Monday, August 18, 2008

2009 Jaguar XF Supercharged Review

By Chris Haak

08.18.2008


For decades, Jaguars have been thought of by many as unreliable, old English, snooty vehicles that had bodies that had, shall we say, a traditional appearance. In spite of having high quality leather and other interior materials, Jaguar found itself stuck in a rut, and became a veritable money pit for Ford, as consumers moved onto competitors' vehicles and Jaguars just didn't sell.

Fortunately, the 2009 XF immediately takes the book containing everything that people think they know about Jaguar and drops it into an industrial paper shredder. The XF is, quite literally, like no Jaguar ever before it. The car's designers bestowed it with a modern, elegant feline form, while at the same time managing to maintain a few styling nods to Jaguar's past (namely, the mesh-look grille, hints of circles around the one-piece headlight units, and the vertical fender vents). The car's proportions are no doubt modern; it has a fashionably high beltline and fairly tidy overhangs. My top of the line test vehicle had 20 inch wheels, which manage to very nicely fill the wheel openings, and visually add weight to the lower half of the car, giving observers the impression that the car is crouched and ready to pounce. Pounce on what, I'm not certain, but in the flesh, the XF is an object of beauty, particularly in darker colors.

Some folks have criticized the XF's styling as being too mainstream and not enough like a Jaguar "should look like." I've heard its profile compared to a Lexus GS and its back end compared to an Aston Martin (as if the latter would be a bad thing!) To those critics, I say, "you just don't get it, do you?" Jaguar literally had no choice but to move beyond the umpteenth iteration of neo-classic remakes of its 1960s hits and into the 21st century. In spite of the S-, XJ-, and XK-Types all being very good cars, few buyers inclined to consider anything but a Jaguar found the XJ and S sedans to be desirable cars. Other buyers in this price range happily walked into Audi, BMW, Mercedes, and Lexus showrooms, never to consider Jaguar. So even if Jaguar traditionalists scoff at the XF's shape and call it anything but a proper Jaguar, I'd argue that the XF's early critical acclaim, plus its sales success to date (it's the bestselling Jagaur model by far), prove that by abandoning a hardcore contingent of Jaguar loyalists, the company has picked up many, many more conquests to the brand, and finds itself with a car that appeals to a far younger demographic than the S-Type it replaces in the lineup.

Open the door (which can be done without taking the keyless fob out of your pocket), and the theme of breaking with tradition in favor of a modern interpretation of luxury continues. The expected leather and wood are still present, of course, but the wood is a dark-stained oak veneer (thankfully, not plastic!), which nicely accents the genuine aluminum trim across the face of the dashboard and at the front of the door panels. The top of the dash and all four door panels are covered in stitched black leather that feels soft and looks exquisite. In a nod to simplicity, the XF has far fewer buttons on its center stack than do most of its competitors. I counted just 19 buttons and two knobs, and three of those include the door lock, door unlock, and hazard flasher buttons. Instead, most secondary functions (seat heaters/coolers, audio presets, etc.) are controlled by a touchscreen interface on the 7-inch navigation display. It's pretty easy to get the hang of using it, but the screen was less sensitive to my touch than some I've used, and the graphics and menus were probably about one generation behind state-of-the art. (I'd consider the Cadillac CTS's navigation/touchscreen setup to be the best I've seen, and the XF's is about a step behind the CTS's system).

One of Jaguar's bragging points on the XF's interior is the available Bowers & Wilkins 440-watt, 14-speaker audio system. I'm not an expert in home or car audio, but this system is one of the best I've ever heard. All I look for in a high-end stereo is distortion-free bass, and clean sound at low volume levels, which this stereo handled admirably. The Bowers & Wilkins system is standard in the top-end Supercharged model that I tested, and available in other XF models. The system features surround sound with a 6-disc in-dash CD changer, iPod interface, a remote amplifier with Dolby ProLogic II Surround Sound and 13 speakers plus subwoofer and SIRIUS Satellite Radio. The only disappointments I had with the audio system were not in the speakers or amplification, but in the interface (it's cumbersome to change stations, particularly manually, and particularly in SIRIUS)) and in the reception of the SIRIUS satellite signal. My own Honda Accord has factory XM, and on my backroad-heavy daily commute, the XM signal rarely cuts out, including in a concrete parking garage in the city I work in. The XF's SIRIUS signal, in contrast, cut out four or five times each way and did not work in the parking garage at all. The parking garage phenomenon is probably caused by a lack of terrestrial repeater in the city (XM has one, though, so perhaps post-merger, the XM repeater can be used for SIRIUS as well), but cutting out under trees, etc. must be caused by either a poor antenna design, differently positioned satellites, or a lack of repeaters. To be fair to the XF, several other vehicles I've tested with factory SIRIUS have had similar problems (300C AWD, Town & Country Limited, Lincoln MKZ, Mercury Sable), so it may not be the car's fault.

Other interior touches, aside from the leather dash, comfy heated/cooled seats, heated steering wheel, and nice wood and aluminium trim include touch-sensitive actuators for the interior lights and glove box door. There is no physical switch click to turn the lights on or off or to open the glove box; simply touch either with the lightest possible touch and the switches activate. It's probably unnecessary, but it's another "wow" feature to file under "impress your friends."

Enough about the inside and outside, though - let's talk about the car drives, since a buyer won't be thinking constantly about its exterior curves and stroking the leather dash every day, but probably will be driving it. The startup ritual is very similar to that of other vehicles with pushbutton start and keyless ignition, but with a new Jaguar-provided twist. When the car detects the presence of the key, the start/stop button flashes red twice quickly, pauses, and flashes twice again, repeating perpetually. The effect is intended to mimic a heartbeat, as if the cat is waking up or coming alive. Foot on the brake, hold down the button for a second, and the 4.2 liter supercharged V8 growls to life and settles into a very smooth idle. In fact, at idle, the engine is so smooth that literally zero vibration makes it to the steering wheel, although you can feel the V8 underfoot on the floorboards. As soon as the engine has fired, the JaguarDrive gear selector knob rises from the center stack, Star Trek-style, and the heretofore air vents on the dash panel (all four of them) motor from a closed position to an open one (assuming that the HVAC system is on; they close if the system is turned off). It's something I had read about several times, but really is a crowd pleaser when showing the car to friends and family. In fact, the video below will allow you to experience this pageantry nearly firsthand.
video

Once in Drive, however, the car is just a rocket. 420 horsepower and 413 lb-ft of torque coupled to an intelligent six-speed automatic with the ratios matched well to the engine's power curve make it so. There is a moderate amount of supercharger whine present, but the XF Supercharged is deceptively quick. Blasting around someone who is dawdling on a two-lane road barely makes the car break a sweat until you look at the speedometer and see a very high number, stab the brakes, and realize that you're the one with active sweat glands instead of the car. I haven't even mentioned the car's other persona when the JaguarDrive selector is moved to Sport mode, where the car will hold gears longer in automatic mode (or until the rev limiter is approached without upshifting when using the behind-wheel shift paddles). Engaging Dynamic Mode via a button on the center console that looks like a checkered flag, putting the car in Sport mode, and manually shifting with the steering wheel paddles make the car even quicker and responses even sharper. It takes a lot of concentration to hit the 1-2 upshift correctly because the low first gear and the powerful engine make first gear run out of revs in about a blink and a half.

The 20 inch wheels and 285/30ZR20 Pirelli P-Zero performance tires (rear) provide astounding levels of grip in dry or wet pavement (wet conditions are, of course, assisted by electronic aids). However, I had my whole family in the XF one weekend day and the skies opened up into one of the ten strongest thunderstorms I've ever seen in my nearly two decades behind the wheel. Although I drove at a prudent speed for conditions, I had no trouble keeping the car going in my intended direction, and in fact, the traction control didn't even need to engage the entire day. That day proved to me that the XF Supercharged's tires were quite surefooted. While the car does have a Winter mode to help with slippery conditions (dulling throttle response, etc.), I still wouldn't even daydream about driving the XF in the snow without a set of four snow tires, and mounted on smaller, narrower wheels. At all but full throttle (when the V8 reminds you it's there), the XF was extremely quiet, with the only very faint wind noise present at highway speeds. In spite of the car's surefooted handling and precise steering, as well as its large, low-profile tires, the XF's ride was perfect for my tastes. It didn't float at all over bumps, but wasn't so buttoned down that every undulation was transmitted into the cabin.

However, the downside of the fun and performance that are so easily enjoyed with the XF Supercharged occurs when you happen to glance at the fuel economy display. Driving in city traffic, I routinely saw 8 or 9 miles per gallon; driving in a manner that I would drive a "normal" car (V6-powered) and get over 20 miles per gallon, the XF gave me about 15 miles per gallon. Having too much fun, I'd see a 25 mile trip average in the high elevens. Oh, and it requires premium. My family and I used the car for a highway trip and I drove it to the office one day, and after those two days and about 250 miles, the low fuel light turned on, and $64 later, the car was full of premium and happy again. The EPA fuel economy ratings for the XF Supercharged are 15 city, 23 highway. I didn't see 23 on the highway; the best I could manage was around 20 or 21. The non-supercharged XF is rated at 16/25. As poor as the fuel economy was, though, the XF is actually the most fuel efficient vehicle in its class; the BMW M5 (with a more powerful V10) is rated at 11/17 and the BMW 550i (V8) is rated at 15/23, so the naturally aspirated V8 in the 550i has the same ratings as the far more powerful supercharged V8 in the XF. The Audi S6 and A6 are rated at 14/19 and 16/23, respectively, while the Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG and E550 are rated at 12/19 and 15/22, respectively. In fact, the base XF's V8 fuel economy is on par with its competitors' six-cylinder fuel economy.

Many people have told me over the past few weeks that if you can afford a $66,675 vehicle, you probably aren't worried about the cost of fuel. Since I can't afford such a car, I can't tell for sure if that is true or not, but I can tell you that if the car was $20,000 cheaper, I still would probably hesitate in buying it solely for that reason. It's no wonder that BMW and Mercedes sell far more six cylinder vehicles than V8s. The good news for the XF Supercharged, however, is that it's one of the most fuel efficient 420+ horsepower sedans available (the Dodge Challenger SRT8, though obviously not a sedan, has a 425 horsepower V8 and is rated at 13/18.)

Spending a week in the Jaguar XF Supercharged was certainly a thrill. I wasn't the celebrity for onlookers and fellow motorists that I was driving something orange and flashy, but I felt like I should be. Everyone who I showed the car to was awe-struck by its modern, graceful looks, luxurious interior, and conversation-worthy gadgets. The performance and handling of the car made it feel far lighter than it really is, and the only criticisms I have of the car were its fuel economy, satellite radio reception, and audio controls. Considering that $66,675 is a lot of money to spend on a car, it should be damn near perfect, so kudos to Jaguar for building a car that is.

For more photos of the 2009 Jaguar XF Supercharged, follow this link.


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Friday, August 15, 2008

Volvo Considers More Platform Sharing, Move Downmarket

By Chris Haak

08.15.2008


According to Motor Authority, Volvo is considering a near total-reversal of its previously stated goal of reducing volume and shifting the brand upmarket in the face of the strong Euro, surging raw material costs, and an aging lineup (the S60, XC90, and S40 are all several years-old designs). Instead, the report says that the current thinking is to instead move the brand somewhat downmarket, sharing more platforms with Ford, and increasing sales volume.

Such a move is fraught with risk, of course. Ford has spent a lot of energy (and money, of course) toward the goal of keeping Volvo as a contender for consumers' attention in the upmarket brand segment. Moving downmarket quickly would certainly seem to throw all of those efforts out the window.

Such a complete strategic shift, occurring so rapidly, tells me that - like GM's handling of the Saab brand - Ford doesn't have a clue what Volvo does or should stand for, other than safety, of course. The brand tried to grow a sporty branch a few years ago with the R-badged models, but customers accustomed to conservative, boxy 240s just a few years earlier stayed away from the flashy, boxy new models. Then, all of the R models were discontinued, and the brand really seemed to get its design mojo with models such as the S80, S60, S40, and their corresponding wagons. Innovations such as the floating center stack gave a unique Scandinavian character to the cars' interiors (clean, comfortable, and functional - just like an Ikea!), but beyond that - not much. The current S80, Volvo's newest model aside from the XC60 crossover that's just launching, is priced as if it's an Audi or BMW if you check off too many option boxes, but it's simply not in that tier of luxury brands. Volvo occupies a similar segment Saab and Acura, and to a lesser degree Infiniti do.

The results are predictable; Volvo sales are down 19.0% year to date, with all models except for the 30 series, 70 series, and 80 series seeing double-digit declines year to date. The news for Volvo doesn't get any better when looking exclusively at the July numbers; the brand overall was down a staggering 46.3%. The company's car sales (down 47.8%) actually fell faster than its truck sales (down 42.6%), which is completely different from what almost everyone else in the market (save Chrysler) is seeing.

So Volvo decided, in the face of this situation, that it would be best to sell more, but cheaper, cars. Several Volvo models share platforms with non-luxury brands, such as the S40 and C30 sharing a platform with the Mazda3. They certainly are really hurting for volume now, and Ford's divestiture of the rest of the Premier Automotive Group (PAG), Volvo's operational results can no longer be hidden among those of Jaguar, Aston Martin, and Land Rover, and Volvo is definitely losing money this year. Will a move downmarket help or hurt the brand? On one hand, the brand would be damaged more if it went back to Sweden with its tail between its legs because it no longer had sufficient sales volumes to justify its continued US sales presence. On the other hand, selling $20,000 hatchbacks isn't exactly the way to convince people who buy the $50,000 S80 V8s that they're getting good value for their money either.

Volvo's ideal solution would probably be to hold on for the next year or so, and either be sold to a deep-pocketed, patient owner, or to shift as much of its production to the US (at least the vehicles that it intends to sell in the US market) as possible. Since Volvo shares most of its platforms with Ford and Mazda anyway, this shouldn't be the most difficult thing to implement, and the unfavorable exchange rate environment, plus an aging lineup, are really beating up on Volvo this year. Hopefully Ford and Volvo management can figure out how to fix these problems.


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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

GM Expands XFE Badge to Full-Size Pickups and SUVs

By Chris Haak

08.13.2008


General Motors announced yesterday that it is expanding its XFE (which stands for eXtra Fuel Efficient) badge from just the Cobalt with a five-speed manual transmission to now include the two wheel drive Silverado and Sierra pickups, plus the Tahoe and Yukon full-size SUVs as well.

As with the Cobalt (whose XFE badging was picked up on very early by Autosavant back in April), the changes are not significant or expensive and can be traced to simple tweaks such as gearing and low rolling resistance tires in all XFE models, plus engine tuning changes in the Cobalt, and aerodynamic enhancements in the large trucks.

The changes made to the trucks include the aforementioned low rolling resistance tires, but also installation of GM's six-speed automatic transmission, an aluminum 5.3 liter small block V8 (rated at 315 horsepower in the pickups and 320 horsepower in the SUVs), a 3.08 rear axle ratio, lowered suspension, a soft tonneau cover in the pickups, lightweight aluminum wheels, and aluminum control arms. The aerodynamic tweaks make the XFE versions of the Silverado and Sierra the most aerodynamic vehicles in their class (which means they managed to unseat the prior aero champ of the full-size picup market, the 2009 Ram, before a single truck has been sold by Dodge). The XFE tuning is only available in two wheel drive vehicles, and the only pickups that get the XFE treatment are crew cabs.

The result of the tweaks is a 7% improvement in city mileage and a 5% improvement in highway mileage (or one mile per gallon improvement in each category). The XFE versions of these vehicles are now rated at 15 city/21 highway instead of 14 city/20 highway as they had been. While GM has not announced the price of the XFE upgrades, it's easy to calculate potential fuel savings in advance of knowing exactly how much the XFE tweaks will cost. 15,000 miles @ 16 mpg combined and $4.00 per gallon would cost $3,750 in fuel. @17 mpg combined, it would be $3,529 in fuel (a savings of $221 annually).

Many online commenters have criticized GM today for the move, saying that the move barely saves any fuel (one mile per gallon in each category), while likely adding cost to the trucks. I disagree with this viewpoint, and in fact am in favor of GM introducing XFE-badged variants for each model in its lineup. Although many of GM's vehicles do have decent economy ratings (such as the 22 city/32 highway rating enjoyed by the 2.4 liter four cylinder/6-speed automatic combination tested recently by Autosavant,) would having extra fuel efficiency be a bad thing for literally anyone? GM and other auto manufacturers are forced to improve the average efficiency of their vehicle lineups significantly under the new CAFE standards, so applying simple tweaks to existing vehcles would pick off some low-hanging fruit and improve the averages.

One funny thing about the XFE models is that it proves (as I suspected) that the expensive and complicated two mode hybrid system doesn’t really do much anything for highway mileage - the hybrid's highway fuel economy almost completely comes from aerodynamics and tires - which the XFE has. The two-mode system helps city mileage only, really. But if you need or want the capability of these large vehicles and don't do much city driving, you can probably save your money and buy an XFE instead of a hybrid. Now, seeing XFE fuel economy figures on the window sticker of a vehicle adjacent to the two-mode hybrid Tahoe will probably even further crimp [already extremely slow] sales of the hybrid model.

Just think: if every new vehicle had the same 5-7% improvement in fuel economy, we'd be in much better shape in terms of fuel prices. Just look at the drop in oil prices for the past week or two, likely caused in large part by a decrease in driving by Americans on the order of just under 4%. Now, nearly double the rate of decrease to consider what a 7% efficiency improvement could mean for macro-level oil prices once the more efficient vehicles took over from their [relatively] gas-guzzling predecessors.

If I could offer a single phrase to GM to help with its current dilemma, it would be "continuous improvement." It's what got Toyota and Honda to where they are today, and would really help close the perception gap, in which a portion of the buying public believes that 1) domestic vehicles aren't as fuel efficient as import brands, and 2) domestic vehicles are starved for fixes and improvements once initial flurry of excitement from a new model dies down. Tweaking the fuel economy in these trucks is the type of relatively small, relatively low-cost tweaks can really be seen by consumers as a win.

With Ford promising to have the most efficient lineup in the next few years, the new "fuel consumption war" (replacing the "horsepower wars") is shaping up to be an epic battle for consumers' hearts and wallets. That means that it's a great time to be a consumer.


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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Chrysler Asks UAW For Four 10-Hour Workdays

By Chris Haak

08.12.2008


Last week, news came out that Chrysler had asked the UAW for permission to switch its Toledo, Ohio Jeep assembly plant from five 8-hour days to four 10-hour days in a move to save energy costs (both for the company in terms of energy consumption with the plant being open with the lights on for one fewer day per week, and for the workers, who can save on commuting costs by reducing the number of days they work by 20%). The plants are also able to completely shut down their paint ovens for during the long weekend, significantly curtailing natural gas usage because they aren't completely shut down during a normal workweek.

Yesterday, the news came out that Chrysler had asked the UAW to not only change the Toledo facility to a four-day schedule, but in fact to change the schedule of nearly all of its plants (save the ones already working at or near capacity, such as the Belvidere, Illinois and Sterling Heights, Michigan facilities).

Although cost savings under the plan are actually fairly minimal in the scheme of things (Chrysler EVP of Manufacturing Frank Ewasyshyn wasn't sure of the full savings, but estimated it to be around $10 million annually), but if the plants aren't humming at capacity and the company intends to be creative and flexible with its cost saving ideas, the schedule change is probably a better alternative than forcing a 25% price reduction down the throats of its suppliers, for example.

According to the Detroit Free Press, Chrysler is also looking at some other possible efficiency improvements to reduce its costs, particularly in terms of energy usage, because building a shipping a vehicle is such an energy-intensive endeavor. One idea the company is investigating is to pair up with companies that happen to be moving an empty truck in the same direction that they need to send a shipment (after the truck has made its initial delivery). Instead of these other companies and Chrysler paying the costs of moving empty trucks back to their point of origin to pick up another load, if Chrysler can successfully implement its idea, the trucks would be full in both directions, but with Chrysler's cargo in only one of those.

Chrysler already can boast of operating the highest efficency plants in North America, as well as the smallest workforce (albeit with the smallest sales volume) of the Detroit 3. Further improving their factory efficiency might keep the company afloat until help arrives from Nissan, Chery, and others in terms of badly-needed small cars that have suddenly become a must-have in the US market.


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Friday, August 08, 2008

2008 Infiniti EX35 AWD Journey Review

By Chris Haak

08.08.2008


The Infiniti EX35, an all-new vehicle for the 2008 model year, is marketed as a crossover, albeit a carlike one. Infiniti can market the vehicle however they'd like to, but the fact is, the EX35 is somewhere between a wagon and hatchback version of the well-regarded G35 sedan. It does not have the cargo volume, rear seat space, or - thankfully - the ride and handling of a crossover or SUV.

Once you have come to embrace this truth, the EX35 becomes a far more likable vehicle. Where I was initially disappointed with its lack of utility and minuscule cargo area (when the rear seats were not folded), viewing the vehicle with the appropriate perspective allowed me to appreciate the vehicle for what it was on its own, without expectations for what a crossover should be, by some standard definition.

The first thing that you notice when approaching the EX35 is that it sits very low to the ground. When I reached for the chrome door handle the first time, I missed it by about eight inches, because the doors - in fact, the entire vehicle - are lower than you'd expect. The recurring theme, shared with its cousin, the G35 sedan/G37 coupe, is one of flowing curves. The only curve that I found to be unfortunate was the wave at the beltline, only because it was slightly reminiscent of the Hyundai Elantra's similar beltline wave (and this is likely a coincidence). Otherwise, the styling consists of several very nice touches. My favorite is probably the flat black rocker panels, separated from the Moonlight White paint by a narrow chrome strip. Large nickel-finish aluminum wheels (18 inchers) and low profile tires round out the look. Overall, it's a fairly uniquely-styled vehicle, and its Infiniti family resemblance is unmistakable.

Inside, it's clear that Infiniti took criticism of the interior design and materials of its earlier-generation models (such as the original G35 sedan) to heart when designing the EX's living space. Soft touch materials fall to hand everywhere, including the dashboard, door panels, and armrests. Tasteful thin chrome accents abound, such as around the gauges and air vents, and around some controls such as the audio and HVAC knobs. My tester included the optional wood trim package, which put very attractively-stained maple on the interior door panels and console. The underlying theme of the interior, like the exterior, is one of organic shapes; it really works pretty well in the EX.

Infiniti has presumably decided that its definition of luxury means adding nearly every currently-available technological gizmo. That's fine with me, since I'm a gadget lover by nature, but some technophobes might take issue with some of the electronics included in the EX. These included lane departure warning (which automatically turned itself on each time the car was started, although that aspect can be disabled), lane departure prevention (which taps the brakes on the opposite side of any lane departures to bring the vehicle back into line), laser cruise control, satellite navigation, XM Satellite Radio, and Around View Monitor.

The Around View Monitor is a slick setup, and also appears in Infiniti's new-for-2009 FX crossover (the EX's big brother). The system has not only a rear camera, but also a camera beneath the Infiniti logo on the grille, as well as cameras beneath the mirrors. When the EX is put into reverse, two-thirds of the display is the full rear view, while the remaining third is an approximate bird's eye representation of the EX and its surroundings. It really makes parallel parking and parking between the lines easy. Knowing that I was driving a borrowed car, it also gave me some peace of mind to know that the front camera was there to keep me from dinging the fascia on high curbs.

Infiniti has dramatically improved its navigation systems and interface in the three model years since my family owned a 2005 Pathfinder LE with navigation. The Pathfinder had one input method - a joystick - while the new system has a dial with eight directional buttons, plus touchscreen functionality. I found the dial easier to use while the vehicle was moving (because my outstretched finger tended to bounce with each bump, causing me to miss my target) while the touchscreen was easier to use when stationary. The EX that I tested featured a Bose 11-speaker premium audio system that had two subwoofers, an iPod interface, and CD player. It sounded great, with both excellent detail in the treble range and vibration-free bass reproduction.

Really, my only complaint about the interior was that it was too small, particularly in the back seat. While we did manage to fit two car seats into the back seat, it wasn't easy, and required sacrificing some front seat comfort to do so. Looking briefly at the specifications, and it's not hard to see why we had this problem; compared to the G35 sedan on which the EX35 is based, the EX has a 2 inch shorter wheelbase, 3.3 inch greater height, and 0.7 inch greater rear headroom - but gives up 6.2 inches of rear legroom compared to the G35. The EX's cargo volume is more simliar than you'd expect (though the vehicle is 4.7 inches shorter than the G35 sedan) at 16.8 cubic feet in the EX and 13.5 cubic feet in the EX, but the EX's seats fold flat into a 47.4 cubic foot cargo area when needed. The rear seats are power folding (and unfolding), but curiously, the rear hatch is solely manual.

Driving the EX, it's very easy to forget you're in a crossover, because you're not - keep telling yourself, "G35 wagon!" It can be flung into corners with the same confidence you'd fling a sedan, and had zero detectable body roll. The 18 inch wheels and 225/55R18 all-season tires hang onto the road pretty well, and my tester's all wheel drive further helped in that department. The only transmission available is a five-speed automatic (which could actually use another ratio or two - hopefully Nissan intends to put the 2009 FX/G37's new seven-speed auto in the EX post-haste), but it's at least equipped with a good sport mode. My tester did not include steering wheel paddles for upshifts and downshifts, but did have a separate section of the shift gate to bang shifts up or down. And, unlike some performance cars equipped with automatics, the EX lets you keep it in a low gear until it bangs off the rev limiter (which only kicks in at a lofty 7500 RPMs anyway). One of my pet peeves about shiftable automatics is when they upshift at the redine anyway; what's the point of asking me to manually shift it if it will shift itself anyway? The 3.5 liter V6's exhaust note is a bit rorty and aggressive, but never droning. Also, 297 horsepower out of a V6 is pretty nice output, especially considering that it's not using any of the latest tricks like direct injection.

The EX has fairly large four wheel discs; I did not (fortunately) have the need or opportunity to nail any panic stops, particularly repeated ones, but the brakes bit hard (in fact, they felt a little grabby at first, until I got used to them) and brought the fun to an abrupt halt. The steering, meanwhile, was accurate and natural-feeling (no electric power steering here, thank goodness), although some might find it a bit too high-effort for their taste. I prefer firm - not harsh - suspension, and the EX gave me what, to me, would be exactly the balance between control and compliance that I'd want in a vehicle I drove every day. Again, some might find it too firm, particularly if they have more fillings in their mouth than I do.

Infiniti offers the EX's options primarily in packages, and my test vehicle had nearly all of them. On top of the $36,250 base price for an EX35 AWD Journey, my tester had the $1,950 Technology Package (Around View Monitor, Lane Departure Warning/Prevention, and Intelligent Cruise Control), the $2,150 Premium Package (11-speaker Bose system, Bluetooth phone interface, heated seats, and dual-zone automatic climate control), the $1,250 Luxe Style Package (18" wheels, Xenon HID headlamps, adaptive front lighting), the $2,150 Navigation Package (navigation, 9.3 GB music hard disc, XM NavTraffic, and RearView Monitor), and the $450 Wood Trim. Add a hefty $815 destination charge (yes, it's coming to the US from Japan, but Chrysler charges no destination charge at all), and the bottom line is an MSRP of $45,015. That pricing is fairly close to a loaded G35x sedan - about $1,200 higher according to TrueDelta.com, when accounting for feature differences.

The EPA says that the EX35 will get 16 mpg in the city and 23 mpg on the highway. I saw similar numbers, with my highway mileage closer to 21 and my combined mileage around 17. The EX35's ratings are only 1 mpg worse than the G35x sedan's in the city, with identical highway ratings. The turbo four cylinder in the Acura RDX bests the EX35 by 1 mpg in the city, but is rated at 1 worse mpg on the highway (17/22), so the EX is class competitive. The RDX's engine has a reputation for being a good one, but it's also a turbo four instead of a naturally aspirated six, and is down 37 horsepower compared to the EX.

My advice? If the idea of a G35 wagon intrigues you, check out the EX35. It offers much of the excellent driving dynamics that the G35 does, for a similar price, but with the potential of more cargo-carrying flexibility with the rear seats folded. However, if you want an SUV - or even a more traditional crossover - the EX is probably not for you. It's a car being marketed as a crossover, and that's not necessarily fair either to its potential buyers or the vehicle itself.

For more photos of the 2008 Infiniti EX35 AWD Journey, click here.


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Tuesday, August 05, 2008

GM and Ford May Collaborate on Powertrains

By Chris Haak

08.05.2008


According to yesterday's Detroit News, GM recently approached its crosstown rival, Ford, about the possibility of developing engines and other powertrain technologies together. According to the article's unnamed sources, it was GM that made the initial overtures to Ford. After some internal discussions weighing the benefits and costs of collaborating with a competitor, Ford's Board of Directors authorized negotiations with GM, and high-level executives from the two companies have had several meetings to discuss areas where they might work together.

While it would have been absolutely unheard of several years ago for the fierce rivals to work together on anything, the move is not altogether unprecedented. Ford and GM collaborated on the development of six-speed automatic transmissions a few years ago. Also, of course, GM chose to invite partners to participate in the development (and more importantly, funding) of the two-mode hybrid system. DaimlerChrysler and BMW participated in that project, and this fall, Chrysler LLC is rolling out its first models with the system, the Durango and Aspen full-size SUV hybrids. One interesting offshoot of the GM/Chrysler collaboration on the two-mode project is that the Durango/Aspen and Tahoe/Yukon hybrids will directly compete with one another, and the Silverado/Sierra and Ram hybrids will directly compete with each other, all having basically the same hybrid system. In the case of the Durango and Aspen, Chrysler has decided to attack the Tahoe/Yukon's weakest point, their price, by undercutting the GM SUVs by several thousand dollars.

In a Ford-GM powertrain collaboration, what could be expected?

Large V8s. Ford has had an on again/off again project for years to develop competitive large-displacement V8s for their trucks. The Boss V8 (nee Hurricane) was to displace 6.2 liters and produce around 400 horsepower, naturally aspirated. The project is up in the air right now thanks to the 35 mpg CAFE rules. Meanwhile, GM happens to have well-regarded small block V8s in mass production that displace 6.2 liters and produce around 400 horsepower. Sure, Henry Ford might be rolling in his grave at the prospect of a Chevy engine in the flagship F-150, but would buyers mind if it gave them the power they need in a large truck without the cost and complexity of a supercharger?

Four Cylinders. GM has a well-regarded 2.0 liter direct injection turbocharged four cylinder in production, available in the Solstice GXP, Sky Redline, HHR SS, and Cobalt SS. GM is also only a year or two from a small 1.4 liter turbo four cylinder that will offer significantly better fuel economy than the current naturally aspirated 2.2 liter four cylinder, with similar power ratings.

Turbocharging/Direct Injection. Ford plans to quickly push EcoBoost (twin turbocharging plus direct injection) technology throughout its lineup during the next couple of model years. (The accompanying photo is of the EcoBoost system's inner workings, courtesy of Ford). While GM has the technology, it has not as fully embraced it as Ford has, to where Ford is basically offering engines with two fewer cylinders than normal, but adding DI and a turbo (for example, applications that typically called for a V8, like full-size pickups, would have a twin turbo six cylinder instead, yet still manage better power and efficiency than a conventional V8 could muster). GM could learn a lot from Ford's EcoBoost R&D, toward the obvious goal of improving fuel economy.

Twin-Clutch Gearboxes. Ford plans to install twin-clutch gearboxes in several of its models in the coming years as another method of improving fuel economy and performance slightly. GM has not announced any DSG-like transmissions. In fact, although the companies collaborated on a six-speed transmission project, Ford is a year or two ahead of GM in offering conventional six-speed automatics in more and more of its models. GM should pay attention to Ford's research in twin-clutch gearboxes for both fuel economy improvements (perhaps in mainstream midsize sedans) and in performance cars (wouldn't it be great if the Corvette automatics had a more sophisticated transmission than an automatic with a power-sapping torque converter?)

Hybrids. Ford sells three popular "full hybrid" vehicles (although they're all basically the same - the Escape, Mariner, and Tribute), while GM's only full hybrids are full-size SUVs, and soon pickups. Meanwhile, Ford doesn't offer hybrid powertrains in their large vehicles, and GM is likely licking its chops at the thought of passing some of the two-mode hybrid's development costs (and building economies of scale more quickly, reducing costs and therefore sale prices or losses endured on the expensive system).

Also, although the much-ballyhooed Chevy Volt range extended electric vehicle is not a hybrid, GM should also license the Volt's technology to Ford to again more quickly drive up volume and drive down costs so that the company isn't forced to endure heavy losses subsidizing the Volt or price a compact car (albeit a technically sophisticated one) in the $40,000 range for long.

Of course, the other possibility is that nothing will come from these discussions and Ford and GM will continue to move in their separate directions. However, with both companies literally fighting for their lives - and watching cash burn closely - it seems to make sense for them both to try to maximize their product development dollars and not try to reinvent the wheel - or the V8, as the case may be. Heck, Daimler and BMW are going to start working together on stuff like this, so why not Ford and GM?

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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Premium Pricing Coming to California HOV Lane for Non-Carpoolers

By Chris Haak

07.30.2008


San Francisco Bay Area transportation officials have approved a plan to allow solo drivers in regular (non-hybrid) vehicles to use high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes on 12 highways by paying a per-mile premium via an electronic in-car transponder.

The project would cost about $3.7 billion to implement and take decades to implement. Eventually, it would cover about two-thirds of the Bay Area’s 1,200 miles of freeway lanes. Officials expect that the project will eventually generate $6 billion in revenue by 2035, which would of course pay for itself as well as other transit initiatives. Of course, the backers of this plan are forgetting about the time value of money – investing $3.7 billion in 2010 at a modest 3.5% interest rate would be worth $8.8 billion in 2035. Increase the interest rate assumption to 4.0%, and the future value is $10.0 billion.

So, the economics of the plan may not be sound at face value, but of course it could have other benefits. Transportation officials feel that the carpool lanes are underutilized currently, and that people who were truly in a hurry to get to their destination once in a while would be willing to pay a premium of a few cents per mile to travel about 15 miles per hour faster (officials estimate that the carpool lanes will average 54 miles per hour and the non-carpool lanes will average 39 miles per hour by 2035). The plan is to introduce the pay-per-use tolls on the carpool lanes starting in the 2010-2011 timeframe with an initial cost of 20 to 60 cents per mile. By 2030, officials expect the per-mile charge to increase to $1 or more. Because the tolls would be collected electronically via an in-car transponder, it will be possible to charge different prices at different times of day. Charges would be higher, of course, during peak periods, but could theoretically be reset each minute depending on the road’s current conditions.

We’ve learned as a nation that building more highways, and even more lanes, rarely fixes traffic congestion. As soon as more capacity is added to popular routes, drivers who had been avoiding those routes to avoid congestion flock back to them, quickly clogging them up again.

Critics of this plan have called the carpool lanes "Lexus Lanes," as they fear that the only people who will use them will be the rich (the folks driving Lexuses, although car-savvy readers of this site know that most Lexus models are not necessarily the vehicle that the filthy rich aspire to own). However, proponents of the plan point to studies that state that in toll lanes in Southern California, people of all income levels used the lanes, generally when they needed to get somewhere quickly. (Click here for a link to a PowerPoint summary of one study's findings).

To me, the concept behind HOV/carpool lanes is a sound one; you're rewarding people for sharing their car with another commuter with a faster commute. Many local and state governments also decided a few years ago to reward buyers of hybrid cars with access to the HOV lanes; encouraging hybrid sales is also an admirable goal in terms of environmental friendliness and reducing fuel consumption. Now, Northern California bureaucrats and politicians have decided to encourage further utilization of the unused capacity in the HOV lanes - to raise revenue (a favorite pasttime of many politicians) and to theoretically lower traffic volume on the non-"premium" section of the highway, and reducing wasted fuel from idling in traffic.

To give some perspective on how the proposed per-mile tolls stack up, the Pennsylvania Turnpike charges about 6.4 cents per mile, and the New Jersey Turnpike charges about 5.7 cents per mile during peak periods, and 4.3 cents per mile during off-peak periods. When we travel to visit family about once a month, we could take "free" roads that are a bit more direct to our destination, but include traffic lights and slower speed limits, or we could take the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and we often choose the turnpike, particularly if our young children are napping in the car, as the smooth, steady drive keeps them sleeping for longer periods of time, so the concept of paying a premium for a better experience isn't foreign to those of us in the Northeast US accustomed to toll roads. However, the proposed rates for the Bay Area HOV lane access start between 5 and 12 times more than I'm paying for access to the Turnpike, and eventually will be 20 times more expensive. Even if I "drove a Lexus," I'd be hesitant to pay, say, $25 each way on a 25-mile trip into the city for work, plus all of the other expenses associated with car ownership such as insurance, registration, maintenance, city parking, gasoline, repairs, etc.

It will be interesting to see studies over the next several years on the reasons that certain solo motorists chose to pay a fairly hefty premium per mile for the privilege of driving past congestion.

For more information about this initiative, click here to visit the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) website's page on it.


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