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January 27, 2007

Go Kart Go!

As the cold and snow finally settles in here in the Midwest, the car guy in us starts to get cabin fever. Sure finding a desolate parking lot covered in the slippery white stuff gives our idle hands the opportunity to test full opposite lock maneuvers with the snow tire shod family sedan, but still our competitive juices need an outlet. Well, thank God for the indoor karting track. As it so happens, we have one just around the corner from home base here where we spend many hours honing our aging reflexes and questionable skills.

Along with those friendly people at the kart track, Kart2Kart, we are sponsoring our second annual VRPerformance 90 minute Endurance Kart race February 17th. If you're in the area, check it out. If you're anxious to have some spirited fun and can put a team of like minded souls together, send me an RSVP.

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January 20, 2007

The 'Ring Video

The Nuerburgring in Germany is probably the most famous race track in the world, particularily the old Nordschleife. BMW has used the old track as a test bed for decades now, going so far as having a permanent test facility bordering the track. Following the jump is a video produced in part by BMW (and played originally on TiVo sets) that explains some of the mythos of the track known by old time racers as the "green hell" for its treacherous corners and hills. Enjoy.

January 18, 2007

the 2007 NAIAS, All Others

The North American International Auto Show is an international event (says so right there in the title), and while the domestic two and a half automakers did dominate the proceedings, the foreign brands did not hold back. Here are some highlights:

Toyota showed its assault weapon of choice in the pick-up truck wars, which has been dominated by the domestics as long as there has been a pick-up truck market. The new Texas built Toyota Tundra—and its massive quad cab derivative-- is the first Asian brand truck that might stand a chance against such segment stalwarts as the Ford F150, Chevrolet Silverado, and Dodge Ram. It certainly has the size to compete. And while the Tundra’s power-train options are not as varied as that of its US competitors it will be interesting to see how much of an impact it can make in the most nationalistic of market segments.


Proving that nobody is immune from the Toyota onslaught, the Lexus division kicked off the “F brand” within brand. When it comes to solid luxury, Lexus has no equal, but when it comes to driving enthusiasm and passionate performance, Lexus is left wanting. Like spilled coffee on a messy desk, the Toyota machine is seeping into every open segment, niche and crevasse in the market. The IS-F is the first of the performance tuned Lexi put up to do battle against the M, AMG, and RS branded cars from the Fatherland. With a 400 plus horsepower high revving V8 engine, 8 speed auto-manual gearbox, massive Brembo brakes and stiffer springs, Toyota has the basic formula down. The question remains if all those parts come together in a satisfying package. At the very least, those less hard edged people that went to BMW M or Mercedes AMG because there was little other choice now might find the perfect compromise between bullet proof quality, seamless luxury and at least some sport over at Lexus.


Mitsubishi introduced their new Lancer compact sedan, which shares the global DCX platform on which the Dodge Caliber and Jeep Compass/Patriot also ride. Along with the updated Lancer, which is actually quite handsome for its class, they showed the “X Concept” previewing the next Evolution. Labeled a concept, I can’t imagine how much more toned down it needs to be to be called production. My guess is that the exterior of the concept is exactly what we can expect on the next Evo X. Most of the interior save for some of the switchgear and the suede dash covering will make it into production as well. With a rumored 300 plus horsepower turbocharged engine, rally inspired all wheel drive, and aggressive handling this will be one fun car.


The BMW group chose to show off a trio of new convertibles, from its premier brand Rolls-Royce to MINI and BMW in between, all brands had a new ragtop of sorts to show off.

MINI unveiled for the first time to the American public the second generation new MINI. Slightly larger in almost every way, the new for 2007 MINI and MINI Cooper S is a very calculated evolution over the last generation which was so successful. The 07 MINIs don’t break any new ground in exterior styling. Underneath and inside is where the redesign action went with a set of new engines and better quality interior materials. Gone is the engine that was developed jointly with DCX and built in Brazil and in comes a new range of engines, this time jointly developed with Renault. The little 1.6 liter 4 cylinder now has BMWs patented fully variable valve lift and timing VALVTRONIC engine technology. The base engine has 120 hp and the Cooper S engine with added turbo-charging musters a 175 hp and 177 lb-ft torque, with an over-boost effect during hard acceleration providing brief bump up to 192 lb-ft torque.

The new MINI Convertible is actually the old MINI with a new name and equipment package. Called the MINI Convertible Sidewalk it is based on the outgoing model and makes due with unique colors, graphics, and equipment.

The most impressive display of hardware at the show was tucked underneath the BMW lounge mezzanine towards the back of BMW’s display. They had every iteration of M car available on the market today parked in a single row—all in sparkling alpine white paint—ready to pounce. Lexus and its “F” cars have a long way to go to match BMW’s rich heritage in the factory tuned category.

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The fourth generation of BMW’s four seat 3 Series convertible, now with a folding hardtop in place of the usual cloth, took center stage up front. The new convertible will come in 328 and 335 guise and offer all the amenities already available on the 3 Series coupes.

The most outrageous car, and one I must confess that I absolutely love for its pure (and fitting) audaciousness, was the Rolls-Royce Phantom Drophead Coupé. This is a larger than life car befitting the long and storied history to the Rolls-Royce marque. With its optional brushed stainless steel hood section and teak wood deck that covers the largest convertible top on the market (while its stowed beneath the belt line) the Drophead is a $400,000 plus jaw dropper. The convertible Roller shares much of its underpinnings and drivetrain with the sedan, but gets unique styling including a swept back grille flanked by menacing looking lights. If I had the money, this car along with its sedan brother would be in my fleet…

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Audi brought their mid-engined super car, the R8, to Detroit with little fanfare, having already introduced it in the streets of New York back in the fall. Based on the Lamborghini Gallardo chassis, the R8 is very much its own car nonetheless. One of the most beautiful cars at the show the R8 is currently outfitted with the RS4’s 420 hp V8 engine but it is rumored that it may eventually have a sport tuned diesel engine in honor of Audi’s diesel powered LeMans winning prototypes.

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What really had people singing over at the four ringed VW offshoot was their ridiculous Q7 6.0 V12 TDI concept SUV. Sporting a 500 hp, 737 lb-ft 6 liter diesel engine, the Q7 concept car was meant to showcase… what I’m not exactly sure. It did have the whitest of white pearl paint and enough bling accoutrements that would make the most ostentatious of hip hop stars happy.

Porsche continued its assault on its good name by introducing an even uglier Cayenne sport-ute. The only saving grace at the Porsche stand was the white GT3 tucked in the back corner. Let us have a moment of silence for what Porsche was, and still could be as proved by the GT3, were it not for the overthrow of the engineers by the marketing and finance departments.

Back in Italian row, where Ferrari, Maserati, and Lamborghini were situated not much new was debuted. Then again, if you’re Ferrari, Maserati or Lamborghini and you flank your lust worthy cars with beautiful models you don’t really need to show much new to keep the hoi polloi journalists salivating. A new automatic transmission for the Quattroporte, 60 year anniversary for Ferrari, and a new engine at Lamborghini sums up the news from Italy.

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So the North American International Auto Show in Detroit may be a home team favorite, but it has enough clout in the world of car shows that even those pesky foreigners show up with serious iron.

A side note about the venue: we get predictions every year that the show will lose its stature if floor space isn’t increased and every year we get grandiose plans to fix this, yet Detroit politics being what it is, nothing ever gets done.

The automakers may complain that they need more space and the journalists may bemoan the idea of coming to Detroit in the winter, but the character of this show would surly be missed if it were changed dramatically or didn’t exist at all. Its relative compact dimensions compared to the foot blistering, time wasting expanses of Frankfurt or even Chicago may worry the organizers and local politicians but not me. You’re blinded by all the sights and sounds the minute you step into Cobo Hall thanks to displays set up back to back and side to side with one another. How interesting would Tokyo or Manhattan be if it were spread out like Los Angeles? It’s the density of sensory delights that makes the Detroit show what it is, and while it could use some more space because of the increasing number of cars and brands in the market, I hope it never grows too large.

January 12, 2007

The 2007 NAIAS, the Home Team

It may sound silly, but one can truly feel a “buzz” at large shows or conventions. At the 2007 North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) in Detroit it was all about GM—in a good way. GM’s design team seems finally to be running on all cylinders again with most, if not all, of the new production and concept car designs hitting the mark. They also introduced an environmentally sound technology that should put smiles on the faces of all those car hating greenies out there.

Thanks to a marketing department that was also running on all cylinders, GM’s buzz began the night before the show opened to the media at its “GM Style” event. Along with several Hollywood type celebrities Chevrolet division introduced the Camaro convertible concept there. The coupe version was a genuine hit last year and the drop top version is sure to please the muscle crowd this year.

Shifting categories a bit, GM rolled out their “electrified” car, the Chevrolet Volt on the first official media day. Powered primarily by a plug in rechargeable electric battery/electric motor drivetrain, the Volt could be an answer for a sustainable automotive future. Backed up by a 3 cylinder, turbocharged 1 liter internal combustion engine (ICE) the Volt is a pretty reasonable proposition. Range on the battery alone is 40 to 45 miles, and then the ICE kicks in. If your round trip driving per day is less than 45 miles, you might never need gasoline since the battery is a plug-in charge type. Once fuel cells are perfected, the ICE can be replaced altogether.

Over the course of two other press conferences, GM introduced two more relevant to the here and now cars: the newly redesigned Cadillac CTS and Chevrolet Malibu. The Cadillac in particular is a stunning design that carries the original origami look of current Cadillacs to the next level. The front is reminiscent of the wonderful Cadillac Sixteen show car of a few years back and the sides are much fuller and less busy with fewer lines and creases. Equipped with a 3.6 liter V6 engine, the CTS will go into battle with 300 hp on tap, a Nürburgring honed suspension, and an interior that is on par with most of its European competition.


The Malibu also benefits from an upgraded interior design with better materials, tighter gaps, cleaner gauges, and smoother switch gear. The exterior design is handsome and compares favorably with such midsized stalwarts as the Camry and Accord. Chevrolet finally has a real contender in the midsized family sedan category with the new Malibu; we’ll see if the dealer body and marketers can handle it.


But the NAIAS is about more than just one car company and others did manage to stand out in their own way. Overall it was a show that was entertaining, informative and not nearly as over the top as in years past.

The over the top reference refers to those usually wacky folks over at Chrysler PR, and while they did fly in a Food Network star chef to help introduce their new minivans their introductions were less elaborate than in years past.

While I think that Chef Bobby Flay got more out of his appearance on stage with Tom Lasorda, Chrysler Group President and CEO, the real stars of Chrysler’s first press event were the Dodge Caravan and Chrysler Town and Country minivans. My first impression was that the new exterior styling is rather blocky and conservative. But, thanks to nice proportions and a tightly executed design, they look less fat than the current generation Caravan and T&C yet offer even more room and flexibility on the inside where it counts.


Minivans are probably the most space efficient and useful vehicles on the road today and Chrysler knows better than most what the buyers in this segment want. Cross town rivals Ford and GM could not figure it out and are abandoning the market, at least in the short term, altogether. With optional stow ‘n go seating (wherein the seats can be quickly folded and stowed in bins under the interior floor), swivel seating with a handy table for that impromptu game of go fish by the kiddies, and up to three LCD monitors for DVDs and video games these new people haulers from DCX really raise the bar.

The 2008 Dodge Viper has even more venom thanks to a re-worked 8.3 liter V10 with 600 hp instead the outgoing 500. Minor changes inside and out complete the new for 2008 package for America’s most outrageous super car.

Dodge also revealed a new mid-sized car to replace the Stratus. Styled in the same vein as the Charger, the Avenger has bold America looks written all over it. Unfortunately along with the bold came some kitsch and the overall design is not beautiful in any way, nor is it particularly well sorted out. It looks downright pre-school compared to the more sophisticated Chevy Malibu, Saturn Aura, and even the Ford Fusion triplets. The Avenger also lacks the quality interior ambience now coming out of its US competitors, let alone those of the Japanese and European persuasion. I’m sure it will do fine in the marketplace in comparison to the rental fleet special Stratus, but it will not gain any new ground.

Years of upper management shuffling, directionless design, and dire cost cutting have taken their toll on Ford and it showed again this year at the NAIAS. The hurried redo of the slow selling Ford 500, now with the three bar grill styling borrowed from the much more successful Fusion, looks just that: hurried. The Focus update is horrendous and continues to push the Focus downward on the desirability scale. Why the very good European Focus doesn’t make it to the States is a question for the ages—though one can guess it has something to do with short sighted cost cutting on the account of the bean counters.

But not all is lost. A trio of concept cars from the blue oval are worth mentioning, the Ford Interceptor, Lincoln MKR and Mazda Ryuga. All of these concept cars are striking and illustrate perfectly that while the production cars from Ford may be terribly boring, there is some life deep inside the design studios of Ford.

The Interceptor is a straightforward classic American sedan that’s bigger and blunter than it needs to be—and that’s exactly as it should be. It’s all about stance, proportion and presence with the Interceptor.


The MKR is yet another in a long string of Lincoln concept cars that portends to show us the new direction of the beleaguered brand of the blue haired set. If one is to believe the affable Mr. Horbury, Chief Designer at FoMoCo, the MKR will in fact set the tone for a new generation of Lincolns ready to take on, if not the world, at least North America. From its “bow wave” split grille to its short rear deck, the MKR is a stunning car and one that deserves to be put into production sooner rather than later.


The Mazda Ryuga is the most outlandish of the trio from a feasibility standpoint, but a great design exercise nonetheless. Mazda is looking to break out of its current zoom zoom design idiom and into a more flowing, elegant, Japanese style language. I’m not sure if the wave-like lines carved into the sheet metal is the way to go, but the overall form language is new and different and worthy of evolution into production form.


Overall, and despite of the struggles that Ford and Chrysler are going through yet again, the 2007 NAIAS was a good one for the home team. GM is certainly beginning to do the right things, and both Ford and DCX have plenty of life left in them.

January 06, 2007

Jaguar Direction Revealed at the NAIAS

Twenty-four hours and counting to the opening of the 2007 North American International Auto Show—also known as the Detroit show to us locals. The anticipation is high despite the fact that it seems almost every embargo has been broken by every sort of media outlet resulting in most of the surprises being revealed—in detail—before the doors of Cobo Hall ever opened. Nonetheless, seeing the cars in the flesh is as much of the excitement as finding out about them over the internet or seeing pictures in a printed magazine. If you’re not available to visit the Detroit show, fear not since I’ll try to capture some of the goings on and reveals here on this blog.

In the meantime enjoy this short video of Ian Callum describing the ideas behind what will surely become one of the stars of the 2007 Detroit auto show, the Jaguar C-XF concept car (of which pictures have been floating around for weeks now already). I’m always fascinated by the thinking behind the design of cars—what were the designers thinking, what were they aiming for? Mr. Callum posits that Jaguar was the inventor of the sports sedan (saloon) and with the C-XF they are trying to remind us all of that fact.