Posts Tagged ‘Automotive’

Time for an update on the green car market. I don’t need to remind anyone that with gas prices approaching $5 a gallon (I live in CA) the market for more fuel efficient vehicles couldn’t be better right now, or is it?

So, we all know that there are quite a few choices when it comes to hybrid cars, and while the Toyota Prius is still popular, Chevy’s new Volt has done a good job of reinventing the hybrid with a much more efficient system, despite some issues with battery recalls and in my opinion, bad press. Only problem with the Volt, I think, is the price, and the Volt is not alone. New entry Coda Automotive and it’s 100% electric vehicle boasts a nice range, arguably better than the Nissan Leaf, but comes at a hefty price of close to $40K, which is about the same as the Volt. Of course, the Volt has the advantage of NOT being a 100% electric vehicle, giving hesitant EV buyers the piece of mind to know that their foray into the green car market won’t mean worrying about being left stranded somewhere when their charge dies and there isn’t a recharge station near by. I think that fear will linger for a while, but honestly, EVs are really not meant to be a long, road trip type car anyway.

So, lets consider sales figures. Nissan is struggling with only 5,212 Leafs sold in the US as of October(from the Detroit News), a far cry from the company’s goal of selling 20,000 Leafs by the end of this year, but considering Nissan’s early entry into the market, the advantage to the average consumer is the availability of used vehicles for sale, and we all know used is a lot cheaper than new. You can’t buy a used Coda since it’s a new vehicle this year, but do a simple search on Craig’s List and you’ll find 2011 Nissan Leaf’s for around $25K, and yes, I understand that a new Leaf is about the same price as the Coda, but since it has been on the market longer, it has had some time to mature, with new infrastructure to go along with it. If you go to Nissan’s website and look for charging stations, it says there are currently 6,300 nationwide and growing, but more importantly, they have some new stations that can recharge your Leaf in about 30 minutes. I consider this a big plus in one of the EVs biggest barrier to entry among new buyers: fear of limited range and long re-charge times, cost, however, is still an issue, which is why being able to buy one used, is a huge plus.

Image

The Chevy Volt on the other hand has sold more than 16K units to date this year, which is three times what it sold during the same period last year. A used Volt will run you about $30K plus, which is a little more than a used Leaf, but again, with potential buyers being fearful of a limited re-charging infrastructure, the Volt should continue to do well.

Most surprising I think on the green car front is Toyota’s recent announcement to scrap plans of a widespread rollout of its pure electric mini eQ car. Having been the early adopter of green cars when it introduced the Hybrid Prius, now more than 10 years old, logic would dictate that Toyota should be ‘gung ho’ to rollout a pure electric car, not pullback and say the market isn’t ready due to high production costs, long recharge times and limited range, although that is all probably true, a market takes time to mature, and they should know. When the Prius was first introduced, it really was not a cost-effective solution, i.e., the high-cost of the car was not offset by the fuel savings. However, Toyota is introducing an all-electric Rav4 that it has jointly produced with Tesla Motors and plans to roll out just 2,600 vehicles in the next three years­–not exactly the same as when it introduced the Prius in the US in 2000 and sold closer to 6,000 of them that first year. Has Toyota lost its nerve, or are they just being smart about making their next move into the green car market? The recent bankruptcy filing of A123, the Waltham Mass-based lithium ion battery producer, may just be evidence that Toyota knows exactly what they’re doing. Much like Nissan, Toyota has its own lofty sales targets to deal with. The Japanese carmaker has projected it will sell between 35K to 40K plug-in hybrids by the end of this year in Japan, but has so far only sold around 8,400. Much like the other EVs and hybrids, the Prius plug-in isn’t cheap. The standard plug-in Prius starts at $32K plus and the plug-in Hybrid Advanced is closer to $40K.

Time will tell who will come out on top. I think the biggest fear about owning a pure electric vehicle comes down to running out of juice with no where close by to recharge it. When you think about it though, this really shouldn’t be a big deal since you should have some idea how far you plan on driving before you leave the house, I mean you do the same with gas don’t you? The other thing is Nissan makes it easy to find out where the recharging stations are, and have drastically improved the time it takes to recharge a car, not to mention AAA has trucks that will come out and recharge your EV in case that ever happens (see my earlier blog on this topic). I’m sure it took time for a gas station to appear on nearly every corner, but think about how much work was involved in digging up the ground to install huge storage tanks, etc., all things you would NOT have to do to create a recharging station. A bigger issue is the need for better battery technology. Lithium is a highly unstable metal that is dangerous and expensive. I honestly believe this is a bigger barrier to entry than anything else. Admit it though, wouldn’t like to NOT have to buy gas?

There’s no doubt that electric cars are making a comeback, and while new technology has made them more efficient with longer range capabilities, nothing has changed about the fact that once batteries are dead, it takes time to recharge them.

Electric cars can typically take about ten hours to recharge with a standard outlet, or if you have the $2K to upgrade to a 240 volt charger-what is typically used to power electric clothes dryers-then the charge time is reduced to about 3 hours. The latest and greatest technology for recharging EVs is called ‘Level 3’ and uses a 480 volt system. It boasts a recharge time of 80% capacity in only 30 minutes, only problem is, the special wiring upgrade is in the neighborhood of $50K.

So the big question is, what do you do if you’re driving home and your EV dies?  Not surprising, AAA has recently come out with new trucks equipped to rescue your battery drained EV.  Their new tow trucks are equipped with a 4.5 kWh lithium-ion battery on board that can give a standard electric car anywhere between 15 and 3 miles of power, depending on the type of charger your car has.

AAA will deploy the trucks with mobile electric vehicle charging capacity in six metropolitan areas across the US as a pilot program including San Francisco Bay Area, Portland, Seattle, Los Angeles, Knoxville and the Tampa Bay area. AAA estimates that there will be 1.2 million EVs on US roads by 2015. On a personal note, if oil companies were smart, they would start adding recharge stations to their existing gas station infrastructure across the country. It will be interesting to see what happens in the next couple of years, there’s no doubt that an electric car, or very efficient hybrid car, is automakers big revenue race, that is to say, they will be competing to one up each other with a better, cheaper fuel efficient car. If oil companies ignore this fact, they could be like the next saddle makers before everyone starting owning a car instead of a horse. You watch, it WILL happen.

I read an article in Forbes recently titled the death of the pickup truck claiming mostly that declining truck sales have been attributed to high fuel prices and an overall change in buyer’s attitudes about needing a truck.  While I believe this is partially true, I think there are other reasons why fewer people have been turning down that new truck purchase. I also don’t believe the truck is dead or even dying for that matter, evolving maybe, but remember that the first cars ever made were trucks or used as such.

Yes, it’s true that trucks use more fuel, and when the price of gas in California hit more than $4 a gallon, spending more than $100 to fill the tank was definitely a good reason to not buy a truck, but there are other reasons as well. I think one of the bigger reasons buyers are looking at cheaper crossover vehicles and compact SUVs, which are also more fuel efficient, is the fact that trucks now have too many options that make them some of the most expensive vehicles on the market, and the real question is why? Traditionally, pickup trucks never had a lot of options, so for the buyer, they were a cheaper alternative to big SUVs that were more expensive. All the smart buyer had to do was add a carpet kit and a camper shell to a cheap truck and bam, you had a much cheaper SUV. I still remember when a new truck didn’t have leather interior, or power windows and seats, heated AND cooled seats, or backup cameras and in-dash GPS navigation or in some cases they didn’t even come with a rear bumper!

I know it seems ridiculous now to get a truck without even a rear bumper, but pickup trucks were never fancy because they didn’t need to be. You hauled your stuff in the bed, got from point A to B and that was all you needed to do with them. If you had to tow something, you got a heavier duty model, the more weight you needed to tow, the tougher the truck you got. And they drove like a truck-meaning, you could easily tell the difference when you rode in a truck compared to how the ride feels in a car. It’s hard to tell the difference between the two now. In short, truck manufacturers have catered their line of pickups to satisfy people that drive cars, and that has made them expensive, and frustrating for the traditional truck owner that doesn’t want or need a fancy pickup. It’s not uncommon to see trucks that cost $60K or more, that is if you want one that will function like a true truck and not just a cheap car with an open bed that still gets lousy gas mileage. So now they aren’t as attractive to traditional car owners because they’re just as expensive or more than SUVs, not only in base price, but for fuel economy as well.

To give you an example of what I’m talking about, the Ford F-series trucks, which are the most popular trucks(and vehicle) on the road, will cost you at least $20K for a base model F150, will get about 17 mpg, and to be quite honest, is not nearly as tough a truck as a base model F150 used to be. The V-6 engine won’t handle real heavy loads(option-less F150s in the early to mid 90’s generally came with V-8s) or tow very much, and of course it will still get lousy gas mileage, and because it’s the base model, it won’t have those fancy features that have been added over the years to attract the non-traditional truck owners. So what you have is basically a truck that isn’t a very good ‘truck’, making them less attractive to any buyer that isn’t a local municipality, leaving only the more optioned ‘better’ trucks that are now too expensive for anybody. A Ford F-250, the baseline heavier duty model that is more like a ‘truck’ as we know them to be, will cost you close to $50K, and can get way more pricey depending on how many bells and whistles you want to add to it. Back in the day-I’m talking about 15 years ago-a base model F150 was tougher, could handle heavier loads, and cost about $14K-gas mileage was still lousy, but gas was also much cheaper then. Even the heavier duty F250/350 models were based on the same body as the F150, unlike today’s models that are entirely different, and of course more expensive.

The same scenario is also true for most of the smaller pickup trucks, and although I believe that the truck will never really die, in this economy, car manufacturers need to shift gears and stick to a tried and true philosophy that less is more.  However, some contractors that drive their pickups all day long tend to like a more comfortable ride and don’t mind paying a little more for a fancy pickup, which is one of the saving graces for truck manufacturers, but narrows down the market of potential buyers.

I think that if the auto manufacturers want to sell more trucks, they should beef up the drive train of their base model pickups, and let the buyers add whatever after-market accessories they want, which is cheaper to do than buying one that is already equipped with features they don’t need. Keep it simple, we are living in a time that calls for ‘leaner’ standards, mostly to save money, but will the car-makers sacrifice that extra revenue for the all the added features they like to include? They should if it means they will sell less volume. Remember that Henry Ford made a killing in the car market by producing something cheap and affordable (model-T’s came in one color, black, to reduce costs). Aside from the Volkswagen Beetle, the Ford Model-T was the most produced car ever, of course it should be no coincidence that the ‘Bug’ was a simple, affordable car as well.

 

 

It’s no secret that online stores have great prices-but don’t forget why traditional ‘brick-and-mortar’ stores are still a better way to go for automotive accessories, particularly when you’re looking at something that is hundreds of dollars or even up over a thousand dollars, and more importantly, specific to your vehicle.

Knowing your car

 The first thing you need to know before you shop for the accessory or part you’re looking for is to identify what you’re driving, and what’s available for that model, such as the year and make of your vehicle. I’ve spent enough time looking up parts to know that in order to get the correct part, vehicle applications can vary depending on years, models, trim packages, special editions and the like, and it can get a little confusing. The applications can be so daunting in fact that many online databases simply cannot decipher the exact vehicle you have. Some sites are better than others, but knowing exactly what you have to make sure you get the right part is key-VERY key.

Here is an example of what I’m talking about. Assume you own a 2007 Chevy Silverado pickup, that was the first year of the current bodystyle, but if you got the heavy duty (2500 or 3500) model, it is what General Motors refers to as the ‘classic’ bodystyle, meaning it’s the same body that was used prior to 2007, and they kept that body with the heavier duty trucks into the following year. However, if you bought your new Chevy (the light duty 1500 version) early in the year, it may still be the classic body. So, many databases will not know that your truck is actually a 2006 body and not like the current year. The current Chevy and GMC models are also slightly different, even though many people think they are the same (up until 2007, GMC and Chevy truck beds were interchangeable, this was the first year they have not been like that). This seems to happen in cycles. An almost identical scenario happened in 1999/2000 when that generation of GM trucks first hit the market. The 2004 Ford F150 is another classic example, if you have the Heritage model; it’s actually a 2003 body and chassis. Confused yet? You’re not alone, and these are just two examples. This is why the person behind the counter at an accessory or parts store is better equipped to get you the right part, because they’ve seen all the different models and probably found out the hard way by getting the wrong parts already, but have since learned what is what. They need to know these things in order to do their job, and no offense to ‘e-tailers’, but they sit at a desk on a phone and have probably not dealt with the parts they’re selling in a ‘hands-on’ sort of way. Remember, just because YOU think you know exactly what you have, doesn’t always mean you do.

Why shipping isn’t always free

So if and when you get the wrong part ordering online, that free shipping is no longer free because you have to pay to send it back, unless you want to have to deal with calling the e-tailer to get reimbursed for getting the wrong part, but if you made the mistake by not knowing exactly which vehicle you had, good luck getting credit for that shipping charge. The other way you get the shaft on having to return something that was originally shipped for free is if the part you bought simply doesn’t work, for reasons you didn’t anticipate. An example of this is if you were to buy something like a cargo divider for your truck bed and it didn’t work because you had an aftermarket hard tonneau cover that got in the way, although you thought it wouldn’t be a problem. This would be your fault, so although you didn’t have to pay for shipping to receive it, you do have to pay shipping to return it. Believe it or not, if the box is ‘oversized’, the cost to ship it back to the manufacture or e-tailer could be almost as much-or more, than what you originally paid! If you had bought this in a store, the salesperson would have known the part would not work, and even if they didn’t, it would have been their responsibility for getting it wrong, and would have to give you all your money back. Remember to always ask a store salesperson if the part you want to order is a ‘special’ order, because sometimes those types of orders cannot be returned or they can but a ‘restock’ fee will be charged. If it’s simply a matter of a part sitting in a local distributor’s warehouse, then it’s usually no problem for a store to just return a part with no extra cost to them or you-but always ask to make sure this is the case.

Warranty issues

Things break, come damaged, or are just plain defective. If you buy something online, dealing with a warranty issue takes time and just isn’t fun at all. You have to do the calling, you have to wait on hold, you have to ship back the old parts-need I say more? When you buy something at a brick and mortar store, they have to do all of this for you, that is to say they SHOULD do all of this for you. Smart store owners know that they are competing with online retailers and that their only ace in the hole is good customer service. You may pay a little more, but you have the piece of mind to know that if you have any issues at all, it will be taken care of with little hassle to you.

Go for it

If you’re 100 percent sure you have the right part number and know exactly what you’re getting, there’s nothing wrong with taking advantage of a good online deal. I find it helpful to look at reviews of products-Amazon is good for that. Online forums are also good. Just remember that most brick and mortar stores can meet or beat almost any competitive price, and if they can’t, it’s because e-tailers have removed the only thing that really matters from the box: the service before, during, and after the sale.

Welcome to Tom’s Autoblog

Posted: February 17, 2011 in Uncategorized
Tags: ,

So I finally decided to start writing a blog-mostly because I’m a journalist (well, I used to be at one point in my life) and cars are my passion. I also feel as though the automotive market is ever-changing, and is at one of it’s most interesting times right now. I will go into details as to why I feel that way for my first blog post.

It’s no secret that the economy has seen better days, and while a lot of headlines emphasize different areas that have been hit hard, such as real estate, it’s arguable that nothing has been hit harder than the automotive market. Don’t believe me? According to U.S. sales data (source: R.L. Polk & Co.) 2009 saw the lowest number of sales in 27 years. The number of cars sold from 2005 to 2009, the total amount sold during that period has dropped by nearly 40%. In other words, four years ago, auto dealers sold almost 7 million more cars than they did in 2009

. (2005 total vehicles sold in the US was slightly more than 17 million, 2009 it was 10.4). The data for 2010 is predicting to be marginally better than 2009. Does that mean it’s just tough times for the ‘big three’ U.S. auto manufacturers? No. Try factoring in every manufacturer from Japan to the UK, and all their dealers, and all the vendors that make parts for these vehicles, and the materials, and the accessory manufacturers and the list goes on. It’s not a small market, and it has taken a beating. Car guys have never had it so bad, but it’s not all doom and gloom. I have always believed in the idea that tough times only make us stronger. I may not have lived through the Great Depression, but I know for a fact that I have been to more job interviews than all my immediate family members combined, and I’m still working.

Despite hard economic times, cars are going through design changes we have never seen before. In the late 50’s we saw lots of chrome and new technology such as fuel injection and air conditioning. Largely though, cars didn’t change too much over the years, minus the chrome. They got meaner with big block, gas-guzzling motors and then they got small, and ugly. If you went out and bought a new pick up truck only 20 years ago, it came with practically nothing: no radio, no ac, no power windows-or power anything for that matter-no tow hitches and sometimes you didn’t even get a rear bumper! That’s changed, and trucks are not the only vehicles that now come with a ton of creature comforts. There are luxury cars that have heated, and cooled seats. Back-up cameras on trucks and SUVs are practically standard, and with wireless smartphones now attached to our hips, a lot of cars have the ability to synch with the driver’s phones, giving a whole new dimension to the idea of hands-free cell phone use, and this is a good thing as far as safety is concerned. GPS navigation keeps us from getting lost, but that’s not all technology has done, we are starting to see some cars now that can park themselves!  It seems as though every year some new piece of technology is making its way into our vehicles, and who knows, pretty soon we won’t even have to drive to work, our car will do it for us-at least that’s what I’m hoping for anyway. Of course the green movement, with hybrids and pure electric vehicles, is a whole topic on its own.

Technology though is not all that’s making headway in automotive design, cool new looking cars are coming on the market, some with retro-styling that at times makes you think it’s 1970 all over again. Take the new Camaro, Mustang and Challenger-all have a very 1969/1970 look to them. Mercedes is bringing back a gull-wing door car, and Cadillac has moved away from big luxury, to sleeker, sportier styling. All of this, remember, is being done at a time when money is tight, business is down and the future is uncertain. There is no doubt that the car is not going away, it’s evolving, and it’s nice to see that despite hard economic times, the automobile will continue to persevere.