Texas®

As excited as I am to think about the coming cars from the new Fiat/Chrysler, there seems to be that awful lag time between what will be and what is now. Trapped in that limbo of low standards and trying to make the best of a bad lot is the Chrysler 200.
 
During the Mercedes years, Chrysler benefited hugely from the information transfer that allowed them to base their large cars (300c, Magnum, Charger and Challenger) on the fantastically stout and resilient E-series Mercedes engineering platform. This foundation has allowed for rapid development and execution of well sorted-out cars that literally hit the market here in the states squarely between the eyes. Big, strong and sexy looking; the large cars from Chrysler have become as good as any in the market.
 
After driving the Fiat 500 a couple of weeks ago and loving it, I can only hope Chrysler can find a way of taking one of Fiat’s great middle-sized cars and getting it in the market, ASAP. This time though, critical – almost emergency – was really driven home by every mile I spent behind the wheel of the Chrysler 200 Convertible.
 
The 200 has been touted by Chrysler as the “rebirth” of Detroit, but that baby is still a little premature. While the 200 is leaps and bounds better than the car it replaces, the Sebring, Stratus “Cloud” cars, it is not up to the changes in the market. Chrysler’s middle-of-the-road cars were leapfrogged by the Japaneese back when Toyota introduced the Camry, but now the Korean companies Hyundai and Kia have literally stomped on the Detroit icon. The Kia Optima and Hyundai Sonata are proof that you can have a small economical car that works well, and looks great. Unfortunately, it’s like rubbing salt in an injured warrior’s wounds to point that out.
 
This used to be Chryslers forte; building cars just a little cheaper than Ford or GM. The company was looked upon with almost heroic “Mom, Apple Pie, and Baseball-style” Americana reverence, but the number three underdog was standing on a foundation of sand that each new competitor shoveled out a little more. When the global financial crisis hit and Chrysler’s credit lines evaporated, the company ended up spending all their time on survival and the efforts to design a replacement for their small sedans were shelved.
 
I honestly believe that part of the problem during the Venture Capital ownership period at Chrysler was exacerbated by the fact they had installed a senior management team from outside the automotive industry. These non-car guys just didn’t seem to understand the lead times and development investments in such a complex product.
 
The 200 and its Dodge Twin Avenger are the result of a muddling lack of vision.
 
Driving around in the 200 actually made me angry, partially because of how the car was simply not what I thought it would be, but more so because I had read a couple of articles touting how good the car was by so-called journalists or Autowriters whose objectives I have to question.
 
There is a fine line of balance in this business of reviewing cars. In my case, I see my “End User” as the person reading this article trying to find information to make one of their largest financial commitments in their lives. Thankfully, at Best of Texas, I don’t have the issues some local publications have of trying to generate advertising revenue via their editorial content. It is not that the manufacturers directly try to influence the editorial content at a local newspaper, but that business is so dependent on the Auto advertiser the last thing they need to do is annoy or offend an advertiser. This leads to picking up the paper and reading a review that is written by an Advertising Copywriter whose goal is to sell cars – not to give an unbiased opinion.
 
This is why you see canned pieces, rewritten press releases and stock photography in most of the publications out there. It’s just something that has crept into this business and there are very few reviewers out there who have insulated themselves from the pressure of advertising. There are others who have completely sold their souls, and that makes me mad.
 
The other balance point is finding a way to both entertain and inform. If the article is not compelling, the reader’s attention would have long since moved on to the next thing in the visual and technological barrage of information out there.
 
As I was annoyed with the Chrysler 200’s not-quite-there driving inputs, lethargic acceleration and dismal handling, I was thinking that it wasn’t really that awful. After all, if you really want a convertible, I was figuring the 200 would be a reasonable option if it came in around $25-27k. But here is a little secret of how I write my reviews. I purposely don’t look at the information the manufacturer provides to me until I have given the car a chance to either impress or depress me. I don’t look at the price until I have driven it for a couple of days. Oh, wow. When I did, all I could do was think of things I would rather do with $37,000.
 
That is where the anger came in.
 
I can’t in good conscious recommend this car. I might have at a far lower price point, but at 37k there are simply too many better options out there. I could happily own a Fiat 500 and the motorcycle of my choice for that money. Or, if you need a drop-top, I would be driving people out of Chrysler showrooms and down the street to buy a Mustang convertible. I was staggered they could put this car that still has roots back in the K Car days out for that price. For that matter, I know you can find a slightly enjoyed BMW for that money, and let me tell you: The 200 is certainly not in that area.
 
Chrysler needs to run, not walk, to figure out how to rebadge one of Fiat’s platforms, ASAP. Italian car division Lancia has a couple that pop to mind. I really want to see that and it is not every day I say this, but the 200 sure as hell looked better leaving than it did with me.

If you’ve been living under a rock for the last couple of years, let me give you the good and the bad news: Kia makes some of the best looking cars on the road. That is all. You can decide if that is good or bad for yourself.

The 2011 Kia Optima showed up outside of my door the other day, and it’s a really good thing they put big logos on the grill and tail, because you really have to convince yourself it really is a Korean car. It looks like Kia took lessons on how to design a car right off the page of Honda or even BMW. And guess what? They did.

Kia’s design team has hit one out of the park before most Americans even realized they were playing. For years, Kia occupied the bottom wrung of the automotive ladder by providing the most “economical” (read: cheapest) cars in the market. What they had was a brand new car with one of the best warranties in the business but you had to live with driving something that felt as “Economical” as it indeed was.

A couple of years ago, Kia had a perception problem. After all, this company lead their landing in this country with a Ford-branded mini-car called the Fiesta. It was tiny, underpowered and rather pathetic. They then began to establish their own dealer network and started to roll out cars carrying their logo. The first couple of generations really didn’t help that quality reputation as they had the on-road handling of an Igloo Cooler with wheels and bore more of a horsepower comparison to a lawnmower than to the average American car. Most people saw them as cheap and were mostly worried about the little things breaking, so Kia addressed this by rolling out the longest warranty in the business.

Kia is now a part of Hyundai, their one time major Korean car rival. And the two companies share platforms the way General Motors does. The Optima and Hyundai Sonata are under-skin twins, which allows for shared development costs. This allows both brands to share in some stunning engineering and design success.

Driving around North Texas in the Optima was unique as I kept checking to see if it really was a Kia. For a while there, I thought one of my suppliers was trying to trick me and slipped me an Accord with Kia badges on it into my driveway. It really is that good.

A four door sedan that looks this good sounds like a great idea. Add in the fact it produces a respectable 24/34 mpg number out of either a four cylinder, or even a turbocharged option, and pushes 200 horsepower out of the normal 2.4l, and a very impressive 275 out of the turbo. Bring all of that together and add an interior with a feel of quality not-in-the-least cheap or clunky. Really, the interior of the Optima is as good as any car from any manufacturer, and when you consider the as-tested price of $27,440.00 comes in thousands below comparable vehicles, it starts to sound even better.

This car helps Kia, and the Korean automotive business in-particular, establish themselves more firmly in the North American market. Their incredible increase in sales numbers are testament to their success. Hyundai and Kia both have been on fire.

As important as the sales success and money that goes with it is to them, the Koreans covet something even more: Respect. Consider if you will: South Korea is the only country currently competing in the global automotive market that was once occupied militarily by three of its major business rivals. The Japanese, Chinese and Americans have all invaded, occupied or fought wars on Korean soil over the last 100 years. They share a peninsula with one of the few truly megalomaniac dictators left who seems hell bent on making South Korea an island by imploding the north in a great, James Bond-worthy master villain plan of destruction.

If ever there was a country that could suffer from “collective short-mans syndrome” it would be Korea. Their focus on not just building cars, but building the best cars, has been mirrored in other businesses. Just look at how companies like LG and Samsung have dominated the consumer electronics business over the last five years. They’ve usurped Japanese companies’ once total domination of that market by undercutting manufacturing costs and becoming true technological innovators.

If you look at it, Korea has done to the Japanese what the Japanese did to American manufacturing only 20 years off-step. This is a significant number, as I see Hyundai/Kia as sitting in almost the exact place that Toyota and Honda occupied 20 years ago. They have a great product line that includes sporty cars like the Forte Coupe (where the Civic SI used to be), the Optima (Camry Accord), and even the Hyundai Genesis, reaching into where Lexus and Acura once roamed unchallenged.

If you don’t believe in the idea of a Korean car with that kind of curb appeal, I highly recommend going out and driving the Optima soon. Also consider, that in the early 1980’s, people laughed at the idea of Toyota someday competing with Cadillac or Mercedes with their new Lexus Brand.

Oh, how times continue to change. But we as consumers win on this one.

 

If ever you were going to put together the Car Dream Team or an Automotive All-Star Squad and you were basing it on only the long reputation of the contenders, the idea of taking an Italian car design, building it in Mexico and selling it via Chrysler’s dealer network would get you benched. Or worse, they would put you in a room with really, really thick, cushy wall paper.

For much of the last half of the 20th century this combination would have been considered the holy trinity of build-quality issues and could possibly be the kind of thing that could open a seal in Dante’s descent to hell.

Italians are known for passion, fashion, feisty, high-maintenance exotic cars, and some of the most temperamental unions in the world. Chrysler was known as a leader in the displacement of egomaniac CEO’s and well, lets be nice, the initial push to cheep labor in Mexico was less than problem-free for the car business.

The simple fact that the perpetual emotion machine at Chrysler ground to a halt was not shocking. Every 10 years or so it seems the big three were on the brink of becoming the big two. In the 80’s it was “saved” by Lee Iacocca, and the cheep-as-dirt-quality-vacuum called the K Car. In the 1990’s, it was the LH platform and an over-reliance on trucks and Jeep. In the 2000’s it was, well there’s the problem: it just wasn’t.

As good as ChryCo’s big car products became after the “marriage” to Mercedes, their little cars languished into the Neon – not that bad – then the Caliber, which was easily one of the few cars ever to not exceed the car it was replacing in any way but cost per unit.

I have been rather hard on Chrysler’s small cars for good reason: they simply don’t compete in a global market with the cars they have been building. The closest their small cars have been to acceptable was when they introduced the Neon. It wasn’t perfect, but it was much better than their other small cars had ever been. They could at least see where they had to be. Instead of moving closer with the Caliber, they fell off the truck all together.

Now enter the Italians, via the global automotive company Fiat. If there is one thing they do well – and I mean very well – is build small cars. If you don’t know, Fiat is very much like Ford, a globally integrated technology and car company that is primarily owned and controlled by trust extensions of the founding family. In Fiat’s case, it is one of the wealthiest families in Europe: the Agnelli’s.

Fiat now is the overall holding company that owns Fiat, Ferrari, Maserati, Alfa Romeo, Lancia, Chrysler, Jeep, Dodge, and Fiat Light Trucks.

If you were looking for a high drama the Agnelli’s would rival any super-wealthy story Hollywood could muster, but I will get back on focus with the car that has become the brightest little light in Chrysler’s future.

The 500 is small, but through some wonderful automotive origami, it has more usable space than many other cars in the Micro class. At 6’1” and over 185, these days I never found the Fiat to be claustrophobic. And as a matter of fact, I was surprised at how roomy the little thing really was.

With the 500 you will never be on the first-to-call list for helping someone move or for carpooling, but it is amazing how flexible the car really is. I was never at a loss for places to stuff gear bags and other bits into. Honestly, it may not be the car to try and take the foursome and their clubs to the course, but for an in town two person runner, it’s fantastic.

I say two person, but really, if forced, you can put two more in the back. And the 500 actually has more room back there than most micros, but folded down, it is amazing how much stuff can occupy the back of this car.

I have long been a fan of small nimble cars. In the case of the Fiat 500; think more Mini than (not so) Smart car. It’s lithe and agile and a blast to drive when you push the tach up. But realistically, it’s not really the car you would feel comfortable on long highway runs around here.

The Mini is a better driving package than the 500, but it is also north of $10,000 more than the as-tested price of $19.200.00. This included satellite radio and power everything, in a minimalist package that scoots.

Some folks asked if it was a (not so) Smart car while I was driving around, and I guess the size and price might be the principal reason for that. It’s smaller overall than the wheelbase of a Tahoe or Suburban, but it also gets 30/38 EPA MPG ratings. With enthusiastic pedal application and manual gearbox, I was running in the high 20’s to low 30’s during a grin-filled romp around North Texas.

The Fiat 500 and the (not so) Smart car are very comparable on price and even intended market, but with the 500 you get what seems to be a complete, if slightly shrunken, car package. Any time I have experienced the (not so) Smart, it has been with considerable fear and discomfort of knowing it has less power and a smaller overall size than my motorcycle. The lack of power and the idea that a good with a backpack and saddle bags in tow, I could carry more back from the grocery store on two wheels for half the price is the main reason I call it the (not so) Smart.

For many years the only way we got to experience some of these fun little cars from Italy was on vacation or when the neighbor found an old one to work on. Fiat just didn’t really bother with the American market, which now, is a key part of their overall plan.

When they came in to “rescue” Chrysler from bankruptcy proceedings they got more than a nationwide dealer presence, they got some of the savvy and swagger from the perennial underdog in the American market. Their plants in Brampton, Ontario and Toluca, Mexico (where Fiat is building the 500), are considered two of the best manufacturing plants in the world and Chrysler has the absolute best parts acquisition system in the world.

Funny thing: the plant in Brampton was built while Chrysler was being rescued by Renault, and the parts system is one of the main reasons Mercedes rescued Chrysler in the 1990’s.

So hopefully this trip to financial rehab for Chrysler means the lurching from boom-to-bust is over. It was exhausting trying to keep up.

More importantly, they have, for the first time ever, a small car to sell that is actually worth buying. I only hope the Italians can help Chrysler do something interesting with the next Avenger/200 replacement. Just after they picked up the 500, they decided to leave me a 200 convertible. Let me just say the leftovers have spoiled.

Welcome back to the American market. Glad to see ‘ya.

 

In the big world of cars, the interconnected nature of automotive manufacturing on a global scale has made some strange bedfellows over the years. Due to the massive reach of the international conglomerates, we’ve ended up with cars built in Japan with suspensions designed in England, powered by engines built in Spain, with parts from Brazil, Korea and China and to be destined to be sold at your local car lot in McKinney Texas.

The way in which business is interconnected – when one company is down the others are up – there is a strange balance that ebbs and flows like any cyclical business. The fluid nature of the business was abruptly altered when the global financial crisis hit this industry particularly hard. We all know about the big three government bailouts and bankruptcy issues here in the States, but in Europe and Asia, big companies also had to rely on some pretty deft haggling and some even more severe hacking and slashing.

At the end of the day, one of the companies that really has taken a bunch of hits to the teeth has been Mitsubishi. This is a company that builds everything from microprocessors to heavy equipment from flat screen TV’s to ocean-going supertankers. For them the global mire was across almost all its platforms. Disposable income from consumers for luxury items slowed to a trickle and the big infrastructure projects that require the big industrial might of a company like this have also ground to a halt.

Amongst all of this they also had to take a big old molar shaker when Chrysler went bust. For years now Mitsubishi and Chrysler have shared technology, platforms and even manufacturing plants. The old Colt was a re-badge of a Mitsubishi car. The Durango and Dakota were shared truck platforms with the Mitsubishi pickup and SUV line, and Mitsu has become one of the biggest part suppliers to CryCo’s overall operations outside of Magna International.

During this time Mitsubishi had to maintain its own global automotive operations and continue the innovation cycle of new products to keep people coming into their showrooms. Unfortunately, their “Halo” car, the Lancer Evolution (aka the EVO!), ended up paying the price by getting axed (at least here in North America). The Evo is one of those cars that people aspire to, it is a dream of an all-wheel drive, super-handling sports car with shocking turbo-boosted acceleration.

If you are scratching your head right now, not being familiar with what the Evo is, it likely means you’re not male, or over 30. Mitsubishi really did a great job over the years of capturing the Fast and Furious, XGames, and Nintendo generations. Gamers, Geeks and Gearheads know not just the Evo but its primary competitor, the Subaru WRX-Sti, mostly because of their considerable investment in the X-Treme sports market. This market existed long before it became popular in North America. And Mitsubishi has for years dominated international Rally Racing and long distance Enduro races like the Paris-Dakar proving their metal in cars, trucks, heavy trucks all over the world. In the US these racing triumphs were mostly ignored by our NASCAR-centric sports coverage, but as stations like Speed, Fuel.tv, Discovery and even the Travel Channel began showing these races, Mitsubishi developed a devoted following.

This following generation (The G3 Generation) is generally under 30 and powered by energy drinks and high-speed internet connections. The over-the-top capabilities of the EVO also came with a pretty hefty price, well over $40K and unfortunately for Mitsubishi, there were fewer of the 3G generation who could afford to shell out for such a beast. A decision was made someplace along the way to scale the Evo out of North America but knowing how much the brand was reliant on the performance orientation they still had to have something in the quiver to hit the target.

Out of this comes the Ralliart Lancer. While the wick is turned down from the land of the extreme, it’s still a hot enough ticket to punch the pocket and rip up the roads. As the not quite all-the-way-up-variant of the Lancer, it is a great package that will appeal to the same market, just not to the over-the-top crowd. There are tons of aftermarket tuning sources that allow the owner to turn the wick up again and recreate your very own Evo, but at the risk of getting your warranty pulled.

When Mitsubishi dropped off the metallic cobalt blue hot hatch off, the first impression is one of looking at a good looking four seat (Five if you follow the number of belts) with versatile hatchback configuration little flares and flourishes to the Ralliart package that add the appropriate speed racer look. The interior is very neat and trim with everything falling to hand and well appointed full jam option package.

The Lancer handles wonderfully and turns on the long overused dime, squirts through corners and pulls itself down from suborbital with exceptionally well-planted brakes. With the variety of things I have to carry with me in the run of a week, it held up well as I shoved studio gear into the back and it handled it all quite well, indeed.

The biggest problem I had was with the transmission. I will be the first to admit I am an analog guy in a digital world. I automatically default to a proper manual box rather than to the high-tech optional paddle-shifting, dual-clutch, semiautomatic sport boxes. I came up before Grand Turismo at a time that video games were in black and white and you had pong, or pong or later Asteroids. There were no finger-activated, super-realistic racing simulators. I learned how to race in a car, not on a screen, so these semi-auto boxes are just too much technology that’s only truly useful in 10/10ths driving by a driver who has the skills of an Andretti.

I have also spent a significant part of my life either working on cars myself or steering others as a service advisor at a car dealership. I can’t help but see the semi-auto box as a huge warranty risk and possibly the Achilles Heal of a great car. Out of warranty fixing on of these boxes would be most likely cost-prohibitive, and if you are tuning the sport package with some of the off the rack options not necessarily dealer installed the risk of running the semi auto as an expensive thing to brake.

I know a lot of people who ooze over the idea of a paddle shifter in an M3 BMW or an F1 Transmission in a Ferrari, but not me. I would rather rattle a stick around and get the input back via my fingers, toes and seat of the pants. Alas my world of slapping gears and clutches are numbered as some big exotics are no longer offering a manual option at all and others are making manual boxes rare and somewhat exotic themselves.

With the Ralliart Lancer, I would have jumped up and down with enthusiasm if they had sent me the full on manual six-speed but no, I got the more expensive Nintendo transmission. As a matter of considerable annoyance for me, the Ralliart’s wonderful driving, handling and 237 horsepower is not available here with a proper stick and rudder manual, only in the big twin clutch Sportronic. I weep a little knowing this. With the ability to adjust the torque balance from front to rear in the AWD platform and to turn up the shifter sensitivity, there is a lot to like about the car and the box but it falls like techno music on my ears. I don’t like it. I don’t get it, and I guess I am too old to learn to love it.

The thing that really bothers me about it is that you can feel the transmission sitting in a lower gear keeping the revs up in anticipation of spirited driving. The result is great in response to point and shoot driving, but it also keeps the engine spinning, freely drinking down the super unleaded. Yup, the super high-tech transmission costs you in fuel economy. Other than the box I loved the car and coming in with a very thirsty 15-20 combined mpg as I am not one to drive the way the EPA does in its testing the 25 mpg highway really didn’t come to the quick on this one. With a tagged sticker for the fully loaded (including power seats and color GPS) rolling out at $31,755.00, it is a car that is wonderful in its intent but made for people who are accustomed to using their fingertips for everything. As Mitsubishi struggles to re-task themselves across multiple platforms, industries and all around the globe, they have made contradictory statements on if the full EVO will ever return to the US market, or if the Ralliart will be the top of the heap.

Some of the big wigs have stated the Evo is gone and the racing inspiration of innovation for Mitsubishi is dead along with it to be replaced by an investment in hybrid technology. I genuinely hope not.

I’ve been having the strangest argument this week. It’s not just that I’ve been arguing with a car that has me perplexed; really, I do that all the time. It’s the fact the argument seems strangely familiar from someplace, but I can’t put my finger on where it’s from.

The argument is the result of how Mazda’s CX9 crossover minivan SUV is just too smart for my liking. It’s a properly-sized seven passenger minivan that tries all its worth not to be a minivan. The interior proportions are very van-ish with a third-row seat, tons of stowage, and an easy access rear gate. It’s optioned out with GPS, Satellite Radio, heated seats, power everything and tons of usable internal acreage.

So, inside it is a van, outside it’s something else all together.

From curbside, the CX9 is a wagon SUV crossover, really. Good looking and sleek with nice fluid lines wrapped over a great wheel base that drives more like a car than either a bulky van or notchy truck.

It’s not the multiple personalities of the CX9 that I have been arguing with, mind you. It has been the Blind Spot intervention system. The system alerts the driver that there is a vehicle driving along-side and warns of intrusion into the lane when it’s already occupied. I’m sure that if I looked I could have been able to find a sensitivity adjustment for the system, but the shrill squawking of the “OH MY GOD YOU ARE GOING TO DIE” alarm was just unsettling.

The alarm would trigger from the most unobtrusive intrusions. I would be a half a block away from a car turning into a strip mall and OHMYGODYOUAREGOINGTODIE would beep away. And the lane wandering was just as twitchy. I signaled to change lanes coming up to my street and OHMYGODYOUAREGOINTODIE lept to life.

It was as oversensitive as a teenage girl talking about Twilight. Now unlike a Tween Twi-fan I could turn off the incessant tweetalage of the BLiPs. When I did that, the CX9 became a great people mover to move many things beyond just people. The interior is very flexible and can swallow half an isle of groceries or what ever else you might need it to.

This has just enough sport wagon in its minivan mix to make the CX9 one of the best driving options in the over-crowded market. Many of the competitors try deftly to disguise the multi passenger aspect of their CUV or Cross over Utility Vehicle, some try and call a minivan an SUV, others name a wagon as a truck. It always seems to be a little bit of Goldilocks in the recipe, and the Mazda CX9 has the just right aspect handled.

I’m not in the target market for a wagon/SUV/van, but if I were the Mazda would be one of the few I would put on my personal list. It has great curb appeal, excellent driving characteristics full sized passenger and cargo capabilities on a chassis that responds like a car. I generally don’t go for that myself, as I like my trucks to be trucks and cars to be cars. But the market has moved into the Swiss Army Knife approach to the world where a vehicle seems to have to have the capabilities of all the market segments rather than being just one.

Like the Swiss Army Knife in my camera gear that I can use for almost everything, I will never use the corkscrew, but it’s there, none the less. The CX9 has a number of things I would never use, like the third row seating and that pesky BLiPs system. But for most people, I’m sure it’s something they would be more than happy to have.

The CX9 was jammed full of options that took the baseline $33k up to a pretty respectable $38,500.00 and rolls a 17-24 MPG rating from the EPA. My driving around north Texas was pretty much all in-town and I ran in the very low 20’s, so their numbers seem shockingly accurate.

After I discovered the best way of winning my argument was to disable the ability of the offending device that interfered with me, I have now begun rethinking other relationships… but I digress.

For the longest time I’ve been a little confused about how I feel about the Nissan Xterra. Perhaps that’s because it seems to be a little confused on its own.

The first generation of Nissan’s small truck based SUV was introduced in 2000 in the midst of Nissan’s darkest period. Suffering through a full on collapse of the Asian economy. Nissan had fallen victim to the same self-delusion of infallibility that many big companies fall into after decades of success. They started believing their own hype and found themselves overwhelmed by debt.

It became so bad, at one point, Nissan’s product line had not been updated in years, sales were floundering, and quite possibly the strangest automotive savior came to rescue the massive company. French giant Renault came in and partnered with Nissan creating a Franco-Nippon global company referred to as the Renault/Nissan Global Alliance.

At first the mere idea that Renault, which had been an example of a company with a run-away union problem, beset on all sides by strikes and governmental semi-ownership, being anyone’s savior was ludicrous. But after the French government intervened in a series of particularly nasty strikes and corporate revolts in the early 1980’s Renault quietly became a very well-run global company that completely ignored the American market.

Renault was able to bring stability and financial backing to the deal and Nissan really did have some of the most advanced manufacturing abilities, supply chain, and design expertise in the business. A man who is now somewhat of a legend in the business world, Carlos Goshen, was put in charge and Nissan became the company it could only have dreamed about only a few years before.

One of the first new products out of the alliance was the Xterra. Based on the same frame chassis as the “Hard Body” Frontier small pickup trucks, the Xterra hit the market in North America winning the Motor Trend Truck of the year and other accolades. The only problem was Nissan didn’t have a penny to spend on extra marketing and never really reached out to create the image of the Xterra.

That image and the reality of the Xterra (now second generation) is where my confusion lies. The Xterra has been successful, if not a run-away success, in carving out sales in the multi-functional, athletic and adventurous consumer market. You see dozens of Xterras full of dogs, festooned with mountain bikes, canoes and windsurfers strapped to the roof racks criss-crossing their way from softball games to trips to the REI camping store. The adventure sports-minded consumer comprises a huge chunk of their business but the anomaly that they are almost all female makes for a “Huh? How the hell?”.

Nissan managed to land an affluent, well educated, young and mobile market organically. It just grew seemingly by itself as the corporate money was more focused on pumping life into the Crossover market, backing the Rogue and Morano wagon-utes in pursuit of the “soccer mom,” and the counter culture market wrapped itself around the Xterra.

Nissan did toss some of their marketing dollars into music festivals and X-Game festivals, but the legitimate off-road capabilities, ease of use on-road and functionality of the Xterra grew its own market.

The 2011 Xtera PRO-4X provided to Any Driven Sunday is a great example of how building something with the right combination of form and function works really well. It is like driving with an excellent automotive backpack slung over your shoulder. It has dozens of really smart, well conceived and well executed little touches that may not be obvious at first blush. There are pockets, little doors and slots throughout the truck to stick and store the multitude of bits of stuff you don’t even realize you have.

This package is the high water mark on options for Nissan including: leather seating, XM, Bluetooth, GPS, Rockford Fosgate sound system with Ipod/MP3 integration, and pretty much every power option short of air conditioned seats. It is also one of the pricier packages you can load up on at $32,000.00, only the NISMO package comes in higher.

Any full frame truck like the Xterra is going to have a slightly more harsh on-road ride than a “lifted car” crossover, but after spending a week popping and bopping around in the Xterra that rougher ride is just part of the appeal. The truck frame and real off-road abilities on the PRO-4X are just downright fun. As a small UTE the Xterra has the ability to go pretty deep off the beaten path, turn around, and get you home again in one piece.

Side note, The Pro-4X package came with roof-mounted off-road only lights. They are too powerful to be street legal on road and are activated by depressing a switch on the dash when the high-beams are engaged. These are so powerful that when I tested them out sitting in front of my house, I am not sure, but I think a squirrel spontaneously combusted in the tree in front of the truck. It’s like seeing daylight, and yes, they are blindingly bright. This is not something to try and flash at oncoming cars on I-35 as they might blind them and cause a wreck. This is why they are redundantly switched the way they are.

Running with a 261hp truck-inspired variation of Nissan’s corporate-wide 370Z inspired 4liter V6, the Xterra is not exactly a fuel sipper but EPA estimates of 15/20 are really spot on to the reality experienced on, and off, the roads of North Texas.

All these capabilities and real world functionality might just explain why I have been so confused by my feelings for the Xterra. It stems from the fact that the little truck can do so many things well that it has the ability to be a bit of a chameleon. Whether it’s a truck, car, backpack or pelican box on wheels. My confusion, I now realize, was more that the truck can be what ever you want it to be.

 

For most of my life I’ve been familiar with the phrase “His potential is unlimited, if he would only apply himself.” Such was said about me while I was napping in Geography class, staring out the window in Math class and daydreaming in Biology lab. I heard it so much that it became like the sound of the teachers in Charlie Brown “WahWah Wah Wah Wah.

Now, I’ve found myself using the same phrase over and over when referring to General Motors marveling at how the biggest corporation in the world could continue to build the kind of cars they did and yet, still keep going. I think the same answer applies to both myself, and GM, really. I was never challenged by school, it came easy to me and I never tried. GM, in a position of overwhelming market dominance in the early 1970’s, never felt challenged either. They built what they built and people would buy their products simply because it was a GM vehicle.

For me, it wasn’t really until I got out on my own and had to pay for my own schooling that I decided to focus some real effort. For GM, however, it took a near death experience.

There’s nothing quite like nearly dying that can make you appreciate living.

Long before the bankruptcy, GM was trying to right the ship, but it turned out to be too little, too late. There was too much rot; the company had become overburdened and they simply couldn’t pull it off any longer.

I first realized what they were capable of when the first Cadillac CTS-V showed up at my place, I couldn’t believe it was a GM product. It was too solid, too well designed and too fun. It moved my preconceived notions and expectations for what the General was capable of to an entirely different place.

Then during the tumultuous years around the debate of whether the global economy could survive GM’s death, there were still glimmers of hope. The truck range was great, cars were better than they had ever been and GM began to embrace their global abilities, bringing Pontiac a couple of products developed in Australia. It was such a refreshing change, and I began to relax, but literally the week I was driving the exceptional Pontiac G8 GT, Pontiac got axed. At that point, I saw the potential evaporate before my eyes.

Today there is a great deal of attention being paid to the exceptional, game-changing, and innovative Electric Chevy Volt and how it’s going to effect how we think about driving. That’s all well and good, but I have to tell you: I’m more excited about the 2011 Chevy Cruze sitting outside my window. It’s the car Chevy has been capable of for years and now they have finally built it.

The reason I’m excited: Chevy has finally built a “meat and potatoes” car that is just plain great.

The small sedan market is the sweet spot of the automotive business. This is the market segment where you sell in bulk and sales are measured in hundreds of thousands of units per month. Honda’s Civic, Toyota’s Carolla, Ford’s Focus and Chrysler’s 200/Dodge Avenger, among many others, share this big chunk of the sales pie chart. The competition is rather heated, but in every way the Cruze is up to the challenge.

On first blush the Cruze is a good looking chunk of metal, which is where the bizzaro world of the new GM starts altering my life’s expectations. The design is fresh, clean and efficient with curves and creases sculpting around wheel arches and windows and gives the Cruze what one should expect from a more expensive European car. The somewhat sported-up LTZ version has some aero bits in front, fascia and rear deck lid treatments which, again counter to my experience, look like they belong on the car rather than hot glue-gunned out of day-old marshmallows.

Even the simple act of opening and closing the drivers door makes someone experienced in all-things-automotive mutter to himself, “It’s a Chevy? Really?” But in reality, it is when you sit in the handsome, well laid-out and functional interior that you might begin to develop a slight facial tick as you try to process the idea that GM has been capable of building something this good all along, and yet they gave us the Lumina. Such a realization almost makes you angry.

My trip through bizzaro world continued when I fired up the little sedan’s engine. It’s quiet, boasts 24-36 MPG ratings, and has 138 horsepower coming out of a little 4-cylinder turbo. These are really good numbers, even in this fuel-sipping segment, but it is the fact that GM has built such a stout power plant that’s really worth noting. In the past their “Little 4’s” managed to get nicknames like the “Iron Duke” and the “Quad-4”. The Duke was at one time considered innovative (in 1973) when it came. The Quad-4 was GM’s first real foray into multi-valve, non-pushrod engines and it ended up being a poster child for underpowered, noisy boat anchors like the GrandAm and Olds Achieva.

The Cruze is propelled by a six speed automatic in a front-wheel drive configuration that at one time would have been a tremendously bad idea with old school turbo’s creating lane hopping torque steer issues, but GM has managed to shed so much of its old, bad tendencies that when driving the Cruze, it’s just hard to believe that it’s really a GM product.

The transmission is seamless, but does have just the slightest turbo lag between pedal application and motivation, but the ride and dynamics of the car are as good as any car I have ever driven in this market, and far better than most.

A few weeks ago I was a little harsh on Dodge’s Avenger and in driving the Cruze, I have come to the conclusion I should’ve been harsher. I said at that time that I believed the standard of care in the Economy car market needed to be higher and GM just delivered on that expectation. This is a packed-full-of-options car that only rings out at $24,500.00 with a base price of $17,000.00, which is exactly the price point of the Avenger. There is simply no comparison. GM has almost embarrassingly trumped the Dodge and even equals the Civic sedan. I think you even get more car for the dollar with the Cruze than even the Civic or Carolla which is a statement I never ever thought I type.

Over the years, GM has done more to harm their once-dominant place in the market than any competitor could. They seemed to forget the reason they became such a colossal corporation was they built pretty good cars for much of their history. It was someplace along the way that they seemed to change from a “car company” to a “financial services company” that just happened to build cars as one of their core business units.

After their near death experience GM seems to have clarified their mission like I’ve never seen them do before. They put a real car guy, Bob Lutz, in charge of developing world-class cars and he has done just that. The Chevy Cruze really is the product that Chevy has been able to do all along and I am so happy they are now using the tremendous talents and abilities they have at their disposal.

Now, if I could just do the same.

I can’t fault Toyota for not building a good car. In fact: I can’t fault Toyota for much of anything since doing so would be somewhat hypocritical. I mean, for years folks like me; journalists, and the car buying public have consistently cried for better quality cars from both foreign and domestic manufacturers and Toyota has delivered a car that is as close to perfect as you can make.

The Camry Hybrid ups the anti into perfection with the addition of their innovative hybrid technology, which also bumps the fuel consumption numbers way up. The in-town ratings on the sedan are pretty damn fine at 31 mpg and 36 highway. Hybrids do a great job in stop-and-go traffic and the Camry is no different. It runs the entire electronic draw off of the electrical system as the gas motor seamlessly shuts down.

Toyota’s gas engine in the Camry is so well balanced and designed you have a difficult time hearing it run when you are standing next to the car, but in the full-electric, the Camry is stealthy silent. So much so that I couldn’t help but give into the temptation to sneak up on a valet attendant who then jumped clear out of his red vest when the nose of the mica-blue Toyota suddenly appeared next to him.

The only problem I have with the Camry is that other than the occasional fun from the run silent, run deep electronics, is how the car is just so utterly devoid of the slightest bit of passion. As Toyota honed in closer and closer to surgically sharp quality, they managed to not just rid away the flaws, but also managed to erode any kind of endearing quirk.

Toyota first introduced the Camry back in the mid 1980’s, around the same time I was starting out as an automotive journalist. It was a bold step for a company that didn’t exactly enjoy the same reputation for quality they have now earned. The Camry’s own history and the phenomenal success enjoyed by Toyota in North America really go hand-in-hand. It’s their flag ship in sales and in conquests.

That first, real stand-alone Camry introduced to the North American market around 1986 was a very good car, actually. And at the time, it was cheep, well-built and was very much like an economy 3 series BMW. It was a fun to drive and reliable, small sedan that grew in size, popularity and quality.

The Camry eventually became the best selling car in North America. It’s built here, designed here and has really become the definition of an American Sedan. It’s the “Everyman” actor in the suburban play; the one you don’t notice but is always there, regardless. It shows up, does its job without fanfare or drama and slips silently into the night, barely disturbing the world around it.

I have had issues in the past with Hybrid technology and the tendency to package it into oddly contrived, little cars that are just plain awkward – like Toyota’s Prius. By rolling the Hybrid into the more contemporary size, styling and footprint of the best selling car in the market, I find it far more acceptable. The $33,000.00 (as tested) Camry is very comparable to other non-electric options.

If you had the need to blend into middle America, or into that suburban world where even the neighbor down the street has never noticed you even check your mail box, the Camry is the car you would want. It’s good looking, but not beautiful. It’s roomy, efficient, and simple to operate and as anonymous as kahki pants and a blue polo shirt.

During the last 30 years of the Camry’s run to the top of the sales heap there has been so little drama about the car that last year’s over-hyped pedal entrapment non-event came as such a shock. It seemed the Camry might have a flaw, but in my mind, my first reaction was that the issue was far more likely the “Loose Nut Behind the Wheel.”

The Camry is so lacking in drama, most drivers are more likely to be surprised they actually have to drive for a moment. While driving around north Texas, I found myself forgetting I was driving a couple of times. Inputs are muted and the silent operation of both gas and electric lulls you into a semi-stupor.

Honestly I’m struggling with this article. I have nothing bad to say about this car. Other than its vanilla anonymity, it’s an exceptionally well built car. The reason I’m struggling is that even with the sedan sitting right out side my front door I am having a difficult time being inspired to write about it. I step away from the car and I forget it almost instantly.

It’s funny how things go. I really like Toyota’s truck offerings because they have found the right blend of function and fashion. I loved the FJ Cruiser because it is wonderfully flawed in just the right ways for me. The Camry is the automotive equivalent of wearing a belt and suspenders simultaneously. It’s the choice you make when you only look at a car from a perspective of logic, checking any emotion or any passion at the curb.

There is a lot to like about the Camry, but you never hear “like” songs on the radio. Love is where the passion lies and love songs are the tunes that get under your skin. The Beatles didn’t write “Silly Like Songs” or “Like Like Me Do,” but for me, the right song for this is Meatloaf’s “Two out of Three Ain’t Bad.” I want it, I need it, but there ain’t no way I’m ever gonna love it…

I never thought it would happen to me.

You see, I’ve had a lot of companions lately. Strong, athletic Germans have raced through my life. Elegant Brits have danced with my affections. Fiery Italian exotics come for a short passionate visit, only to be replaced by Nordic beauties. Strong, Midwestern wholesome wonders have stayed for a while and dozens of pretty little things from Asia have stopped by.

Sometimes I grow fond of them – rarely they disappoint – but each leaves me with an impression and when they are gone I long to see the next one. Sometimes I miss the really exceptional ones, remembering them fondly long after they are gone. Honestly some never leave much of an impression at all and I have to struggle to think of anything unique. I see so many, sometimes I don’t really get to know them as well as I should.

I am a little jaded, a little spoiled and generally it takes a lot to impress or get under my skin.

That is why I was surprised when this little one snuck up and stole a little bit of my heart.

Everyone has their own triggers. The things that make them go “Oooh!” For me, I have developed a desire for lack of drama; a low-maintenance, easygoing companion who accepts the burdens of my profession. I often have to carry lots of studio and camera gear with me. I love just happening on a country road in the middle of nowhere and turning in regardless of the road’s condition to see where it goes.

On my personal list of things I absolutely require in a partner is acceptance of my four legged friends. I have two large Labrador Retrievers who love to come with me on these trips. They shed, drool and get remarkably dirty when they try, so you really have to be able to handle them too. In my darkest times they are there for me and I would rather spend my limited free time with them than with most people I deal with. So not being able to accommodate them is really a deal breaker.

When Toyota dropped off the 2011 FJ Cruiser I didn’t expect it to hit me so quickly. It looks like a little Tonka Truck and the version left here really looked like someone at Hasbro should get behind it with a GI Joe package.

When they first introduced the FJ my first impression was mixed, I was somewhat disappointed that it wasn’t bigger. Now that I have been living with it for a week I realize I was wrong. Its size is just right for me.

Those who require more of a functional back seat may find the mini-UTE just a little too compact for them, but for me it’s ideal. The size reminds me a lot of the old Ford Bronco II, before it started getting bigger and bigger under the Explorer name. In some ways it is very much like the original couple of generations of Toyota’s 4Runner, equipped with rubberized floor mats and vinyl weave seats. This is about as low maintenance an interior you can find in the market and cleans up with a wet rag. This is definitely a dog approved truck.

The exterior of the FJ is rather unique as well. The wheels are pushed to the far corners leaving next to no overhangs which makes running up and over objects a breeze. It has a high step in for such a little truck but that also means the undercarriage has no dangling bits to obstruct, snag or drag.

One thing you realize when you are driving the FJ is you become aware how many other FJ’s there are out there. Some are totally stock. But I kept running across customized, dedicated off road FJ’s with beefed up suspensions, winches, off-road light packages and stout roof rack configurations. I gotta tell ya’: I like that a lot. It shows acceptance in a very critical market by those who take their off road abilities seriously.

This is a serious little off-road truck capable of grinding down soggy trails or climbing up rocky wash outs. This is something that is very important to me and being a true truck has its compromises, on road it is a little choppy but you can go places you would have to walk to if you were driving a Rav4.

On the highway, the rounded off cube is a little susceptible to gusty wind, you can feel it pushing the truck around and isn’t exactly a speed demon but I love the total functionality packaging, low maintenance interior and legitimate off road abilities.

It is not a huge truck and that is ok with me. In my world, the back seats would be superfluous anyhow, pretty much always folded flat for cargo and dogs. All of the interior surfaces have an industrial grade feel and look which work well with the overall package.

The FJ is one of those vehicles inspired by something from the past. There was a time that Toyota made these Land Cruisers that were blunt tools rather than the leather wrapped tall station wagons parked in the pick up lane at the Montessori school. It was intended just to be a show car or styling display for the auto show circuit as a “Modern” turn on the 1960’s FJ40. The old truck is still on the road all over the developing world renown for its easy maintenance and rugged reliability.

When the public saw the FJ Toyota suddenly realized they had better figure out how to build it

The demand was there from a public looking for a real S and a capital U in an SUV, rather than a mincing pretender crossover. My preference would be to hit the standard 4.0l V6 and manual transmission. I might even gussy it up a touch with an enhanced wheel package, but more likely I would go with the roof rack.

Pricing runs in starting at 25,900.00 and tops out at pretty reasonable mid-thirties. I was kind of chuckling when I realized the low-end of the price point was available in a two-wheel drive variation. I don’t really see buying this one in 2wd. Simply put: It’s just not appropriate.

I’ve been a fan of the 4Runner for a long, long time, but a couple of years ago the footprint of their go-anywhere-truck started to expand. In order to appeal more to those soccer mom’s and pretend SUV purchasers the 4runner gained weight, size and most notably price. The FJ has filled a down market slot that has captured a pretty sizable chunk of customers who might be shopping it and Jeep’s iconic Wrangler.

The Wrangler is a fantastic vehicle, but decades of build issues have tainted it a bit. But this FJ has, for me, a siren song that draws me to it.

I am smitten. If the guys from Toyota are looking for me on Monday to get their truck back, well, um… I will be back, sometime. I just didn’t want to give it up just yet.

 

There are few car companies – if any – that understand its target market as well as Toyota does. They just don’t miss their mark very often. But when they do, it’s fascinating to watch how they deal with the occasional failure.

When Toyota first entered the full-sized truck market, they indeed missed the mark. The T100 was a very good truck, but it wasn’t a critical or a sales success. It was too small, too tinny, underpowered and underwhelming. You could almost hear a collective sigh of relief in Detroit when they saw the T100 was off its target, but not by much.

Those folks in Motown shouldn’t have taken too much ease though. Toyota is a company that has found great success in the Deming methodology of incremental improvement. When they came back with the first Toyota Tundra it was like watching a skilled artillery officer walking his rounds closer to the target.

The first Tundra lobbed in as a 2000 model and landed just shy of the target, again. While not a runaway success, people began to notice how the larger, tougher and more powerful truck was gaining market share and for the first time, the Big Three had some real competition in the full-sized truck market.

Toyota’s legendary quality also began to capture converts, yet the Tundra was still just shy of being an actual full-sized contender. It was a welterweight trying to slug it out with the heavyweights. The Big Three still had the advantage of market share and the most loyal customer base in the world.

At the same time, fellow Asiatic contender Nissan entered the market with the Titan and everyone in Detroit started to look over their shoulders. They knew the next shot fired by Toyota would not miss.

The folks in Detroit responded to the sounds of footsteps by embarking on the biggest reinvestment into their truck lineups in history. Ford, GM and Chrysler stepped up their game like never before and began raising the bar for quality, power and reliability in hopes of maintaining their pieces of the very big, very profitable sales pie.

For its third shot, Toyota put the market on notice that they would not miss. The manufacturer invested millions of dollars to build a brand-spanking new truck factory deep in the heart of the pick-up market: San Antonio, Texas. There they began checking off the boxes on what a full-sized truck needs: They checked the elevation, adjusted for wind and yelled FIRE!

Simply put: Bull’s-eye.

The newest Tundra was introduced with much fanfare, rave reviews and sleepless nights in Detroit where suddenly Toyota and Nissan had legitimate full-sized trucks ready to go toe-to-toe with the big boys.

The Tundra delivered to Any Driven Sunday was one good looking truck: Big, four-door Crew Max 4×4 short bed, black on black with blacked-out grill, and a lifted off-road Rock Warrior package. When I saw it coming around the corner my first reaction was, “Hello, Handsome!”

Lift kit, knobby tires, and modular wheels, just like you might customize a truck after you buy it. Not a bad idea at all. Nissan had sent me a “No Fear” Titan a couple of years ago and I really liked the package they had put together. The Titan’s stance was elevated but the truck still had to be a real truck, and this is.

The interior was dark charcoal cloth and was dripping with optional gear, including a nifty rear cabin window that rolls down, but the thing that I really liked was the placement of Toyota’s back up camera display. I know it’s kind of sad how car manufacturers assume drivers don’t know how to drive and put in safety devices to protect them from themselves, but this one is pretty cool. The rear bumper view is projected in the rearview mirror and is just a smart way to deal with it, really.

You can get into a basic, two-wheel drive, regular cab 6 cylinder for around $24,000.00, and as you ad on bits, the price rolls right up to the $44,000.00+ Rock Warrior CrewMax level. The engine is fantastic and it’s closer to the estimated EPA consumption numbers of 18/24 mpg than most full-sized trucks in the market are.

Part of Toyota’s marketing push into the most American of markets has included getting involved in NASCAR truck racing. The Tundra Racing program, ironically, does not use the same multi-valve V8 as the production truck. The reason for that is how the engine is too modern for NASCAR. In order to compete, the racing division had to retro-engineer a pushrod carbureted engine, something Toyota has never made.

This Tundra is a case study in knowing your market. As Toyota dialed-it-in, the result has just not been a great production truck from them, but their entry into the full-sized truck market has had the residual effect of pushing the other options to be better in response.

This year Nissan is bringing out its first replacement for the Titan, something that has been long delayed, which makes this segment of the truck market something to watch intently.

At this telling, Toyota has not yet moved into the Heavy Duty market, but don’t assume they can’t or won’t. They have a number of Diesel engines at their disposal from the European and Australian Land Cruiser’s and commercial truck lines from subsidiary Hino. As they incrementally move their aim closer and closer to their market sweet-spot, don’t be surprised if they drop one of these in a new Tundra soon

The Tundra is indeed a legitimate contender in the truck market, and it’s an option that I would have to take very seriously if I was looking at a 1/2 ton truck. The only thing is, don’t expect to find a used one for a good price as they maintain their resale value like nothing else in the business.

A few months ago, I started looking at options for a personal vehicle. The Tundra is one I have on my list of vehicles, but at this point I can’t find one that has depreciated to the point I can afford to purchase. I found one that was three years old and the asking price was over 75% of its original price. With almost 100,000 miles on the clock they still were asking that much. I guess that helps prove the point that the Tundra is a desirable option – even used.

Having driven all of the options in this marketplace, Ford, GM, Dodge, Nissan and the Toyota Tundra, any customer would be well served to try it out to see how close to their purchase target Toyota has managed to hit.

As a company Toyota has shown how patient they are and how they deal with missing the target. They didn’t panic, just simply looked at all the data, adjusted their aim and zeroed in closer and closer. The Tundra is a direct hit on full-sized truck market.