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William Maley

The Sunday Column - March 1, 2015

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The past couple of weeks at the Cheers & Gears Detroit Garage has been interesting for the past couple of weeks. Last week saw a Fiat 500C Abarth and the week before was a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution MR. During a conversation with a colleague of mine, the question was asked which car would I feel more comfortable in pushing. The answer I gave surprised him when I said that I would take the 500.

My reasoning for this choice comes down to this; the Lancer Evolution has a lot more exploitation available thanks to computer wizardry and a powerful turbocharged four-cylinder engine. You can corner much faster and go a lot quicker than in many vehicles, which can make you feel like the greatest driver in the world. But that only happens to be an illusion; the computer, all-wheel drive, and engine can only do so much to keep the vehicle on the road. If you overcook a corner, don't expect the vehicle to save you.

Then there is the Fiat 500C Abarth. A small car with a small 1.4L turbo engine and front-wheel drive. The limits in this car are much lower than the Evolution, but I feel that it makes a little bit safer and fun to push. I could press the accelerator further to floor and feel like I'm going quicker when in reality I wasn't. Also I knew that it being front-wheel drive meant I would have a hint of understeer if I pushed, which could mean visiting a ditch or something worse. Keep it steady I told myself driving on a curvy bit of road and the Abarth was fine.

I think a lot of this also comes down to knowing my driving habits. I've never been a race track, nor have taken a advanced driving course to improve my skills. The only real skills I have are from driving school and making a number of mistakes in my young age. Maybe that plays into knowing that I don't much of extracting all of the performance of a car - possibly a good thing.

Other thoughts from the week:

  • Cadillac boss Johan de Nysschen did a reader Q&A on Jalopnik this week and dropped some interesting tidbits: A new V6 engine lineup will be revealed sometime this month, the CT6 will 'eventually' get a twin-turbo V8 engine, and the ELR will be getting some significant updates. I would recommend checking out the Q&A.
  • Sticking on the Cadillac tip, I'm currently driving an ATS coupe with the 2.0L turbo and all-wheel drive. Two things I want say about the vehicle.
    1. the 2.0T is so much better than the ATS 3.6 I drove awhile back. Lots of low end punch.
    2. Seeing the new Cadillac emblem up close, still don't like it.

    [*]Chrysler can't seem to catch a break on the nine-speed automatic transmission still. I'm beginning to wonder if it might make sense to kill this current transmission and go back to drawing board.

    [*]Geneva Auto Show kicks off this week and so far the only vehicle I'm excited by is the Kia Sportspace concept. Hopefully a couple other vehicles can amp up the excitement.

    [*]Big congrats to one of our members - GMTruckGuy on getting a new GMC Canyon. Sharp color!

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    • By William Maley
      For the past month, I have been doing a bit of window shopping for a possible replacement for my current vehicle - a 2006 Ford Fusion with almost 270,000 miles on the odometer. Usually, whenever I go look at vehicles, I tend to have automotive ADD; tending to look at all kinds of vehicles with no set price or type. But this recent excursion caused me to notice that I had unknowingly set my sights on a certain group. All of the vehicles I was looking at were all compact cars and none were crossovers. Why is that?
      To get to the bottom of this, I began to look at my driving habits when I am not driving a new car for review. For the most part, I tend to drive in a small radius from where I live - about a 20 to 25 Miles. I don’t really carry passengers in my car and the back seat is primarily used for transporting groceries or other items. Plus, I only get about 22 to 24 mpg in mostly city driving. Looking at this information, it makes some sense as to why I happen to be looking at small cars. I don’t take advantage of all the space on offer for cargo and passengers, and it would be nice to get to some higher fuel economy numbers.
      You might be wondering why am I not considering a compact/subcompact crossover? There are two reasons for this. One is that I find crossovers to be a little too big for my needs and wants. Second is that I can get a better deal on a car than a crossover. For example, I have been looking at various Chevrolet Cruzes and have been surprised how much dealers are marking them down. I have seen price cuts ranging from about $2,000 to $5,000. That means I could get into a decently equipped Cruze for around $20,000 to $22,000. Can’t really do the same when talking about the Equinox.
      There have been a couple pieces flowing around within the past few months talking about how a number of us tend to buy the largest vehicle we can afford because we tend to think about the extremes that will happen rarely during the ownership of the vehicle. Having a big vehicle for when you decide to move or pick up some large items is a nice thing to have, but how often will that happen for most of us? Twice? Three times? We may think that we are using rational reasoning to try and justify buying something bigger, but the irrational parts of our brains ultimately color the final decision.
      All of us should buy a vehicle that fits our needs and wants. But that doesn’t always work out. Some of us enjoy driving a bigger vehicle such as a full-size sedan or pickup truck. If you get a sense of joy every time you get in, despite the faults and issues that will come up, then I don’t see any problem. For me, I would enjoy having a full-size sedan such as a Chevrolet Impala because of its comfortable ride and looks. But at the moment, it doesn’t make sense for me.
      I guess what I am trying to say is the next time you’re deciding on your next vehicle, try your best to keep the needs and wants in check. Don’t fall into those traps of thinking about the extremes. Who knows, you might be like me and find yourself surprised at what you are looking at.
      Pic Credit: William Maley for Cheers & Gears

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    • By William Maley
      This would have been my fourth Detroit Auto Show (or North American International Auto Show as some would like you to call it) for Cheers and Gears. But due to a leg injury sustained a couple of weeks before the show, I was unable to make it. Maybe that was a blessing in disguise as I would miss out on dealing with individuals who break out tape measures and clipboards to note every little detail, along with journalists complaining about why the show isn't held during a warmer month. But it would turn out this year’s show would be a bit disappointing.
      That isn't to say there were not any breakouts. The new Kia Stinger GT looks very intriguing as the new Lexus LS. I'm interested in checking out the new Toyota Camry (bet you weren't expecting that). Volkswagen's I.D. Buzz concept could bring something new in terms of electric vehicles (if it ever gets built). Plus Ford's announcement that the Bronco and Ranger were coming was some excellent news. But everything else landed with a bit of a thud. 
      So how did we end up here? A lot of this comes down to the past few years at Detroit being very bountiful with vehicles that caused jaws to drop and excitement levels to rise. The likes of the Acura NSX, Buick Avista concept, Chevrolet Bolt, Ford GT, and Lexus LC made our souls stir and revel in this magical time. But sooner or later, the well was going to dry up and leave a show that was lacking in spark. 
      At first, I thought it was part of a cycle. You have your high points before falling back down and then rising back up. But the more I thought about it, this might be a sign that the auto show is beginning to fade.
      The past few years have seen a number of automakers hold events off site before the kick-off of the show. Looking at the various social media feeds on Sunday, I was able to count seven different events. Holding something offsite give an automaker a way of controlling the message. It also gives a bit more time in the spotlight, not having to fight with other automakers for it during a packed press day.
      There are also more outlets for automakers to show their wares. The week before the Detroit Auto Show was the Consumer Electronics Show. The past few years have seen more and more automakers take part in regards to electric vehicles and autonomous driving. It has also been home for a small number of debuts; Volkswagen Budd-e, Chrysler Portal concept, and Faraday Future. 
      The combination of these two, along with some manufacturers pulling out of Detroit over the past few years resulted in this year's show. 
      Does this mean the Detroit Auto Show is doomed? Not at the moment. This year, organizers took a page from the LA Auto Show by doing more in terms of talking about the future of the automotive industry and mobility with press conferences and talks from various industry folks from Sunday to Tuesday.
      But the writing is beginning to appear on the wall. Down the road, it seems the auto show will not be the place where news is made. Instead, it will be the place where vehicles are gathered for all to look at.
      Before that day comes, we might get a couple more high points.

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    • By William Maley
      The past month at Mitsubishi Motors has been tumultuous with the announcement that they had manipulated fuel economy numbers on a number of small city cars sold by them and Nissan. It would come to light that this manipulation had been going since 1991 on a number of models sold in Japan. Shares in the company dropped like a rock and there were concerns that Mitsubishi Motors would have to borrow money from other companies in the Mitsubishi conglomerate. But soon a white knight would appear, Nissan. The company that first discovered and reported it to Mitsubishi would buy a 34 percent share into the automaker, making it the largest shareholder. Thus, an alliance between the two was created.
      The two automakers are currently still in the beginning stages of their alliance, but certain things have been made clear of what the two hope to accomplish. The biggest one is to improve the reputation of Mitsubishi Motors in Japan. There is also talk about two working together on electric vehicles and possibly sharing a platform for their next-generation pickups.
      One of the questions still up in the air is what will the alliance bring to the U.S.? That’s probably way down on the priority list for both companies. But it is something that will have to be discussed sooner or later.
      At the moment, there seem to be two camps of thought. The first is that Mitsubishi should make an exit out of the U.S. Sales are on the rise for the Japanese automaker, but they pale in comparison with other competitors. Also, Mitsubishi doesn’t have the presence as other automakers when it comes to getting the message out. The second is that Mitsubishi should stay, which for the most part is followed by ‘bring back the Lancer Evolution!’. I hate to be the evil person here, but it isn’t coming back. Stop asking for it.
      Recently I was going back through some old Autocar magazines and came across an editorial talking about Nissan’s change in strategy for the U.K. and how they are currently reaping the benefits.
      “I remember when Nissan said it was giving up the ‘boring’ car market and dealing only in what were, at the time, niches. Quirky tall things. Things that didn’t sell in large volumes. That funny Qashqai thing: not quite a car, not quite a 4x4 either.
      We weren’t long out of the 1990s, a decade in which the list of the top 10 best-selling cars in the UK went something like this: Ford's Fiesta, Focus, Mondeo, Vauxhall's Vectra, Astra, Corsa, Peugeot 306, Volkswagen Golf, Rovers 200, 400. Family cars all. Straight family cars. Not always a Nissan among them, although the Micra dabbled inside the top 10, because it was, then, a cute supermini. So Nissan got into what were seen as niches. Ballsy move. And it has stayed there.”
      It was quite the gamble when Nissan made this call in the 2000’s to drop out of some very popular segments at the time to focus on some odd vehicles. But it has paid off as Nissan has become one of the popular brands in the U.K. and two of their vehicles - the Qashqai and Juke - are in the top ten of the best-selling vehicles.
      This got me thinking, what if Mitsubishi and Nissan were to apply this same strategy for the U.S.? You might think I’m being somewhat crazy with this idea, but what does Mitsubishi have to lose?
      What could this strategy possibly look like? I think we need to go back to 2015 and look at comments made by Mitsubishi Motors CEO Osamu Masuko for a possible starting point.
      "We are strong in SUVs and four-wheel drives. And that is what we would like to focus on as core models in the U.S. market. We have changed direction. We are going to allocate more resources to the areas where we are strong in the U.S.”
      In 2015, more than 58 percent of Mitsubishi’s U.S. sales were crossovers. That trend is continuing in 2016 as 54 percent of sales through April are crossovers. We know that later this year, Mitsubishi will finally launch the long-delayed Outlander PHEV in the U.S. There is also talk of a small crossover and next-generation Montero/Pajero coming in the next few years. I know crossovers and SUVs aren’t really considered a niche anymore as every automaker has one. But this is an area that Mitsubishi that is quite strong.
      So what could Nissan bring to the table with crossovers/SUVs? A key item would be electrification. Yes, Mitsubishi does have a fair amount of experience here. But as I mentioned, one of the key things the two automakers are planning to work on together on electric vehicles. They could make some big inroads with building an electric crossover with decent range (200 or more miles). Considering the huge craving for crossovers by consumers, the two could strike something big here. The other item Nissan could bring is new a new platform and/or engines for the next-generation Outlander/Outlander Sport. One complaint about both crossovers are the four-cylinder engines as they don’t have enough power to get either model moving at a decent clip. There’s also the issue of Outlander Sport having a very jarring ride due to the suspension tuning.
      But this is one part of the Mitsubishi conundrum. The other deals with their other best-selling passenger car, the Mirage. Aside from being the current whipping boy of the automotive press, the Mirage makes up about 38.3 percent of Mitsubishi’s 2016 sales through April. A lot this is due to the low price of the model ($12,995). To capitalize on this success, Mitsubishi will be launching a Mirage sedan later this year.
      To go back to the comments made by Masuko, “We are strong in SUVs and four-wheel drives. And that is what we would like to focus on as core models in the U.S. Market.” But the Mirage is proving to be a strong model and one that should be considered a core model. It would be mad for Mitsubishi to drop it. One thing that the Mirage does need is a new engine. The 1.2L three-cylinder does deliver excellent fuel economy figures (37 City/43 Highway), but it is slow. Snails could outrun this vehicle. This is where Nissan could come in by giving the Mirage an engine transplant. The 1.6L four-cylinder from the Versa/Versa Note with 109 horsepower would provide a needed boost in power and wouldn’t affect fuel economy numbers much.
      Now that I have outlined some key issues and comments, let’s dive into what a smaller lineup for Mitsubishi could possibly look like with some help from Nissan.
      Mirage/Mirage G4: New engine from Nissan and possibly an improved interior.
      Lancer: Rebadged version of Sentra and Pulsar Hatchback, or Nissan helps with speeding up development of the next-gen model.
      Outlander Sport: Electric model possibly joins range.
      Outlander: Plug-in hybrid model sticks around.
      Pajero/Montero: All Mitsubishi here. Gas and plug-in hybrid powertrains on offer. Five and seven-seat configurations on offer.
      Triton/L200: Next-Generation model using Nissan Navara platform. Mitsubishi works on everything else from engines and four-wheel drive system. This is way out as both companies have introduced their latest trucks.
      Would Nissan be willing to help Mitsubishi with this? That is tough to say at this time since we’re still in the honeymoon period between the two automakers and there are more pressing things to address. There is also the consideration of why Nissan would help a competitor in the market. But Mitsubishi is a small bit player in the U.S. Last year, Mitsubishi only sold 95,342 vehicles. This pales in comparison with the 1,484,918 vehicles sold by Nissan last year. This could help Mitsubishi out with making a case for this idea.
      The U.S. is way down on the priority list between Mitsubishi and Nissan. But I’m sure the U.S. offices are thinking about what will happen. There are two real choices that are on the table, either leave the U.S. market or take a gamble and change up your lineup somewhat drastically. If I was Mitsubishi, I would push for the latter option by using the niche plan.

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    • By William Maley
      Whenever someone finds out that I'm an automotive writer, sooner or later I will get asked "I'm looking for 'x' vehicle and I was wondering if you could help me out," or some other variation. These are the times where I wish I could make a smoke cloud appear, allowing me to make an escape. But alas, that is only a dream.
      This is a common thing that a number of us - automotive writers - tend to get whether it is from family, friends, or some random stranger. We want to try and help, but most of the time the suggestions seem to go nowhere. It comes down to various reasons such as none of the ideas are appealing or the person going in a completely different direction (wanted a sedan, now interested in a crossover).
      But I also believe that we as a group need to take some of the blame as we sometimes try to push someone into a vehicle they are not interested or vice versa. I learned this at an early age when I was trying to push my parents away from leasing a Ford Freestyle due to the poor reviews it got in the automotive press. They ended up with one and I ate my fair amount of crow as I grew to like the Freestyle.
      Other times, it seems that the suggestions we give out are a bit ridiculous. For example, recommending someone getting a high-performance wagon when all they want is a crossover. I can't help but wonder if some of the suggestions I have heard are due to someone trying to live vicariously through another person.
      Aside from wishing I could throw on an invisibility cloak whenever this question is asked, I have been trying figure out what could be the best way to help someone while giving myself some plausible deniability. It hit me recently when I was at friend’s birthday gathering. I was chatting with my friend’s dad and he asked me about what car should he recommend to a co-worker. She was looking at a BMW X3 and wanted to know if this was a good choice. Plus, was there any other vehicles she should consider?
      To get my mind in the right place, I found myself asking a lot of questions.
      Did she have kids? What are her big considerations? Are there types of vehicles or brands she doesn’t want to deal with? How much does she want to spend?

      So on and so forth. It was a version of twenty questions where there is no correct answer and somehow less fun. Once I had gotten enough information to get my mind working, I began to recommend a few vehicles that are worth a closer look such as the Audi Q5, Lincoln MKC, and Subaru Outback. I also said the new X3 is quite good and would possibly consider going with a certified pre-owned model for a slightly lower price and warranty.

      After having this conversation, it hit me: I had figured out a possible fool proof way of offering car advice. It comes down to me taking on the role of a guide where I ask a person what they are and are not interested in, and build out a group of vehicles that I can show someone that possibly fits what they are looking.
      I don't know what the co-worker ended up choosing and I hope to find out in the near future.
      So if you want to ask me what car you want to buy, be prepared to answer a lot of questions and not be given a definitive answer. You might be annoyed by this, but the end result is hopefully you finding a car that works. Plus, we might be on speaking terms after this.

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    • By William Maley
      Over the past six months and numerous articles with the ‘As the Diesel Emits’ in the title, we are no closer to have a fix for the around 600,000 Volkswagen diesel vehicles with illegal emission software. Instead, we have been treated a first-rate performance of ‘How not to handle a crisis’. From Volkswagen’s delay of admitting the illegal software to CEO Matthias Muller seeming very oblivious to what happening in an interview. It seems the German automaker is getting one black eye after another.
      The past month or so has seen the crisis cranked up to eleven.
      New documents revealed that senior managers, including former CEO Martin Winterkorn, were alerted about the U.S. probing some of their TDI models back in 2014 This was followed up by a letter from last year alerting Winterkorn that the Volkswagen did use a defeat device in their diesel models - two weeks before the official EPA announcement. A U.S. Federal Judge has given Volkswagen until March 24th to give an answer on where they stand on a possible fix. Volkswagen of America CEO and President Michael Horn suddenly stepped down from his position. With Horn’s departure, dealers want answers as to what happens next or a mutiny could happen.

      Ever since this scandal came to light, there has been a question that has been floating around in my head: Does Volkswagen know how much trouble it is in? On the surface, it seems they do and are trying their best to rectify this issue. But dig a little bit further and there are very troubling signs.

      For example, the Associate Press last week learned from a couple people that Volkswagen’s management in Germany resisted the plan set by Horn to offer $1,000 in gift cards to owners as a gesture of goodwill. Thankfully management relented and the program was instituted. Then there was Volkswagen’s first proposal to fix the affected vehicles in the U.S. which got rejected by the California Air Resources Board as it was “incomplete, substantially deficient and fall far short of meeting the legal requirements to return these vehicles” to compliance. Since then, Volkswagen has been working on a new solution to present to CARB and the EPA, though we haven’t heard anything about it.
      These concerns bring up another question about Volkswagen: Do they know what their place in America is? Last September, Automobile Magazine ran an excellent editorial titled Volkswagen Has Never Understood its Place in the U.S. In the piece, the author argues that Volkswagen is seen by many Americans as something out of the mainstream - original Beetle, Microbus, Golf GTI, and their diesel lineup. Because of this, Volkswagen has a small, but loyal fanbase, But Volkswagen sees themselves as something different; a mass-market brand capable of selling many vehicles around. Except in the U.S.
      A few years ago, Volkswagen set an ambitious goal of selling 800,000 vehicles in the U.S. by 2018. To achieve this goal, the automaker decided to build vehicles tailored to the marketplace. What we ended up with was a Passat and Jetta that were appealing as stale bread because that is what the company thought would sell. At first, the strategy worked as sales of Volkswagen vehicles increased. But in the past couple of years, sales have dropped precipitously. The company has been scratching their heads as to why this is happening. It goes back to Volkswagen not understanding their place in the U.S.
      That last sentence can be extended further into the diesel emission crisis. The way Volkswagen has handled this crisis is nothing short of disastrous. If you are a company dealing with a massive crisis, the key thing you should be doing is keeping everyone somewhat abreast of what is happening. Volkswagen has barely done this and has given the impression that they are really not doing anything, despite all of the reports saying Volkswagen is conducting an internal investigation and working on a fix.
      This one quote from the Automobile Magazine editorial partly sums the predicament Volkswagen finds itself in.
      “That left the small clique of devoted enthusiasts, folks who bought Volkswagens because they were Volkswagens, and often because they were Volkswagen “clean” diesels. These are precisely the people Volkswagen just kicked in the teeth.”
      They’re not the only group that Volkswagen has caused pain. Dealers who bought into Volkswagen’s vision of being a mass-market brand and spent close to a billion dollars, only to see sales fall apart are not very happy. There also seems to be a disconnect between dealers and Volkswagen as this quote from Bloomberg illustrates,
      “The suggestion was startling: Maybe VW should give up on selling cars to America’s masses.
      It was late January, at the Detroit auto show, and Herbert Diess, the global chief of Volkswagen AG’s namesake brand, was sounding out U.S. dealers as the company grappled with the biggest crisis in its modern history. Perhaps, Diess wondered aloud, VW should stop trying to compete with the likes of Toyota Motor Corp. in America and go back to focusing on higher-end models.
      “It was near crickets in the room,” said Alan Brown, chairman of VW’s U.S. dealer council.”
      Volkswagen is now at a crossroads with seemingly everyone angry with them in one form or another. There are so many things the company could have done to be in a better place than they are currently. But the Volkswagen’s mindset and not fully understanding the U.S. put them in a the place where they are now. Whether or not they learn from this experience and make the necessary changes to survive remains to be seen.
      The one thing we are sure about is that Volkswagen lost a lot of trust from various groups because of this scandal. As anyone will tell you, regaining trust is a seemingly impossible task.

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