DEEEEE-TROIT! Part 2: Ze Germanss – Mercedes

I have never understood Maybach–the cars were ugly to begin with and never got better looking, they fare poorly when compared to other super-high-end luxury vehicles, they are ludicrously (or do I mean Ludacris-ly?) expensive…did I mention they were ugly?  If you want the best luxury car in the world, why not just buy a top-end S-Class?  Actually, most people who could afford it were doing just that, so with apologies to all the rappers who put Maybachs in their videos, Mercedes is killing off the brand in 2013.  Still, a crowd of sheeple stood around snapping cell-phone pictures of the Maybach sitting behind waist-high glass on the outer rim of Mercedes’ square footage.  Sigh.Far more interesting in Mercedes territory were the new SL, the SLS AMG convertible, and the world premiere of the E300 BlueTec Hybrid.

Robert Cumberford, design editor at Automobile Magazine, ripped the new SL’s exterior design in a recent review.  He was right to.  At first the car is visually striking as a whole, but as you continue to look at it. all kinds of questions pop up regarding the individual details.  Why all those creases around the nose?  Why the two-way slashes below the doors?  Why does the car seem so much longer than all SLs before it?  Why does it appear as if the rear end is grasping vainly for the ground to avoid floating away?  The SL has always been a good car and indeed a strong Mercedes halo vehicle; surely the designers with the three-pointed stars on their shirts will soon stop deriving the SLS AMG and make the SL itself again.

Speaking of the SLS AMG…I think it’s an engineering achievement.  I respect it.  The convertible is even pretty nice-looking, even if you must forego the unique gullwing doors of the coupe to get it.  But I don’t want one.  Too much hood, too much noise, not enough grip.  There are a lot of topless touring cars out there that seem like they’d be much more of a pleasure to live with.

Now, a Merc I would want is the E300 BlueTec Hybrid.  First, it’s diesel-electric, so it’s basically a road-going World War II submarine (the Germans are quite good at those, if you’ll recall).  Second, it’s got a two-liter four-cylinder diesel and a 20-kilowatt electric motor that when combined produce over 500 lb-ft of torque (the engine does 369 lb-ft by itself!).  Third, once highway speed is reached, the diesel disengages from the driveline and shuts down.  Thusly, you enter “sailing” mode, whispering along on kilowattage only to the tune of 67.2 miles per gallon.

Note: Porsche already did “sailing” mode with the Panamera Hybrid, which is cooler because it came first.  It is also not as cool because it is gas- and not diesel-powered, and its looks are, uh, somewhat polarizing.

Speaking of cool, the E300 is too cool for the States.  We must make do with the E400, which has a 306-hp gas-powered V6 and the same 20-kilowatt electric motor.  It gets 27 mpg.  Excuse me while I repeatedly slam my head into my desk.

Tomorrow – Porsche/Audi/Volkswagen.

DEEEEE-TROIT! Part 1: Ford

It’s been far too long a layoff from writing here.  A big move from fantastic Las Vegas, NV to a slightly less fantastic spot in New Mexico is to blame.  Still, the automotive world never stopped turning during our relocation, and I’ve done my absolute best to keep up with it even though I haven’t had time to put fingers to keyboard.The North American International Auto Show went public in Detroit from January 13-22.  I noticed our move would take place right about that same time, so I was only too happy to ship the kids off to their grandparents’ in Michigan during actual packing and shipping so that, oh darn, we’d have to go pick them up while the show was live.  It would be my first trip-ever to Detroit and the NAIAS.

This is a video I shot of myself arriving.

Okay, that isn’t true.  But Chrysler is very cool, and I did grab this picture on the way in:

Obligatory.

We’ll come back to Chrysler in a bit.

The entirety of the show fit into one gigantic hall, which was somewhat strange to me.  I had grown accustomed to shows like Philly and LA, where the show is split into four or five different halls.  The Cobo Center in Detroit brought every exhibitor together in one room, and I think the benefits were tangibly obvious–it seemed like a lot of industry people were wandering from their own displays and interacting with their peers and competitors.  The level of expertise I overheard in passerby conversation seemed noticeably higher than I had noted at any other auto show.

We strolled in through the first door we spotted and found Ford on our right, Honda on our left.  Honda’s hottest draw was the new CR-V.  Yawn.  We went right.  The blue-bathed Ford display was festooned right up front with at least four examples of the 2013 Fusion.  Autoweek had already named it “Best In Show.”  I’m not sure why.  The “Superman” grille treatment and derivative Mondeo side creases do not endear it to me–as far as I’m concerned, the midcycle refresh (years 2010-2012) of the original Fusion made for a much better/Ford-looking car than this new one.

One design change that Ford did well on, though, was the refresh of the Flex.  Taking the best of the original Titanium package’s exterior treatments (F L E X across the hood lip), adding a few new flourishes here and there, and bringing the MyFord Touch from the new Explorer into the Flex’s instrument panel were all excellent moves.  The Flex remains a fantastic, underappreciated, all-weather, high-speed, high-comfort people-mover for those who know that a conventional SUV is unnecessary about 99% of the time.

The awesome Flex doesn’t sell many copies, but gets rave reviews in the automotive press.
The new Explorer gets terrible reviews and sells like crazy.  Sigh.

In case you hadn’t heard, Ford has nixed the Mercury brand and is spending money hand over fist to revitalize Lincoln, following in the footsteps of many other automakers (Nissan/Infiniti, Toyota/Lexus) who produce two brands: one for the masses, and one for the elitists that will pay more for essentially the same thing.

Now, at present, Lincoln is fairly awful.  The cars are clearly rebadged Ford models, and what little unique styling they have is in general not very good.

This MKZ concept, however, was gorgeous.  It struck me as visually akin to a Jaguar XJ, which is similarly gorgeous.  If Ford can get this on the road for around the mid-$60k range (undercutting the European luxury makers) without straying too far from the concept’s styling, watch out.

The SVT Raptor that lifts up off of its frame was in attendance (you’ve seen it on this blog before), drawing a crowd as it always does.

America.  Eff yeah.

We moved on from Ford not too long thereafter.  Next time, on The Flat Six: ze Germanss!

Collision Avoidance Systems and Other Driving Nannies

Today I was awaiting a green light in traffic when my Valentine One started bleeping crazily, in the way it does when it detects a police laser.  Obviously I wasn’t moving, so I wasn’t concerned about incurring any laser-based citations, but I began looking around the intersection for a Metro cruiser.None of the city’s finest were visible.  But the V1 kept insisting there was a laser on us.  Odd, I thought–but I have 100% faith in that little black box, so my mind kept churning, wondering what it could be.  As the spotlight went green and I started underway toward my destination again, the warning stopped, and the proverbial light bulb appeared above my head.  A new Volvo S60 had been behind me at the light, and was now passing me on my left.  The Volvo’s infrared collision-avoidance system was what had antagonized my little electronic friend.

I became even more certain that the Volvo was indeed the culprit just a few hours later, when the exact same thing happened–new Volvo (this time an XC60) stops behind me at a light, V1 goes crazy.  Pull away from the light and put some distance between V1 and Volvo, and V1 settles down.

So how about that?  Not only does Volvo’s collision-avoidance system not work (see the video below), it also sets off laser warnings in detectors in front of it.

Let me get some more information about that for you…
Admittedly in my case the laser warning was triggered only when the Volvos were very close to my rear bumper, but this wasn’t exactly a scientific test.  What if, say, in heavy, fast-moving traffic, a Volvo sets off a V1 in a car in front of it, causing the already task-saturated driver to instinctively brake, and the Volvo’s system/driver fails in a manner similar to the way it did in the video above?  Now you have an accident caused by a system that is supposed to prevent one.
In the October 2011 issue of Car and Driver, Editor-at-Large John Phillips and former senior editor Phil Berg attempted to drive three different cars on interstates at interstate speeds while essentially blindfolded with their noble intent being to test the cars’ advertised ability to automatically maintain their lane.  You can read the article here, but it boils down to this: while the hardware does exist to make auto-lane-keeping possible, the software is not good enough to make the systems safe/effective.
In my opinion, there are simply too many variables for lane-keeping to be left to a computer–it’s just like trying to ask a computer to forecast the weather more than a day or two in advance.  For example, is there snow on the road, or just off of it?  What about gravel or sand or leaves?  Does the road have lines painted on it or not?  How does sudden bright sun glare or sudden deep shade affect the system?  What about rain/spray from vehicles in front?  What if the pavement is cracked or sealed or resurfaced or alternating between asphalt and concrete?  All of these things matter, and it would be next to impossible to engineer software to take every conceivable situation into account.
“The 1%,” I think, dream of the day that they can sell autonomous vehicles to the masses.  On that day, we poor hapless souls will suddenly have oodles more free time as we are whisked from place to place to rack up cell phone data overages while surfing Amazon to find more useless widgets to spend money on.  They’ll make so much money when this plan finally comes together that you know what, even if they have to settle a few autono-mobile wrongful death cases out of court, it’ll still be worth it, WELL worth it, to them.
So my advice to you, dear reader, is this: learn to drive, and learn well.  Do an autocross and/or get some track time so you know your vehicle’s limits and how it behaves when it goes beyond them.  Teach those dearest to you all that you possibly can.  Never drive while distracted, talking on a phone, texting, or watching anything other than the road.  And never buy a vehicle (or pay for an option) that tries to do the driving for you, because no one cares more about what’s in your car than you do.