Thursday, September 30, 2010

Think GM is dead? Not on your life

Sacramento, California – The auto business is more cyclical than American politics, which is to say the pendulum tends to swing wildly every few years, and people have short memories when it comes to past history.

Right now, the prevailing logic says Ford can do no wrong, and General Motors is a mess.

Those assessments have the accuracy of a political TV ad, which is to say the truth has been stretched and mangled.

To be sure, Ford has done an incredible job lifting itself up over the past couple of years. Ford chief Alan Mulally and his team deserve high praise for the current Ford lineup of motor vehicles and the billions of dollars that have been pouring into the automaker’s coffers.

GM? Well, there’s that whole government bailout public relations disaster, criticism from seemingly all corners about its once-bloated lineup of oversized vehicles and the general smug satisfaction of folks who like to kick the nation’s top automaker when it’s down.

Yet on a global scale, GM might be the most well-positioned automaker doing business on American soil.

Case in point: China. In the first half of this year, GM reported U.S. unit sales of some 1.07 million vehicles. However, a relative few know that GM sold about 1.2 million units in China over the same period. In truth, the Chinese – resting atop an economy only recently asserting itself as a mega-power – seem to love GM products.

GM sales growth in the populous nation is projected to continue on an upward path well into this decade.

So, if you consider automobile sales amid a world market – and most of the folks who produce vehicles these days think precisely that way – General Motors has a serious foothold compared with Ford, Chrysler and others.

How did this happen? In the years before the recession, GM did the heavy lifting in China, meeting with government officials and business leaders, and generally absorbing the culture from top to bottom. It was forming relationships with key Chinese manufacturing operations, all the while living within the rules the Chinese established for doing business in their country.

Ironically, one of the chief architects of GM’s plan was former chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner, essentially forced out of those posts by the White House in March 2009. Wouldn’t it be ironic if GM’s re-emergence as a global superpower is ultimately credited to Wagoner, who couldn’t muster respect from high places in Washington?

Yes, it could happen. And probably will.

On top of that, GM is making strides with its increasingly attractive vehicle lineup, and it stands to overcome those government bailout blues if its plug-in Chevrolet Volt becomes a hit in the United States.

Think GM is dead? Not on your life.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Lexus GX 460 SUV has high price, quality

Sacramento, California – If you’ve been longing for the top-tier sport-utility vehicle experience, rest assured that it’s still out there, even amid this wobbly economy.

I give you the 2010 Lexus GX 460 Premium, a seven-passenger sport-ute loaded with luxury and divine excess. I considered myself lucky to have a week in this redesigned-for-2010 SUV, because, alas, my budget does not allow for purchase of this vehicle for full-time enjoyment.

I’m guessing that most budgets are in similar shape, but for those fortunate enough to afford the fare, this is a luxo liner extraordinaire.

The starting price on the tester was a hefty $56,765, but a special navigation/Mark Levinson audio package helped push the bottom line to $62,714. This more than filled the requirements for the luxury SUV niche, and the list of to-lust-for features was so long that I needed to take a cold shower halfway through reading it.

All-star perks included full-time 4WD (as if someone would take this beauty into the rough off-road and put a scratch on it), four-wheel ventilated disc brakes, 10-way power/heated/ventilated front seats, Auburn Bubinga wood trim, rearview camera, downhill-assist control, headlamp cleaners, running boards with courtesy lights, leather trim all around, heated middle-row seats, adaptive variable suspension and enough cupholders and air bags for two vehicles.

And believe me when I tell you that’s the short list.

How does it look? Not super sporty but righteously elegant. Riding on 18-inch, six-spoke alloy wheels certainly adds some zip. Mine was wearing “Claret Mica” paint that I might have called “Root Beer,” remembering the candy barrels of my youth.

Performance from the 4.6-liter, 32-valuve V-8 with 301 horsepower was top-notch. The tester out-accelerated just about anything at an intersection and toyed with most freeway demands. Power is not pin-me-down robust but smooth and steady. Yet the interior cabin is so bank-vault solid that very little engine noise reaches the ears, even during hard accelerations.

I didn’t have much problem with the GX 460’s center stack of controls, although some folks might be intimidated by the “War and Peace”-length owner’s manual.

Great feature: The right side-hinged, swing-open back door, braced at the bottom. It offers a huge hole for loading cargo of all sizes.

I had just a couple gripes. The on/off knob on the sound system is large and mounted on the extreme left of the center stack, protruding just slightly into the driver’s footwell area. A couple times, my right knee bumped the knob and triggered the radio, giving me a momentary jolt. Part of the problem might be size, and by that I mean my size. I’m 6-4, so my knees tend to rest high in the cockpit, within reach of the on/off knob.

Another minor gripe: The foot brake, when pressed to the floor, is so far under the dash that I had to go searching for it with my left foot, sometimes taking three tries to disengage it.

All in all, however, this Lexus wears the luxury label well. For those aiming for the SUV heights, the GX 460 is situated at a pleasingly high elevation.

And please note, the 2011 GX 460 is showing up looking like its 2010 predecessor, but with some braking/technology enhancements added for the new model year.

Friday, September 17, 2010

2011 Sienna stays at top of minivan market

Sacramento, California – Let me start by saying that, 20 years ago, I would have crawled on my hands and knees on broken glass to possess a minivan like anything out there on the market today.

I would have loved the vehicle’s easy road manners on family driving vacations. I would have been overjoyed at the cargo-carrying capacity as we made our way with 15 suitcases, 3,000 toys and 16 coolers to our next destination. Trips to the grocery store would have been a breeze, too.

And in-vehicle entertainment? Oh my goodness, what a blessing that would have been. Just think how many fewer times I would have had to answer the question: Are we there yet?

Alas, this baby boomer is nearing the empty-nester era, and my prime minivan years have past. And let’s face it, minivans don’t get much respect on the roadways these days.

Fellow drivers will cut off a minivan in traffic in a New York-minute. Tailgaters seem to prefer that you drive in the ditch. Sports cars blast around vans for sport.

And yet, the minivan still has a place in the hearts of urban and suburban families. So if you’re in that crowd and seriously looking for new wheels, check out the 2011 Toyota Sienna. It has been redesigned – think third generation – and you’d be hard-pressed to find anything better in the current minivan market.

Yes, that includes the still-worthy minivans produced by Chrysler and Honda.

How good is the 2011 Sienna? Let’s count the ways.

There are TWELVE ways to have it. Mine was the slightly higher-end XLE 3.5L with a starting price of $34,515. Seven passengers, all-wheel drive and a 3.5-liter, 266-horsepower V-6. About that last part: The Sienna really scoots along with that power plant.

Naturally, you don’t get the feeling of the wind in your face and a Corvette-like growl, but my Sienna more than held its own in fast-moving freeway traffic. It climbed hills and took corners with sedan-like agility as well.

Inside, you have a veritable home living room. The large, comfortable chairs can be moved and switched around to the point that you could have a new arrangement every day for a month. Double-digit cupholders and rear-seat climate control only add to the rolling home feeling. If the kids can’t enjoy these quarters, send ’em back to camp.

Gas mileage is ugh-ly … a mere 16 miles per gallon in the city and 22 mpg on the open road. Well, you have to pay some kind of price for the Sienna’s scoot, right?

For some reason – and my own incompetence is high on the possibilities list – I struggled mightily with the center dash-mounted navigation system and audio-readout screen. I couldn’t seem to get a single requested command to stay on screen, and sometimes I became stuck altogether. It makes little sense, because I recently had no problem with a very similar arrangement in a Lexus.

For folks who have the 2011 Sienna for more than a week and master the controls, I’m guessing this will not be a problem.

As for me, I felt a twinge of emotional pain knowing that my time with the Sienna was short. Hmm, wonder if the grandkids are up for a road trip?

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Acura ZDX reviewed in latest Cruisin' News

Sacramento, California – My review of the new-for-2010 Acura ZDX appears in the latest edition of the Northern & Central California Cruisin’ News, published out of Folsom, California, by John Sweeney and Evonne Sotelo.

The “Hot Laps” reviews appear monthly in the publication.

To subscribe to the Cruisin’ News, visit, call (916) 933-0949 or send an e-mail request to Mailed requests for information should be sent to Cruisin’ News, P.O. Box 1096, Folsom, CA 95763-1096.

Altima stacks up as a sound, sporty ride

This review originally appeared in the August edition of the Northern & Central California Cruisin' News published out of Folsom, California – mg

Sacramento, California -- I was supposed to get a four-door Porsche Panamera, but I ended up with a Nissan Altima coupe.

That’s the car-testing biz. Something happened to the Panamera at the 11th hour. Who knows what? Maybe a lead-footed test driver crashed it into San Francisco Bay. Maybe it was abducted by aliens. Doesn’t matter. I’ll review it another day.

Given the possibilities, the 2010 Nissan Altima Coupe 2.5 S as a stand-in wasn’t a bad deal. It’s sporty to be sure.

The raked back end on the tester gave it some of that Nissan Z-car pop, and in profile, the two-door Altima looked ready for high-speed duty.

Alas, the tester had the 2.5-liter in-line 4 rated at 175 horsepower. I would have much preferred the 3.5 V-6 with 270 ponies. The latter power plant is capable of cashing the check written by the Altima’s sleek bodywork.

Still, the Altima was a most-agile performer in most conditions. It was very capable in city traffic, zipping in and out of tight spots with ease. Steering was light, but firm enough for confident control. Hitting the gas going into the corners created the appropriate gusto for shaking a tailgating motorist.

The continuously variable transmission lagged somewhat on hard acceleration into tight freeway spots. It was just a touch of lag, but enough to make you want to give plenty of room to traffic approaching swiftly from the rear.

There was a surprising level of comfort to be had in the front bucket seats. The rear seats, however, are best occupied by folks with flexible bodies. Just getting in behind those front seats is a challenge if you have anything resembling adult size.

The list of standard features was pleasantly lengthy, especially for a model with an affordable $22,940 MSRP. Nice no-extra-cost features included projector-beam headlights, UV-blocking solar glass, lots of interior storage containers for a coupe and 17-inch alloy wheels. Gas mileage is fairly impressive at 23 miles per gallon in the city and 32 mpg on the highway.

Minor gripe: The information display on the radio readout – particularly in satellite radio mode, where you actually want to know the name of the song and the artist – was way too small to see. In traffic, it’s never a good idea to lean over to center dash to see if Shocking Blue did that catchy tune in the 1960s. You’ll rear-end another car for sure doing that.

Customizers have a blank canvas with this car. Lots of possibilities on the front and back end. Me, I’d carve more room into the rear seats, but that’s a selfish fantasy.
Overall, this Altima stands for good looks and good fun. Certainly no Porsche. But then, you can say that about most cars.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Nissan's Cube makes it hip to be square

Sacramento, California – When Huey Lewis and the News recorded “Hip to Be Square” back in 1986, they must have been foreshadowing the Nissan cube.

Or at least Nissan would like to have you believe that, using Huey’s very own language in their promotional materials.

It makes sense, of course. Every now and then, an automaker comes out with a vehicle so over-the-top in design -- and promotes its utility -- that its funky looks are touted as a positive fashion statement.

This worked for the Honda Element. This worked for the Scion xB. It did not work out so well for the 2001 Pontiac Aztek, a midsize crossover that was laughed out of existence a mere four years after its introduction.

Let me confess right now that I test drove one of the first Azteks and liked it. I thought it was functional and funky, just as it was marketed to be.

But here’s where the line gets real thin. It seems like auto-reviewing colleagues and even a fair segment of motorists wait for awhile and hold their fingers up in the air to see which way the wind is blowing whenever one of these different-looking vehicles is introduced. If the wind is blowing favorably, everybody jumps on board. If not, everyone throws rocks at it.

Happily for Nissan, the cube has gained acceptance. And yes, cube is not capitalized by Nissan, apparently adding to its fashion-setting, mysterious qualities.

My tester was the 2010 1.8 S Krom, the most expensive of four trim levels starting at $20,120. You can get a base model for around 14-grand.

Right away, I thought the Krom was a little pricey, until I started adding up the standard features. Safety and comfort/convenient perks are plentiful, and the interior cabin seems positively cavernous. Five passengers going into the four doors have ample room to spread out.

Likewise, the single-hinged door in the back is a hoot, and it yawns open wide enough to take in bulky packages. Nice.

The 1.8-liter, four-cylinder engine will not blow your socks off with 122 horses, but it actually performed a little better than I expected in dicey freeway traffic. The advertised fuel mileage ratings of 27 miles per gallon in town and 31 mpg on the highway fell slightly short of what I was getting.

The Krom is stylish for what the cube is, but I struggled to compare it with something. Turns out that a fellow auto reviewer hit on it for me. My cube wore an all-white paint job, making it look very much like a washing machine. Now, don’t groan. Owners of the popular Scion xB have long called it a rolling toaster, their chests swelling with pride.

Still, the cube’s boxy design has some drawbacks – not cutting through the air smoothly being one of them. Exterior wind blasting into the windshield is easily heard in the cockpit when traveling at high speed. That’s the trade-off when you tout funky, functional and fun in your product.

There are some things about the cube I never figured out. Tops on the list is the “shag dash topper” – essentially a circular, dinner plate-size piece of black-and-gray shag carpeting centered atop the dashboard. Don’t ask me; I haven’t a clue.

The cube package does draw attention. Parking the cube in a grocery store lot makes you as popular as Sarah Palin at a Tea Party rally. Everybody wants a look. Folks want to know about the shag carpet, which is my cue to run inside and check the vegetable aisle.

Hats off to Nissan for having some fun. Maybe this cube is your cup of tea. It certainly grew on me over time, and I’m not exactly what you’d call the hip type.