Friday, June 25, 2010

vacancy at the sign of the cat

The Ford Family of Fine cars got smaller this month, as Ford announced the end of the Mercury nameplate. The 71 year old brand will be phased out by the end of the calendar year due to declining sales volume. This move which has been rumored for some time comes as no surprise to industry observers who have been complaining of the lack of unique products for the Division since the 1990's.

The Mercury brand debuted in 1939 and was a "big brother" to Ford in the 1940's and early 50's but then blossomed in the sixties and seventies with unique models like the Cougar, Cyclone, Marauder, Park Lane and Marquis. They adopted the ad tagline "At the Sign of the Cat" and included live exotic animals in the ads, along with top models like Farrah Fawcett-Majors. And no child of the era could possibly forget the Colony Park station wagon, which competed with the Buick Estate for the title of America's most luxurious wagon.

In recent years, the brand suffered through models that seemed ill suited to public tastes, such as the space alien inspired 1986 Sable, complete with light bar, and the Grand Marquis aimed at elderly customers. Mercury was down to less than 1% passenger car market share in 2009.

Monday, June 21, 2010

2011 buick regal: well tailored and well mannered

The Regal nameplate returns to the Buick lineup for the 2011 model year. The original Regal made its debut in 1973 as a personal luxury coupe and bore the distinction of being the first mid-sized Buick to feature a stand-up hood ornament, opera windows, and plush velour seats. The newest iteration of Regal leaves those disco ball memories behind, appearing instead as a front wheel drive mid-sized sedan based on the latest Epsilon platform. Adapted from the Opel Insignia, the Regal is already on sale in China and will enter the North American market this quarter. Initial production for the US market began in Germany, and will move to Oshawa for the 2012 model year. Buick is taking a page from the Lexus playbook with two different mid -sized sedans in its lineup- the new Regal, at 190 inches overall length, is shorter than the La Crosse, has totally unique styling and will be marketed as a sports sedan.

There are two different powertrains for the new Regal. The base CXL sedan offers a 2.4 litre Ecotec four cylinder engine that develops 182 horsepower and 172 lb/ft of torque. It's mated to a six speed transmission with manual shift control and offers EPA fuel economy rating of 20 mpg city, 30 mpg highway. The Turbo version, due later this year, will feature a 2.0 litre turbocharged four that develops 220 hp with 258 lb.ft of torque, and is fitted with a specially selected six speed Aisin automatic transmission. The Aisin also features manual shift control, and a six speed manual transmission will become available on the Turbo later this year, for those of you who are fond of grabbing the stick.

The exterior styling is clean and contemporary, with smooth flowing lines and a well tailored look. 18 inch wheels are standard, with optional 19's for the turbo. Both wheels look like something from the Jaguar XF brochure, it wasn't the only time I saw the XF in the Regal and it's not an unflattering observation. I see a lot of Jaguar in the side cove line, rear roofline and rear door styling as well. Up front, Buick's trademark waterfall grille takes center stage, but the overall effect remains clean and contemporary- and quite European.

The interior is nicely tailored as well - the standard leather seats are supportive and highly adjustable- the test vehicles had power lumbar, and felt very much like the seats in a Saab 9-3. Dash was well laid out and featured an integrated color navigation system ($1995). I found the display a bit small, but it was quite easy to use- I even managed to engage route guidance on the fly. The quality of interior materials seemed quite good- and much more akin to Cadillac CTS than the Saturn Aura incarnations of the Epsilon we have driven in the past. Harmon-Kardon audio was a step up from traditional Delco sounds, the door panels flowed nicely into the dash, woodgrain trim was relatively tasteful, and the overall effect was upmarket and classy. Kudos for the stitching on the dash, the tactile feeling of the controls and even for the Ice Blue instrument lighting- it creates a feeling overall that GM designers have been shopping in nicer stores these days.

I was able to drive both the CXL and Turbo versions on some delicious two lane winding roads and my impression is that both are quite well mannered- smooth riding, easy handling with a nice on-center feel, and a well planted rear axle that knows where it belongs- again, road manners were much more Saab-like than Saturn. The 2.4 litre four was impressively smooth and quiet, and although acceleration was adequate, it won't win any drag races The Turbo's drivetrain is much more rewarding, with smart off the line acceleration and a much fuller torque curve to make the most of those twisting rural roads. Neither is a dragster but rather a pair of nicely mannered sport sedans that could eat up a lot of pavement quickly. Our Turbo also had the Interactive Drive Control which controls settings for suspension, steering, braking and throttle- and definitely enhanced the sporting personality of the Turbo on our drive. I did have one humorous moment on the drive- stuck behind a ancient F150 Gardener’s truck on a two lane stretch of twisty road, I peeked at the speedometer registering 39 mph, turned to the GM Exec riding with me, and commented that this was the only part of the day in which I had truly felt like a traditional Buick driver.

Base price for the CXL is $26,995 including destination, the Turbo starts at $29,495, with a full boated Turbo around $33,000. For those looking at a well tailored and well mannered mid- size sedan, it definitely earns a spot on the short shopping list. Check this one out- maybe you would really rather have a Buick this year, after all.

Friday, June 11, 2010

the chevy shuffle

Much ado about nothing in the world of General Motors this week as an accidentally hilarious memo was circulated by Alan Batey, vice president for Chevrolet sales and service, and Jim Campbell, the G.M. division’s vice president for marketing.

The dispatch dissed the use of the iconic and world renowned nickname "Chevy" and requested that the GM team use the more formal "Chevrolet" in all communications, even with family and friends.

Here it is:

Chevrolet Team,

We wanted to write you a quick note requesting your support of our Chevrolet Brand. When you look at the most recognized brands throughout the world, such as Coke or Apple for instance, one of the things they all focus on is the consistency of their branding. Why is this consistency so important? The more consistent a brand becomes, the more prominent and recognizable it is with the consumer. This is a big opportunity for us
moving forward.

As you know, we are investing substantially to improve the consistency of our retail facilities through the EBE process. Aside from the facilities aspect of our branding, there are many other ways in which we can demonstrate this consistency. One way to achieve this is with the use of Chevrolet vs. Chevy. We’d ask that whether you’re talking to a dealer, reviewing dealer advertising or speaking with friends and family, that you communicate our brand as Chevrolet moving forward.

We have a proud heritage behind us and a fantastic future ahead of us … speaking to the success of this brand in one consistent manner will ensure Chevrolet becomes even more prominent and recognizable than it already is.

Thank you for your support of this effort!

Alan and Jim

P.S. We put a plastic “Chevy” can down the hall that will accept a quarter every time someone uses “Chevy” rather than Chevrolet! We’ll use the money for a team building activity.

An inherently misguided idea at best. Here is their rationale for the idea:

“When you look at the most recognized brands throughout the world, such as Coke or Apple for instance, one of the things they all focus on is the consistency of their branding,” the memo said. “Why is this consistency so important? The more consistent a brand becomes, the more prominent and recognizable it is with the consumer.”

They failed to notice that Coke is in itself a widely accepted nickname, both friendlier and easier to use than the name of the parent company and one that the company itself promotes in advertising (hey, just like Chevy), and that Apple doesn't actually advertise its corporate name at all, but rather focuses on the short and memorable product names. So their rationale reinforced and supported the trend they were attempting to eschew. Guess that's why they bring in the big bucks.

Of course the blogosphere went wild, discussing whether Don Mc Lean would be driving his Chevrolet to the Levrolet and pondering whether Elton John was left dreaming of his Chevrolet and his old black Armani suit. Even veteran actor Chevrolet Chase seemed to be affected. Apparently Alan and Jim were unavailable for comment, as they are currently vacationing on the planet Ridiculon.

Guys, get a clue- people don't write songs about Chevrolet, they sing about Chevy. And this little limerick from yours truly is my gift to you:

GM Leaders bemoan from up high
Those nicknames they seem to decry
Don't be declasse'
Please say "Chevrolet"
Haven't they bigger fishies to fry?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

1955 thunderbird- named for a local landmark

One of the most famous cars of the 1950s was the Ford Thunderbird. A low, stylish two-seater V8, with creature comforts like power windows and automatic transmission, it wasn't a sports car in the European tradition, but rather an American interpretation -- and it has a strong connection to the desert paradise knows as Palm Springs.

Thunderbird Country Club in Rancho Mirage, California opened in January of 1951 to a swarm of publicity. It was the first golf course in the valley and one of the first anywhere to be surrounded by home sites. It was an instant celebrity hangout, and within a year all of the home sites were sold, many to celebrities of the day. Some of the world's most famous entertainers maintained homes there. Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball, Phil Harris and Alice Faye, Hoagy Carmichael, Gordon MacRae, Ruby Keeler, Dean Martin, Billie Dove, Esther Williams, Randolph Scott and Mary Pickford were among the celebrity members of Thunderbird.

Also on the list was a man named Ernest Breech who was an executive with Ford Motor Company. He was one of the "Whiz Kids" that Henry Ford II brought in after the war to revitalize the auto giant. At the time he was Ford's Executive VP, and he thought that some of the glamor of the golf course might rub off on the new sporty roadster the company was bringing out.

And perhaps it went the other way as well. Ford's Thunderbird debuted in late 1954, and it was an instant success. The very first one was delivered to Thunderbird members John and Velma Dawson. The car became one of the truly iconic brands of the postwar auto industry and no doubt had something to do with Breech being named Chairman of the Board in 1955. And the glamorous Thunderbird isn't the only vehicle to be launched at Thunderbird. The motorized golf cart also made its debut on Thunderbird.