Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Porsche: the new Picasso?

Porsche: the new Picasso?Wealthy Britons who are wary of the stock market are investing in prestige cars instead. The number of people with four or more top-end models such as Porsche and Bentley is on the increase, according to insurance company Aviva. And some even have as many as 30 prestige cars, owning the likes of Aston Martin, Ferrari, Jaguar and Rolls-Royce, the company added.

Aviva said that, on average, owners of these types of expensive car only do about 8000 km a year - about two-thirds of the national average. The average value of the prestige car collections insured with Aviva is £350,000 ($538,378).

Almost two-thirds of these cars are less than two years old, with 50 per cent having personalised number plates and 85 per cent of the owners being male. The most popular of the prestige cars is Porsche, followed by Bentley, Aston Martin and Ferrari.

Scott Leonard, high net worth underwriting manager at Aviva, said: "The popularity of owning a collection of high-value cars is growing among the wealthy of the population generally. It is not simply the preserve of A-list footballers and pop stars.

"It seems that people with money to spend and invest are now as likely to add a new prestige car to their possessions as a work of art, so perhaps Porsches are the new Picassos."
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Sunday, December 26, 2010

Ferrari tops list of most expensive car auction buys in 2010

The most coveted vintage cars sold at auction in 2010 didn’t command the sky-high, record-setting prices of last year. But there were still collectors’ stunning rare purchases this year Aston Martin to Talbot, BMW to Mercerdes Benz.

Six of the most expensive cars sold at auction during 2010 occurred during Monterey Auto Week, the now nearly two-week festival of new and vintage cars scattered throughout the Monterey Peninsula. The most expensive auctioned car in 2010 was a 1959 Ferrari 250 GT LWB California Spider Competizione. It sold for $7.26 million at the Gooding & Co. auction at Pebble Beach in August.

Here’s the list of the top-10 most expensive cars sold at auction in 2010:

1. 1959 Ferrari 250 GT LWB California Spider Competizione (#1603GT) – Price: $7.26 million (Gooding & Co – Pebble Beach – August 14-15)

2. 1933 Alfa Romeo 8C 2300 Monza Brianza Spider (#2311218) – Price: $6.71 million (Gooding & Co – Pebble Beach, August 14-15)

3. 1961 Ferrari 250 GT SWB Berlinetta SEFAC Hot Rod (#2845) – Price: $6.11 million (Gooding & Co – Pebble Beach, August 14-15)

4. 1937 BMW 328 MM ‘Buegelfalte’ (#85032) – Price: $5.84 million (RM Auctions – Sporting Classics of Monaco, May 1)

5. 1938 Talbot-Lago T150 Competition Lago Speciale Teardrop Coupe (#90034) – Price $4.62 million (RM Auctions, Sport & Classics of Monterey – August 14)

6. 1954 Ferrari 375 MM Berlinetta (#0416AM) – Price $4.62 (RM Auctions – Sport & Classics of Monterey, August 14)

7. 1964 Aston Martin DB5 (#FMP 7B) – Price £2.91 million / $4.1 million (RM Auctions – Automobiles of London, October 27)

8. 1956 Jaguar D-Type Sports Racer (#XKD528) – Price: $3.74 million (Gooding & Company – Scottsdale Auctions, January 22-23)

9. 1927 Mercedes-Benz S Boattail Speedster (#26/180) – Price: $3.74 million (Gooding & Company – Pebble Beach, August 14-15)

10. 1962 Ferrari 400 Superamerica Cabriolet Pininfarina SWB (#3309 SA) – Price: €2.8 million / $3.7 million (RM Auctions, Sporting Classics of Monaco – May 1)
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Saturday, December 25, 2010

Toyota redefines the people's sedan

Toyota redefines the people's sedanIs there a concept called the Made-for-India car? Apart from the ultra low-cost car segment, aren't buyers in India becoming homogenous with their global counterparts? Apparently not! And, most definitely not in all the segments.

After being amongst the first few companies to enter the Indian automotive space, Toyota has been the last to enter the mass market segment here. Toyota frustrated many of its constituents along the way, because it seemed to be delaying its foray into the small car segment, despite having a considerably large share of mass market cars to dip into in its portfolio worldwide.

But, that exactly would have been the reason why it would have been a half measure to just pick out one of its existing cars, like the Yaris, for launch in India. Coming from Toyota, the much-delayed mass market car just couldn't have been one of those because it would have neither fit the price segment nor would the car have truly satisfied the needs and expectations of buyers here.

So, Toyota engineers designed and developed the Etios sedan from scratch, meticulously building into it all the major expectations of the Indian entry sedan buyer, as a prelude to which Yoshinori Noritake, the chief engineer of Toyota's Etios project, is said to have personally interviewed potential buyers to understand their needs. The result is the Etios, a sedan that many are going to drub as being drab, of being too Indian, but will still end up considering because it is a Toyota and because of its overall practicality. So, what is the ‘Indianness' that the Etios comes with apart from the ‘Teekha' in its logo?

“I want design which is smart, but is not intimidating”

Toyota's designs are inherently simple. There are rarely, if ever, vehicle designs that can be considered aggressive or over the board. It just gets protracted in the Etios because of the perceived conservatism amongst Indian buyers. And so, for example, while its design rather simplistically attempts to give the Etios an appealing front, with a smiling bonnet grille design, it also focuses substantially on practicality.

Large headlamps capable of lighting up the road ahead and large tail-lamps to ensure good visibility for vehicles at the rear, a simple, straight shoulder line design that ensures large glass area and better natural illumination inside the passenger cabin, and to improve the overall look of strength Toyota engineers have also added a large airdam at the front and well-defined, muscular wheel arches.

Yes, there has been and is bound to be more feedback about the Etios looking very similar, especially from the rear, to a competing car in the market. But, evidently that has not been a deterrent to the huge number of initial customers that have booked the car. One of the lessons that Toyota must have learnt from the Qualis experience is that there is a general distrust for high-brow design amongst entry-level sedan buyers and amongst institutional (read taxi) buyers. The perception that still seems to exist is that a design excess potentially leads to expensive maintenance.

The Etios strikes a balance that is unique and will keep the buyer happy, though it may not help him get an above average share of stares.

“I want a car with small a foot print, but with lots of space”

Liberating extra space inside a car, within the confines of its exterior dimensions is a science that few have mastered. The Etios is a pretty good example of this kind of leverage. Though its wheelbase is almost identical to that of competing cars such as the Volkswagen Vento, and is a little lesser than the Fiat Linea, there is a feeling of more space inside the cabin of the Etios.

Toyota engineers have integrated a few features that further liberate space inside the sedan. The first of these is designing almost straight door panels that enable them to keep the door trim intrusion into the cabin to the minimum. This then ensures that there is more shoulder room for passengers. The other feature that liberates more space is the elimination of the central drivetrain tunnel that has enabled them to offer a flat floor at the rear. A very practical feature in the Indian context where often saree-clad passengers are trying to get off the car from one side only since the car is parked too close to a wall or another car.

The seats in the Etios sedan also feature a thin construction, providing more legroom for rear passengers. Yes, this also means that the seat squabs are thinner and together with the cloth upholstery don't offer the kind of support that you get in the premium sedan segment.

The rear passenger bench in the Etios sedan is also positioned to perfectly merge with the edge of the rear door, making entry and exit easy. Toyota designers also seemed to have worked on ensuring that there is ample luggage room inside the boot of the sedan – a whole 595 litres of it.

“I want the interiors to be novel, but more importantly they should be practical”

Practical interiors in the Indian context means that the air-conditioner should perform excellently even during peak summer, there should be lots of storage space and there should be convenience features for the rear passenger, who is often the owner.

The Etios' interior features a simple, centre console heavy dashboard layout. The central air-con vents are stacked one on top of the other to possibly ensure better cold airflow to the rear. The vent fins are a simple slatted ball and socket design that is easy to adjust. Controls are all within easy reach for the driver and feel sturdy to hold and adjust.

There a huge amount of storage available – a 13-litre cooled glovebox and seven one-litre bottle holders all around the interior. A novel feature, which Toyota says is also more safe and practical, is the centrally positioned instrument console. Behind the steering wheel there are just acres of plastic to stare at. The analog instrument cluster looks cooler at night when it is backlit. Also on offer in the top-end V and VX variants is a 2-DIN music system with a remote control for use by rear passengers. A thoughtful addition is the clean-air filter for the air-con system. The top variant also gets steering mounted audio controls.

The other novelty is the steering wheel itself which features a racing car style flat or cut-away bottom. But, I wonder if the feature was also thought of to help Indians with an expansive waistline to get in and out of the car with greater ease.

Despite some of the variants getting fabric door trim and inserts to break the monotony, the interior of the Etios does feature a lot of plastic. The fit and finish quality is very good, though there is a general feel of it being an entry-sedan in terms of overall build.

“I want a car that can handle the rough and tumble of Indian roads”

One of the biggest concerns for sedan buyers is ground clearance. The Etios has enough of that at 170mm to handle the most monstrous speed breakers you'll come across. There are other difficult Indian conditions that Toyota's engineers have provided for, including the addition of anti-corrosion steel sheets at areas in the car that are prone to rusting and stone hits. There is also underbody protection to prevent damage to fuel and brake lines and also interestingly, a new type of chip resistant paint has been used on the rocker mould and fender to prevent the need for frequent touch up and repaint visits to the workshop.

Toyota engineers have also chosen large knobs or switches for two keys functions that are often overlooked by Indian car users – the use of a large oval hazard or parking light switch and the headlamp levelling knob (instead of the scrolling wheel). Hopefully these two simple safety features will be used more by Etios users.

“I want a peppy engine, but show me the money first”

The Indian car buyer is extremely value conscious and Toyota wants to show that it is acutely aware of this fact with the Etios. The integration of frugality, without compromising on its trademark quality standards, starts with the very conception of the Etios' EFC platform, which will be shared with other vehicles and will be used over a longer generation cycle. There are other features like the single windscreen wiper blade, which might have helped Toyota save costs, but as long as the buyer benefits too, he not going to be too bothered.

But, the one feature that will satisfy the Etios buyer most will be the choice of the powertrain. The brand new 2NR-FE, four-cylinder petrol engine was developed specifically for the Etios and it sure seems capable of delivering on its promise of being a frugal mill. Toyota claims that the engine will offer a ARAI rated 17.6 kmpl of mileage. After my test drive of over 400 kms with a mix of city roads, the highway and hilly terrain, I got about 15 kmpl.

The 1,496cc engine has fairly meaty performance numbers, with peak power being 90 PS at 5,600 rpm and peak torque being 132 Nm at 3,000 rpm. The key figure there is of course, the torque, which also rises up to the peak with a pretty flat curve. How does it help? There is ample torque available in every gear from very low rpm levels. It translates into fewer gear shifts, lower fuel consumption and lesser engine damage due to knocking.

For example, while on third gear, I could go down all the way to about 18 kmph and also all the way upto about 100 kmph. The engine is fairly refined too keeping down noise levels during idling and initial acceleration. The five-speed manual gearbox mated to the engine is also a good choice. Shift quality is very good, though there is a bit of play when the stick shift is in gear. The clutch feels progressive and will be both a bit accommodating of the average Indian driving style and also won't lead to driver fatigue.

Bottomline

After driving the Etios in Chennai, I head out on National Highway 46 towards Bangalore. The Etios' straight line stability is quite impressive. But for a mildly bouncy ride at high speeds, the car keeps its cool even at speeds of about 140kmph. Engine noise starts becoming intrusive after I cross speeds of about 125 kmph. Another feature that was helpful on the highway was the large amount of low-end torque that was available, enabling easy overtaking without the need to shift down to a lower gear slot.

To experience the Etios in a more demanding driving situation, I turn off from the Chennai-Bengaluru highway and drive towards Yelagiri. The 23 kms drive uphill has a mix of tight hair-pins and swooping hill-side turns to reach the top of this small hill town. Yelagiri looks like it has dropped out of the heavens to land in the middle of verdant fields. The Etios tackles the inviting 30-degree incline of the road with gusto and here again the torque and range available on each gear is a great help in pushing it into every corner and turn, and then pulling off quickly after that, without shifting down.

The steering is light and easy to use and though it could have been more precise, doesn't take away from its drivability overall. The suspension set up is more tuned towards offering the passengers a pliant ride. That has also meant that there is a bit of body roll, which I observed more on the hills than while driving the Etios sedan in city roads or the highway.

The Etios is being offered with four variants, which range in price from Rs 4.9 lakh to Rs 6.8 lakh. Apart from the very affordable pricing coming from Toyota, there is a lot going for this sedan. The competition is faced with a very difficult task of taking on the might of the Etios.
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Friday, December 24, 2010

Just about right

Just about rightWhen it comes to sheer luxury, nothing beats the flagship saloons from Britain's two exotic nameplates: Bentley and Rolls-Royce.Even Daimler's stab into the ultra-luxury car segment with the Maybach hasn't really upstaged those two famous marques, which are so rich in heritage despite being owned by the Germans now (Volkswagen and BMW respectively).

So it's business as usual again for the Crewe boys, as it has developed the all-new Mulsanne to become the effective replacement for the Arnage. There was supposed to be an official launch of the Mulsanne in Thailand earlier this year at the British Embassy, but the street protests last April and May forced the Thai authorised agent to cancel the event.

So, for those who need to know, the Mulsanne has prices starting from B33m, which isn't that bad if you consider the fact that potential rivals like the Maybach and Rolls-Royce Phantom will ask for B40m and beyond depending on how you would spec the cars.

Despite its similar proportions and certain design cues, the Mulsanne is an all-new Arnage. The most significant difference in the skin is the new face which - for the better or worse - can be a good point of debate.

Wherever you drive on the Mulsanne on Thai roads, people just keep on looking. You start to wonder whether onlookers are taking a keen interest because it's a Mulsanne or "what on earth is that barge" and "it must be bloody expensive".

But as you drive and ride in it, the Mulsanne feels like a proper modern-day Bentley. Whether you're inside or outside the car, it feels superbly solid, from the way the body parts are put together all the way down to the smallest detail in the opulent cabin.

It feels remarkably luxurious - just like in any other Bentley - and the slabs of genuine wood really add up to the effect. In fact, it feels more expensive than both the Maybach and RR, unless you start counting the number of switches and features.

Behold, though, the Mulsanne is comprehensively equipped. The only personalised schemes left for potential buyers to choose are body and interior colours. You obviously won't need more than a 60GB hard drive or a 2,200W sound system from Naim, as such.

And even though the Mulsanne comes with a shorter wheelbase than its intended rivals, there's so much legroom for rear passengers, which also allowed Bentley engineers to fit chairs that can slide and recline.

You really won't be craving for more cabin room, despite the fact that there are long wheelbase variants of its competitors in the guise of Maybach 62 and Phantom Long Wheelbase. It appears that stretched barges in this segment have been done for the sake of image rather than plugging a deficiency in space terms.

It's a nice car to be chauffeur-driven in, and the Mulsanne's rear ambience isn't too gadget-laden as in the Maybach nor is it just plainly aristocratic as in a Phantom; it's just about right in terms of function and luxury.

True, most buyers will be sitting in the rear, but the Mulsanne is also a great place to take the helm. As said earlier, the driving environment feels peerlessly made and oozes top quality. The steering wheel also looks good and feels great to hold onto.

But the amount of switches on the console can look busy, and some time is needed in getting acquainted with them. And under glaring sunlight, it's hard to see the operation of some functions like those pertaining to the air-con system.

We (understandably) haven't had the chance to take the Mulsanne overnight, but we heard from the Bentley boys that the cabin looks very classy at night. We obviously think so, judging from the way it already appears during the day.

Crank the 6.75-litre (six and three-quarter in Bentley speak) V8 to life and note its gentle hum. Mind you, this is not the VW-developed W12 used in the Continental range, but Bentley's fabled eight-pot used for decades albeit tweaked to meet current emission standards and performance requirements.

If you really hadn't noticed, the motor feels like any other proper modern-day V8. Under a light throttle, the engine yields gentle performance which could be attributed to the fact that Bentley has added cylinder deactivation (from eight to four) when not all 512 horses are required.

Add more pressure and the engine still yields effortless performance from low down. Aiding out on such a high level of flexibility are two turbochargers.

In fact, this is what cars in this league are all about: wafting. The idea is to get moving around without having to use kickdown. Good proof of this engine concept is the diesel-like 4,500rpm redline and both of its rivals using bi-turbo V12 engines.

Sure, you can get some serious performance by stomping that gas pedal or engaging the eight-speed automatic into sport or manual mode. But the 1,000Nm-plus of torque is really meant for smooth driving and to overcome the car's heavy body.

You can feel the Mulsanne's sheer size and weight at low speeds, but the steering is usefully light around town even though that long bonnet in front of you reminds that this is no Bimmer or Merc.

The ride is obviously on the plush side, even if you're not in comfort mode of the three-step suspension mode. So for a nice, brisk drive at high speeds, it's best to choose at least the intermediate setting for a flatter ride.

The way the Mulsanne builds up speed is simply impressive. Performance just keeps on coming collectively, while body control and external noise suppression don't seem to be affected by speed. To put it precisely, the car has great cruising ability.

Probably the only downside about the car is tyre noise, although Bentley insists that our test car had been put to hard work in driving clinics held around the Southeast Asian region so as to explain the run-down contact patches of the 20-inch rubbers.

Does the Mulsanne handle as neatly as in an S-class or 7-series? Probably not, due to the weight that can be felt in corners. But that's not the point in the Mulsanne. And if you take the Maybach or Phantom into perspective, the Mulsanne has markedly better driving characteristics.

So where does that bring us with the Mulsanne in the end? First, it's a deservedly proper flagship for the brand, as well as an effective replacement for the Arnage. Despite some familiar credentials of yore, it feels modern in its own right.

As Autocar once nicely put it, people who can't decide between a Mulsanne and Phantom should simply buy both of them.

But in our eyes and brand image aside, the Mulsanne tends to mix the attributes of both the Maybach and Phantom by being not to extreme in either direction of its two rivals.

The Mulsanne doesn't look as Korean as the Maybach or as controversial as the bizarre-faced Phantom.

And while you sit more stately, but more uprightly, in the Phantom, you could almost sleep first class-style in the Maybach. But since snoozing off is never going to be on your agenda, the Mulsanne's has a good balance between seat comfort and convenience items.

In fact, that is what the Mulsanne is all about: a very fine balance between real-world function and sheer extravagance, be at the wheel or behind the front seats.
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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Maruti Suzuki in top gear ahead of launching maiden luxury car

According to reports, the luxury car Kizashi is Japanese parent Suzuki's flagship model internationally and is also the most expensive Suzuki product worldwide. The Kizashi will carry the distinction of being the most expensive Suzuki product in India as well. Kizashi will be reportedly priced at around Rs 18-20 lakh. Kizashi will come in both manual & automatic versions. The luxury car from Maruti Suzuki will compete with Skoda Superb and Honda Accord. The company has completed the dealership training of technical staff in India, reports added.

Meanwhile, the BSE Sensex was up 186.71 points, or 0.94%, to 20,075.59. On BSE, 34,000 shares were traded in the counter as against an average daily volume of 54,536 shares in the past one quarter. The stock hit a high of Rs 1454.90 and a low of Rs 1420 so far during the day. The stock had hit a 52-week high of Rs 1599.90 on 1 November 10 and a 52-week low of Rs 1171 on 21 May 2010.
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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Abu Dhabi car owners buy expensive number plates

Abu Dhabi car owners buy expensive number platesCar owners from the UAE capital of Abu Dhabi seem to have a special interest in expensive number plates with a list compiled by an independent dealer showing they account for 37 of the top 50 dearest plates ever sold.

According to Regtransfers website, the UK's independent dealer in personalised number plates, Abu Dhabi dominates a global list of the most expensive car number plates ever sold.

The 37 Abu Dhabi buyers listed in the rankings collectively spent $60.6 million (222.9 million dirhams), or an average of $1.6 million (6 million dirhams) for their car plates, the website said.

On top of the countdown to the top 20 plates ever sold was plate number 24, which was sold to an Abu Dhabi buyer at a cost of $871,174 million (3.2 million dirhams).

Plate 33, which attracted a buyer from Hong Kong, cost $900,977 (7 million Hong Kong dollars) while Plate 19, again bought by Abu Dhabi, cost $912,010 (3.35 million dirhams).
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Monday, December 13, 2010

Want a fancy car? All you need is $4,500

Want a fancy car? All you need is $4,500THE next time you spot a $1.5 million Lamborghini Murcielago on the road, don't assume that the driver is a millionaire. Or the son of one. The super car could be a rented one. But renting one isn't cheap - expect to pay around $4,500 for a day's spin. This makes it the most expensive car for rent here.

The Lamborghini Murcielago is only being offered by 6Speed, a car rental company. It launched its business with a party at Timbre The Arts House two weeks ago. Exotic car rental is a niche business here due to the high up-front costs involved in purchasing these cars.

Then there are maintenance and insurance costs too. The annual insurance for such cars is about $20,000 a year, compared to about $1,000 for a family sedan. Replacing a clutch in a Murcielago can set you back $25,000. This is why only two companies here, 6Speed and Luxe Car Rental, offer rentals of high-performance marques such as Porsches, Ferraris and Lamborghinis. Both companies said the growing affluence of Singaporeans and the influx of foreigners working here have fuelled the demand for such cars.

6Speed director Denny Koh (right) said they have about 120 members who have paid between $10,000 and $50,000 for packages to gain access to their 15 cars, including a BMW 320i convertible, a Porsche 911 C4S and the top-of-the-range Lamborghini Murcielago.

About half his fleet is rented out every weekend. The cheapest luxury car to rent would be the BMW at $450 a day. And even if you have the deep pockets required for the Murcielago, the company does not rent the car to first-timers or to non-members, Mr Koh said.

The interested hirer has to rent the company's less expensive super cars first, such as the Lamborghini Gallardo or Ferrari F430. This is so Mr Koh can assess if the person is capable of handling the Murcielago.

He said: "When he rents our other cars, we can monitor (through an in-built computer in the car) if he is changing gears at the right time or if he's a dangerous driver who goes over the speed limits frequently on our roads. From there, we'll do a risk assessment and decide if we'll rent him the (Murcielago)."

He said they won't turn down the customer directly, but will tell him the car is unavailable if he asks for it. Mr Koh, formerly from Luxe Car Rental, said that thanks to the booming economy, Singaporeans are growing more affluent with a taste for luxury products.

After all, Singapore has the highest concentration of US dollar millionaires in the world, according to the Boston Consulting Group's latest Global Wealth report released in June. Such millionaire households jumped 35 per cent last year, reported The Straits Times in September.

About 80 per cent of Mr Koh's clients are locals and the rest are foreigners. Mr Koh noted that some of his foreign hirers even rent their cars just as a show of wealth - never mind if they don't necessarily drive them. He said one wealthy Chinese national paid over $40,000 to rent the Ferrari F430 to park outside his Sentosa Cove bungalow in August - just to show off to his neighbour, who owns the older Ferrari F360.

Said Mr Koh: "I knew he didn't drive it much because when we collected the car, the odometer showed only 40km on it. I was wondering if it (the odometer) was broken or whether there was something wrong with my eyes. We went back to the office and double- checked the odometer, and it was working. "The super rich can be very strange sometimes."
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Sunday, December 12, 2010

First Nissan Leaf to be delivered

Nissan says the time has come. The first of its Leaf electric cars will be handed over to a new owner Saturday. Leaf starts at $33,600, but is eligible for a federal tax credit up to $7,500, making the net price $26,100. But, add $940 for the SL model, which has the stuff you want (rearview camera, solar panel on the spoiler to run some accessories, auto headlights, etc.). And the charger has to be taken into account, as noted later in this post.

Here's the company's announcement (leaving intact Nissan's quirky insistence on capitalizing all letters in the car's name, even though the name isn't an acronym) : "On Saturday, Dec. 11, the owner of the first Nissan LEAF gets the keys to the world's first mass-produced electric vehicle. The first Nissan LEAF owner will be revealed when he receives the car from Carlos Tavares, Chairman, Nissan Americas.

"The duo will lead a caravan of Nissan LEAFs across the Golden Gate Bridge to San Francisco's City Hall, where the car owner will charge his car for the first time at a City Hall charging station.

"The Nissan LEAF creates no tailpipe emissions (it has no tailpipe), is made from recycled and recyclable materials, and can travel 100 miles on a single charge."

But you have to have a charger, of course: $2,000, or so unless you can a free one via a government program. And that might be unlikely. Here's a section from Hybrid Owners of America's newsletter:

"If you ordered a Nissan Leaf but are not in one of the initial roll-out markets such as California, and the installation of your charging station has been delayed, what happens if you try and get one of the federal government grants that will supply 15,000 free electric-car chargers? That question has come up because the grant program expires on December 31, 2010.

"We contacted Nissan to ask how we could take advantage of the government grant program. (This is after we had originally been told -- incorrectly -- that a Nissan vendor would work with us over the last summer to install a charging station.) It looks like, unless we can purchase and take delivery of a charging dock from a Nissan-approved third party manufacturer, have a private electrician install it, and successfully submit a federal grant application by December 31, we are out of luck on the 'free' charging station.

"Nissan says it may be a few months before we can get our charging station installed with them, although we are still slated to place our full Leaf order this month. At least we'll still be able to get the $7500 tax credit."

Here's what Nissan's expert sends Drive On: Government "programs offering 'free' home chargers have not expired but are limited to the geographies listed (Puget Sound, Oregon, San Diego, Phoenix, Tucson, TN). You have to apply, meet the research requirements, agree to have your charging habits monitored for 2 years then you receive a home charger."
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Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Hyundai Elantra Gets Hybrid-Like 40 mpg

Hyundai Elantra Gets Hybrid-Like 40 mpgThe just-released 2011 Hyundai Elantra gets 40 mpg highway without resorting to the complexity and cost of a hybrid drivetrain. It's roomy, looks great, costs as little as $15,500, and is likely to spell trouble for the compact car segment-leaders Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla. Along with heavy doses of tech, there's luxury. Name one other car in the compact segment that offers heated rear seats.

The 2011 Elantra uses the same "fluidic sculpture" design as the new 2011 Hyundai Sonata (see review), which arrived early in 2010, and the upmarket Sonata hybrid (review) and Sonata 2.0T turbo (review) models shipped this fall. The superimposed image shows that they look remarkably alike, the difference being the Elantra at 178 inches is a foot shorter and $4,500 cheaper. The Elantra's roomy back seat is a match for most midsize sedans and so is the trunk. In fact, there's enough interior room that the EPA classifies the Elantra as a midsize car.

Elantra May Be Big Enough for Some Sonata Shoppers
I could see customers coming to look at the Sonata and deciding the Elantra is big enough for their needs. Other automakers have lookalike cars, such as the BMW 7 Series and BMW 5 Series. In that case, if the customer decides to go with the smaller model, the dealer is looking at a bill of sale that's $25,000 less. The confusion between the two models may be annoying to 7 Series owners because their neighbors aren't sure at a glance whether he's driving the really expensive car or just the expensive car. In Hyundai's case with its less-established brand and a name that sounds a lot like "Honda," having more cars that clearly look like Hyundais is good for the brand.

The Elantra comes standard with an iPod/MP3 player adapter, satellite radio, six airbags, electronic stability control, traction control, electronic brake force distribution, and standard four-wheel disc brakes. Hyundai took a step backward by not making Bluetooth standard on the Elantra as it did on the new Sonata, but Hyundai promises a January announcement at the Consumer Electronics Show that may resolve the issue.

Navigation is optional, with a 7-inch touchscreen that is as big as comes in the compact car segment. If you don't get navi, there's a smaller monochromatic display at the top of the center stack. It's the same navigation as the new Sonata, running off a 16-GB memory chip, and the screen is good on cloudy days, not so good in the sun, and if you're wearing sunglasses, better turn up the volume on spoken directions. Navigation includes a backup camera.

Keyless entry with pushbutton start is also available. There's a second 12-volt socket on the passenger side of the center console. Hyundai doesn't deserve too much credit for offering two power sockets as most everyone else should be dinged for offering just one even in compact cars.

Hyundai's array of safety technology does not include blind spot detection, which some midsize cars have, or lane departure warning. Nor is there parking sonar. A backup camera (available) is good; camera and sonar are better. All are safety features you might expect as technology costs come down. The government last week said it wants backup cameras installed on all cars by 2014.

The 2011 Elantra is rated at 29 mpg city, 40 mpg with the either the six-speed manual transmission or the Hyundai-engineered six-speed automatic. There's a completely new Nu (Hyundai's internal name) 1.8-liter, 148-hp, four-cylinder engine that is 74 pounds lighter than the predecessor Beta engine (2.0 liters, 121 hp, 34 mpg highway). That's 17.7% better highway mileage.

Hyundai offered this breakdown of how the new Elantra got its 17.7% incease. The engine efficiency accounts for almost half the savings, 7.4 percentage points of the 17.6% increase, or 2.5 mpg. Here's Hyundai's breakdown:

Nu 1.8-liter engine vs. Beta 2.0-liter engine -- +7.4 percentage points (2.5 mpg)
6-speed automatic transmission vs. 4-speed AT -- +4.1 points (1.4 mpg)
Smart Alternator -- +2.5 points (0.9 mpg)
Low rolling resistance silica tires -- +1.4 points (0.5 mpg)
Weight savings -- +1.8 points (0.6 mpg)
0.28 coefficient of drag -- +0.5 points (0.2 mpg)
Total Fuel Savings -- +17.7% vs. 2010 Elantra

Note the while the engine has variable valve timing, it does not have gasoline direct injection (GDI) where high-pressure fuel is sprayed directly into the combustion chambers. That's good for several mpg on its own and suggests Hyundai could, with GDI and a couple other tweaks, produce a 45 mpg and possibly 50 mpg Elantra running on regular gasoline - no electric motors and hybrid battery pack, no diesel fuel.

Were Hyundai to offer a hybrid version, it might within a couple years have an Elantra able to meet the EPA's fuel economy goal of 47 to 62 mpg by 2025, the higher mpg number targeting automakers such as Hyundai with smaller-size vehicles.

Here's my impression after a day-long, 200-mile road trip. The car is fine for driving around town or on the highway. Four people and their luggage - lots of luggage - will ride comfortably. As with a lot of Hyundais, it's a rider's car more than a driver's car. In other words, in a world of Lexuses and Audis, this feels more like a baby Lexus. Other notes:

* Cockpit fit and finish are first-rate.
* The steering wheel has nice thumb cutouts and the stitching (leather on the Limited moels) doesn't dig into your fingers. The steering itself is okay but not with a lot of feeling.
* The center stack controls are adequate. HVAC controls aren't immediately obvious. I found them a bit dark and the lettering too small when wearing sunglasses. No problem for the core buyer, young adults looking for a great value, not so good for older buyers.
* The steering buttons are complete but small, which is typical. If you want big, readable steering wheel buttons, buy a Cayenne.
Elantra_Small_LCD_45.jpg* The iPod interface worked well, as did music on a USB key. Working an iPod was harder with the smaller, non-navi LCD display (photo right).
* Bluetooth worked well and it can stream audio.
* A compact car should not, by rights, have this much back seat room (which may be why it's classified as a midsize car). There are no air vents in back (not common on compact cars, but understand this is why cars such as the Elantra are so affordable).
* The folding rear seat is a 60-40 split not one-piece, meaning you can carry three people and something from Home Depot.
* The trunk is cavernous.

Hyundai vs. the Competition
Hyundai sees its competition as the best-selling compacts, Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic, along with the Mazda3. Because of its interior volume, it's also able to take on the Chevrolet Cruze, Nissan Sentra, and Ford Focus, all EPA-rated as mid-size cars. Against the competition, the Elantra has more power (Mazda3 matches it), more transmission gears (Cruze matches, Sentra has a CVT), the most trunk room, and only the Sentra has more passenger volume.

The comparison against the Corolla and Civic are a bit unfair because both designs date to 2006 (so does the outgoing Elantra's) and both should have new cars in 2011 as 2012 models. Hyundai was quicker with its model change: four years, four months from launch to launch.

Limited Configurations Benefit Hyundai - But What About the Buyer?
The 2011 Elantra comes in just seven buildable configurations (also eight paint colors and three seat colors). Hyundai says it's to reduce confusion when configuring online and to increase the odds a dealer has in-stock the options the buyer wants. That's certainly good for the dealer. But it also means if you want one option, such as the 360-watt premium audio, you've also got to take the navigation system and backup camera.

If Hyundai were shipping Elantras all the way from the Ulsan, Korea factory -a couple weeks at sea - the limited configs would make sense. But they're coming from Alabama and what it also means is that Hyundai so far isn't interested in letting a buyer have too many choices. Compare that with BMW's SUV plant in South Carolina; BMW encourages custom orders and builds, ships and delivers in less than a month.

Should You Buy (or Lease)?
Unless you're looking for a driver-oriented car such as the Volkswagen Golf or Mazda3, the 2011 Hyundai Elantra is the leader of the pack among compacts and is more than competitive among midsize cars. Every Elantra model gets 40 mpg highway (some competitor cars have one or two 40 mpg special models). Because residual values will be much better for the 2011 Elantra (63% after three years instead of 48%, says Auto Lease Guide), leasing could be a good deal. Hyundai is promoting a three-year, $169 lease ($1,700 down) on the automatic transmission (and air-conditioned) GLS model.

The lower-level GLS trim line will be the volume Elantra, starting at $15,500 (with freight) in a barebones configuration with steel wheels, a manual transmission, and air conditioning if you roll down the windows. The most popular model will be the automatic transmission GLS at $17,800 or the GLS Preferred $18,350 (Bluetooth, alloy wheels, steering wheel buttons). The navigation package version ($20,100, an extra $1,750) adds navigation, premium audio, and the backup camera. The base Limited ($20,700) goes beyond the top GLS with leather seating and steering wheel, power sunroof, and those front-rear heated seats. The Premium Package Limited ($22,700) has the navigation-audio-camera items plus the proximity key and pushbutton start.

The Elantra, now No. 3 in compact car sales, may well outsell No. 1 Toyota Corolla and No. 2 Honda Civic in the next year until those two get their new, 2012 models to market.
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Saturday, December 4, 2010

Lexus GS F to get 5.0L V8, Lexus LS F-Sport in the works

Lexus GS F to get 5.0L V8, Lexus LS F-Sport in the worksLexus is doing all it can to expand its new ‘F’ lineup, which competes with the likes of BMW’s M and Mercedes-Benz’s AMG. Currently, Lexus only offers the IS F but the GS F has been long waiting in the product lineup.

Recent reports suggest that development on the Lexus GS F is well underway. Sources say that power for the GS F will come from a 5.0L V8 engine making around 465-hp. That will allow it to run from 0-60 mph in less than 4.5 seconds, making it a serious contender in the fight against the BMW M5 and the Mercedes-Benz E 63 AMG.

However, instead of focusing just on engine power, engineers at Toyota are trying to keep the weight of the GS F sedan around 3,700 lbs. with aluminum and carbon fiber parts. The GS F is expected to hit markets as early as 2012 as a 2013 model year. Prices should come in between $90,000 to $100,000.
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