Suzuki Quits US Auto Sales

Though we may have seen it coming, I was surprised when word got out that Suzuki will cease selling new cars in the US. American Suzuki Motor Corporation filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy today. It looked like Suzuki had been dormant for some time, but when The Garage reviewed the all-new 2010 Kizashi, I was encouraged at the renewed enthusiasm of Suzuki in the States. There were rumors the much lauded Suzuki Swift would finally make its return to these shores. Today, all that went up in smoke.

The Kizashi seemed like a ray of hope for a company that had appeared to have completely lost interest in selling cars in the US. But when the Kiazashi arrived with high hopes from Suzuki, the company marketed the car as just as good as an Audi A4, even challenging Audi shoppers to drive the car, with the promise to pay them $100 if they took the A4. But the Kizashi was competing against cars like the VW Jetta and Mazda6, and Suzuki’s marketing people weren’t talking to them. Which was a shame, because the Kizashi was a great car. Suzuki reached out to an audience that just did not care, and missed a great opportunity.

Suzuki blames low sales, a limited line of vehicles, among other reasons for withdrawing. And that is true. Suzuki has been selling around 2,000 cars a month nationwide. Toyota/Lexus sold 155,000 cars last month, to put things into perspective. Suzuki lacked a full line of vehicles to offer mass appeal to a large group of buyers as well, and the company is right for admitting the same. The SX4, a compact all-wheel drive car has been the bread and butter for Suzuki in the US since its 2007 debut. But with limited development, the SX4 started to get stale in an ever-changing market.

So yes, I am in complete agreement with Suzuki’s reasons. What I would like to add is a scant amount of dealers will hardly help boost sales. I actually live a couple miles from a Suzuki dealership, and I can honestly say I have never seen the Grand Vitara SUV or Equator pick-up on their lot. Hard to be a sales success when half of your products are not even available. But I can’t put blame on the dealer when the company itself is doing almost nothing to promote its product. As a car journalist, I am ashamed to say until today I did not even know Suzuki sold a truck called the Equator, but on the flip side, it goes to show what little effort Suzuki did in promoting its vehicles to the automotive press, and even less so to the car buying public.

I honestly believe if Suzuki brought the Swift back to the US, marketed the Kizashi properly, and streamlined their car/truck portfolio they could have had a chance to be a small, but successful player. But the reality was Suzuki offered no brand identity, a fragmented product line, and a hugely misdirected marketing strategy on the Kizashi, which I now believe was the make it or break it car for the powers that be in Japan. The Kizashi was a sales flop, and that was it.

As a car guy, and one that always roots for the underdog, I am sad to see Suzuki leave the US market. Fear not, their motorcycles and ATV’s will still be sold here, and Suzuki will continue building cars, just not selling them here. Still, I hate to see a company go that offered decent cars at reasonable prices, when it could have been different. While there has been no word from Suzuki Canada, odds are if no further vehicles will be imported to the US, the same can be said for our friends up north.

IMPA Test Days Part II

Welcome back to The Garage for coverage of day two of the International Motoring Press Association’s annual Test Days event, held in the beautiful New York Catskill Mountains. Whereas on day one we were free to drive the surrounding roads of our home base, Monticello Motor Club, today it was all about taking to the race track, and access to a rigorous off-road course.

When taking to a race track, I generally prefer to go with something on the mild side to get used to the track. In this case I picked a MINI Cooper Roadster. Dogged with an automatic tranny and not enough power to get you into any sort of trouble, the MINI was ideal to acclimate myself to the track. Satisfied, I turned my sites to something a with more bark-the BMW Alpina B7. Under the hood lies a 4.4L twin turbo V-8 cranking out 500hp. On the track, you are aware of the B7′s size and weight, but she is seriously fast. A 2013 Ford Mustang GT hit the track with a 30 second lead in front of me, and I caught up to it.

I did sample a V-6 powered Mustang for the first time. I don’t mind Mustang’s at all on the street, but I’ve driven Mustangs on a race track a few times now, and each time I am reminded how awful these cars perform on a track. No confidence in these cars at all, with twitchy handling and not nearly enough steering communication.

Yes, driving flat out on a race track is great fun, but slogging along at 5mph on an intense off-road course if equally exhilarating. For starters, I was given a ride in a Land Rover LR3 with an off-road expert to familiarize myself with the course. Once done, I surveyed the trucks available to us, and settled on the Nissan Frontier. The Nissan’s smaller size and off-road package seemed like a safe pick for my first run. The Frontier was an ace at the difficult course, but after riding in the Land Rover, the Frontier felt primitive and very basic. After the Nissan I went for the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon, which was positively amazing. All in all a fantastic course with some extremely capable vehicles.

Having satiated my urge to go off-road, it was time to get back on the track. I made my way to where Porsche was stationed. Sure, there was a wait, but I put my name in to track the all-new Porsche Boxster S and the 911 Carrera S. After a wait, it was time to hop in the Boxster. With the other cars, I was on my own on the track, but Porsche had driving coaches on board, with the intent to make us push the cars harder and go faster. So upon hopping in the Boxster, I am greeted by Andrew Davis, who races a Porsche 911 GT3 in the Rolex Grand Am series for Brumos Porsche. That’s right, a Grand Am driver is riding shotgun, giving me tips on how to maximize a Boxster on a race track! The Boxster feels fabulous and unflappable-very easy to drive fast and incredibly forgiving.

Next up was the latest Porsche 911, a car that holds a lot of meaning to me as I own one myself. I was nearly beside myself when I climbed in to find none other than David Donohue, Daytona 24 winner and son of the legendary Mark Donohue sitting in the passenger seat. I quickly informed David that I was about to turn in a truly awful lap as I tried to process the racing goodness seated beside me. In the Boxster, Andrew was pretty laid back, but in the 911, it was totally different riding with David. And it was awesome. David let me in on the racer’s mindset. How far ahead you are looking-even two corners ahead of myself. And he pushed me-when I wanted to back off on throttle, he insisted I go all in. The 911 is radically different from the Boxster, and David had me pushing the car hard enough I was getting sideways in a $100,000 car without breaking a sweat. Some people say if you haven’t scared the crap out of yourself, you weren’t going fast enough. With ace racer David Donohue as my co-pilot, I can safely say he pushed me to my limit, and the tail-heavy 911 as well. It’s an experience I will treasure for life.

And on that note, that concludes my coverage of the 2012 IMPA Test Days event. I was able to sample some of the most remarkable vehicles on the market in gorgeous settings on bucolic country roads, fantastic race track and challenging off-road course. Thanks for joining us in our coverage, and we look forward to Test Days in 2013.

[nggallery id=499]

IMPA Test Days 2012: Part I

If it’s late September, it can only mean one thing-the annual International Motor Press Association’s annual two-day Test Days event. This is The Garage’s fifth trek to this event. Test Days is open to IMPA members only, but is a massive event, bringing together a large group of manufacturers with an impressive showing of cars. This was Test Days’ second year in the beautiful Catskill Mountain area of New York State. For two days the event was hosted by the professional staff at Monticello Motor Club, a private, members-only race track. Think of it as a country club, but instead of swinging a golf club, you’re pounding your sports car on a track.

Test Days is divided into two distinct sessions. Day one has us enjoying a wide variety of cars on the scenic, winding roads of the Catskills. Day two is track day, where we get to unleash the cars at Monticello’s fantastic race course. During both days, a rigorous off-road course was available. On day one, I kept to the tarmac. Here’s a sampling of the cars I drove, all of which can be seen in the photo gallery at the end of this post.

On a crisp autumn day in the Catskills, the weather was picture perfect. Taking my time in picking my first car to drive, I made a promise to stick to cars I normally don’t get my hands on. I started with the Range Rover Evoque. I love the looks of the Evoque, and it was a comfortable ride, but my doors weren’t blown away. With a 2.0L direct injected turbo four making 240hp, the Evoque was adequate, but not particularly as fast as its sporty profile suggests. And with an as tested price tag of over $54,000USD, I have a problem with that. I’ll take a BMW X1 with the twin-turbo inline six with the M Sport Package and laugh all the way to the bank.

A little let down by the Evoque, it was time to turn my attention to something more interesting. Well, the 2013 Corvette Grand Sport (pictured above) seemed suitable. With the roof off, nothing but me and the open road ahead, the Corvette was positively glorious. Powered by a 6.2L V-8 knocking out 436hp paired to a six-speed manual, the ‘Vette was the perfect driving companion. Turning from a stop sign it was all to easy, and hilariously fun to kick out the tail on take-off. The Corvette will be whatever you want it to be, as she is happy to be driven hard, or simply loaf along. And whatever your choice, she is so easy to drive and very forgiving. Our heavily optioned Grand Sport rang in at just under $71,000, but for what you get it is still a great performance buy.

It is events like Test Days that sometimes give other cars an unfair advantage. After enjoying the Corvette, I jumped into a 2013 Nissan 370Z Roadster. Top down, gorgeous day, I take off in the Z, and well…I’m bored. Had I picked a Prius, I’d likely be praising the 370Z (as I did in 2009). The Nissan Z had no faults to point out, but the Roadster had such a calm demeanor that I did not recall from driving the hardtop. No doubt a fine car, but the Corvette was a very tough act to follow.

If any car really surprised me that day, it had to have been the Jaguar XJ Supersport. While fellow car journalists stood in line for V-8 powered AMG Mercedes, and M-powered BMW’s, the Jaguar was sitting all by itself, so I figured ‘Why not?’ What I found was an exceptionally comfortable Jaguar. Oh and quite a fast one. Powered by a 5.0L supercharged V-8, this leviathan launches like a beast starving for asphalt, and for all the refinement, offers a glorious V-8 bellow to boot. If there was one wrinkle in the car, when I opened the sunroof, there was an annoying creaking sound. Had I just spent the $112,000 price of admission, I would not be pleased. That aside, the XJ Supersport is a luxuriously lined rocket ship. For a car company who thought it was best served waxing nostalgic about the 1960′s for decades, with the XJ Supersport firmly points to the future direction of Jaguar in the 21st century. Just fix the damn creaky sunroof.

And well, yes, if there is a Nissan GT-R at my disposal, I am going to drive it. This was the Black Edition, packing an impressive 545hp. This was my second time at the wheel of a GT-R. The capabilities of the car are sky high, far greater than a mere mortal like me could possibly achieve. The prodigious power, lightning-quick shifts and remarkable grip are accomplished with little drama, apart from the G’s you’re feeling in the deeply sculptured sport seats. The GT-R’s performance is astonishing, but it is done so with virtually no emotion. If you’ve read reviews comparing the GT-R to a video game, that assessment is right. And for nearly $108,000, I don’t just want to go fast or have perfect grip, I want to feel something.

I drove into Ellensville, New York late on what had been a stormy night in a new Hyundai Elantra Coupe the night before. Even with GPS, I got a little lost. Nearly midnight, this low slung four door pulls up while I am studying the route guidance. It’s a fellow from press fleet management company STI at the wheel of a Fisker Karma, a company who provides several of the cars you see me review at The Garage. So, Fisker is here? And yes, I wanted to sample one.

If a Fisker Karma guided me to the resort IMPA was using, my test drive of the Karma was somewhat misguided. Spotting one of the two Fisker’s available to drive, I hopped in, started her up, and rolled away, with Fisker’s PR staff just feet away. I proceeded about 20′ straight ahead, where again I needed clearance from IMPA staff to leave the parking area in a press car. I was waved on. So, after a test drive, I was shocked when a Fisker PR person marched up to me to inform me there was a waiting list for the Karma, and someone was supposed to accompany me. I apologized, but I don’t understand why Fisker and IMPA simply let me drive away.

I do wish I had an engineer with me. Granted, the Fisker had been driven up from northern New Jersey the night before, and the resort had no plug-in facility for plug-in hybrids. So power was from the 260hp gas engine, and whatever energy the batteries could capture under braking. It was late in the day, batteries depleted, the Fisker did not feel all that fast. With climate control set to 68 degrees F, A/C on, the car struggled to deliver cool air to the cabin. The car was plenty comfortable up front, but the rear seat, which only seats two, was pretty tight, especially for a car this size. Materials were of good quality, but owners of comparably priced BMW’s and Mercedes-Benz’s will look at the the Karma and dismiss it as high-end kit car.

That’s a tall order for a car that starts at $96,000 with an unproven track record, not to mention the debacle at Consumer Reports where their loaner had to be towed away. Yes, the car is drop dead gorgeous, especially in person. In electric mode, the Karma emits an eery sound to make you aware of its presence. If you’ve watched Star Wars: Return of the Jedi and recall the sound of the Empire’s shuttle, it’s sort of like that.

But I will reserve final judgement of the Fisker Karma if I ever have the chance to properly review one. It’s similar to when The Garage reviewed the Chevy Volt. It really took a week of living with the Volt to understand it, and I suspect the Karma is no different. Driving a Volt with little to no battery juice does not paint a realistic picture, and the same is the case with the Karma.

And on that note, it was time to call it a day and make the half hour drive back to the resort. Final thoughts? The Range Rover Evoque as equipped would have been fine, if only priced about $10,000 less. The Fisker Karma is an unknown quantity, having not experienced it properly. The 370Z Roadster’s relaxed nature came as a surprise. The Jaguar XJ Supersport is an unsung hero car at the top of the luxury sport sedan food chain. But the hero car for the day was without a doubt the Corvette Grand Sport. Not the highest tech, nor most powerful car, nor expensive, but the Corvette pushed all the right buttons. Loud, raw, and brutally fast when you want it, or calm and comfortable as well, the Corvette represented the best of both worlds.

Please stay tuned for Part II of my commentary on IMPA Test Days where I tackle the race track and the most brutal off-road driving I’ve ever done. And I hope you enjoyed riding shotgun with me!

[nggallery id=497]

 

Fashion’s Night Out with the Ford Fusion

On a warm late summer night last Thursday, The Garage was invited by Ford to be a part of Fashion’s Night Out with the all-new 2013 Ford Fusion. The event was called a ‘pop-up’ and was no simple display of just a new car. The concept originated from Donna Karan as a means to show how sustainability and environmental friendliness are working in the fashion industry…and the new Ford Fusion. This is actually a part of a web series known as Random Acts of Fusion. If the notion of high fashion and a mid-size American car sound, well, odd, bear with me.

New York City has been an easy train ride away my entire life, but I’ve never been to the Meatpacking District where Ford was hosting the event. I’m no stranger of the intensity of NYC, but that night it was times two. In talking with Ford’s PR staff, I was told the emphasis was on the topic of sustainability. What the means in real talk is Ford is taking lengths to use more environmentally friendly and renewable resources in constructing their cars. And it just so happens the new Fusion is, in my opinion, drop dead gorgeous, so the car hardly looked out of place in the midst of high fashion and models.

Ford has flown me to their headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan twice this year. First to see the global reveal of the new Fusion, and again for the Go Further conference. This was the first time I have seen what Ford had been telling me from the comfort of their home office in person. Ford feels the next generation of car buyers see cars differently from anyone currently above the age of 30, and they are right. Stats show younger generations are gravitating to the city. Technology is a must, not a luxury.

Back to Gansevoort Plaza in the heart of the Meatpacking District. Next door, TV’s Oxygen Network is having a private party for a show I know nothing about, but there are velvet ropes, red carpet and people holding clipboards. Everywhere there are huge men in black suits. Across the street there is a club with a line 50 people deep waiting to get in. And then some random protest group making noise, about what, I could not tell you. Music was pounding from all directions. I had spoken to Ford, taken my pictures. I needed a break.

I found a place around the corner without a line, and sat with a $9 pint of Heineken, and tried to contemplate what just happened. Across the street from me stood a fleet of Mercedes S-Class and BMW 7-Series awaiting their owners. The Ford Fusion competes against the most common cars sold, the Camry, Altima, and Accord. Yet, at what seemed to be the epicenter of hip New York social life, people were checking out the Fusion. In droves. What struck me was that people were checking out a car that will sell just fine in Kansas City, Missouri to an average middle class working family, but some of these people were dressed in outfits that probably cost as much as my first Volkswagen.

I had time to spare, but I wanted to go home. Back to my family and bungalow by Long Island Sound. I hailed a cab, and when I told him to take to me Grand Central Station, he sighed ‘Thank God, I have got to get out of here!’ That says a lot from a NY cabbie. Even sporting my trusty Doc Martens and a sharp plaid shirt, I was hopelessly out of place. We cruised through Chelsea, where I’ve attended other auto events, which were much more my speed.

If it sounds like I had a bad experience, I did not. I was here for an assignment, and I learned a lot about how Ford is marketing their pride and joy. I questioned if they expected any of these socialites would buy a Fusion. But if anything, they are aware of it, and that it appeared to seamlessly meet their extremely high standards of style and fashion speaks volumes of the work J Mays and his design team has put into the Fusion. In my opinion, it was a success, and raised an awareness of a car this crowd never would have given a second thought to.

On my quiet train ride home, surrounded by exhausted New York businessmen playing with their smartphones, I am again impressed at the lengths Ford is going to reach out to new markets, and especially the ever elusive Generation Y. Having a plush Lincoln MKT awaiting me made the quick ride to home all the better, where I comfortably slipped back into my family life again.

[nggallery id=495]

Going Further With Ford Part II

Sorry for the delay folks, but I am pleased to report my second installment for the Go Further With Ford trend conference. In case you missed it, The Garage was chosen from an elite group of bloggers to attend this year’s Go Further With Ford event. Day one consisted of a series of interesting panel discussions which provided a glimpse of where Ford is headed.

For Day Two, Ford drove us to Dearborn proving grounds-the test track. Just to be there was a thrill. The cars you buy from the dealer are tested and fine-tuned right here. You get a sense of the seriousness of the facility with a control tower, much like an airport, overseeing all track activity.

As a car guy with some, but limited race track experience, my hopes of being unleashed on the proving grounds were dashed. Which I can understand. As a car guy, I was in the minority here, with bloggers representing subjects from the environment, fashion, parenting, etc. Ford would be nuts to let them loose.

But to keep things fun and interesting, we had to complete four tasks. My first challenge was to autocross the all-new 2013 Ford Escape. Our bogey time was 38 seconds, with a two second leeway. Ford’s intent was for us to push the Escape hard, which I did. I just made the cut, and have the I Love Pandora t-shirt to prove it. In my 40 seconds of driving it, the Escape was nimble and quick off it’s feet, but look for a full, proper review in the future. In fact, the new Escape will be in my driveway for Labor Day weekend.

Next up was the 2013 Ford Mustang GT. We had three choices. You could drive a Mustang with an automatic. You could drive a Mustang with a manual. You could be driven by a pro driver in a Mustang Boss 302. I’ll lay out the conversation:

Ford: “Mr. Williams, do you want to be driven on the course by a driver?”

Me: “No, thank you, I would prefer to drive myself.”

Ford: “Manual or automatic?”

Me: “Manual”

It was a brief stint, but the Mustang GT was a hell of a ride. I never got higher than third gear on the course Ford provided us. While I’ll always prefer driving myself, I have to say the drivers Ford had on hand to give rides on the Boss 302 ‘Stang put on one hell of a show. Full-on power slides and burning rubber was the order of the day for the Boss cars.

And from brute-force muscle car Ford takes me to the new Focus EV for a drive. On a short road course the Focus EV has buckets of torque, rides just as well as the conventional Focus The Garage tested, but what impressed me most was it’s greater range over the Nissan Leaf. I have been to events where EV’s were present, and there was always a desperation to keep a car plugged in. Not so with the Focus. The car simply kept plugging along.

My next challenge was to experience Ford’s latest technology. I tag-teamed another fellow. His task was to run to a Ford Escape, sync his phone and make a call. Once done, he passes a baton to me where I have to use a Ford Flex to park itself. I confess, I have had cars with this technology but was too fearful to use it. Under the eyes of Ford, I had to, and by golly, it worked. All it took was simply line up near a parking space, and the Flex uses its sensors to ‘find’ the opening. With nothing more than simple brake modulation, the Flex, by golly, parked itself. My task complete, I hand the baton back to my teammate, who samples another nifty Ford technology with the Escape. With a key on you, all it takes is a swipe of your foot to open and close the rear liftgate. Ingenious stuff for when you’re carrying a child or groceries. Yes, it was silly, but a fun way to sample the latest technology available in Ford vehicles.

Last event was an offroad romp in a 2012 Ford F-150 SVT Raptor. With a mighty 6.2L V-8 belting out 411hp, the Raptor is the ultimate truck for a muscle car fan. No, we would not be able to drive them-instead members of the Ford SVT team would take us out on Ford’s off-road course, and positively punish and beat the living snot out of the Raptor. Yes, there were some slow, and extreme angle off-roading that would match any Land Rover, but the emphasis was on the brutal power of the Raptor, as we drifted in a cloud of dust, its V-8 wailing as we pounded the truck. This was no burst of the throttle, dog and pony show. No. I had to wear a race helmet. By the time my ride was over, hanging on for dear life, my camera, cell phone, and car keys had been thrown from my pockets throughout the Raptor’s interior. In other words, way harder than I ever would have driven it. When I asked the driver after a long morning of punishing the Raptor if it was getting tiring, he simply replied ‘Hey, any other day I’d be sitting in a cubicle!’

After a catered lunch and some formalities, that pretty much closed out Go Further With Ford for 2012. Leaving Ford’s proving grounds, I looked on as cars continued to race around the track, the new Fusion more than any other car. For a moment I thought ‘This car is ready for production’, but in reality development and fine-tuning never stops. And I did  a double take when I saw a car I’d never seen before with no badges whatsoever as it made its way to the track as we pulled out. Hmmm….

With a couple hours to spare at the Detroit Airport, I contemplated the Go Further event. It was my second trip to Dearborn this year, having been in Detroit for the global reveal of the Fusion. There were fewer of us then, and a pronounced international presence. This time around, with about 250 of us who mostly seemed to be American. As a car guy, again, it was interesting to be hosted by a car company with a group of people who have nothing to do with cars. If that doesn’t make sense to you, hear me out. Ford is using social  media to promote its product, and as a fellow blogger told me, not all car buyers seek out automotive media outlets to learn about cars, and he is absolutely right.

In the span of two days Ford not only showed the technology they have now, but are fully prepared for a car market that is changing, and by all accounts Ford seems ready for it. Exhausting, yes, but extremely informative and entertaining. It was an honor to be Ford’s guest, and receive a front row seat to where the company is headed. It was a pleasure sharing the experience with you.

Ford Motor Company paid my airfare, hotel room and meals for this media event, but I was not compensated monetarily.

[nggallery id=490]

The Garage Goes Further with Ford

After being a guest of Ford for the global reveal of the new 2013 Ford Fusion in Detroit this year, Ford called on The Garage again to attend a two-day forum, ‘Go Further with Ford’. Along with over 250 bloggers covering auto, fashion, environment, parenting, marketing and a myriad of other subjects, we all descended upon Dearborn, Michigan, where we arrived for dinner at Ford Field, home of the Detroit Lions and host to Super Bowl XL. We were treated to a speech from none other than Bill Ford, great grandson of Henry Ford. Known for being an ‘industrial environmentalist’, Mr. Ford’s concerns and thoughts on the environment and future of the car would underscore what our next two days would reveal to us.

I had the opportunity to kick a ten yard field goal on Ford Field, and failed miserably. Check the gallery below for a pic of Ford social media chief Scott Monty kick a three-pointer, wearing a suit and dress shoes, no less.

Back to business the next day, we would be taken to four different forums, covering distinct subjects. The first for me was the Age of Accessible Design, and easily my favorite. Faced with a panel of people completely immersed in design, yet in worlds not related to cars, with one exception. Ford’s chief designer, J Mays was on hand, as well as Project Runway winner Christian Siriano. In addition, an architect and furniture designer were there to offer their point of view.

The discussion was riveting, and Mr. Siriano was entertaining and informative, but offered a different view from automotive design. Mr. Siriano can change trends instantly with his fashion design. With cars, as J Mays pointed out, it is completely different. Instead of next week, Mays is working on designing cars we won’t see until five years from now. J Mays was quite candid, emphasizing that each new car design is essentially a multi-million dollar gamble. You don’t often think of it from that angle, but it is absolutely true. But the most telling piece of info I got out of the forum was this. J Mays actually spends most of this time in the UK. Mays spoke about the ‘Europeanization of America’ in terms of design. That large cars are wasteful and status driven. In other words, don’t expect another mammoth Ford Excursion super-size SUV. Instead, Mays sees an America that is concerned about fuel cost and efficiency, which have driven the European car market for decades. It is now upon us.

Another forum focused on Eco Psychology. This is the motivation of Bill Ford, and he is intensely focused on being green, even if Ford’s board of directors are intent on only profits. To that end, Ford is doing extensive research on using natural and organic materials in building their cars. At the same time, Ford is adamant in letting the customer decide, not dictate their options. Be it gas, gas-hybrid, or EV, Ford is allowing the customer to make the choice.

Ford is also keenly aware of the shift in car buyer’s mentality. As a member of Generation X, mine is the last generation where getting a license to drive was viewed as a rite of passage, as a means to see something greater than what was in the confines of my hometown. Generation Y, or Millenials, see the world far differently from me and generations prior. They are in no hurry to get a license. The internet satiates their need for exploration. They gravitate to urban centers where everything they need is within walking distance. Having graduated to an unstable economy, Gen Y is driven to access to local amenities and superior public transit rather than a car. Still, a car is needed, which explains Ford’s relationship with Zipcar, a company that offers rental cars in major American cities by the day our hour.

What was most telling was Ford telling us Generation Y’s feeling disconnected while on the road-unable to text or web surf. While that sounds pretty pathetic to me, I suppose that is the new reality. Which brings me to the final forum of the day, focusing on technology. Ford, in conjunction with Microsoft has come under some fire about its MyTouch infotainment package, but strides seem to have been made to improve it. Ford seems to recognize that too much tech can overwhelm or confuse a driver. It intrigued me that Ford is currently developing software that reads from the steering wheel a driver’s heart rate and sweat to decide if it is not a good time to relay a text message or other info. It is not currently available, but it is cutting edge technology.

Personally, it was a thrill to hear Bill Ford tell all of us we were invited to Dearborn because we were the elite bloggers in our respective fields. As East Coast Editor for The Garage, I sincerely hope you enjoy and are informed by the material we provide here. for you. Our busy day was capped off with a reception at Tech Shop Detroit, followed by a live concert by indie rock/folk band Blind Pilot.

*Editor’s Note: Ford Motor Company paid for my travel expenses and accommodations, but I was not compensated by Ford monetarily.

[nggallery id=485]

New Details on Chysler/Jeep/Dodge’s Future

What a ride it’s been at Chrysler these past few years. Neglected by parent Daimler and subsequent owner Cerberus, Chrysler was on the brink of collapse and on their knees in front of the US Congress begging for a bailout. Ironically, Fiat, a company who fled the US in the early 1980′s turned out to be Chrysler’s savior. And so far, the results have been encouraging. The bottom-feeder Dodge Avenger has been enormously improved. SRT is reviving the almighty Viper. The highly anticipated Dodge Dart with full Alfa Romeo DNA intact will be hitting showrooms soon.

There is no question that Chrysler had a myriad of problems, and it appears that Fiat-Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne is still at work at revamping the beleaguered company. According to a post from Autoblog, Marchionne confirmed the Jeep Compass will be killed off in 2014.  In spite of its 2011 redesign which modeled itself after the Grand Cherokee, Jeep’s attempt at targeting young urban types-especially females appears to have fizzled. The more successful Patriot, which shares the same mechanicals to the Compass has sold far better, with more traditional Jeep styling, but it is unclear what the future of the Patriot is. Still, these cars are dinosaurs, based on the now extinct Dodge Caliber which was mercifully let go in favor of the upcoming Dart.

The next casualty is the Chrysler Town & Country minivan. The Dodge Grand Caravan remains, which makes sense since the Caravan was the first minivan. Ever. Kudos to Sergio Marchionne for telling Chrysler it makes no sense selling the exact same car under two brands. Brand engineering is what nearly ruined the American auto industry, so killing off the Town & Country makes perfect sense to me.

In other related news, it appears there will be an SRT high performance version of the Dodge Dart that will sit above the Dart R/T. No word yet on what will sit under the hood. In sum, I find the news from Chrysler encouraging as failing and redundant cars are cut off, and under the control of Fiat they definitely appear to be a more focused company. The future looks bright.

Dean Martin’s Car for Sale!

Think back on the 1960′s culture, and one’s first thoughts might focus on the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and the hippie movement. The decade started out on a different note. The Rat Pack, with Frank Sinatra as ‘Chairman of the Board’ started the 60′s with the feel-good momentum from the 1950′s, with over the top swagger and impeccable style. Dean Martin was Sinatra’s right hand man with a successful career in music with a hit parade of singles. Being in the Rat Pack was elite, and Dean Martin was one of the main acts.

Jalopnik reported that you can own a piece of said Rat Pack premiere member Dean Martin’s car. It is no ordinary car, as befitting a man at the very height of his career and ruling the Strip in Las Vegas. The car in question is a 1962 Ghia L6.4. The Ghia married Italian coachwork with American power. A true grand tourer, the Ghia is powered by a Chrysler 383 with 335hp paired to a three-speed automatic. Only 26 L6.4s were built, and each one was bespoke to the buyers wishes.

Dean Martin’s Ghia was sent to world renowned car customizer George Barris for subtle modification, to, um, separate it from the 25 other Ghia L6.4s built. It would just be awkward to come across the same Ghia, as Frank Sinatra owned one himself. Dean Martin’s car is completely original, and has never been restored, yet appears to be in excellent condition. This Ghia is for sale by Hyman Limited for a cool $199,500USD. If you were curious as to what exclusivity and coolness cost, there is your answer.

If it were me, I’d slide onto the gorgeous leather black seat with a fantastic patina, grip the Nardi wood steering wheel with a fine cigar, my lovely wife at my side and whisk ourselves down to Atlantic City, since there is nothing cooler than hitting Dino’s AC haunts in his own car.

 

American Car Dealers Finally Getting That Service Counts?

As East Coast Editor here at The Garage, I spend a good amount of time reading other auto blogs and magazines. I came across a post from Autoblog where Viper mastermind Ralph Gilles indicated that Dodge/Chrysler dealers would need to be certified to sell the Viper. There’s been plenty of hype surrounding the 2013 Viper, but what many may not realize is this is NOT a Dodge. Rather, the car will be sold as the SRT Viper, a brand all its own. And not just any Dodge or Chrysler dealer will be able to sell it.

Back in 1997 when I had just started as an auto journalist, I was fortunate to be loaned a stunning black Dodge Viper RT/10. During my loan of the Viper, I drove to the local Dodge dealership, where a client of my father’s worked as a salesperson. On arrival, the car was swarmed by Dodge salesmen, and I was happy to offer a test drive to my father’s client. On the test drive, I was intrigued at what I was told. According to him, no one ever saw any Viper the dealership sold. He continued, explaining Vipers were delivered and presented to customers after hours with no sales staff around, just the dealer principles. After dropping him off, I was stunned a Dodge salesman had never so much as seen one of the cars of the very brand he made a living selling.

With the new SRT brand, that will change. Mr. Gilles wants a Viper in the showroom. He wants a dedicated technician who knows the Viper front to back. And, most importantly, a sales staff who knows not only about the Viper, but understands the buyer. If you’re selling Dodge Avengers,  Mr. Gilles understands that does not automatically qualify you to sell an SRT Viper, and that makes perfect sense to me.

And it is high time American automakers understand how to sell and service their clientele, an area they have been deficient in when it comes to a car outside their comfort zone. In the 1970′s, Buick salesmen were selling German Opals, and how did that go? A guy shilling Buick Century’s and LeSabre’s is not going to know how to talk to a buyer who wanted what was know as a mini-Corvette, the Opal GT. Ford repeated the same mistake in the 1980′s with Merkur, putting European sport sedans on a showroom floor filled with salespeople accustomed to people selling Crown Victorias. It didn’t work.

At this year’s New York International Auto Show, Lincoln revealed the production version of their new 2013 MKZ. While the car looked impressive, Lincoln spent more time not talking about their new car, but how they were overhauling their dealerships, and improving how they cater to their customers. It was like a light bulb had finally lit up. Gee, a luxury car buyer stays at luxury resorts, eats at gourmet restaurants, and expects a high standard of service. Why wouldn’t they expect similar service for a purchase as significant as a luxury car? Toyota knew this from the get go when they debuted Lexus in 1989. It is almost unbelievable it took Lincoln 23 years to come to the same conclusion.

Better late than never, I suppose. But all signs point to an awakening of where the actual car buyer lays down his hard earned cash-the dealership. As a car journalist, I only see the car. It is you, the reader, that does the shopping and makes the deal, and interacts with your local dealer. Even in my own town, I can see the changes. Our Lincoln dealer just completely overhauled their showroom. A longtime Chevy dealer who had a decent reputation but was looking shabby was pressured to renovate, and the owner sold it and closed its doors.

To sum, I find it encouraging that SRT and Lincoln are understanding they need specialists to sell their products. For all the flash that surrounds high-end cars, the end goal is still selling cars, and to do so, you need the right people and environment to cater to your customer. With the Viper and Lincoln, you cannot sell cars where Big Macs are the main seller while you are attempting to sell filet mignon. With SRT’s and Lincoln’s adjustment in how they sell their cars, I can only see success.

Forgotten Sporty Cars, Mother’s Day Edition

All of us here at The Garage hope you treated your mom’s right on Mother’s Day, and we offer a belated happy Mother’s Day to the mom’s that read our blog. En route to lovely Knapp’s Landing restaurant in Stratford, Connecticut, my wife spotted a cool car on our way to lunch. Not wanting to be late, I vowed to check it out later. A tribute to my lovely wife for her keen eye.

After lunch, I drove to where she spotted the car, and what I found was cooler than I ever could have imagined. Not only was it a cool car, but it was resting on the flatbed of an equally, if not more cool flatbed truck, a vintage Dodge, rusted and faded, but what especially struck me was the barely legible painting on the doors for the shop it did duty for decades ago.

The little sports car, slowly atrophying to the elements is a Datsun 2000, also known as the Fairlady in its native Japan. The 2000 was the car that preceded the groundbreaking 240Z. Built from 1967 to 1970, the 2000 sported a 2.0L four, good for 133hp with a whopping 7,000 rpm redline. With a weight of just 2,000lbs, the 2000 could comfortably cruise all day at 120mph in fifth gear, an overdrive gear, but in fourth the 2000 could hit 140mph. Competing against MG, a five speed manual was exotic stuff for this class of car. Datsun wanted the car to appeal to SCCA racers, and offered an optional Competition Package with Solex carbs and special camshaft, bumping power to 150hp.

By all measures, the Datsun 2000 was years ahead of the MGB and Triumph TR-4 in terms of technology and performance, but at the time, the American sports car buyer just wasn’t ready to embrace a Japanese roadster. The 2000 was a limited production car, and lacked the British charm MG’s and Triumph’s offered. With World War II in the not so distant past, I have no doubt that for as good as the Datsun 2000 was, it was simply crossed off buyer’s lists for it country of origin.

But for anyone who respects and covets the Z-car, look back and see the Datsun 2000 as the final evolution of their sports car before launching the sports car revolution the Z created. For now, reflect on the beauty and/or sadness of the car that came before.

[nggallery id=476]