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'The Quest for Relevance in Refinement'


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The Quest for Relevance in Refinement
Buick; Jaguar; Lincoln, and Lancia


One might include some Chrysler products – the Pacifica crossover comes to mind – and the Mercury division among our brief list of brands which espouse premium qualities, to varying degrees, with – alternately – both bespoke and plebian platforms in their recent histories. Yet, both for simplicity and for the sake of attempting a discussion of inherent dynamics over peripheral differentiation, we will talk here of Buick; Jaguar; Lincoln, and Lancia.

Buick; Jaguar; Lincoln, and Lancia practice (most of the time) the black magic art of ride quality, a quiet yet critical concept that has been thoroughly misunderstood and underappreciated. All four are premium labels (again, to varying degrees), and all struggle for differentiation within their parent folds. It is to the detriment of all four that their chosen differentiator – comfort, and chassis fluidity - is fairly difficult to quantify; it is easier, perhaps, to place a car on a skidpad and measure lateral grip at a low, fixed speed and steering angle, much though this may have little benefit in (and real detriment to) real-world performance.

Any focus on skidpad results (and such) that might obscure more qualitative – yet no less important – criteria might be dubbed, mag-racing.

The concept leads us into yet another discussion of the pertinence of our media, and of our opinion leaders.

While the maximum grip that a vehicle can generate at a particular speed and steering input, in a steady-state corner, is interesting as an absolute, theoretical measurement, it cannot be used for the purpose of judging a chassis’ overall competence. Let us take, as an example, Cadillac’s SRX crossover; despite a relatively average 0.77g skidpad rating, Car and Driver recently found that “(skidpad) grip isn’t everything, as evidenced by the SRX’s second-best emergency-lane-change run,” in a four-vehicle comparison test that included Porsche’s Cayenne.

In another recent Car and Driver test, the magazine found that the Chrysler 300 “herked and jerked its way to a 0.76g performance, the lowest of the group (including the Pontiac Bonneville GXP and Ford Crown Victoria).

“But in the emergency lane change, where a good stability-control system helps rather than hurts, it was fastest by a wide margin… in the real world, the 300C instills cornering confidence with negligible body lean, and steering that scribes precise arcs.”

Skidpad figures are, of course, inflatable with a set of tires; Road & Track, more than thirty years ago, found that “for cornering on a smooth, steady turn, the (Pontiac) Grand Am on its big radials will work up to a pretty decent lateral loading – nearly 0.7g, just below a BMW Bavaria in standard form” (‘Pontiac Grand Am,’ Road & Track, March 1973).

Yet the ’73 Grand Am driver who might, on an unknown road, search the chassis beneath them for the same confidence accorded the BMW pilot would find that “if the corner isn’t a steady-radius or smooth one, however, the Grand Am gets dicey – simply because its power steering is almost devoid of any road feel.

“Thus any corrections needed to keep the car on course have to be made on an observe-and-try basis rather than on the basis of direct reactions and counteractions at the wheel.”

Such nuances escape mag-racers, however, and – as a corollary - the opinion leaders who provide these numbers have no motivation to explain how they should be used. This is disingenuous, if understandable in the context of those least enviable of human qualities.

For instance: if the lowest common denominator is willing to take Consumer Reports’ reliability surveys and predictions as gospel, without requesting margins-of-error, why should the magazine bother to publish the number of responses it receives per vehicle (even as this number is statistically critical before results can be compared across vehicles, as readers no doubt do)? Moreover, if no one demands the organization’s demographics before questioning the external validity of a survey to which only a nonrandom, self-selective subscriber sample responds, why should Consumer Reports make any concessions to accuracy? While we are on the subject, veteran automotive journalist and Autoline Detroit host John McElroy last week suggested this to Consumer Reports Senior Director of Auto Testing David Champion, who admitted the disclaimer: “our job… is to serve our subscribers… the people that we are helping (are) the same people that are filling-in the survey” (see the episode here, with RealPlayer). To us, it sounds like a comment on external validity that should, in the interest of accuracy, be given prominent place.

Similarly: the mag-racer would do well to note that, while a 2006 Jeep Commander pulled a 0.70g average lateral acceleration in a recent Motor Trend test, the same vehicle averaged just 0.54g on that magazine’s figure-8 circuit. Lateral acceleration at real-world speeds and in real-world corners is likely to be lower still.

Forgive us, then, if we question the metrics that purport to determine automotive excellence.

A vehicle represents the second largest singular purchase in most consumers’ lives, after their house. The consumer cannot expect to be truly informed by counting red and black dots or, more relevantly to this discussion, by determining that one skidpad figure is higher than another.

Should mag-racing begin driving design and engineering compromises made by manufacturers, we fear for this industry. Per Automobile Executive Editor Mark Gillies’ comments in 2001, it has already begun happening. “This fetish for winning magazine tests has led to a few anomalies, particularly Mercedes-Benz abandoning what it did best – solid, beautifully engineered cars that would run all year at 150mph on the autobahn – to produce more stylish automobiles that drive like BMWs but aren’t quite as good and feel cheaper,” Gillies mused.

“Blame that on Mercedes wanting to do as well in magazine comparison tests as BMW, and also wanting to attract younger buyers” (Automobile, September 2001).

Whether or not our opinion leaders have had much to do with it, and whether or not you might buy the theory of information flow from opinion leader to consumer, the court of public opinion has swayed into a decidedly perplexing realm.

As any well-read enthusiast knows, the peripheral annual changes which characterized cars of the ‘50s and ‘60s have been derided, in hindsight, by historians; engineers, and consumer organizations alike as being disingenuous. Yet a glance at the vehicles toward which the consumer is regularly encouraged to flock in this day and age – through either the statistically curious game of predicted reliability or the still more curious practice of mathematically distilling a vehicle’s value - might suggest that little but the nameplates have changed.

Front-heavy, front-wheel-drive platforms have been kaizen-ned (continuously improved) into sports sedans, as the need to provide products which appear new trumps engineering. All the while, increasing curb weights – as dictated by increasing standard and safety equipment – have produced at least one ‘sports sedan’ on today’s market with the ballast weight of an entire Toyota Echo over its front axle (we’ll leave it to regular readers to recognize which).

Secondly, these same front-heavy, front-wheel-drive platforms have been asked to support a second set of models designed to provide a comfortable ride. The difficulties of managing the weight of an unbalanced platform to offer pliancy; fluency, and grip are numerous, yet the challenge has not always been met ingenuously. Key decisions made on the basis of profitability two decades ago have – in some cases - produced hardware which, despite peripheral tuning in years gone by, is reaching the limits of acceptability, and yet the emphasis in cost and effort is on the aspects that the customer sees, in the hope that both media and consumer will not notice the deficiencies.
It appears to be working.

Almost 400,000 Americans this year will buy Toyota’s Camry, for instance, recalling the experience of the similarly mundane Ford Cortina, which spent unexplained years as Britain’s own best-seller.

Suffice to say that popularity does not imply pre-eminence. The number of soft-touch plastics used in the Camry, and the tactility of its auxiliary controls, is quite exaggerated; the (albeit immaterial) fallacy of the lack of exposed screws in its interior, disprovable with simply a turn of the wheel in a parking lot and a glance at the column –

- and yet, even while the image of this vehicle has run away from reality, few have stopped to wonder why Camry’s maker persists with MacPherson struts on the rear end of a vehicle whose weight has grown considerably over the years.

The continued, financial expedience of this dynamic choice forces the rear of Camry to be so stiff as to jounce noticeably over town and highway bumps. Only recently, in Motor Trend’s latest test of Camry versus Fusion; Accord, and Sonata, and toward the end of the current Camry’s life-cycle, has the media finally begun to point this out.

A slew of classic (and some current) French sedans never tire in proving the sheer redundancy of a car that must be so average as to lean neither in the direction of comfort, nor outright dynamism. Indeed, the Camry has all but disappeared from Europe, where more challenging roads have exposed it for the middling vehicle that it is, particularly in a class of more inspired European-market mainstreamer offerings.

Back in America, the substantively quieter and more fluent Buick LaCrosse, built to standards hailed by both J.D. Power and the Harbour Report and with a more potent chassis than Camry’s by any measure, struggles against a perception gap that at times seems insurmountable, if curiously so.

The comparison brings us to the relevance of this discussion to Buick; Jaguar; Lincoln, and Lancia.

Despite Buick’s emphasis – and proven performance – in the areas of build quality; reliability, and refinement, the new, full-size 2006 Lucerne flagship as launched last month finds itself vital for a storied brand now struggling to find relevance.

At the more upscale Jaguar, espousing similarly quiet elegance and refinement (albeit in greater measure and at higher prices), sales took the greatest hit of any division in October. Jaguar’s troubles have been bandied about for years; indeed, we ourselves published an article just over two years ago which predicted a necessary change in strategy from volume to profitability.
Lincoln, another label magnanimous in its sophistication (indeed once the choice of Picasso) yet now struggling for definition, announced in October that the hugely underrated LS would be discontinued. We shall mourn its passing.

Meanwhile, in Europe, Lancia – known for refined style as well as for innovation and racing victories of old – has been on and off life support for at least a decade.

The similarities between the current situations of these four divisions – Buick; Jaguar; Lancia, and Lincoln – cannot be denied. All are underperforming, given the value of their hardware. All have in recent decades, at one time or another, been handed considerably more plebian platforms to work with than their badges were worth, yet all have managed to attain ride quality and NVH characteristics – and, often, fluency - beyond those platforms’ stations. Although Jaguar and Lancia can count more innovations in their history (Jaguar, for instance, was the first to place a double-wishbone suspension in the rear end of a car), and a more sporting flavor, than the other pair, these vehicles all seek to cosset their driver without discouragement.

It does not bode well for these four divisions that true refinement is a somewhat underappreciated quality, perhaps for the reason noted above: our opinion leaders lack the fortitude to convey it. Fashion has dictated larger wheels and lower-profile tires, and – in the Camry’s case – kaizen and continuous improvement have forced the stiffening of a financially expedient suspension that cannot hope to manage wheel travel and rebound accurately without being stiffened to within an inch of its life.

Yet wheel travel – a subject that any offroad enthusiast might speak volumes on – is critical, even as few automotive opinion leaders overtly appreciate its benefits. Indeed, the off-roaders have taken the high ground in more than one sense, being the first to experiment with horizontal damping. Some BMW cars feature Dynamic Drive, which hydraulically controls stabilizers (anti-roll bars) to reduce body movements, but it is Land Rover’s new LR3 SUV (Discovery in Europe) that offers the ability to electronically disconnect its anti-roll bars for greater suspension travel, improving articulation when the going gets tough. Perhaps, eventually, stabilizers in cars might gradually be replaced by some form of horizontal damping, just as the industry eventually moved away from vertical damping that was solely dependent on wheels and tires, and to shock absorbers and struts. Certainly, it would solve the problem of stabilizers creating – rather than suppressing – roll, in a straight line over undulating surfaces.

So important was suspension travel to Britain’s Rover in the early-80s that it was the subject of a long argument with Honda, as the two companies co-developed the car that would become the Legend. Honda won the argument, keeping travel low and the suspension stiff. Given that it pitched the (Acura) Legend as more sporty than luxurious, things worked. When Legend became RL for 1996, and curb weight climbed as its springs were loosened in a marketing-driven, peripheral search for luxury, there remained not the suspension travel in that car to work with, thus accounting for that rare combination of poor ride and poor handling. In a rare example of the public seeing through the illusion, RL sales were a fraction of what Legend’s had been.

Have we forgotten what it means to be cosseted; to drive a vehicle with careful attention paid to suspension geometry? Ride quality is enjoyed continuously as a vehicle is driven. It is about – primarily – one thing: the oscillation frequency of the body of the vehicle. Almost since the inception of the automobile, engineers have known that optimum ride quality occurs at a body oscillation frequency of around 1.5Hz.

In greater depth, we might focus on low-frequency vertical; pitch, and roll motions and vibrations – up to 5 Hz – as the vehicle drives over imperfect roads; on shake, up to intermediate frequency vibrations (5-25Hz), and on harshness, to high-frequency vibrations (25-100Hz). Yet thorough examination of these will find ride to be reducible to a function of the oscillation frequency, encompassing spring rate; the vehicle’s weight, and the weight of the wheel. The body and wheel move along the same spring, which absorbs the initial impact. The greater the movement of the body along the spring, the better it is for ride quality, for it keeps the oscillation frequency of the body low.

It is fair to say that ride quality is, secondarily, affected by the tire, which damps the initial impact of the bump, and the dampers, which absorb body oscillations after the bump – and, by the wheelbase (without entering into a discussion of polar moment of inertia, we might generalize that ride quality usually improves with longer wheelbases).

Suspension geometry is a difficult animal with which to work. What is clear to even the layman, however, is that insufficient damping can cause wheel hop, in which the wheels leave the ground as they bounce up and down. The manufacturer which stiffens a vehicle’s dampers can avoid this; in the case of the Camry, one stiffens the dampers to a still greater degree since the springs must be stiff, in turn because the MacPherson setup’s inherent changes in camber are so undesirable.

Yet, over washboard-surfaced roads, these dampers cause excessively fast vertical motions of the wheel and tire – often referred to as bump-thump or, less colloquially, wheel patter. It is to this phenomenon that Motor Trend was referring in its most recent issue.

The need to keep the MacPherson’s travel at a minimum destroys ride quality, with respect to what might have been, for the vertical distance over which a wheel travels is a key piece of a pliant ride.

More interestingly still, proper focus on one goal results in the attainment of another; consider that the performance-minded Chevrolet Corvette C6 gained 0.3-inches of travel in the front, and 0.8-inches in the rear, over the outgoing C5 model it replaced. The new car’s ride is more resilient, with no detriment to handling (spring and damping rates have, of course, been revised to match). Greater suspension travel, when properly designed, is also characterized by progressive loss of grip, offering early warning as well as the involvement that enthusiast drivers tend to prefer.

Several media organizations which should know better – those which should theoretically be our watchdogs - seem wont to simplistically relate body roll to that complicated concept of handling. Although body roll can be detrimental to the lateral grip of the tires, so, too, is an overly-stiff stabilizer (anti-roll bar).

Although the bar itself reduces roll, and the amount of deflection in the tires (thus improving their chances of grip), it also increases the amount of lateral force they are required to counter. For instance, Renault’s superb little Clio V6 recently doubled its resistance to front roll, yet only slightly stiffened the rear – and fitted no rear stabilizer (such an addition would reduce traction out of corners, suggests Renault). Honda, in attempting to make the rear of its S2000 Roadster less apt to breakaway, found the same; the company shrunk the rear stabilizer for 2004 (also lowering the rear roll-center in an attempt to transfer more weight to the front end, whose springs were stiffened to cope).

Driving a Buick LaCrosse; a Lincoln LS; Jaguar XJ, or Lancia Lybra or Thesis, it is clear that their makers understand these things. For years, Jaguars even resisted rear stabilizers in favor of managing roll by stiffening the rear springs, this in the hope of attaining ride quality at lower speeds.

Indeed, one need not focus on low-volume quasi-exotica – Corvettes; Clio V6s; S2000s, and the like - to find a suspension with some thought put into it. Drive a ‘60s Renault 4, and the washboard ride of Scion’s Toyota Echo-based xB which apes – without equaling – that first hatchback’s functionality becomes dramatically apparent.

If a humble Renault 4 can demonstrate tractability over any road surface, one might note that the woes of Buick; Lancia, and Lincoln – at least – is not necessarily in the source of their platforms.

Let us take Lancia as an example. Might commonality with storied stablemate Alfa Romeo be a guarantee of success? To hear the Lancisti’s view of then-Fiat CEO Giancarlo Boschetti’s January 2002 decision to pull Lancia away from Alfa Romeo, one might imagine so. As Boschetti told Automotive News, “for every $100 we are going to invest in Fiat, we will invest $25 in Lancia, and in return will get a truly Lancia product.”

Yet those who believe that Fiat ownership and Fiat underpinnings necessarily mean that Lancia cannot flourish should consider the fate of Lancia’s Lybra sedan.

Launched in 2000, Lybra was based on the highly-praised Alfa Romeo 156. Richard Bremner, writing as a contributor to CAR magazine, concluded, “this is the best-riding Fiat Auto product bar none.
“It is also quiet; comfortable; spacious; easy to drive, and can corner with unexpected agility, given its comfort bias, and never mind the body roll” (‘Mixed grille,’ Richard Bremner, CAR, September 1999).

Words like Bremner’s were rare – and, in today’s media, are rarer still. The Alfa Romeo 156 was hailed; the mechanically similar, yet more comfortably tuned, Lybra, relatively ignored.

So, pulling away from Fiat platforms and toward Alfa Romeo did not guarantee Lancia success. Thus returning to Fiat may yet work.

Fiat understands suspension travel, regularly deriving excellent ride quality from the lightest of cars. The little 2004-present Panda, which has prolonged troubled Fiat Auto’s chances of survival, is possessed of long-travel suspension which absorbs road surface intrusions, yet retains composure and grip despite copious body roll. It bears remembering, too, that the 1988 Delta Integrale, a legend among enthusiasts, was based on the Delta, which arose from a humble Fiat Ritmo. More peripherally, Lancia’s latest Fulvia Concept – which absolutely must be built if the brand is to survive - was based on the Fiat Barchetta, yet managed to look convincingly like a refreshed version of the great originals of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Recalling the last, fully Lancia-designed Lancia coupes and sedans of 1964, it generated more press than has been granted to the brand in years.

One can take this logic too far, of course. Jaguar is the most upscale of these brands and, as we have said before, should have had nothing to do with the X-Type, no matter how suitable its Ford Mondeo underpinnings for all-wheel-drive, or its Ford Duratec 3.0-liter for a new set of heads. Lancia, certainly, should not be building a relatively undistinguished, co-developed minivan dubbed Phedra. Similarly, Buick’s Trailblazer-based Rainier was a questionable move, particularly given that the division’s Rendezvous crossover – which sold well last month - has been underdeveloped. Lincoln was judged adequate to co-develop the platform for use in Jaguar’s S-Type, but has recently had to make do with Ford platforms, and it is unlikely that the Zephyr – despite an interior that exceeds those of its class – can hope to equal the LS’ ultimate balance. The natural weight distribution advantages that rear-wheel-drive provides permit the layout to, in vehicles of curb weights which exceed 3,000lbs, lend itself to either comfort or dynamism – and, certainly, the LS was that rare mix of both.

We recently spent time with the LS, for a fond farewell piece to be posted shortly. Its periphery – what is seen and touched – is undoubtedly dated; in contrast, its ability is evergreen. With the new Zephyr, we see a new overtness of Lincoln’s refinement, now playing upon the idea that silence is deafening; note the 4.8mm side glass that, in the quest for added refinement as a premium quantity, is 25% thicker than in the Ford Fusion upon which Zephyr is based.

What our opinion leaders do not hear, Lincoln hopes, will combine with a class-leading interior that they see and touch, for print whose positive nature, had it been applied to the LS as that car deserved, would have required weeks of quality time behind the wheel.
The LS’ passing is a sad footnote in the history of the Premier Auto Group but, lest we place all blame upon one company, its demise is equally a distressing comment on those who have been asked to judge it. Ironically, perhaps Lincoln is playing the game correctly; playing to an unfortunately – nay, a criminally - short attention span.

What of the other three brands? Can they, similarly, express the necessary periphery to highlight the inherent goodness within?

Lancia will be one hundred years old in a few short months. It is, as we suggested last year, a brand defined by innovation borne out of a desire for elegant simplicity; luxury, and Italian flair in style and performance (with a few requisite, charming blemishes).

Having addressed the value of Fiat’s ability with small cars – and noting that Lancia’s little, Fiat-based Ypsilon is selling well – one might move to consider more overt refinement. There is room, we submit, within Boschetti’s 25% to ensure that each Lancia offers longer front overhangs than Lancia’s promise of performance might dictate; longer rear overhangs with respect to the front; a waterline parallel to the ground, and upright, formal, frontal fasciae, with the architectural cues their Baroque stance implies. Design has become a key differentiator, and Lancia has the in-house ability (and a working history with the carrozzerie) to play this game as well as anyone else. In 1998, Mike Robinson – who has claimed to have wanted to design Lancias since he was 16 – was made head designer for the manufacturer. Robinson designed the brilliant Dialogos Concept (which became the current Thesis flagship), demonstrating an avid understanding of Lancia design.

Jaguar has indicated that the X-Type will not be replaced. In October, the brand sold more XJs and S-Types – each – than substantially cheaper X-Types, and it seems clear that the presence expected of the Jaguar brand requires more than a dromedary hood, topped with ornament, capping a body whose elegance is constrained by Ford proportions. The Jaguar brand will soon field the new XK coupe which, together with the XJ, is a masterpiece of aluminum craftsmanship and palpable ingenuity. As it returns to the market’s rarefied stratosphere, in price, Jaguar may again find those who appreciate nuance.

As for Buick, the division this weekend is busy launching the new, G-Body, Cadillac DTS-based Lucerne. Glittering with a confident stance and blushing with four-port-hole jewelry, Lucerne replaces the LeSabre, long the most reliable car in its class, and with deserved owner loyalty.

We are already fond of the smaller LaCrosse, launched last year and possessed of perhaps the best ride quality in its segment. Based on a recent week we spent with Cadillac’s DTS, we expect excellent refinement from its Lucerne sister, now packing Cadillac’s excellent, optional Northstar V8, together with the standard 3800 engine that, while an eternal subject of the pushrod-versus-dual-overhead-cam debate, is part of a drivetrain to whose longevity hundreds of thousands of drivers across North America can testify. Just last year, the LeSabre outsold Toyota’s Avalon by several times over, and some in the media have been honest enough to admit that new Avalon (another rear-MacPherson culprit) is stiffer than might have been expected. There is, certainly, an opportunity for Buick here.

It is, however, only an opportunity taken, if Lucerne’s attributes can be relayed quickly.

Under G-Body Chief Engineer Ed Zellner, QuietTuning has developed into not only a differentiator for Buick, but an obsession, beyond laminated glass and sleeker side mirrors (a common problem area). Source noise is suppressed to the greatest extent possible; strategic barriers are placed to interrupt the noise traveling into the car, and noise is absorbed into the carpet; headliners, and door padding. In testing, cars are heated to desert temperatures, and cooled to below zero overnight to check how they ‘sound’ in different environments.

One might hope that the necessary, loud praise for the more quietly positive of Lucerne’s qualities is forthcoming.
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Great write up. I couldn't stop reading it (carrying my laptop into the kitchen to get a cookie to eat while reading). One can only wonder if the press will take a hold of the new Buick or will continue to rip them apart. Funny how they like to rip on the LeSabre / LaCrosse, yet they have a strong sales base than any similar toyota / lexus / honda product.
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It's about time someone wrote an article like this. It's absolutely true that the various press have unthoughtfully placed at-the-limit handling ahead of ride comfort to the detriment of the buying public. The result is that, if one isn't careful, he could easily buy a car with the favored low profile tires and big wheels (because they look cool) with the "sport seats" and find himself relegated to 60 payments of hell on wheels. It's no wonder that the better selling "base" cars are most always the ones that ride better and that make better day-to-day companions. This goes for cars made anywhere in the world including the German make that I own.
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Nice article. And its the truth. I think for the everyday grind people will be likely to give up some of that cornering ability to be able to go over a bump without fear of spine compression. There will always though be people that will say a Toyota is better than a Buick even when it is proven that it just isnt true. I have heard more than one article saying the Avalon rides a bit on the stiff side. I think the new Buicks have what it takes to compete. Only complaint with the LaCrosse is the back seat room that isnt quite what it should be.
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Automobear's always had great articles-I don't know why I never check that site out more often. Buick needs to get its act together aznd now. The G6 convertible, among other things should have gone to Buick in the first place. Retractable hardtop coupe-convertibles just seem to fit Buick more than say, Pontiac or Saturn.
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