Tuesday, November 25, 2008

It's a buyer's market out there

In the auto industry, the first thing to go in this economic slide was the big truck and SUV market.
Gas prices went up, sales of those vehicles went down, way down.
Sales of small cars picked up pretty smartly, though.
Then, the economy went even deeper into the tank, and now even small car sales have slipped.
But now, things have gone so far down hill that the automakers are even offering incentives on the fuel sippers.
Toyota, for instance, put $1,000 on the hood of the Corolla and offered zero percent financing for 36 months.
Ford put $2,000 on the hood of its Focus sedan, and offered zero percent financing on it, too.
Whatever you're in the market for, you're likely to be able to get a pretty good deal on it, thanks to automakers' strong motivation to move products off dealers' lots.
The best deals are being offered by the Detroit 3 - Ford, General Motors and Chrysler - for obvious reasons: their sales have struggled mightily and they are in the midst of asking the federal government for assistance.
"Consumers are just not in the mood to buy anything,” John Casesa, managing partner at Casesa Shapiro Group LLC, told the Wall Street Journal.
Dealers really don't want to be stuck with high inventories during the coming winter months, which traditionally are slow in sales. “There’s going to be motivation to deal on anything except the absolute hottest models,” Casesa said.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Obama says auto bailout plan needs more specifics

President-elect Barack Obama backed a move by Congress to deny a $25 billion bailout to U.S. automakers, saying the Detroit 3 didn't give enough details on how the funds would be used.
“I was surprised they did not have a better thought out proposal when they arrived in Congress,” Obama told a news conference at which he named his economic team. “I think Congress did the right thing, which is to say you guys need to come up with a plan and come back before you’re getting any taxpayer money.”
Last week, auto company executives pled their case for aid before lawmakers in Washington, saying the industry was facing a possible collapse if it didn't receive assistance.
Lawmakers said the executives offered few specifics, and gave the companies a deadline of Dec. 2 to draft a proposal about how they planned to use the money and how it would be repaid. Obama said that the plan would need to present an outline of how the automakers would achieve long-term viability, so that the government aid wouldn't just be a temporary fix to the current problems facing the industry.
“The auto industry needs to present us with some clarity in terms of the dollars,” Obama said in the news conference. “Are they describing for us an auto industry that is focused on retooling, understands that we’re entering into a new energy economy, that is going to be competitive globally?
“That is the kind of plan everyone wants to see. We need to see a plan and when we see a plan we’ll be able to shape the kind of assistance plan that makes sense.”

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Chevrolet Traverse: GM proves again that it can do SUVs


The 2009 Chevrolet Traverse is a new SUV from General Motors.Yes, it is a relatively large SUV, when sales of such vehicles are down amid a sharp drop in overall vehicle sales.
Yes, it is similar to three other SUVs on what GM calls its Lambda platform: the Saturn Outlook, Buick Enclave and GMC Acadia.
But if you're able to put all that aside and just evaluate this vehicle for what it is, you can see that it's a beautiful, functional, stylish machine.
The Traverse offers pleasant driving manners and the smooth ride that you expect from a large luxury vehicle.
Its impressive agility can be attributed to a power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering system.
Safety features are abundant, including the StabiliTrak electronic stability control system and rollover mitigation technology (RMT), which is designed to prevent rollover.
Side-impact air bags and curtain air bags are activated if on-board sensors detect a potential vehicular rollover.
Also, there are frontal and seat-mounted side-impact air bags for front seats and the curtain-style air bags mounted above outboard seats at all three rows.
The Traverse is large, albeit rather deceptively so.
Its exterior design lines seem to hide the fact that it is about 17 feet long and six feet wide.
The extended wheelbase (118.9 inches) and broad wheel track of 67.8 inches in the front and 67.4 inches in the rear assist in smoothing out the ride.
Drivers can choose front wheel drive or a full-time all-wheel-drive system.
That AWD system can determine how much power is needed for each wheel to keep its footing.
For an SUV, the Traverse is remarkably designed for maximum aerodynamic efficiency.
The integrated rear spoiler and a splitter at the bottom of the front air dam assist the aerodynamics of the Traverse, said Bryan Nesbitt, GM's vice president of design.
That's important because it aids the fuel efficiency of the vehicle.
Nesbitt also alluded to design touches such as the aggressive front-end shaped in a sculpted block, the dramatically raked windshield and stylish single-bar grille accented with chrome.
Those touches, he said, make the Traverse stand out among family vehicles.
The Traverse is powered by a 3.6-liter V-6 engine that makes 281 horsepower and 266 pounds-feet of torque.
Gas mileage is listed at 17 mpg city, 24 highway, according to EPA.In a mix of city and highway driving, we got about 19 mpg.
Inside, the Traverse offers an incredible amount of comfort.
That's first noticed when you enter the vehicle.
Instead of having to step up like you do with so many SUVs, you just kind of slide right into this one.
The second row of seats offers a choice of captain's chairs that move fore and aft or a bench, which can seat three people.
The third row also holds three passengers on its 60/40 split bench.It's relatively easy to get to the third row because the second row seats move without difficulty.
When the third row of seats is up, you get a spacious 24.4 cubic feet of cargo space in the rear.
Fold those seats down, and you get an even more spacious 68.8 cubic feet.Put the second row down too and your space grows to something that's enough to build a small condo: 116.4 cubic feet.
The Travese comes in its base LS trim, upgraded LT1 and LT2 trims and top of the line LTZ level.
The LS starts at around $28,255, while the loaded LTZ that we tested went for $41,130.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Another category scrambler: The Kia Rondo

There is no official category of vehicle on the market known as the not-quite-sure-what you call it.

But some vehicles, such as the Kia Rondo, fit this description.

We recently wrote about the Mazda5, a sort of minivan, sort of sedan, sort of wagon-type thing that also would be in this group.

The Rondo is equally blended - sort of wagon, sort of car, sort of small SUV, maybe even a hint of minivan.

The Rondo is a bit taller and wider than the Mazda, but enjoys the same amount of versatility, the thing we liked most about that car, 'er van, 'er whatever.

What we like about the Rondo is how nicely it's priced.

For a seven-seat vehicle that's not too big and not too small, it's hard to beat the Rondo in value.

Our tester had a sticker price of $23,495, about two grand cheaper than the similarly equipped Mazda5 we had.

At that price, our Rondo was the higher trim level EX (the other one is the LX), with 17-inch alloy wheels and options such as leather, heated seats, a power sunroof and a third row of seats, which is tiny, but OK for small kids.

The EX also offers a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, lighted vanity mirrors and an MP3-capable audio system with extra speakers and controls on the steering wheel.

The EX's exterior gives you chrome door handles, roof rails, body-side molding and a crossbar on the grille.

LX models have 16-inch alloy wheels, full power accessories, a height-adjustable driver seat and a 60/40-split folding rear seat.

The LX Convenience Package includes remote entry and cruise control.

If you've got a small crew or a little stuff to haul, the Rondo is a fine choice.

The second- and optional third-row seats fold flat to give you a nice amount of cargo capacity. The third row seats split 50/50.

If your crew members are thirsty, the Rondo lets them drink up with quite a few cupholders.

Storage bins also aren't lacking, another cool convenience feature.

The Rondo is a front-wheel drive vehicle only, and comes with either a four- or six-cylinder engine.

The Rondo is on the same platform as the Kia Optima sedan.

The four-cylinder engine in both vehicles is a 2.4-liter that is linked to a four-speed automatic transmission.

It makes 162 horsepower and 164 pounds-feet of torque.

The V-6, which we had in the tester, is a 2.7-liter linked to a five-speed automatic transmission. It makes a stout 182 ponies and 182 pounds-feet.

We were very impressed with the engine, as it offered decent passing and merge power on local highways.

We tried out the manual shifting feature a couple of times and got an even sportier response.

Most people buying in this category of vehicle aren't terribly concerned with dynamic performance, but it's nice to know that you don't have to feel like your senses have died when you get behind the wheel of the Rondo.

Mind you, BMW isn't exactly trembling with fear at the prospect of huge numbers of Rondos taking on the twisty roads of America, but for a low-$20,000 car, performance ain't too shabby.

Also, the engine was much quieter than we expected, even at highway speeds.

We thought sure we'd get a little bit of that high revving whine that you seem to get with value-priced cars, but if there was any, it was barely audible in the Rondo.

Gas mileage was OK. The Rondo's EPA figures are 18 mpg city, 26 highway.

In combined driving, we got about 20, which was a bit of a disappointment, but not altogether lousy.

The Rondo presents a fine list of safety features, including front-seat mounted airbags, side-curtain airbags for all three rows, electronic stability control, antilock disc brakes and a tire-pressure monitoring system.

All are standard.

Kia calls the Rondo a crossover utility vehicle, and that label seems to fit as well as any, one supposes.

But whatever your needs might be, it's nice to have a multipurpose vehicle that can wear a few different hats - and they all seem to fit well on the Rondo.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

For Sale: A classic

Check out this beautiful 1964 Oldsmobile Dynamic 88.

It's a two-tone baby blue and white classic car in running condition.

It has a rebuilt 394 engine with less than 500 miles on it and new drum brakes all the way around.

Also new are the fuel pump, tires, hoses and belts.

This classic car runs great, its engine is very quiet and it's got killer pickup on the highway!

The interior is all original, with blue carpet, and all windows and doors work.

So how much do you need to fork over for this baby?

It's yours for the low, low price of $7,000.

If you're interested, email me and let's get down to business.

THIS is how you drive

I've driven a Subaru WRX before, but not quite like this.

We should all be so lucky as to be able to get behind the wheel and experience this kind of thrill.

Check out this clip, sent to me by my main man, journalist and auto enthusiast Charles Jones.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Audi A5 gets an A+

You might be a huge fan of the Audi R8, as I am.
But you might also think, as I do, that paying six figures for a car is a bit ostentatious, especially in tough economic times.
So Audi rolls out its first midsize U.S. coupe in several years, probably not so much bowing to that concern, but just because they thought it would be cool.
Well the A5 coupe is cool, and it's a little less than half the price of the R8 supercar.
There are endless things to appreciate about it, too.
You can start with its performance.
You'll cruise down the highway or on city streets with a smoothness and fluidity that raise the level of sports car road manners to a new high.
When you accelerate to higher speeds, those road manners come right along with you.
Take on some twisty roads, and watch the quattro all-wheel-drive system grip the road tightly and experience the responsiveness you get from its handling.
The steering offers a firm enough, but not overbearing, command of the car.
The 3.2-liter V-6 engine is quiet and exceptionally efficient, and more than adequately powerful, making 265 horsepower.
Gas mileage is listed at 18 mpg city, 27 highway, according to EPA.
The six-speed automatic transmission is velvety smooth, but if you choose to use the paddle-shifters, you'll experience a bit more joy.
Add to that dynamic performance a design that is sleek and sophisticated, but still understated.
The headlights have the new signature feature that Audi offers, slim LED strips that underline the main bulbs. That feature first gained fame with the R8, and thankfully Audi is adding it to its higher sales volume cars.
When you turn on the turn indicator lights, the LED strip goes off - what a neat trick.
The curves of the A5's body are artistic without being gaudy.
You will get some nice, admiring glances in this car, but not the kind of overblown, hormonally charged expressions of lust that some flashier cars elicit.
The interior is classic Audi - quality materials arranged perfectly.
There are brushed metal accents that set off the high-end plastics on the dash.
The leather seats have a richness that looks great, providing more than ample comfort.
There is even a dose of practicality, with back seats that can fit kids fairly comfortably and a spacious trunk that would accommodate a golf bag and a number of other items.
Also, the thing that taller drivers love about Audi is the overall roominess of the cabin.
At 6'6", I don't even have to slide the driver's seat all the way to the farthest back position.
Audi is just about the only automaker whose cars I can say that about - it's usually a trait found only in SUVs.
Quality products such as this one are helping Audi make more of a mark on the U.S. market.
Audi said it reached a market share of 8.6 percent within its competitive set in October, up from 6.2 percent a year earlier.
Audi also said it set a sales record in October, despite a crummy environment for auto sales.
It cited the A5 as one of the drivers of its strong sales.
Only Audi reported growth on a car basis in the import high group in October, a segment that includes brands such as BMW, Jaguar, Mercedes, Volvo, Acura and Lexus.
Those brands are probably well aware that Audi is charging at them, and products like the A5 are leading the way.
The A5 starts at around $41,000.
Our tester, equipped with the Navigation Plus system and premium and technology packages, had a sticker price of $52,140.
At that price, I could buy two of them and still have spent less than what an R8 would cost.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Mazda5: Whatever you call it, call it good


We've always seen the Mazda5 as one of those, "What is it?" vehicles.
You know, the type that makes you wonder: sedan, small SUV, crossover, minivan or whatever?
The answer is a bit of each.
The Mazda5, introduced a few years ago as Mazda's replacement for its MPV minivan, is versatile, practical, fun to drive and even a little stylish, once you gain an appreciation for its unusual design.
You've probably heard all about how there has been such a sharp decline in minivan sales this decade, as the popularity of crossovers has risen.
But the fact is, minivans were a good idea in the first place because of the functionality they offered families and other people who wanted easy access to the front, middle and rear rows of their vehicles.
Some crossovers have been able to offer that, others haven't.
But the Mazda5 has it, with its sliding side doors and middle-row individual seats.
Plus, with those seats and the back row folded down, you get a healthy amount of cargo space.
Loading boxes, groceries or a stroller is a breeze, making this a great vehicle for young families or grandparents, two key demographics of minivan drivers.
The sliding doors operate easily, and aren't heavy at all, but they do feel sturdy enough that you won't feel like they could come unhinged at any moment.
The second row seats slide fore and aft to give more legroom for passengers, or perhaps more room for stuff you might toss back there.
If passengers in that row are carrying gear such as duffel bags, they can toss that in the third row and sit quite comfortably.
In fact, the seats themselves are very comfortable. They are wide and cushiony enough to be accommodating on even a long trip.
The only problem you might have is that if you are a tall person driving, your legroom is a little bit compromised.
We wished Mazda had made the driver's seat with a bit more room to slide back, because after about 45 minutes to an hour of driving, things were getting a little cramped and we had to stop to stretch out.
But if you're under, say, 6'2", this shouldn't be a problem.
Design-wise, we loved the modern interior styling.
No boring minivan features are to be found here.
The control display on the dashboard even has sort of a luxury-type appearance.
You also get steering wheel mounted audio controls, an optional navigation system, dual 12V outlets and a sport shifter.
A sport shifter on a little minivan - is that really necessary?
Yes, because this thing lives up to Mazda's Zoom-Zoom credo.
Its suspension is tight, steering is precise and acceleration is energetic.
The five-speed automatic transmission shifts smoothly.
The aluminum 2.3-liter four cylinder engine makes 153 horsepower and 148 pounds-feet of torque.
But one of our favorite attributes is the gas mileage.
The Mazda5 is listed at 21 mpg city, 27 highway according to EPA data.
In combined driving, we got about 26 mpg.
That is very good for a six-passenger vehicle.
Another thing that we noticed that scored points for the Mazda5 is how when it was loaded down with people or stuff, it didn't seem to affect its performance.
We tossed in a few big lawn and leaf bags full of clothes that we were donating, and carried a few people to the donation center and had seemingly as much power as when the vehicle is empty.
Because of its relatively small size, zipping in and out of parking spaces is not a problem, either.
You can't say that for most minivans and some of the crossovers on today's market.
The sticker price on the Mazda5 we drove was $22,675.
The Mazda5 is another reason we think Mazda has one of the best product lineups among automakers today.
If you would prefer a crossover, check out the CX-7 or CX-9, two that are among the tops in their respective categories.
For a small sedan or hatchback, the Mazda3 is sporty, very stylish and priced nicely.
If it's a larger sedan you're after, the Mazda6 has been newly redesigned and now competes well with luxury cars of the same size but higher price ranges.