over 900 miles out of a tank on a Cruze Diesel and I for one don't see any reason to believe he's lying. In terms of evolution, GM's 1970s diesels were the little amoebas found in pond slime while the two liter four pot in the Cruze is Scarlett Johansson. It's smart, pretty, ambitious and everybody is sure to want it when they find out their neighbor got one.

What allows the Cruze to meet stringent American (read: California) emissions standards is a small plastic tank that occupies the space in the trunk that would normally snuggle the spare tire. Contained within the tank is seven or eight gallons of a urea after-treatment (called Diesel Exhaust Fluid or DEF in the industry) sprayed into the exhaust at intervals to keep it squeaky clean. As of present, this system is only widely found in North America but is slowly finding its way around the world and as of 2018, European diesels will have to meet the same emissions requirements as the American ones. While DEF systems are not the only answer to meeting American standards (current VW and Audi TDI models sold here rely on whiz-bang German ingenuity), the making of equals means Americans longing for the diesels offered in Europe will finally begin to see them trickle across the Atlantic and into America's cities and suburbs. Ford, Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Nissan, Toyota, Volvo and more all offer cars with one or more diesel choices in Europe and though it's almost a guarantee we won't see all of them here, the diesel landscape is looking more promising now than it has in probably ever and I for one can't wait.

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Passenger Cars and SUVs Currently Sold in the US with a Diesel Engine Option

Audi A6
Audi A7
Audi A8
Audi Q5
Audi Q7
BMW 3-Series
BMW 5-Series
BMW 7-Series
BMW X3
BMW X5
Chevrolet Cruze
Jeep Grand Cherokee
Mazda 6 (currently awaiting emissions approval)
Mercedes-Benz E-Class (sedan only)
Mercedes-Benz GL-Class
Mercedes-Benz GLK-Class
Mercedes-Benz M-Class
Porsche Cayenne
Volkswagen Golf
Volkswagen Jetta / Jetta Sportwagon
Volkswagen Touareg
Volkwagen Beetle (only diesel convertible available in the US)
Volkswagen Passat

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Why Autonomous Cars Can't and Won't Take Over the World…Yet


Google made a pretty big stink over its fully autonomous prototype car that was unveiled a few weeks ago. Completely devoid of so much as a steering wheel, any sort of pedals or styling, I have to say there are a list of things that I would do before I'd get into the Google Car and that includes a romantic, candle-lit dinner with Hannibal Lecter.

The Google Car is the ugliest thing to ever sit atop four wheels...ever...full stop. It makes the Pontiac Aztek look like Brooke Shields at nineteen and would cause even the most devout Edsel detractor to go scrambling for the keys to take a spin. But despite its cartoonishly dour appearance, the Google Car has attracted attention both positive and negative and people either can't wait to get the chance to buy one or are dreading the day they show up and that goes back to how certain people perceive driving.

For the majority of us, driving is a chore, a boring, tedious exercise that just has to be done to get where you need to be. I am firmly in the opposite camp that finds driving exciting, fun, and adventurous. For me, getting behind the wheel is the point of driving, not the destination but I can totally understand the appeal of being driven around the city, not having to worry about anything except what you'll do after work. But despite that, the Google Car brings a trickle of fear to my mind because I can now see the genesis of the time when our privilege to drive for ourselves will be selectively removed, likely "for our own good". Or will it?

A dated study (the only one I could find) from 1985 showed that a whopping 93% of vehicle crashes in Britain and the US were caused either partly or wholly by human factors. If anything, I'd wager this number has likely gone up in the intervening years due to the improvements in the performance and design of cars and the increasingly distracted nature of smart phone addicted drivers. There's no denying that autonomous cars hold the potential to greatly reduce traffic congestion and almost completely eliminate the human role in car crashes, especially in today's world but there's a part of this that hasn't been investigated thoroughly and in my opinion, until it has been, I wouldn't put any money on autonomous vehicles taking over the world just yet.

Consider this; with autonomous cars there would be no reckless driving, no speeding, no running of stop signs or red lights and no road rage. Pedestrians could cross the road safely, bicyclists would be given plenty of room and there's a solid chance that in the future, physical traffic control devices such as signs and signals would disappear from the landscape entirely as the autonomous vehicle network is built up and begins to communicate. Sounds like paradise, doesn't it? To you it might, but not to the elected and appointed officials that run our governments.

Per the National Motorist Association, anywhere between $4.5 and $6 billion is raised annually from traffic fines alone. Say that figure out loud slowly. Go ahead…I'll wait. SIX....BILLION.

No matter your political leaning, left, right, center, whatever, you have to realize that cities and states across the nation are not going to just let that cash cow out to pasture without one hell of a fight, especially with how much cash-strapped cities are now leaning on their police departments to bring in extra cheddar. Think about it; no more drivers means no more cell phone violations, no more red light running or rolling through stop signs, no speeding, no failure to signal and no improper lane changes. Zip…zilch…nada. The only thing left to squeeze out of autonomous cars would be parking tickets and expired tags. And the government will not be the only one to suffer from this sudden loss of income.

Insurance companies would be left insuring something that is virtually impossible to crash, will be very hard to steal and the only thing they'll likely be insuring it against is the odd chance that a tree happens to crush it in the middle of the night. It happens in insurance commercials but car-crushing trees are a fairly rare thing in the real world. Sure they'd be paying out far less but I'd bet a sizable chunk of my monthly premium that you wouldn't pay what you're paying now to cover a car you can't crash and that nobody else can hit. And the list of potential victims goes on; automotive body shops would vanish virtually overnight, companies that specialize in traffic control and signals as well as those involved in photo radar and red light cameras would become a mere memory, no more pizza delivery drivers to tip, and the enterprise that has built itself up around humans and the things we do, accidentally and intentionally, behind the wheel would almost completely cease to exist. Millions would find themselves out of work, billions of dollars would be lost, and an industry reduced to the bare minimum is the future in a world where cars aren't controlled by humans. I cannot conceive of a scenario where at least one person would go unaffected by a world without cars driven by people. I'm sure some of you are likely screaming at your computer screen right now, saying that somebody in 1915 was probably going on the same way about carriage makers and blacksmiths and you are right. The displaced millions would find other work but the difference is that horses remain very popular as a sport and hobby interest solely for the beauty of the animal and while the industry surrounding horses is a mere shadow of what it once was, billions in ticket revenue didn't ride on the back of a horse. And that's the bitter truth.


If the day comes that autonomous cars do take over our roads entirely, you can bet that a whole slough of fees will be attached to them (at purchase, annually, or both) to make up for the lost ticket revenue the average motorist provides Uncle Sam in any given year and like the frequency of traffic tickets, it would go up 'as needed'. You may be ready for autonomous cars but if you follow the money, you'll find that very few others are.

Friday, January 31, 2014

2014 Toyota Venza - Quick Drive



For once, a little truth in advertising.

In 2008, Toyota announced the Venza for the following model year and I remember being struck by its styling and how un-Toyota this vehicle appeared from the outside. It was the first Toyota product in many years that actually caught and held my attention for more than a few minutes but somehow, it escaped my test-drive list until now.

Lately I've been feeling the effects of an ailment I have affectionately dubbed AADD for Automotive Attention Deficit Disorder and despite loving my 2012 Hyundai Elantra, my AADD has had me ordering brochures and prowling the lots for the next shiny set of wheels to cross my path. Although I have no plans to replace my current car, I had to scratch my new-car itch just to get the urge out of my system so I located a Venza LE in Classic Silver Metallic and hit the road for a 24-hour quick test of this odd-man-out Toyota.

Despite disapproving strongly of Toyota's direction over the past decade or so (a point I made clear in my last post), what the Venza showed me right off the bat was not what I was expecting. Exterior fit and finish was very good with consistent panel gaps and a nice paint job low on orange-peel, an unappealing characteristic that has been the result of newer, environmentally friendly paints. The Venza's exterior has changed little since its introduction with only a minor refresh starting with the 2013 model year so the 14 I tested was a carryover with only minor changes. Up front, the broad satin-finish grille is flanked by smart-looking headlights with fog lamps set into gloss black housings placed low on the bumper. The Venza is much more the result of a minivan and station wagon mating than it is SUV and the low roofline and wide glass area are further proof of this fact. A clever pinch line along the bottoms of the doors is accented by a protective rub strip and adds enough flavor to keep it interesting without being ostentatious. Towards the rear, the Venza shows a dash of DNA from the SUV side of the family with a thick D-pillar and a fairly small rear window above angular yet handsome taillight clusters that mock the headlights up front, giving some continuity to a vehicle that is a mix of an SUV, crossover, and traditional station wagon. Set on 20" shadow gray five spoke wheels, the Venza carries an aggressive stance that is unique enough to stand out in a crowd but ambiguous enough to blend in when needed. It goes without saying the design has aged very well in the six years since its introduction.

Moving to the interior, the Venza continued to surprise me. My last Toyota test drive (not reviewed here) was a 2013 Prius and with acres of hard plastic, a myriad of rattles and unimpressive fabrics, its interior was far more early-90s GM than Toyota. The Venza could not have been more different. I found the seats firm but reasonably comfortable however the lumbar support protruded a bit too high for my liking and left my lower back woefully unsupported. The whole dash is trimmed in a nice, soft-touch material with a impressed design pattern that extends to the fabric seats that look and feel like they came out of a Subaru Outback, even sharing similar material design cues. Leather seats are available on XLE and Limited models and carry an elegant piping along the edges. The arm rests on the doors and console are trimmed in a vinyl that could almost pass for leather and the remainder of the console is fitted with a hard plastic that has a faux-aluminum look with a high gloss finish that looks and feels first-rate. All switches and stalks operate with a smoothness and precision that smacks more of a Lexus than a Toyota starting at less than thirty grand although I found a few small plastic pieces didn't line up quite like one would expect. But overall, the Venza is very well put together with excellent materials and leaves me wondering why all Toyota models aren't this well made.

Interior storage space is copious with a massive glovebox and wide, gaping door panels but it's the genius design of the center console that reminds me a bit of Chrysler's clever years during the 90s. The arm rest not only slides back
and forth but also opens to reveal a cavernous storage space, illuminated of course. But with the arm rest down, a quick touch of the chromed latch handle at the front of the console sends the cup holders sliding under the arm rest to reveal a second, individual storage space even larger than the first. This, too is illuminated and contains a power port and USB/AUX plug-ins for the audio system and a slot adjacent to the cup holders is just the right size to hold a smart phone. The only drawback of this layout is the cup holders are too shallow and too wide for a 20 ounce soda bottle with the rubber inserts removed and too skinny with them in. I found it best to use the dedicated bottle holders in the door pockets. Rear seat space borders on limousine style with dedicated air flow vents (but no controls), a fold-down arm rest and excellent forward and side vision. Cargo space is very good with the seats up and they can be folded quickly with a simple pull of a handle within the cargo area although they tend to get hung up on the seatbelts and operator intervention is often required. Despite this, the concept is sound and very practical.


Driver controls are simple at first glance with a handsome electroluminescent gauge cluster containing a tachometer, 140-mph speedometer as well as fuel and temperature gauges. My LE level tester (read: base model) came with a urethane steering wheel instead of the leather-wrapped rim found in higher end models but nevertheless, it contained controls for the audio, Bluetooth phone as well as Toyota's ubiquitous and idiot-proof cruise control stalk, the number of which produced to date must stretch into the billions. Set high on the dash is a simple three-row liquid crystal display containing the clock, outside temperature, automatic climate control status as well as a trip computer that shows average and instant fuel economy, range to empty and average speed. Thankfully, any of these functions can be reset individually from one another and are not tied into either Trip A or B functions in the gauge cluster odometer. Conversion to and from metric measurements is as simple as pushing a single button and this simplicity is a beautiful departure from some other vehicles that require a PhD in engineering just to set the clock. Complaints on the interior are few. I found some controls to be a bit of a stretch, especially the window controls which are set too far forward on the door panel, a location that required me to look or else guaranteed activation of the rear window instead of the front one I wanted. The power mirror control is also mounted far away from easy reach on the dash and is not illuminated at night.

 My test car came fitted with Toyota's optional Entune multimedia and navigation system that allows smartphone users to link up and download text messages and all sorts of information and stream Pandora, all provided you download the Entune app first. As the car had to be returned by 1:30 PM on Friday, I elected not to download the free app to my iPhone 5 which is already strewn with apps so I can't comment on how the two work together. The sound system itself offers as many choices as one could dream of. In addition to the standard AM/FM radio and single-CD player (does anybody even offer a CD changer anymore?), Entune provides XM Satellite Radio, HD radio on supported FM stations, Bluetooth streaming from your phone of choice as well as iPod connectivity and the ability to play music off a USB flash drive or a simple AUX cable. The sound that came from the system, despite not being the top-line JBL speakers, was very good. The bass hit low and hard and the highs came through nice and clear without being tinny although a bit more sound tweaking was required to perfect the sound while streaming through Bluetooth.

Sadly it seems all the R&D money on Entune was spent on the tunes and what remained (I don't know how many cents but it couldn't be many) was spent on the navigation system. The display is small by modern standards, only 6.1 inches and the resolution is nothing short of horrid. Street names are too small to read and the lack of contrast makes it difficult to make out any form of detail in day mode but at night when the screen turns black, it becomes so useless that it may as well turn off. The navigation feature itself is almost as bad, if not worse. While hunting down some ice cream, I asked the system to direct me to the nearest Baskin-Robbins and almost immediately, it directed me to "keep left" after exiting the freeway only to realize after making my turn it meant to say "keep right". Upon correcting my direction of travel, it instructed me to "Proceed to Hayden Island Drive and then turn left towards I-5." A left turn onto said street would have directed me away from I-5 so I cancelled the guidance and elected for an M&M McFlurry from a nearby McDonalds', the location of which I knew. I strongly suspect that there was something wrong internally with the unit on my test car so this may not reflect the system's capabilities but it left me convinced that Magellan himself could have found the mint chocolate chip on a sugar cone that I so desired faster than Entune could.

On the road, the Venza dashes any sort of hopes its potential driver may have had about being a sporty vehicle. Almost right away, I realized this is a car tuned for comfort, something I couldn't help but find ironic given the sporty appearance of its 20" wheels and aggressive, lowered stance. The steering has the communicational abilities of someone attempting to describe the Mona Lisa through Morse code and is horridly over-boosted and disconnected from the road at all times. Steering the Venza around freeway loop ramps and twisty roads feels a bit like turning a wheel on an arcade driving game in the sense that you judge your direction of travel based on where the hood is pointing and compensate accordingly but you never feel the turns. If the steering failed to inform you of the Venza's mission, the suspension will never let you forget it. Although it is to be commended for making the ride very good with the huge wheels and relatively low profile tires, any sort of aggressive input through the throttle, brakes or steering is grossly exaggerated. Quick direction changes result in immediate and concerning body lean and wallow and though it never approaches feeling unsafe, it is quite unsettling.

Venza power is provided by either a 2.7-liter four cylinder or a 3.5-liter V6, the latter of which was right at home between the engine mounts of my test car and pumped its 268 horsepower through a very smooth and refined six-speed automatic with a 'sport' shift manual mode, the irony such a name not being lost on this author. Short freeway merge ramps were of no concern to the V6 and it sounds good enough without being excessively harsh or loud but it asserts its power with a subdued roar. While ground clearance is decent, the overhangs are especially long and the front bumper sits low, precluding the Venza from any sort of heavy-duty off-road use. Dirt tracks and well-maintained forest service roads shouldn't be an issue but if your commute includes stretches of the Rubicon Trail, a 4Runner (or if you hurry, an FJ Cruiser) might be the better option.


My only real complaints about the Venza is its pinched rear window that impedes rearward visibility and a fuel tank that I can only assume is the size of a plastic Solo cup although Toyota claims it is 17.7 gallons, a figure I deem to be about three gallons too small for a vehicle of this size. Starting from full, the gauge was informing me I had just above 1/2 remaining after traveling just over 120 miles. But even after brimming the tank, the Venza had only taken 7.6 gallons and the needle had fallen from full after a mere 25 miles running all-highway at 65-70 mph. The Venza makes a great road trip car with its massive interior space and comfort but plan on stopping for gas frequently.

You may recall the Venza ad from a few years ago that featured a twenty-something female speaking to the camera and discussing her concern for her parents' lack of Facebook friends representing their being 'anti-social'. During her dialogue, it shows her parents taking their Venza out into the countryside with their mountain bikes and meeting up with other friends for a ride through what I assume is Northern California wine country on a beautiful, cloudless day. After a few hours in the Venza, this commercial came floating back from the depths of my memory and I came to the conclusion that the folks in that ad are exactly the kind of people Toyota is targeting with this car. It's for those who want the versatility of an SUV, the relative fuel efficiency of a crossover and the ride comfort of a traditional station wagon without the stigma or drawbacks of any and the Venza checks all those boxes beautifully. While it's never lit the sales charts on fire, the Venza has moved off dealers' lots in respectable numbers (usually between 30,000 and 40,000) each year since its introduction, easing Millennials' fears about their parents' social lives one sale at a time.




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2014 Toyota Venza

The Good: Quiet and comfortable ride, good ergonomics, massive interior space for people and their things, handsome exterior styling, very good fit and finish inside and out.

The Bad: Small fuel tank, useless navigation system, back-up camera flummoxed by darkness, a few controls hard to reach.

The Verdict: A stylish and comfortable sensory isolation transportation chamber for the active lifestyle crowd.

Others Like It: Ford Edge, Honda Crosstour, Nissan Murano

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Available Trim Levels: LE, XLE, Limited
Price Range: $27,950 - $40,825*
Vehicle Tested: LE V6 AWD with LE Preferred Package, door edge guards, carpeted floor mats and carpet cargo mat
Price as Tested: $35,429
Engines: 2.7-liter I-4 (181 hp / 182 lb. ft. torque) OR 3.5-liter V6 (268 hp / 246 lb. ft. torque)
Transmissions / Drive: 6-speed automatic with manual shift function / front or all-wheel drive
Wheelbase: 109.3"
Overall Length: 189.0"
Overall Width: 75.0"
Overall Height: 63.4"
Curb Weight: 4,045 lbs.**
Fuel Capacity: 17.7 gallons
Fuel Economy: 18 mpg city / 25 mpg highway**
Seating Capacity: 5
Location of Final Assembly: Georgetown, Kentucky
Warranty:
Basic: 3 years / 36,000 miles
Powertrain: 5 years / 60,000 miles
Corrosion: 5 years / unlimited miles

*Prices shown reflect manufacturer's suggested retail price at time of publication. Top end of price range is for vehicle equipped with all available factory-installed options and does not include any accessories. Final prices may be higher.
** Figure is representative of LE V6 AWD test vehicle.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

And so the Dying Phoenix Begins to Burn

          Mighty Toyota currently finds itself in an unenviable position and one that would have been unfathomable twenty years ago; the stigma of being branded with the image of an 'old person's' car. This image crisis has been years in the making and is symptomatic of a quandary very familiar in the car business, the fear of and outright refusal to evolve, innovate, and take risks. To look into why Toyota's brand image continues to decline, we must wind the clock back to the years following World War II and look at Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors.
          After the war ended and the troops came home, the economy boomed and people moved out of the cities and into the suburbs. Interstates were constructed and the United States changed as a whole, becoming a society that revolved around and depended increasingly on the automobile. It was an exciting time in the American automotive industry as the Big Three and other now-defunct brands battled it out to compete for business, making changes every model year to keep the offerings fresh and the customers coming in. Among the two most well-remembered attempts at innovation and customer retention were peddled by Ford and Chrysler in the mid-to-late 1950s when Ford introduced the Edsel brand and Chrysler pioneered the 'Forward Look', both seriously risky moves and both would ultimately have lasting consequences on the corporate culture on both sides.
         As we all know now, the Edsel was a colossal failure. Derided as ugly and irrelevant, the brand was priced too near similarly-equipped offerings from the Ford and Mercury lines to remain a competitive entry. Coupled with a nationwide recession, production of first-year 1958 Edsels only reached 63,107 units, well shy of the 200,000 units Ford was hoping to achieve. Sales continue to decline to just under 45,000 in 1959 and by 1960, only 2,846 Edsels were made before the brand was dropped entirely. Ford had gambled and lost.
          Chrysler's risk with the Forward Look was already internally tainted by the failed Airflow of the late 1930s but nevertheless, it succeeded at first. With modern styling and crisp lines, the Forward Look styling and revolutionary new features vaulted Chrysler to grab nearly a quarter of the American new car market by the end of the 1950s. Like the Edsel, though, the Forward Look was destined for failure. With so much revolutionary and untested equipment on the all-new models, many cars were rushed into production and as a result, quality control suffered enormously. The Forward Look models rusted out within two or three years, trim pieces fell off brand-new cars and the revolutionary styling risk that took Chrysler to the top was soon tainted by poor quality and tarnished the brand's image for decades to come.
          For the next twenty years or so, the Big Three retreated into a shell of conservatism and continued to make pretty much the same cars they had always made; large, thirsty whales with big engines and tiny fuel economy ratings. When the public clamored for small, fuel-efficient vehicles in the wake of the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo, Detroit didn't listen. Henry Ford II took great pride in the size of his cars and once said, "Small cars, small profits." Not finding what they wanted at home, Americans began turning to the well-made, fuel efficient Japanese cars being offered by Toyota, Honda, and Datsun. They were the cars Americans wanted in a time of uncertainty about the price and availability of fuel. It would take a billion-dollar federal loan, the charisma and vision of Lee Iacocca, and Chrysler risking it all (literally) in the early 80s with the front wheel drive K-Cars and the all-new minivans to bring not one but two revolutionary offerings back to the American automobile marketplace. Not only that, but the two revolutionary designs managed to rescue Chrysler from the brink of complete dissolution, reteaching the company that in order to survive, sometimes you have to take risks and while nothing is guaranteed, in the world of the automobile especially, regardless of brand, you evolve or you die.

          For Toyota, its current troubles date back to the early 1990s when the company was on a hot streak. Toyota could do no wrong. The American car companies (GM in particular) had run through a majority of their great 1980s renaissance ideas and somewhat returned to tradition of just producing whatever they thought would sell. Toyota was still a fairly small power in the American game but had a diverse range of products to suit every consumer demographic known to man. The modern and aerodynamic Camry was the reliable, well-built alternative to the boxy GM offerings of the time while those looking for a bit more zest could always find themselves in a Supra Turbo. An F-150 it was not but Toyota even offered a pickup truck in the form of the T-100. All in all, Toyota's line-up had something for everyone; sedans, coupes, station wagons, sporty cars, a convertible and even a minivan. It didn't matter what you were in the market for; if you wanted something reliable, modern, and stylish, chances were good that your local Toyota dealer was the place to go for one-stop car shopping. Toyota also spent a majority of the 90s reveling in and tinkering with the success of its newly-born Lexus brand (a huge risk in itself) and glowed in the praise of the LS400. But then, in the late 1990s, a fundamental shift began to take place inside Toyota's corporate structure that seemed to omit anything resembling a fun car from the company's lineup.
          The first to hit the chopping block was the ludicrously powerful but lounge singer-svelte Supra which departed the US market after the 1998 model year. Next to go was the MR2 roadster that bowed out in 2005, followed shortly by the Celica coupe. No more convertibles, no more sports cars, Toyota was then left with a lineup of reliable but completely forgettable sedans and minivans in vanilla white and monotone beige interiors. For the two years prior to the departure of the Celica and MR2, Toyota had been pushing the Scion brand as an attempt to get younger generations into Toyota products. Now, ten years later and it's safe to say that the bet Toyota made on the Scion brand was likely not worth the risk and that boils down to what the cars are like. They're forgettable...completely and utterly bland.
          The Scion tC was intended to be the spiritual successor to the Celica but wound up being just another 2-door coupe with anonymous rental car styling and, thanks to aggressive teenage drivers wrapping them around trees on almost a daily basis, eye-wateringly steep insurance rates. Nobody could really work out what the small xA hatchback was for but meanwhile, the boxy little xB wormed its way into the hearts of a demographic completely the opposite of what Toyota had intended: retirees and the elderly. Honda faced a similar dilemma with the Element (also targeted towards the 20-something crowd) and before you knew it, both it and the xB soon found themselves in the handicapped spaces in front of the bingo parlor instead of the front spaces outside the Aura Night Club. It's not hard to see why the old crowd fell for the xB as hard as they did; it was a Toyota underneath so it meant it was reliable, it wasn't particularly fast, it got good fuel mileage and had a great deal of interior space. But the fundamental mistake Toyota made with Scion was pushing these products under a different brand name. Even though they're sold at Toyota dealers and have all-Toyota parts, the average consumer, much less a 17 year old, fails to understands this and if Toyota wanted to save their brand image as youthful, sporty, and fun, they'd have done the smart thing and marketed their Scion models as Toyotas.
          The company's risk with Scion, much like Chrysler's with the Airflow and Ford's with the Edsel, flopped. It missed the target so completely that Stevie Wonder might as well have been aiming the gun and in doing so, it engrained the idea that risk and revolution were dangerous ideas no longer to be meddled with at the Toyota Motor Corporation. As a result, Toyota has stopped innovating and risking almost completely. As far as I can tell, not one single news-worth innovation or bold new idea has come from the house that Kiichiro built for the last ten years or so. Every new Camry looks almost exactly like the one that came before and even the all-new 2014 Corolla will come standard with a 4-speed automatic transmission! Excuse me? A FOUR SPEED?!
          You may cry foul and ask me, "But Andrew, what about the Prius?" Bah. That car has little to offer the world in the grand scheme of things other than the fact it was the first mass-market hybrid and was also the first to crack 1,000,000 worldwide sales. Boo-hoo. Yes, it was revolutionary when it was introduced in Japan in 1997 but the world has moved on. Hybrids are not a viable long-term solution to our energy problems but are merely a stepping stone to the next energy revolution, involvement in which Toyota seems completely disinterested. They are very happy to continue riding along on technological advances from the last century and meanwhile, across the Sea of Japan, the Koreans have been advancing steadily on the market share that Toyota once held as its own, the younger generation now known as 'Millennials'.

          Hyundai and Kia have been slowly advancing on Toyota with lower prices, a superior warranty, and modern but handsome styling while the Japanese giant continues to march on, doing exactly what the Big Three did in the 1960s and 1970s. As others continue steal their market share, Toyota is building what they know they can build; bland, vanilla transportation appliances under the mistaken belief that Millennials will flock to Toyota showrooms simply because it's what their parents drove. Nobody ever thought that Toyota's quality would hurt them but in this case, it has because in many cases, the parents of the generation that Toyota is targeting are still driving their Toyotas and the last thing a young person wants to be seen in is the same beige Camry or Avalon their parents are driving to golf every Thursday.
          Kia has pushed the Soul as 'a new way to roll' for younger drivers and Hyundai is selling every single Elantra compact that it can make. In fact, over 200,000 of them found new homes in 2012 alone. Want something sporty? Hyundai can sell you a Genesis Coupe or a hot hatch Veloster Turbo while Kia can offer you an Optima with a turbocharged engine and more luxury and technology than an Avalon at a lower price without giving your neighbors the assumption you'll probably be putting plastic on your sofa any day now. Even the Americans are catching up to Toyota. Chevrolet has pushed the refresh of the Malibu forward after only year because they didn't feel the original look was competitive enough and the new Impala will not be sold to fleets to avoid the dreaded 'rental car' stigma. Ford's Focus and Fiesta compacts are the same award-winners that Europeans have been getting for years and Dodge's new Dart comes with that sublime Italian handling DNA with a superb value to boot. Hybrids are no longer only Toyota's game, either. Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Ford, Nissan and even Chevrolet currently offer or are planning hybrid models.
          In closing, Toyota is not the only kid on the block peddling a quality product anymore and those days of exclusivity are gone forever. The other brands that Toyota once marched past are now preparing to overtake again, offering a model for everyone, regardless of demographic while Toyota now only seems to sell cars to people who don't care about cars.

          What does the future hold for Toyota? We don't really know right now. But if one looks at the lifeline of an automotive brand, there is always the era of ugly cars, closed-minded thinking and out-of-touch management before the new blood comes in and the genius returns. There is brilliance inside every car company in the world today and that next great idea rests in the mind of a designer or an engineer who has the audacity to step forward and say, "We can do better." The mark of a truly great car company is management that listens to its people and takes great ideas seriously, even though they may be frightening and come with some risk. If you think of Toyota as a phoenix, the giant bird is now starting to catch fire and within five years or so, the flames will extinguish and a new life will arise from the ashes; a lighter, younger Toyota with fresh new ideas and a company that will help lead the world into the future of the automobile.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

2012 Acura TL - Quick Drive

Plastic surgery complete, is it still a good car underneath?




            The TL has always been a well-rounded alternative to the Accord for those who like their buttered bread lightly toasted. It shares the same platform with the Accord but unlike it, has offered a more luxurious feel and a dash of sporting flavor starting in 2002 with the Type-S trim that has vanished and resurfaced with the tides. This current TL first showed its face in late 2008 as an ’09 model and that face was immediately and widely criticized. The matte chrome ‘power plenum’ grille dominated the front end, spilling over onto the leading edges of the hood. The rear suffered from the same exaggerated genetics, sporting an enormous bumper resplendent with large reflectors and an edgy trunk lid flanked by tiny taillights. Some claimed the car looked like a pouting Transformer from the rear but viewed from the side, one could see handsome lines trying to be heard over the shouting extremities. Regardless of whether you were a fan or not, Acura heard the criticism loud and clear and tamed the edginess for the car’s mid-cycle refresh.

            No longer dominated by extravagant additions, the TL has been simplified and honed into a handsome package without managing to look like the smaller TSX. Acura hopes that this draws in those originally turned off by outward appearances to see what a fine car it really is. A TL with the Technology Package was mine for the evening so I took it out to see what it had to offer for its $40,330 asking price.

            Initial impressions were quite promising. Unlike many cars of today, the window line is actually very low and provides excellent sideways visibility. The windshield is similarly shaped and only the rear window suffers from the gun-slit syndrome. To assist in reversing maneuvers with that high decklid, a rear view camera is standard on all models with the Technology Package and above. The front seats are very comfortable and offer a wide range of power adjustments for both driver and passenger. Front seat heating is standard on Tech models while springing for the Advance Package will also give you ventilation for those hot summer days. Storage space also abounds with a large center console, a small cubby at the base of the console and a glove box is which is cavernous enough to be useful even with the owner’s manual booklet in there. Fit and finish is also spectacular with nice stitching touches on the leather wrapped around the steering wheel, shift knob and emergency brake handle. The navigation screen is a high-definition work of art, the nifty sliding power point cover is just plain cool and the gauges with their floating needles were very easy to read at a glance, even if they were a bit on the plain side. With almost 6,000 miles on the odometer, all the leather surfaces inside looked brand new, nothing rattled or squeaked and panel gap consistency was excellent, just what we’ve come to expect in an Acura.

            Gripes with the driving environment were few but present nevertheless. With the Technology Package, the reason why other manufacturers ball lots of functions into the navigation screen is made vividly clear. The TL reserves the navigation screen for essentially just that and as a result, the center stack alone is home to a whopping forty-five buttons not including the hazard lights and starter button. There are then another sixteen buttons on the steering wheel, only four being for the cruise control and many of which lack tactile identification, making them tough to operate without taking your eyes off the road. Although they are easy to get used to, having to learn all these buttons may be daunting prospect for some. Also, controls for the heated seats are placed directly in front of the cup holder so it’s only a matter of time before something fizzy and sugary is spilled on them. Despite these niggles, the TL’s interior is a wonderful place to spend time and may easily find itself the preferred family vacation cruiser.

            The TL’s bulk is propelled by Acura’s excellent 3.5 liter V6 producing 280 horsepower and 254 pound feet of torque in front wheel drive spec. Models equipped with the physics-defying Super Handling AWD (SH-AWD) receive a 3.7 liter version of the same V6 that bumps output to 305 horsepower and 273 pound feet of torque. Off-the-line acceleration is brisk and smooth with the expected torque steer very well tamed, something not likely to be said about the previous generation TL. The six-speed automatic has paddles on the steering wheel should you prefer to shift yourself but either way, it provides silky and seamless performance, even under heavy throttle applications. Stopping nearly two tons isn’t an easy task but the brakes fitted to the TL are superb and at full power, can quickly find a new place for anything in the interior that isn’t fastened down. Anti-lock control is excellent and pedal feedback is very good.


            The ride is very comfortable and controlled without being too hard and firm or soft and floaty. Pockmarked streets of downtown Portland weren’t able to faze the TL and it soaked up highway miles without complaint but upon heading into the hills, I found myself disappointed. Despite everything else that it has going for it, the TL’s steering is disparagingly and unforgivably numb. On-center feel is non-existent so don’t even bother looking for it and even driving briskly into a corner gives one reason for pause as the complete lack of feedback through the wheel provides the sensation that you’re losing grip even if that’s not the case. Even the larger RL offers superior steering response at speed but still suffers from the Novocain on-center sensation. Without an SH-AWD model to compare it with, I’d have to say that the steering in the TL is the only thing letting down an otherwise perfect car.


            There is a TL to fit every taste including, by the grace of the automotive gods, a six-speed manual version, an option virtually extinct in this class outside the BMW 3-Series. Prices for the TL start at just under $36,000 and with the AWD Advance Package, can get awfully close to $46,000. A BMW 335i xDrive starts at $44,800 and while that may sound appealing, it quickly passes the $50K mark without adding many options that the TL includes as standard fare. A fully-loaded example will easily get close to sixty grand, a tough pill to swallow.

          
 Although this was a quick drive, the TL left a very favorable impression in my mouth and if Acura only corrected the steering feel, this car would be about as good as those costing a third more.


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What's Hot: Good visibility, luxury without the price, comfortable seats, compliant ride, excellent acceleration and brakes, butter-smooth power delivery, top-notch materials and fit and finish.

What's Not: Steering needs help with communication skills, button-loaded dashboard may prove confusing for some.

The Verdict: A handsome and proficient all-rounder let down by a single character flaw.


This car was graciously loaned to me courtesy of Martin Parr at Ron Tonkin Acura in Beaverton, Oregon.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Thirty years on, is this DeLorean...redux?



I'll never forget the day I saw my first DeLorean. It was early 2001, I was thirteen years old and having never seen Back to the Future (yes, yes...I know), my jaw hit the floor of the car in which I was riding and I fell in love instantly. Something about it just spoke to me and the way it sat and how it looked just latched itself onto my brain and refused to let go. Now, almost thirteen years later I still covet the DeLorean and vow to own one someday very soon but there is only one other car whose first sighting stands out in my mind so clearly and that is the Fisker Karma. It was on Canyon Road in Beaverton and let me tell you, when I saw that white cheetah heading up the other way, I damn near ran my car into the rock wall I was gawking so hard. It was the only new car I've ever seen that actually caused me to consider turning around and chasing it down and I stand by it when I say that the Karma is the singly most beautiful car made in the last twenty-five years and will probably go down in history as one of the prettiest cars ever.

Henrik Fisker was still a toothless newborn crying in diapers when charismatic and ultimate man's man John Zachary DeLorean rocked the automotive world with his lightweight and high-output Pontiac GTO in 1964. Although DeLorean developed an impressive number of important features, many of which are still found on new cars today, he is best known for three things; the GTO, his namesake gullwing door sports car and the drug scandal which brought the dream to a tragic end. Just in case you've been living under a rock since 1984, DeLorean was acquitted of all charges due to a bumbling FBI and a failed entrapment scheme. John never spent any time in prison but still, up until the untimely end of his company, the parallels between him and Henrik Fisker are absolutely shocking. In fact, they border on almost surreal.

With the first production models celebrating their thirty-first birthdays this year, the DeLorean has remained stately and timelessly handsome, its stainless steel body panels aging as gracefully as Helen Mirren. While the Karma is drop-dead gorgeous in that girl-next-door sort of way, one must remember that in 1981, the DeLorean was just as striking and that can still be seen today when you place it next to other cars of the late 1970s and very early 80s. Together both of these cars showed people something nobody had ever seen before.

Both Henrik Fisker and John DeLorean surrendered successful careers with major car companies to chase their dreams of seeing their own names emblazoned on dealership signs and steering wheel insignias. Both thought they could do better that the massive corporations from which they came. In 1974, DeLorean departed General Motors (despite being rumored to be the next head of Chevrolet) to found the DeLorean Motor Company while Fisker defected from Ford in 2004 after designing such legends as the Aston Martin DB9 and, earlier in his career, the BMW Z8 among others. DeLorean set out to build a reliable car that was fun to drive, beautiful and well-made with an expected service life of twenty years, unheard of at the time. Fisker embarked on a quest to build a car that was as environmentally friendly as it was beautiful and in a way, both succeeded.

The companies headquartered in the United States but for financial reasons, the DeLorean was built in Northern Ireland and the Karma in Finland and just like the DeLorean, much of Fisker's money is coming from government sources although with different prerogatives. The British government, desperate to put a tourniquet on the bloodshed taking place with 'The Troubles' in Northern Ireland in the late 70s, backed DeLorean's manufacturing plans with upwards of £150 million of taxpayer money between 1978 and 1982. This was done under the guise of job creation and the idea of keeping people employed meant they were less likely to be out on the streets causing trouble. To date, Fisker Automotive has received some $193 million from the U.S. Department of Energy under the prospect of creating 'green jobs' and like DeLorean, is already running into issues at this crucial stage. While DeLorean could smile and wink an eye at Parliament and receive another £25 million without question, Fisker must prove it is making headway to receive the further $336 million in the coffers and thus far, it's not looking promising. The company has already failed to convert a former GM assembly plant in Delaware and after laying off a considerable percentage of the contractors involved in the project, it is now telling others to be patient and 'just wait'. Its sub-$40k NINA model is now indefinitely delayed and should they be unable to find a solution soon, chances are good that things won't end well.

Originally, the DeLorean was set to go on sale in 1979 but production line issues stalled the delay to early 1981 when catastrophic build quality lead to further waits. Orders were cancelled as dealers and customers grew impatient and those who did wait didn't get their keys until August or so of that year. A similar quandary has plagued Fisker which was originally boasting some 1,300 orders with deliveries said to start taking place at the end of 2009. Well, the first Karmas didn't hit showrooms until summer of 2011 and the first ship over saw only 239 cars on board. Considering it's a starter effort, the Karma is decently well-made but like the DeLorean, there are a number problems with fit and finish. The trunk lid does not line up with the fenders in the slightest (I was able to fit an entire finger into one such opening) and some of the minor controls are taken from other cars, most glaringly are the turn signal and wiper stalks which came out of a Chevrolet Cobalt. I cringed upon discovering that but at least Fisker isn't having to completely rebuild some of its first efforts the way DeLorean did after setting up Quality Assurance Centers (QAC) around the country to correct what the Dunmurry plant failed to get right at first.

To take a moment and focus on the differences, it doesn't take a trained eye to spot that these are two totally different cars. While the DeLorean is a fairly small two-door, two-seat sports car sheathed in 304 grade brushed stainless steel, the Karma is a positively enormous four-door sedan coated in a psychedelic paint job that is incredibly heavy on a special kind of metallic flake. I suppose you could call it eco-bling. Stretching some eighteen feet from bow to stern and seven feet across at the widest point (those massive hips), the Karma manages to qualify as a large car outside but only as a compact car inside. It's tight but comfortable and even a Hyundai Elantra has more interior room and feels airier. Once inside, both give you the sensation that you've been entombed, the DeLorean especially but for front seat passengers in the Karma, at least, there is plenty of room.

Despite the differences in the cars themselves, the demographic is similar. The DeLorean was famously backed and owned by entertainer Johnny Carson and the car was also purchased by Kenny Rogers, Jimmy Osmond and KISS member Ace Frehley who sings about rolling his DeLorean in the song 'Rock Soldiers'. While the Karma hasn't received as much celebrity adoration, teen pop star Justin Beiber was stopped by California police for speeding close to 100 mph his Karma while claiming to be running from paparazzi. Personally, I think he should have been stopped simply for the crime of adorning such a beautiful car with such a garish chrome finish but that's just me.

There is one DeLorean-Fisker similarity that is simply inescapable and that is the fact that the cards are stacked very heavily against Fisker's favor and as I like the car very much despite its shortcomings, that pains me to say. Although I'm a very optimistic person and the Karma is the only non-female thing that gets me all hot and bothered just looking at it, the stark and saddening fact remains that within a year or so, Fisker Automotive may very well join the DeLorean Motor Company as just another name in a long line of defunct auto manufacturers. And just like the DeLorean, its beauty will slowly fade from the every day, spending their time under covers in garages and in storage. Excepting a number of devout fans who get together to work on their cars and fantasize about what might have been had the company survived, only a few will remember what a Fisker was. But regardless of what happens, the Karma will always have its looks and someday, maybe twenty years from now, a thirteen year old boy not yet born will see his first Karma on the road and just like yours truly and the DeLorean, it will be love at first sight.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Predicting the Future...or Trying my Best

Ever since the dawn of the automobile, people have been trying to predict what's next for it with varying levels of success. At the beginning, there were those who claimed it was a fad in which only the wealthy could indulge themselves and that it would pass within ten years. During the 1950s and 60s, it was believed that by 2000, we would have flying cars that sounded and looked like George Jetson's nameless family flier. And just like in the past, people are continuing to predict what's next for the automobile but it's only with the passage of time that we will know if they are right or wrong.

Today, the concern is not whether cars will be around or if they will fly but rather, how they will be powered. As the last decade has progressed, gasoline prices have been a veritable roller coaster that the general public has been riding blindfolded, undulating up and down, sometimes with frightening drops and spikes. One such example took us from $4.11 in July of 2008 to an average of $1.61 by the end of that same year and the lowest since 2003. There is no doubt that despite the price at the pump, the internal combustion engine is here to stay for several more generations, if not longer. Rather than giving you a new car review, I'm going to use this space to provide insight into the future of the automobile as I see it.

Electric

From the beginning, there were electric cars and gasoline powered cars and for awhile, the electric cars were the more popular choice. The speeds of both were generally low, mechanical reliability was always iffy and journeys were often very short. Electric cars were more popular because they were quiet, didn't require risking breaking your arm to start, and in some cases, they were peppier than their gas-powered components. Due to their ease of use, they were also marketed as a car for women and gained a popular following as a result. But as progress has a way of doing, the technology caught up with the gasoline engine and combined with cheap oil, left the electric car by the wayside by the early 1920s.

Apart from a few small experiments, the electric car floundered in the annals of history until the oil crises of the 1970s and early 80s renewed interest in them and the energy independence they symbolized. It wasn't until the mid-1990s that a small number of electric cars were available to buyers under lease only and usually in Southern California. Among the most popular and notorious of these vehicles was the GM EV1 although EVs were also offered by Honda, Ford, and Toyota. While the owners who leased these highly experimental vehicles were enamored with them, the drawbacks remained. Even with careful driving, the expected range of an EV1 or a Honda EV Plus was little more than a hundred miles. Use of the lights, air conditioning or wipers reduced this range to 75 miles or less and it would take well over twelve hours to fully recharge the dated lead-acid batteries from a fully depleted state. Additionally, with gasoline again blissfully cheap at a dollar and change or slightly less for much of the late 90s, there was little incentive to continue the program on what had been from the start, an experiment. Once their leases were up, Honda and GM returned checks from lessees hoping to buy their vehicles outright, repossessed the cars and eventually crushed and shredded them. Conspiracy theorists will claim it was a blatant attack by Big Oil on a power system that was about to release their grip on the world but the truth is that the cars were a baby step in what was to come.

Currently, if you want a pure electric battery-powered car, your options are the relatively handsome Nissan Leaf and the absolutely hideous Mitsubishi i-MiEV. Like their 90s predecessors, these two vehicles are limited by their range (less than 100 miles) and a lack of charging stations although that is slowly changing. If you are willing to wait, electric offerings are due out soon in the form of a Chevrolet Spark, Ford Focus, Honda Fit, Tesla Model S, and in a life-after-death appearance, the Toyota RAV4 EV. It seems that auto makers have mostly decided to eschew the idea of all-new electric-only models in favor of offering electric versions of existing and highly successful gas-powered vehicles like the Fit and the Focus.

Obviously these cars are not for everybody but the 'Zero Emissions' badge they proudly wear and their owners love to show off isn't telling the whole story. You see, there are only a small number of states where using an electric car is environmentally friendlier than internal combustion and in an article you can read here, you'll see that in many Midwest and southern states, charging a Leaf or an i-MiEV draws more pollutants than driving a standard internal combustion engine vehicle the same distance. In fact, an all-gasoline Hyundai Accent is less polluting than a Leaf in twelve states and less than a Chevrolet Volt (which is only partially electric) in eleven states. If you live in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Vermont or New Hampshire, the power provided through that plug is in fact cleaner than driving a standard car. Residents of California, Arizona, South Dakota, Illinois, South Carolina, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Maine can take heart in knowing it's clean but may not actually be the cleanest choice available. And if you didn't see your state listed here, you won't be helping anything except your ego by buying an EV. In fact, chances are good it will pollute more than the car currently sitting in your garage. But don't be fooled. Regardless of where you hang your hat, it still isn't completely zero emissions and unless you charge it yourself via windmill, it never will be be.

Do I hate electric cars? No. Absolutely not. I think they are really quite cool and the technology is remarkable but they are by their very design, fatally flawed. The fact that they are powered by batteries and their range can be grossly affected by light breezes or the fact you bought a pack of Skittles means they don't work for everyone. For those who don't drive much and do mostly short trips near home, the Leaf is a dream come true. But for those love spontaneous road trips or just love to drive, it simply doesn't jive. I for one love the fact I can get into my car and drive where I want knowing that when the gas gauge blinks 'E', I can pull into any station, fill my tank and continue exploring until that light comes back on. That is the freedom of the car itself. Also, when one takes into account the amount of natural resources and processes it takes to make a single battery pack that may only be good for a few years, you just can't help but wonder if it's really worth the effort.

Hydrogen

I'm not going to lie. There's a special place in my heart that I reserve for hydrogen power and a big corner of that place I keep for the Honda FCX Clarity in particular. In terms of environmentally friendly cars, it's the only one on the market right now that actually gets me excited and you can quote me when I say it's the only one I'd buy. That is, however, if I lived in Southern California but as I currently reside in rainy Portland, the Clarity and its hydrogen filling stations are well beyond my reach but that doesn't stop me from believing it is the coolest car in production right now and may very well represent the future of the car as we know it.

Despite its current geographical limitations, the FCX Clarity is the only non-hybrid eco-friendly car that has its roots planted firmly in the real world. It's the type of car that wouldn't mind if you and your friends head out for dinner after work and then decide to take a last-minute trip to the beach. While it is an electric car like the Leaf, it has no battery pack and it never needs to be plugged in. Instead, it has its own power station on board that takes compressed hydrogen in a specialized fuel tank, mixes it with the outside air and converts it into electricity that is in turn used to power electric motors that turn the wheels. And because when hydrogen and oxygen are combined, all you get in terms of exhaust is water and from what I've heard, it's clean enough to drink. Another advantage of the Clarity and hydrogen power in general is driving range. While the Leaf may get you some 75 to 100 miles between naps at a charging station, the Clarity can do nearly 300 and unlike battery-powered cars, you don't need to clear your calendar when it comes time to fill it up. The whole refueling process takes two to three minutes, about the same as it might take you to fill up your Civic with 87 octane.

Even with my deep affections for this little Honda, I will readily admit that it's far from perfect. In the same way that battery-powered electrics have to consider where their socket power is being generated, the Clarity has a far larger problem to contend with. Hydrogen is incredibly abundant all over our universe but the only problem is, it never travels alone and is always hitching a ride with other molecules like oxygen and the process to isolate and contain it is, sadly, quite energy-inefficient. And even if the separation of hydrogen molecules can be performed cleanly, there is still the trouble of distribution. Existing pipelines, transport trucks, gas stations and their underground tanks are completely incapable of carrying hydrogen and because of that, hydrogen power itself faces a serious chicken and egg scenario. Car companies want to build hydrogen cars but won't do it without the infrastructure to support them and fuel companies want to support and sell hydrogen fuels but won't without cars to supply and that's a real shame.

I honestly believe that if the Clarity isn't the car of tomorrow, its brothers and sisters will be. What you see here is the beginning, genesis. It offers the freedom of a gasoline or diesel engine with the cleanliness of an electric and at the risk of quoting James May from Top Gear, "The reason it's the car of tomorrow is because it's just like the car of today."