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Milestone, III

December 29, 2011 Leave a comment

It’s December 29, which means it’s time for the annual review here at Ron’s View of how much I’ve driven my car in the last year. I don’t imagine anyone besides me finds this all that interesting. Nonetheless, I enjoy doing the analysis, and writing a post about it allows me to record the data in a convenient place. Come along for the ride if you wish.

The significance of December 29 is that it’s the day I bought the car, five years ago. My first milestone post was written three years later. In it, I observed that “the odometer reads 11,640. Dividing by 3, we find that I have averaged 3880 miles per year. And dividing that by 12, we find that I average 323 1/3 miles per month.” I then noted that in the car’s early days, I made three round trips to Vancouver, BC, on University business for a total of about 900 miles. “Subtracting 900 from the total, I find that I’ve done 10,740 miles of driving over three years, or 3580 per year, or 298 1/3 miles per month. That’s more like it.”

In last year’s milestone post, I discovered that my driving was down. The odometer was at 14,908, meaning I had “driven the car 3268 miles this year, for an average of only 272 1/3 miles per month, or a fraction over 9 miles a day. Averaging over the car’s four years, I have driven 3727 miles per year, or about 310 1/2 miles per month, or about 10 1/3 miles a day. If I deduct the 900 miles of driving to Vancouver and back, I bring the daily average over four years down to about 9 3/4 miles.”

This year, I drove more. My odometer now reads 18,601. (I didn’t want that extra mile. It’s only there because we took Emma to the vet this afternoon and had to return the long way to avoid traffic.) The beauty of 18,600 (let’s just say that’s my total) is that when you divide by 5 you get an average of 3720 miles per year, and when you divide that by 12, you get the nice round number of 310 miles of driving per month on average over the five years that I’ve owned the car. As you can see, that’s about where the average was a year ago, meaning it’s been an average year.

Digging a little deeper, I actually drove 3693 miles this past year, an increase of 425 miles over last year. It’s not hard to find the source of the increase. Gail knew instantly when I asked her to guess: our Memorial Day weekend trip to Portland. Take that away and our mileage in years four and five would have been nearly identical.

Thus, Portland trip aside, I’m still driving less than 10 miles a day. My largest drive in any given month often is a trip to the airport and back. As I concluded last year, I’m a strong candidate for an all-electric car. It won’t get us to Portland, at least not until I-5 has charging stations, but it will do everything else I need it to do.

What do you know? I just did a search on I-5 charging stations and discovered that there was an announcement just yesterday. They’re coming soon! There’s coverage in today’s Seattle Times, but on an inside page, so I had missed it. Still, 30-minute charges every 60 miles doesn’t sound all that attractive.

The real problem is, my car is going to last forever at the rate that I’m driving it. I’m not prepared to let it go just yet. The electric car will have to wait a few more years, by which time there should be a better charging infrastructure and better mileage between charges.

Categories: Automobiles

This is What We Do

July 30, 2011 Leave a comment

The video above is the Chrysler ad from the Super Bowl half a year ago. I used it in a post at the time. The blog title is from the ad’s final line, in which Eminem points at the camera and says, “This is Motor City [pause] and this is what we do.”

Why the rerun? Because it’s such an astonishingly good ad, and because I was just reading about it in James B. Stewart’s Saturday business column in today’s NYT. Stewart’s theme is Chrysler’s turnaround under Fiat ownership since the federal bailout.

In what surely ranks as one of the most remarkable turnarounds in the annals of American business history, this week Chrysler reported adjusted net income of $181 million and a 30 percent rise in revenue, to $13.7 billion, even in a still-soft global car market. Its June sales jumped 30 percent from the previous year, its 15th consecutive month of increases. Its market share has grown to 10.6 percent, from under 6 percent. Chrysler repaid its outstanding government loans in May, six years ahead of schedule, and last week Fiat paid $500 million for the Treasury’s remaining 6 percent stake in the company. The American government has recouped $11.2 billion of its $12.5 billion investment in Chrysler, and would probably have made a profit had it held the debt to maturity. Meanwhile, Chrysler employs 56,000 people and has added 9,000 jobs since the bailout.

Not bad.

Stewart focuses in his column on the experiences of a Chrysler dealer in suburban Philadelphia, David Kelleher. This leads to a moving scene, the context being the decision to revamp the awful Chrysler Sebring, and to rename it the Chrysler 200.

[Fiat and Chrysler CEO Sergio] Marchionne made the bold but controversial decision, criticized by some Republicans in Congress, to spend $2 million for a commercial in January’s Super Bowl.

The day of the game, Mr. Kelleher was attending a dealer convention in St. Louis, where dealers were clamoring for a glimpse of the ad. Chrysler leadership finally agreed on condition of confidentiality. A few hours before kickoff, the dealers watched as a camera panned through the industrial ruins of Detroit to the ominous pulse of “Lose Yourself” by the rapper and native son, Eminem.

“What does this city know about luxury?” a narrator asked. “What does a town that’s been to hell and back know about the finer things in life? Well, I’ll tell you: More than most.” The images shifted to a statue of the boxer, Joe Louis, Diego Rivera’s lush Detroit Industry mural, mansions from Detroit’s heyday. “It’s the hottest fires that make the hardest steel,” the narrator continued. “Add hard work and conviction and the know-how that runs generations deep in every last one of us. That’s who we are. That’s our story.” Images flashed by celebrating Detroit and its people, with barely a glimpse of the new 200. Finally Eminem emerged from behind the wheel and walked into the beautifully renovated Fox Theater to the uplifting strains of a gospel choir onstage. At the end, letters appeared over the dark screen: “The Chrysler 200 has arrived. Imported from Detroit.”

“I was stunned,” Mr. Kelleher recalled. “I looked around. The room was silent. Some people were crying. Then the applause started and just rolled through the auditorium and kept on going. We felt a rebirth.” Mr. Kelleher immediately e-mailed his chief salesman. “Get on the computer right now and order 40 200s.”

Watch the ad yourself. See if you don’t cry too.

Categories: Automobiles, Video

We’re Back (USA. Cars.)

February 7, 2011 Leave a comment

I’ve been pretty excited about the Chevy Volt. If only my current car weren’t just four years old, with just over 15,000 miles driven, I would trade it in for the Volt. What with my averaging 308 1/3 miles per month, or just over 10 miles per day, I’d be a perfect candidate. The Volt’s gas engine would rarely kick in to re-charge the battery.

But that’s not all GM is up to. They’re on a roll. Firing on all cylinders. Or, as Dan Neal writes in his review of the 2011 Cadillac CTS-V Sports Wagon in the WSJ two Saturdays ago, “GM is getting its mojo back, playing the game, rousing the faithful. You have to love it.” (See the accompanying slideshow too.)

Let’s say you bought this car, a Cadillac CTS-V Sport Wagon, with a 6.2-liter, 556-horsepower Corvette V8, six-speed manual transmission, magnetorheological dampers (I’ll get to that), Michelin SP2 gumballs, 15-inch front Brembo brakes with six-pot calipers, and microsuede wrapping on the steering wheel and shifter. Well, first of all, you’d be one strange cat, which is to say, unusual. Notwithstanding any nitro-burning ice-cream trucks or flying boattail Rollses in your neighborhood, this wagon is about as esoteric an automobile as you’re likely to find. Statistically speaking, General Motors will sell exactly none of these cars, the Detroit equivalent of Zoroastrianism.

But if you did buy one, what would you do with it? You’d have a lot of options. Like Cadillac’s 3.6-liter CTS wagon—with a mere 304 hp—the V-Wagon has a useful and accessible 22 cubic feet behind the rear seats and a generous 56 cubic feet with the second-row seats folded. Among other things, you could take three weeks’ worth of groceries to the test-and-tune session at your local drag strip. Zero to 60 miles per hour in this car goes by in 4.3 seconds—such acceleration momentarily takes years off your sagging jowls—and then the car really starts to move, thundering through the quarter-mile in 11.9 seconds at 116 mph, according to my colleagues at Car and Driver, who do impeccable instrumented testing.

Such a car would be useful if you wanted to duck car-pooling duty or avoid field trips with the Cub Scouts, because no child emerging weepy and jelly-kneed from the back seats of this supercharged washing machine will ever want to get back in. You’ll be on cupcake duty from then on.

You could attempt to redeem yourself for such an automotive purchase, as you should. The V-Wagon is utterly, cosmically and seismically wrong, a filthy, shameful ogre of torque that bellows and sets alight thatched roofs as it drives by—Caliban with pushrods. You owe God or somebody an apology.

Perhaps you could put on demonstrations for the local high-school physics club, using the g-meter built into the car’s instrument cluster to show exactly what more than 1 g of lateral acceleration feels like. It feels like a fat lady is trying to push you out the side window. Or if not physics, the Greek club, since like Antaeus the V-Wagon maintains an Olympian grip on the earth and draws strength from it. Maybe you could help out at the police training range, letting cadets chase you to improve their hot-pursuit driving skills. Then, having been completely demoralized, these plebes will quit to become firemen. The world needs firemen.

What you couldn’t do is volunteer to rush transplant organs to faraway hospitals, because if you did, you’d only arrive with coolers full of gazpacho.

Over at Chrysler, I can’t tell you much about the new Chrysler 200, but I can tell you to watch the two-minute ad for it that was the high point of yesterday’s Super Bowl. (Just click play on the embedded video above.) The Joe Louis fist. Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry fresco. Eminem: “This is the Motor City and this is what we do.” A paean to manufacturing and to what made America great. Stirring, even if Fiat does own a big chunk of Chrysler.

And speaking of what makes America great, even if this one is made in Japan, have a look at yesterday’s NYT car review, Ezra Dyer’s droll look at Infiniti’s new behemoth.

The QX’s most helpful features, though, are the ones that apply to the simple challenge of seeing out of the thing. Visibility is always a problem in a full-size S.U.V. You’re sitting up there in the wheelhouse and your bumpers are somewhere down below the cloud ceiling, possibly in different counties. You’re always getting home and finding small items like A.T.M.’s and hot-dog carts stuck in the wheel wells and wondering, “How long has that been there?”

To address this problem, Infiniti’s Around View monitor uses multiple cameras to digitally stitch together a bird’s-eye view of the vehicle, which is mighty useful in parking lots and other close quarters. A blind-spot-warning system lets you know when a Miata is swimming like a remora off your rear flank.

My favorite electronic helper, though, is Distance Control Assist, part of the $2,850 Technology Package. (The full-boat QX56 4WD that I drove included that option, as well as the $2,450 Theater Package and $6,950 Deluxe Touring Package, bringing the grand total to $72,170.)

You could probably live without the Theater Package’s twin DVD screens, but the Technology Package should be considered mandatory. It includes Distance Control Assist, which uses lasers to scan the road ahead; if it concludes that you’re on a collision course with a car or other obstacle, the accelerator pedal physically pushes back to clue you in to slow down. If you’re still oblivious, the QX hits the brakes for you, which could be a real boon in mind-numbing stop-and-go traffic.

The system really works; I drove the QX several hundred miles and didn’t crash into a single thing. I attribute this success to Distance Control Assist, my own careful driving and the fact that the QX56’s front-end styling physically repels most living things. One gentleman driving ahead of me took a look in his rearview mirror and promptly set a new land speed record for an octogenarian in a Buick Park Avenue.

Categories: Advertising, Automobiles

Punching Out

January 22, 2011 Leave a comment

I mentioned last Monday that I had just finished Robert Crais’ crime novel The Sentry and that I was expecting the next morning to get Paul Clemens’ new book Punching Out: One Year in a Closing Auto Plant on my Kindle the next morning. It is, as I noted, a sequel to Clemens’ superb Made in Detroit: A South of 8 Mile Memoir, which I had read, and written about, just over a year and a half ago.

The new book arrived Tuesday as scheduled, and I finished reading it last night. It did not have the emotional intensity of Clemens’ memoir, which so beautifully evokes life in a working class family in Detroit, with an especially powerful portrait of his father. And, as Dwight Garner noted in his review of the book in Wednesday’s NYT, the title is misleading, since the book is about not the final year of the plant’s operation but the dismantling of the plant in the year following its closing. Nonetheless, Clemens once again writes with passion about the loss of the manufacturing working class in this country.

The plant in question is the Budd Company’s Detroit plant, which was bought in the 1970s by the German giant Krupp, which in turn merged with Thyssen, so that when the plant closed, it was owned by ThyssenKrupp Budd. As soon as I read that, just a few pages in, I realized I knew the plant. I have written about our Detroit sojourns elsewhere. I’ll be brief here.

In June 1999, we made a short trip to Detroit on the way to New York in order to see the Tigers play in Tiger Stadium before it closed. We did much more, including visiting the great building that once was GM headquarters, the Motown Museum, the Detroit Institute of Arts, and Greenfield Village.

Our first outing, though, after arriving at our hotel and eating dinner, was a drive eastward on Jefferson Avenue, paralleling the river, to get a taste of the area. This was just past the middle of June, the sun set late that far west in the time zone, and so we had lots of light for a long, leisurely drive. And what a drive it was! The surroundings got worse and worse as we headed east. And suddenly there was this immense industrial plant that I couldn’t identify, seemingly filling our view to the north. And just as suddenly, few blocks further east, we were in a different universe, having left Detroit behind for the wealthy Grosse Pointe suburbs.

Two years ago, when Gail and I were back in Detroit, we took a similar drive, returning from the Grosse Pointes, on Mack, which parallels Jefferson to the north and forms the northern border of the plant. This time I saw the ThyssenKrupp sign. I didn’t know it, but the dismantling described by the book was then nearing its end. All I knew was that it looked like an industrial wasteland. In some small way, this allowed me to imagine I was there as I read Clemens’ account.

Here’s one representative passage from the book, taken from Clemens’ description of a conversation he had with Duane, an electrical foreman brought in to dismantle machinery that would be shipped to Mexico and rebuilt.

There was reverence in his voice. . . . Duane was a product of Detroit’s once-extensive system of Catholic schools, and he liked the idea — an error that wasn’t mistaken — that the Budd plant was a sacred site.

“My dead relatives would be honored that I’m here taking this place apart,” he said. “It’s a crowning jewel. We’re not the king of England, but it’s something they passed on, and it’s something” — the disassembly work — “that needs to be done. You can’t leave this here, to rot in history. There’s still life left in these machines. It’s real important that they keep doing what they do, because a lot of people gave a lot of sweat and equity that has gone into these machines. You can’t measure it. You can’t measure the lives, you can’t measure the lunches, the allowances, that people were able to give their kids.” It’s “what these kinds of machines do,” he said. Duane hoped that Mexican families might now benefit as much as his own had. “It’s why we’re taking such care getting this thing out of here.”

Unions, protectionism versus free trade, the move of manufacturing jobs from the US to Mexico, Brazil, and beyond — these issues and more hover in the background as one reads Clemens’ meditation on the decline of an industry, a city, and a nation’s working class.

Categories: Automobiles, Books, Economy

Milestone, II

December 29, 2010 Leave a comment

A year ago tonight I wrote a post about my car, on the eve of its 3rd birthday. As I noted then, “I know that this is of no interest to anyone else, but here goes.” The point of last year’s post was to calculate my annual, monthly, and daily car use over its first three years. The odometer read 11,640, meaning I had averaged 3880 miles per year, or 323 1/3 miles per month. However, as I pointed out, I made a round trip to Vancouver, BC in the car’s first month, and two more after that, all on university business at the University of British Columbia, so subtracting the resulting 900 miles or so to determine my personal car use, I found that I had “done 10,740 miles of driving over three years, or 3580 per year, or 298 1/3 miles per month.” Rounding up to 300 miles per month, I found that I drove about 10 miles per day.

Here we are, a year later, on the eve of the car’s fourth birthday. What’s the latest odometer reading? 14,908. (The pity is, Gail used the car just three nights ago to pick someone up at the airport and then drive a ways north of Seattle, adding about 80 miles to the reading. If only she could have waited until tomorrow.) I have driven the car 3268 miles this year, for an average of only 272 1/3 miles per month, or a fraction over 9 miles a day. Averaging over the car’s four years, I have driven 3727 miles per year, or about 310 1/2 miles per month, or about 10 1/3 miles a day. If I deduct the 900 miles of driving to Vancouver and back, I bring the daily average over four years down to about 9 3/4 miles.

I’m clearly a candidate for an electric car. It will be a rare day when I have to worry about using up the charge.

Categories: Automobiles

Volt

November 23, 2010 Leave a comment

I must have a soft spot for GM. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s the 1959 Olds 98 we got in my childhood. Or my reading a few years later of Alfred Sloan’s My Years with General Motors, an odd choice for a 12-year-old. And then there were my Pontiacs, the 1974 Grand Am and the 1984 6000 STE. Two great cars. (Well, great if you ignore the idiosyncrasies of the Grand Am’s electrical system, which plagued it to the end. My favorite moment was the day I was driving back to my Cambridge apartment when I applied pressure to the brake pedal and the interior dome came on. Fortunately, so did the brakes. After I had several days to enjoy this new feature, I brought the car to the dealer to put it to an end.)

In any case, I’ve been enjoying all the great press the Chevy Volt has been receiving. I almost wrote about it last month, when the Wall Street Journal’s Dan Neil gave it a rave review, calling it “the company’s most technologically significant car since the 1912 Cadillac” and “a spark of genius.”

I get it. A lot of people don’t like GM because: 1) the bailout, or 1a) Obama; or 2) the United Auto Workers; or 3) because some Monte Carlo or Cutlass Sierra or deuce-and-a-quarter left them walking a long time ago. That’s understandable. These are sour times. But for the moment, we should suspend our rancor and savor a little American pride. A bunch of Midwestern engineers in bad haircuts and cheap wristwatches just out-engineered every other car company on the planet. And they did it in 29 months while the company they worked for was falling apart around them. That was downright heroic. Somebody ought to make a movie.

I’m writing about the Volt today because Motor Trend, in its January 2011 issue, has named it the Motor Trend Car of the Year. And because they are standing up to America’s biggest bully, Rush Limbaugh.

The award first. Motor Trend opens its piece on the Volt as follows:

“I expected a science fair experiment. But this is a moonshot.”

Chris Theodore is a wily veteran of the auto business, a seasoned development engineer whose impressive resume includes vehicles as thoughtfully executed as the Chrysler minivan and as tightly focused as the Ford GT.

As one of the consultant judges on this year’s COTY panel, Chris brought the deep insight and professional skepticism you’d expect of someone who’s spent his entire working life making cars. But our 2011 Car of the Year, Chevrolet’s ground-breaking Volt, has blown him away.

“This is a fully developed vehicle with seamlessly integrated systems and software, a real car that provides a unique driving experience. And commuters may never need to buy gas!”

Like all of us on the staff at Motor Trend, Chris is an enthusiast, a man who’ll keep a thundering high-performance V-8 in his garage no matter how high gas prices go. But he nailed the Volt’s place in automotive history: “If this is the brave new world, then it’s an acceptable definition.”

In the 61-year history of the Car of the Year award, there have been few contenders as hyped — or as controversial — as the Chevrolet Volt. The Volt started life an Old GM project, then arrived fully formed as a symbol of New GM, carrying all the emotional and political baggage of that profound and painful transition. As a result, a lot of the sound and fury that has surrounded the Volt’s launchhas tended to obscure a simple truth: This automobile is a game-changer.

The conclusion: “Moonshot. Game-changer. A car of the future that you can drive today, and every day. So what should we call Chevrolet’s astonishing Volt? How about, simply, Motor Trend’s 2011 Car of the Year.”

Now, about that bully. He’s been attacking the Volt at least since late July. In the wake of Motor Trend’s award, he attacked again, and the magazine’s Todd Lassa chose not to turn the other cheek. Here’s a sample.

… you continue to attack it as the car only a tree hugging, Obama-supporting Government Motors customer would want. …

In its attempt to force cars that don’t use much gas on us — how un-American/un-ExxonMobil/un-Halliburton is that? — the Obama administration is offering a $7,500 tax credit on the Chevy Volt, grabbing tax breaks and credits right out of the deserving, job-creating pockets of America’s richest individuals. How dare he?

This is another of your distortions, Rush, repeated by the otherwise more level-headed George Will in The Washington Post last Sunday. The $7,500 Obama tax credit is an expansion of President Bush’s hybrid credits from the last decade. The Obama tax credit extends to the new Nissan Leaf, too, but if you or Will slammed that car, I’ve not heard or read it. I’d be surprised if you did, though, as Nissan is building the Leaf in a non-union factory in a right-to-work state represented by two Republican senators. A factory located there because Tennessee offered Nissan big tax credits. Maybe you’re worried that if the $7,500 tax credit works, too many people will buy the Volt, and that could reduce the need for oil drilling tax credits?

GM designed the Chevy Volt after its failed experiment with the EV1, which was its attempt to respond to a California mandate. States rights, you know. While Toyota was developing, and eventually selling the hybrid Prius in ever-greater numbers, GM decided to move beyond the Prius-model with a new kind of technology that’s not quite plug-in hybrid, not quite pure electric.

It unveiled the Chevy Volt concept at the 2007 Detroit auto show. That means GM began working on it before the November 2006 elections, when the Republican Party had majorities in the House and Senate, before President Bush had signed a single veto. Bob Lutz, who famously decreed, “Global Warming is a crock of shit,” introduced the car two years before Bush gave GM its first bailout from TARP pocket change. This was two-and-a-half years before Obama’s Automotive Task Force forced GM into bankruptcy.

All the shouting from you or from electric car purists on the left can’t distort the fact that the Chevy Volt is, indeed, a technological breakthrough. And it’s more. It’s a technological breakthrough that many American families can use for gas-free daily commutes and well-planned vacation drives. It’s expensive for a Chevy, but many of those families will find the gasoline saved worth it. If you can stop shilling for your favorite political party long enough to go for a drive, you might really enjoy the Chevy Volt. I’m sure GM would be happy to lend you one for the weekend. Just remember: driving and Oxycontin don’t mix.

Hooray for Motor Trend. And for Chevrolet. If I were in the market for a car, I know the first one I’d be looking at. If only it were available here.

Categories: Automobiles

Milestone

December 29, 2009 Leave a comment

Three years ago tomorrow, I got a new car. Thus, today marks the end of three years of service. I got back an hour ago from a short outing with Joel, and I don’t anticipate going out again, so I can now calculate my annual — or monthly, or daily — usage over this time period. Yes, I know that this is of no interest to anyone else, but here goes.

The odometer reads 11,640. Dividing by 3, we find that I have averaged 3880 miles per year. And dividing that by 12, we find that I average 323 1/3 miles per month.

The thing is, I made a half-day round trip to Vancouver in the car’s first month, and since then two overnight round trips, all on university business at the University of British Columbia and each involving about 300 miles of driving. These trips distort the numbers. Subtracting 900 from the total, I find that I’ve done 10,740 miles of driving over three years, or 3580 per year, or 298 1/3 miles per month. That’s more like it.

Let’s just call it 300 miles of driving per month, or about 10 miles per day. Not much, huh? It helps that my drive to school is just over 2 miles. And it would be less if I didn’t have to drive all the way past campus to get to the appropriate entrance, then double back to get to the parking lot. At this rate, my car should last, well, I suppose pretty much forever. Its predecessor lasted two months short of 15 years, at which point it had about 76,000 miles on it. It could have kept going, but for the first time, it required an expensive set of repairs, and it had only one airbag, the standard driver’s airbag. I missed out on a front passenger airbag by one model year. Gail reminded me of its absence regularly. That car too might have lasted forever, but we decided to replace it. Maybe when my current car hits 15 years, there will be some standard and obvious safety feature that it will be missing.

Tomorrow we’ll celebrate the car’s third birthday. We have no special plans for it. Perhaps we’ll get a cake for ourselves.

Categories: Automobiles