Histories of the Unexplained: The next C63S throws us a curve ball.

September 23rd, 2022 | permalink

When we are young we learn that some animals are expected to sink or swim immediately after birth.

Others, like humans, are given more time to be set up for success and survival.

Cars tend to be more like the former.

I’ve been observing the industry for near 40 years and working in it for about 30.

And seemingly not a week goes by that a car isn’t released into the world without the proper support it needs from those who have one job: to bring it to market and market it.

In this series we will discuss cars that aren’t quite given what they need by their makers to succeed, and so are immediately lambasted by the public and the press.

Unexplained and therefore unappreciated.

Here we will attempt to right history.

The most recent example is the Mercedes Benz C63S revealed to the world yesterday, after months to years of forewarning that it would be powered by half the cylinders and would likely be some form of Hybrid (to achieve even higher outputs.)

The internet did not take well to the news, even if the news wasn’t exactly new.

Now don’t get me wrong; I was a huge fan of the huge V8 they shoehorned in the W204 C63. And I too did not take well to the news a generation ago that that V8 had been replaced by a one with a third of the capacity lopped off and two turbochargers plopped on.

But in usual fashion, Mercedes did the hard work, engineering the system well enough that the response and even the sound did a good impression of the former motor and made a good impression overall. Once I drove the W205 I was pleasantly surprised at how it felt consistent. And I think they’ll aim to achieve that best they can where they can, and aim for something compelling in exchange if they’re making a gamble such as this.

I’m no fan of the inline 4, but I think it helps to remember that the performance Benz didn’t start with the AMG Hammer, but rather the 190E 2.3 -16. This performance C class precursor was powered by an I4 not a I6 or V8. A high winding one. While that shifted to I6 and V8 as the cars got larger the precedent is there.

When it comes down to it, yes the next C63 will sound disappointing to those outside. But that may be a welcome relief, given how obnoxiously loud the last ones could get. In fact Mercedes was quick to point out the car can be started silently and move on EV alone if you’re leaving the house early. So while the car in the videos was meek, European models tend to have different exhaust components and tuning and noise pollution standards are a consideration. And we have yet to experience what the car will sound like to the driver and occupants, even if they sound ends up having to be enhanced artificially and again, electrically.

It’s also important to look not at just the weight but where the weight is carried. And not just the outputs but where they are deployed.

The trade off for not being able to hear the V8 is not having the mass of a V8 under the hood. As heavy as the next car is, it looks set to be better balanced, and have that mass shifted from where you don’t want it to where you do. On the rear wheels rather than the fronts.

Combine that with the immediacy of electric drive at the rear and an electric turbocharger feeding the 4 pot and things are looking good that it won’t exactly have slow reflexes or responses.

And then there’s the addition of the rear wheel steering. You can see how the car bends around corners already. And I’m sure the system will shrink the sense of size and mass.

In the end I think the car will be vindicated by those who take the time to drive it , even if it’s not likely to be validated by those who don’t.

It’s an entirely different approach than the one they’ve taken, and while it’s not on paper my cup of tea I applaud the bravery of throwing away the successful recipe and starting nearly from scratch. We doubted they could do an AMG worthy 4 cylinder and they did. Then we doubted they could do an AMG worthy A class and they did.

What’s more troubling to me than the C63S is that just as the W204 acknowledged a trend to the V8 up front, others may follow suit as tends to happen. Another thing that tends to happen: not all engineers approach the problem with the same attitude or budget.

Remember too that the C63 comes at a time when AMG has been engineering the One, a hybridized F1 motored hypercar. What they’ve been struggling with there and learning from their struggles has to have affected where they netted out here.

Let’s just hope that the final result is more compelling than the One and more compelling than the C43, which also has a 4 pot, 4 wheel steering, and 4 wheels driven.

To wear the AMG badge, it needs to. And to be let out as an AMG after their recent string of hits I think there’s a good chance it will.


Mazda CX50: After trying so hard at high fi, Mazda takes the Bose approach.

August 6th, 2022 | permalink

You have to admire the chutzpah of Mazda. The tenacity. The daring.

Here’s a company that burned its hand on Amati, was bedded and abused by Ford, and has set its sights on achieving its dreams since it became single again.

If anything defines their upmarket aspirations and global thinking it’s the CX5. Refined, right sized, and a super happy fun ball on a mountain road.

But the CX5 requires time and patience to understand. It doesn’t shine on a test drive, doesn’t make a great elevator pitch on the showroom floor.

The rear seat is snug, the chassis requires you be comfortable with roll and weight transfer, and the car as a whole demands you prescribe to the less is more approach that is oh so Mazda from the MX5 on down – or is that up?

You see Mazda’s upmarket ambitions elsewhere in the line too. The CX30 and 3’s interior, for example. In the deft tuning of every control and switch. Unfortunately those ambitions have gone unnoticed and unappreciated as buyers click their tongues on snug rear seats and lower horsepower ratings.

The CX50 is a very different approach. Feels more like a step sibling. One raised in a different home. Rather than trying to be refined and polite and genteel like the CX5 or 3, or playful like a CX30 or MX5, the CX50 seems to want to be more like the best sellers to fleets and families.

You can see some hints of domestic in its design cues. And clearly the CX50 is laid out to be more competitive in the US: stretched for more stretch out room, widened for less roll in the corners.

What it is is a wagon, elevated, in the vein of the Subaru Outback, but before Subaru turned the Outback into the very thing it was meant to be an alternative to: a clumsy and caricatured beast of burden.

Problem is, the CX50 comes across as a bit of a caricature itself.

Rather than try to nuance its way into your heart, the CX50 gives America what it wants: flat cornering, turbo torque, elbow and leg room, and a tough and rugged appearance. You won’t find the interior materials you’ve come to expect from Mazda here, nor will you find the fluidity in the ride and handling. The CX50 has a chip on its shoulder, and desperate to shed its nice guy image.

It feels more like a Subaru in another way: like decisions were made by a focus group or in a PowerPoint deck. There’s less cohesion and integration than you find in the aforementioned Mazdas. The controls feel like they’ve been plucked from different cars rather than honed for the same one. The ridge wriggles and jiggles as though to remind you it’s a tough and macho SUV. But really, like that Outback is better as a Legacy, there’s a sense the CX50 will grow its sales for the same reasons it’s stunted as a product. By targeting the base desires of the journalist looking for front end grip or the shopper punching it out of the parking lot it ends up feeling like product Mazda committed to for America. Which is fine; it’s been too long since they bothered to think about what America really wants. The CX5 has been a runaway sales success despite its size, not because of it.

But me? I’m far more excited about the upcoming CX60 and CX70. While the CX30 and CX50 feel like stopgaps thrown together to appeal to market trend, signs are strong that the CX60 and CX70 will finally fulfill Mazda’s destiny to compete with the premium makes. And for space in garages that are tired of the premium makes resting on their laurels.

So when you’re shopping for a crossover, especially one from Mazda, or reading a review of the same, you’d do well to ask yourself: “Do I want hi-fi, or something that isn’t as accurate but gets the party dancing?”

The CX50 may not just feel right, but it’s probably right on target for what people want right now: a wagon that disguises its wagon- ness enough to be taken seriously, and more fashionably that any wagon would have been. We’ve been crying out for a Mazda 6 wagon, and like it or not the CX50 is as close as America deserves or is going to get.

Now if you’ll excuse me I’ll be over here listening to my high – fi, waiting a bit longer for the CX60 to arrive.


Getting out the ugly truth about Plug Ins

February 14th, 2022 | permalink

My girlfriend, loyal soul that she is, attaches to people and things like I do.

That is to say, we both hold on to people and things that have been good to us, and try to be good to them in return.

In my case, it’s my bicycle. The same one I arrived at college with in 1993. Something it amuses my friend Sam to observe. He likes to point out that when we ran into each other 15 years after college, I was on that very bike, owned the very same car, and even had very same home audio setup, CD player and all.

In my girlfriend’s case, her friends are longstanding, and she’s been loyal to her first apartment, her first car. And her second iPod.

While I admire this trait in us both, and in others, and was reminding my friend Peter just today that he’s a rock because he too is loyal to people and his things, I think it’s a dangerous tendency to hold on to ‘this tendency to hold on’ in other areas of life.

To gasoline, for example.

Just as my girlfriend doesn’t use her phone to store her music, or even stream it, but carries around her trusty iPod to bring music into her life, when I suggest to people that they are the ideal candidates for an EV, they clutch and cling onto what they’ve known like they can’t imagine living in any other way.

A childhood friend, one of my oldest, is currently looking at cars. And seems quite intent on the notion of a plug in hybrid. “Hybrid” to the average consumer means “good for the environment.” And Plug In Hybrid can be driven more often on battery alone, making the action of plugging it in, and driving for the first 10, 20, even 30 miles on electricity alone feel like you’re a brave pioneer, venturing into the unknown, like those who have already been using an EV for two decades.

But here’s the ugly truth about the Plug In Hybrid. You’re not twice as friendly as your gas counterparts. And in fact in some ways, you’re only risking twice the harm to others.

You see, the hybrid is a curious mix of a gasoline vehicle and a battery pack. A plug in hybrid adds the plug, and perhaps a larger battery, so you can charge that battery not just as you slow down, but also with a wall outlet or charger where you park. The fundamental problem with this approach is you’re now cramming two different types of motor and fuel storage into one car. You’re consuming twice, under the same, familiar sheetmetal. And that makes them heavier, which makes them more cumbersome when it comes time to turn or to stop. Wears through tires and roads faster too.

It also means there’s less room for things like passengers and cargo, especially when compared to EVs, that can have much smaller motors and transmissions, and store their energy in their floors, not between their rear wheels as is almost always the case with a fossil fuel engined vehicle.
An EV can be incredibly space efficient in ways a gasoline or diesel powered vehicle never could. A plug in hybrid is no better than its gas counterpart in this regard. And is sometimes worse.

Wheras many feel a EV drives ‘better’, sometimes the hybrid or plug in hybrid drives worse. Particularly in something high riding, which is increasingly popular these days. (People think they’re safer up high, even though they aren’t.)

If you plan to sit up high, better reason to have the heaviest parts of the car stay down low as much as possible. So EVs make a whole lot of sense if you’re thinking “I’d like an SUV.” of any sort. (Two possible exceptions: BMWs and Subarus, that drop their engines’ centers of gravity lower than others.)

When your plug in hybrid runs out of juice those 10, 20, or even 30 miles from home, they’ll drive just as poorly if not worse than a hybrid. And while you wont hear a gasoline engine at work when the battery can move you, the car will still feel the effects of that extra weight bounding and swaying, which can feel both cumbersome and tiresome.

Hybrids and plug in Hybrids make more sense in cars. You know, sedans, or hatchbacks, or wagons. Especially small engined, front drive ones, where the extra weight balances the car out better than conventional versions, making them feel more like their superior, and dearer, rear drive cousins.
But if you’re going higher, remember to keep your weight lower.
Your complexity too.

Oh that’s right. I didn’t mention: because there’s no free lunch in physics and engineering, that added complexity leads to more to wear or break, more complexity to diagnose. So if you believe in Keep It Simple, Stupid, again EVs come in ahead of “Internal Combustion Engine” ‘d vehicles, or ICE cars as some call them. And once again, coming in third, is the (Plug In) Hybrid.

“But, wait!” you’re probably saying. “I want to save gas!”

And pulling up to the pump less often can feel good.

But the truth remains that hybrids, because they’re more complex and more marketable, sell for more money, so it takes a number of years for what you save in gas to cancel out how much extra you’ve paid for the vehicle in the first place. (And plug ins, while they get even better overall MPG on average, are more expensive still. So you have to do the math and see if it really adds up in your favor, or you’re just being sold to.)

So to review:
Less expensive to fuel.

But:
More Expensive to buy.
More likely to break.
More expensive to fix.
More clumsy to maneuver.

Do these sound like things we should be holding onto?

Or do they sound like ugly things we should leave behind, in the past, where they belong?


The Redesigned 2022 CarCounsel - coming soon.

February 6th, 2022 | permalink

The last 20 years were fun and all, but it’s time to get serious.

Launching 2/22/22.


Oh ///My

November 30th, 2021 | permalink

Right about now, the Internet is ablaze with reactions to the BMW XM.

Offensive, and not just up front. An affront to all they were and promised to never be.

And yet… I’m not bothered by it so much.

Because offensive, and affront have been core BMW selling points since the Bangle era. The XM is just the most extreme case yet, and their current goal is to shock us as much as possible, when possible.

And besides, let’s consider it for what it is: a car designed with Chinese tastes and sensibilities in mind. Which to our tastes and minds might seem senselessly tasteless. But we aren’t the ones writing the checks for these.

Also consider we felt like this when BMW released the X5 in 1999. “An affront! Offensive!” some cried then too. And I was tempted to until I drove one, and realized they’d not only created a category but a singular experience too.

Those who cried offensive affront upon gazing at the iX for the first time saw the light once they drove it. Same was true of the i3. And others.

So put down your pitchforks, and take comfort in knowing that even if it’s not a car for you and me, at least BMW has some mojo and attitude and has come out swinging again.


It’s been a minute.

November 30th, 2021 | permalink

I wish I had better memory. Or better organizational skills. And was less of a procrastinator, and perfectionist.

Because over the years I’ve lost count of how many times my supporters – that’s the best name for you all – have asked me, “Do you have a blog?”

“I used to” I tell them. And then promise them – and myself – that I’ll start again.

I started writing about cars in the late 80s, blogging about them just before Y2K.

When I did I was offered an NPR show. To be represented by the same PR firm that represented the artist formerly known as… Opportunity after opportunity came and I said, “Nah – it’s just a hobby.”

I pride myself now as I did then: on being impartial. Then when I was pulled headlong into the car industry I decided it was unethical to have opinions now that I had picked a team to play for. So in 2007 I shuttered the blog.

14+ years later, here we are.

I’m not sure I’ll take it any more seriously. And you probably shouldn’t either.

It’s once again a journal of sorts. A place to place my thoughts. And for discussion, so please share your own whether in agreement or not.

Just try to keep it respectful, please.


I’m back.

November 24th, 2021 | permalink

Where did it all go?

March 1st, 2016 | permalink

Pardon our appearance – the site is under what you might call construction.

Return visitors will notice we have removed nearly all previous posts from 2000-2010. Look for them to reappear in another form – and some major site updates – in the months to come.


Hello, BMW’s Carbon Future

May 22nd, 2014 | permalink

Zintro called upon its network of experts to discussed SGL Automotive Carbon Fibers and BMW Group’s plan to invest $200 million to triple the carbon fiber (CF) capacity at their Washington state plant to handle high demand from the automotive sector. This was my response as selected and featured in their newsletter May 22nd, 2014:

This announcement should come at no surprise, and yet it is a delightful harbinger for both the future of BMW models and that of lightweight materials in vehicle construction. ‘No surprise’ because the M3 CRT portended this shift in early 2011, and now in addition to the i3, BMW is now ramping up production of three other vehicles that rely on CFRP to varying degrees: i8, M3, and M4, and given the response to the ‘joy’ reduced weight is bringing back to BMWs lineup, we will surely see its use proliferate beyond the i and M brands to the regular models, just as thermoplastics, aluminum and magnesium have historically played the same role to varying degrees. Don’t be surprised to see increased carbon levels in all BMW vehicles a generation or two from now. This comes at an opportune time for BMW: they’ve lost technological and dynamic footing to competitors like Audi and Cadillac who have used (and marketed) aluminum and lighter metals to bring their weight down just as BMWs was swelling. Carbon based components will help restore BMW’s driving machine ethos and give BMW a marketing edge and halo technology they need to stand out once again, especially given the high performance and racing associations some consumers have with the Carbon Fiber. Those less interested in performance or racing will also see gains given regulatory and market pressures for more fuel efficient vehicles despite increased safety, feature content, and size.


Even professional reviewers can benefit from CarCounsel.

August 20th, 2013 | permalink

A number of them are wise enough to seek it.

Here’s one example:

“The evening before I was scheduled to return the 2013 Honda Accord Sport after a weeklong test, I stopped by the home of my friend and automotive guru, for his counsel and once-over. He listened to the engine idle, with the same diligence as a pediatrician and a stethoscope. He stepped inside and, as is customary, touched every surface, knob, and fabric. When opened the cubby underneath the radio controls, he noted the slight heft in the compartment’s open-close action, and smiled.

You may not realize it now,” he said, “but once you give it back, you’re going to miss the little things about how this car works.“”