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Hello, BMW’s Carbon Future

Thursday, May 22nd, 2014

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.

Tuesday, August 20th, 2013

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.“”

Transcript of our interview heard around the world

Thursday, November 1st, 2012

“With the Detroit auto show in full swing, a US-based analyst talks to DW about the changes that have enabled German carmakers to secure a bigger slice of the North American market.

DW: What sort of factors are coming together right now to bring some more success to German carmakers in the US market – a market that used to be a very niche thing for them?

CarCounsel: I think part of it is the recent ability of German manufacturers to build toward the American market specifically. For a long time the German makers were kind of set in their own ways, saying this is the way we do it, because it’s the best way to do it. But although they were probably right about that, it didn’t necessarily translate into the North American market. So, a lot of what’s going on right now is the product of studying the American buyer and seeing what’s working for other manufacturers. I think they’re more willing now to follow trends.

They’re also designing vehicles that don’t necessarily make sense for the European market, but do in the US. For example, BMW’s super utility vehicles drive better than SUVs should, but now all German carmakers are pretty heavy in the cross-over SUV market. Then there’s been the perception issue that Japanese cars are reliable and German cars are not so much. BMW has been a champion of free scheduled maintenance. Others simply had to follow suit or try and pull out again.

You’re also seeing a proliferation of all-wheel drive, which European makers agree is not a necessity. They say winter tires are just as good, if not better. But American buyers want to have all-wheel drive for their convertibles and sports cars. German makers have now gotten round to including all-wheel drive across their model range.

DW: Let us bring things around to Volkswagen. The company announced this week that it had sold over 8 million units worldwide in 2011. While the company is a large and influential carmaker, it has always been a bit frustrated by the US market. But it looks as though in 2011 they may well have cracked the nut. They experienced a 25 percent year-on-year increase in sales. So what exactly is making it the right time to sell a non-luxury German car in America?

CarCounsel: Again, they were designing for the European market. They were designing a car as well as they knew how, and they were designing to a performance standard and then setting their prices accordingly. This is a contrast to a lot of the Japanese and domestic makers that VW was having to compete with. The real change that we’ve seen with Volkswagen in the last year or two is that it’s decided that American buyers aren’t interested necessarily in the highest level of technology or how the car is made. They’re more interested in the value, meaning getting more car for their buck.

VW’s Jetta has just gone from having really good dynamics and safety qualities and engineering properties to being a car that’s been stripped a bit – a car that was designed for China and India, and not the European market. And that Jetta is considerably larger in the back seat and cheaper to assemble. And similarly with the Passat. The Passat was – like the Jetta – kind of in between two stools in its pricing. It was a smaller car that was competing on price with one-class-above cars. So, they brought the price down and they brought the complexity of the vehicle itself down. And now it’s also offering a very roomy back seat, a big trunk – a whole lot of car for the money.

And even without trying to be a baby BMW or a baby Audi, the experience of driving a Volkswagen is a lot more relaxed, a lot more domestic or even Japanese. Critics and analysts like myself have decried the fact that the brand has gone afoul. But those very changes that seem so offensive to us seem to be resonating with the consumers at large.

DW: On the other end of the scale, German luxury makers are also doing rather well in the United States, especially BMW. In fact, last year they led the luxury sector there for the first time ever. What is it that BMW is doing right in terms of getting more high-end consumers in the US to go into the showrooms and buy cars?

CarCounsel: As discussed earlier, the two things that BMW did that toppled some of the barriers in the marketplace were the free scheduled maintenance and the inclusion of all-wheel drive. People wouldn’t think about a BMW, but then did after those changes. But BMW has also led the charge in a couple of other ways. Some things hadn’t really been received very well at first, but a spin-off car from an existing car for instance doesn’t cost a whole lot of money, and it can really fill the hole in your product line-up. There’s a general shift in the kind of cars BMW is conceiving and inventing. They’re still fine automobiles, but they aren’t placing driving as the number-one priority. The positive thing there is that they’re able to cannibalize from other makers.

Someone who might be looking at a Lexus or a Mercedes for comfort or technology reasons would now find a new BMW 5-series car. So, it’s the same sort of mass appeal that could be impacting the brand sales overall. A lot of loyal BMW owners are starting to look around and defect, or at least consider it in a way they might not have before.

Design is a big aspect as well. If you look at Audi or BMW, they both brought in designers who really shook up they way German car companies are doing things. But while diluting a little bit of what they do, on the mass scale they’ve become a little more focused in their products in the performance divisions.

my how you’ve grown

Monday, September 29th, 2008

Nearly two decades ago the Honda/Acura NSX shook up the performance car scene.

This year, the Nissan GT-R is said to be doing the same.

But could the two cars be any more different?

Looking at this picture I stumbled across on the web – is the NSX is too much like a Formula 1 car or is the GT-R is too much like an SUV?

A day after 2 hours and 25 miles in a smart ForTwo…

Thursday, July 24th, 2008

I am still sore and deaf but must say it was one of the more thrilling drives of my life if only because like on a Segway you’re pretty much at the limit whenever you’re in motion.

The sounds it makes evoke what it must be like to find an old 911 turbo in a barn that you try to nurse home – I never heard so many grunts, moans, pops and hisses from a single motor.

The squat under acceleration was addictive, reminding me of something that was lost when trailing arm rear suspensions went extinct and making the car feel far more powerful than it was. In fact I never wanted for more power, and was shocked to find it felt better on the highway than around town.

If it had a different tranny (impossible to get a smooth shift out of and eons between ratios) and brakes (truly binary) it would be fun but as it is I’m fairly convinced the people who own them kick themselves each time they send in the payment check.

next M3 spotted

Tuesday, May 1st, 2007

It seems that each time I visit LA I end up chasing down a test mule, usually at night or with my camera phone’s battery low.

Not this time.

Click here and here for videos of the E90 M3 in motion.

(Unfortunately I couldn’t capture the cry of the engine over that of the chase car’s and the wind noise once rolling but trust me: it sounds glorious).

the new MINI - not better or worse, just different than I’d like

Friday, March 9th, 2007

As you can see from the entries below I’ve been skeptical about some of the changes made to the Cooper and was hoping – make that praying – that my concern was unfounded.

Here’s what I found:

Powertrains
From the moment I set off it was obvious that this combo of base motor and auto was going to satisfy. Shifts were smooth, the 1.6L seemed torquey and the paddle shifters on the wheel could be used at any time, even in your standard Drive mode (the system reverts to automatic mode after a few moments of activity a la Subaru’s 5 speed auto). The auto in drive mode upshifts quickly, the engine doesn’t seem to mind but riding the torque seems odd in a MINI. Knocking the auto lever to the left lets the engine up to where it does better work but in this mode 6 gear is locked out and downshifts as you decelerate become more apparent. One point to mention is that the torque converter locks as much as possible – the car doesn’t have the slip you’d associate with a ‘slushbox’ as used in the last S or the rubber band feel of the old base car’s CVT.

What was immediately missing was any sign of an exhaust note – much of the last car’s tone came from behind you even without the optional JCW sound kit (unless you were turning, in which case the power steering pump spoke up). The new motor’s dominant tone is an RPM dependent whine in some ways reminiscent of the gearbox whine on classic Coopers or the s’charger whine on the last S. The engine gets a bit boomy when hanging at high revs but it pulls hard all the way – even with 4 aboard the car felt faster than a car that says 118 horses on the label should. Either BMW is underrating this motor or the ratios in the tranny are exceptionally well judged. Or both.

You’ve likely heard of the sport button – pressing it makes the steering heavier (but no more feelsome) sharpens throttle tip-in and sends the auto tranny into DTM full attack mode – revving the engine comically high and not necessarily getting you up to speed any faster. (In 250 miles and 40 hours it seemed a nice thought but poorly judged – Drive was ‘too cold’, Sport mode ‘too hot’ for more than the occasional set of curves and sport Drive mode a bit too warm to be just right and not practical unless you’re off the freeway. Hopefully DINAN is already working on refining the button to be more usable as he did with the first BMW to sport this button – the E39 M5.)

The S was devastatingly fast from point to point but a real letdown for me. Firstly there is little in the way of engine note inside the car. Second, while the torque plateau makes for a fast car , it doesn’t make for a thrilling one – think Audi 1.8T or 2.0T (actually the later has a nicer tone). The last issue was with the way the turbo burps into action – it’s not a long enough delay to call lag any longer but there’s still difficulty in rolling on the amount of power you want – I was always overshooting the road speed I’d meant to achieve and if anything the Sport mode’s sharper throttle makes it worse. The broad spread of torque felt almost turbodiesel like – there was rarely need to venture beyond 4k. At moments I was reminded of the 5 series but more a 530d not a 530i.

Let me put it this way – when given the choice between cars to use for the weekend I took the base Cooper – auto and all. It was simply the more satisfying given that it made more sporting sounds, and was more predictible in its responses. And with the paddle shifters and lack of torque converter slop I didn’t feel like I was missing much in the way of connectedness with the machine.

Chassis
Both cars were equipped with the base suspension (now standard on the S as well) and 16” wheels with Goodyear’s latest run flats. Ride quality was not as smooth as the last car on 15s but certainly less agitated than that car on 16s – the tradeoff being a slightly detached feel through the seat and wheel. It’s not a lack of body control – the car corners flat and can grip higher than before subjectively – but you can’t pay with the balance with the throttle as you could in the last one. (And speaking of playing at the limit it’s a shame there’s no option for a higher threshold traction control a la BMW’s Dynamic Traction Control mode). The sense that you knew what was going on at each tire’s contact patch was lost and I for one thought the last car felt better damped – there are moments behind the wheel when you feel like you’re in the new Civic. The electric steering felt light but had a better feel than the Z4 or the new 3 series coupe manages and there was a variable ratio effect around turns, the more you turned the more the car wanted to turn – very similar to my 95 M3 in that regard.

Ergonomics
The seats are a revelation – some of the best I’ve tried in any car. The start button remains a needlessly complicated two step process unless you pay $500 extra for the “Comfort Access” feature. (Is BMW not aware that it’s available on less expensive Nissans and Suzukis?) The greatest annoyance was the car’s radio controls which are split into two locations a la 7 or 5 series. The issue here is that there are two knobs, one up top to change the radio station or CD track, and another nestled low for volume. Problem is your passenger never knows that and even after my nearly two days with the car I didn’t see the benefit . The climate controls are not as easy to operate as before either and there’s a cheaper feel to the silver plastic switches – a la Chrysler Crossfire. There’s a sense that like too many recent BMWs form trumped function and there are more gimmicks than conveniences – take for example the way you can toggle the downlighting and B pillar SRS logo (?) between colors but only one matches the dash lighting. The only move in the right direction that I can see is that there are more toggles and they are split into interior lighting and sunroof overhead and exterior lighting and window controls ahead of the shifter. Smart. Not so smart was the newer, cheaper trunk latch – almost impossible to release on the first try. I also missed the last car’s airier, more glassy cabin. This one was just as comfortable if not more so but it didn’t have the classic car feel the last Mini shared with old Volvos and Benzes…

Refinement & Build
Noise levels are appreciably lower likely in part to details like little dimples molded near the wipers an ridges aft of the read windows but what you hear has less character. If you rode blindfolded you might be more likely to mistake the MINI for another car. Again it reminded me of at many times of the new 5 or the 99-00 3 series.

The cars were certainly put together better than the preproduction ones I wrote about first, and its hard to imagine how MINI can offer so much quality in a car starting at under 20k. If the last car didn’t have nicer details here and there I’d be hailing this one as the best inexpensive car ever.

Old vs. New
Comparing the old Cooper to the new I am sure more people are going to be enticed by the Cooper than ever before. But its less distinct than before and its character seems synthesized rather than organic. I kept imagining how great the last car would have been with an aluminum block, the VALVETRONIC and the new seats. The new Cooper is faster, more efficient and more comfortable – its just that the last car properly equipped was a car I’d but even if money were not object and this one leaves me strangely unmoved. There’s a sense that the money was spent where most people will notice – on power, seat comfort, etc. But I tire of power quickly and look at little things that mean more when driving daily: steering feel, switchgear, communication, engine note. A few years ago a Mini made me think the 3 series was too rubbery and dull but now its the 3 series that feels more connected.

(Bear in mind that I have not yet tried the larger diameter wheels or the firmer suspension. Maybe they’ll bring back some of the communication that I’m missing…)

new MINI suffers the effects of cost cutting

Tuesday, February 13th, 2007

I’ve ranted before on my concerns with the new MINI based on what I’d seen in pictures and what I’d read regarding the engineering used.

Now that I’ve seen it in the flesh I’m even more concerned…

I must admit that it looks less awkward in person than in photos. But simply walking around and sitting in the car I noticed some serious flaws, especially when compared to the last version. All stem from BMW’s directive to make the next Cooper more profitable than the last one.

The last Cooper felt more like an old 911 than the current 911 – the feel of the switchgear, the door latches, even the fuel filler cap were tactile delights that hinted that the components were meant for looooong service lives.

Walking around the new Cooper you immediately notice a huge gap between the hood and the front wheel arch. Oops.

Unlatching that hood from the inside you appreciate the fact that the latch is relocated to the correct side but the feel of the pull convinces you you’ve broken something. Gritty is too kind a word. Lifting that hood you notice that the panel’s not just lighter, it’s downright frail in feel – if you don’t lift from the middle you can see the panel distort under its own weight. Imagine picking up a Dell laptop by the corner vis a vis an Apple Powerbook – such is the magnitude of the disparity. (A 91 Civic felt more robust!)

The fuel filler looks serious but when you touch it its lightweight plastic roots are too evident. People trading their old MINI for new will miss the way their old car was built at every fill-up.

The trunk latch, like the new X5’s, lacks the old models precise electric latch and soft touch button. Again the sound and feel is shamed by far cheaper cars. The Suzuki SX4 - a car that’s built far better than it need be – comes to mind.

Sitting inside the visibility isn’t what it was – the dash slightly higher and deeper. The speedometer’s larger size you’ll get used to but the way the climate controls move through their range of motion and the overstyled nature of the controls you won’t. Splitting the radio into two areas didn’t make sense in the 7 series and it doesn’t here either. Gimmicks like the downlighting that changes hues (but only matches the dash lighting on one setting) and toggle switches mounted overhead, aircraft style probably seemed like a good idea around the water cooler but should have been left in the trash can right next to it.

I’d have started the engine and taken it for a drive but didn’t want my disappointment with the above to cloud my judgement of the purportedly more refined – some might say aloof – feel.

More to come…

why MINI’s puffed up new Cooper leaves me deflated

Sunday, October 15th, 2006

The old Cooper struck a shockingly artful balance between the rawness of the original and the refinement of a BMW - even the supercharger’s whine mimicked the gear whine of the original.

In remaking the new Cooper, MINI had to do something and the new car will no doubt be an advance in many areas (particularly in having a lighter, aluminum blocked engine). But from a design and intent standpoint, certain things make it more pre to trend than its rather timeless predecessor. They are: Read the rest of this entry »

a little rough around the edges

Thursday, October 5th, 2006

UPDATE: Click here to download a short clip taken during the my drive…

Original post [08.28.06]: Acura recently decided to drop the RSX from their U.S. lineup, feeling it was too unrefined and raucous to be sold next to cars like the RL and MDX. So it surprised me today that I was relieved to return the keys to the RDX because it felt – well – unrefined.

Let me back up by saying this was a car I expected to love. On paper it has one of the world’s most advanced all wheel drive systems, a suspension based on the new Civic’s (a good thing) and loads of torque without resorting to a heavy V6. It has the industry’s best nav system with real time traffic data. It was benchmarked against BMW’s X3. I was sure I’d love it.

But I didn’t, and neither did the potential buyer I accompanied. And here’s why… Read the rest of this entry »