Sunday, June 10, 2018

2018 Buick Regal GS - Just Another Buick

I first heard about this car while reading a review of its stablemate, the 2018 Regal Tour X. In the article, the only ding the author had about the Tour X was that they wished it came with GM's 3.6 liter V-6 that is available in the Regal GS. Reading that I thought, "the 3.6 is now available in the Regal? I think I may have found my next new car." Then I come to find that the Regal was all new for 2018 and is so often the case, the styling of the new car leaves me feeling meh. Damn it.

The old Regal, a rebadged Opel Insignia that rode on GM's Epsilon II platform, was sold from 2011-2017 and was one of the few sedans on the market I really liked. Now, I realize that there's only so much designers can do with the conventional three box designs and myriad governmental requirements further squash what can be done but still, I loved what whomever drew this up did with it. Its size was great too - tad narrow, yes, but the overall design of the old Regal was way more balanced and in proportion than the cigarette boat like look of the current Chevrolet Impala, Cadillac XTS and 2010-2016 Buick Lacrosse. My only issue with the old Regal was that it only came with four-cylinder engines. Sorry, I have my standards - I'll never sleep in a communist country nor cheer for the New York Mets and I will never own a car as my personal daily driver that only has four cylinders. Turbocharged or not.

All new for 2018, Regal is still a captive import - it's a rebadged Opel Insignia and comes in three  varieties. The base model is a five passenger, four door semi hatchback they call "Sportback". The step up is the "Tour X" which looks like a mish mosh between the "Sportback" and a Subaru wagon. Somehow it works and works quite well. Both the Sportback and Cross X come only with GM's 250 horsepower, turbocharged, 2.0 liter in line four. Certainly a robust little power plant but no doubt over matched to move vehicles weighing the better part of two tons.

The Regal GS, however, gets stuffed with GM's spectacular 3.6 liter V-6 tuned to a luscious 310 horsepower and 282 pounds of torque. What's more, the GS comes with all wheel drive and, get this, a nine speed automatic. 

Regal GS sits on fotchy 19 inch aluminum rims in front of Brembo, high performance front brakes; no such hardware for the rears. Why? Saves a couple of bucks but Brembo's on a Buick? What's the world coming to?

I swear to god, if Buick comes with another series of "That's Not a Buick" ads to hawk the new Regal I'm going to have to double up on my blood pressure meds. Stupidest ads ever. They always do more harm than good - after all, there's nothing quite like making folks who already own Buicks feel bad about their car.  Hey, Buick, you're targeting this thing at older Gen X'ers like me so do us a favor, don't advertise that your brand used to be for old people. This ain't rocket science.

Anyway, I've yet to spend any wheel time with one of these so I have to glean anything tangible about it from what I've read and pundits rave about it. I mean, raaaave. Fast, solid, wonderful ride, great handling, easy to operate. Magnificent seats. Nice. Most of the reviews though mention that the GS is not great on gas and when you think about it, how could it be? The Regal GS with all wheel drive and a honking 300+ horsepower engine weighs 4,200 pounds - that's a lot. The Regal it replaces weighed no more than 3,600 pounds.

Now, let's get down to the nitty gritty - would I buy this car? No. And the biggest reason why I would shy away from it is this fast back or what they call "Sportback" styling. Most if not all of the reviewers rave about how this looks too but then I have to remember than most of them are paid by an ad agency to write something nice and fluffy with perhaps a little pith.  Hey, if I was being paid to write this I'd find some nicey nice things to say overall about it too but I'm not so you're getting white hot honesty here - this car is ugly. And ugly in ways that only sedans in 2018 are ugly too.

Can a car be ugly and generic looking at the same time? Umm, yeah. And you're looking at it. Might be because this car started out as an Opel but I'll be darned if this thing isn't a rehash of a half dozen if not a baker's dozen or more cars today. These days what's left of sedans all look the same. It's a problem that's vexing considering that sedan sales are in the crapper.

All cars today are great, well, you have to option them correctly - take our Chevrolet Impala rental from last weekend for instance - but what will help drive sales and sway buyers away from cross overs is compelling, interesting design. The new Regal is not a step in that direction and that's too bad considering what a swell ride it is. When designing sedans, if auto manufacturers don't start using some of the same design mojo they're using these days on crossovers, sedans as we know will be gone within the next ten years. At best, they'll be boutique models like pony cars are today.

There's also the issue of what Buick is charging for this car. Loaded to the front grill with every toy you can check off on, the Regal GS comes in at a click or two below $45,000. And get this, because reviewers say this car is at "Audi" levels of refinement and performance, they say it's a relative bargain compared to tonier makes and models. C'mon, are you kidding me? If you've got the beans to swing for an Audi, you are not going to be concerned about saving five to seven grand buying a freakin' Buick.

GM has been positioning Buick as an American Audi or Lexus for years now as they've been pushing Cadillac up into the upper echelons vs. BMW and Mercedes. As far as Cadillac goes, that status seeking has resulted in some remarkable automobiles that are superior to a lot of what the Germans are making now. They're bland looking and over priced but still, they're great cars. They also don't sell very well. Buick has a bigger problem as they attempt to once again get hip - they don't even have the same curb appeal as Cadillac; they'll always be "Buick". And to that end, the Regal is just another Buick.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

2017 Chevrolet Impala - Road Trip

Last weekend, my wife and I rented this 2017 Chevrolet Impala from Alamo to make the 600 mile round trip to visit our sons who are spending the summer at their respective colleges. Will, our younger son is in south-east Ohio at Ohio University and his older brother, Chip, is in south-west Ohio at the University of Dayton. We live in Cleveland. The impetus of the trip was to drop my 2002 Monte Carlo off at O.U. for Will to use and dinner with Chip was an add-on bonus. Alamo had a special and with our 2006 Tahoe not getting any younger and gas getting super expensive, it made sense to rent something more economical.
I had driven an Impala LTZ in the not too distant past and was fairly impressed with how it rode and drove so I assured my wife, who had her eye on a CVT equipped Nissan Maxima, which was another level up from this (meaning: more expensive) that the Impala was going to be a swell ride. Keep in mind this car we rented was an Impala LT and not an LTZ.

I've never been enamored with this current iteration of the Impala. I find it too long, too narrow, too ugly and the interior, despite the size of the car, is too cramped. Our black on black rental here did come nicely equipped with power everything and it had blue tooth - not that we could figure out how to use it. The interior styling is a pleasant enough, although, again, it's tiny in relation to the overall size of the car. I'm no giant at barely at five foot nine and my right knee banged up against the side of that massive center stack; it was as if I was too big for the car. Some would call this cozy while others, myself being one of them, would call it somewhat claustrophobia inducing.

Despite power everything including the front seats, I couldn't get totally comfortable and find a driving position that I felt at home with. On short jaunts I think the car would seem ok - for instance on a ten minute test drive - but on a long trip I found the lack of comfort exhausted me. My wife drove part of the way too and I found the passenger seat to be even more uncomfortable than the driver's seat because it lacked one of the driver seat adjustments. Weird. I don't remember if the LTZ has better seats or not but the seats on our rental were so uncomfortable that I would not buy an Impala LT because of them; not that I was seriously considering that in the first place. Dash layout and what is referred to as "ergonomics" were quite good although we found the "infotainment" system, which included the blue tooth, a bear and a half to operate. We never touched it. The AC too; not intuitive at all.

Despite the design of the car and uncomfortable front seats my biggest beef with this car was its overall performance. That LTZ I drove and hammered into oblivion had an upgraded wheel, tire and handling package and was as robust a handling car as anything I've driven lately save for that BMW M240i friend Blake got recently as a loaner. Seriously - that LTZ rocked. This thing, though, bobbed and pogo sticked like softly sprung GM boats of yore. This car had less than 40,000 miles on it, high for a fleet car, and maybe those were hard miles and the struts were shot. Who knows. Sorry, I'm not going to run down to the Chevrolet store to test drive another LT like this to see if that's the case.

Most importantly, our rental did not have GM's heroic 3.6 liter V-6 that LTZ did but rather GM's 2.5 liter, DOHC, 16 valve "ECOTEC" in line four cylinder engine. Making 200 horsepower and 191 pounds of torque, remarkable numbers for a non turbocharged engine of fairly modest displacement, on paper, it should have been more than adequate. Again, on paper. In the real world of 80 mile per hour interstates and rural two lane highways, not so much.

Problem is the engine is what the experts refer to as, "peaky". Meaning it has to be turning very fast to get the most out of it. Maximum horsepower is achieved at 6,300 rpm - holy shit balls - and max torque comes around at 4,400 rpm. That's a lot of work that needs to get done before anything really happens - and in a 3,800-pound car, the big-little 2.5 liter ECOTEC is just simply overwhelmed. All said, the big four has a lot going for it with none of the horrible shaking and vibration of big four cylinder engines from the past. And it's great on gas. Thing is, it's just over matched for a car this heavy. Even with its slick shifting six speed automatic, often times I'd nail the gas and the engine would "windmill" requiring me to push the pedal to the floor and keep it there hoping something, anything, would eventually happen. It most times did but it wasn't a pleasant nor fun experience.
There's some saying out there about not being able to save money and be profitable at the same time; if the only good thing I can say about this car is that it's remarkable on gas, it's probably not worth the savings. Still, we were able to rent this thing and gas it up for about the same amount of money that it would have cost us just to use our Tahoe. Yes, the weekend special at Alamo was that good and our road trip illustrates just how bad the gas mileage is on our Tahoe. Pain in the ass to schlep down to the airport to get it and drop it back off but in the end, to save some money and keep the miles off the Tahoe, mission accomplished.

I can't tell you the last time I rented something and came away from it saying that I'd seriously shop for it when the time came to get a new car so this super bland fleet Impala LT is nothing out of the ordinary. As long as our boys are within a day's drive and our daily drivers are delicately geriatric or are gas guzzlers we'll continue to rent cars for our weekend jaunts. Stay tuned for another adventure. Perhaps next time we'll get that Maxima. 

Sunday, June 3, 2018

1978 Dodge Challenger - What's In a Name?

What's in a name? Only as much as you want it to be and to most people Dodge festooning "Challenger" on a Mitsubishi Gallant Lambda meant nothing to them. To fans of the ground pounding original Challenger, however, it was akin to sacrilege. Even if the Mitsubishi sourced Challenger could run rings around the originals. Our subject is a 1978.

Chrysler sold these cars as "captive imports". That term being a marketing strategy to sell foreign-built vehicles under the name of an importer through its own dealer distribution system. It's a cost-effective way for the importer to establish a footprint here since they don't have to go through the expense of building a dealership network and the importer gets to sell a vehicle type they previously didn't have. Dodge first sold rebadged Mitsubishi's as the Dodge Colt starting in 1971 after Mitsubishi sold Chrysler 15% of their company. Later, after Mitsubishi updated the model they were exporting, Dodge badged the two-door versions as the Challenger.

Chrysler named these cars "Challenger" as a gimmick to make what they had been calling "Colt" more appealing and to ape any marketing mojo the original may have had. It was an odd move considering the original Challenger did not sell very well and the two cars couldn't have been more different from each other. 

These original Challengers didn't sell well because Chrysler introduced them in 1970 just as the performance car market, which, despite what you may have heard, wasn't that great in the first place, was drying up. It was also, like many performance cars from "back in the day", too big, heavy, thirsty expensive to insure and was generally panned by critics. The damn things couldn't do anything right except, on certain models, go fast in a straight line. That and look just utterly fantastic. These were some fine looking automobiles. 

Speaking of insurance, we blame the insurance industry more than anything else for clubbing muscle cars out of existence. Brokers slapped heavy surcharges that could exceed monthly payments for the cars themselves on anything they deemed sporty or racy. These little Challengers with the power to weight ratio of golf carts were far more "insurance friendly".

Think about it...what if GM put "Camaro" on an offshoot of their Cruze or worse an SUV crossover instead of a sporty coupe like they did when they brought the nameplate back after 7 years out of the market? That would have been unthinkable, wouldn't it?

Granted, "Camaro" was around far longer than "Challenger" was years ago but the analogy fits. It wouldn't make the vehicle any better or worse just as Dodge could have named the original Challenger anything and the design of the car would still have had the same visceral appeal.

What's in a name, then? Only as much as you want it to be.

The current Dodge Challenger, which emulates the original, has been sold by Dodge since 2008. 

Saturday, May 26, 2018

1985 Ford Thunderbird Turbo Coupe - Je Ne Sais Quoi (I Don't Know What)

I didn't share Motor Trend's enthusiasm for the styling of Ford's 1983 "aero" Thunderbird and trust me, this October 1982 magazine cover is a gift from the darkroom gods - Ford wished the car looked this good. All could or would be forgiven, to some degree in my eyes, if Ford offered the Thunderbird in a  powerful, range-topping, sporty model.

Well, they did but they screwed that up too. Our subject is a "first generation" Ford Thunderbird Turbo Coupe from 1985 resplendent in aftermarket baubles that, except for that what-the-hell spoiler, do make the car look better. Kind of.

The problem with Turbo Coupe was that it's namesake, this turbocharged 2.3 liter inline four cylinder engine, didn't offer any better performance than what could be provided by the 5.0 liter V-8 that was also available. Handling may have been marginally improved with the lighter four-cylinder compared to the V-8 but the added cost and complexity of the turbo negated any upside. Ford didn't iron out any of the 2.3's inherent vibration either making for an engine with all of the charm of a garden tractor.

Turbocharged cars, even the best of them to say nothing of relatively primitive setups like our subject here, are finicky contraptions with significant trade offs like "turbo lag" and a lack of low end responsiveness. I've yet to drive even a state-of-the-art modern turbocharged car and find it superior in overall drivability to a non-turbocharged car. Call me old-fashioned or over the hill but I much prefer the flat, linear torque curve of non-turbocharged or what is referred to as normally aspirated engines. I also don't find the alleged trade offs to be worth my money either - most that I've driven use as much or more gas than larger engines making the same power. What's the point of that?

I wished Ford used their wonderful 5.0 liter "High Output" V-8 from the Mustang GT in this car instead. Allegedly, because of some Ford edict that mandated that no Ford car could be "faster" than the Mustang GT, a range-topping Thunderbird had to be literally hobbled. As if a Thunderbird with the 5.0 H.O. could outrun a Mustang.

There was also conjecture that the H.O. V-8 would turn the Thunderbird into a gas guzzler. Interesting. Contemporary road tests of 1983-1986 "first generation" Ford Thunderbird Turbo Coupes pegged the car at 14 miles per gallon combined city and highway driving. Would the big V-8 have been that much worse on gas? Again, the point of this car?

Well, the point of the car was to make the Thunderbird brand even more compelling to buyers of import and makes and models. "Turbo" was a magical marketing ploy, ala Porsche and Saab, and was meant to evoke European je ne sais quoi. We are talking the mid 1980's here which was when Baby Boomers were coming of age that they could start buying whatever they wanted - and they wanted BMW's and Mercedes Benzes not anything, let alone a Ford Thunderbird of any ilk, domestic.

These Thunderbirds, which were made through 1988 with significant styling and engineering improvements for 1987, ultimately appealed almost exclusively to Ford, domestic and "sporty" two door car lovers and did little to off set the literal sea change that was occurring in the auto industry at the time.

That change in the auto industry was more than just Boomers flocking to imports. Even by 1985 the market for two door cars in general was shrinking to say nothing of what was happening to vestiges from the 1970's personal luxury car boom market. Ford replaced this car in 1989 with a larger, heavier car, whose styling I really, really liked but it sold poorly because, again, the market for coupes was shrinking; Thunderbird fed to the shredder for good after 1997. Oh, and I don't count the 2002-2005 clown suit as a "Thunderbird".

Je ne sais quoi literally means "I don't know what" 


Tuesday, May 15, 2018

1976 AMC Gremlin - April Fool

Some automobiles like 1966 Chevelles and 1969 Camaros get better looking with the passage of time. In the case of cars like the Ford Motor Company's "Edsel" from 1957-1960 and Chrysler Airflows from the 1930's that were considered ugly when they first came out, the passage of time has a way of making us wonder what the big deal was about. Then you have cars like the AMC Gremlin that the passage of time brings to light just how  awful they were in first place and actually look worse now than they did when they were new. Our subject is a 1976 Gremlin. 

As with most things in life that appear odd or unusual, there's more to the story than what meets the eye. However, assuming best intentions as always, forgive us if we wonder about what the hell AMC was thinking when they came up with this car.   

Quite simply, the Gremlin was nothing more and certainly a whole lot less than AMC's answer to the Volkswagen Beetle. AMC's answer though was obvious to economy car buyers that AMC either didn't understand the question or just couldn't do any better.

In fairness and hindsight being 20-20, AMC probably did understand the question and being as cash strapped as they always were, couldn't do any better. With VW Beetle sales swelling to more than 500,000 a year at the end of the 1960's, AMC had to do something. After all, small cars had been AMC's bread and butter and VW was eating AMC's breakfast, lunch and dinner. The problem was, not only did they not have a sub compact chassis, they didn't even have a four-cylinder engine. That in mind, their decision to hack off the back of their compact "Hornet" and create the subcompact "Gremlin", styling aside, makes sense.  It's what they did with the gaping hole created by sawing the rear end of the Hornet off that we have so much of an issue with.

While it might be an oversimplification to say that's all they did to the Hornet to make the Gremlin, the reality was, yeah - that's all they did. Said hacking also came with the reduction of the Hornet's wheelbase and revisions to the rear suspension. Revisions that made the Gremlin's performance as bad if not worse than the way the car looked. 

Performance issues stemmed from the Gremlin's horrendous front to rear weight bias. The damn thing even looks like it's going to fall on its front bumper and in reality, that's what starts to happens in anything other than a short jaunt to Sunday services. What's more, the rear leaf springs had to be shortened making for a rear axle that would hop up an down under heavy braking. 

AMC bragged that the Gremlin had more powerful engines than VW did but their use of their heavy in lines sixes, and a V-8 if you can imagine, made the homely, ill-performing Gremlin a relative gas guzzler. If the Gremlin had a four-cylinder, which, again, AMC did not have, and it was good on gas, you could almost understand why someone would look past goofy styling in the interest of mileage. After all, why buy an economy car if it's not going to be good on gas? Certainly one as unusual looking as the Gremlin was. 

Much like the Pacer and the 1974-1978 Matador, we've always wondered if the styling of the Gremlin was deliberately offbeat. If it wasn't, then the Gremlin and other AMC oddities were deeper into the woods than anyone could imagine. Then again, why would they deliberately draw up a car that was this unusual looking? One that quickly became the butt of so many jokes and adored by only those who wanted to be perceived as off beat and outside the norm. To make matters worse, AMC launched the Gremlin on April Fool's Day, 1970.  Har-dee-har-har.
A gremlin is a folkloric mischievous creature that causes malfunctions in aircraft and other machinery. 

Monday, May 14, 2018

2005 Lincoln Town Car - At Your Service

I can't imagine executives at Ford where doing chest bumps when they realized they had the "service" industry all to themselves after 1996 but with GM out of the business, they had a fleet car for almost any purpose; with no real competition. Limousines, taxi, police departments, rentals. Hearses. Our subject is a  2005 Lincoln Town car - one of three Ford sedans that lived on for while, actually, quite a while, after GM moved on.
Like its General Motors counterpart, of which I always though superior both in design and performance, the Lincoln Town car was a robust automobile that while certainly no track star, was a vehicle perfect for the service industry. What with it's body on frame design, when damaged in an accident, they were much more reasonable to repair compared to a unit body automobile. And when you had a lot of them on hand, you bang up one and you can pull parts from another one. Even across model lines in the case of the Mercury Grand Marquis and the Town Car which were all but the same except for badging and front grills after 2003. The Ford Crown Victoria became exclusively a fleet automobile after 2008.
As to who would buy one of these for personal use, well, that's a different story. Even when the platform or chassis the Town Car was first introduced back in 1979, something that was code named, "Panther", the Lincoln name meant "old". Only the most stalwart of folks who could care less about what people thought would spring for one these - or they were holding onto the age old belief that a "Lincoln"  actually meant something.
Ford's updates to the Town Car over the years did little to shift any paradigms and if anything exasperated the oldster image; as much as they changed it, remarkably it stayed the same. Rather quickly, and in particular after GM left Ford alone to the market, these cars came to be nothing more than "service". Nice, comfortable, reassuring service but service nonetheless. 

What could, would, should they have done? It's easy to arm chair quarterback but the cold hard reality of what Lincoln, and Cadillac for that matter, faced and still face to a great degree can't. Be. Fixed. And they know it too. For certain, the instant brands like Lexus came ashore and BMW and Mercedes somehow were able to push out a myriad of less expensive makes and models that helped bolster their brand, there was no way Lincoln stood a chance. And they tried for years and failed every time. Had they been producing what the imports brought ashore beforehand would it have made a difference? Probably? But we'll never know for sure.
Eventually, even the fleet industry changed moving away cars towards far more practical cross over utility vehicles and minivans. That pushed grand dad here back into a corner with literally no place to go. Ford pulled the plug not only on the Lincoln Town Car but the platform it was based on after 2011.