Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Drama of Formula One

Americans don't get Formula One. It's not because of any deficiency on our part, or because the cars don't always turn left or run in circles. It's not because of CART or the Indy league which has cars that sort of look like F1 cars. And it's not because there are a lack of Americans in it. The problem, it's boring to watch. The only drama comes from behind the scenes, not in the race itself.

That's not to say F1 doesn't have its moments, if you're paying attention. Who can forget the brilliance of Michael Schumacher at the top of his game or Kimi Raikkonen pushing his car past its limits, willing it to hold together as he charges the field? Then there's last year's championship, which was decided practically in the last turn, on the last lap of the last race in Brazil. Felipe Massa's good sportsmanship after the he won the race, but lost the championship certainly ranks up there. The grace and humility he displayed are all but missing in pro sports here in the United States. I certainly can't imagine LeBron James displaying anything like it.

But LeBron's tantrum is mild in comparison to what goes on behind the scenes in F1. Inside motor racing's most technologically advanced sport is a leviathan set of egos displaying mankind's most primitive emotions. There are perpetual spy accusations, teams threatening to pull out under protest, calls for people to resign, and stories of teammates who hate each other. Sometimes it's more "As the World Turns" than
Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile.

The latest call for FIA President Max Mosely's head is just more of the same. Mosely is under fire this time for proposing a budget cap on F1, and idea considered so vehmenent by the top contenders like Ferrari and this year's Cinderella, Team Brawn, that they threatened to pull out of F1 and start their own league. Mosely's resignation/forced retirement/reinstatement reads like a bad karaoke version of The Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" and was widely covered in Europe. Here in America, it got as much press as a prep school cricket match.

F1 has a lot to offer a country as motor crazy as we are. The 225,000 spectators that attended the first Grand Prix at Indy in 2001 support this. We love iconic figures and team sports. F1 has both. But for some reason, both F1 and the US just haven't consistently mixed
. Americans consider it the automotive equivalent of soccer and the FIA would rather concentrate on building up races like Turkey and Bahrain which are passionate about the sport. But there is hope--the FIA is working to make F1 more accessible and exciting. There is even talk of returning to the US if they can find the right venue. If they are successful, F1 will find the right audience and finally hold our attention longer than David Beckham did.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Big Three Win J.D. Power Awards

For a time in the 1990s, all my friends and I drove Hondas. I'm not exactly sure why but maybe it was a combination of herd mentality in twenty-something adults, who yearn to be different, coupled with an evolving sensibility that let us escape our teen years largely intact. Hondas looked nice and were quality made automobiles that rarely broke. By comparison, nearly everyone I knew was skeptical of cars made by GM, Ford, and Chrysler because we perceived they lacked those same qualities.

Styling and quality are subjective. We all have our own notions of what looks good and our own standards of quality. I owned a 1996 Accord and have always thought it was one of the best looking, highest quality cars Honda ever made. You may agree with my opinion or might think I was dropped as a baby.

Like most people, my opinions are based on my experience, the opinions of people I respect, and the facts as I choose to interpret them. Part of my opinion of Hondas, and my perception about the quality of any car, is based on the findings of J.D. Power and Associates. Like the old E.F. Hutton saying, when J.D. Power talks, I listen.

This week J.D. Power came out with the results of their Initial Quality Study for 2009. This study measures the problems new car owners experience within the first 90 days of ownership. The results for 2009 showed many of the top ranked cars were made by the Big Three. Cars like the Chevy Malibu, Pontiac G6, Ford Mustang, Mercury Sable and Chrysler PT Cruiser scored as well or higher in this survey than similar cars made by Honda, Toyota and Lexus.

This news surprised a lot of people, but it shouldn't. Detroit has always made some very good cars. Bob Lutz has been saying this for years, and as the ultimate car guy, he should know. Lutz has worked for BMW, Ford, Chrysler and in 2002 he became GM's self appointed car czar. At the launch of the Pontiac G6, he stated that the quality of GM cars was as good as the imports. GM just needed to do a better job of getting the word out.

The word is now out. If I were in the market today, I would be hard pressed not to consider buying something from the Big Three. The cars on J.D. Power's list are quality vehicles offering a tremendous value in price and content. Many of them carry huge rebates or financing incentives. And to my eye, they offer good stying as well.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Chrysler's Italian Americans

There is a misconception that Fiat now owns Chrysler. That is not entirely true. Fiat bought a 20% stake in Chrysler with the option to own as much as 49%. Sergio Marchionne, Fiat's chief executive does not seem intent on assimilating Chrysler like Daimler did, leaving it an empty shell that churned out unreliable products made from obsolete Mercedes parts. Instead, Marchionne seems to want to use Chrysler as a channel to return Fiat to the US market. For years Fiat has teased us with rumors of a return to our shores. But except for the unattainable, $265,000 Alfa Romeo 8c, and high end exotics from Ferrari and Maserati, all of which fall under the corporate umbrella, Fiat been as successful cracking the US market as a reality-show contestant at finding true love.

All that may change. If Fiat is able to use Chrysler's scaled down dealer network to introduce the Fiat 500, Punto, and Bravo pictured above, they would find a receptive market. Certainly they could do no worse than Chrysler's current lineup of duds. Fiat could slap Dodge Ram badges on the Bravo, fit it with a crosshair grille, and as long as they didn't call it the Avenger, it would be a hit.

The Panda, which includes a 4x4 version, would make a far better small Jeep than the Compass. Marchionne has expressed a desire to better
position the Jeep brand in the global market. Jeeps have a solid image in many parts of the world. If they were able to take the beaches at Normandy, a frontal assault on markets in Asia and South America could prove winnable as well. With the world looking at America more favorably these days, a global branding strategy could relaunch Jeep in the same spectacular fashion Iron Man revived the career of Robert Downey Jr.

More importantly, Fiat seems intent on not just utilizing Chrysler's dealer network, but their factories as well. That means more jobs in the US. Even the most ardent red-stater, who drives a pickup truck complete with a gun-rack and U.A.W. bumper sticker, has to give that idea a thumbs up. Speaking of trucks, if the distribution pipeline goes both ways, I'm sure more than a few Italians would buy the Dodge Ram SRT-10. In a country rife with exotic cars, there would be something uniquely absurd about owning a truck that can haul a half ton payload and haul ass like a Lamborghini.

If it seems like I'm rooting for the Fiat-Chrysler merger, I am. My family has owned a number of Chryslers. My grandfather owned nothing but Plymouth Furies and big Dodges the last twenty-five years of his life. My parents drove a Valiant on their honeymoon and owned a Dodge Demon of all things. I drove a Dodge Coronet in high school and owned a LeBaron convertible. Most of these cars were a bit rough around the edges but were generally honest, reliable vehicles. In the last few years, I've driven the Chrysler 300 and the Dodge Caliber. The 300 was one of the few cars that is comfortable, a joy to drive, turns heads, and can haul a weeks worth of luggage for a family of four. The Caliber with its silly name, was well thought out but poorly executed. It just wasn't of the same... err... caliber as the other small cars in it's class.

The idea of Fiat bailing out Chrysler isn't as preposterous as it first seems. This isn't your Uncle Tony's Fiat from twenty-five years ago. Marchionne, who has a dual Canadian-Italian citizenship, knows something about turning around companies. In 2005 he took over a hemorrhaging Fiat and won a nice divorce settlement from GM. In short order he made the company profitable with a top-down overhaul and introduced new products people wanted to buy. In a sense, it's history repeating itself. Thirty years ago another Italian took over Chrysler. He too quickly made the company profitable with a top-down overhaul and introduced new products people wanted to buy. Only then, the chairman was an Italian-American named Lee Iaccoca.

Saturday, June 20, 2009


I have always been a car nut. There should be a support group for head cases like me, but instead I rely on the compassion and common sense of my beautiful wife. Ever since I can remember I’ve been fascinated by cars. I learned my colors from the cars I saw, only instead of red car, blue car, it was red Pontiac, blue Dodge. When I was nine, I saw my first Jaguar E-Type. The experience was like running into Cindy Crawford at the supermarket.

Jaguar was owned by British-Leyland then and its demise was all but guaranteed by bureaucrats who couldn’t run a fast food franchise let alone a car company. (Sort of like GM today, but we’ll get to that another time.) In spite of the Mr. Bean like bungling, they still managed to launch the XJ-S. In my fourth-grade opinion, it was no less spellbinding than the E-Type. I was so impressed by both cars, I gave a presentation on Jaguars to my class, complete with a foot-noted outline and hand-drawn visuals.

In high school I was a walking encyclopedia of car knowledge. I subscribed to all the US car magazines and knew everything about every car sold since 1950. For obvious reasons, I didn’t go on many dates in that period of my life. But I knew a guy who owned both an Alfa Romeo Spider Veloce, a Porsche 356A, and was married. I had hope. By that time, I wanted to be an automotive journalist, combining my car obsession and love of writing while letting me earn a living. After I learned that automotive journalists are mechanical engineers who can write prose, instead of liberal art majors with C+ grade point averages, I decided to look for another line of work that would support my addiction.

Now it’s 16 years later and I’m starting this blog. I’m not sure of all the reasons but mainly it's because of the kid inside me who never went away. He trolls the depths of eBay and Hemming's Motor News looking at whatever cars tickle his fancy–lately, unshakably, they are Jaguars again. Whatever the reason, this blog is about cars. Anything and everything car related is fair game. If it’s sloshing around in my brain, I will try to organize it in print. I hope you enjoy the results.