Monday, August 27, 2012

The American Auto Industry Restructuring

Here's the note I wrote in 2008 about how the American automakers should have restructured back in 2008-2009.  Let's see if how it compares to what actually happened.  

General Motors:

Ditch all brands save for Chevy and Cadillac. Get Saab back to Sweden and put an end to the badge-engineered crap already. Ditch Hummer altogether. 

---  Well, they ditched most of their brands, and kept four.  They got rid of Saab, but it evaporated anyway.  And as for "badge-engineered crap", there are only three examples I can think of.  One is the entire GMC Truck lineup, which still blows my mind.  Why keep the most redundant brand around?!  The other two examples are the Cadillac Escalade lineup and the Buick Verano (which isn't really badge engineering so much as platform sharing).  

Chevy: Simplify the lineup as follows, ditching all cars except the following:

Cobalt--Replace it with the upcoming Cruze economy car. Offer a 2.2 liter 4 as the base motor, and offer the 2.4 liter Ecotec as an upgrade, with or without turbo/supercharging. 

-----They do indeed offer two motors on the Cruze, and one of them is turbocharged.  Score!

Malibu--Keep as is, only offer a manual transmission with the four cylinder motor. stick shift version, but in the name of fuel economy, the V6 has been replaced by a turbo four and there's a mild hybrid version.  

Impala--Replace the current design with a Chevy-badged Pontiac G8. Offer a 4.6 Northstar V8 in the LTZ model. The G8 GXP, with its monster motor and six speed stick, would become the new Impala SS. 

-----They ended up redesigning the Impala and keeping it as a larger alternative to the Malibu, but it'll be powered by the Malibu's four-banger or the corporate 3.6 liter V6.  However, the SS will be coming over, and it will essentially be a G8 with a Chevy badge, a big V8, and hopefully a 6MT>  

Corvette--Don't change a thing. 

New Camaro, don't change a thing. Just make sure they offer a turbocharged Ecotec 4 as the base motor. 

-----Minus the fact that you still can't get a four-banger in the Camaro, they took my advice.  Wouldn't be surprised to see it, given that the Mustang will probably be getting EcoBoost power soon.  

Give Chevy a version of the Pontiac Solstice/Saturn Sky. It's a good product. 

-----No dice....

Equinox--Replace the current one with a rebadged Saturn Vue. 

-----They did release a new, better Equinox, but it's not the Vue.  However, the Captiva (sold only to rental fleets) is a re-badged Vue.  

Traverse--Keep as is

Keep the Suburban as a fleet special only. 

-----Unfortunately they still offer both the Tahoe and Suburban full-size SUVs.  Not a fan.  

Colorado--Redesign it; it's uncompetitive. Offer it with a turbocharged Ecotec 4, the 3.6 V6, or a 4.6 Northstar V8. 

-----Gonna be redesigned.  Not sure about motors yet.  

Silverado--Keep as is, but replace the 4.3 liter V6 with the 3.6 liter one. Ditch the 4.8 and 5.3 V8s, and replace both with a 4.6 Northstar V8. Keep the 6.0 V8 and 6.6 diesel V8 for heavy duto models. 

-----See above.  

The only motors for the whole lineup would be 2.2 and 2.4 liter Ecotec 4 bangers, the 3.6 V6, the 4.6 liter Northstar V8, the Corvette's (and Impala SS's) V8s, and the Duramax diesel V8. 

-----Aside from the 3.6L V6 being (practically) the only V6 they offer, they haven't done too much as far as engine lineup simplification goes.  


Keep the entire CAR line-up as is....and offer a de-contented DTS sedan with 3.6 V6 for deflecting Buick customers (old farts). Ditch the XLR (too low volume). Move the Escalade onto the Chevy Traverse's platform and power it with either a Northstar V8 or the high power unit from the Corvette/Impala SS/CTS-V. Redesign the SRX and offer 3.6 V6 or Northstar V8 power. 

-----They ditched the old-fart mobiles, kept the excellent CTS (and CTS-V), added a 3-series fighter (the ATS), re-did the SRX, and regrettably kept the Escalade.  

Ok, one company down. Two to go....

Chrysler: Keep all three brands, but eliminate badge-engineering. 

Dodge: Re-do the Caliber's interior, but keep its functionality.

Re-do the Avenger entirely and re-name it the Stratus. Offer a manual gearbox with the 2.4 liter 4 cylinder and make the only V6 upgrade the 3.5 liter one. 

----Nope, they didn't upgrade this car too much aside from the interior.  They did add the company's excellent Pentastar V6 though as the only upgraded engine.  

Freshen the Charger and offer with the 3.5 liter V6, 4.0 liter V6 from the vans, and the Hemi V8s. Ditto for the Challenger, and offer the SRT8 versions of both with 6 speed sticks to take on the Impala/Camaro SS. 

----They upgraded it with the Pentastar V6, but forgot to make a stick available on the hot versions.  

Grand Caravan: Re-do the interior and replace the 3.3 and 3.8 liter motors with the 3.5 V6 from the passenger cars. Offer 8 passenger seating. 

-----They did exactly that, minus the 8 seat capacity and plus an even better motor (the Pentastar).  

Dakota: Re-do it, and offer with 4 liter V6 from vans and Charger/Challenger as the base engine. Offer the Hemi as an upgrade. 

-----They dropped this model, and rightfully so.  

Ram: Keep as is, replace the 3.7 V6 and 4.7 V8 with the 4.0 liter V6. 

-----They added the Pentastar and are phasing out the 4.7 V8.  They also added an 8AT with a rotary shift knob.....strange......

Chrysler: Make this strictly a premium brand. Ditch all models except the.....

300....freshen it up and make it a genuine luxury vehicle. Offer with a 4.0 liter V6 or Hemi V8. 

-----They did exactly that, but instead of a 4.0 V6, they used the Pentastar V6.  

Town and Country: Keep as is; limit engine choices to the 4.0 liter V6. Freshen the interior and offer 8 passenger seating. 

-----See above, and what I wrote under Dodge Grand Caravan.  

Jeep: Ditch everything except the Wrangler and Grand Cherokee. Replace the GC's current V6 and 4.7 V8 with a 4.0 liter V6. Keep the Hemi as an option. Offer a stretch version with 3rd row seating as a hook for deflecting Dodge Durango customers. Nicen up the interior. 

-----They still have a few crappy models out there, but the Grand Cherokee is a hell of a lot nicer than it was a few years ago.  Still no seven seat version, though (oh wait, they re-introduced the Durango and it's basically a stretched Grand Cherokee).  


Ditch the Mercury brand altogether. 

-----Look what happened!

Import the European Focus. Our current one stinks. 

-----Look what happened!

Keep the 2010 Fusion as is. Ditto for the Taurus. 

-----New Fusion looks KILLER.  Taurus is getting a bit old.  

Kill off the Crown Vic and Lincoln Town Car. 

-----Look what happened.  

Re-do the Ranger and offer with turbo 4 or 3.5 V6 power. 

-----It's no longer sold here.  

Keep F-series as is, replace engine lineup with either Eco V6 or 5.4 V8. 

-----Yup, it has the EcoBoost V6 now and it's selling crazily well!

Keep extended length Expedition for fleet sales. 

-----Both Expedition models are around, still.....ugh!

Ditch all other SUVs except the Flex and Edge. Offer 8 passenger seating in the Flex, and offer a turbo 4 motor in the Edge. 

-----Nope.....the Explorer was re-done, as was the Escape.  Both are decent.  And indeed, I'm pretty sure they all offer the EcoBoost four-banger now.  

Keep the Mustang as a niche vehicle. But make the manual gearbox a 6 speed already?!

-----Look what happeened.  

As for Lincoln.....keep the MKZ and MKS as they are, but offer a V8 in the MKS. Move the Navigator to the Flex platform and make it visually distinct. Differentiate the MKX from the Flex more than it already is and offer a 3rd row of seats. 

-----This brand still needs a kick in the butt!

And I'll still happily be driving my 99 Honda Accord for years to come as these 3 companies try to get their shit together.

-----In summary, all three companies ended up implementing several of the changes I thought (in 2009) that they should implement.  I still might do a couple things differently but color me impressed.  

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Rental Car Review -- 2012 Nissan Sentra 2.0S

As some of you know, I took a three-day trip to Bloomington, Indiana in early July to attend the wedding of one of my closest personal friends.  He also happens to be a killer musician and composer; you should check his stuff out at .  It was a FANTASTIC weekend on so many levels!

Ok, Dan, what does all that have to do with the title of this post?  Oh, yeah, I rented a car while in Indiana from Ace Rent-A-Car.  If you've never heard of Ace, well, you live under a rock.  Nah, in all seriousness, they only have locations in the Indiana area.  That said, they were courteous and professional, and transported me between their location and the Indianapolis Int'l Airport in a sweet Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van.  Their prices were more than reasonable, too, and they weren't inordinately pushy regarding the unnecessary insurance options they offered.

Onto the car, now. . .

Whenever I would accompany my father to rental car counters in the past (something I did on several occasions), he would be offered a choice of two to three different vehicles, and usually none of the choices matched the specific model listed on the website.  With that in mind, I debated internally which car I would select if offered the choice in the "midsize" class (with a couple exceptions, midsize in rental car terminology really equals compact in EPA terminology).  My top choices would have been, in no particular order, the Chevy Cruze, the Ford Focus, the Hyundai Elantra, or the Honda Civic.

However, I was told that they had a Nissan Sentra for me.  Surprisingly, there was no choice between that model and another one.  Coincidentally, the Sentra was the car listed on their website when I booked the rental.  It worked out ok, though, as the car did what I needed it to do just fine.  I was surprised about a few things, though, and some of these surprises were of the pleasant variety.

I got in the car and, as I always do when entering a car for the first time, adjusted my seat, mirrors, etc.  Doing so was generally straightforward, and most every control was where I expected it to be.  I optimistically searched for Bluetooth buttons on the steering wheel (fruitlessly) and a USB port through which to connect my iPhone (semi-fruitfully).  What I found was an eighth-inch auxiliary input jack on the stereo head unit (a standard feature in most new cars today), as well as what looked to be an old tower PC's parallel port on crack (labeled "iPod").  Given that no cable was present for the "iPod"port, I proceeded to connect my phone through the auxiliary jack.  Just as I finished up, the rental car guy returned with the requisite iPod cable.  I plugged it in and.....boom!  I could now control the music end of my phone through the stereo's head unit and steering-wheel controls.  I still don't understand why certain manufacturers require specific cables to use their iPod interfaces (Nissan, Hyundai, Kia, and Volkswagen, I'm talking to you), but having such an interface was nice, as my 2010 Accord only has the auxiliary input jack.

I drove away from the rental car lot, parked after a few minutes, and fiddled with the tone controls on the stereo.  Once I doped them out, I realized that the stereo sounded quite good for an econobox, non-name brand system.  Bass was more earthy than in my Accord, and the clarity was definitely better-than-acceptable.  Could this system rival the ELS surround system in a new Acura?  Not a chance.  For an OEM system, though, it was more than OK.  My one ergonomic beef with the stereo (and actually with the entire car) was that the display screen was small, which made scrolling through song or album titles a bit of a tedious process.

After leaving the lot, I noticed a few other things.  First, I noticed that the outside temperature gauge was showing triple digit temperatures.  They stayed that way all weekend.  I also noticed that the air conditioner (controlled by three simple knobs, each containing one button) generally had no trouble keeping up with such temperatures.  I've been in cars with subpar air conditioners (Mazda comes to mind) so this was a nice surprise.

The car rode pleasantly enough, though larger bumps reminded me that, yes, I was driving a compact car (and one in its final years before a redesign).  I don't know this for sure but I'd guess that the steering was electrically assisted, given the insanely low effort and the notable lack of road feel.  Roadholding was OK for the most part but, again, it was obvious that this was a Sentra 2.0S and not the sportier SE-R Spec V model.

Lots of my driving was done at highway speeds, and at these speeds, the Sentra was impressively quiet for a compact car, and adequately quiet when compared to larger cars like my Accord.  This, combined with the responsive cruise control, made this an easy car to drive on the highway.

That said, the seats were a bit disappointing.  I like firm, supportive seats in my cars, and my Accord has the firmest seats I've sat in.  These seats were quite soft, which was nice for my first five minutes in the car.  After a while, though, they just didn't cut it.  That, and after setting the driver's seat so I could drive comfortably, rear legroom all but vanished.  My Accord can seat six footers one behind the other, comfortably.

Also disappointing was the drivetrain.  The Sentra 2.0S, as suggested by its name, has a 2.0 liter inline-four engine.  In the S model, this engine is mated to a CVT (continuously variable transmission).  CVTs, unlike conventional automatic (or manual) transmissions, don't have a pre-set number of gear ratios.  They utilize a belt and pulley system, and the pulleys change in diameter to continuously vary the ratio of engine speed to vehicle speed.  These transmissions have replaced conventional automatics in most of Nissan's lineup, and are becoming increasingly common in other manufacturers' lineups (Subarus and front wheel drive Audis come to mind).  Why?  The EPA tends to rate CVT-driven cars' fuel economy higher than that of cars with normal (torque-converter) automatics.  I wouldn't be surprised to see CVTs proliferate through more manufacturers' spec sheets in the future, and I have mixed feelings about this.  As for how the CVT performed in the Sentra.....well, it was less annoying than I thought it'd be.  It was still annoying though.

Because they don't have stepped gear ratios, CVTs eliminate most of the "shift-shock" experienced by people in manual or automatic transmission-equipped vehicles, which translates to a smoother ride when accelerating.  However, CVTs tend to peg the engine's RPM at its power or torque peak until cruising speed is reached (depending on how much acceleration the driver's right foot demands).  This results in an irritating, droning sound until the car reaches a set speed (at this point, the pulleys change diameter and the engine slows down to a couple thousand RPM).  In a car with a torquey V6 engine, I could see a CVT being reasonable (the engine would have enough power that the transmission wouldn't constantly peg it at its redline).  However, in a smaller car with a small four-banger (like the Sentra), there simply wasn't enough power (a) for quick bursts of acceleration or (b) for the engine's drone to not become annoying after a while.  I had to floor the gas on several occasions to accelerate reasonably, and it was loud.

Lastly, I'd like to discuss several contradictions and curiosities I noticed in my time with the Sentra.  So, in no particular order . . .

1.  The headliner was made of a luxurious, woven material, but several other trim pieces were made of hard, unyielding plastic.

2.  The car came with keyless entry, however not only did the keyfob lack a trunk button, but opening the trunk with the key if the doors were not first unlocked set off the car's alarm system.

3.  The car looked to have two map lights by the rearview mirror, when in fact, it was really only a single light.  Cost cutting, anyone?

4.  The climate control knobs rotated with true, machined precision, but the turn signal stalk felt flimsy.

In summary, the Sentra worked just fine as a rental car.  That said, I don't see myself buying one anytime soon.  It's not because it's a bad car (it's not), but it strikes me as the budget-priced compact car that Buick never had in the 2000s.  Here's why:

1.  The seats were soft and initially comfortable, but support faded after a while.  Sounds like Buick.
2.  The A/C was easy to use, and was strong.  Again, sounds like Buick (or any other American car).
3.  While the CVT caused the engine to drone under my heavy right foot, it was smooth.  That, and the more conservative acceleration habits of an older customer likely would keep the engine spinning at a reasonable enough speed so as not to be annoying.
4.  The car was impressively quiet for its size.  Again, like a Buick.
5.  The ride was smooth, the car was very easy to drive, the handling wasn't even close to sporty, and the steering was effortlessly light and devoid of any road feel.  Sounds like a Buick to me.
6.  Fit-and-finish was hit or miss, and some materials left something to be desired.  Buick all the way.
7.  The car worked just fine as an appliance, but did nothing to ignite any passion.  Oh so Buick.

By Buick, I'm referring to the brand before GM went bankrupt and re-organized itself.  At that time (and before), the Sentra seemed quite competitive, while several GM products (particularly the Buicks) had gotten long-in-the-tooth.  In 2012, however, Buick is putting out some great products (if I wrote that even two years ago, I'd be questioning my own sanity), and it's the Sentra that felt long-in-the-tooth.  My, how the tables have turned.

Long time no post . . .

I'm back!  My apologies for the delay between posts, but I'm hoping to post at least twice a week starting tonight!  So here goes!