Monday, March 30, 2009

2009 GMC Yukon Hybrid: $50K?

GMC is definitely missing the point with its new hybrid, but it's a car that almost needed to be made. I'm surprised this monster wasn't advertised in Big Love or something (photos at end of post).

First, the basics, with my thoughts tacked on:

  • 4-speed automatic (CVT). I'm not a fan of this: one more gear in the tranny to make this smoother and save fuel while shifting wouldn't have killed GMC in such a large vehicle.
  • 6.0-liter V8. Expected.
  • Towing capacity: 1733 lbs (4x4 option, and why wouldn't you get the 4x4 if you're getting a truck this large?). Acceptable, and with a hybrid power train, maybe you're not doing as much towing as the next Yukon owner.

  • Standard leather & navigation. For $50K? It better have leather seats and navi!

  • Fuel economy: 20-22 mpg. Surprised? I wasn't. For the price, I would have expected a little better, but remember, this IS a Yukon.

The official reason given for putting hybrid technology - co-developed by BMW, DaimlerChrysler, AND GM (surprised?) - into a monster SUV is that GMC wants to "highlight our commitment to save as much fuel as possible by applying our best technology to the highest fuel-consuming vehicles first" (cited from this Motor Trend review).

What about the unofficial reasons? Well, for one, I understand putting hybrid tech into larger vehicles to save fuel, as follows:
  • tiny hybrid cars cannot take the kind of impact offered by a car such as - oh, I dunno, a GMC Yukon? - while keeping the driver and passengers safe. The Prius can get all the praise and government crash test ratings it wants, but the fact of the matter is, I'd rather drive my Benz around and pay more per gallon AND per tank to keep my family safe in the event of a collision. When it's time for a new car, I'll go with a BlueTec or a Benz E-class hybrid (doesn't exist yet).

  • there's plenty of need for commercial vehicles like the Yukon, so we can't simply ignore them and hope businesses start using Prius' for towing and at construction sites. It's simply not going to happen.

  • say you're a taxi or livery service and someone wants an SUV to take a family to the airport? Our entire family did this last year when we went to Aruba and had a large Cadillac Escalade (extended) take us. Imagine driving that thing around every day in Boston traffic to and from the airport? That electric power train to save gas in city driving is going to be a godsend for you and may allow you to keep prices on your service reasonable.
However, I still think when looking at the big picture, General Motors is missing out on a great opportunity. It's easier to test this technology out in a relatively low-volume car. When I say low volume, I mean for families who are staying away from these behemoths; commercial fleets will be backed by the warranty, and the potential bad press if liability is bad won't be as harsh coming from loyal commercial fleet buyers. However, GM should be using this same hybrid technology in a bunch of cars, and soon. The US has a huge image problem when it comes to Ford, GM, and Chrysler. They simply are unwilling to give up the truck-and-SUV push. One recent commercial comparing the Chevy Silverado to the Toyota Tundra touts the former's gas mileage over the Tundra and then has the audacity to call Chevy the "greenest" truck on the road (can't find the ad online just yet). It's still a pickup truck, and my opinion of pickups is that they simply shouldn't be allowed on the road unless you have a commercial license plate (i.e.; you'd have to show a need to own a truck like that, such as a contracting company or construction worker, to own such a vehicle).

For $50,000+, and it's not even an Escalade, I think this is a niche market to say the least. If it's as smooth and comfortable as expected, I'm sure plenty of folks - more the further West you go in the States - will find this suitable if they can afford it (with GM in desperation mode it's likely you'd be able to get a good deal on one). But for most, we can only hope US returns to car-making glory by doing something to trump Japanese and Germany automakers instead of sitting in reaction mode as they have for decades.

Fomula 1 Season started yesterday

The Australian Grand Prix marked the beginning of the 2009 season for F1 racing. For those of us who value exceptional engineering, these races are the pinnacle of auto racing. I will admit I have a strong dislike for NASCAR, as they simply take existing platforms and trick them out to perform very well on a circular racetrack, so we're going to ignore NASCAR in this blog.

First, a recap and some info: I'm a huge Ferarri fan. I know, it's kind of like being a Yankees fan, and I loathe the Bronx Bombers. But I have Italian blood and Ferrari is one of the best car companies in the entire world. I'm also a Mercedes owner, so I'm not too disappointed when I see Benz teams win - except for the fact that I cannot stand Lewis Hamilton (kind of like my LeBron envy as a Celtics fan, which may rear its ugly head big time in the 2009 NBA playoffs).

Once Schumacher retired a few years back, no one knew what to expect from Ferrari. Then, clawing their way back into the race after a disappointing start, Felipe Massa and Kimi Raikkonen took the championship for Ferrari at the very last minute of the last race in 2007. In 2008, they were in a similar position, but Hamilton - in only his second year of being a professional F1 racer - took the championship.

What does 2009 hold? Well, with Honda bowing out of F1 racing, siting economic concerns (we all know how I feel about Honda lately), another Mercedes team filled the gap: Brawn-Mercedes. This team is new for 2009 and, surprise surprise, took the first race in Australia this past weekend. This goes to show how important it is to have both a driver's and constructor's championship in F1: it's the mating of the two - great driver, great car - that wins races.

It should be an interesting season as both Ferraris were out of the first race and didn't cross the finish line.

The disappointing part of recent seasons of F1 for me, is that they have now eliminated both the Canadian and the US Grand Prix races (Montreal, Indianapolis, respectively). I'm much closer to Canada and had the good fortune of attending the 2004 Canadian Grand Prix with my father, and can only hope they add a course in North America again in the near future.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Car Care: for all your needs

To put it bluntly,
  • Is a great small business run by great people
  • Are experts in all things car care related - interior, exterior, newer cars, older cars, show cars; scratches, washing, waxing, painting, etc. etc.
  • Sells only the highest quality products from the industry leader in car care products - that would be Mothers.

Many folks are loyal to Meguiar's and I can understand that. Some folks prefer Turtle Wax, which I think is more of a trendy company, but nonetheless, there's lots of quality products to be had at Auto Zone or Napa. Where you strike out in a franchise store is the personal touch offered by and the fact that they won't sell abrasive cloths, brushes, or applicators.

Here's where fits in: if they sold Meguiars products, they'd still sell a great assortment of non-abrasive snow & upholstery brushes, wheel waxes, and other products that allow for great car care. They don't just stock bottles of waxes and polishes and call it a day; they can advise you on how to take care of your vehicle based on make, paint type, age, condition, and your particular wants & needs. As a result, I have no choice but to plug them here after years of dealing with them. The first time I had a question and was referred on a Benz board to for proper vehicle care, the manager/owner asked me to call him rather than discuss over email. That was back in 2004. He spent a half hour with me on the phone and I wrote down notes that I still have on car care. When David W. took over, he kept the personal touch and I didn't miss a beat in terms of which microfibre cloths to mate to my great Mothers products. Even for something as small as a wheel spoke brush, David spent the time to help me pick the right one; or which detergent to use with microfibre cloths.

They truly are a great American small business and I am proud to be a customer of their business. If you have any car care needs, do yourself a favor and email their sales dept (sales at waxstation dot com, or mail at waxstation dot com). Even if you're nervous about changing brands to Mothers, simply buying microfibre cloths & the proper brushes for your vehicle to apply your other brand will impress you in terms of the order process, the ease of use of their site, the great descriptions of products, and the responsiveness of their sales team.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Latest insurance nightmare update

Click here and scroll down to the 3/26/09 update.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Another reason to hate Honda: The S2000 says goodbye

Honda lets yet another great product slip through the cracks, unreplaced by something, let alone a half-decent vehicle in the same segment:

Sayonara, S2000 [Road & Track, April 2009]

The S2000 was a great racing-inspired roadster, and the only Honda-branded product with rear wheel drive at the time. The Acura NSX was the only other rear-wheel drive car Honda/Acura made during those years, and that has been replaced with...nothing. Simply phased out, like this car, with no plans for a replacement.

With a new CEO joining Honda's ranks a few years ago (link is provided to show how well Fukui worked out for Honda - he's being replaced soon too), the second-generation Acura TL was one of the most popular cars in its segment, the Honda Accord had actually outsold the Camry for a year, and the new 2006 Civic was taking over the compact car segment. A new - and first - all wheel drive system for Acura could only mean good things going forward, right? Wrong.

While the Civic continues to impress, the overall vehicle market has dropped significantly in terms of sales, just like every other industry lately. The new Acura TL is designed oddly, to say the least; the RL gets no love from anyone and is lagging behind its competitors, and as I've mentioned in this space before, Acura never revived the CL and therefore never challenged the G coupe from Infiniti (which, by the way, is standard RWD with optional AWD). Since Acura is no BMW with only a FWD or AWD version offered on its TL, and only a four-cylinder in its smallest car (the TSX) until recently, I have a hard time figuring out the motivations of Honda's luxury brand.

This is aside from the fact that the new Accord - while impressive - grew to just over full size status in its most recent incarnation (2008 Full Model Change). With Korean competitors increasingly biting into the sales of Honda and Toyota, especially in the bread and butter segments like mid-size and compact sedans, it's amazing Honda decided to cut off the DX (most basic) trim level in the Accord and position the Accord as more upscale than it already was - as even a few years ago you could rack up over $30K on an Accord by buying the loaded V6 version. These are ideas I'd expect from dealership goons, not Honda Corporate.

It's hard to build loyalty into a brand when you can't get the basics right. Sales of the RDX and MDX are okay, but they could be even better if the rest of Acura's lineup was at least somewhat attractive, and people aren't buying SUVs in the numbers they were years ago anyway.

Honda is showing lately (and this does hurt as a former Honda owner) that they are all poorly executed style, with some good substance but nothing substantially better than what's out there from other companies.

One can make the same argument about certain Mercedes products too, but at least they are turning it around with the new C-class and new S-class (as well as a new E-class on the way soon). I'm not worried about the future of Mercedes-Benz, but I am worried about the future of Honda/Acura.

Tires: Snow tires - Michelin Alpin PA3 or Blizzak WS60?

Based on my insurance nightmare posts, you can tell I've had a lot to think about this winter without use of my Benz (at least, not in working order until recently, when I had the steering rack replaced). Even though I used to be one of those people who thought winter tires were silly now that we can all buy all-season radials, I've done a 180 and now believe in snow tires.

In my vehicle in particular, only 35% of the torque is going to the steering wheels. Sixty-five percent goes to the rear, and in my 2002 E320, this is a full time system - not like the new BMW XDrive or Infiniti's system which are both performance and safety-based.

As a result, and as I mentioned in a prior post, I have never been happy with the way my Conti all-seasons turned in snow. They also - in part - caused the accident as I was going slow, but still hydroplaned sideways into another car while trying to maneuver a curve in the road (while it was icy). Snow tires could have helped solve this problem - and will in the future, as I've decided to buy a set for next winter.

A couple of things one should know before purchasing:
  • If you have 17" rims or larger, it's probably better to go with a 16" rim for your new snow tires. Try to get H-rated if you can, vs. T-rated, unless you live in Canada or a remote area where little plowing is done. Most of the time, in areas like Massachusetts, the roads are plowed so well that 90% of your driving time on the snow tires will be done in somewhat dry conditions, and the treads on these tires do not last long.
  • It's much easier to go with another set of rims AND tires at the same time, even if you only have steel wheels or rims smaller than 17". You're increasing your up front cost by $400 or more, but the convenience you get out of not having to swap tires on the same rims each season is worth it. You can even do it yourself, then simply take the car with its seasonal tires for a balancing & alignment without having to lug tires around. Plus, reducing the number of times your rubber has to be taken off one rim and put on again later is a good thing.
  • Though I'm just about to recommend Michelins, don't take that as a slight on other brands. There are a dizzying array of tire brands out there, so if you're intent on researching each and every kind, go to and have a ball.

First things first: I posted on my favorite Mercedes forum about this and sought out recommendations from other trusted forum members. Make sure that you belong to a good online forum where bloviating and drama are kept to a minimum. A healthy community of vehicle owners who swap tricks and solve problems together will be a car owner's most valuable resource.

Many Benz owners seem to gravitate toward Michelin, Blizzak, or Dunlop snow brands. By posting in the forum, and looking on, I found out the following:

  • I have 17" rims and it would be good - and cheaper at least in terms of the tires - to go down to 16" and narrower for my snow tires. Narrower helps give the tire better traction with less weight dispersed on a wider piece of rubber.
  • Michelin X-Ice's were highly favored, but are being replaced by the Michelin Alpin PA3 brand. This is important because if you ever blow one out, it will be more difficult to find the same tire if it's been discontinued for a while. Even if the X-Ice is a slightly better tire, it's not worth the potential of having to replace two vs. one if something happens to one.
  • Blizzak WS60 seemed to give slightly better traction in ice & snow, but were a bit choppy on dry pavement. As I mentioned above, most of my driving even in winter months will be on dryer roads as plowing and salting are done constantly during storms, and high budgets for clean-up work abound. So while the Blizzaks were tempting because I wanted to get the best snow tire based on my accident experience, I don't think I'd be missing out on too much by getting a highly rated Michelin that still got the job done while giving me better highway performance than the Blizzak.

So the decision is to seek out Michelin Alpin PA3 for snow tires next winter, along with a set of used OEM 16" rims or new, cheaper 16" rims. Always check your owner's manual for required offsets, etc. when downgrading wheel size to a non-stock size. For me, I have optional 17" factory rims on my car, so I can go down to a 215/55/16 size with no issue.

Another great thing about purchasing snow tires is that you can have more fun with your three-season tires. I may end up going with Michelin Pilot Sport A/S plus, which are essentially summer tires that can handle a dusting of snow very well. This may help provide the driver with better performance in the summer months, as you can buy a stiffer tire that still sticks to the road very well.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Insurance Nightmare - update

See 3/3/2009 update on original Insurance Nightmare post.