Archive for May, 2008

Using Karma to Save the Planet

Posted in: General, Hybrid cars
30 May 2008

One of the biggest conflicts facing many auto enthusiasts comes from knowing the atrocities that their vehicles commit upon the environment.

While I won’t drink from a landfill-clogging plastic bottle, I will happily jump inside a gas-guzzling sports car with a carbon footprint that rivals Bigfoot. I know it’s wrong.

And I know I’m not alone in this conflict.

About a year ago, I was talking about cars and biodiesel fuel with Larry Hagman (J.R. Ewing to you “Dallas” fans…) and he touted his passion for the Prius. Yep, the man who played the King of Oil in the ’80s drives a hybrid. His wife, Maj, meanwhile, confessed to absolutely loving her Ferrari – even though she knows it doesn’t fall in the eco-friendly category. Not even close. So what’s a girl to do?

Up until now, the options have either been to park it and assuage your guilt, or ignore that pesky conscience and hit the gas. But Fisker Automotive has a better plan.

The California-based car company first introduced its prototype, the Fisker Karma, five months ago at the North American International Auto Show. Since then, they’ve received some 500 orders for the luxury hybrid car, which is slated to be on the market in 2009. The company plans to hit a production schedule of 1,250 cars per month in 2010.

The numbers are impressive – this plug-in hybrid will hit 125 mph in sport mode, and tops out at 95 mph in electric (or “stealth”) mode. And the styling lets you know that this is no ordinary plug-in. With a sleek, low-slung profile, the Karma hugs the ground and stands about as tall as the Porsche 911 and is about as wide as BMW’s M-series cars.

The Fisker Karma goes from 0-60 in less than six seconds, and includes a full-length solar roof to help charge the car – and keep it cool – while it’s parked.

Inside, you’ll find all the electronic creature comforts required for today’s driver, including a built-in navigation system, DVD system and state-of-the art push-button controls. Of course, we’ve yet to see how this dream car translates from the showroom to the open road, but it looks like one of the most promising things to jump off the drawing board in quite some time.

And with a price point of $80,000, it’s easier on the checkbook than many sportsters out there – even before you start saving money on fuel.

Great styling and performance without the guilt? Now that’s what I call great Karma! Maj Hagman, I think your car is calling…

Luxury Automakers Still Missing the Mark

Posted in: Cadillac, General
29 May 2008

Although women are buying about 60 percent of the cars out there today – and influencing the decision inCadillac CTS 85 percent of all new car purchases, luxury auto manufacturers are still falling short when it comes to marketing.

“In terms of the luxury auto market, they could do much better at reaching women,” says Milton Pedraza, CEO of The Luxury Institute. “When you look at the ultra-luxury automakers, like Rolls-Royce, Ferrari and Maserati, they really have a long way to go.”

Pedraza says that a male-dominated industry has led to male-oriented marketing – even though the marketing firms behind the campaigns oftentimes are led by successful women.

“It’s an industry dominated by men, so they haven’t gotten the message that wealthy women are a force in their own right,” Pedraza points out. “You see it in every aspect, from the way the cars are marketed to the way women are treated in dealerships. A lot of them are not sensitive to the needs of a female driver and the buttons they need to press. Women are equally interested in [a car’s] performance, but also are drawn to the idea of achievement and rewarding yourself. This is what they luxury car manufacturers should be looking at.”

Those who do start paying attention to the fairer sex could find big rewards. With more and more women earning six and seven-figure incomes, they have the purchasing power that luxe auto manufacturers crave. Pedraza says that appealing to women’s more emotional side – as opposed to touting horsepower and speed – will be the key to success.

For proof of that, he points to Cadillac, which has found success in branding among women, thanks to some ads that show successful, attractive women enjoying their cars – and leaving male drivers in their dust.

“They’re showing women who are strong, powerful and functional,” says Pedraza. “But the one thing Cadillac still struggles with is identifying their market brand. On the one hand, they give us these great commercials with powerful, successful women, but then they also give us commercials featuring rappers, where women are used as a showpiece. In order to do better, they have to quit sending confusing signals.”

When brands like Aston Martin, Bentley and Ferrari refocus their campaigns, they could find a new following with a powerful, brand-loyal female marketplace.

“There’s a segment of women out there that like powerful cars, great styling and who love the driving experience,” Pedraza notes. “Luxury car brands need to understand that and speak to them as women. They need to be clear, distinct and respectful. But luxury car firms just haven’t gotten that yet.”

Exploring the “Women Driver” Stereotype

28 May 2008

Ohio Electric Car A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to write a story on Chuck Murphy, a Texas car collector with a garage full of unique and antique cars. He has plenty of cars to catch the attention of any gearhead, but the one that I found most fascinating was his 1914 Ohio Electric Dresden Brougham – one of the first electric cars ever made.

Murphy’s model is in pristine condition, and even comes with the original accessories. He explained that the electric cars were sold only to women and were seen as the perfect vehicle for their target market, as they were clean to drive and ran quietly. They were designed specifically for and sold exclusively to women of means – a.k.a. the luxury car lovers of the day – and today their $2,900 price tag would translate to about $80,000.

Chuck explained to me that the cars were created primarily as “social vehicles.” They were intended for women to get back and forth from social visits, and as proof of that, he showed me the original accessory kit that was included with the car. Instead of tools, this roadside emergency kit contains a tiny mirror, a sterling silver comb, perfumed papers for “refreshing oneself” before a visit and a mechanical pencil attached to a tiny pad of unlined paper. He said that, in the event of a breakdown or accident, these wealthy ladies wouldn’t be expected to know what to do, so the tool kit was seen as pointless.

The most interesting information about the car, however, was Chuck’s observation that it just might be responsible for launching the “women driver” jokes. The car’s interior is spacious, but is designed more like Cinderella’s carriage than a working sedan. Seats at the front of the car face the back, so passengers can talk to the driver and other passengers, who are seated on a bench-style seat at the rear. Visibility is almost zero even without passengers; toss in a couple of ladies with big hats, and you will find yourself depending upon luck to keep it out of the ditches.

“I really think this was the start of all those ‘women driver’ and ‘backseat driver’ jokes,” Chuck told me, pointing out that this car is, indeed, steered from the back seat. “Once you put passengers in the car, it was almost impossible to see where you were going.”

Get Sporty: Honda Unveils CR-Z Hybrid

Posted in: General, Hybrid cars
27 May 2008

Last week, Honda announced plans to roll out additional cars to join its original hybrid – the Honda Civic –Honda CR-Z Sports Car and try to continue living up to the title of “greenest automaker,” which has been bestowed upon the car company by the Union of Concerned Scientists for four consecutive years.

The first new car on the block will be a five-door family friendly hatchback, but Honda’s most exciting piece of news was their plan to also offer a hybrid sportscar. Based on the CR-Z sports car that they first showed off at the 2007 Tokyo Motor Show, the new car will combine sporty performance with environmental awareness. (Kind of like a Tesla Roadster, only the price tag will fall well below $98,000.)

The CR-Z, which stands for “Compact Renaissance Zero,” will use Honda’s FCX Clarity, a next-generation, zero-emissions hydrogen-powered fuel cell. The name gives a nod to the idea of creating a renaissance in the design of compact cars, offering advanced technology and driving pleasure while at the same time reducing the vehicle’s overall environmental footprint. The outer design is futuristic, with an oversized grille lending a high-performance look and feel to the car. LED headlights and fin-shaped sub-lights are nice touches that suggest a dynamic, exciting ride. Inside, look for a high-tech environment that is both sporty and sophisticated.

Sports cars often put drivers in a dilemma: Save the environment or enjoy the ride. It looks like soon, we may be able to do both. In style.

Inside the Audi R8

Posted in: Audi R8, General
26 May 2008

When I was in my mid-20s, I drove an Audi – mostly because it was the ’80s, and you were pretty muchAudi front required to drive either an Audi or a BMW in order to keep your “cool” license from being revoked. But I have to say that my memories of that Audi are nothing like the experience inside the Audi R8.

For starters, this car looks nothing like your standard road-ready Audi. With styling cues drawn from the LeMans Quattro, the R8 represents the carmaker’s perfect execution of grace and style – something that is evident from the first glance. An aggressive grille gives this race-inspired sportscar immediate authority on the road, and it backs up that styling with 420 horses under the hood. Even the headlights have an eye-catching appeal, as if the R8 is staring back at you, daring you to jump inside and take it out for a spin. The LED daytime running lights circling the headlights – not unlike Boy George’s eyeliner in the aforementioned ’80s – give further distinction to this car’s design. It’s one of those cars that looks fast even when it’s standing in the parking lot.

This is clearly the most beautiful car in Audi’s stable, and they’ve put just as much emphasis on inner beauty as outer appeal. The interior is a rich racing-style cockpit, but it doesn’t cling so tightly to its racing roots that it loses its charm as a daily driver. It’s surprisingly spacious, and though it has been widely compared to a Lamborghini, the seats of the R8 are larger, comfortable and definitely more adjustable – something that smaller drivers appreciate immediately. If you’ve ever struggled to see over the wheel of a Lambo, you’ll appreciate the four-way adjustable support of the R8’s seats.Audi R8

The dash is another thing of beauty, from the flat-bottomed leather-wrapped steering wheel to the sportily designed gauges. This car has more dials than a watch shop, but you’ll find yourself fascinated with such gadgets as the five-function trip computer (which tells you everything short of how far it is to the next bathroom stop) and the “speed warning device,” which you can expect to use fairly often if you’re enjoying this car properly.

Not content to offer the standard heated seats, the Alcantara leather interior has three settings and the side sections of the seats are heated as well. Throw in the 12-speaker Bang & Olufsen sound system, and you’ve got everything you need for the ride of your life.

On the road, the sportscar engineering shines. The mid-mounted V8 has a top speed of 187 mph, but the numbers really don’t matter; the handling does. It has remarkable acceleration and handles more like a smooth sedan than a stiff racecar. Although it comes with a manual six-speed transmission, our test car had the R tronic transmission, which gives you options of shifting with a joystick or with the paddles mounted on the steering wheel. We tried both ways and all we discovered was that we wanted a lot more time to play around with these options.

The Audi R8 has earned kudos from every major automotive magazine – and rightfully so. It looks like a beast but drives like a dream. Starting price is around $109,000 – and if this isn’t enough car for you, maybe you can hold off until Audi makes good on the R8 TDI V12 Concept diesel it began showing off earlier this year. But for those who want to enjoy the ride and look good doing it, the Audi R8 is a perfect 10.

Everybody Loves Sarah

Posted in: General, Women Drivers
25 May 2008

Sarah FisherIt sounds like a plot twist that only Hollywood could conceive.

With time running out before her history-making turn as the first female driver/team owner to participate in the Indianapolis 500, Sarah Fisher received last-minute sponsorship from television star Patricia Heaton and her husband, actor/director/producer David Hunt. The couple was in Indianapolis, where Heaton is serving as grand marshal of the 2008 IPL 500 Festival Parade, when they heard of Fisher’s unusual situation. Although she qualified to run in the 92nd Indy 500, her promised sponsorship from an energy drink company didn’t materialize. So Heaton, best known as the star of Everybody Loves Raymond, and her husband stepped in and stepped up.

Heaton and Hunt’s production company, FourBoys Films, have become a sponsor for Fisher and her No. 67 Honda Dallara. With just a day to go before the race, Fisher’s prospects of finding sponsorship had seemed grim.

“I’m a big fan of Everybody Loves Raymond and just to know that Patricia and David were touched by our passion for open-wheel racing is inspiring to me,” says Fisher, who starts 22nd in today’s race. Check for results at Indycar.com.

Can’t Keep a Good Gal Down

22 May 2008

Sarah Fisher qualified for the Indianapolis 500 for the seventh time last weekend, but Sunday’s race marksDriver/owner Sarah Fisher the first time she’ll be making laps as both a driver and a team owner. In fact, it’s the first time any woman has ever done that. The accomplishment, as great as it is, is somewhat bittersweet – Fisher was promised a sponsorship by an energy drink company but the check is, apparently, still in the mail.

Still, despite her lack of funding, Fisher has remained upbeat and seemingly undaunted in interviews. She knows that her chances of winning are about as slim as her wallet at this point, but she isn’t about to miss her history-making run. Fisher is showing that, like so many things in life, it’s more about the journey than the end results. If we had such a thing on this site as our She-ro of the Week, it would definitely go to Sarah Fisher.

If you want to show your support for the woman who was only the third female ever to qualify for the Indy 500, maybe you should pick up a new pair of TAG Heuer sunglasses. The motorsport-inspired eyewear company has been one of Fisher’s supporters since 2002, and they’re a favorite among racers because their flexible temples fit under helmets. However, for those of you who don’t wear a helmet – they just look good. So grab a pair and be sure to cheer on Sarah during Sunday’s race!

Down Memory Lane

20 May 2008

Brigitte Bardot

While the entertainment world flocks to the Cannes Film Festival this week, it’s a great time to look at the role that one particular car played in Cannes more than 50 years ago.

Back in 1955, actress Brigitte Bardot turned heads even more than usual when, instead of arriving at Cannes by train, she pulled up in a French-made Simca. And, as the media of the day noted, she wore a “summer dress that unveils her shoulders.” Not exactly a Britney moment, but racy enough for the day, I guess.

It’s unclear when Bardot began her association with Simca, but it appears that the two enjoyed a long and mutually satisfying relationship. In 1954, the car company gave the screen star this prototype of its Weekend convertible. She continued using that car in advertisements for the company, including this undated magazine photo (top) which shows her “Enjoying the open air in her Simca Weekend.”

Bardot loved the Simca Weekend convertible so much that she kept it until 2004. Today, it enjoys a place at the Lane Motor Museum in Nashville, where the handmade dove-gray car sits alongside some 400 other rare and unusual autos. The serial number on this sleek vehicle, which loosely resembles a Fiat, is 001.

The bottom picture is the car as it appears today at the museum.

They’re Cute, But How Smart Are They?

Posted in: General, Smart Cars
18 May 2008

Smart fortwo car

No, I’m not talking about the guys on the new season of “The Bachelorette.” I’m talking about the cute-as-a-bug Smart fortwo cars, the Mercedes-Benz by-product that came to the U.S. with its 2008 model and now has a year-long waiting list.

With mileage in the 40 mpg range, and options that let you customize this half-pint cruiser to fit your personality, the Smart fortwo has definitely won over American hearts. But for those who care about more than just mileage, the big question has constantly been “Is it safe?”

Granted, crawling inside one of these surprisingly spacious mini-cars (it makes the Mini Cooper look like a moving van…) will inevitably bring up the question of safety. Citing factors such as steel bracing, elevated seat design and a specially designed steel “crash box,” Smart has stood by the safety of its cars since day one.

This weekend, a report on CNN reinforced what Smart-smitten consumers have hoped for when it aired an interview with Russ Rader of the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety. That stiff safety cage and other design features earned the Smart fortwo the Institute’s two highest ratings in a high-speed crash. It earned an “A” (for “Acceptable”) in both front and rear-end collisions for cars in their class.

Keep in mind the last four words of that sentence – they’re saying that, if you want to downsize your automobile, the Smart fortwo is a good bet; just don’t expect the same safety benefits of such gas-guzzling behemoths as the Hummer or Escalade. It does mean, however, that if you want to reduce the emissions you’re contributing to the planet and save a few bucks on your gas bill at the same time, this is a good way to go.

And face it, when’s the last time you found something that was cute, Smart and didn’t mind sleeping in the garage all night?

So, Helio, Where’s That Speedo?

Posted in: General, Women Drivers
14 May 2008

Texas Motor Speedway\'s Danica Patrick adThere’s no question that Danica Patrick, in addition to being an excellent driver, is a very attractive woman. And since sex sells, Texas Motor Speedway is using her beauty to help encourage foot traffic at the track.

The Speedway’s latest advertising campaign gives Reason No. 7 for attending the Bombardier Learjet 550 race at the track on June 7: Danica. And they’ve used a photo from Danica’s recent Sports Illustrated swimsuit spread to help reinforce that message.

It’s a beautiful photo, as one would expect – it shows her as a strong, sexy woman. But if they’re going to advertise female drivers as pin-ups, doesn’t it only seem fair that they take the same approach with the male drivers? In other words – we expect to see Helio Castroneves appearing soon on a billboard wearing his Speedo. In fact, since he’s also scheduled to be at the June 7 event, there’s still time to make that happen. How ’bout it, Helio?