Monday, December 29, 2008

Auto-Future 2008: the year in review

Now that this year is ending I decided to put a series of links of auto-future articles since January 2008. This was an interesting year (but not in a good way) and it appears 2009 will be worse... but hey, I'm not complaining so let's revisit one year in blog articles.

In January, amongst several car news, there was an article on how Shell was kind of acknowledging peak-oil. A nice introduction to the year of big mess in oil prices.

Later something related to the next BMW 5-series. Actually just these days received info on this car confirming those previsions from February.

March was the month of the Car of the Year: it was the Toyota iQ. Yes, we don't wait until the end of the year to give awards cuz we know the future.

The first of April presented my favourite article, the fake story on Ford of Europe declaring independence. This was great fun writing and it become even more interesting when some weeks later Ford decided to choose is european division to design most of the future global platforms.

Correcting other folks news. Sometimes it happens!

June brought several novelties about the Ford Focus III. And I took the opportunity to ask Ford for a few things about this car.

Something interesting in July: back in 2007 I decided not to show some very revealing shots of the Megane III because these would do harm to Renault's business. These images were criminally stolen inside Renault's development center. Some journalists from Auto-Plus were later accused of espionage because of that.

A favourite of auto-future: the Chevrolet Volt. I hope it makes to production. But if it don't, others will. The future of automobile is electric.

Peugeot: you need help, lot's of it. Offering help to Peugeot, they will have a couple of rough years ahead. But now everyone will.

November was the month of the "New Crossover". There are several articles on the subject, and I will be presenting much more in the future.

In December, amonst several interesting features, there was this more sentimental article related to the Detroit bailout.

Ending with the image of the year: the Ford badge with the European stars. The future success of Ford depends on the implementation of global platforms, some of these designed outside of the USA. This will be a key strategy for several players: leveraging on global platforms for cost reduction. Part of the reason Ford is in better shape now is because of its European division. So in the future Ford will be a bit more European. And in general, all big car manufacturers will become more global in their operations.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Auto-Future 2008: The awards edition

Car of the Year: Toyota iQ
As usual, writing about the future makes one give awards in advance. For example, in 2007 the Concept Car of the Year was chosen in January. And the Car of the Year 2010 is already decided as long as the people that will build it are still in business by then… This year the Car of the Year award was chosen in March and it was the Toyota iQ. You can go back and read about it

The diminutive Toyota is usually compared with the Smart, but the 2-seater from Mercedes looks like a plastic toy in this comparison. Whether is space, build quality, passive safety but mainly active safety, the Toyota is a far superior machine. Just go test-drive the two cars in the same day and you will see a huge difference. But then the Toyota is quite a pricey thing… actually this is one of the interesting bits of the iQ: in the small car class it’s a premium product… will Toyota make good sales at this price (about 13000€ in Europe)?...

But the main interesting features of the iQ are technical: it presents the biggest evolution in FWD platforms since the sandwich architecture of the Mercedes A-class. Several technical advances make for a radically efficient use of space and some of these features will migrate to future cars from Toyota. And there is more: this car is being rumoured as candidate for electrification in the future. It’s all good things about this Toyota.

There is also a small but important thing about this car. It has something that is important to achieve success in Europe but that Toyota usually fails to have in its cars. Since it is Christmas time here is a little gift for Toyota: if you drop me an email asking I will tell you what it is.

Concept Car of the Year: Citroen Hypnos
The Citroen Hypnos was frequently referred in the articles about the “New Crossover” and for good reasons: it’s the best design interpretation of the New Crossover philosophy and it also presents a rather elegant technical implementation of a AWD plug-in hybrid architecture.

But will Citroen make it?... or at least something similar?

Pathetic Joke of the Year: Seat Exeo
Surprise, it’s not a Chrysler! I remember writing a couple of articles on this car more than a year ago when it was rumoured to be in development based on the Audi A4 B8 platform. At the time it looked like a good idea for “platform recycling” and it could provide for a Seat with Quattro AWD system and possibly reborn the great RS4. But it didn’t quite turn out like that…

I lost interest when started to hear that it was just a nose-job/butt-job. And for now there is nothing of the good stuff from the old A4 whether it was the AWD system or at least some V6 engines. And even the photo-perceived quality of the interiors is damaged with the Seat symbol in the steering wheel and some small details like the rubber in the doors.

But the worst thing about the car is the design and the sort of recycled look of it. Who will buy this car? It’s so poor-looking, as in really un-wealthy poor besides being ugly. What is the motivation for people to buy this thing? Do they realize this is a 4-star car in the EuroNCAP crash tests? But a weak 4-star. And the space inside is actually worse than in a Seat Altea XL.

There is also a twisted feature about this car: it actually devalues the Audi brand. People in this industry are well aware of what Audis really are underneath the sporty sheetmetal and those interiors made to look really good in the images. But it has never been so obvious for the general public the sharing of parts with other cheaper brands like Seat or Skoda.

In the end this car brings an innovation and it will be famous for it. The interested reader must be familiar with the expression “badge engineering”. Well, this car introduces “badge engineering” only without the “engineering” part.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Who are you?... I hope you will be ok.

Who’s the lady in the image below? I don’t know but I hope she will be ok. I “stole” this image from a video of the “Bold moves” series of Ford from two years ago. It was the video on the build of the Shelby GT500 and you can find it here. I remember watching the video at the time and getting surprised with the spontaneous reaction of the line worker hugging the new powertrain of the Mustang GT500 and saying “wonderful”. It’s easy to forget how people can get passionate about their work and how they are not just numbers ready to be discarded.

I’m writing this today with a bitter feeling because in the last attempt to approve the car bailout the major problem with the senators that voted against was the wages of line workers. And this is not a new trend: in Europe or in the United States it seems whenever restructuring is needed the first thing to sacrifice is workers benefits and jobs. We have had many years now of management specialized in downsizing at the expense of the workforce (and adding management bonuses in the process…). And we are also getting used, at least in Europe, to the progressive loss of health benefits and pensions value. At this point one asks: do we have to accept living worse than the previous generation? This is not progress, it’s quite the opposite, and people should simply not accept it.

University students in Greece have reached the limit point. The can no longer support the prospect of living with 600 Euros per month after college education and they realized that the current democracy status will not change that. So they went for action. I hope this event does not escalate. And I hope something new comes out of the new American administration that really triggers changes in the way things operate globally. On the lady in the image, she will probably be ok: she works in a Ford factory, the American manufacturer in best shape, building a best-selling car that is the Mustang. I hope she keeps hugging powertrains whenever something new arrives in the assembly line.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Auto-Future revisited: Chrysler 100C

This gigantic mess with the American car manufacturers has raised my interest for the American car market. Other than the usual perplexity of Europeans (why all the trucks?... what’s with the gigantic SUVs?... can’t they live with smaller cars?...), tempered with some moments of adoration (usually Corvette and Mustang related), I don’t usually pay much attention to American cars and their local market.

So last week I was checking a TV show at channel France 24 about the Detroit trio with great interest. They made a nice review on the current problems of Detroit, interviewed local people, car dealers and customers… all very unbiased and informative. Then they had this debate with a moderator and three commentators, one of which was a previous Peugeot-Citroen CEO. They added some good points to the discussion, but the whole thing was verging on hilarious and surrealism: because France 24 is a French news channel but they all speak in English… so we had four guys speaking in English, with a very strong French accent, in a French TV show and about the American car market. On top of that one of them was not very fluent in English so every now and then the other three had to help him in finding words… that made for some good laughs.

In that debate the Peugeot-Citroen guy was very bullish about the current shape of European manufacturers saying that we have fuel efficient cars so we won’t have the same problems of Detroit. Now I’m not so sure about that because car sales in November dropped 26% in the European market, in Spain alone it was a dramatic 50% loss… if this trend continues everyone will be in great trouble here. The credit freeze is a problem born outside the car market but it has a huge influence in the purchasing decisions on cars.

Other than the current economy status the manufacturers have to be blamed for not running their business properly, but one of the Detroit 3 had a little help from the notorious inability of Daimler in handling Chrysler. This made me think about a very old article (March 2006) here in auto-future in which I was requesting for a new Chrysler car… you can find the link here or read the whole thing below:

"This is future car request. I ask for vehicles to the manufacturers. But only cars that can be made… with success and profit. This time the Chrysler 100C (I also get to name it). The concept: a scaled down 300C using the platform of the current Mercedes C-class, and using the same engines, particularly diesel engines. Of course the design should be massive and “in your face” as is the case with the 300C, only smaller, because the 300C is just too big for European roads. Ah…European roads, that’s right a car made thinking of Europeans hence the diesel engines.Of course, cheaper than a C-class because it uses an “old” platform. You see (by you I mean you people at Mercedes),I would like to be able to drive a gangster look American saloon with tinted windows and huge wheels. Only I can’t drive that 300C thing in our roads. Scale it down please. It will do well in the USA, and in Europe too."

One can try to imagine if things would have been different had Daimler made such car instead of the Chrysler Sebring, or embraced a concept that I also written about later: the concept of “platform recycling”. It means that every “previous generation” RWD or SUV platform from Mercedes could be recycled as a new Chrysler car with very low development and tooling costs and the benefits of delivering RWD for the masses. Now it doesn’t really matter, I haven’t been following Chrysler much since that article and it seems I won’t be following Chrysler in the future.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Buy American!

Here is a view on the difficulties of American car manufacturers, as seen from Europe, cuz that’s where I’m from. I notice Americans are very patriotic. Noticed that because of the flags everywhere (cars, houses, clothes…), the recent presidential campaign, the distorted opinion that folks that were against the Iraq war were not patriotic, etc. Here in Europe, Germans don’t seem so patriotic, no flags in every corner, but check how they show their love for the country: best selling car in Germany… VW Golf, actually, in the first 10 one does not usually find a single non-German car. But they do make very good cars… So let’s check France… their best selling car is either a Renault Clio or a Peugeot 207, so a French car then. And in Italy, the best selling car is usually a Fiat GrandePunto, a pure Italian machine. Do you notice the trend?... If the United Kingdom had a mainstream car manufacturer it would probably be their best selling car (and it would be a piece of crap for sure).

Back to America here is some advice for the future: buy some American cars, particularly now that they are very good, or at least one is. The Ford Fusion pictured below is emerging as an alternative to the Camry that is as good or better in recent quality ratings, is gaining some good reviews, solid safety ratings, competitive engines and mileage… Ford is back at making cars so maybe it’s time for less patriotic talk and more action! I’m not familiar with the Chevrolet Malibu but it seems it’s also a competitive offer. And here in Europe we can buy the Chrysler Sebring that is a solid errr… sorry, bad example. Mind you, I do know that the Fusion is actually made in Mexico but German folks also know that not all of the VW Golfs are made in Germany. It doesn’t really matter much because the profit comes back home anyway

Friday, December 12, 2008

Future trends: weight reduction strategies

One of the main improvements in future cars and associated global platforms is weight reduction. This trend has already started, or at least, new cars have stopped to gain significantly on weight. Weight reduction has not been more actively pursued because it’s expensive and people didn’t really care a lot. Reduction of emissions and fuel consumption is now mandatory so manufacturers are finding cost effective ways to reduce weight. Several strategies are being adopted and we can expect more than 100kg of weight reduction in future generations of the European compact class (Focus III, Golf VII, for example).

Body structure…
The increased use of high strength steels is one of the ways of achieving weight reduction, allowing the use of thinner sheet-metal, although this poses other issues in stiffness, vibration modes and welding processes, for example. The key factor is that one can not just replace steel grades but an holistic approach must be used including changes in manufacturing process as well: expect more hydroformed parts and hot stamping of Ultra high strength steel grades.

Other (more expensive) trend in the body structure is the use of both aluminium and steel in panels and other parts. BMW will make use of this strategy in future cars (it already does so in the current 5-series). Other more advanced mix of materials can be expected in two car generations: a recent joint-research project of several European manufacturers previews an aggressive mix of different materials (see figure below) although this still poses many challenges in cost and robustness of manufacturing.

… and everything else
Of those 100kg referred previously one can expect about 30kg reduction in the body structure and the rest from basically everything else. And car manufacturers are finding an easy way of achieving this. They are saying to suppliers that they must make new parts that are both cheaper and lighter than the old ones. And that can be achieved with careful design and the cost-leverage of global platforms. That’s how the new Ford Fiesta achieves part of its weight reduction.

The virtuous cycle
One of the interesting bits of weight reduction is that once it is started we can enter a virtuous cycle that allows further weight reduction. For example if the overall structure and components are lighter the suspension parts can be made even lighter because these are not so stressed anymore. And in the end one can even effectively do engine downsizing while keeping the same performance, or better yet, make it more fun with the same engine size and some turbocharging…

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


This is downsizing in Europe: going from Golf to Polo, from 1.6 to 1.4 turbo... Auto-motor und sport presented an article with several new cars for 2009. The VW Polo looks very Golf-like in this CGI, the main difference other than size is the third window in the C-pillar.

The most recent design language from VW is maturing nicely, Walter da Silva really is a true master. Expect also some very restrained interior design-wise and the typical photo-perceived quality of VWs.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

EV Future: SEAT Terranova Electric Concept Car

A designer's vision of an all-road electric Seat. It looks really nice, actually it looks too good to be a real Seat!

Friday, December 05, 2008

BMW PAC: another New Crossover

Remember what I wrote in the New Crossover article?: "Recent history has told us that if BMW is working on something new then other manufacturers should prepare to react really fast. Their work on the future PAS signals that consumers might be ready to adopt a new type of crossover, one that meets several expectations: it should be lower than a SUV, more car-like, with better mileage than a SUV and less guilt factor, more eco-friendly… but still, it should provide a seating position higher than in a regular car or station and it should provide an aggressive design, an imposing stance. This last feature is important to note because it’s not the sort of thing people admit in consumer clinics."

What if BMW is going not with one, but two "New crossover" cars? That means other manufacturers must react now and fast, really fast, because BMW is usually spot on about new types of cars. So the other crossover is a 3-series based car with a higher seating position than a 3er Touring, but still lower than a X3. It looks amazing in this CGI by Auto-Bild, although it's still early for a confirmation because the final design is not yet frozen.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Update on possible BMW, Opel liasion

Tomorrow's Auto-Bild magazine presents an article on a possible holding including BMW, Opel and assets from... Daimler. This will not be a surprise for frquent readers of auto-future because it was discussed in this space last week... just to let you know. Interested readers will find the article here.
The strategy previewed includes BMW forming an holding in order to acquire positions in other companies, including a percentage of Daimler that allows a position in the board, and possible a Opel buy either alone or with Daimler and German government colaboration.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

EV Future: Michelin's Active Wheel

Electric motor, brake, active suspension, all inside the wheel. And Michelin is serious about putting it to market...