jueves, 8 de septiembre de 2011

German cars vs American cars

If I had to choose between a BMW X5 and a Jeep Grand Cherokee today, I would go for the BMW straight away. However, if I had to choose between a 7 year old second hand X5 and a 7 year old second hand Grand Cherokee, I would have no doubt at all: I'd rather get the Jeep.

At first, the previous statement shocked me as it seemed to be a paradox. However, I do believe now there is no paradox at all. Let's just look at both vehicles. An X5 is a SUV, great on the road, but with no real off-road abilities. The Jeep, on the other hand, is an off-roader that can handle some tarmac. The BMW pretends to have the ultimate engineering, while the Jeep pretends to be built to last forever. That's why Jeeps age well and BMW's don't. It's in their spirit.

If you are a businessman and you are driving over 50k miles a year, like flooring your car in the autobahn and ask for refinement, luxury and sport manners, read no further: go and get yourself a BMW. It will serve you well. You'll be shocked by its chassis, built quality, quietness at high speeds and comfort. A brand new BMW is as good as a car can be. However, if you want an SUV to be your daily driver for a few years and then you want it to go off-road while you use another car as a daily driver, skip the BMW option and get yourself a Jeep. It will keep its qualities for a long time, making it a great vehicle throughout its life. After all, where is the point in an ultimate driving machine that is no longer the ultimate driving machine?

lunes, 9 de mayo de 2011

Consumer advice: buying a French car.

If there has ever been a good time to buy a French car, this is it. Next month we Catalans will celebrate St. John's day, meaning we will use some firecrackers and have some bon fires.

St. John's eve, known here as the shortest night of the year, is the summer equivalent of New Year's eve. We are supposed to have a hell of a party, from dusk until dawn, and burn all those bad memories from the past. That's were French cars come in handy. It doesn't matter if it's a Renault, Peugeot or Citroën, the very best thing you can do with it is set it up on fire. If you buy your French car today, you'll be a satisfied ex-owner next month.

domingo, 10 de abril de 2011

A one year race

Motorsport at its finest is boring. I am talking about F1, but it's the same story in the World Rally Championship. For different reasons, a TV show of both of them is boring. I've had an idea, however that will make things far more interesting.

These days there is no close relationship between race cars and road cars. It doesn't matter how reliable a Citroën DS3 WRC is, production cars may fall apart anyway. Race cars are so heavily modified no one can rely on them to know about the road ones. And here is where my idea comes in.

I would make a race including all manufacturers and their best selling cars, in their best selling specs, in an oval circuit. Unlike Le Mans, that lasts only 24 hours, this race should last a whole year. The winner would be the car that has covered more miles.

At 100mph, you'll be 2400 miles away in just one day, 72000 in a month and 864000 in a year. If a car can run a million miles in just one year, that would prove performance, reliability and durability in just one test. It would be dead boring, but at least it would give some consumer advice.

miércoles, 30 de marzo de 2011

Cadillac sighting, episode II a black BLS.

I saw what appeared to be a BLS last friday. I really can't tell because I was driving myself and didn't have the time to read the badge.

The BLS is probably the biggest failure Cadillac has had in Europe for the last ten years. Based on the Saab 93, it had everything to be a top seller. A well known brand, a fine product, diesel engines. However, it never became popular.

I think it was the style, a diminished version of the CTS, that really plagued the car. It never had personality of its own, and frankly, the CTS might be many things, but not beautiful. GM tried to improve sales by offering a station wagon derivative, but that was a bigger failure. The BSL saloon wasn't beautiful, but the BLS station wagon was dead ugly. No sense of proportions, no verve, no passion. Just boxy, as all Cadillacs these days.

GM dropped the small caddy a few years ago, when they got rid of Saab. Surprisingly, Saab seems to be fine these days, and GM hasn't given any good news for the last two years.

domingo, 27 de marzo de 2011

The 2011 F1 Championship

Once again, millions of people have been fooled by the same old story. We were told that overtaking manoeuvres would be commonplace this year. That the new rules would make races interesting, fun, exciting. None of this has happened. There has been some overtaking, but the race itself has been as fun as a train race.

My solution includes missiles, cars on fire and naked women, but everybody with common sense tells me that it wouldn't work, that it's some kind of wet day-dream. Ok, I admit it, but I also have some properly good ideas. Here they are:

I would change the engine rules altogether. Carmakers don't sell small V8 engines, so I would let everybody use the engine they want. Therefore, we could see a turbocharged in-line four from Renault vs a naturally aspired Ferrari V12. And it would be fine, because Renault sells small turbocharged engines and Ferrari sells big V12's. Engines should last just one weekend, as the gearbox. I know this would let engineers get well over 1500hp, but that's exactly the idea. With no traction control, these monsters would be harder to drive, and pilots would have a hell of a job just trying not to crash. As today, no refuelling allowed, so the more powerful the engine, the more gas in the tank, the slower the car at the beginning, but also the faster at the end of the race.

The other item that should be changed is tires. There should be at least, four tire manufacturers involved, and the best four teams from last season couldn't share tire manufacturer. This would make tire manufacturers and F1 teams work together, trying to make the best out of both of them.

Finally, scoring should go as follows: 10 points for the winner, 7 for the second, 6 for the third, and so on. Pole and fastest lap get another extra point. This would make top pilots go faster when they ruin their race, having something to fight for when they are in the middle of nowhere.

lunes, 21 de marzo de 2011

A reason not to buy the best car in the world

In my last post, I wrote that the best car money can buy is called Porsche Panamera Turbo. Hence, you would expect, that's the one I'd buy if I could. But the answer is no, I probably wouldn't. I'd get a Maserati Quattroporte.

I have my reasons, and I think I shall explain them. To begin with, we must be aware that we are talking about two-hundred-grand-a-piece cars. If you add some extras, that is, and you will, because there are some fancy ones, and some extras that should be standard.

I would respect anyone that spends two hundred thousand dollars on a car and expects perfection. For them, Porsche created the Panamera Turbo. However, perfection isn't everything. Perfection is sometimes boring, and here there is the girl example.

Two guys meet after a five year hiatus, and they talk about their fiancées. One guy says his is beautiful, has a college degree and good manners. He shows a picture of her and she is a Charlize Theron look-a-like. The other guy just says: mine is younger and has bigger boobs. He also shows a picture of her and she looks like a porn star.

Everybody agrees that the first guy made the right choice, but that the other one is probably having more fun. And more troubles, but no one cares about that.

It's the same story with the Panamera and the Quattroporte. I know the Quattroporte will get to 170 mph once, and then breakdown in some weird nuclear meltdown style that defies the laws of physics. But its louder, has a great style and all the pantomime a supercar needs. I don't care about reliability, I care about fun, sheer excitement, passion. So, given the choice, I would let my bank account take care about its flaws whenever they show up and spend my money on the Quattroporte.

sábado, 12 de marzo de 2011

The best car in the world

One of the most frequently asked question is which is the best car in the world. The main problem begins when we realize it's hard to tell why a car is better than another car, especially if both of them are good. I assume that the best car in the world has no major flaws, like unreliability, understeer or weird ergonomics that only fit to the designer's body. However, this just isn't enough so I've decided to make my own theory. I call it the 3G boxes for the perfect car.

There are three different categories the so-called best car in the world must excel, and all three of them have the G in their names, hence the 3G theory.

The first G stands for g-forces. The best car in the world is able to go to a track and race properly. Note that I didn't say it has to be a tarmac circuit. It can be any kind of racing facilities, but the car must be a winner's choice. So, whether it is a mud track or a GP circuit, the best car in the world is able to get there and humiliate its rivals.

The second G stands for GT. A GT is a car you can use on a daily basis, because it has the comfort features you need to live with it. This also means it must be reliable and that you can service it with no major difficulties.

The third and last G stands for g-strings. The best car in the world shows off. It attracts women and car enthusiasts alike. This means it has properly designed looks, personality -- if a car can have such a thing -- and charm.

Now that we know what we are looking for in the best car in the world, we can think about a few contenders. This is my top 3 and why I've chosen them against their competition.

  • Bronze medal: Nissan GT-R. Probably one of the most ignored supercars, it's got everything in the 3G list. Loud, fast, and hi-tech, it only lacks a name (read, it isn't called Porsche) to be on the top
  • Silver medal: Porsche Cayenne Turbo. The only mud-ready supercar in the world is so special it made it to second place.
  • Gold medal: Porsche Panamera Turbo. Ferrari-like performance, S-Klasse confort, GT-R-track ready. It's huge, but agile. It's elegant, but sporty. And if you think ménage-a-trois are for the poor ones, you can bring three people with you to perform a decadent, albeit fun, orgy.

sábado, 5 de marzo de 2011

A love affaire

I will admit it right away, I am in love with a baby. She's more than beautiful, she's gorgeous. She's got the looks, the passion, the verve, she's got everything to blow up my mind. She's going to be the muse in my wildest fantasies, she's going to star my wettest dreams. I know she's dangerous, that she will take away many men's hearts and only a few lucky ones will ever get inside her.

She's called Aventador, she's Lamborghini's last baby child. She's everything a Lambo should be. Loud, dangerous, useless, powerful, beautiful, mad, and most of all, wild. She is exactly what the Countach would be if it were still alive.

There were two cars that really got me in the 1980's, the Ferrari 288 GTO and the Lamborghini Countach Quattrovalvole. Ferrari thought the 288 GTO was too beautiful and replaced it with the ugly F40. Yes, I've just said the F40 is ugly, and F50 is also ugly, and so is the Enzo. Ferrari hasn't built any beautiful car since 1984, it's just that nobody has realised it but me.

Lambo, on the other hand, hasn't had so many errors. They haven't had many chances anyway, but the Diablo was a badass looking car, and that's more than enough for me. And so it was the Murcielago. Maybe the Gallardo doesn't look quite as good as it should, but that's the only exception. And now our lovely bat (read Murcielago) has flown away and the Aventador has come along. I admit the Sesto Elemento concept did have better looks, but when it comes to road legal cars, the Aventador is as good as a car can be.

There is just one that may disappoint you, as it will disappoint many others. There are quite a few more exotic cars out there. The Bugatti Veyron, for example, is more expensive, more powerful, has a higher top speed... everything. Probably there are Pagani Zondas with more power too. But I don't care the slightest bit. None of them is the last of their breed. None of them has a heritage to look for. When it comes to ancestors, only the Porsche 911 has a past like the Aventador. While I respect, and love, the 911, when it comes to pure passion my heart says Lambo.

miércoles, 2 de marzo de 2011

A nice mess in the car industry, the Audi A5 Sportback

A few years back, Audi decided it was time for a brand new entry luxury sedan. Named A4 for the third time, it was planned the sedan should have a baby child in coupe and cabriolet forms. The A5 was born.

We were told the A5 uses a shortened version of the A4 platform. However, Audi decided the A5 coupe was not enough and released the A5 Sportback, a 5 door version of the 3 door coupe. We were told the A5 Sportback uses a lengthened version of the A5 platform. Whether if that means it uses the same platform underneath the A4 or not, is still unknown.

Then there is pricing. The A5 coupe is more expensive than an equivalent A4, less expensive than the A5 cabrio and more expensive than the A5 Sportback. The Sportback is more expensive than the equivalent A4 sedan. There seems to be a little logic in it: the less practical it is, the more they charge you for it. Except for the A4 Avant, which is more practical than the sedan and more expensive.

This is what I think happened with all this mess in A4, A5, A5 Sportback: Audi had in mind that the A5 Sportback should be the A4 sedan, but they felt it was a little bit too risky, not enough mainstream. Then, they decided to use this crazy 4 door sedan coupe fashion the Mercedes CLS started to fix the idea. There would be a conventional A4, and the brilliant idea was released as the A5 Sportback.

So, the Audi A5 Sportback is the car Audi never dared to call A4 and now they charge you a 2 grand premium for it. No wonder why nobody is buying it.

martes, 1 de marzo de 2011

Cadillac sighting, episode one, a 2009 or 2010 black CTS

I saw a Cadillac last Friday, and I feel like I want to track down how many of these babies I see. I do already know they are extremely rare in Catalonia, especially outside Barcelona and suburbs, but I think it's worth checking.

If you ask anyone here what do they know about Cadillac, you'll get the right answer "American luxury car". Everybody knows Cadillac here, but no one seems to buy them. That's why I think GM has been absolutely wrong in Europe for the last twenty years or more.

Let's start with the model range. CTS and STS are quite good, but they lack diesel engines. The SRX has seen some mild success within soccer players, although it also lacks diesel engines. Finally, the top of the range Escalade is useless in our roads. It isn't fast, it doesn't handle, it can't go offroad, it doesn't fit in any car park. It doesn't even look good, or badass, or stylish.

Carmakers usually build their top of the range models not to sell them. Think of them like ads. You get into a showroom, and there is this spectacular car with lots of features and witchcraft engineering. That's the one you would like to buy, but you buy the car you need or can afford instead. That flagship was there to show you how powerful the company is, to make you think the car you are actually buying is just the first step. They give you something to dream about. Of course, they sell them from time to time, but the core business is on more mundane cars.

GM should stop importing the Escalade. This is step one. Step two is build some proper diesel engines. How come GM, the biggest car manufacturer until 2009, has never had diesel engines of their own? Opels and Vauxhalls use Fiat diesel engines. So did Saab when it was under the GM umbrella. No wonder why Toyota is #1 today. They have the guts to develop their own engines. Even a small company like Infiniti has diesel engines. And for good reason: in Europe, three out of four cars sold have a diesel engine as the main power source. If GM wants to get back to the top, diesel engines are a must.

viernes, 25 de febrero de 2011

The Lada Niva, a communist car on sale today

People say these days that no brand new car is rubbish. I admit that too, but while many people ignore the Lada Niva is still on sale, I don't.

Born in 1977, the Lada Niva (aka Autovaz Niva and Vaz Niva) was a little amazing offroader of its time. It brought car features like unibody architecture, front independent suspension and coil suspensions to the off road market. Using Fiat technology and some original Russian engineering, communists finally made a good car people could own.

34 years in the car industry is a lot of time. Almost every car on sale today has been redesigned 5 times or so since 1977. However, the Lada Niva stays on the same roots. Anaemic power, disgusting looks and horrible ergonomics were there when the car was released, and no one has cared to fix anything in this period. In fact, the Lada Niva has experienced less evolution than the Mercedes-Benz G-Klasse or the Land Rover Defender, probably the eldest cars in our roads (apart from Morgans).

Are Nivas useless? no, of course not. If you are a hardcore offroader and you are on a budget, a second hand Niva can be found for less than two grand. Or maybe you are into guns, and fancy a new target. Or you've always wondered how long does it take for a car to sink. Get a stopwatch and a Niva. Sure, different cars will have different sinking times, but you'll get the idea. Personally, I would like to grab four crash dummies, put them in a Niva and perform a crash test at 85 miles an hour. It would be scientific, wouldn't it?

lunes, 21 de febrero de 2011

A car worth testing, the LF-A

Lexus needed almost ten years to give birth to the LF-A, their first supercar. Their baby child is probably one of the most interesting cars to be tested out there. And for some good reasons.

To begin with, the LF-A is expensive, even by supercar standards. It's 50% more than an equivalent Ferrari or Lamborghini, and twice as much as a decent Porsche. At this point, supercar buyers leave the showroom and look for something truly exotic and save some money. Sure, Lexus has some reasons to charge you so much for it, but none of them meets common sense.

However, the LF-A has a unique-ness around it. Ferrari did already exist when I was born. So did Lambo and Porsche. They've faced hard times, but today it doesn't seem likely they will disappear anytime soon. You've got a lifetime to test a Ferrari. But no one guarantees you'll get a chance to test LF-A's successor, because it may not exist in the first place. It might very well be a one of a kind, a little bit like the Honda NSX. Yes, the company will promise you there will be a second round, but don't bet your money on that. If you ever have the chance to grab your hands in a LF-A, go for it or maybe you'll regret it.

If it sells properly -- and I don't think it will -- Lexus might think a second iteration at the supercar market is worth the effort. So, maybe there will be a second generation LF-A, and a third. If they manage to make it to the third generation, chances are they will keep building supercars forever. And this would make the LF-A even more special, it would become Genesis. The first of the breed. A myth. Maybe you don't want to drive an LF-A, but driving a myth is a different story.

The electric car, part III

I started this series about the electric car asking myself if Prime Minister Zapatero was right when he decided to spend taxpayer's money on the electric car. So far, I've concluded that electric cars aren't ready yet and that when they do, some advantages we see now will be long gone. Finally, I take a look at other examples of government spending to see if we are going to drive electric cars in the future.

My first example comes from Japan. After WWII, Japan policy makers decided that the aircraft industry was the key to make the country go forward into the XXth century. Money was invested to create business and companies and build aeroplanes. On the other hand, car makers didn't get any money whatsoever. Today, Toyota, a Japanese manufacturer, is the #1 automaker. Honda builds more engines than any other company. Japanese cars are worldwide known for their reliability, design and quality. But there isn't any aircraft from Japan. Boeing is American and Airbus is European. All the money was wasted.

My second example comes from the Middle Eeast. In the 1980's, western countries told oil producers in the Middle East to invest the money they got from oil in solar technology. It was a brilliant idea. We buy your energy today, and we'll buy your tech in the future. It was so good, that some governments bought it. Solar power plants were built in the middle of deserts, where there is sunlight a plenty. Oil from the middle east is still bought today, but those power plants are abandoned. They just didn't work. Maybe it was too early for such a complicated technology, maybe sandstorms ruin efficiency rates. If you buy a solar panel today, it's likely to come from China, probably with Chinese tech. Nothing to do with the Middle East.

At this point, I assume that spending money from taxpayers on a particular topic doesn't guarantee results. Sure, there are examples out there where government spending has been useful. But my point is that we shouldn't consider that spending as an investment, but as a bet. Unfortunately for Spaniards, Mr. Zapatero is wrong again.

domingo, 20 de febrero de 2011

The electric car, part II

In my last post, I took an overview to the electric car from the manufacturer's point of view. Those were good news, since I found no problems impossible to fix, thou batteries still need time to fit our needs.

In this post, I'll take a look at it from an economic point of view. Since it might be a little too hard -- and off topic, you may say-- I'll try to explain everything with examples rather than a theoretical sight.

Car owners in western countries live in houses where plugs are commonplace. You plug your fridge, TV set, microwave oven and many other stuff. Could you plug a car? Yes, definitely. But there are a few reasons to do it at night: you don't have many things working at night. Your dishwasher, washing machine, microwave oven, vacuum cleaner, computer (if you aren't downloading) TV set and others are usually off or on standby mode at night. So there is enough electricity avaible at night for you to plug your car. Probably. If batteries improve, and they need to or you won't have an electric car in the first place, you will require more power.

Having more electric power at home doesn't mean you have to rebuild your house. Probably, the only thing you'll need to do is ask the company to sell it to you. If you ask too much, however, you'll need some minor changes: some new wiring, some new fuses, some new holes on your walls. This isn't much since electricity is cheaper than gasoline and you'll get your money back in a few years.

But what if your whole neighbourhood buys and runs electric cars? Will current wires, stations and the like still work? Most of the time, they will. But unless the company does something about it, there will be a huge lack of electric power some day. Picture this: it's a hot summer evening, people get home from work, plug their car and turn on the air conditioning. Open the fridge to grab a beer and all the cold air on the inside is lost. Turn on the TV set, put something in the microwave oven. Check the e-mail, turn on a light here and there. And, Alas, there isn't power anymore.

At some point, need for electricity surpasses capacity to deliver it and there is a breakdown. If everybody buys and runs electric cars, more power plants will be required. And your electric bill will be higher, since you'll pay for it because you need to run your car. The electric company will have to charge you more and more so power plants, wires, stations and everything can cope with demand.

If you run your car on electricity, it's going to be cheap. If everybody does, it's likely it will become as expensive as gasoline.

sábado, 19 de febrero de 2011

The electric car, part I

Spain's Prime Minister has decided to finance the electric car. According to him, the electric car is the future car, and he wants Spain to be in the lead when electric cars flood the market and outsell fuel based cars. The idea is that government spending will create R+D jobs and will boost technology to a higher level. So, to start with, I'll begin to take a look at current technology.

Electric engines are great. They have just one moving part, the crankshaft. This means there is almost no friction, no temperature rise, not many fluids to move about. Today, an electric engine has somewhere from 90 to 95% efficiency rate. This means that if you put a hundred energy units to feed an electric engine, you get 90 to 95 units of kinetic energy out of the crankshaft. It is impossible to get efficiency rates higher than 100%, so there is no real room to improve electric engines. Sure, smaller and lighter engines would help, but the benefits would be in the handling and design department, not the efficiency one.

When it comes to electricity, the real problem becomes when you want to store it. I've look at a recent Audi e-Tron concept to know about some figures. Its batteries weigh 1.200 pounds and store the equivalent of a gallon and a third of gasoline. At this energy to weight ratio, you would need 9.000 pounds of batteries to store the equivalent of ten gallons of gas. That's 4 tons. Maybe it's not a matter of improving batteries a little bit. Maybe batteries for electric cars need to be 20 times better than they are now. Storing 10 gallons of electricity in just 500 pounds would be great. So, perhaps a new groundbreaking technology can do it, but today's tech is way too far from that.

Chassis and platforms for electric cars may be shared with their petrol counterparts, but they work much better if they are specific. Weight distribution around the car is the key to get good handling, traction and braking. Carmakers can design great platforms for electric cars, no doubt about that, but costs will be high unless they become as popular as petrol cars.

Up until now we've seen that costs are high and tech isn't quite ready. Carmakers can do R+D to achieve cost reduction and required specs. But there is a crucial question: Do they have to?

The answer is no. They don't have to. Batteries have improved a lot for the last 15 years, and cars haven't played a major role in there. Today, cell phones, tablets, laptops and power tools use batteries. We love electronic gadgets that run on batteries, and we all put the blame on them: they take ages to fill, but they only last a couple of days. If you don't abuse them, that is, because a hardcore user can run out of battery in just a few hours. We all know this. So do battery manufacturers.

jueves, 17 de febrero de 2011

Mustang fever in Europe

When I first saw the current-gen Mustang I was impressed. The front end had personality, aggressiveness, beauty. However, the first questions I asked myself involved power and fuel economy. Those are the questions I am frequently asked when talking about it. In a land where cars do at least 30mpg and rarely produce more than 200bhp, Mustang's figures were impressive.

There is no passion for hypermiling in Europe. There is a need. Depending on the country, regular gas can go anywhere from 6 to 8 UDS a gallon. Expect 10% more for premium gas. So, except for the rich and wealthy, everyone is trying to save fuel in good old Europe. A cheap car with horrid fuel economy makes no sense here. In fact, many expensive cars have great fuel economy. Because, you want some money from your old car when you buy a new one, don't you? So, when you spend 50 grand on your car, you go for the diesel, get 35mpg and still get something out of it when you get rid of it.

Motor journalists have told us that Europeans require good rear suspensions, because there are lots of twisting roads, our cities have ancient streets and many other weird reasons. Sure, we like a firm ride. We've driven the Citroën 2CV and we know that while fun, it's not exactly safe to drive around corners with ultra soft suspensions. So, once again, Mustangs seem to be out of place in Europe, but they keep swimming to our shores.

Ford doesn't import the Mustang in European markets because they've realised their beautiful pony car doesn't make much sense in Europe. That's what everybody should think. The Mustang I saw a few years back was a rare exception. Except it wasn't. Mustangs are becoming more and more popular in our cities. They are cool. They look great. And they are rare. Well, not so much these days, but at least they are still exotic.

Since Ford doesn't import Mustangs officially, there is no figure to know how many of them are sold. But it's easier to see a Mustang than a Corvette. And Corvettes are officially imported. Camaros will also be imported officially, maybe because of the weird Mustang success.

Importing a Mustang isn't very easy. There's a lot of paperwork to do, since no one has homologated the model. There are shipping costs, marketing costs, and the added difficulty to find a company to insurance it. According to ads, a V6 Mustang is around 40.000 € and a good V8 one 50.000 (55.000 to 70.000 USD). That is an awful lot of money, especially when you realise that you can get a proper Mustang for 30 grand in the USA.

Perhaps the reason why people buy Mustangs in Europe is because they aren't cheap. They are exclusive. Expensive and difficult to buy, expensive and difficult to run, expensive and difficult to insure. We've seen it in movies, we've liked it, and now we are buying it. Well, at least the rich an wealthy do.