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2010 Fusion Sport

2010 Fusion Sport

Ford released details of its new-for 2010 Ford Fusion yesterday, including the picture to the left.  In addition to the bold new styling, the new Fusion (and its friend, the Mercury Milan) will have many powertrain upgrades, including:

  • The new 2.5 liter I-4 engine makes 175 horsepower (14 more than the previous 2.3 liter) and will get at least 2 mpg better than a Camry and 3 mpg better than an Accord.
  • The 3.0 liter V6 is improved too, delivering 19 more horsepower and 23 more lb.-ft. of torque for a total of 240 horsepower and 228 lb.-ft. of torque.
  • The 3.5 liter V6 from the Edge and the Flex joins the Fusion lineup for the first time, powering the Fusion Sport model with a beefy 263 horsepower and 249 lb.-ft. of torque.
  • All automatic versions will include a 6-speed transmission, which gives a 10% boost in fuel economy on the 2.5 liter and a 4-6% gain on the 3.0 liter engine.  No word on whether the manual will still be offered.
  • Other gas-saving upgrades include electric power steering, adaptive spark ignition and aggressive deceleration fuel shut-off.
  • Ford also released some detail about its 2nd-generation hybrid system, which make its debut on the Fusion and Milan early next year.  The system uses a smaller, lighter battery that produces 20 percent more power.  This allows the Fusion to operate in electric mode at speeds of up to 47 mph with a range of more than 700 miles of city driving.  Ford also claims fuel economy wil lbe at leastt 5 mpg better than the Toyota Camry Hybrid.  The 2009 Camry gets 33 city and 34 highway.
  • Hybrid versions get the new SmartGauge™ with EcoGuide, which gives hybrid owners a more-connected, fuel-efficient driving experience by coaching them on how to optimize performance of the 2010 Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan hybrids.  It uses two LCD screens on either side of the speedo that can be configured to show fuel and battery power levels and average and instant miles-per-gallon. Growing leaves and vines track and reward the driver’s efficiency.  How cute.  You’ll probably want to give your Fusion a great big hug, too.
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Chrysler announced this week that it will close its Newark, Delaware plant 1 full year earlier than it had

2009 Chrysler Aspen Hybrid

2009 Chrysler Aspen Hybrid

planned.  The new closing date will be by the end of 2008 instead of 2009.  The plant builds the Dodge Durango and Chrysler Aspen full-size SUVs, and just recently added the hybrid models to the lineup.  A Chrysler spokesman said, “It’s not a sound decision to keep open the plant for the hybrid demand alone.”  He also said the company has no plans to move the production or replace the SUVs in their current form.

This is only a week after they touted the fuel economy and power of the hybrid twins in a press release, saying they achieve “best-in-class fuel economy ratings for a full-size 4×4 SUV.”  The EPA rates the hybrids at 20 city & 22 highway.  They also bragged about the 400 hp Hemi engine and used this line, “Yeah, it’s gotta HEMI® Hybrid. And best-in-class fuel economy, too. ”  They went on to say that the hybrids get better fuel economy in the city (20) than a V6 Honda Accord (19).  The V6 Toyota Camry is also rated at 19 city.

Sounds like a great SUV that everybody would want, right?  Better fuel economy than an Accord and can tow 6000 lb??  Where is the line to get one?  Better get in that line soon, as Chrysler has 3000 orders for the hybrids, and they aren’t sure they’ll be able to build all of them before the plant closes in December.

One gets the impression that events are happening at such a pace in Auburn Hills that they can’t keep up.  I think Chrysler is closing the plant under direction from GM.  The General already has full-size SUVs, thank you, and they come in a hybrid also, by the way.  You probably know that already, don’t you?  What you  might not know is that the hybrid system on the Durango and the Chevy Tahoe/GMC Yukon/Cadillac Escalade is the same.  No, not similar – the same.  The “2-Mode” hybrid system is the result of a joint effort between GM, DaimlerChrysler and BMW.  GM would likely have shut down this plant and cancelled the Durango and Aspen anyway, so they probably told Chrysler to shut it down so they don’t have to.  These products are just part of the massive product overlap between these companies that make this proposed merger/takeover ridiculous and a potential economic disaster for SE Michigan.

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Chrysler to Cut 25%

24th October 2008

In an e-mail to employees acquired by The Slandy Report, Bob Nardelli, Chrysler CEO, outlined plans to reduce the salaried workforce by 25%.  Buyout packages will be offered to many (all?) employees, but there will be “involuntary separation actions in December” if not enough employees take to pile of money and go away quietly.  One wonders how the work will get done.  Nardelli states that they will be “protecting all major product programs.”  If that is true, then they don’t have many product programs to protect or they had way too many people working on them before.  Automotive News calculates that the 25% is 4632 jobs lost.  Given that Chrysler has been cutting for many years, you have to assume that:

  • they have very little product in the pipeline, or
  • they are cutting in the hopes that a merger is coming which will make the whole point moot, or
  • Bob Nardelli is just lying about no programs being cut.

The full text of the e-mail to employees is below.

To: Chrysler Employees and Contractors
From: Chrysler Comm
Date: 10/24/2008 10:12AM
Subject: A message from Bob Nardelli

Dear Employees,

These are truly unimaginable times for our industry. We continue to be in the most difficult economic period any of us can remember. The combination of troubled financial markets, difficult credit, volatile commodity prices, the housing crisis and declining consumer confidence continues to weigh on the economy. Never before have auto industry sales contracted at such a fast rate. Throughout this challenging time for our industry and our company, we have continued to face the realities of our business environment. Working as a team, we have been right-sizing our organization to become as competitive as possible.

As business conditions today continue to decline, and we prepare for economic challenges extending into 2009, additional actions will be needed to re-size our company to remain competitive. Due to the unprecedented conditions in the auto industry, both in our home and international markets, we are targeting a 25 percent reduction in our salaried and supplemental work force. As always, we will strive to do this in a socially responsible way, with respect and gratitude to those who have contributed so much to our company over the years.

Your leadership team will receive the details on new voluntary programs today that will be made available to Chrysler salaried employees beginning in November. These new programs will be available to a broader group than before and will feature enhanced benefits, including both cash and new-vehicle vouchers. Your management will share all the program details with you in the next few days. I hope that every eligible employee takes time to seriously consider these enhanced offerings given the current environment. In addition, it will be necessary to have involuntary separation actions at the end of December, which is why the company is also issuing a WARN act notice today.

We need to work harder and more diligently to control every expense. To that end, we are eliminating in some cases, and cutting back on all discretionary and overhead expenses. Details of this initiative will be communicated through your leadership team. As an additional cost savings measure, we also will be reducing capital expenditures, but I assure you that we are protecting all major product programs.

As we re-size the company to reflect declines in volume, we know we must find new and more efficient ways to conduct our business operations. We recognize that in order to strengthen our competitive capability, and reduce the time and cost to achieve our objectives, we cannot operate as we have in the past. In the near future, we will be making organizational announcements as a result of restructuring actions reflecting the need to find new ways to operate, while still recognizing the importance of focusing on the customer, a relentless commitment to quality and investing in the programs that we need to compete in the marketplace.

I realize the appetite to know what the future holds for Chrysler is tremendous. Media speculation about our fate continues to be rampant. As a matter of company policy, Chrysler does not confirm or disclose the nature of its business meetings, in many cases to comply with legal requirements, as well as protect the integrity of our Company and those with whom we meet. When erroneous reports can be corrected with definitive answers, I support dealing with these issues in a clear and direct manner. I want to assure you that your leadership team is committed to communicating fully and directly to you if, and when, there is something to announce.

The Chrysler team has been through tremendous change over the years through the many ups and downs of this industry. During these tumultuous times, I encourage you to help each other to keep a sharp focus on the important tasks at hand.

Thank you for your continued dedication.

Bob

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General Chrysler Motors?

18th October 2008

The Wall Street Journal, among many publications, recently reported that General Motors is in talks with Cerberus Capital Management about acquiring Chrysler.  Apparently, the deal would give GM at least a controlling interest in Chrysler and Cerberus would get the 49% of GMAC that they currently do not own.  Separately, but surely not unrelated, Cerberus has been talking to Daimler about acquiring the 19% of Chrysler that Daimler kept when they sold the majority to Cerberus.  The talks apparently have been put on hold due to the recent and continuing turmoil in the equity and credit markets.

This news falls squarely in the category of bad.  Bad for Chrysler.  Bad for GM.  Bad for GM shareholders.  Bad for dealers.  Bad for employees of both companies, especially Chrysler’s.  The only party that stands to gain, in my humble opinion, is Cerberus.  They are in way over their heads with Chrysler.  They thought they could teach Detroit a thing or 10 when they bought Chrysler.  Apply some outside thinking to the auto industry.  They assembled a dream team to run the place and thought that they could turn Chrysler around and quickly made a few (billion) bucks.  The fact that they are talking, apparently seriously, with GM shows that they have realized that they made a big mistake and are eager to get out before they lose their fancy French-cuffed shirts.

When a company takes over another, there are usually benefits that accrue to the buyer.  The only benefits that GM would get by acquiring Chrysler are the Jeep brand and minivans.  Jeep would make a nice complement to Hummer, which is being shopped around.  Other than those, I defy anybody to tell me what GM gets in this deal.  Other than a huge headache.  It is widely thought that GM has too many brands, dealers, plants and employees – all of which will be exasperated by acquiring Chrysler.

So what is motivating GM, which evidence to the contrary, has lots of smart people in charge?

  • First, a misguided attempt at economies of scale.  This is laughable, as anybody with a brain would see that neither GM or Chrysler is presently able to sell even near what they can produce.  The costs involved in buying out the union members whose plants would surely close will be ridiculous.  Why would they need to buy out the union?  If they don’t, the union strikes all of the plants and that spells doomsday.
  • Second, an equally misguided attempt to control the “market” for Chrysler.  GM would rather swallow a poison pill like this than see another company get a foothold in the US market.  Another company, like Nissan/Renault, might be interested and actually get some economies and synergies with Chrysler.  That makes for a more formidable competitor.  This is like the old adage of cutting off your nose to spite your face.  The companies formerly known as the Big 3 have along history of this.  Ford is widely thought to have purposely signed a very generous UAW contract in the early 1990s so they could stick it to GM.  Henry Ford II is also known to have been interested in buying Chrysler around 1980 just so he could fire Lee Iaccoca – again.
  • Third, Chrysler reportedly has $11.7 billion on hand.  GM is strapped for cash, and maybe they think that the cash alone is worth the headaches.  Maybe, but GM is having trouble enough making sense of its own far-flung operations.  In addition, they will go through that money like a hot knife through butter.  Closing plants, buying out employees – both salaried and hourly, and buying out dealerships costs a LOT of money.  Easily in the billions with a B.  Before you tell me that they could just starve the dealerships of product or just let them die, think for a minute.  Every state has very strict franchise laws that protect the dealers from that very idea.  Even if they could just let them die, that would take years to sort out.  Years that GM simply doesn’t have.  Giving GM more money is a little like giving Matt Millen more draft picks.
  • The only benefit to GM would be the ability to add Chrysler products to GM factories, thus raising capacity utilization.  That, however, would take many years to combine cycle plans into 1.  Again, years GM simply doesn’t have

So what’s going on here?  Hard to say.  Some reports have said that GM’s bankers have been putting pressure on GM to make this deal.  Maybe they think they are more likely to get paid with the $11.7 billion.  However, because of the buyouts, plant closing, etc that GM will have to make, that $11.7 billion won’t last very long.

I say good luck to GM, and I hope they know something that the rest of us don’t because this sure looks like an awful move on their part.

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My Key™

9th October 2008

This week, Ford announced that it will be introducing a new feature, My Key™, beginning with the 2010 Ford Focus next year. My Key™ allows parents to program certain safety features on a key-by-key basis. It is done using the vehicle’s message center. These new features include:

These first 3 are “standard” when using My Key™:

  • Persistent Ford Beltminder with audio mute – Ford already has the seat belt nanny as standard equipment on all of its vehicles. It sounds a chime every minute for five minutes. This goes that extra step further to Super Nanny. First, the chime doesn’t stop after 5 minutes. But the part that will really annoy your teenager is the audio mute, which does exactly what you think. The audio system is muted until the seat belt is buckled. It also displays “Buckle Up to Unmute Audio” in the instrument cluster. Just what every teen wants – their mom programmed into the car!
  • Earlier low-fuel warning – instead of warning you when you have 50 miles to go, My Key™ warns you at 75 miles. Hard to argue with this one. I could use this myself. Actually, what they really need is a low-fuel warning that gets increasingly persistent the closer you get to empty. Maybe throw in some profanity to make sure it is noticed.
  • Park aid (this is the rear backup sonar that beeps when you get too close to something) and Blind Spot Information System with Cross Traffic Alert (I really don’t know what this is) cannot be deactivated.

Features that need to be programmed:

  • Limited top speed of 80 mph – I can just hear the arguments now. “What if there’s an emergency, and I need to get home or to a hospital right away?” or “What if I’m going to be late for curfew?” Parents, get ready!
  • Traction control system, that limits tire spin, cannot be deactivated. This one will be a bummer at the Woodward Dream Cruise.
  • Limited audio volume to 44 percent of total volume. First, I want to know how Ford came up with 44%. Is that just below the “make your ears bleed” 45%? And if 44% is deemed loud enough, what kind of idiot would ever need to turn it up all the way? I’ll do the math for you. “All the way up” would be 127% louder. Wow.
  • A speed alert chime at 45, 55 or 65 mph – just in case your little genius doesn’t know how fast he/she is driving. Maybe the sound needs to be limited to 44% so you can hear the speed chime?

Kidding aside (pun intended -Ed.), I think this is a great thing to help parents trust that their kids are being responsible while driving the car without supervision. Ford has research that says that parents would likely let their kids use the car more with My Key™. This will give the kids more time behind the wheel earlier, which should make for some better drivers. Teems also said that they were cool with this technology if they got to drive more. Sounds like a win-win. Everybody is happy.

Concerns

Until I see this in action, though, I have some concerns. What would stop a kid from “unprogramming” it? I assume that Ford has thought of this, but there was nothing in the press release.

Another issue is deactivation. Say you buy a brand new Focus for your angel when she’s 17. She keeps it for several years and doesn’t like how you’ve programmed it. She’s now an adult and wants the nanny gone. I’d like to be a fly on the wall for that conversation. Parent:”So exactly why do you need to drive more than 80?” or “Why would you want the radio louder than that?”

The deactivation issue also might rear its ugly head if/when you sell the car with the My Key™ still activated. Oops.

There are also potential legal issues. As mentioned above, there might actually be an emergency that involves a need to go to the hospital. I can see the headlines now. Somebody will sue Ford about this. They won’t have a case, in my opinion, but this is America! We don’t let logic influence our right to blame somebody else for our problems.

Overall, I think this is a great idea. And given Ford’s propensity to over-analyze everything, I’m sure that their legal staff (the dreaded “OGC”) has considered the issues raised above and they think this is still a good idea. I applaud the innovation. Nice work, guys.

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As I made my rental reservation a couple weeks ago, I decided to splurge and spend the extra $10 / week to move from a mid-size to a full-size vehicle. This includes vehicles such as the Acura RL, Dodge Charger, Nissan Maxima and the like. As I remembered when I walked to my space in the rental lot, it also includes the Ford Crown Victoria. That’s right, I had the opportunity to play police officer for a week!

Throwing my travel bag and computer into the enormous trunk (which, for some insane reason, has a spare tire right in the middle of it taking up a ton of space), I hopped in, slid across the fine plastic front seat, and was thrilled to find that my paperwork was not in the car as it should be.

I returned to the counter and explained my plight – how could I possibly leave the lot without papers? Naturally they had them handy, but I persisted and talked my way out of the Crown Victoria and into a 2008 Mercury Sable.

Now, as some of you may know, the Sable wasn’t always a Sable. It started life as the Mercury Montego a few years ago as an all new platform while the “old” Sable was still in production. A reasonably sized sales disaster, along with her sister vehicle the Ford Five Hundred, the Montego was rebadged a Sable after the old Sable bodystyle (and President of Ford!) were discontinued. The new President, Alan Mulally, determined that a) making all of your vehicles start with the same letter as their brand (Ford Fusion, Five Hundred, Focus, Mercury Monterey, Montego, etc) was asinine, and b) so was dropping the car with the most recognized brand name in your lineup. So the Montego because the Sable, and the Five Hundred became the Taurus.

I’ve driven the “old” Sable and old Taurus, and now that I’ve driven the new Sable, let me tell you, this is a completely different vehicle that is nicer in every single regard. This particular vehicle (VIN 1MEHM40W08G620299) had a nice interior, was well put together, and best of all, was functional. Although it rode a bit soft for my liking, I could see this as a very workable vehicle for our family if we moved away from our existing vehicle. So let’s get at it in more detail:

Exterior: Well put together, broad appeal

As mentioned above, this vehicle is a couple years old, but has seen a couple minor updates and while not striking, it is far from stale. It is more accurately described as “appealing to a broad audience”; it won’t knock your socks off, but you’ll be hard pressed to find anything repulsive.

The fit and finish of this vehicle was excellent. The body panel gaps were consistent, although a bit wider than need be in some spots – tighter tolerances at sheetmetal intersections would help make this vehicle a bit cleaner looking.

While not technically part of the exterior, I should point out that the moderate sized rear decklid houses an enormous trunk. They used to advertise that this car will hold 8 bags of golf clubs (or some similar number that was significantly more passengers than will ever fit) and I don’t doubt it. I’ll bet in a pinch you could probably get 6-7 golfers to the course – 5 in the interior and the other one or two in the trunk with all the bags.

Interior: Excellent Fit & Finish

This particular unit had leather seats and a two-tone interior. As a long time Bass and Guinness fan I have a definite affinity for black and tan, so perhaps that explains why I liked this interior. I suppose the wood trim is more accurately called “blonde” as it is very light in color. And yet, unlike other vehicles this wood doesn’t appear fake, it just looks nice. Perhaps it is a very good replica, but in any case it at least looks real!

The remainder of the interior materials were equally well chosen, although my standard complaint was again present – lack of padding on the door upper where you rest your elbow. Maybe I’ve just been spoiled with my previous vehicles (OK, I have, but that’s a different story) but since spending significant time in rentals I’ve got a constantly sore elbow. I’ve got other things I could whine about as well, but I don’t get to write for a blog related to those…

The seats were supportive, but not overly sculpted – hard cornering will leave you sliding around a bit so ensure you have a good grip on the wheel. Or stay off the race track, which is probably a decent idea with this vehicle anyway.

The steering wheel and controls were well placed and easily reached. Volume, station/track change, and cruise controls are within easy reach on the wheel while the center stack houses the radio itself, manual HVAC controls, and the requisite hazard light switch. The instrument panel includes all the usual suspects: a large, easy to read speedometer (unless you need to read your speed in km/hr, in which case you are out of luck), a large tachometer (why? it’s an automatic!), temperature and fuel gauges, and an LED readout.

A minor irritant that seems to be present in most automatic vehicles these days are the steering wheel radio and cruise controls are reversed. “What difference does it make?”, you may ask, “you have both hands available…”. And this would be true, while driving an automatic. But if you look at most manual vehicles, the cruise controls are on the right, underneath the hand that is only the wheel while not shifting. Why is this? Because you can’t use the cruise control while shifting, so there is no reason to access it with anything other than your shift hand. You may want to change the radio station, volume, etc, by contrast, and thus those are located underneath your hand that is always on the wheel. Somewhere along the line someone reversed these and thus I find myself jabbing away at the “Accel” button while trying to change the radio station. Well look at that – I found something else to whine about after all 🙂

Powertrain: Wow! Have you driven this Ford lately?

Powerful. Responsive. Smooooooth. Words you typically don’t hear in relation to Ford vehicles, and certainly not from me. And yet this car shifted so smoothly and effortlessly throughout my trip that I found myself wondering, on the Friday trip back to the airport, whether or not I was driving a Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) (this is a transmission without traditional gears. -Ed). As it turns out, the answer was no, but I had to actively pay attention in order to figure out this was a conventional automatic, and I’m still not sure if it was a 5 or a 6 speed (it’s a 6-speed. -Ed). Major kudo’s to the engineers who programmed the powertrain in this vehicle for a job well done. Whether upshifting or downshifting, the engine speed matched the driveline speed and nary a jolt was felt.

Acceleration was brisk and dependable. Push on the gas pedal and off you go and yet the the throttle was not all front-loaded; push a bit harder and you get faster acceleration, push a bit harder than that and a clean downshift occurs to move you up into the powerband.

Steering was tight with a good on-center feel, but as we already determined in the seating section, you’ll again want to stay away from the racetrack as the suspension simply won’t put up with being thrown around in the corners. Body roll is abundant, as expected in a vehicle of this size and weight, the tires are already scrabbling for sufficient hold, and the car wallows a bit over dips.

Lastly, in the fuel economy arena, the Sable averaged 22 mpg during my 180 miles using just over 8.5 gallons of gas. Pretty respectable given that my morning commutes average about 30 mph in 20 miles of stop and go traffic and my evening commute is spent testing the vehicles capabilities.

The Verdict:

This car is an excellent highway cruiser and more than capable of hauling a family or group of friends around town while getting pretty good gas mileage to boot. It won’t set any land speed records, but you can certainly get yourself some speeding tickets if you aren’t careful (although I’d bet that you could out handle the LEO if he were driving an Impala).

I’m generally pretty hard on vehicles and tolerate few flaws – you know a vehicle did well when the biggest complaint is that the redundant radio controls on the steering wheel are on the wrong side.

For those of you looking for a new family mobile, you need to add this one to your consideration set – you won’t be disappointed.

Next week: 2009 Saturn Aura

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So Exactly What is a Volt?

7th October 2008

By now, you’ve probably heard about the Volt. It’s Chevy’s (hopefully) upcoming “extended range electric vehicle” (EREV). To the average person, this is a hybrid, if you think of a hybrid as a vehicle that runs on battery and “traditional” (gasoline or Diesel) power. SAE (the Society of Automotive Engineers) also classifies it as a hybrid. GM wants you to think of this vehicle otherwise. The difference between the Volt and a hybrid as you know them is largely academic to the average customer. You should think of the Volt as a different kind of hybrid. It still runs on battery and gasoline, like the Escape or Prius, but the Volt will be able to run up to 40 miles on battery alone. Current hybrids can run on battery alone only in low-speed situations and for only a short time (“strong” hybrids from Ford, Toyota and some GM hybrids). Some can’t run on battery alone at all (“mild” hybrids from Honda and the other GM hybrids) – the battery only “helps” the gasoline engine. The strong hybrids improve fuel economy more, but also cost more. Now along comes the Volt, which is even more effective, but will also cost even more. To understand why the Volt is different, you need to understand the others as well.

Mild Hybrids
In a mild hybrid, the battery helps the engine propel the car, thus saving fuel. Regenerative braking charges the battery. This means the car is able to take the car’s kinetic energy, which is usually lost as heat when the car brakes, and use it to charge the battery. Mild hybrids also shut the motor down at a stop, saving more fuel.

Strong Hybrids
Though there are various types, strong hybrids are able to propel the vehicle by battery alone, albeit for short distances and low speeds. The battery also provides extra power when strong acceleration is required. Because the battery is used much more than in the mild hybrid, the strong hybrid improves fuel economy more, but also costs more. Strong hybrids are sometimes known as parallel hybrids, because both propulsion systems work together to propel the vehicle. The battery is charged by regenerative braking, but also by the car’s engine in normal use. Many strong hybrids have the unique trait of higher city fuel economy than highway. How can that be? In stop and go city driving, the battery is doing most of the work, so the improvement in fuel economy is much greater, resulting in better economy in the city. Some strong hybrids are “tuned” for power, rather than fuel economy. In these cases, the battery is used more to provide extra power than to ease the burden of the gas engine. You still get better fuel economy, just not as much.

Plug-in Hybrids
Though none yet exist for sale, a plug-in hybrid is a strong hybrid that you can also charge by plugging it in at home. The advantage is that you don’t need to use fuel to charge the battery; it starts out charged from your home electricity. Several automakers are working on developing plug-in hybrids for sale.

Series Hybrids
Though it is not called a hybrid, the Chevrolet Volt is a series hybrid. This is different from a parallel because instead of the 2 power sources working together, but separately, to propel the vehicle (“in parallel”), they work in-line. Only the battery powers the wheels, and in the Volt, it can do so for 40 miles when fully charged. The gasoline engine serves only to provide additional power to the battery when it runs out of power. It does not provide any propulsion. Because of this major difference from other hybrids, GM wants you (and the EPA) to call the Volt and electric vehicle, because the car really runs on electric only. The gas engine is merely a generator for the battery.

This all brings up a question: how do you measure and rate the fuel economy of a car that might never use any fuel? GM claims that 80% of drivers commute less than the 40-mile electric-only range of the Volt. In theory, they would never need to fill up the tank with gas if they remember to charge the battery every night. GM also claims that the Volt will get up to 50 MPG while the engine is running after the battery is drained. So what’s a poor government agency to do? Is the MPG infinite? 50? Something in between? The California Air Resources Board (CARB) has proposed using an SAE standard from 1999. The worst-case scenario is the battery is dead, so you drive 100% with the gas engine running; the best is fully charged and you never need gas. CARB suggests averaging the 2, so if the worst case were 40 MPG, then the “official” MPG would be 80. This idea has merit, but the 80 MPG in this example is theoretical only. A “real” driver would almost certainly never get the 80 MPG. You could also say that about “regular” cars today, but at least the EPA standard is close in almost all circumstances. You can’t say that about the CARB idea. Have a better idea for GM and the EPA? Send your ideas to The Slandy Report, and we’ll pass them along.

So will the Volt change the auto industry, as some claim? In a word, maybe. If the battery performs as hoped. If it is reliable. If you can really travel 40 miles with no gas. If it isn’t overpriced. If it launches on time. The General has really gone out on a limb with the Volt. I believe it is unprecedented to reveal a car more than 2 years before it is supposed to launch. I believe it is also unprecedented to make such bold, specific claims about a technology that doesn’t even exist yet in a commercially viable form. GM has staked its already shaky reputation on the Volt. If it doesn’t deliver on the claims, it could be a setback from which it cannot recover. Several clichés come to mind, including “You live by the sword, you die by the sword.” For the GM’s sake, I hope the sword is friendly (or really soft material).

Present Hybrids for Sale and Their EPA Fuel Economies (City/Hwy)
Mild Hybrids
Chevrolet Malibu 24/32
Honda Civic 40/45
Saturn Aura 24/32
Saturn Vue 25/32

Strong Hybrids
Cadillac Escalade
Chevrolet Tahoe 21/22 RWD or 20/20 4WD
Chrysler Aspen – TBD
Dodge Durango – TBD
Ford Escape 34/30 FWD or 29/27 AWD
GMC Yukon 21/22 RWD or 20/20 4WD
Mercury Mariner 34/30 FWD or 29/27 AWD
Lexus 600h L 20/22
Lexus RX400h 27/24 FWD or 26/24 AWD
Lexus GS450h 22/25
Mazda Tribute 34/30 FWD or 29/27 AWD
Nissan Altima 35/33
Saturn Vue 2-mode
Toyota Camry 33/34
Toyota Highlander 27/25
Toyota Prius 48/45

Plug-in Hybrids
None

Series Hybrids
None

Future Hybrids
Mild Hybrids
2010 Honda Insight

Strong Hybrids
2009 Saturn Vue “2-mode”
2009 Chevrolet Silverado
2010 Dodge Ram
2009 GMC Sierra
Ford Fusion
Mercury Milan

Plug-in Hybrids
Toyota Prius

Series Hybrids
2011 Chevrolet Volt

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Although I’ve only written up a couple of vehicle reviews, I’ve had the opportunity to drive over a dozen different vehicles over the past several months. Some cars I couldn’t spend enough time in, others I couldn’t turn in soon enough. I’ve had sub-compacts and fully loaded extended Suburbans (know what happens when gas prices skyrocket and everyone wants a small car? You get upgraded from a mid-size to an extended SUV because no one else will take it!).

Of all of those cars, not a single one compares to the 2008 Impala I just turned in. Not the Dodge “I wanna be a hearse” Magnum; not the Toyota “I’ll die if I have to accelerate” Camry; not even the stripped down Toyota “I rattle like a tin can” Corolla. No, thankfully I’ve never had another vehicle quite like this one.

In all fairness I should point out that the vehicle (VIN 2G1WT58N281223020) had 15,500 miles on it (15,722 by the time I was done) and we all know that cars fall apart at 15K miles. Except that they don’t. Even in rental service a 15K mile vehicle should still be in pretty good shape and perform almost like new. Which makes this vehicle even more disappointing.

Exterior
A bright spot of this rental experience, I was quite impressed with how well the body panels fit together, the quality of the paint job, etc. Although getting a bit long in the tooth and in need of a re-design, it is not a bad looking car; it just isn’t exciting.

Interior Materials, Fit & Finish, and Amenities
The first thing you notice when you get into the front seat of this car is that it is big. Not enormously big, more like “3 seats across the front” big. Remember those cars from when you were little? I don’t particularly either, but they are apparently still available.

The second thing you’ll notice as you get adjusted and turn on the vehicle is that the materials appear, well, cheap. Faux wood is abundant (at least I sure hope it was faux!) and so is that plasticky substance that everyone always complains about in American cars.

At least they included some padding – the dash was a little soft, the door inserts were soft, even the place where you rested your elbow had padding. It has just about enough padding for the design engineer to check the “padded” box, but nowhere near enough to have any effect on comfort. That particular area just smacked of someone following the letter of the law, but not the spirit — “Really boss, I used padded materials. See here? The spec says it should be padded to 1/100 of an inch…”

And then you start the engine, the instruments light up, and you turn on the radio. Which, as near as I can tell, came out of the 1988 Impala. I’m including a picture here so you can see the 4-character display for yourself. Luckily they included an equalizer so you could control the sound. Except the button labeled EQ isn’t really an equalizer – it just toggles between BASS and TREB. If you wait a couple seconds, however, the BASS will disappear and be replaced by a number so you can actually adjust the bass. Steering wheel controls? Not here. Radio Data System display (station call letters, artist, etc)? Yeah right! The only thing they got right on this radio is the inclusion of an aux input.

Powertrain / Driveability

The engine in the base Impala is actually quite strong – it produces a good amount of power from low RPMs and is reasonably strong at highway speeds as well. The transmission shifts nice and smoothly even under moderate to heavy acceleration. And even with the check engine light on, as it was for 4 of the 5 days I had the vehicle, it is happy to rev to full RPMs and do your bidding.

As a quick aside, please make note that Hertz will only bring you a new vehicle if the check engine light is flashing, not just on steady. According to the Roadside Assistance woman I spoke with when I asked to trade the car before any damage was done, a steady light means “the gas cap is loose” (it wasn’t), while a flashing light means “it (the engine) is mis-firing”. I’m sure all the people that are responsible for determining and assigning OBD2 codes will be pleased to know they really only needed 2, not the several hundred they presently have. But I digress.

The real issue with the vehicle was that while the engine was reasonably powerful at speed, you occasionally need more acceleration that your current gear can provide. Typically, the transmission would downshift to increase RPMs and provide the requested acceleration. And this transmission was no exception, so long as you mailed it a postcard ahead of time requesting a downshift. To say that there was a lag between flooring the accelerator and actual acceleration beginning is like saying there is a little bit of sand in the Sahara. Every car takes some getting used to, but this was outside of the acceptable range and bordering on dangerous. And yes, it was like that before the Check Engine light came on.

And then, as if that weren’t bad enough, it turns out that stopping is just as difficult as getting going. The brakes are either ON or off. There is some amount of middle ground, but it’ll take you a couple days to find it. And in the meantime you’ll be forced to listen to your passengers bitch about how hard you are pushing on the brakes. The best part of this setup is that naturally it didn’t occur them to include anti-lock brakes on the vehicle either.

Honestly, I thought every car had ABS. It never crossed my mind (well, before this car) that you could even get a car without ABS any more. Seems like it would be more expensive to design a braking system with and a braking system without ABS than to just put it on every one you build. But, for whatever reason, Chevy chose not to include ABS as standard equipment on the Impala as I found out one wet morning as I attempted to stop for a red light.

Nor, just for the record, did they include traction control. Although certainly more of an option, it was surprising to me to be able to push on the pedal and get engine revving, wheel spin, and no forward acceleration, all with out a peep from the vehicle.

Conclusion
I’m sure this vehicle is right for someone. If you simply like to get on the highway, set the cruise control at 55, and stay in one lane, it might be you. Or if, for some reason, you have an overwhelming urge to let two people call shotgun in your car. Otherwise, next time a police officer tries to pull you over, check out what he is driving. If it is an Impala just head for the nearest windy road – you’ll have lost him by the 2nd corner.

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