Friday, November 27, 2009

A Saab Story

Saab has just been taken off life support and is expected to die in the next week. Koenigsegg pulled out of the deal earlier this week and today the Swedish government announced they will not bail out the company if GM chooses to liquidate it.

Until it was assimilated by the Borg-like GM, Saab was known for making quirky, performance oriented hatchbacks. Afterwards they churned out re-skinned Chevy Malibus and Trailblazers. The result was predictably bad. The Muselix and Birkenstock crowd who bought Saabs departed for Subaru. Before long, Saab's only customers were a handful of Minnesota farmers named Olsen who were trying to get back in touch with the old country. "Traded the Tahoe on a new 9-5 did ya?" "Oh yah, you betcha! It goes through the sno' like a hot knife through tapioca..."

I hate to see Saab leave the automotive landscape. But the company has become yesterday's lutefisk.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Cars I'm Thankful For

With Thanksgiving in four days, I thought I'd share a few car related things I'm thankful for.

I'm thankful Route 66 lives. Someday I will drive the entire stretch from Chicago to LA--hopefully before it's over restored like a Corvette at a Barrett-Jackson auction. But it's good to see people taking an interest in a road that has added as much to our nation's history as the Santa Fe Trail and Lewis & Clark.

I'm thankful Chrysler, Ford, and GM live on and are finally building better cars. I'm also thankful for cars like the Challenger, Mustang and Camaro, which bigger cojones than Sarah Palin.

Likewise, I'm thankful for any car that isn't styled like a jellybean or a carton of milk. Cars like the Corvette, Mini, Audi TT and most Jaguars, which are pleasing to look at, if not achingly beautiful.

I'm thankful for the two Nissans my family owns--both have been reliable and cheap to own. Even with over 100K on the clock they still have plenty of life left in them.

Finally though I'm thankful for friends, family and a place to call home. They are the reasons for making the journey and the reward at the end of the road.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Buick Regal, Sports Sedan

I'm having a hard time saying Buick Regal and sports sedan in the same sentence with a straight face. It's an oxymoron, but that's what GM is positioning the Regal as for its relaunch next year.

To be fair the new Regal will be based on the Opel Insignia, which has won accolades in Europe. Buick is also undertaking a huge effort to remake itself, much like Cadillac did ten years ago. And the new LaCrosse makes me think they're on to something.

Still, to position the car to compete with Acura, BMW and Infiniti, and use a stodgy nameplate like the Regal, is like Country musician Taylor Swift changing her name to Blanche or Patsy. Yes, there's a history there, but the connotation is not attractive. Buick has better names for a sports sedan like the Wildcat or Gran Sport. The Regal hasn't been cool since the Grand National came out 25 years ago, and people who own those cars don't call them Regals.

I hope Buick is successful. But to be successful, I think they need an attitude car, or halo car as it's known in the industry. Something like the Grand National that will draw Acura customers into the showroom and leave with a new Regal or LaCrosse.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Mr. Automatic

There was a time when I'd only buy a car with a manual transmission. Slushboxes, as automatics are sometimes called, were boring to my way of reckoning and they robbed power from the engine. I liked revving the engine, snapping off crisp up-shifts, and listening to the exhaust crackle as I downshifted. It was a way to satisfy my inner Walter Mitty as I pretended to race at Watkins Glen or Monaco.

Somewhere along the line of marrying and having kids, I began buying cars with automatics. I didn't mind the car shifting itself in stop and go traffic, or when I needed to retrieve the lost binky from the backseat. But somewhere along the march of time, I realized I now would prefer to own an automatic over a manual transmission. This truth became self evident recently when I looked at the new Dodge Challenger and realized I'd rather own the auto instead of the six-speed manual with pistol-grip shifter. In fact most of the cars I've been dreaming about lately have automatics, from Jaguars, AMG powered Mercedes Benzes, and the Challenger. In fact, there are only a handful of modern cars I'd own today with a manual transmission.

To be fair, slushboxes have come a long way in the last ten years. Most of them are much tighter, more efficient and some of them offer a choice to let you do the shifting yourself. Ironically, we have Porsche and Ferrari to thank for this. Porsche began offering a Tiptronic transmission in the early 1990s. Licensed versions of this gearbox even made their way into cars like my Hyundai Sonata and it worked surprisingly well. Ferrari pioneered the "flappy paddle" gearbox, an automatic with two paddles mounted on the steering wheel to shift gears. Six time F1 champion Michael Shumacher once boasted he was faster in a car with this setup than with a conventional manual.

As I approach middle age I've learned several bits of wisdom. I can't eat or drink as much as I like and not somehow be punished for it. There is such thing as a "recovery period." And a compromise is not a draw but a positive, "win-win" outcome. It is in the spirit of win-win that I view auto-manual gearboxes. With one, I can better endure the stop and go traffic on my commute, retrieve lost toys for my kids, and pretend I'm Michael Schumacher charging the field in Formula One.