Monday, November 24, 2008

BMW M3 convertible--Drivers log

Tune an already superb 3-series chassis to M level, add a 414-hp V8 heart stopper tied to a supermanageable seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, toss in a spectacular interior, and what could possibly be missing? Maybe a hardtop convertible roof? Got it. This car seemingly has everything. OK, so you’re saying at $78,000, it ought to have everything including the kitchen sink, and it’s hard to disagree. But for BMW buyers who don’t need the M5’s bigger cabin, it’s hard to argue with the M3’s dynamic abilities, pure power and fun-to-run value. Drop the top, drop the hammer, and drop your cares on the pavement receding in the rearview mirror.

Some might argue for a manual, but I’m coming to terms with BMW’s dual-clutch box. If you’re looking for smooth starts and relatively smooth shifts, dial the transmission’s controller down (if you’re at a stop, it shifts from first to second when you dial it down for smoother takeoffs). For spirited driving, punch up the trans action, or take over shifting with the steering-wheel paddles. It’s the best of both worlds--the solid connection of a clutch-actuated manual gearbox with the real-world ease of an automatic when you want it. You might wish for the control that a foot-operated clutch gives, but you won’t miss that third pedal when you’re fighting traffic.

MOTORSPORTS EDITOR MAC MORRISON: I would not opt for the convertible, as the car is still plagued by the shakiness of the standard 3-series drop-top. Plus, while the folding hardtop looks better than a cloth roof, the car loses its badass profile. And look at that curb weight! This weighs almost as much as a Mercedes SL. It’s a good thing the engine is so potent and the chassis so well sorted, but that number is insane for what is intended to be one of the world’s most nimble corner carvers.

The real story here, though, is the dual-clutch gearbox. Compared with the steaming disaster known as SMG in the old M3, this may as well be alien technology from Nebulon 12. With the shift speed dialed to the max and a heavy foot, the gear engagement is still brutal, with the tires chirping when you snap the right-hand paddle to shift from first to second. But you can soften that by lifting between shifts or by dialing back the shift speed with the associated switch. When you do so, the gearbox shifts smoothly and predictably in both manual and automatic modes. The engineers made a huge step here, and this system is up there with the market’s best, giving buyers a legitimate alternative to the six-speed manual.

SENIOR EDITOR KEVIN A. WILSON: This is a great engineering achievement. Not a great experience. I can’t get over how heavy the car is and feels. To this old-school driver, the mass of this feature-laden “luxury” car is entirely out of keeping with the M3’s origins as a compact screamer, and adding the folding roof makes it worse.

Also, the car isn’t fun to drive slowly. It used to be that you’d compare a M3 with a pretender, say a Lexus, and note that the pretender was fine all the way up to nine-tenths, then couldn’t hold a candle to the real thing. The performance emphasis--perhaps in combination with the mass--seems to have flipped that equation some. If you’re not driving hard, the BMW is clunky. If you’ve got the bit between your teeth and you’re working up a sweat, instant turn-in and ultracrisp shifts are just the thing. If you’re just trying to get to the drugstore, it’s a pain. I said I was an old-school driver, and we remember when performance came with a penalty in comfort. That’s not what I’m objecting to so much as the sense that this car is trying to be all things to all people, loaded down with all of the toys and all of the tech in shifting, ride control and driver aids, and that makes it neither fish nor fowl. Strip it down, give me a basic 3-series and only the M gear that makes it faster--not heavier, not more complicated--and leave all of the 7-series rubbish at the curb.

In fleet: Oct. 21-Nov. 4

As tested price: $77,970

Drivetrain: 4.0-liter V8; RWD, seven-speed sequential manual

Output: 414 hp @ 8,300 rpm, 295 lb-ft @ 3,900 rpm

Curb weight: 4,145 lb

Fuel economy (EPA/AW): 15/15.4 mpg

Thursday, November 13, 2008

End of the road for Yugo

In Serbia's Zastava car factory, workers can barely contain their emotions — the very last Yugos, the pride of the former Yugoslavia, are coming off the assembly lines after almost 30 years.

Often a laughing stock for its design and lack of reliability, the Yugo's demise is the sad end of an era for workers in the central Serbian town of Kragujevac.

After the sprawling factory was bombed in 1999 Nato air-strikes against Serbia during the Kosovo war, successive governments failed to win an agreement with foreign carmakers to keep production alive.

The fate of the Yugo was sealed earlier this year when the Serbian government signed a €700-million investment accord with Italian auto giant Fiat that ends production of three models, including the Yugo.

It is over

The final car is to come down the assembly line later this week, to the sadness of workers like 54-year-old Janko Jankovic who have grown attached to the box-shaped vehicle.

"I was involved in assembling the fifth ever Yugo when I was doing work experience and here I am, 30 years later, preparing to assemble the last one," he said.

Painters have already covered the final car with a large banner saying: "Farewell to the last Yugo, it is over."

The vehicle will be red, a symbol of the company's original name, "Crvena Zastava" (Red Flag), established during the rule of late communist leader Tito after World War II.

"It's very difficult after all these years with this car to know that it has reached the end of the road," said 50-year-old Mirko Ilic while observing the last vehicle of almost 800 000 produced since 1980.

"Assembled at gunpoint"

An offspring of the Fiat 127, the Yugo was born in 1980, in two versions — three and five doors.

In its heyday, it gained enormous popularity at home due to its low price and fuel consumption, quickly becoming accessible to everyone in the six republics of the former communist federation of Yugoslavia.

Old company catalogues boast that the Yugo was exported to 74 countries in the late 1980s — among them Egypt and India — but also to the United States where it was priced at $3990.

But the Yugo was much-maligned there and remains the butt of many jokes.

"The Yugo had the distinct feeling of something assembled at gunpoint," Time magazine said once in a list it complied of the 'Worst Cars of All Time'.

"In a car where 'carpet' was listed as a standard feature, the Yugo had a rear-window defroster — reportedly to keep your hands warm while you pushed it," Time said in a tongue-in-cheek report.

Although the communist authorities described the US agreement as the "deal of the century", the Yugo had only limited success in America, ending up mostly in Hollywood comedies and even in Bruce Willis' action blockbuster 'Die Hard'.

Despite its record as one of the "worst foreign vehicles ever" sold in the United States, Zastava says more than 100 000 were exported there up to 1991.

Writing on the wall

The early 1990s were the beginning of the end of the Yugo fairy tale.

The bloody break-up of the former Yugoslavia and international sanctions imposed on Slobodan Milosevic dealt a fatal blow to Zastava exports.

Most of the Kragujevac plant was severely damaged during the 1999 Nato bombing campaign launched to end Milosevic's crackdown on Kosovo.

Zastava's management is now considering the possibility of moving car production abroad.

"Together with the Serbian government, we are exploring possibilities to continue with production in, for example, Egypt, were our Zastava 128 model has been very successful," said Zastava manager Radomir Petrovic.

"But this is just an idea for the time being," Petrovic said, reassuring Yugo owners throughout the region they should not fear for lack of spare parts.

"All those who still have a Yugo and even a buyer of the last vehicle, have nothing to fear as our partner factories will produce a sufficient amount of spare parts," Petrovic said.

Thousands of these cars still rumble along roads in former Yugoslav republics Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia and Slovenia more than 16 years after the collapse of the joint federation.

Honda sees FY exports to Europe of China-made 'Jazz' model at 45,000 units

Honda Motor Co said it expects to export to Europe this year 45,000 units of the Honda Jazz small car, made in China by a joint venture, up from 43,000 units a year earlier.
The automaker said in a statement that its China joint venture Honda Automobile (China) Co Ltd which specializes in supplying vehicles for markets outside China, produced 100,000 vehicles since it officially began production in April 2004.
In the first half, Honda Automobile exported 24000 cars valued at 281 mln usd, accounting for 18 pct of China's auto exports in volume and 29 pct in value.
Honda Motor and its Chinese subsidiary own a combined 65 pct stake in the venture, with the remainder held by its partners Guangzhou Auto and Dongfeng Motor Corp.

Volkswagen reviews commercial vehicles ad business

Volkswagen is looking for an agency to handle advertising duties for its commercial vehicles business.
The review is being handled by Agency Assessments and is expected to conclude in January next year.
The intermediary is already approaching agencies and will be compiling a long-list over the next week.

In the past, VW has used a number of regional agencies for its commercial vehicles account but is now looking for a single, bigger agency to put together an overarching marketing strategy. It is unclear if its existing "Let's go to work" line will be replaced.

The brief will include above-the-line advertising, direct marketing, local marketing programmes and point-of-sale material. Simon Elliott, the director of Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles, said: "We have achieved outstanding results from our current agencies, including our ‘Let's go to work' campaign."However, with the competitiveness of the current market, we have taken this opportunity to introduce an agency review to ensure we are getting the best value, creativity and fresh thinking for the brand."

The hottest sedans for 2009

The new sedans rolling into showrooms are meant to get attention. They take passengers farther on a tank of fuel, look more stylish than ever, and boast advanced technology to keep drivers informed about traffic and weather.

And the deals available are phenomenal.

As slumping sales pummel nearly every automaker, the effort to create appealing sedans - and get shoppers to drive one home - is at a fever pitch.

Our annual roundup of new and improved sedans includes design trendsetters like the sleek Jaguar XF, Maserati Quattroporte and Volkswagen CC, which bring fresh appeal to the familiar four-doors-with-a-trunk body style.
The latest premium diesels, like the BMW 335d, and hybrids, like the Mercedes-Benz S400 BlueHybrid, add greater fuel efficiency to the upper echelons of the market, where it has been sorely lacking.

Luxury Hybrid Sedans
Lexus LS 600h L

Mercedes-Benz S400

And the Lincoln MKS ushers in technological innovation that is sure to stand out. The advanced system in its dashboard features a high-resolution touch-screen and software smart enough to tell you where the fueling station with the cheapest gas is.

Go to the accompanying slideshow for a full list of new and improved sedans.

Focus on Fuel Economy

The new Mercedes S-Class won't look much different than the current model, but it will offer a new hybrid system that is likely one of many to come from luxury carmakers. It joins Lexus' LS 600h L and GS 450h in giving buyers an upscale hybrid alternative to the Toyota Prius.

Like Lexus, Mercedes trades some of the fuel efficiency that its hybrid system offers for more power and performance.

The Mercedes S400 BlueHybrid pairs a 15-kilowatt electric motor with a 3.5-liter V6 gasoline engine. The car boasts 299 horsepower with plenty of torque delivered by the electric motor.

It helps conserve fuel the same way existing hybrids do. Its combustion engine powers down at temporary stops, which helps deliver around 30 miles per gallon in mixed city/highway driving. The S400 BlueHybrid is expected to go on sale in the fall of 2009.

BMW is looking to diesel technology as its next step toward higher fuel efficiency, and the company's best-selling model, the 3 Series, will be the first to get it in the United States. The BMW 335d maintains the high level of performance and strong acceleration of gasoline-powered 3 Series models, but with significantly better fuel economy. It will get an estimated 23 mpg in city driving and 33 mpg on the highway.

Advanced emissions systems ensure that the new diesel engine will comply with the most stringent standards set by the state of California.

"The average consumer may be wary of diesels, but we have seen Mercedes-Benz have some success with their diesel E-Class," says Mike Omotoso, manager of automotive powertrain forecasting at J.D. Power & Associates in Westlake Village, Calif. "BMW is hoping that their clientele will have the same appreciation for the genre's performance and technology."

Omotoso estimates that sales of diesels will more than double over the next three years, to 1 million vehicles annually. As a percentage of all new cars and light trucks sold, diesels would increase from 2.6 percent in 2008 to 6.5 percent in 2012.

Volkswagen's' next generation of fuel-efficient cars will kick off halfway through next year with two diesel versions of the Passat, the company's largest sedan sold in the United States.

The Passat BlueTDI will have a 140-hp 2.0-liter four-cylinder diesel engine that gets an estimated 45 mpg in mixed city/highway driving.

The Passat BlueMotion will have a less-powerful 108-hp 2.0-liter diesel engine with a stop/start function to shut it down during temporary stops. It will get an estimated 48 mpg overall.

A third new version of the Passat, already on sale, focuses on aesthetics rather than fuel economy. The Passat CC is what Volkswagen calls a "four-door coupe," which is an oxymoron because coupes have two doors.

For the Sake of Style

German automakers appear to be enamored with the contradictory "four-door coupe" designation. Besides Volkswagen with its new CC, Mercedes uses this designation for its CLS-Class and BMW for its X6 crossover utility vehicle.

"The design objective for the CC was to create an accessible entry-level luxury vehicle with the visual power to make an emotional connection over and above the rational connections our brand tends to generate," says Brett Scott, product planning manager Volkswagen NA. "It makes a compelling and powerful design statement."

Simply put, these vehicles are sleeker than most four-doors. "Designers are imparting greater style into four-door cars, and the 'coupe' look is just the next iteration," says Leo Parente, an auto industry consultant based in New York. "At least we've moved on from the vinyl roof, the opera window and the stand-up Rolls-Royce-wannabe grille."

The Maserati Quattroporte(© Maserati)

Unfortunately, these models' svelte silhouettes present some serious drawbacks. For starters, their low, sweeping rooflines make getting in and out more difficult than in "regular" four-door vehicles, and the extreme slant to their windshields and rear windows can hamper outward visibility.

"Buyers will choose these cars as expressions of elegance in the luxury or near-luxury markets," says Tom Matano, a car designer and executive director of the School of Industrial Design for the Academy of Art University in San Francisco.

But the cramped interiors and narrow trunk openings of these swoopy "coupe" wannabes limit their practical appeal. "Really, these cars are for the owner with occasional full-passenger-capacity needs," Parente says.

Jaguar's all-new XF and Maserati's updated Quattroporte are two other examples of sedans with sexy profiles, but they're not called "four-door coupes" and both do a good job of balancing practicality with aesthetics. The Jag XK has a large trunk, for instance, and the Maserati Quattroporte's interior is ample enough to comfortably accommodate four or five adults.

Sports-car makers are also showing interest in super-sleek sedans. Porsche, for one, plans to unveil a sexy four-door called the Panamera. Aston Martin and Lamborghini are also considering coupe-like four-door cars.

Trendsetter Remade

BMW's new 7 Series is a full-fledged four-door that won't be mistaken for a "coupe." When last redesigned in 2002, its styling caused a stir among industry insiders because it looked different than anything else at the time.

The recast 2009 7 Series takes BMW design in a new direction, with a more subdued look and a fresh front end that will influence what all BMWs will eventually look like.

The new 7 Series maintains its sporting character with a 400-hp V8 engine. A new speed-sensitive, rear-wheel steering system promises nimbler cornering.

BMW continues to refine its iDrive, which has been frustrating drivers and passengers since its debut six years ago. This system uses one knob to control all functions in the car, from air conditioning to radio. By turning and pressing the knob, users select their choices from menus on a dash-mounted screen.

The new 7 Series' updated iDrive has a larger screen, a few new buttons, and improved menus.

The systems that other automakers use vary in their learning curves. But regardless of how they're executed, these complicated systems are changing from novelties to necessities, because of the growing number of high-tech convenience and entertainment features on premium sedans.

2009 Bentley Continental Flying Spur Speed
see more photos >
(© Bentley)

"High-tech by and of itself is risky," says Tom Libby, senior automotive analyst with the marketing information firm J.D. Power. "It needs to be user-friendly as well, and the user component needs to be defined by actual customers, not factory people who think they know what the consumer wants."

Tech Revolution

Intriguing new technology is being offered for the first time on 2009 models.

The new Sirius Travel Link system is optional on the Lincoln MKS sedan as well as several other vehicles under Ford's umbrella. The service provides real-time traffic data, weather information, ski conditions, sports scores, movie-theater schedules, and gas prices with automatic routing to a selected station.

To get Sirius Travel Link on the Lincoln MKS, buyers must add a $2,995 navigation package. The Travel Link service is free for the first six months, but it costs $7.99 a month after that.

Not to be outdone, BMW is incorporating wireless Internet connection to display Google Maps in its 3 Series. The service requires the optional $2,100 navigation system and $750 BMW Assist satellite-based communication system with Bluetooth capability. This allows drivers to search for restaurants, hotels, service stations, banks, supermarkets, cinemas and public facilities by keyword, then initiate route guidance. Drivers also can place hands-free calls to a selected point of interest via a Bluetooth-enabled cell phone.

For those seeking the same kind of Web access in their cars as they can get in their homes, Chrysler is offering a dealer-installed "uconnect web" accessory on the 2009 300C and Dodge Charger sedans. This enables laptop computers and other Wi-Fi enabled devices like as Apple's iPhone and Nintendo's DS portable gaming system to connect to the Internet via a wireless network. The Wi-Fi module costs $499 and there is a $29 monthly fee for Internet service.

Though such amenities add to the cost of buying a car, the deals that automakers are offering these days can be a way for gadget lovers to offset the high price of advanced technology.

Let's Make a Deal

With the economy in turmoil, the natural reaction for most people might be to hunker down. "There is a sense of caution among our buyers," says Mark Templin, Lexus' group vice president and general manager. "We have dealers telling us that they've sold cars, only to have customers call back and cancel their orders as they watch the stock market drop."

However, those who can look past the headlines will find dealer lots rife with good deals.

The Jaguar XF(© Jaguar)

For example, Lincoln is financing its MKS sedan for as low as 0.9 percent, according to Consumers' Checkbook, whose CarDeals newsletter tracks vehicle incentives. The money saved from the lower interest rate could help offset the cost of the navigation package with Sirius Travel Link.

China Automotive Systems Reports 2008 Third Quarter Results

Net Sales Reached US$36.9 Million; Representing 18.4% Year-Over-Year Growth

WUHAN, Hubei, China, Nov. 12 /Xinhua-PRNewswire/ -- China Automotive Systems, Inc. ("CAAS" or the "Company"), a leading power steering components and systems supplier in China, today announced financial results for the third quarter and nine months ended September 30, 2008.

2008 third Quarter Highlights:
-- Net sales increased to US$36.9 million, reflecting 18.4% year-over-year
-- Net sales from steering components for passenger and light-duty
vehicles increased to US$ 24.6 million, reflecting 22% year-over-year
-- Net sales from steering components for commercial vehicles increased to
US$8.8 million, reflecting an 8.8% increase year-over-year;
-- Net income was US$2.8 million, reflecting 7.2% year-over-year growth;
-- Diluted earnings per share were US$0.09, reflecting a decline of
US$0.02 per diluted share due to a greater number of weighted average
common shares outstanding;
-- Net cash flow provided by operations was US$4.4 million for the nine
month period

China Automotive Systems reported net sales of US$36.9 million for the third quarter ended September 30, 2008, compared with US$31.2 million in the same quarter in 2007, and US$46.5 million for the second quarter of 2008, reflecting an 18.4% year-over-year growth. Net income for the third quarter of 2008 was US$2.8 million, or US$0.09 per fully diluted share, versus US$2.6 million, or US$0.11 per fully diluted share in the same period a year ago, reflecting 7.2% year-over-year growth, and compared with US$4.7 million, or US$0.18 per fully diluted share for the second quarter of 2008.

Third quarter net sales for 2008 from steering products for passenger and light-duty vehicles increased by 22% year-over-year to US$24.6 million as compared with US$20.2 million reported in the same period for 2007. Net sales from steering products for commercial vehicles for the third quarter of 2008 increased to US$8.8 million, an 8.8% year-over-year gain compared with the US$8.1 million reported in the same period for 2007. Net sales from oil pumps and sensors for the 2008 third quarter increased to US$3.4 million as compared with US$2.9 million in the same period for 2007, reflecting 18.1% year-over- year growth.

"Our third quarter results were negatively impacted by the normal seasonality and Beijing Olympics. Many OEMs reduced the production and held off orders for components this summer. However, we continued to manage to generate growth in a slow market, as we continue to win new customers and expand our market share in China," said Mr. Qizhou Wu, Chief Executive Officer of China Automotive Systems.

Gross profit for the third quarter of 2008 was US$9.9 million compared with US$11.4 million in the same quarter in 2007, and US$14.5 million for the second quarter of 2008. Gross margin was 26.7% in the third quarter compared with 31.1% in the second quarter of 2008. Operating income for the third quarter of 2008 was US$3.7 million as compared with US$6.6 million reported in the same quarter of 2007 and compared with US$5.5 million for the second quarter of 2008. Lower operating income was partially due to lower gross profit resulting from higher raw material prices as well as higher labor and transportation costs related to rising sales. CAAS also invested more into Research & Development resources as more personnel were added to design new products. Further, greater operating expenses were reflected in higher depreciation and amortization expenses from additions to property, plant and equipment as well as increased supplies for continuing construction to build the Company's production capacity.

Net income was US$2.8 million compared with US$2.6 million in the third quarter of 2007, reflecting a 7.2% year-over-year increase. Earnings per share on a fully diluted basis in the third quarter of 2008 were US$0.09 as compared to US$0.11 in the same period of 2007. Total shares outstanding on a fully diluted basis were 31.4 million shares, as compared to 24 million in the 2007 third quarter. The share-count increase was mainly related to the US$ 35 million convertible note financing and the Henglong acquisition in early 2008. The conversion price of the convertible notes, which was US$8.8527 initially, was reset to a bottom of US$7.0822 on August 15, 2008. There will be no more conversion price reset thereafter.

Total cash and cash equivalents as of September 30, 2008 were US$27.2 million as compared with US$19.5 million as of December 31, 2007. Also, there was a US$9.2 million of pledged cash deposits, part of which is expected to turn into free cash in the fourth quarter. Total account and notes receivables were US$100.9 million reflecting higher sales. Notes receivables, which are guaranteed bank payments from customers, were US$40.5 million as of September 30, 2008. Stockholder's equity increased to US$80.8 million as of September 30, 2008 from US$67.2 million as of December 31, 2007. Working capital reached US$75 million. Property, plant equipment increased to approximately US$50 million. The long-term convertible notes payable was valued at US$32.8 million.

Mr. Qizhou Wu, Chief Executive Officer of China Automotive Systems, stated, "In response to the higher raw material costs during the summer, we have increased our selling prices to our customers, especially the commercial vehicle OEMs. With falling steel prices and our adjusted ASP, we are expecting a much improved gross margin in the fourth quarter. On the sales front, we expect the gradual recovery of domestic auto sales growth following the new emission standard introduction. We remain hopeful that the Chinese government's road and port infrastructure build-out plan along with US$ 586 billion stimulus package can benefit the domestic auto industry."

Mr. Jie Li, Chief Financial Officer, stated, "As the global capital market continues to experience turbulence and the Chinese auto industry undergoes a transition year, we are carefully planning our growth strategy based on our financial strength, and focusing on strengthening our balance sheet. We have improved our cash position by managing account receivables and reducing capital expenditures. We want to continue to generate positive cash-flow, mitigate financial risks and enhance our long term shareholder's value."

Recent Developments

On October 23rd, founder and Chairman, Mr. Hanlin Chen, Chief Executive Officer, Mr. Qizhou Wu, Chief Financial Officer, Mr. Jie Li and other officers announced plans to invest US$500,000 to purchase the common shares of CAAS in the open market.

On October 14th, China Automotive Systems announced that its subsidiary, Jingzhou Henglong Automotive Parts Co. ("Henglong"), received orders from Dongfeng Peugeot Citroen Automobile Company Ltd. ("DPCA") for power steering gears for the Dongfeng Elysee. Henglong started development of three new power steering gears for DPCA in 2005. These three models are Peugeot 206, Elysee R23 and Picasso N68. Subsequently, all models have passed the French UTAC safety test, road tests and inspections. In July 2008, Henglong won the supply contract for the Peugeot 206 and has begun commercial production.

On September 2nd, the Company announced that its subsidiary, Jingzhou Henglong Automotive Parts Co. ("Henglong"), signed a supply agreement with ChangAn Auto Co. Ltd. ("ChangAn Auto"). Henglong successfully developed 4 different models of hydraulic power steering systems and one model of Electronic Power Steering for ChangAn Auto. Henglong is now a power steering system supplier to ChangAn Auto's CV6 model. Total shipments to ChangAn Auto for 2008 will be approximately 30,000 total units. According to the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers, ChangAn Auto Co. Ltd. produced and sold around 50,000 sedans and 250,000 SUVs in 2007. ChangAn Group has been consistently ranked as a top 5 automaker in China for many years.

Four Door Media Enters Licensee Agreements with Top Car Manufacturers for Road Mice(TM) LaunchRoad Mice lets users cruise the Web in style

Four Door Media, designer, manufacturer, and distributor of specialized computer based products and accessories, today announced that General Motors, Dodge, Chrysler and Ford are the first to grant licensee approvals for Road Mice(TM), a new car shaped wireless optical computer mouse. The agreement gives Four Door Media rights to develop and market replicas of great American vehicles, including the Corvette Z06, Chevy Camaro Concept, Dodge Charger and Ford Mustang GT, which are available now at

"We continue to be approached by top automotive manufacturers and their licensing agents to produce Road Mice with their likeness and image for both promotional and consumer products," says Dan Cwieka, chief executive officer of Four Door Media. "We are thrilled that manufacturers understand and support the exciting new Road Mice consumer concept, and look forward to establishing long-standing relationships with these companies by supplying both business to business and consumer product offerings."

Four Door Media will regularly expand its Road Mice lineup by adding new makes and models. Upcoming Road Mice holiday introductions include: the Ford GT, Chrysler HEMI(R) 300C and PT Cruiser, the Dodge Challenger SRT8, and Viper SRT10. Incorporating eye-catching colors, sleek body styles and high speed performance, potential licensors can be confident that each new Road Mice model will feature the finest details of the car being replicated in order to put their brand message in the palm of consumers' hands.

"Car and technology enthusiasts alike are already responding very positively to the introduction of Road Mice, and we are confident that this innovative computer mouse will continue to be an affordable and creative vehicle for brand endorsement," adds Cwieka.

Road Mice are available for $44.95 on and are PC and Mac compatible, suitable for both desktops and laptops. Resellers and potential licensors should visit or call 1-408-Car-Mice (408.227.6423) with questions or requests.

About Four Door Media

Four Door Media is a specialized electronic products and entertainment company that creates, manufactures, markets and distributes, nationally and internationally, computer based products and accessories that entertain, promote and educate. The company was founded with a focus on marketing products that relate to the automotive industry and appeal to consumers across a wide range of market segments. Other products include USB flash drives and custom mouse pads. For information please visit

Friday, November 7, 2008

Aston Martin DBS

Aston Martin DBS
By. Stuart Birch

I have spent two days bonding with a car. By the end of the second day the relationship had stirred from a cautious, nodding acquaintance to being dangerously close to something like passion – via interest, amusement and healthy respect. The car is Aston Martin’s new DBS.

Aston Martin likes to consider itself very cool, a fact supported by its four decades’ association with James Bond and underlined by the DBS making the cover illustration of a new book called CoolBrands, published by Superbrands. Writing in it, James Aitchison, the managing editor of the World Advertising Research Centre, says that some people may struggle “like frustrated alchemists trying to understand and define what cool is”. Superbrands provides interesting insight into this.

So does the DBS. It may be based on the company’s successful DB9, a pretty chilled out piece of kit, but it is more physically rounded – wider and lower – and it has a “soul” with a “thunder and lightning” persona, as Dr Ulrich Bez, chief executive of Aston Martin, puts it.

It is a car that has a curious effect on the environment. At the beginning of my bonding experience, which took place mainly in bucolic southwest France, I was concerned about how a lightning supercar powered by a 6.0litre, V12 engine producing 510bhp and able to reach 191mph would be received, particularly because the thunder from its twin exhausts (a modest touch, this; I had expected at least four, possibly even eight tailpipes) could probably be heard in Paris.
Aston Martin DBS

Aston Martin DB9

Aston Martin DB9Although there have been several models produced in Aston Martin's 90-plus-year history, none have been as famous as those with "DB" tattooed to their tails. The Aston Martin DB9 coupe and Volante convertible is in fact the ninth model to be sold with these hallowed letters, and carries on a sterling automotive tradition.

Sold throughout the 1950s and '60s, and then resurrected in 1994, the DBs were and still are some of the most drop-dead gorgeous and performance-capable sports cars on the road. Numerous examples have also been driven by a certain British super spy, making the words "Aston Martin" and "James Bond" synonymous terms. It could easily be argued that thanks to 007, the Aston Martin and DB names have remained relevant enough to survive through decades of tumultuous financial difficulties.

As such, the Aston Martin DB9 simultaneously represents the brand's past and future, with sexy styling inspired by (but not copying) previous models and a high-tech aluminum platform that has underpinned every subsequent new Aston. If this success continues, hopefully we can look forward to new DBs for years to come.

Current Aston Martin DB9

The Aston Martin DB9 was introduced for 2005, offered in 2+2 coupe and convertible body styles. The drop-top version is known as the Volante, which for those who skipped Italian 101 means "flying." All DB9s are powered by a 6.0-liter V12 that produces 450 horsepower and 412 pound-feet of torque. A six-speed manual or six-speed automatic with paddle shifters are available, and both transmissions are located at the rear transaxle for better weight distribution.

The Aston Martin DB9 comes with a healthy options list and a vast selection of customizable color combinations. The Volante's soft top can be had in seven different colors, while leather is available in so many shades that even Prince could find one that's too garish. All DB9s come standard with 19-inch wheels, xenon headlamps, eight-way power heated seats, a navigation system, Bluetooth connectivity and a 128-watt Linn audio system with six-CD changer and auxiliary audio jack. Aside from the slew of options, the coupe is available with a Sports Pack that provides firmer spring, shock and antiroll bar settings. For those with athletic aspirations, this is definitely a worthwhile add-on.

Not that it comes as a shock, but this 449-hp, V12-powered GT is a rather fun automobile. The bellowing exhaust and voluptuous low-end power can make this civilized tourer into a heathenish beast with just a touch of the throttle. The DB9 changes directions easily and responds to steering and brake inputs with an immediacy not always associated with big, grand touring coupes. Yet, unlike the related but smaller V8 Vantage, the DB9 is not at its best when being flung around twists and turns. We found that the Volante suffers from having its roof lopped off, with a busy ride over rough pavement and a noticeably softer suspension.

Although buying an exotic car with a price tag of more than $100,000 is often a matter of taste, it is hard to argue with the Aston Martin DB9. It may not be as visceral or thrilling as some more sporting entries, but it's almost impossible to match its impeccable style and legendary heritage.

Past Aston Martin DB9 models

The Aston Martin DB9 was an all-new model for 2005. There have been no major changes since.
Aston Martin DB9

Hummer H2 SUV

Hummer H2 SUV
The destination charge is a standard charge for transporting the vehicle from its point of origin to the dealer. The typical luxury SUV is quite a bit cheaper to get to the dealership than the HUMMER H2. As far as MSRP, the H2 costs about as much as the average luxury SUV (though the average luxury SUV is slightly cheaper).

There's no clear winner between the H2 and the typical luxury SUV in terms of hauling capacity. The HUMMER H2 and the average luxury SUV can accommodate the same number of passengers. The HUMMER H2 is likely a better choice than the average luxury SUV when it comes to transporting cargo, especially if you frequently need to carry a lot of stuff or big pets. Towing is quite a bit more the HUMMER H2's forte than it is the typical luxury SUV's.

While the front cabin in the HUMMER H2 offers a bit more head room than the typical luxury SUV, there really isn't much of a difference. The ampler interior dimensions of the H2 make it significantly more spacious for your passengers than the typical luxury SUV.

The HUMMER H2 is markedly heavier than the typical luxury SUV. Your wallet will hurt more every time you fill up the H2 than the typical luxury SUV because of its larger tank. The HUMMER H2 rides lower than the typical luxury SUV, which is a good thing for its center of gravity and ease of access. The HUMMER H2 and the typical luxury SUV compete for the same parking spaces. The typical luxury SUV's shorter wheelbase may produce a less-settled highway ride but a nimbler feel in daily traffic than the HUMMER H2.
Hummer H2 SUV
The HUMMER H2 has substantially wider tires than the average luxury SUV. Note that wider tires may look and feel better, while narrower tires may improve gas mileage. With its tighter turning radius, the typical luxury SUV is doubtless more agile than the HUMMER H2, something to consider if you do a lot of city driving; on the other hand, note that a vehicle with a tight turning circle may feel a bit twitchy on the highway.

The HUMMER H2's engine is considerably more sizeable than the average luxury SUV's. Note that more sizeable engines may use more gas than smaller ones. Torque is the force that lets you accelerate quickly, and in this respect, the HUMMER H2 is markedly more powerful than the typical luxury SUV. Torque equals pickup, and the HUMMER H2 will have picked up and gone by the time the typical luxury SUV finally gets moving.

Although the basic warranty that comes with the typical luxury SUV is a little longer than the H2's, the difference isn't too significant. As far as after-sale protection against rust, the HUMMER H2 has tremendously better coverage than the typical luxury SUV.

The typical luxury SUV emits fewer smog-forming pollutants per 15,000 miles than the HUMMER H2.

Hummer H2 SUT

Hummer H2 SUT
The H2 SUT delivers stellar off-road performance and head-turning style, but has dismal fuel economy, even for a large SUT, and lacks significant convenience and safety features found on other vehicles in its class.

The 2008 Hummer H2 SUT is a head-turning full-size sport utility truck with available seating for five, acceptable on-road performance, and off-road chops that are hard to match. Still, most reviewers agree that other full-size SUTs offer more comfort and seating, as well as better fuel economy, at a lower price. The H2 SUT is also available as a highly-similar SUV. With the exception of its exterior body-style, cargo dimensions, and a few differences in available convenience features - including no available third row seat - the H2 SUT and SUV are virtually the same. Because of the similarity, this review uses information that applies to both models.

  • Excellent off-road performance
  • Head-turning, distinctive "Hummer" style
  • Truck-bed midgate offers versatile hauling room
  • Poor fuel economy, even for a large SUT
  • Cramped interior cabin only seats four adults comfortably
  • Poor visibility coupled with a high stance makes the H2 hard to park and maneuver
  • Others in class offer side airbags, stability control, and parking assist

The 2008 Hummer H2 SUT offers good on-road performance, and off-road performance that has few equals. Edmunds test drivers find that, "Despite its penchant for mud bogs and boulder trails, the H2 still maintains a commendable demeanor on the open road."

MSN adds that "the H2 would be comfortable during a cross-country trip and isn't difficult to drive in congested traffic, as long as its driver keeps in mind that it is very big, high and extremely wide."

The Hummer H2 SUT offers a pleasant driving experience but never lets the driver forget how large and heavy it really is. Automobile Magazine says the H2's "prime on-road objective was safe and predictable handling" and that "on Utah's scenic byways, the behavior of the giant land crab was both benign and uninspiring." The Flint Journal says "the ride is not Cadillac smooth and it doesn't corner like a Chevy Corvette, but its ride and handling are pretty good" for its size and class.

In terms of acceleration, the H2 is again all right, given its size. "On the open road, the H2 moves right along, oblivious to the laws of aerodynamics" says Kelley Blue Book. Forbes reports "passing acceleration isn't electrifying -- but strong enough; getting used to driving the H2 takes no time at all." MSN adds, "The test H2 SUT got up to highway speed steadily and merged into traffic without much fuss, though response to the accelerator was not instantaneous in this 6,400-pound vehicle."
Acceleration and Power

The 2008 Hummer H2 SUT comes standard with a 6.0-liter Vortec V8 engine, producing 320 horsepower and 365 pound-feet of torque. Though the engine is stout and strong, the H2 is heavy. Edmunds says, "The big V8 under the hood provides plenty of pickup in most situations, but the combination of 3 tons of weight and a near total lack of aerodynamics renders the H2 sluggish at highway speeds." Motor Trend puts the H2's engine performance in perspective. "Installed in the 6400-lb H2, the engine gives roughly the same weight-to-power ratio as a Toyota Camry four-cylinder. Of course, you could tow two Camrys with an H2, but that's another story." MSN reports that the engine, which uses pushrods instead of camshafts, "is brawny and works with a smooth, responsive 4-speed automatic transmission."

Because of the H2's weight, it is exempt from EPA fuel economy estimates. As the Flint Journal notes, however, "You cannot expect good mileage from a vehicle that weighs more than 3 tons." In many test drives, reviewers noted average gas mileage as low as 10 miles to the gallon or worse. While many Hummer buyers, and large SUT buyers in general, may not have gas mileage as a primary concern, MSN notes, "in contrast, the 2005 Cadillac Escalade EXT -- another five-passenger SUV with a pickup bed at the back, a 345-horsepower, high-output version of the Vortec 6000 V8 under the hood and which weighs some 500 less than the heavy-duty H2 SUT--is rated at 13 mpg in the city and 17 mpg on the highway." In short, the Hummer H2 has poor fuel economy, even for a full-size SUT.

Mated to the V8 is a four-speed automatic transmission, which most reviewers felt ably translated the engine's power to the road. The transmission works with a Borg-Warner 44-84 transfer case with a 40/60 front/rear torque bias. says the H2's "heavy-duty 4-speed automatic transmission seems perfectly suited to the job at hand, downshifting when needed and upshifting without hesitation." Still, Forbes said they'd "appreciate an overdrive lockout to enable quicker downshifts for passing."
Handling and Braking

Despite its truck-construction, the H2 provides a comfortable on-road ride. "H2's ride doesn't beat you up," says Motor Trend, and Motor Week says, "In terms of comfort, it's right on par with the GMC Yukon Denali."

The reason the H2 SUT has such a surprisingly comfortable ride for a heavy, off-road vehicle is its suspension. "Progressive-rate rear coil springs and high-pressure gas monotube shocks take much of the credit here," says Motor Trend. The standard suspension in the front is an independent setup with torsion bars, 46-mm monotube gas-charged shocks and a 36-mm stabilizer bar. Standard rear suspension is a five-link variable-rate coil spring setup with 46-mm monotube gas-charged shocks and a 30-mm stabilizer bar. Though the standard suspension shares many components with GM trucks, Edmunds notes that "key suspension components were beefed up to handle the additional demands of severe off-road duty, while a special frame design in front isolates the front axle for less vibration and noise in the cabin."

The H2 SUT steering is also fine for its size. "It ain't light on its feet!" says Motor Week, adding, "But steering feel from the variable ratio, recirculating ball steering unit is light and progressive with a good deal of feedback." Still, the H2 isn't perfect. "It can be difficult to park, and driver visibility is not the greatest," reports the Flint Journal. A reviewer for MSN also found the H2 difficult to maneuver in small spaces. "I found myself needing to back up, pull forward, and repeat, in order to get maneuvered out of a tight turn off-road.".

On the road, Automobile Magazine notes that "although the H2 doesn't fall apart when pushed, it understeers clumsily at the limit despite a 40/60 percent front/rear torque split, and its brakes fade quickly. Body roll is, as you might expect, significant." summed up problems with the H2 on-road, saying, "If you're looking for Acura MDX or BMW X5 handling keep driving."

When a vehicle weighs 6,400 pounds, it has to have good stopping power, and the 2008 Hummer H2 SUT doesn't disappoint. Four-wheel disc four-channel anti-lock brakes with dual piston calipers with dynamic rear proportioning stop the H2. The H2 also uses engine braking to minimize brake fade, much like giant tractor-trailer trucks. Auto Mall USA notes, "Even when soaking wet, these brakes performed flawlessly, with lots of pedal feedback." Motor Week took the H2 on a track and noticed that, "Stability is excellent, but after several runs, brake fade was quite noticeable." Since most people won't be taking their H2s for several timed laps at a track, this most likely won't be an everyday concern. For daily driving, Edmunds says, "the H2's large four-wheel discs provide plenty of power and a decent pedal feel."

Though most reviewers believe that the majority of buyers will never take the H2 off-road, they also agree that off-road is one area where it really shines. Edmunds says, "It almost goes without saying, but the H2 borders on unstoppable offroad," and adds, "The H2 eats rocks."

The H2 is such a strong off-road performer in part because of its military heritage (the H2 is based on the H1, which is a civilian version of the military's Humvee). The H2 follows in the Humvee's footsteps by arriving off-road with a full complement of rock-solid off-road components. Passengers are kept safe from the elements, and the H2 is kept in one piece, thanks to a welded, two-sided galvanized steel body. To avoid damaging key parts of the undercarriage, all components on the chassis are even with or above the frame rails. Further protecting the H2's underbody are its 9.7 inches of ground clearance (with standard suspension) and skid plates. The H2 is also designed with steep approach and departure angles.

The only problem with the H2's design when off-road is poor visibility. A small, nearly upright windshield and small windows, coupled with a wide body, make a spotter a key accessory for tough rock crawling, many reviewers note.
Hummer H2 SUT
Along with the overall body and chassis design, the H2 brings excellent mechanical off-road equipment to the trail. The four-wheel-drive system has a setting for every off-road situation. 4 Hi Locked or 4 Low Locked sends equal power to the front and rear wheels, and the driver can choose to lock the rear wheels in a 50/50 power split. 4 Lo Locked is the preferred setting for slow rock crawling, providing maximum grip and low-range torque. Low-speed traction control (activated or deactivated at the push of a button) allows drivers to have controlled wheelspin to work its way through soft sand without losing stability and allows the H2 to soldier on even if only a single wheel has traction. The optional air suspension allows drivers to raise the H2 for additional ground clearance. Thanks to these systems, says Automobile Magazine, "Despite its considerable weight, width, and length, a standard-issue H2 can keep up with Rubicon-ready Jeep Wranglers and Land Rover Defenders, which is no small accomplishment."

The H2's suspension and tires also work hard off-road. The independent suspension in the front and five-link variable rate coil spring setup in the rear (both with 46-mm monotube gas-charged shocks and stabilizer bars) allow for maximum wheel articulation for the all-terrain LT315/OR17 tires. The tires were a particular favorite of reviewers, who found that they could climb up to 20 inches of vertical rock face with their impressive grip. MSN reports that "the test vehicle was so unperturbed by steep climbs up and down rock faces, I felt mostly like I was out for a slow Sunday drive."

According to Hummer, the 2008 H2 SUT has a maximum towing capacity of 6,700-lb and a winch capacity of 9,000-lb.

The H2 SUT features a midgate that allows for the vehicle's truck-bed to extend into its interior cabin. With the midgate up, the bed's length is 34.7-in. When open, the bed's length measures 72.2-in. The H2's width, remains unchanged, measuring 47.3-in. behind the wheelhouse, 47.9-in. at its ship step, and 67.0-in. at topcap. The H2 SUT's payload capacity is 2,200-lb.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Is HDD set for a hard ride in automotive entertainment systems?

Analysis of findings from the Semicast study “Automotive Entertainment Systems” suggest that growth in shipments of automotive hard disc drives (HDDs) could slow in the late stages of the next decade as shipments of systems featuring high density flash memory begin to rise.

In comparison to other consumer goods, such as personal video recorders, portable media players and laptop computers, the storage capacity of automotive entertainment systems, especially embedded navigation systems, has risen only slowly in recent years. For example, many factory-fitted navigation systems offered in 2008 have a storage capacity of around 20GB, which is the same as the aftermarket HDD navigation systems originally introduced by suppliers such as Alpine and Pioneer to the Japanese market in 2001.

The phenomenal increase in the storage capacity of many consumer goods has typically been driven by the desire to store video. Thus the slow increase in the storage capacity of navigation systems can perhaps be best explained by the need to store only the navigation database and compressed audio files (MP3/WMA), where 20GB is usually more than sufficient. With legislation in most regions of the world banning the viewing of video in the front seats, it is questionable therefore if mainstream navigation systems will need to substantially increase storage capacity above current levels even in the long term. At present even the highest capacity aftermarket navigation system offers storage of 40GB, representing only double the capacity of the original systems introduced seven years ago.

Colin Barnden, study author and Semicast principal analyst commented "With the storage capacity of automotive entertainment systems set to increase only gradually, it is judged most likely that these systems will fall into the territory of flash memory storage, causing shipments of HDDs in cars to stall".

While the existing cost per gigabyte of flash memory prevents its use for mass storage in mainstream automotive entertainment systems, continued rapid price erosion from chip suppliers such as SanDisk, coupled with only slowly increasing storage requirements, are steadily bringing the crossover point into view. Thus, as the cost per gigabyte of flash memory drops, so in the long term suppliers of automotive entertainment systems will almost certainly begin to design-out HDD in favor of a high density flash memory solution. Flash memory offers substantial benefits over HDD that are vital in the automotive environment, such as no moving parts, less susceptibility to vibration and shock, improved mean time between failure (MTBF) and operation over a wider temperature range.

Accordingly, Semicast believes that HDD may prove to be only an interim solution in automotive entertainment, with its long term use possibly limited only to very high capacity systems such as some aftermarket navigation systems and high-end rear seat entertainment systems which compress and store movies or record TV. This scenario would mirror that seen already in consumer portable media players, where lower capacity products intended primarily for storing audio already use flash memory (typically up to 32GB), while video-based products such as the iPod classic and Archos 705 provide storage up to 160GB using HDD.

PE exec to help UAW on potential GM/Chrysler deal-source

Stephen Girsky, a veteran auto-industry analyst and private equity executive, is working with the United Auto Workers union with regards to any potential General Motors Corp and Chrysler LLC deal, a source familiar with the situation said on Sunday.

Girsky is president of Centerbridge Industrial Partners, LLC., the industrial unit of private equity firm Centerbridge Partners.

The Wall Street Journal reported earlier on Sunday that the union recently retained Girsky to help "level the playing field" in any discussions about changes in its current contract that could be needed in a tie-up of the two auto makers.

Girsky is expected to help UAW President Ron Gettelfinger evaluate the deal and shape the union's strategy, the WSJ said, citing sources.

Sources told Reuters last week that a deal to merge General Motors and Chrysler LLC hit an impasse after the Bush administration ruled out funding for it.

Advisers on Cerberus' side are JP Morgan and Citi and on the GM side are Morgan Stanley and Evercore , a person familiar with the talks previously told Reuters.

Auto firms rev up for US, Europe

Domestic automobile companies are equipping new car models with the next-generation, Euro-V engines, which will facilitate them to explore newer export markets in Europe and the US. The auto majors have introduced a range of petrol engines for their compact cars, which comply with the Euro-V norms and are meant for the export markets.

The auto majors' move also enables them to prepare for the stringent emission norms to be introduced in the country in coming years.

A recent Standard & Poor's report on the US auto industry reveals that electric vehicles and compact cars will be the next growth drivers in the passenger vehicle segment.

Maruti [Get Quote] Suzuki, the largest car manufacturer in the country, recently commissioned its engine plant in Gurgaon, which will manufacture the K series engines. The K series engines will first be strapped onto its A Star model, due to be launched in November, and then fitted to other models, starting from the Maruti 800 to other superior models for the domestic market.

Maruti hopes to export about 1 lakh units of the A Star to Europe. "In terms of styling, carbon dioxide emission and fuel efficiency, the A Star has gained acceptance in European markets," said Shinzo Nakanishi, CEO and managing director, Maruti Suzuki.

In the face of a domestic slowdown, Nakanishi is counting on exports to boost production and sales volumes for 2009.

Hyundai, the largest car exporter from the country by sales volumes, is also eyeing Europe with its newly-launched Kappa engine (R&D budget of $421 million) strapped to its best-selling small car, the i10. Till date, the Korean car major has exported over 65,000 i10s from India out of its target of about 1.5 lakh cars, which include the Santro models too.

According to Maruti, its K series engines are the most advanced among petrol engines. Speaking to Business Standard earlier, Shinzo Nakanishi had said: "The A Star emits about 109 grams of CO2 per kilometre, which can be lowered further."

While Hyundai's Kappa engine emits 119 grams of CO2 per kilometre, engines used by General Motors (8v SOHC engine) for its compact cars like Spark and UVA Aveo and Tata Motors' [Get Quote] latest Indica Vista, incorporating Fiat's CVCP Safire MPFi petrol engine, emit a similar amount of CO2, making them ready for the export markets. While General Motors exports Spark to Nepal, Tata Motors' joint venture with Fiat will help it export both cars and petrol engines.

While the latest compact cars manufactured in India are Euro-V compliant, the latest petrol car engines are also highly fuel efficient. "The lesser the CO2 emissions, the greater the fuel efficiency," says Anomita Chowdhury, associate director, Centre for Science and Environment.