Sunday, December 30, 2012

Shameless Self-promotion

2009 Mazda RX-8 R3

You can read about my best automotive memory of 2012 in Wheels here. You'll find links to other Wheels writers' there as well.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Suicidal Marketing Strategies 101

2006 Infiniti Q45 - This is a real Infiniti Q-car

Infiniti announced today that they are changing their model naming strategy, with all conventional cars carrying a "Q" prefix, followed by a two-digit number representing that model's position within the Infiniti range. Today's G37 range will be split into G50 (sedan) and G60 (coupe and convertible), for example.

Crossovers and SUVs will use "QX" and the same numeric sequence, though a "Q60" and a "QX60" will not necessarily be related or even similar in size.

For that matter, the new JX35 will become the QX60, while the smaller FX37/45 will become the QX70. Get it? Because the FX is more upscale than the JX - how can you not see the logic?

Says the release:

"This strategic change reflects Infiniti’s desire for clarity and cohesiveness as it embarks on ambitious growth plans, including significant expansion of the Infiniti portfolio."

Cohesiveness? If you mean that buyers won't have a bloody clue what model is what because they all have effectively the same name, you'd be right, I guess. Clarity, not so much.

Let's look at how well this kind of strategy has worked in the past.

Acura Legend. Memorable - and popular. Sold a bunch.
Acura RL. Acura What?
But, on the plus side, all ten people who bought them could tell their neighbours that the expensive, vaguely Accord-looking thing in their driveway was an "Acura", and not a "Legend". Good for brand recognition, right? Who cares if you actually sold any?

Or, for that matter, Lincoln's current model matrix: 
MKX - small crossover, twin of the Ford Edge.
MKT - big crossover, twin of the Ford Flex.
MKZ - midsize sedan, twin of the Ford Fusion.
MKS - large sedan, twin of the Ford Taurus.

Quick! What kind of vehicle is the MKZ? Buyers apparently have no clue, but I'll bet almost anyone in North America can correctly identify and name a Town Car or Navigator.

Nissan, Infiniti's parent company, has made large blunders with their premium brand in the past. When it introduced the brand in around 1989-1990, it showed ads with rocks and trees and Japanese gardens, rather than the products themselves. It also put what looked like an artsy Texan's belt-buckle in the centre of the Q45 flagship's grille-less nose. Looks OK today, but it was fairly bizarre back then.

Toyota, on the other hand, chose to not only show its new Lexus models, but it did it with stunts like balancing champagne glasses on the hood of an LS 400 while it ran at speed on a dyno, displaying the car's refinement and technical prowess. Shamelessly aping the overall shape and appearance of Mercedes' top S-Class, the LS's targeted competitor, paid off.

This latest move is ill-conceived and doomed to failure. Hopefully it won't clobber the company too much, and things will revert back to the way they are now, with different letters for the model range (typically going up the alphabet as the grade rises), and a numeric representation of the engine's displacement (as in "G37" or "M45"). 

Infinti, please stop the madness!

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Jackass Award/When Engineers Get Bored

2006 BMW 323i engine bay

Quick - can you spot the engine oil dipstick in the engine bay of this 2006 BMW "E90" 323i?

Tick, tock, tick, tock...

Trick question: there isn't one.

This is a combined "When Engineers Get Bored" and "Jackass Award" entry, because there was no real reason to eliminate the dipstick.

Although quite a good number of automatic transmissions have gone stick-less in the past decade or so, unless they're leaking, they don't consume fluid. Engines do. Engines also have their oil replaced fairly frequently. Transmissions? In a perfect world, not so much.

Bored BMW engineers obviously felt that they could save a few dollars by using electronics and sensors to replace the engine oil dipstick. Oh, wait, that actually wouldn't be cheaper, now would it?

So why do it? Good chance it will drive up service department business, I would have to think. Sure, it does keep the customer from having to open the hood and potentially get dirty checking their oil, but has that really been a problem for the last 120 years? I doubt it.

Eliminating the dipstick becomes a problem when a vehicle that is known to consume oil, and which has crazy-long service intervals that almost guarantee the need to add oil between changes (BMW actually sells an accessory spare oil bottle holder for the trunk for this purpose) then has no practical way of quickly and easily determining the oil level.

Or does it?

As it turns out, it does, kind of. In a bored engineer sort of way.

2006 BMW 323i oil level indicator. Yes, it's in the trip computer.

Built in to the trip computer is an oil level check function. Certain criteria have to be met (engine temperature, engine run time, etc.) before it will display the level, and - counter-intuitively - it has to be running to check the level. Doing an oil change? Better know how much oil this thing holds beforehand, because you're committed once you begin - you can't check the level until you start it.

If memory serves, the "min" and "max" indications are not 1 litre (quart) apart, as on most cars and trucks, either. No owner's manual? No service information? No familiarity? You're fairly much euchred. And that's if you can parse out the secret to activating this display in the first case.

Having something that warns the driver of a low oil level is no bad thing on its own. Sometimes we need to have our hands held for us, and excessively low engine oil is an expensive "oops". I'm more than OK with building that function in.

But eliminating as simple, effective, and cheap of a maintenance device as a dipstick is pointless at best, and it's a quick way to earn yourself a Jackass Award.
Porsche Winter Driving Experience - Camp4, Ivalo, Finland

You can find my Wheels Christmas Gift Guide here. There should be links to similar guides from my Wheels colleagues there as well.

While our price categories were determined by the paper, if you're shopping for a car enthusiast, you'll likely have different cost maximums. Tools, car wash soap/wax, and dress-up accessories are risky choices for true enthusiasts, as most have pretty specific preferences on these items. My friend Justin Pritchard has some sage advice in this regard - you can read it here.

It's hard to go wrong with gift cards for gas, even if they might seem impersonal. Unless of course your giftee drives a Nissan Leaf. I don't think the electric company offers gift cards...

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Miscellaneous Ramblings - Suzuki Canada's Golden Opportunity

Suzuki of America recently announced that it will no longer sell passenger vehicles, focusing instead on its more successful motorcycle, recreational vehicle, and outboard motor product lines.

Immediately afterwards, Suzuki Canada released a statement asserting that it would continue with business as usual in Canada. (See the Star's coverage of that news here.)

Given some of the relative crap that Suzuki sold in the States (see below) - which did not precisely mirror what was sold here - and Americans' general disdain for smaller vehicles in general, Suzuki USA's weak sales aren't really all that surprising.

Part of the blame lies with General Motors. GM used to have a good-sized stake in Suzuki, and numerous Suzuki products were sold in both the U.S. and Canada wearing various GM badges, particularly from the mid-eighties to the late nineties. The Chevy Sprint? A Suzuki Forsa. Geo Metro? Suzuki Swift. Chevy/GMC/Geo Tracker? Suzuki (Grand) Vitara.

GM's CAMI assembly plant in Ingersoll, Ontario was originally a joint-venture, building Metros and Trackers, eventually returning the favour with an expanded version of the Chevy Equinox being sold as the Suzuki XL7. Well, sold by the dozen, anyway.

The Suzuki/GM relationship soured somewhat when General Motors bought ailing Korean automaker Daewoo in 2001, giving the General ready access to a newly redesigned generation of compact and subcompact cars built in a relatively low labour-cost country. In the U.S., doubtless with GM's influence, Suzuki ended up shilling several Daewoo products as their own; versions of the Daewoo Lacetti, sold in Canada as the Chevy Optra and Optra5, became the Suzuki Forenza and Reno, while our Chevy Epica (actually Daewoo's flagship, the Leganza) was their Verona.

Worse yet - in an insult to everyone - the Chevy Aveo (sold in both countries; it was the four door version of the Daewoo Kalos) became Canada's Suzuki Swift+. I'm guessing the "+" was to differentiate it from the vastly superior "nonplussed" Swift sold in the rest of the world.

(From the "where did that come from?" department, Suzuki also briefly sold a version of the Tennessee-made Nissan Frontier as the Equator. Available on both sides of the 49th, it was a good truck, but not an obvious fit for Suzuki's product portfolio. Confused buyers stayed away in droves.)

European-spec Suzuki Swift Sport
GM's financial troubles eventually resulted in GM selling most of its stake in Suzuki, which has since gone on to form a co-operative agreement with Volkswagen. Maybe VW was flattered by the startling resemblance between Suzuki's Kizashi and the 2006 Jetta.

While the loss of car and truck sales in the U.S. may be detrimental to Suzuki on the whole (or maybe not, if it was losing money doing it, as this pull-out suggests), this could well prove to be a golden opportunity for Suzuki Canada. Previously, Suzuki's American operations would have had an overpowering influence on product-planning decisions. Now Suzuki Canada is effectively master of its own destiny, at least within the confines of what its Japanese parent allows. Rather than try and move upmarket, as they did with the coolly received (but actually quite respectable) Kizashi, they should play to their strengths.

The Canadian market is much more Euro-centric, particularly in Quebec. We like smaller cars than our southern cousins. Suzuki's specialty is building small cars profitably, to the point where they build or license small cars globally for brands as diverse as Fiat, Subaru, and Nissan. They make small, we like small - sounds like a good match.

European-spec Suzuki Swift (special edition model)

I'd suggest that Suzuki Canada's first move be to bring in the real Swift, and do it, well, swiftly. There's a four door version of the two door hatch seen in the above photos that's nearly as good-looking, and from all accounts that I've read, it's a really nice car to drive too.

So c'mon, Suzuki Canada, bring on the Swift. And don't forget to market it.

(You might want to try offering all-wheel drive in the sedan version of the SX4, instead of just in the hatch, while you're at it - and again, this time actually promote the feature, Subaru-style. I'm just saying, I think that would work...)

To find out more about the Swift, and to see some of the models Suzuki offers in the rest of the world, check out their global website here.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Jackass Award - Ford Edge/Lincoln MKX Rear Hubs

2007-ish Ford Edge

Lest anyone get the impression that I live to pick on GM, rest assured that it is a regular occurrence to find questionable design or engineering choices from virtually every automaker. If it hasn't happened for me with a particular brand yet, it's probably because I simply haven't had to work on many of that brand's products.

Today's example is a Ford Edge. I think this one is a 2007, but they're the same from 2006 on, as is the Edge's Lincoln MKX twin.

Wheel bearings, a.k.a "hubs" or "hub assemblies" are by nature wear items, though there are a great number of vehicles that reach the end of their service life never having had one replaced.

All the same, you've got to figure there's a decent chance that someone will need to replace them at some point, so why not make them relatively easy to replace? You'd think this would also make them easy to install during assembly, right?

Ford Edge rear axle as seen standing beneath the cargo area, facing right rear. Note the hidden Torx bolts.
Meet the Ford Edge. In a front-wheel drive Edge those Torx-head bolts seen above would be sitting in a wide open space. Not so with all-wheel drive Edges, since the rear CV shaft (axle) and its large ABS tone ring (the toothed piece, which is part of the ABS sensor) do a good job of blocking service access. Clearly, this suspension arm is assembled prior to there ever being a driveshaft in the way.

Detail view of rear hub assembly fasteners.

Because they're so close to the ABS tone ring (don't dare damage that - ABS issues can result), and because there's only a direct, straight-line access to one of the four bolts (due to interference from the rear springs, etc.), they're an awkward nuisance to work with. Almost makes the Volkswagen Tiguan's rear hubs seem user friendly.

As a bonus, it does give your friendly technician an opportunity to buy yet another expensive tool set that he/she will use infrequently at best - and even this specialized tool had to be partially disassembled (Torx bit removed from its socket to be turned by a wrench instead) just to remove and install one of the bolts.

Long-reach 1/2" drive Torx socket set.
It didn't have to be this way.

The spread of the bolt pattern could have been a few millimeters wider, or, better yet, the bolts could have been fastened from the other side through the hub flange. Conventional hex head bolts could have been used.

Exterior view of rear hub with brake assembly removed.

This Award may be shared in part with Mazda, as there's some shared engineering in the Edge. The Edge's origins, via a convoluted path, lie in the original Mazda6's platform, courtesy of the Ford Fusion - a common basic architecture known at Ford as CD3. (Perhaps I should have paid more attention the last time one of those cars came in.)

For making this part more difficult to service than is really necessary, Ford (and maybe Mazda), please allow me to present you with a Jackass Award.

Admit it - you were curious what this part looked like, right?

Shameless Self-promotion

2013 Ford Fusion Hybrid, as appearing at AJAC's CCOTY "TestFest"

You can find my Wheels coverage of the "Best New Family Car (over $30k)" category's entrants here.

Please note that this article, and the one that follows, were written prior to the release of the actual winners, so my (apparently incorrect) guesses are included, as well as some minor tinkering from the Star's editorial staff.

2013 Ford Focus ST, as appearing at AJAC's CCOTY "TestFest"

You can read my Wheels coverage of the "Best New Sports/Performance Car (under $50k)" category's entrants here.

(Please see the note above.)

Shameless Self-promotion

2014 Mazda6 (European spec)
You can find my Wheels preview of Mazda's handsome new 6 here.

Shameless Self-promotion

2013 Chevrolet Spark 1LT
You can find my Wheels review of Chevrolet's 2013 Spark here.

Jackass Award - The Lazy Blogger


No, the Award's not for the cat. Shelby is just doing what cats do best - she's stalking a mouse. And sleeping. Which is what I've been doing recently with this blog.

For leaving this blog unattended and in dire need of an update, I'm going to have to give myself a Jackass Award.

See? No favouritism here at Loose Nut.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Jackass Award - GM's Theta-platform Front Hubs

2005 Chevrolet Equinox
This is a 2005 Chevy Equinox, one of a trio of first-generation Theta platform mid-size crossovers that General Motors sold in North America, the others being the Saturn Vue and Pontiac Torrent. The Spring Hill, Tennessee-made Vue came first, introduced as a 2002 model, with the Ingersoll, Ontario-made Equinox and Torrent following in 2004.

Seen below is the front hub assembly from the Equinox pictured above; a Torrent would be identical, a Vue similar. Incorporated into the hub is the front wheel bearing, which is a wear item, and a common failure part in many vehicles, though I can safely say that it's a particular weak spot in numerous GM vehicles. When the bearing portion of this part fails, it can result in excessive play, noise, or both. This one was noisy.

Front Hub Assembly - Before
So why is this worthy of a Jackass Award? Well, it's not for the failure rate, which, to be fair, may or may not be statistically significant - my sample area includes a higher than normal percentage of GM vehicles, after all. Not for using a hub design, which while more expensive to replace, is far, far easier to change than the press-fit wheel bearings frequently found in such applications.

No, the Jackass Award goes to the engineering team for this part, who obviously felt that it was not only a good idea to fit a steel hub into an aluminum steering knuckle (steel and aluminum don't play well together, especially in the presence of salt), but to do so with NASA-level tolerances that made this part a tight fit even before the swelling effects of corrosion became a factor. The bolts are what actually hold the hub in place, and there are several other vehicles where there is clearance or even cutouts around their hubs, so this one-step-short-of-press-fit design was unnecessary.

The end result is a hub that is remarkably reluctant to part ways with the knuckle. So reluctant, in fact, that it normally has to be beaten to a pulp to be removed. (The rear hubs on these vehicles don't exactly fall out either.)

Forget using a slide hammer here, as that will just pull the flange out of the bearing. The most effective extraction method, short of removing the knuckle/upright and putting it in a press (which no sane mechanic would want to do), is to baseball-style swing a Bloody Big Hammer at the flange until the hub and knuckle declare defeat, or the mechanic passes out. You can see what the hub looks like after 15 minutes of intermittent hammer swinging in the photo below.

I did mention the aluminum knuckle, right? Be careful not to hit that with the BBH - it's not really forgiving if you hit it in the wrong places. It's not unusual for the sheetmetal dust shield to suffer during this process, either. If it isn't rotten already. Don't worry, the dealer stocks it; you won't be the first to kill one.

Extracted Hub - After 15 minutes of on-and-off pounding, it's feeling a bit out of shape...

You'd think that a vehicle designed in North America and built in Canada would take corrosion into account. As you can see below, corrosion is definitely a factor here. (The machined face of the knuckle has already been cleaned in this photo.)

See the corrosion?
Oddly, the nearly identical component set in a similarly-sized Chevy Uplander minivan does not suffer from the same problem. Yes, it fails regularly, and it does use an aluminum knuckle with a steel bearing, but it normally comes apart with little fuss.

For designing a serviceable part in a manner that makes it far more difficult to actually service than it ever needed to be, while simultaneously failing to take into consideration the real-world environment that this product would face in its primary market, please accept a Jackass Award. A great example of Bonehead Engineering.

...and here's what the new unit looks like. I couldn't leave you hanging.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Photoshop Wizards At Work

I came across something today somewhat by accident, while reading the latest news on GM Inside News about the redesigned 2013 Chevrolet Traverse.

Included were a selection of GM's supplied-for-editorial-use photos - including these two images of what appear at first blush to be a pair of new Traverses. But, hey, hang on a second! If you look a bit closer, you'll discover that it isn't a pair of Traverses, it's the same damn one Photoshopped!

2013 Chevy Traverse - photo © General Motors

2013 Chevy Traverse - photo © General Motors

Don't believe me? Look at the license plate, or better yet, look at the way the reflections on the body match perfectly with each other (around the rear quarter panel it's really obvious). Not to mention the wheel spokes lining up.

GM (and others) have been digitally altering pictures like this for years - I have brochures for 1991 Chevy and GMC trucks and SUVs where it's plainly obvious the grilles and badges have been changed, particularly when you see the pictures side by side. In those days, you could normally spot the grafted-in parts.

These two photos illustrate perfectly just how seamless the software and techniques are now, since beyond the readily apparent colour change, this Traverse obviously couldn't have been photographed in at least one of these locations. Actually, my bet is that it wasn't shot at either of them, but I challenge you to find anything in these pictures that would give that away.

As a semi-pro photographer myself (I get paid for at least some of my pictures, so by definition I figure that I qualify for that rank), it disturbs me because I don't use any post-processing or digital manipulation unless clearly stated, normally not even so much as a general exposure or contrast correction. Frankly, I wouldn't have the talent or resources to pull off a composite image polished enough to pass for real anyway.

No, unless otherwise stated, any of the pictures that you see in this blog that belong to me are as they came out of the camera - for better or for worse - and those cars were where you see them. The same applies for those that appear in Wheels, as it is the Star's policy not to use altered pictures, the exception being "photo illustrations", which are clearly marked as such.

I'm not calling this evil, or even necessarily wrong, but I will say this: I try very hard to provide good quality photos, as I'm sure do many of my colleagues. How can we hope to compete with processed studio-shot images and idealistic backgrounds? For that matter, in this day and age, how can anyone believe anything they didn't see with their own eyes?

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Shameless Self-promotion

2012 Chevrolet Sonic LT
You can find my Wheels review of Chevy's 2012 Sonic LT hatchback here.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Shameless Self-promotion

2012 Chevy Orlando LTZ

You can find my Wheels review of Chevrolet's new Orlando here.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Shameless Self-promotion

2012 Mazda5 (with aftermarket roof-top storage)
You can read my Wheels article on what four new 6-or more passenger vehicles you should check out while attending this year's 2012 Canadian International Auto Show in Toronto here. You'll also find my first appearance as a "talking head" for Wheels at that same link. Yikes!

Shameless Self-promotion

Fat guy on a ratchet - I help build the 100 Millionth Chevy Small Block engine

You can read my Wheels article about Chevrolet's milestone 100 Millionth Small Block V8 and its history here.

Shameless Self-promotion

2012 Nissan Leaf SL

You can read my Wheels review of Nissan's all-electric Leaf here.

Shameless Self-promotion

Audi Q3 Vail

You can read my Wheels coverage of the latest crossovers to be introduced in Detroit at the 2012 North American International Auto Show here.