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Toyota Mixes It Up At SEMA 2015

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Toyota mixed things up at SEMA 2015 this year, packing their booth with trucks and SUVs while a handful of classic cars treated those who stepped outside. I spent most of my time admiring the Corollas and Supras – what 30-something boy racer wouldn’t? – but the bigger vehicles were definitely the stars of the show for Toyota. Especially given the notable absence of the FT-1. This is the first show in almost two years that Toyota hasn’t brought the FT-1 Concept, which kinda worries us.

The Back to the Future Tacoma made an appearance in a faux-toy package getting whatever mileage they can while BTTF is still relevant. A Tundra was converted into a limousine which, these days, isn’t that outrageous. Hell, we were given more pause by the Challenger limo roaming the strip later in the night. The most ridiculous vehicle Toyota brought was one that almost slipped under our radar. At first glance we saw this matte black lifted 4×4 with bumper, winch and LED bars and thought it was just another 4Runner from the TRD parts bin. We walked away without giving it much more thought. It wasn’t until Bernard looked back and noticed the odd shape that we realized it wasn’t an ordinary 4Runner. In fact, it wasn’t a 4Runner at all… it was a Sienna.

Toyota took their minivan and turned it into an off-road machine, which is precisely what we want to see at a show like SEMA. Decisions that go past “What was this guy thinking?” and into “I don’t care what he was thinking, this is awesome”. I’m sure most guys in North America who drive a minivan would love to do something like this, and now they’ve got a template. Check it out, along with Toyota’s other offerings, in the gallery below.

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Motor Monday: Harley’s LiveWire

If you were in Inglewood this past weekend you may have noticed some hubbub around Kane’s Harley Davidson dealership. That’s because Harley is on the 2nd year of their LiveWire Experience tour and Calgary was lucky enough to be on the agenda. The LiveWire Experience tour is a show and tell (and ride!) for Harley’s new LiveWire electric motorcycle concept, taking feedback from current and potential Harley customers in order to craft the production version of the bike, as well as giving people likely their first opportunity to ride an electric bike. Last year Harley Davidson took comments from 15,000 customers and gave out 6,800 test rides in 30 American cities. This year they’re going international, with tour stops in Europe, Asia and right here in Canada.

The bike itself isn’t the first of its kind but it’s definitely something unique, and not just because it comes from the last company you’d expect to make it. Aside from the text-less badges, the only clue you’d have that the LiveWire could be a Harley is the belt connecting the transmission to the rear wheel. In place of the cornerstone air-cooled V-Twin engine you’ve got a longitudinally mounted, 55 kilowatt, three phase electric motor pushing 72 horsepower through a transmission which lost its clutch and gears. Of course this means you don’t get the distinctive Harley brap, but people will still know what you’re riding just by listening. With the motor mounted sideways, power needs to be redirected 90 degrees via a bevel gear. This gear gives the LiveWire a sound they liken to a jet engine. Just, you know, quieter… and more futuristic. While the power number is in line with a modern sport touring bike, the delivery is instantaneous and nothing like any bike you’ve likely ridden. Aside from that, it rides like any other street bike. To further pull this Harley into the iPhone age, they’ve replaced standard gauges with a full colour touchscreen like you’d find in a modern car. The screen is used for standard monitoring of charge, range and trip, along with selecting drive mode between maximum power and maximum range. All of this, combined with a naked street look, comes together to form not just a great bike, but a significant step from the norm for Harley Davidson.

The goal of the LiveWire is very clearly to appeal to a customer segment which currently has little to no interest in Harley Davidson, and I think they’ve done a great job. It’s the first Harley I’ve ever been interested in, and it should do a great job of altering the perception of Harley Davidson as a company who can’t (or won’t) move forward. It’s a bold move, let’s see if it pays off. That is, of course, contingent on them actually producing and selling this bike. Harley Davidson have said a production version is at least 2 years out but would happen this decade. Despite the high quality of the LiveWire we saw this weekend, there’s still work to be done. A similarly powered Zero SR with Power Tank will get more than double the LiveWire’s range and starts at about $21,000 CAD. Harley has already said $20,000 is what customers want to pay but that they can’t be profitable at that point. Well, I know a lot of people will be willing to pay a bit extra for the Harley name, but there needs to be some big improvements to range before they’ll be able to justify it.

But maybe pricing them to sell isn’t the goal. Maybe the goal is to prove that Harley isn’t what we all think they are, or that electric motorcycles aren’t just for niche manufacturers, or maybe the engineers in Wisconsin just wanted to have some fun. I think I’d like any or all of those are true.


Motor Monday: Hacking Cars for Fun and Profit

Every three years the US Copyright Office holds hearings on whether certain technologies or activities should be exempt from the infamous Digital Millennium Copyright Act. A relevant example would be “jailbreaking” smartphones. If the Copyright Office hadn’t upheld the exemption for jailbreaking phones, that activity would now be illegal and a lot of people would be very upset. Well there are currently multiple hearings regarding the rights of people to hack and tune their cars, and the security industry isn’t too happy about it. A modern car has dozens of computers monitoring and controlling every aspect of the vehicle from engine to brakes and climate control to stereo. If something on your car can be measured, odds are good that there’s a sensor taking readings and sending the data back to a computer which makes a decision based on what it’s told. Now what if an entity other than the car had control of those systems? Well it’s a potential disaster, and that’s the argument OEMs are making as they push to protect their software from being reverse engineered by the public.

The hearings going on right now center around who can hack their cars, and what they can do with the information they find. Manufacturers argue that they currently have their own security teams looking at their code, as well as third party partners running independent tests, so there’s nothing to be gained by continuing to allow public researchers to tinker. In fact, they claim it will cause more harm than good. If researchers find a vulnerability and then disclose it publicly, now it’s in the hands of bad actors who can exploit it and cause problems. I guess they’re ignoring the fact that the bad guys don’t care whether hacking cars is illegal or not, and that a vulnerability in the hands of the public is safer than one only owned by a malicious party. The OEMs also argue that somebody at home could change the software controlling their brakes and cause a collision. Well, I can go out, pull brakes off a crashed car and have an uncertified idiot (me) use unregulated tools (my hands) to install them before going driving on the public roadways. What happens ifwhen I screw up and hurt somebody? Well I can only tell you that it’s a hell of a lot easier to see if software has been improperly altered than it is to see if the brakes on a totaled car were installed properly.

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Motor Monday: What’s The Deal With Mexico

Last week I talked about the lack of distinction between entry-level luxury and, for lack of a better term, German luxury. I didn’t have any answers as to why it happened, but I enjoyed talking about the results. Today we’re going to do the opposite and talk about why the car industry is booming in Mexico, because we have no idea how it’s going to turn out. Ford recently announced that assembly of the Focus and C-MAX will be moved from Michigan to Mexico. People are making this out to be a big deal when Ford is just doing what everybody (themselves included) else is. Every major car manufacturer has built or is building an assembly plant in Mexico. Some have multiple plants, some are taking it a step further and building their own parts factories as well. Over the last 5 years we’ve seen a significant shift of vehicle production from USA to Mexico, but now it’s global. It would be ridiculous to list all of the cars that are currently being built by our neighbour two doors down, but I promise you that every brand who specializes in sub-$100,000 cars is on there. Somewhat ironically, the big 3 German luxury brands that you assured me were built to a higher standard than their Japanese counterparts are on the list as well. Sorry guys, I guess you’re gonna need to buy a Maybach to get your luxury nowadays.

So what’s causing this massive shift from Detroit, Tennessee and Georgia? It’s all about the Benjamíns. Car makers are saving hundreds or thousands of dollars PER CAR assembled in Mexico, and what more reason do they need? I’m not privy to exactly how much margin there is a new car these days, but I’m willing to bet they’re seeing double digit increases in profit from any car built by Juan instead of John.

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Motor Monday: What Does Luxury Even Mean?

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When I was a teenager there was a distinct difference between a Ford Taurus and a BMW 3-series. Heated seats, heated mirrors, dual-zone climate control… 50% more money was buying you features exclusive to brands known for their luxury. Features that you wouldn’t find in any similarly priced Domestic or Japanese vehicle, let alone something cheaper. Now you can find yourself picking out features in a Kia that aren’t in a more expensive Mercedes. Does this mean Kia is now a luxury brand? Does it mean Mercedes isn’t? I think most people would disagree with both. Maybe they should think harder.

It used to be easy to identify luxury, there were tangible things you could point to and say “You’ll only find this in a high-end car”. What do you point at now? The line between luxury brands and “other” brands is all but gone. Today’s Hyundai has a comparable interior to a BMW for less money. Styling? I’ll take an Accord over a C-class for exterior looks any day, and Hyundai poaching Peter Schreyer from Audi has been a significant part of their recent success. Performance? Well luxury brands have never really had a lock on that. I’ve cherry picked a couple examples here but the fact is I could list off a lot more, which isn’t something I could say 10 or 15 years ago. There is no longer something you can touch or see that distinguishes a luxury brand from anybody else. So why are the Germans still luxury brands and the Koreans aren’t?

Well, cliche warning, it seems to be the badge. The Koreans and Americans have been doing some aggressive marketing to try and change peoples’ perception and let the public know “Hey, we make really great cars now, please get over yourself and come drive one”, and I hope it works. Of course, it took nearly a decade of making really good cars for Hyundai to shed its garbage image and become a legitimate contender, I’m not holding my breath for Joe Public to elevate them further. Not that this perception problem is limited to non-enthusiasts. Hell, car guys hold some of the strongest and wrongest opinions of all. These guys will have one bad car and swear off the brand for life, as if that makes any sense (Full disclosure: I will never buy another Mazda for, uh, totally dissimilar reasons. *cough*). One generation will have a publicized issue so they assume every generation is bad. One car their cousin owned will have a problem so the whole brand gets a bad image because of it. Windsor would be impressed by all the salt that flows on the Beyond forums because people take a single, usually second hand, anecdote as irrefutable evidence of WHATEVER THEY WANT.

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Motor Monday: The Nurburgring Is Fine, Please Stop Crying

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[“Wait a minute, it’s not Monday!” … Shhhhhhh]

The internet is alight over the Nurburgring’s management company enforcing speed limits on a few of its sections for everyone, including sanctioned races and manufacturer testing, after the tragic death of a spectator when a vehicle lifted off the track and flew into stands. Artificial speed limits in motorsport pretty much defeat the purpose, negatively affecting the spectacle for fans and likely taking away from the drivers’ experience as well. Now, of course the German Motorsport Association had to work with Nurburgring management to do something. The only thing worse than a spectator death would be another spectator death caused by the exact same thing. There wasn’t enough time to either fix the course or remove the stands in that area, so they implemented a speed limit. Just about anything else would have been knee-jerk and likely executed without the necessary planning to make sure it’s the best course of action. They did the same thing any one of us would do at our own job. Band-aid it for now and fix it properly after thinking about it sans fire under our asses. Yes it sucks, but I think they made the right call.

Of course, my opinion hinges on the fact that this will be temporary. They’ve promised to revisit the speed limits at the end of the year and I’m banking on them saying “Yeah, this just won’t do”. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe management won’t like the cost of implementing a better solution and the speed limits will stay forever. Green Hell would turn into Green Gables and I’d be right there with you, having a good cry.

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Motor Monday: Honda Hype

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You’ll be hard pressed to find a Canadian car maker with a more dedicated and loyal following than Honda. I don’t say that because the Civic has been the best selling passenger car in Canada for 5 years running. I say it because the Civic hasn’t been the best car in the segment for all of those 5 years, but people kept on buying them.

Prior to the global recession of 2007, Honda could boast a reputation of performance with cars like the NSX, Integra Type R and S2000. Unfortunately, once money became tight the name of game became selling as many cars as possible, and that meant putting performance and fun on the back-burner. Honda stopped making the S2000, pulled out of Formula 1 and began an era of cheap and boring vehicles for the everyman. They rode the 8th generation Civic for as long as they could before releasing arguably the worst Civic ever in the 2012 North American model. It felt cheap, it looked old and it handled worse than anything else in the class. The 2012 was so poorly received that they did a refresh the very next year. How often does that happen? During this downturn of fun (frownturn, if you will) they did their best to ride the NSX buzz trying to convince people they still knew how to go fast. Sorry guys, but droning on about a prototype for 5 years doesn’t fool anybody.

Well lucky for the Honda fanboy, and the enthusiast in general, the company has clearly had a change of heart and decided that fun is back on the menu. The new NSX was finally unveiled in production trim and it looks stunning, but looks aren’t what we care about right now. The performance they’re claiming is on par with current exotics, and that’s right where it needed to be. Its hybrid powertrain, with electric motors individually powering the front wheels, is similar to the million dollar Porsche 918, though Honda’s version only makes about 550 horsepower. Speaking of hybrids, Honda also entered the new era of Formula 1 with some of the most complex energy recovery systems in the world. The results aren’t coming to them yet, but just the fact that they’re competing again is evidence that their attitude has changed for the better. It’s more than a step in the right direction, it’s leaps and bounds.

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Motor Monday: Autonomous Vehicle Update

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Two weeks ago the state of Virginia announced that 70 miles of their public highways would be open to autonomous vehicles for testing. They join California, Nevada, Florida, Michigan and Washington DC in accommodating the new technology, and trusting the owners not to cause havoc. We figured it was a good time to give everybody a quick review of where we are with driverless cars today. For those new to the game, autonomous vehicles (AVs) are cars which can drive themselves around town, with no input from a human. You sit down, set your destination and sit back to absorb the reality that you’re doing something only Batman and cheesy action stars have done in movies. While there are more than half a dozen manufacturers in the game right now, including Audi, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan and Tesla, it’s tech giant Google at the forefront.

Google recently began releasing reports on the status on their autonomous car project with began in 2009 with modified Priuses. The latest report mentions that they’ve accumulated nearly 3 million kilometers on their test vehicles since the program’s inception, over half of which were in their autonomous mode where the safety driver does not touch the controls except in the case of emergencies. Over the last 6 years Google reports they’ve been involved in a dozen collisions, all of which were the fault of outside drivers. Three million kilometers and zero at-fault accidents? Good luck finding a human with that track record. That said, they may not be completely blameless. Some California residents are claiming the cars don’t drive “normally”. One blogger says they “drive like your grandma”, moving from lights slowly, leaving humongous gaps and, most importantly here, braking at the slightest hint of an obstacle. This means that an intersection which looks clear to a human may not look clear to the Google AV, causing the AV to brake unexpectedly and get rear-ended. Now obviously nobody is blaming the AV for getting rear-ended, but it highlights the fact that you can’t just have a car that stays in its lane and doesn’t run people over in order to be successful. Until we get used to everybody driving like a grandma, having cars that act like the humans around them will contribute to safety.

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Motor Monday: The Myth of Unreliability

JD Power’s 2015 vehicle dependability study, tracking issues with over 34,000 model-year 2012 original owner vehicles, was recently released and it caused a bit of confusion on the forums. While JD Power do a decent job of explaining their process separately on their website, they don’t include this information on the infographic so people are left to build their own interpretation. So people see things like an industry average 147 problems per 100 vehicles and assume that means any car they buy will end up in the shop within 3 years. A lot of people find this unacceptable, but there are two big reasons to have a positive attitude about this.

First is the fact that it’s ONLY 147 problems per 100 vehicles. Ten years ago that figure was 237. The only brands over 200 PP100 this year were Land Rover and Fiat. We’ve got more and more cars on the road every day, and despite the fact that they add parts and complexity every generation, cars are also becoming generally more reliable.

The more significant reason to be happy about the results of this study is that a “problem” by JD Power’s definition isn’t necessarily the kind of problem you’re thinking of. They have a list 177 predefined issues they ask the vehicle owner about. So what were the top problems this year?

Bluetooth connectivity and voice recognition.

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Motor Monday: The Future is Small and Boosted

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We got a brief reprieve from $1.30/L gas prices when oil tanked (zing), but less than a month later we’re nearly back to where we started. Alberta may be oil country, but that doesn’t mean people are willing to get bent over at the pump forever. We still love our V8s (and always will), but it’s starting to make more and more sense to pick up a more efficient commuter. It’s not just gas prices, but an entire culture of eco-friendliness which is driving the push for efficient vehicles elsewhere in North America. Consumers are demanding green cars and the manufacturers are being forced to respond. Hybrids and electrics are stealing the headlines right now, but North America is also seeing a reemergence of the sub-compact segment which hasn’t had much hold here in over a decade. While Canadian sales of sedans like the Camry, Accord and Fusion dropped from 2013 to 2014, we saw double digit increases for small cars like the Accent, Fit, Yaris and Mirage.

Of course, not everybody wants a tiny hatchback, and a lot of people require more capable vehicles, which means going with something larger and, usually, far less efficient. Luckily for them, manufacturers are being pressured to increase efficiency across their entire range. CAFE regulations, which penalize manufacturers whose fleet doesn’t meet a minimum fuel efficiency requirement, have raised the bar for small passenger cars by over 40% since 2005. They will continue increasing it by another 5% annually until 2025 where they’ll mandate 60 mpg. This means that car makers don’t just need to offer a fuel efficient car to those who want one, they need to increase the efficiency of their entire line-up or pay significant penalties. Now technically CAFE only applies to cars built in the United States, but Canadian Environmental Protection Act was recently amended to include very similar provisions for cars built here.

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