Monday, March 30, 2009

Infiniti FX50 is the high-value, high performance SUV

It seems to me that nearly everything in the automotive industry is relative. What do I mean?

Well, I can sit here and tell you that a Ford Mustang is a great performance machine, and I’d be correct.

Compared to the muscle cars of the 1960’s and 1970’s it is faster in a straight line than the majority of the classics, has vastly better handling, and is light years ahead in braking and tire technology.

On the other hand, if you drive a Lamborghini Diablo, hearing someone refer to a Ford Mustang, or any Ford for that matter, as a performance anything is utterly laughable.

If you are wondering what the heck all of this has to do with the Infiniti FX 50, I promise that I’m about to tell you. When I think about the FX 50, or most of the Infiniti lineup, the first thing that comes to mind is value.

This may not be the first thing that you think of due to its status as a luxury vehicle, but take a moment to compare Infinitis with their German counterparts and you might reconsider your position.

Whew…now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s talk about the FX 50. If you’re unfamiliar with it, it’s because it is rebadged for this year. From its introduction back in 2003 to 2008, the FX came in two trims, the FX 35 and the FX 45. As you might expect, the naming nomenclature was, and continues to be, based on the engines.

A lot has changed for this year’s FX. For starters, the exterior appearance is nicely revised. Emphasizing its already muscular lines, the new FX features even more curvaceous lines than the outgoing model. It’s front fender flares are more pronounced than before, which is saying a lot. In fact, from the driver’s seat, they can be a little distracting.

Additionally, the front fascia includes a bigger and more pronounced grill that has oddly-shaped roundish inserts that are similar to the Nissan Murano. Framing the bigger grill are re-shaped headlamps that, while trapezoidal, also have the semi-circle cutouts underneath the bulbs that have become popular lately.

After I completed my preliminary walk around the vehicle, I mosied on inside the vehicle. My tester came equipped with a black leather-swathed interior, and all of the available options. This means that not only did the interior feature lots leather and cherry-looking wood trim, but navigation, dual power seating, 360 degree view backup cameras, and much, much more. The list of convenience and luxury items is pretty impressive.

However, two things bothered me about the FX’s interior, its lane-departure warning beep and a serious lack of space. The most likely to offend others is its lack of space, both in terms of cargo and passengers.

Surprisingly, it does offer more front leg room than the BMW X5 or the Mercedes-Benz ML550 4matic. But, it fails when comparing front shoulder room, rear shoulder and leg room, and especially in the cargo area.

Interestingly enough, the Infiniti media website features a quote from the company's Mark Igo saying that the FX offers enough cargo space for four full-sized golf bags. I can personally attest that this would quite an undertaking considering the fact that I had to fold down one side of the backseat for just two golf bags.

In fact, its cargo area is scarcely able to carry one adult black Labrador. I know this because Dempsey, the dog in question, gave me his best attempt at a thumbs-down motion following our two-hour road trip this past weekend.

Actually, given his lack of opposable thumbs and the thoroughly sour look on his face, he might have been giving me the bird. I can’t be sure. In any case, pack lightly if you plan to take the FX on a road trip.

So, how does she drive? If there has ever been a crossover vehicle specifically made for performance enthusiasts, this is it. From the instant you hear the 5.0-liter V8’s throaty exhaust at idle, the FX scratches the performance itch.

The new V8 powerplant makes an impressive 390 horsepower, which compared with the previously mentioned BMW and Mercedes-Benz, is tops. Of course, I’d never say that any vehicle had too much horsepower.

But, this V8 will absolutely catapult your hind parts around any slow-moving driver in a serious hurry. Consider that it will move you from 0-60 mph in just 5.2 seconds. FYI, that’s the same as a Mustang GT!

What’s more, the engine is mated to an impressively smooth seven-speed transmission, which is available on both the FX 50 and FX 35 models. Some may say that seven gears are too many, but it works in this case quite well.

Up-shifts come quickly and smoothly. And, should you drop the hammer to make a quick highway pass, you don’t have to worry about covering that freshly laundered oxford shirt with your morning coffee.

The only thing better than going fast in a straight line is going fast around a corner. Am I right? Of course I’m right! Clearly, the Infiniti engineers responsible for the cornering department on the FX feel the same way because this crossover will flat out move around the twisties.

To this end, my tester came with AWD, huge 21” Enkei wheels, and Infiniti’s Continuous Damping Control (CDC) suspension system. I think that must be engineering speak for haula-- suspension. In any case, the suspension setup is a double-wishbone front and multi-link rear.

On the other hand, while all of the bits work really well to get the steel around a corner, some ride quality in the city is sacrificed. Remember when I said that the transmission will keep you from wearing your morning coffee?

Well, the suspension has a keener sense of humor. Be careful. One pot-hole and you could be filling your interior with the kind of language to make a pirate blush.

So, let me wrap this up by bringing us back to my original paragraph. Despite everything about the FX 50’s driving attributes, the thing that jumps out at me the most is the value equation. You get such great handling, performance, and luxury for the money.

When I priced a comparably equipped BMW X5, the sticker was around $75,000 compared to $67,000 for the Infiniti. So, while $67,000 is a lot for any vehicle, it’s a relative bargain in this segment. --- Marcus Tapscott

Key word now for GM, Chrysler is "If"

Barely a day into Detroit-the-day-after, it is clear the most important word in the English language for General Motors and Chrysler is "if." Yes, they have viable futures if the United Auto Workers is willing to do what it has heretofore never agreed to do - Accept competitive wage and benefit levels that will allow GM and Chrysler (and Ford?) to take on foreign rivals on a playing field that is, finally, somewhat close to being level.

This passage from The Wall Street Journal's report on President Barack Obama's announcement this morning captures the iffy nature of what is going on now in Washington, D.C and Detroit:

"'We cannot, we must not, and we will not let our auto industry simply vanish,' President Obama said at the White House.

"'What we are asking is difficult,' he said. 'It will require hard choices by companies. It will require unions and workers who have already made painful concessions to make even more. It will require creditors to recognize that they cannot hold out for the prospect of endless government bailouts.'

"The remarks came a day after the administration ousted GM Chief Executive Rick Wagoner and rejected the restructuring plans that GM and Chrysler had hoped would lead to another infusion of government cash. Instead, the White House is giving GM 60 days to come up with a strategy for viability.

"Chrysler has a month to wrap up a partnership with Italy's Fiat. Under the revised terms of a proposed alliance between Chrysler and Fiat, the Italian company would take an initial 20% stake in the U.S. auto maker, down from a 35% stake under its January pact, a person familiar with the transaction said Monday."

If the UAW doesn't go along, the Obama plan is doomed. For more details on what the Obama plan entails and what would be the result if it succeeds, read the rest of the Journal piece here.

How about Obama Motors?

So, now what? Since the Obama administration, with the approval of Congress, has gone into the banking, insurance, and automotive industries, what’s next?

To me, the most amazing part of the whole thing is that anyone is actually surprised that the feds have flexed their muscle and pushed out the CEO of GM and demanded Chrysler partner with Fiat.

What did people think would happen when the government gets involved in private industry?! Perhaps now that Rick Wagoner has stepped aside, we can change his succesor's title from Chief Executive Officer to something more appropriate. I know, BRHM (Barrack’s Right Hand Man). After all, the title should fit the requirements of the position. We know now, that President Obama is the real Chief Executive.

I don’t want to get into a political rant, but when businesses go begging for federal funding, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that political stipulations will naturally follow. Of course the Obama administration would prefer to print up more money for GM and Chrysler than see them file for bankruptcy. I’m sure that widespread renegotiation of their UAW contracts would play well at the next DNC luncheon.

Hey, I’m not telling you what to believe politically. That’s your business. But, if you are a Blue Dog Democrat who loves Corvettes, Challengers, or some other manner of muscle car, you should be advised that your party is probably going to phase out your beloved toys in favor of more environmentally friendly choices.

Maybe now that the federal government is making decisions for struggling American businesses, we can expect the same kind of budgets that they employ. Do you think that GM could run annual deficits to the tune of $1 trillion per year? Now that there are plugged in to Federal money, they can just print more! --- Marcus Tapscott

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Obama tells GM's Wagoner to beat it (Lots of Updates)

Just got an alert that the White House has asked GM head Rick Wagoner to step down. The long-time chairman and CEO is leaving immediately. In other words, President Barack Obama is now the man in charge of GM's future.

Smartest man in Detroit now clearly is Ford's Allan Mulally. I take back everything negative I ever said about the man because he had the smarts way back when to prepare Ford for the day when the economy went into recession or worse, sales plunged, gas prices soared and Motown went to DEFCOM 5.

Mulally beefed up Ford's credit lines, thus making it possible for the company not to go hat-in-hand to Washington for bailout money, as did GM and Chrysler. Made me want to go buy something with the blue oval on it just as a gesture of support, something I may yet do when the new Fiesta arrives.

Wagoner has not gotten much in the way of positive ink from me, but the worst thing that can happen to GM or any corporation that hopes to survive as a going consumer concern is to put Washington politicians in charge, regardess of which party they represent.

Obama is expected to unveil Washington's new plan to save Detroit tomorrow. Here's betting the United Auto Workers won't have much of problem with the Obama plan because the unions own Obama.

More to come on this very sad day in the history of the American auto industry.


Here's The New York Times story. Here's The Washington Post story. And here's The Wall Street Journal story. Looks like the Times and the Post got the advance leaks, but not the Journal. And here is what appears to be AP's first write-through.


Robert Farago at The Truth About Cars says nothing can be done to save GM and the departure of Rick Wagoner essentially changes nothing. Here's how Farago puts it:

"GM has been and will continue to be an over-dealered, under-funded mess. Its brands are a complete disaster. Even the brands with some remaining psychological equity– Chevrolet and Cadillac chief amongst them– are suffering from bailout backlash, as Americans grow angry at the increasingly obvious black hole that is Bailout Nation.

"With a handful of notable exceptions (mainly because they ARE exceptions), GM’s products are not competitive. And, lest we forget, the new car market is still contracting, with millions of unsold units just waiting for their makers to give up, sell them at any price and further depress sales and profits. In short, GM currently has zero opportunity for relative or absolute growth."

Over at Autoextremist, Peter De Lorenzo promises a post on Wagoner's departure shortly.


De Lorenzo, a long-time critic of the former GM leader, offers this assessment of the mostly overlooked advances Wagoner was responsible for during his eight years at the helm:

"But there was another side to Rick Wagoner's tenure that the instant pundits out there either refuse to acknowledge - out of their out and out hatred for anything to do with GM and Detroit - or that they simply couldn't fathom because of their abject lack of experience or what is probably closer to the truth, their complete lack of understanding of how this business actually operates. And that is that if Rick Wagoner hadn't taken the aggressively decisive actions that he did take, GM would have been out of business years ago.

"Wagoner's move into the Chinese market (a continuation of the doctrine laid out by his predecessor, Jack Smith) proved to be pivotal in providing a road map for the company's future. And Wagoner's insistence on utilizing and exploiting the global capabilities of GM's far reaching corporate empire, with forays into Korea, Brazil, Mexico and Eastern Europe, laid the groundwork for a completely modernized and globally competitive endeavor.

"But Wagoner's most impressive move during his tenure was to recognize his own limitations as a financially-oriented leader, while at the same time setting his own ego aside in order to bring Bob Lutz into the company. Wagoner handed Lutz the keys to GM's woefully moribund product development system and said "Fix it," while giving Lutz carte blanche to do it.

"And the results were magnificent. During Wagoner's tenure - while benefiting from the vision, passion and sheer will to succeed that Lutz brought to the table - GM saw its greatest design, engineering and product era since its glory days of the 60s."

And for the record, Autoblog reports that GM's Wagoner isn't along in the newly unemployed line. Peugeot's board of directors just sacked the French firm's CEO, too.


From Edmunds.com's Karl Brauer (via email) :

"Wagoner is seen as the man at the wheel when GM veered into the sun. Whether that's an accurate appraisal or not doesn't matter. The current administration is as concerned (maybe even more concerned...) with looking good as it is with genuinely fixing the problems in Detroit. There's no downside for them with this move. If GM still fails they can claim the company was just too far gone to fix. If it successfully turns around they can say, 'See! We got rid of the former exec and put in a new guy that saved the day because we're just so brilliant we knew this move would work!'

"Personally I think GM's future success or failure will have nothing to do with Rick Wagoner's departure."

And from Mrs. Brauer (also via email):

"Wait a second -- Obama told Wagoner to leave? What does Obama know about running a car company that Wagoner doesn't? I don't understand."

Note to Karl: Smart wife, my friend!

From Buickman at GeneralWatch (via email):

"Wagoner's ouster was long over due. it took the White House to do what the Board should have done years ago. What remains to be seen is if his replacement is willing to dramatically alter the marketing. otherwise this executive shuffle will be meaningless."

And much more from Jim Dollinger at GeneralWatch, which has been demanding Wagoner's ouster for a long time. Dollinger =s Buickman.

From Bob Holland:

"Yeah, he was shoved out the door, but I suspect, like Bob Lutz who is also leaving, Wagoner must know that working at GM—assuming it survives—will no longer be any fun. Take a long vacation Rick. You deserve it."

From Sam Kazman, General Counsel Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI):

“By a strange coincidence, this Administration issued higher fuel economy standards only days before announcing its newest bailout plans. Those standards impose a huge burden on the industry, of about $50 billion in added research and development costs over the next five years. Moreover, the low price of gasoline makes those standards even more stringent. In short, the Administration is strangling the industry with one hand while dangling bailout funds with the other.”

CEI has been among the most prolific and hard-hitting critics of CAFE standards for many years.

Nissan's Base Model Versa will get you where you need to go

You know you are in a base model when the first thing that grabs your attention about a just-arrived test vehicle is the fact it has no radio. Manual crank windows and no-frills fabric seat covers are one thing but no radio?

Nissan isn't kidding when they call this edition of the Versa the base model. To get the sticker price as low as possible - $12,090 for my "Brilliant Silver" tester - everything is manual, from the five-speed transmission to the windows and door locks.

Instead of a radio, you get a black panel behind which is the pre-wiring setup for the four speakers that come with your bottom-0f-the-lineup Versa. Maybe Nissan figures the Twenty-something buyer will simply go to the audio store and lay down the bucks for an entertainment unit better than the factory job.

But it would be a mistake to dismiss the Base Model Versa as merely el-cheapo transportation, the four-wheel automotive penalty box of daily commuting. In a world in which $4-per-gallon gas is an ever-present possibility, this Versa makes a lot of sense for folks who have long commutes.

My daily commute is a killer of only 38 miles door-to-door, but it combines some two-lane highway driving with lots of suburban stop-and-go and downtown sit-and-wait. There are 86 traffic lights along the way (I know because I have counted them, many times over).

You might think such a daily grind would make short work of the Base Versa, especially with no music box, but not so, in part because there really are some unexpected amenities here. Scan the standard equipment list and there reside tilt steering, air conditioning, variable wipers and a power outlet.

That power outlet means you can run your iPOD and listen to your favorite tunes. No traffic reports there, of course, but if you have broadband, you can instead turn on the laptop and go to your favorite station's web site. See, Nissan knows that technology gives us options.

Inside the Versa, there is decent room for four adults in case you are in a car pool. The driver's seat has four-way (manual, of course) adjustability and I found it quite comfortable during a week of commuting.

The front passenger gets good leg room and the two rear-seaters have just enough arm, elbow and ankle room to be comfortable for a longer commute. I wouldn't want to have to sit back there between, say, Dallas and Phoenix, but then the same could be said of any of the Versa's main competitors in the marketplace.

The Base Model Versa gets a new 1.6 liter four-cylinder that is good for 107 horsepower, and, as noted above, my tester came with the standard five-speed stick shift transmission. The combination provides modestly peppy performance in a low-effort way, thanks to an easy clutch and shift linkage that works well, as long as it's not rushed.

Handling? Well, let's just say you can expect lots of understeer. Nothing wrong with that, unless you mistakenly expected your Versa to exhibit the personality of a Honda Fit. It won't do that, but here's what it will do: The EPA rating is 26 mpg city and 34 mpg highway. My tester turned in a 38 mpg average while zipping between those 86 traffic lights each way twice a day for a week. When gas returns to the $4 range, the Versa will look downright gorgeous.

So, what's the TBTW bottom line on the Nissan Versa Base Model? Well, instead of going through all of the mish-mash analysis that precedes this graph, I should have just conveyed my wife Claudia's evaluation:

"Driving the base model Versa made me feel like I was back in the 70’s. Manually cranking the windows wasn’t so much of a burden, but I’ve decided I can’t live without automatic door locks and mirror adjustments. It was easy to shift, comfortable, had enough cup holders and got me where I needed to go with excellent gas mileage."

That says it all, folks.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

How to know when the good times are gone, forever

Sometimes it's the juxtaposition of multiple events rather than one apocalyptic cataclysm that makes it clear things will never again be as they have recently been.

So it was this week as General Motors shut down its High Performance Vehicle Group (HPVG) and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood floated the idea of a government tax on how many miles you drive.

The HPVG decision was no surprise, given Detroit's perilous financial situation and apparent inability to force the United Auto Workers to accept anything remotely close to the kind of pension and health care cuts that must be made if GM and Chrysler are to survive without permanent government subsidies.

GM officials hastened to reassure performance car enthusiasts by noting that Ford not long ago shuttered its Special Vehicles Team (SVT), only to revive it more recently. GM flak Vince Muniga told Edmunds.com's Inside Line that regular production high performance vehicles like the reborn Camaro, Corvette ZR1 and Cadillac CTS-V are safe.

But Muniga also said all of GM's "high performance projects are on indefinite hold," and the engineering talent within HPVT is being transferred to work on "core products," which are GM's top priority for the foreseeable future.

Translated: Don't hold your breath waiting for the return of HPVT.

And it also means - absent major policy changes in Washington and dramatic improvements in auto sales generally - that the clock is ticking down for all high performance vehicles made by GM, regardless of whether they are the result of special products or regular production. Ditto for Chrysler and Ford.

It's only a matter of time now before "core products" can only mean "high mileage," "alternative fuels" and "zero emissions." The end times are on the horizon for the Corvette, Camaro, and high performance versions of the Cobalt, Colorado, Silverado, etc. etc. Get ready to say goodbye to Vipers and Shelby Mustanges, too.

Driving the point home is the LaHood Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) tax hint. The people calling the shots for Detroit now are all in Washington, and the most important of them aren't named "Timothy Geithner" nor are they working at the U.S. Treasury Department handing out TARP funds.

No, the people now deciding what kind of products will be made by Detroit are working in Congress, the U.S. Department of Transportation and, most crucially, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Virtually to a man, these people hate privately owned cars and the individual autonomy they symbolize.

That means it's not just the kind of cars and trucks produced by the manufacturers' skunk works that are in Washington's cross-hairs, it's the very notion that all individual Americans ought by right be able to buy and drive the vehicle of their choice anywhere and anytime they choose.

Under the VMT, your car would be tracked via GPS by a satellite that would send the government data about how many miles you drive each time you drive. The government would tax you based on your total mileage. Several states, notably Massachusetts, are also looking at VMT proposals.

Advocates claim the VMT could replace the current federal gas tax and be used to finance construction of needed new roads and maintenance on existing roads. Critics note, however, that the government tracks gas sales, not individuals in their cars, as it would with a VMT.

That crucial difference would ultimately result, according to the critics, in an Orweillian system enabling the government to control who is allowed to drive where and when, and what they drive, in real-time.

LaHood hastily withdrew the VMT when resistance predictably and quickly surfaced, making President Barack Obama's political advisers nervous. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs tersely said replacing the current federal gas tax with LaHood's VMT "is not and will not be the policy of the Obama administration."

The Gibbs VMT disavowal doesn't, however, mean Obama rejects the idea of government regulating how much people drive, which is the policy goal behind the VMT. Thus, the significance of a former Republican congressman serving as Transportation Secretary touting a way for the federal government to track the movements of every individual vehicle in the country.

If VMT is out, they will find another way to achieve the same result. Environmentalists, "Smart Growth" advocates, urban planners in government at all levels, Members of Congress and their staffers, mass transit enthusiasts and other influential players on the national political scene have made clear for decades the kind of result they seek for private transportation and the individual autonomy. They want it gone.

Their ultimate goals include a massively centralized regulatory state with the power to force Americans into a mass migration from the suburbs back to big cities, with individual mobility to then be provided by public mass transit, thus minimizing or, ultimately, eliminating privately owned vehicles from the daily lives of most citizens. Whatever private vehicles will be allowed to exist will be glorified golf carts.

Once this basic goal is understood, it becomes clear why in recent decades these people have always been found in opposition to policies and programs required to maintain a transportation system based upon private ownership and individual mobility.

They oppose construction of new roads clearly needed to eliminate the traffic congestion that chokes commerce and commuting. They oppose new suburban developments. They seek to divert tax funds to mass transit that is used by a tiny portion of the traveling public.

They oppose allowing development of new oil and gas resources in places like the Outer Continental Shelf.
They oppose construction of new c0al-fired power plants. They always demand stricter fuel economy and emissions standards. For these people, "carbon-free" is just another way of saying "mass transit."

They seek to make driving an automobile a miserably inconvenient and expensive proposition. Cars let individuals decide where they go and when. Mass transit lets government decide where individuals go and when.

And these are the people in Washington who are deciding how you and I will get around in years to come.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Arizona County Says Goodbye to Speed Cameras

Could this be a sign of more to come? The sherif of Pinal County, Arizona, has recommended to the county government that it end it's contract with Redflex, one of the main suppliers of speed cameras to jurisdictions across the country.

The Arizona Republic reports that Sheriff Paul Babeu dismissed the cameras effectiveness in reducing speeds on area roads, and even noted that in some cases, the camers made road conditions worse.

"I'm against photo speed enforcement completely,' Babeu said, walking the three-member panel through a detailed PowerPoint presentation. 'Here in Pinal, it's failed miserably.'

"Babeu said speed cameras created dangerous road conditions and offered little financial benefit for the county. He plans to boost traffic enforcement through additional manpower."

Perhaps the most interesting revelation in this story is the lack of profit for the Arizona county, and the resistance of motorists to paying tickets issued to their vehicles, regardless of who was behind the wheel at the time of the infraction.

He reported Wednesday that the two cameras were activated 11,416 times from September 2007 through last month. Of those activations, 7,290 resulted in citations, but only 3,711 were paid, according to The Republic.

"Babeu said most of the total $134,199.43 in fines and fees from the paid citations covered administrative and operational costs, leaving the county with a net profit of $12,391.58 that Babeu dismissed as paltry.

"Moreover, Babeu said, total motor-vehicle accidents increased by 16 percent in the same time period, and fatal collisions in the Queen Creek area doubled from three to six.

"The sheriff said he couldn't be certain that speed cameras were to blame for the crashes, but he believes they were a factor."

A growing number of jurisdictions in my own, Maryland, are installing speed cameras, evidently hoping to make a killing off of motorists who essentially have no way to combat the devices. Because the units cannot identify the individual driver and issue a ticket to that person, the only way to generate revenue is to give the vehicle owner the ticket.

That violates the presumption of innocence and is the Achilles Heel of automated, vehicle-focused traffic enforcement technology, at least in my humble opinion. I think it's only a matter of time before a federal judge says this racket has got to stop.