Tuesday, January 15, 2019

PANOZ PANACHE AND THE PORSCHE CAYENNE

This may sound like a weird title for a story, but it combines several memorable experiences, both in terms of personality and product.

I first met the late Donald Panoz, inventor of the transdermal nicotine patch and insatiable motor racing nut at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1999. I had just joined Bentley Motors, but that year Bentley was not competing, and we were introduced by our mutual friend, the PR consultant for the ACO (Automobile Club de l'Ouest), Benoit Froger.

Donald Panoz, an Italian-American, born 1935, died from pancreatic cancer, September 2018
Don invited me to the Panoz pit lounge to watch the Panoz team in action, with special emphasis on Car 12, driven by two good friends of mine, David Brabham and Butch Leitzinger. Their car was the highest-placed Panoz in the LMP-1 class, and came home in 7thposition.

Don Panoz was the most indefatigable optimist I have ever met. Nothing held him back.

He was an inventor, entrepreneur, and as I have said not just a motor racing ‘nut’, but a man completely seduced by sports car racing, and especially the Vingt Quatre Heures du Mans. 

The organizing club, the ACO, held him in very high esteem, because of not only what he did for sports car racing, but also his promotional efforts to publicize Le Mans.

Fast forward to 2002 and I am visiting the Road Atlanta race circuit at Don Panoz’s invitation. He acquired the circuit in 1996, in order to save and boost sports car racing in America.

He even managed to get the ACO to agree to launch the 'American Le Mans' series in the USA, as a 'feeder' to the famous 24 Hour race.

This was also the year that Porsche introduced its first SUV, the Cayenne, and Porsche Cars America had provided a prototype Cayenne to Road Atlanta, to be used by the Clerk of Course – who would be none other than Donald Panoz.

During a break between races, Don asked me if I had ever driven around the circuit, and when I told him I had not, he grabbed me by the arm and said: “Come on, I’ll take you for a spin in our new Course Car.”


What followed was my first exposure to the Cayenne, and  six laps at frightening speed around the four kilometer circuit. What a fantastic race track! After we stopped outside the Control Tower he hopped out and said: “There’s just time for you to do a couple of laps before the next race!”

At the time, there probably wasn’t a Porsche owner on planet earth who spoke highly of the new SUV from Stuttgart, but I have to say that wheeling it around Road Atlanta at high speed made me a believer that Porsche could infuse an SUV with ‘sportiness’.

So, here we are in 2019 with a Cayenne S ‘on my drive’ and the car has, in my humble opinion, gone backwards from the Cayenne I drove in 2002.


In 2002 the Cayenne was a completely new take on SUVs. It was an SUV with a revered badge, and performance to match Porsche’s pedigree.

However, this year’s Cayenne shares its underpinnings with the VW Toureg, the Lamborghini Urus, the Audi Q7 and the Bentley Bentayga. Of course, there’s a lot of subtle and sophisticated design elements inside the car, courtesy of Porsche Design, which really is its only unique factor.

I’ve only had a short drive of a Bentley Bentayga (which was pretty impressive), but comparing the Audi Q7, the VW Toureg and the Porsche Cayenne I am hard pressed to find anything unique, or special about the Cayenne.

Having recently spent a deal of time behind the wheel of the Maserati Levante, I’d have to say it’s a more engaging drive. It’s not necessarily a ‘better’ car than the Cayenne, but it certainly feels exactly like what a car wearing a Maserati badge should feel like. Like I said, it’s more engaging, and the feedback is fantastic.

Sad to say, the new Cayenne S is just another version from the same mould as the Wolfsburg group of upmarket SUVs. If you’re a badge snob, it will deliver, but really, it’s just a lot of money for a car with extreme terrain-handling capabilities, which you may probably never use.

Leave that off-road stuff for the extraordinary Range Rover, and limit the Cayenne to city driving.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

SURPRISE SEDAN FROM STUTTGART

We normally expect big surprises in new tech at the CES (Consumer Electronics Show) in Las Vegas, but over the past few years, high-end car companies have been using CES as a launchpad for new concepts.

This year Mercedes-Benz sprang the biggest surprise by revealing the production sedan version of its new A-class range.

First glance may suggest it’s been mildly facelifted, but you need to dig deeper to find that it offers all the new features announced recently on the hatch, and the styling revisions are both tasteful and extremely refined.

My first drive of a CL A sedan was five years ago (DRIVING & LIFE, November 28, 2014), and I reckoned it would be a winner, but the one thing I couldn’t get happy about was the rear end design, which looked like it had been backed into a pair of vice grips, which were then squeezed.


Design of the original car was by young Englishman, Mark Fetherstone (above), and the rear end on the new car shows what happens when you take an existing design style and tweak it ever-so-gently. You end up with a much more sleek, and cohesive result.

Inside, the CL A shows off Mercedes-Benz's new MBUX dash and visual display system, and the ‘Edition’ decal signifies that the first production run will feature a bagful of additional equipment included in the price.


No news on the launch, but my best buddy in Germany Georg Kacher reckons we’ll see it in the third quarter.

Just as the new hatch version has taken off like a rocket, I think the paltry few sedan buyers left in the SUV-dominated market will jump on this four-door hardtop pretty quickly.

It’s a snappy dresser!

Sunday, January 6, 2019

THE NUMBERS GAME

So, for the Australian auto market the numbers are in for 2018, and surprise, surprise, sales of regular passenger cars dropped by 26% compared to 2017.

However, the final numbers invite interesting comment on the status of the big players in the market Down Under.

                             1. Toyota                               217,061
2. Mazda                               111,280
3. Hyundai                             94,187
4. Mitsubishi                          84,944
5. Ford                                   69,081
6. GM-Holden                        60,751
7. Kia                                     58,815
8. Nissan                               57,699
9. Volkswagen                       56,620
10.Honda                               51,525



It’s no surprise that the biggest seller, by a margin wider than the Grand Canyon, was the Toyota HiLux twin-cab, 4x4 truck, followed hotly by the impressive Ford Ranger, then the Mitsubishi Triton.



Although SUVs account for 43% of the Australian market overall, mirroring the identical status to SUVs in a number of markets including the USA, Britain and many markets in Europe, their sales dropped 7% in 2017.



Keen observers of the Australian scene will note that GM-Holden did not make the Top Five, and in fact the company’s total sales dropped by 30,000 vehicles in 2017.


So, what are the interesting sidelights to the Top Ten chart?

There’s no surprise Toyota tops the list, because Truck and SUV sales dominate the market, but Hyundai and Mazda are right up there because of very successful hatches – the Mazda 3 and Hyundai i30.

These compact and practical cars provide the reasons to the slow death of large passenger sedans.

Looking at Ford, which suffered the most drastic reversal of the appeal of passenger cars with the rapid demise of the Falcon – it has bested GM-Holden, for a number of reasons – the quality, design, engineering and robust performance of the Ford Ranger truck - supported by good marketing has ensured GM-Holden has been pushed out of the Top Five. 

This is despite its excellent Colorado, Equinox and Acadia – models which I’m sure will find stronger sales in 2019.

I recall discussions I had with Kia Australia back in 2010, when the then management was bemoaning the fact that the company wanted to be considered ‘premium’ rather than ‘adequate’ and price its cars for higher margins.

Kia’s day has arrived. It has taken 8 years, but across its entire model spread from the Picanto to Sorento, Kia is recording strong sales thanks to improvements in quality, local Australian tuning, and design.

I think Nissan is lucky to find itself a place in the Top Ten, achieved by its trucks and SUVs (certainly not its passenger cars), but the products are ageing quickly, and by the end of this year will not be as competitive as required, to maintain this position. Nissan will probably have to resort to panic pricing to maintain its position.

Then there’s VW and Honda, holding on to the last two spots for two reasons – quality and brand loyalty. VW is learning how to price and equip its cars to stay in the race in Australia, and it has had the added benefit of Tiguan and Toureg which have repeated their global sales success.

Honda, I’m afraid, is a product basket case. Its cars are a design disaster, and its small and compact SUVs are barely competitive, meaning they are on the brink of being tipped out of the Top Ten by a strident performer like Skoda – which will launch some incredible new product in 2019.

This year is going to be far more competitive than 2018, simply because of the arrival of a some really great new models, keen pricing moves boosted by switched-on marketing campaigns, and leveraging brand loyalty.

The Australian market sold 1.15 million vehicles in 2018, down some 3% on 2017, and I think the sales impetus, for the moment, is exhausted. Expect to see a slow start to this year, and until the May Federal election result is known, also expect lack of high-tag discretionary purchases until mid-year.

Keep in mind, the parent companies of all our local players are all based overseas, and care much more about volatility in the US dollar; the Trump effect on international trade, and vagaries about when, and if, consumers will embrace new automotive concepts like electric vehicles, and/or autonomous driving.

Car companies and dealers should breathe deep and hold their nerve, because it doesn’t matter how many marketing dollars you were to throw at this market, it’s all going to happen in the last six months – if at all, if Socialist Labor wins the Australian election.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

MERCEDES-BENZ E53 - LETTTERS AND NUMBERS. MEAN ANYTHING?

Well, yes they do, and I’m not talking pricetags.

At age 75, the days of me contemplating purchasing an expensive, high quality brand automobile are long past (if they ever existed), but as I still have the opportunity to sample some of the latest and greatest on a regular basis, I can afford to be either glowing or disparaging about the cars which are ‘on my drive’.

A few weeks ago it was a Mercedes-Benz E53 AMG coupe, which I must admit when I walked up to get into the car, I was feeling very blasé, given that Gorden Wagener and his design team has lavished almost identical visages on each different model class, both exteriors and interiors.

Personally, and I remain entirely consistent, my favourite Mercedes-Benz remains the C-class sedan – it is just right in my mind. Perfect size, perfect dimensions and perspective, adequate powertrain and performance, and, dare I say, a little jewel.

So, I slide into the luxurious interior, fire up the E53 coupe for the 70km trip from Brisbane to the Gold Coast with considerable insouciance, and join the M3 for the boring freeway drive south.

At about halfway I thought, enough of this mindless motorway monotony, I will depart the expressway for my favourite way home via some regional  hotspots, like Yarrabilba, Tambourine, Canungra and Clagiraba.

Now, I realize those names will not spring immediately to mind as representing a route something like you may find on the Rallye de Monte Carlo, but Routes 92 and 90, cover about 40km, and thanks to my familiarity with the roads, allows me the chance to spring to instant judgment on a car’s appeal and responses.

By the time I arrive home, I have come to some conclusions, which may inform a post on DRIVING & LIFE.

So, back to my question.

Does E53 mean anything?

Yes, I think it’s probably one of the most enjoyable drives in a current Stuttgart Stormer I’ve had in a while.

The car was beautifully balanced, both in the city and on the regional roads, and despite the interior color scheme (more on that later), it was a very enjoyable drive, with the bi-turbo 3.0L V6 urging me to push harder, and extend the car’s performance limits.


I think the bi-turbo bit requires some explanation. There is a single, conventional, exhaust-driven turbocharger, but also an additional electronically-driven turbo, which boosts power and torque because it spins up so quickly, regardless of engine speed.

I think it’s this combo, plus the 9-speed automatic, which makes the car so pleasurable to drive. In fact as I told the guys at Mercedes-Benz Australia, I think this could be the real star of the current range.

It comes as a coupe, a ragtop and a sedan, and with the AMG embellishments, it’s also probably pretty good value for money.

At AUD$175,000 you may well say: “What does he know about value?” Having just brought a Kia Cerato Sport hatch into my garage, in my dotage.

But, after a career spent associated with some of the most famous brands in the car business, I do have an eye for value, and this E53 was starting to get under my skin.

Talking of 'skin', the interior on my test car was finished in black and white leather, but my following comments will only resonate with people who live in the USA.


At first glance, my initial reaction was that M-B had finished the car with skunk-skin leather. If you’ve ever been ‘skunked’ (as I have) those colors will only mean one thing for the rest of your life.

When cornered, a skunk will spew out pheromones which convey the most terrible odour, and can only be mitigated with liberal bathing in tomato sauce.

However, skunk-colored upholstery aside, the cockpit is easily the best of the brand’s new breed of cars.


A great dashboard, a Burmester sound system and understated use of dark veneers (they can’t be made from real wood, can they?) present an image of a truly premier design approach.

Okay, it drives well, presents with relatively compact dimensions, has a great powertrain, and displays great design perspective, thanks to the previously-mentioned dimensions. Is the E53 Mercedes-Benz’s best set of numbers?

I don’t know, but I certainly appreciated the chance to drive it, because it tells me quite a lot about Daimler AG’s product planning vision, and where it ends up.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

RARE TRUMP BACKDOWN (1) - TWEETS (0)

Where would the Trumpster be without Twitter? I'm surprised he doesn't tweet about his results in the loo every morning!


However, we have a rare moment in recent history to record.

It occurred when Donald Trump back-downed from a boast; but guess what?

No tweets!

Two weeks ago the three CEOs from Daimler-Benz, VWAG and BMW AG flew into Washington for talks with Trump, regarding his belligerent boast to impose stiff tariffs on all cars imported from Germany.


Harald Krüger (BMW), Herbert Diess (VW), and Dieter Zetsche (Daimler AG) saw Trump during an unplanned meeting (until revealed this week by The Times) to discuss the touchy subject of Trump's threats on tariffs.

As we already know, Trump doesn't take briefings; doesn't listen to his advisers, nor read up on details before such meetings. However, someone must have whispered into his shell-pink ear about how many cars these companies make in the USA already, and how many people they currently employ.

This could explain Trump's backdown, and so as not to upset his manic voter base, he declined to tweet about the outcome.


Daimler's Dieter Zetsche was upbeat as he made his way into the old congressional building (quite a way from the White House).



Reading from James Dean's report in The Times here is the paragraph which summed up how the talks went:

Three numbers sum up the state of German business at the end of 2018 - 7.1, 6.9 and 4.9.

These are the percentages by which shares in BMW, Daimler and VW respectively rose, after the three men travelled to Washington for the three-hour meeting with Trump.

The German DAX closed up 2.8% as investors breathed a sigh of relief.

The Donald has not tweeted a single character about these talks, and the positive resolution for the automakers. How 'bout that?

Monday, December 31, 2018

GHOSNED-OUT?

This will be the last story on the Carlos Ghosn saga in DRIVING & LIFE until the results of all enquiries are completed and final statements issued.

But I will leave you with some final thoughts.

First of all, I have met Carlos Ghosn twice, both times at the Geneva Salon, and had the chance to observe him closely. He is an incredibly meticulous man, both professionally, with his time management, and in his personal grooming.

Given the salvage and recovery tasks he faced at Renault, Nissan and Mitsubishi, I am certain Ghosn’s meticulous eyes were over everything, he would not miss a single detail.

So whilst his big salary and grand perks wrankle the Japanese, and Nissan in particular, I cannot for a minute imagine any of the so-called ‘extras’ to his salary were not documented precisely in accordance with Nissan’s operating procedures. It’s just the way Ghosn is – thoroughly meticulous.

He is also a devoted family man. The second time I met him during a media Q&A in Geneva, he stopped the meeting to take a phone call from his youngest daughter, on his own personal mobile phone. He carries multiple mobiles – one private, and one each for the Alliance businesses.

Now let’s address Nissan’s complaints about salary and benefits. 
In 2017 Carlos Ghosn earned a total of USD$16.9 million (USD$8.4m from Renault; USD$6.5m from Nissan; and USD$2.0m from Mitsubishi).

In the same year, GM’s filings revealed CEO Mary Barra was paid USD$22 million.

However, let’s go back to 1999 when he pioneered the Renault-Nissan Alliance, with USD$5 billion of Renault's money, and look at the challenges he faced. Nissan was carrying a USD$35 billion debt load, and its cars and SUVs were, shall we say, ‘slumbering’ at the bottom of the global sales charts. Honda was #2 to Toyota.

Ghosn challenged Japan’s legendary ‘job for life’ philosophy, and other anti-competitive business practices, by slashing the Supplier list, closing factories and cutting the bloated workforce by 14% - no wonder Nissan got uptight with this relentless and ambitious ‘gaijin’.

But, six years on he had restored Nissan to Japan’s Number Two carmaker; its market capitalization quintupled, and its operating margins grew tenfold. Not bad for six years of meticulous attention to the details.

Nissan executives who spoke anonymously to New York-based reporters said that the extra homes Ghosn used ‘were’ acquired legally, by a legally set-up Nissan ‘shell’ company, so that their value was not confused with regular Nissan automotive assets.

The Alliance is quite a complex setup, because it also involves investments by Daimler AG, and you can't imagine the Germans not closely covering off all their financial connections with the Ghosn-led group of companies.

As soon as Ghosn is freed, I suggest he retreats back to Renault, and leaves Saikawa and his pals to their honorable task of driving Nissan to the edge of another abyss. This time around, let ‘em drop off.

I forsee that with Ghosn's energies and drive directed at the French company, there will be a promising future for Renault. But, he could surprise everyone and just retire.


Saturday, December 29, 2018

SEDANS AMERICANS SLAUGHTERED, BY SUCKING UP SUVs

The shift in consumer preferences for SUVs over passenger cars has been so dramatic in the past two years that many famous nameplates will be retired by the end of 2019. Here is a list of passenger cars currently sold in the USA, which will simply no longer be manufactured after 2019.

Consumers will be able to buy most from the vast stockpile of unsold vehicles, until the supply is exhausted, and some (like the VW Toureg) will remain available in other global markets.

The biggest number of sedans on the hit list are from the GM catalogue, and despite Ford saying it would only field two passenger cars from 2019 onwards – Focus and Mustang – it appears that Focus will be killed off too.

Here's a list of the inmates on death row at General Motors .....
From top left: Buick LaCrosse, Cadillac ATS, Cadillac STS, Cadillac CT6 (centre),
Chevrolet Volt ER, Chevrolet Impala, Chevrolet Cruze

Meanwhile, in nearby Dearborn the Ford product planners will kill off the Ford Focus (top), the Ford C-Max (centre), and the Ford Taurus.

Ford, like GM and FIAT Chrysler, cannot turn out SUVs and trucks fast enough.

With the USA virtually self-sufficient in oil, thanks to fracking, fuel prices have dropped dramatically, so that means more big pickups and SUV are populating America's freeways.








Among the importers, panic has also set in as some well-known, and some iconic models bite the dust.

The list includes the VW Beetle and VW Toureg.

Plus, the Toyota Prius V, the Nissan Joke (er, sorry the 'Juke'), and the Honda CRZ.

Hyundai will sacrifice the Azera, which stopped dead, after the Koreans switched their luxury car focus to Genisis.
Here's a tip: This list is going to get bigger. Much bigger. And it will spread across the globe into all markets.