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-ignition 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 when cold and take an eternity to come up to temperature when the thermometer drops. Finally 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 constructing 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.


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
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.


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


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
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.