By Kevin Miller
Kia’s corporate tagline is “The Power To Surprise”. It was on the license plate frame of the company’s Sorento EX 4×4 SUV I recently spent a week driving for the purposes of review. Unfortunately, I was not surprised in a particularly good way. Instead, I was surprised to notice so many Sorentos on the road. I was surprised to find out that the vehicle I was testing had an MSRP of $30,195. And I was surprised how poor the fuel economy was, even on a long highway trip with the cruise control set.
Nearly every automaker manufactures a five-passenger SUV or crossover vehicle of some sort. While they all share a basic shape, chassis and packaging details differentiate the many vehicles in this diverse class. Among competitors, the Sorento is notable for its body-on-frame construction. In a world where more and more SUVs and crossover vehicles are turning to unibody construction, the Sorento soldiers on with this heavier setup. Rumor has it that the next generation Sorento will be introduced this week in Geneva, and will feature unibody construction. Hopefully this will tame the bouncy, SUV-style ride, which featured plenty of body roll and wheel movement. The often-unsettled ride reminded me of a friend’s early-1990s Jeep Cherokee; that is not meant as a compliment.
By Chris Haak
Already-reeling Saab had to halt production this past week when a wrinkle occurred between a supplier of parts imported to Sweden and Swedish customs. Originally, the news indicated that the issue was between Saab and Swedish customs, but apparently, the issue has been resolved. Still to be resolved is a “considerable” sum of money for spare parts and inventories in two customs-operated warehouses. This sum is due to be paid no later than March 4, or apparently, production would have to again halt.
Ford CEO Alan Mulally, in spite of not agreeing to work for $1 per year as GM CEO Rick Wagoner and Chrysler CEO Bob Nardelli have done, has agreed to a 30% pay cut for 2009 and 2010 in an effort to win concessions from hourly workers represented by the UAW. Further, Ford has eliminated performance bonuses for salaried employees and senior executives in 2009. Ford’s Board of Directors also decided to forgo any cash compensation during 2009. Mulally took home $21.67 million in 2007, most of which was in the form of equity awards and bonuses (includign a sign-on bonus to replace compensation that he left on the table when he departed Boeing).
General Motors had about as bad a week in terms of financial news as could be imagined. On top of the news of Saab’s reorganization (also known as bankruptcy), GM announced that it’s slashing its marketing/incentive budget by $800 million in 2009. That move surely won’t mean new GM cars and trucks will be flying off dealer lots. Then GM’s European subsidiary saw its annual loss in 2008 quadruple over its 2007 results, to a pretax loss of $1.6 billion (from a $55 million profit a year earlier). Then GM announced its fourth quarter results, in which it burned through $5.2 billion in cash and posted a $30.9 billion loss for the year and a $9.6 billion loss for the fourth quarter alone. The annual loss was the second-worst net loss in GM’s 100-year history, behind only the $38.7 billion loss in 2007, just one year earlier. Finally, GM announced that its auditors are reviewing whether the company is viable enough to be considered a “going concern.” If its outside auditors rule that it is not, then the company would be in violation of some of its debt covenants. Not a good week for GM.
By Chris Haak
During my college years, I remember passing the local Volkswagen dealer and seeing a very odd-looking four-door Golf on the lot for sale. It didn’t have any kind of special wheels, special performance features, or special colors. The thing was, it had multiple colors – the unibody (including the roof and thick C-pillar) is one color. The front doors are another color, the rear doors are a third color, and the bumpers, rear hatch, and hood each have different colors than the body panels adjacent to them. It sounds weird-looking, and it kind of is. The cars look like a bad custom job, or a low-budget collision repair that didn’t allow money for repainting body panels from the donor car. However, I eventually learned that the special Golf I had seen back in the mid-1990s was a Volkswagen Golf Harlequin.
I hadn’t seen a Harlequin in the metal in over a dozen years, but when I spotted one this week on US Rt. 1 in Kennett Square, PA, I knew right away what I was looking at (though I had forgotten the name, of course), and the car’s appearance made me smile. You see, the only thing to make the Golf Harlequin look more like a clown car would have been to remove the car’s seats and allow 20-some clowns to step out of the car at a red light. That’s kind of the idea behind the Golf Harlequin anyway – after all, a harlequin is defined as a “comic character.” I can think of a few comic characters – but clowns and medieval court jesters are the first two that come to mind. Incidentally, please forgive the poor quality of the camera phone photo below; you can see the car, but you can clearly see why I’m a writer and not a spy photographer.
By Roger Boylan
In Texas, nothing on the road is more imposing yet more anonymous than a big pickup truck. Of course, in such an enormous ranching and farming state, trucks are paramount in practicality and ruggedness; but, as we all know, many of them are simply “lifestyle statements,” especially in college towns such as San Marcos and Austin, where the typical driver with attitude is under 25 with a backward baseball cap and a jacked-up Chevy Silverado or Ford F-150. Some of these vehicles ride 2 to 3 feet above the rest of the traffic, with grill guards, extra-wide tires, and hunting lights, all (or mostly) statements of nothing more than callow machismo. But an imposing sight such a brute undeniably is, especially coming up fast in your rear-view mirror. And yet, there’s an anonymity about even the most thoroughly tricked-out Texas truck, because they’re all over the place–and will continue to be, even in this ailing economy, because Texans just love the things. Well-dressed matrons drive them. Priests and schoolteachers drive them. Even the recently retired President of the United States drives one (a Ford F-250 4×4) at his Crawford ranch, in preference to a car.
Nearly 30% of the state’s vehicle registrations in 2008 were of pickups, most of them products of the ex-Big Three: Ford F-150s, Dodge Rams, and Chevrolet/GMC Silverado/Sierras, with an increasingly large niche for the Toyota Tundra (the Nissan Titan never quite pulled it off). So when my test Chevy Silverado LTZ 4×4 rolled up the driveway, and I swung myself on board, I felt that finally, sixteen years after emigrating from New York, I could pass as a Texan…but nobody would notice.
Beset at first by visions of parking-lot collisions and small creatures being crushed under my 18″ chromed aluminum wheels, I came to enjoy this hulking vehicle and to respect its potential. Of course, mine was the luxury model, the 4×4 Crew Cab at the LTZ trim level, featuring for its (wildly negotiable) $40K sticker price, in no particular order: dual-zone automatic climate control, power moon roof, Bose premium speaker system, XM Sirius satellite radio, rear audio system controls, Bluetooth hookup, color-keyed carpeting and rubberized vinyl floor mats (the latter a reminder that this was, originally, a vehicle destined for the muddy worksites of life, not the Neiman-Marcus parking lot), auto-dimming inside rearview mirror, remote keyless entry, remote vehicle starter system, very comfortable leather buckets (with 10-way power driver and front passenger seat adjusters and 4-way power lumbar control), heated seat cushions and seatbacks, power windows, heated power mirrors, electronic stability control (a very good thing in a vehicle with such a wide weight discrepancy between front and rear), side airbags, head curtain airbags, etc., etc.
By Chris Haak
Just below the Nissan logo and the words “2009 Altima 2.5 S” on the Monroney (window sticker) of the 2009 Altima that I just finished testing is the phrase “THE NEW BENCHMARK.” Not only is this true, but I also happen to be the new benchmark in automotive journalism. (Or was that the new bench-warmer?) Whatever the case, I find it a little presumptuous for Nissan – or anyone else, for that matter – to anoint themselves as the benchmark of anything. That’s for me, other writers, and more importantly, the buying public to decide, and not them. This is particularly worrisome since the 2009 Altima is on the third year of its design, while many of its competitors are newer (Malibu – 2008; Accord – 2008; Mazda6 – 2009). On top of that, when I reviewed the 2009 Accord EX-L, I anointed that car as the benchmark of the midsize sedan class. On top of that, when our writer Kevin Miller reviewed the Mazda6 i a few weeks ago, he was very fond of that car. There can’t be more than one midsize sedan benchmark, can there?
Continuing Nissan’s trend of the past few years of updating successful models with vehicles whose design could charitably be called “evolutionary” (and less-charitably called “not creative”), the 2009 Altima takes many of its styling cues directly from the previous-generation model, sold from 2002 to 2006. Nissan deserves credit for actually making the 2007 Altima slightly smaller and lighter on the outside than its predecessor model. It shed about an inch in wheelbase and about 2 1/2 inches in overall length with its most recent redesign, with interior measurements a split decision – the old car was bigger in front shoulder room, front legroom, rear headroom, and rear hip room, while the new car is bigger in front hip room, rear legroom, and cargo volume. Other dimensions are pretty much identical between the cars. The resulting styling, while clearly an Altima, has been modernized with headlamps and tail lamps that are more swept back; the C-pillar design is cleaned up (but manages to look more like a BMW’s than any other Nissan model), and fender flares are larger and more prominent. Aside from looking a little too similar to an old Altima, my only other criticism of the exterior of the 2009 Altima that I tested was that it was shod with puny 16 inch wheels. The small-diameter wheels meant that there was an unfashionably large amount of black sidewall showing when viewing the car’s profile. With that being said, its navy blue exterior, chrome trim around the windows, and dual exhaust outlets (even on a four-banger) made it probably one of the better-looking vehicles in its segment; while styling is subjective, it’s probably better-looking than the Accord, Camry, Fusion, or Sonata, but not as attractive to me as the Malibu and Mazda6.
By Brendan Moore
There’s been a lot of chatter about the auto manufacturers restructuring, the auto suppliers changing their operating models, the vehicle finance companies changing their credit criteria and product mix, and, of course, the government has weighed in with new regulatory hurdles like CAFE and emissions policy.
But the only thing we hear about retail auto dealers is that there are too many of them, particularly in regards to the domestic manufacturers. The plummeting economy seems to be taking care of that issue for the most part, and there is little doubt that many more retail dealerships will succumb in 2009.
But my concern is not less dealers, although that certainly needs to happen in the domestic retail network.
No, my concern is the franchise dealer system. It is time for this retail system to be restructured in a way that will be beneficial to both the consumer and the manufacturer. As it stands now, the franchise new-car dealer system has obvious benefits for only one constituency – the dealer.
Ask any new-car dealer why new cars are sold only at new-car dealerships, and he/she will tell you that only a dealer can comply with all the regulations governing new car sales, only a dealer can be expected to supply warranty work to those customers that need it, only a dealer that is an independent business person is going to muster the necessary incentive to make that dealership a success, and on and on.
Well, that’s true. And it’s true because auto dealers in every state have, through campaign contributions and ceaseless lobbying of state politicians, of both parties, made it impossible for anyone except a dealer to sell new cars. In fact, in many states, it is a criminal act for any manufacturer to sell a new vehicle to anyone other than one of the state’s new-car dealers. And they have also been able to shape the legal language around just what constitutes a dealership and a new-car dealer, thereby ensuring that a “dealer” will look just like what a dealer looks like today. Lastly, they have also been extremely successful in making it very difficult for manufacturers to terminate franchises and brands.
In effect, the dealers have their own monopoly on new-car sales, supported by state statute.
By Andy Bannister
The sports coupé is arguably the ultimate embodiment of the style and sophistication which the auto industry likes to convey. For some makers, at least in good times, a coupé adds glamour and credibility in the showroom and profits for the shareholders.
For owners, such coupés are often irrational, heart-ruling-the-head choices, and the timing of a particular model is crucial to its success of failure. The omens therefore don’t look good for the latest instalment of Renault’s attempt to make the grade as a coupé company in Europe.
Despite occasional previous efforts, the French marque doesn’t have much of a reputation for grand tourers, so the onset of a major recession hardly bodes well for its most ambitious GT for decades, the new Laguna coupé.
The Laguna nameplate is to Renault what Passat is to VW, and the current Laguna is in its third generation. Up until now the cars have all been pretty dull fare. The most recent version of the mainstream Laguna saloon and estate are competent and well-made but have been roundly criticised for their curiously bland styling, and sales have been nowhere near Renault’s predictions, even before the vicious slowdown started.
By Kevin Miller
People who know me well- and even people who know me just a little bit- know that I’m a Saab fanatic. Saab, Saab, all the time. I take my classic 900 three-door to local Saab gatherings. I try to cover as much Saab news as I can, and review as many Saab vehicles as I can for Techshake. I read other websites (gasp!) to catch up on Saab news beyond what GM’s media group publishes. I consider myself to be fairly well plugged-in to what is going on with Saab.
In the past several days, since news broke about Saab being dumped by GM, followed quickly by news about Saab’s subsequent reorganization, I’ve gotten a number of emails and phone calls from family, friends, and acquaintances, telling me they’d heard about Saab’s bankruptcy filing, heard that Saab was going out of business, heard whatever. Everybody wanted to know how I was doing with it, what my opinion is.
Last month before all of this news came out, I was in Detroit at NAIAS. While there I tracked down Saab’s PR head Jan-Willem Vester to ask him what GM had in store for Saab, as rumors had recently been circling that Saab would have to be sold or be closed. Mr. Vester assured me that Saab was a valuable, integral part of GM’s operations, GM’s only premium European marque, a brand that attracted customers who wouldn’t shop other brands in GM’s portfolio, and that because of the technology Saab continues to develop for GM, the Swedish brand wouldn’t be going anywhere.