Houston Auto Show notes

HAS-Corvette-ACPThe 2014 Houston Auto Show is open now through Sunday, offering visitors a chance to see not only what’s on dealer lots now but some of what will be coming to showrooms throughout the year.

Whether you make the Houston Show or not, 2014 is a good year to visit an auto show. Not only is it a way to check out all the new cars and trucks currently available, it’s your opportunity to check out some potential game-changers coming out this year.

One must-see for any car fan is the new Corvette Stingray, the 2014 North American Car of the Year. It’s not really a game changer but it is the latest generation of a tradition stretching back six decades. The sleek blue coupe on display in Houston is a far cry from the small white roadster with its six-cylinder engine that took its first bows in 1953.

Chevrolet sold 17,291 Corvettes in 2013, 22.4% more than in 2012. Over the years, the ‘Vette has become an American icon: quite a change from the early days when Chevy almost axed the car because it kept getting throughly trounced by the Ford Thunderbird.
HAS-Mustang-ACPAnother American icon with a major makeover is the Mustang, which celebrates its 50th birthday in April. The styling that melds traditional Mustang cues with the current Ford design language derived from the 2011 Ford Evos concept is striking and modern. One major change for the new Mustang is the independent rear suspension that hasn’t been standard on Ford’s pony car since the Falcon-based original took the stage at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. There’s also a new EcoBoost four-cylinder engine that begs the question of why Ford thinks Mustang buyers would want it.

Ford was also showing the next-generation F-150 pickup, one of the real game-changers coming this year. It’s a good-looking truck with several innovative features including an aluminum alloy body that lightens the truck, increases fuel economy and improves handling by lowering the center of gravity. However, the fact that pickup owners tend to be more conservative in their buying habits means the new aluminum alloy body could have a major impact on early sales. It also means that businesses that use magnetic vehicle signage are going to have to make other arrangements. See more about the new F-150 here.

Chrysler had two big shows: the first was the national reveal of the new “Altitude” models from Jeep. Allpar has a really good write-up on the Altitudes, so we’re not going to reinvent the wheel.
HAS-C200-ACPChrysler Group’s second introduction and the real news was the 2015 Chrysler 200 sedan. The new mid-size sedan has shed the last vestiges of the DaimlerChrysler/Cerberus era to become a very good-looking, sleek automobile that’s impressive inside and out. This one is a must-see at any auto show as it could well be Chrysler’s best mid-size car in years and should give the company a bigger slice of the retail family car pie. The 200 is one of the industry’s game-changers for 2014 as it looks to be a serious contender in a very competitive segment.
HAS-Canyon-ACPGMC was showing off the new Canyon and Colorado pickups. While a lot of industry watchers have questioned GM’s decision to stay in what is seen as a sement that is stagnant at best, the company sees potential. The goal is not just to capture sales from the Nissan Frontier and Toyota Tacoma but to regain buyers lost to full-size pickups and to other vehicle types. To that end, GM is not only going to make a clear differentiation between the new junior pickups and the new full-size line, it is going to offer a wide array of vocational and sporting cargo management accessories designed specifically for the Canyon and Colorado. Though the Colorado kitted out as a lifeguard truck was a bit much, the Canyon is a good-looking truck: if GM can deliver on its promises of class-leading capability, the compact pickup segment could have a new lease on life.

Toyota was touting the new Highlander SUV but the new Corolla is worth a close look; we had a chance to experience one recently and it’s a sweet package.

Volkswagen had the next-generation GTI on the stand; it’s the first version of the seventh-generation Golf that will go on sale in the U.S.and the new 1.8-liter turbo four is a worthy successor to the previous two-liter engine.

After three years of double-digit growth, 2013 saw sales gains slow significantly. Manufacturers want to hit the 16-million-unit mark in 2014 so there’s going to be some serious pushing to move the metal. This could be a good year to get a good deal and a visit to an auto show is a great way to do the things you can’t do on the Internet, such as getting up close to the actual vehicle and trying it on for size with a few minutes of seat time. And if you just want to window shop and dream, that’s okay, too. I’ve been a car nut for more than sixty years and rose-tinted nostalgia notwithstanding, the cars and trucks coming out this year are worth dreaming about.

The Future, Volvo Style

Volvo Group* has launched a new website devoted to its ideas for the future.

The Volvo Tech World website (www.volvogroup.com/techworld)/ will be a showcase for the new technologies under development at the Swedish company.

Volvo spent more than $180 million on R&D in 2011 and its competitors shouldn’t expect easy, one-stop shopping for the company’s trade secrets, but Volvo says many of its ongoing research projects will be displayed on Tech World.

“Times are different and being open about where we are heading is now beneficial for us, our customers and society,” says Torbjörn Holmström, Volvo’s Chief Technology Officer. “We will have the greatest opportunity to address current challenges and those of the future through cooperation.”

The current entries are mostly overviews of various technologies, such as autonomous excavators, and green concepts like electric buses that charge in ten minutes, vehicle fuel from forest raw material, vehicles that communicate with each other, electricity generation from surplus engine heat, boat simulators and hybrid trucks running on special roads that use inductive charging to keep fuel consumption at a minimum.

Included is a discussion of one of Volvo’s favorite topics: increasing the maximum length allowed for combination trucks on European highways. Volvo has been pushing for the expanded limits for years, despite opposition from the European Union and the railroads.

Volvo has an ulterior motive for creating the website — recruitment of engineering talent. Volvo wants current and future engineers to get a taste of what is going on at the tech centers in Göteborg, Sweden, Lyon, France and Greensboro, North Carolina.

“Tech World clearly demonstrates the challenges and future prospects existing within the Volvo Group,” Holmström noted. “We hope to be able to show that Volvo Group’s engineers are world-leading in many areas and contribute significantly to creating a future in which the environmental impact is reduced and traffic safety is higher.”

*Volvo Group is the original company and produces trucks, buses, heavy equipment and marine propulsion systems. Volvo, the carmaker, is a subsidiary of Zhejiang Geely Holding Co. and has not been part of Volvo Group since 1999.

Replacing the Humvee

After nearly three decades in military service, it’s time for the High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle, better known as the Humvee, to take a well-deserved retirement.

The U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps are looking for a new Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV) they can use to begin replacing the more than 18,000 Humvees on the government roster. The military wants the replacement process to begin in 2015. While the armed services are looking for vehicles they can use well into the future, they don’t want science-fiction; the emphasis is on mature technologies that are known to stand up to the extreme demands placed on combat vehicles.

While many think the Humvee was a replacement for the jeep, it actually replaced a range of vehicles in the Army’s fleet. The jeep, and the M151 Ford Mutt that replaced it, were small vehicles with less actual capacity than a passenger car. The original Army procurement was for a 1/4-ton, four-wheel-drive reconnaissance vehicle to replace the motorcycle in scouting duties. As its versatility was demonstrated, the jeep was reclassified as “Truck, 1/4-ton, general purpose.” While the Humvee has taken over many of the jeep’s functions, it’s far too big and expensive to be deployed in the same way.

The Humvee is really the modern-day equivalent of the Dodge WC-series trucks built during World War II and the M715 trucks built by Kaiser-Willys and later by AM General. These trucks, with payload capacities from 3/4-ton to 1.5-tons, were built to suit a wide range of applications, just as the Humvee is.

The next-generation of the basic military vehicle is estimated to cost about $260,000 per copy in full fighting trim. That’s a far cry from the $782.59 paid for a jeep back in World War II and four times the price of a base Humvee. On the other hand, the JLTV will resist IEDs, mines and other threats and will be much better-suited to modern, close-quarters combat. With the experience gained in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Humvee has received armor upgrades, but it wasn’t designed for them and the most effective armor packages degrade the Humvee’s performance. The JLTV will offer the maximum troop protection consistent with its mission.

With a contract worth more than $5 billion up for grabs, six of the major players in military vehicles have built evaluation trucks. Up to three companies could be awarded as much as $65 million for the development phase including production of evaluation vehicles. Those awards are expected early next month.

AM General BRV-O: AM General developed the Humvee in the late 1970s and early 1980s and has been building them since 1984. Now, AM General is offering the Blast-Resitant Vehicle-Offroad (BRV-O) with a 3.2-liter, turbocharged six good for 300 hp and 500 pounds-feet of torque.

General Dynamics Eagle: Taking the military’s desire for proven technology at face value, General Dynamics Land Systems (GDLS) and AM General have formed General Tactical Vehicles (GTV), a joint venture that is proposing a modified version of the Eagle IV (shown above), which GDLS has supplied to European governments since 2008. Among the Eagle’s customers are the German Army and the Zurich Airport Police. GTV says one of the Eagle’s advantages is that it will come in below the projected per-unit cost.

Oshkosh L-ATV: Oshkosh Defense already supplies various vehicles to the U.S. military. The Light Combat Tactical All-Terrain Vehicle, or L-ATV for short, is a vehicle that Oshkosh Defense developed independently. It includes Oshkosh’s Tak-4i intelligent suspension system and an optional ProPulse diesel-electric hybrid powertrain to improve fuel economy and extend operational range.

Lockheed JLTV: Lockheed was one of teh winners in the first phase of the competition, receiving an Army development contract in late 2008. The Lockheed JLTV uses a V-hull design first developed by military forces in Rhodesia and South Africa to improve its resistance to IEDs.

Navistar Defense Saratoga: Navistar Defense developed the Saratoga on its own. When the Army reopened the competition to all bidders for the second phase, the company said it was “a natural” for the competition. The Saratoga is powered by a MaxxForce 6.0D (the “D” is for “Defense”) six-liter V-8 that produces up to 340 HP and 660 lb-ft of torque, handy for moving a vehicle that weighs 11 tons fully loaded.

BAE Systems Valanx: The BAE Systems, another winner in the initial round, has made some changes in its Valanx, including the addition of a Ford PowerStroke 6.7- liter turbocharged diesel. The company also has brought in Roush Enterprises Inc., parent company of Roush Fenway Racing of NASCAR fame, to consult on engine system integration, and has reworked the design to meet the military’s new, lower weight limits.

Japan prepares for the Ultracompacts

Japan, a country known for its small vehicles, including the tiny kei cars, is looking to downsize. The Japanese transport ministry has unveiled guidelines defining a new class of electric cars known as ultracompacts.

In Japan, the ultracompacts span the gap between the kei cars which have engine displacements up to 600cc and motorbikes with engines up to 55cc. They are big enough for only one or two people and in the two-passenger cars being developed, the passenger sits behind the driver, as they would on a motorcycle.

They are small: the Nissan New Mobility, which is based on the Renault Twizy, is fourteen inches shorter than a Smart ForTwo, a car most Americans regard as tiny. The Nissan is also a foot narrower than the Smart; it’s just a tenth of an inch over four feet wide. The Pico, which is being developed by Daihatsu, has similar measurements and fore-and-aft seating arrangement.

They’re also fairly slow; the New Mobility/Twizy takes six seconds to reach 45 kilometers per hour (about 28 mph), just slightly longer than it takes the Smart to reach 30. But that’s probably okay: Japanese officials see the ultracompacts as most suitable for the elderly and tourists.

This new breed of personal transport actually is not yet street-legal in Japan but the ministry believes they will eventually be approved, at least for short trips.

After review of the proposed guideline, the government plans to establish a certification program by next March that will define specifications and safety standards, envisioning the cars will be mass-produced in the foreseeable future.

France will actually deploy an ultracompact before Japan; the Renault Twizy, shown above as it cruised around in downtown New York City, is scheduled to go on sale in Europe this summer.

To watch an interesting video of the Twizy, click here.

New Chevy SS coming late next year

Chevrolet has officially that the upcoming 2014 SS, a V-8 powered, rear-wheel-drive performance sedan, will be based on the next-generation Holden VF Commodore. IN addition to being Chevy’s marquee passenger car, the SS will also be basis for Chevrolet’s next NASCAR Sprint Cup contender, scheduled to debut at the 2013 Daytona 500.

The SS, the first RWD sedan from Chevy in 17 years, will be a limited-production vehicle arriving in U.S. dealer showrooms in late next year.

Though it actually just registered the “SS” logo with the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office last month, Chevy has used the SS, or Super Sport, designation for more than fifty years. The first use was on a 1957 Corvette prototype race car created by Zora Arkus-Duntov for the Le Mans 24-hour race. The first production use was for an option package on the 1961 Impala. A total of 453 1961 Chevrolet Impalas got the SS modified chassis and suspension, power brakes, a steering-column-mounted tachometer and special wheels and tires. The most recent application is the Camaro SS, which debuted in 2010.

Like the Camaro, Caprice police pursuit vehicle, and the late, lamented Pontiac G8, the SS will be a based on the Zeta platform that Holden created for the VE Commodore. Like the Caprice, the SS will be built in Australia.

“As a passionate race fan and performance enthusiast, I am thrilled that Chevrolet will deliver a true rear-wheel-drive NASCAR racecar in the SS that is closely linked to the performance sedan that will be available for sale,” said Mark Reuss, president of GM North America. “The Chevrolet SS is a great example of how GM is able to leverage its global product portfolio to deliver a unique performance experience that extends beyond the track. I am personally looking forward to driving it.”

Chevrolet was America’s best-selling performance car brand in 2011 with Camaro and Corvette accounting for one out of every three sports cars sold in the United States. The addition of the SS should strengthen Chevrolet’s position as a leading performance brand.

According to Greg Tyus, GM Holden’s Executive Director of Engineering, Chevrolet customers will benefit from Holden’s proven expertise in developing and manufacturing RWD vehicles.

“Holden has a great track record of producing performance cars for GM and the world,” Tyus said. “We were responsible for the design and engineering of the Chevrolet Camaro, VE Commodore was sold as the Pontiac G8 and we are currently exporting the Chevrolet Caprice Police Patrol Vehicle – so we understand the needs of the North American market.”

Tyus noted that although exporting in the current economic environment was difficult, Holden exports were up 54 per cent last year compared to 2010.

“We continue to export our engineering and design capability around the GM world and we have significant vehicle export programs to the Middle East, New Zealand and North America,” Tyus said. “Our expertise in this arena is second to none and highlights the flexibility of Holden’s Elizabeth manufacturing operations.”

Greg Combet, Australia’s Minister for Industry and Innovation said Holden had again demonstrated to the world the quality of Australian technological innovation, and the design and engineering skills of its manufacturing workforce.

“In what are challenging times for many manufacturing businesses, Holden is designing and making products wanted in markets across the world,” Combet said.

Although GM hasn’t commented on the possibility, the Commodore platform could also be used as the basis for new Buick and Cadillac models.