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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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."
Friday, April 13, 2012
Is there still magic to be found in the most popular Honda ever?
By Andrew Fields
Automotive journalists are supposed to approach every new car they test with an open mind but that proved fairly difficult owing to all the negativity swirling around the new Civic. Shelving my preconceived notions and wanting it to be the best small car ever made, I grabbed the keys to an EX sedan in Dyno Blue and hit the road for a week with Honda’s latest bread-and-butter compact to see if there was a diamond to be found somewhere in all this rough.
I was actually very excited to drive the Civic for an extended period and genuinely wanted to like it but early results were not promising. The redesign of the Civic’s outside body panels absolutely screams ‘CAUTIOUS!’. Whereas the 2006 model was light years ahead of the one that came before it, the new Civic is something of a step back. The once wide window line has been squashed as though Shrek sat down on the roof. At the back, the taillights share absolutely nothing in common with the rest of the car and appear as though they belong on some European cargo van. That being said, it’s the only way you can tell at a glance which body style you’re looking at. When you walk around the car, you’re left with the distinct impression that the front, middle, and back were designed by three separate departments who never once spoke to each other and whoever was in charge of the front must have looked at the previous generation and said, “Yeah…that still looks good. Done!” But I have to say that if a car freak such as myself struggles to tell the two apart even after a year on the market, it’s highly doubtful that many consumers who care very little about cars will notice at all. Blunders like this are the reason the Civic is starting to blend into the background like wallpaper; it’s always there but nobody ever really notices it.
I’m afraid the bad news continues on the interior, as well. Everything you can touch is cheap, rock hard plastic and this stuff is bad enough to look at home in a Chrysler K-Car. This hard plastic is also shiny which adds the distinction of reflecting light from the gauges onto the windshield at night, directly into your line of vision. Because of this, you wind up chasing a dark blue orb every time you turn onto a dark road. The massive gauge cluster containing the fuel gauge, speedometer, instant fuel consumption and iMID (intelligent multi-information display) takes up pretty much half the dash and I found myself craning to see over it on steep hills. Two bars sit on either side of the digital speedometer and provide their opinion of your driving style. If you’re driving economically, they glow green but if you go all Jeremy Clarkson on it, they turn blue to admonish you of your ways. A standard analog tachometer sits directly behind the steering wheel while the iMID itself is controlled by no fewer than eight separate buttons on the gauge cluster and steering wheel along with a plethora of radio controls on the dash itself. Just resetting the trip computer can be confusing for a new owner and that’s just one more thing that makes this car feel less like a true Honda. Hyundai’s two-button ‘trip’ and ‘reset’ controls in use in the Elantra make far more sense than the iMID.
If you can manage to pull up the screen for the radio, the controls are easy enough to figure out and the display is clear and easy to read at a glance, thanks in part to its high position on the dash. The iPod connectivity works with just Apple’s ubiquitous white USB cable and even displays album artwork but it can be slow to respond. Cabin ventilation controls are simple and easy to use and the blower fan works quietly and effectively, even on higher settings. The test car I had for a week did not come with heated outside mirrors and the rear defroster left a nice line of fog at the top where the radio antenna resides, a common ailment on cars with such antenna placement.
LX and EX models come with fabric seats that seem nice enough at first but one feel lets you know the cloth is thin and cheap and likely won’t stand up to much abuse through the years. Despite this and a lack of adjustable lumbar support, the seats are very comfortable and are unlikely to find enemies. Annoyingly, a rear seat arm rest is not standard. EX-L models have attractive gathered leather with standard front seat heating. The carpet is simply abysmal in every way regardless of model and it’s virtually guaranteed that any dirt that touches it will never leave. I saw the light hit it at an angle and there was an actual sheen to the stuff. Not even carpet underlayment has a texture like this and if anything, it looks like laminated fiberglass insulation which leads me to wonder what it is and where Honda found it. I’m guessing inspiration was taken from discards found in a late-night dumpster-diving session behind JoAnn Fabrics.
It didn’t take long for me to discover that the steering wheel in this car is comically tiny (a little over a foot across) which gives the driver the sensation that he’s back in that kind of go-kart that they force on teenagers who don’t yet have a license. It also leads to muscle fatigue as you’re constantly forced to crane your arms inboard just to get a grip. The door panels and armrests are too high and the wheel is set too far inboard to be of any use, either so don’t bother trying to one-hand it. The center armrest is so thinly padded, leaving your elbow on it for more than a minute or two will cause many drivers pain in that region. Despite this, the wheel-mounted video game-style jog controls for the cruise and audio systems are very satisfying to the touch and easy to use. Don’t get me started on the shifter but let’s just say it shares nothing in common with the rest of the car which leaves it looking like a complete afterthought and it smacks of the same cheapness that the whole car suffers from. It’s positively enormous, too. Another quip about the interior is a distinct lack of storage space. The center console is shallow, there’s no sunglasses case and the door pockets are barely large enough to handle a receipt. Even the glovebox is tapping out once you get the owner's manual packet in there. I guess Honda’s research shows that a majority of Civic owners leave everything at home.
On the road, the Civic is downright loud. Every change in the road surface is transmitted into the cabin and only the smoothest and freshest of pavement quiets the din. Also, the car I drove had a mysterious flapping noise that emanated from somewhere around the windshield cowling at speeds above 70 although I could never pinpoint where it was exactly. Despite having only a thousand miles on it, the interior had already developed a number of rattles from the various pieces of hard plastic trim. This does not bode well for future durability. The engine is fairly quiet when working at low speeds but takes on a haughty little snarl when in the upper revs that, for some reason, lacks that distinctive Honda sound. It is refined, though and never sounds buzzy or harsh.
Performance is uninspiring and that joyous Honda handling DNA that one infiltrated the entire product line seems to have been lost, turning the Civic into a Cavalier. Throw it into a corner and it stumbles over its own feet and then wallows through, also taking great joy in kicking back as if to say, “Have you lost your mind?!” Soichiro would not be pleased.
I’m sure you’re wondering if there’s a positive in all this negativity and yes, there actually is. Although the Civic is very disappointing considering the source, in truth, it’s not a bad car. Consumers need to remember that there are far better alternatives out there for less money but for the person who is looking for something to just get them to where they need to go with as little worry as possible, the Civic fits the bill just fine. It gets good gas mileage, has plenty of room and a large trunk, and is about as likely to suffer from mechanical failure as a Bic ballpoint. And for those looking to maximize their miles per gallon, a hypermiler-approved button marked ‘ECON’ stunts throttle response and makes other tweaks to the car’s performance in order to make it as efficient as possible. It also makes it about as fun to drive as a cardboard box but econ function on or off, it’s clear that fun is no longer on the Civic’s résumé. Pity.
What we have here is an appliance and it’s an appliance that does just one thing very well and that is move people from one place to another. But when you step back and look at the Civic’s storied history, countless awards and literal generations of loyal followers, you can see that they used to do everything very well and when this latest version is taken into the fold, you can’t help but wonder what on earth they were thinking. Despite wanting very much to love it, after my week with the Civic, I couldn't wait to see it gone and I honestly believe all the criticism levied against it is deserved. As just a car, it manages to succeed...barely. But as a Honda Civic, it’s nothing short of epic failure.
What's Hot: Excellent front seats, good fuel mileage, decent visibility, Honda reliability.
What's Not: Cheap mix-n-match interior, uninspiring performance, squirrely handling, bland mismatched styling, distinctly un-Honda everything, good luck finding one in a manual transmission.
The Verdict: An underachieving high school dropout that fell backwards into a Honda scholarship.
What's Hot: Excellent front seats, good fuel mileage, decent visibility, Honda reliability.
What's Not: Cheap mix-n-match interior, uninspiring performance, squirrely handling, bland mismatched styling, distinctly un-Honda everything, good luck finding one in a manual transmission.
The Verdict: An underachieving high school dropout that fell backwards into a Honda scholarship.