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.