Monthly Archives: June 2014

alinncoln (900x718)

In reporting on incoming Lincoln Motor Company CEO Mark Fields, Bloomberg News let slip that former CEO Alan Mulally had considered scrapping the brand altogether amid stagnant sales.

(Read more here:

According to industry insiders, Fields convinced Mulally that Lincoln had a future in the Ford stable. Seen by many as Lincoln’s saviour, Fields’ mandate will be to turn the tide of stagnant sales, which reached an all-time low last year – 65% below the peak of 1990.

To do this, Fields must draw attention to the brand, lure in youthful buyers, and pursue new models and freshened design.

Lincoln’s overhaul has already begun; Bloomberg reported back in April that Ford had quietly replaced former design director Max Wolff (hired from GM in 2010) with David Woodhouse, a Ford veteran who previously oversaw the company’s European luxury divisions.


Hopefully, these changes will correct Lincoln’s aimless drift and herald a move away from the badge-engineering and awkward design that plagued the brand over the past several years.


"Are you from the past?"

“Are you from the past?”

It’s hard to figure out how to respond to a sight like this.

A sight, I might add, that didn’t get better the closer I got to it.

Regardless of whether you love it or hate it, this driver clearly wasn’t going to be stopped from getting the most attention out of his retro-styled compact wagon.

Chevrolet HHRs (or as all the kids call them, Heritage High Roofs) were sold between 2005 and 2011. Based on the Cobalt, the HHR was a fairly competent vehicle powered (mainly) by the durable 2.2 and 2.4-litre Ecotec engines, mated to a 4-speed automatic or 5-speed manual.

A rare SS model came with a turbocharged 2.0-litre making 260 horsepower, which promised really fast trips to the grocery store. I have to think this would be something of a find for a certain niche of collector.

Overall, I’d argue the HHR pulled off the retro wagon look better than the oddly-shaped Chrysler PT Cruiser. THIS, however, doesn’t count as part of the package.

With skull-and-crossbones faux chrome wheel covers atop painted steel rims, coupled with a do-it-yourself whitewall treatment, this HHR wasn’t busy hauling restraint or taste.

The wide pinstripe is a nice addition, however.

Monza mash

1963-64 Chevrolet Corvair Monza, spotted in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

1963-64 Chevrolet Corvair Monza, spotted in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

It was a typical late winter day in Pennsylvania – chilly, flat grey overcast, ice breaking up on the Susquehanna, and Tiny Dancer playing on the car radio.

Everything around me conspired to put this driver into a wistful, reflective mood (the kind where you think about life choices). Thankfully, this funk was soon shaken off by the appearance of a controversial automotive classic – the loved, hated and sometimes feared Chevrolet Corvair.

The late-first generation Monza coupe I stumbled across – the Corvair’s most popular body style by far – was a pretty plain-Jane affair, with blackwall tires and pie-plate hubcaps complementing its spartan exterior. Likely, this model came equipped with the base 2.4-litre flat-six engine, making 80 or 95 horsepower depending on whether it was a ’63 or ’64 model.

The upgrade engine was a 2.7-litre, 110-horsepower flat-six, though signing off on a Spyder model would net you a 150-horsepower, turbocharged version of that same engine. In keeping with the car’s reputation as a rear-engined automotive oddity, the Corvair’s powerplants were air-cooled and had aluminum engine blocks.

Touted as a ‘poor man’s Porsche’, the Corvair sold in large numbers following its 1960 launch and was available in a wide variety of body configurations – even a pickup and van was offered – but the car’s sporty, go-anywhere lustre was replaced by a sales-killing stigma in 1965.

Unsafe at any speed?

Unsafe at any speed?

That year, lawyer and consumer activist (and later failed presidential candidate) Ralph Nader published Unsafe At Any Speed, a hard-hitting look at the American automotive industry that revealed an aversion to fixing known safety issues. The Corvair, and the rear swing-axle suspension it used between 1960 to 1963 – was featured heavily in the book.

Nader referred to the vehicle as a “one-car accident”, stating the suspension design, along with the omission of front anti-roll bars, made the car vulnerable to fatal rollovers. Though his assertion was sometimes disputed – even by scientific studies – the damage was done, and the Corvair’s reputation as a rolling death trap was created.

Despite being redesigned in 1965 (and not containing the controversial suspension components), sales of the Corvair tanked following the release of the book. After a 50% sales drop for the 1966 model, and a 75% drop the year after, the Corvair withered on the vine until it was dropped from the Chevy lineup during the 1969 model year.

Going from industry darling to social pariah, the Corvair’s fall from grace served as a harbinger for the automotive scandals that cropped up in the 1970s – mainly, the fire-prone Ford Pinto and crappy-all-over Chevy Vega.

While those two vehicles are classic lessons on the dangers of cost-cutting, the Corvair exists as a cautionary tale – an example of the rewards and challenges facing any automaker intent on doing ‘something completely different.’

Price chopper

"Guys! Hey, guys!... Over here!"

“Guys! Hey, guys!… Over here!”

There’s a war brewing.

The population is dividing into camps, taking sides, circling the wagons. How this will end, and what will be left when it’s over, nobody knows.

Yes, I’m talking about entry-level subcompact cars.

Nissan Canada created a splash earlier this year when it introduced (re-introduced, technically) the diminutive Micra hatchback, priced at a rock-bottom, take-off-your-sunglasses-and-squint $9,998.

“What the hell?” cried a heavily taxed, half-frozen Canadian public. “Those are 1990 prices!”

The sub-10K sticker price was a big coup for Nissan and for advertisers, as they could now say they were selling the cheapest car in Canada.

“Step up, Millennials! Don’t be afraid – it won’t hurt you!” the ads shouted, implying there would still be income left over for bike spokes and craft beer.

To achieve that low starting price, buyers of the base Micra will have to do without such must-have’s as air conditioning, automatic transmission, cruise control and power windows/door locks, and  it remains to be seen how many drivers will be willing to go forward in such a primitive way.

Frankly, this setup reminds me a lot of my first car, a ’93 Plymouth (I survived the ordeal).

Lost in all the hubbub generated by the Micra’s launch was a vehicle launched last fall that also claimed to be an economic superstar. The Mitsubishi Mirage debuted under a loud banner of ‘America’s most fuel-efficient gasoline car’, touting a combined 40 miles per gallon (U.S.).

In Canada, ads cheerleaded the Mirage’s diesel-like 4.4 litres/100 km highway mileage, which works out to 64 mpg (Imperial). However, in order to achieve these savings at the pump, drivers had to fork over more cash at the dealership.

The Mirage launched with an MRSP of $12,995, a price that was already undercut by other vehicles, including Canada’s previous cheapest car, the Nissan Versa sedan. In Quebec, the vehicle listed slightly less than in the Rest of Canada.

The mileage figures got some press, but nothing like the Micra’s starting price, and it makes sense. The Micra would save you money on Day 1, while the Mirage would save a driver money over time, depending on how much driving was done.

No surprise that winning the lottery is sexier than creating a high-interest investment portfolio.


Guess who’s back?

Not content to have the Micra soak up all of the cheap car limelight, the Mirage is fighting back the only way its manufacturer can – by reducing its price.

As of June, after a consumer cash discount of $2,500, a new Mitsubishi Mirage will set you back – wait for it – $9,998.

Yes, there are now TWO cheapest cars in Canada, both battling for sales ground amid a struggling economy and record high gas prices.

The vehicle sales website sheds some light on why Mitsubishi adopted this aggressive approach (see chart here:

Mirage sales were pretty much flat for the first quarter of the year, not surprising considering the brutal winter endured by almost all of the country. Come spring we see a sharp uptick in Mirage sales, more than doubling in April compared to the month before, followed by a huge drop in May – the month the Micra debuted.

In the United States, where the Micra isn’t being sold, sales of the Mirage continued to climb as spring progressed. Clearly, Canadian sales were being jeopardized by the Mirage’s newfound competition.

Certainly, the time is right for a low-priced, fuel-efficient car, given the environment we live in, but I’m willing to bet Mitsubishi will have the harder time in this battle.


Make up your mind

Reviews of the Micra point to a driving experience out of synch with the model’s bargain-basement price tag. Capable suspension, a 107-horsepower 1.6-litre four-cylinder, and beefier 15-inch tires sets it apart from the Mirage, which makes do with a 1.2-litre 3-cylinder making 74 horsepower.

The Mirage also rests atop skinny, 14-inch tires and is not known for its handling prowess.

Now that their starting prices are equal, it will be up to the individual buyers to decide what’s important to them – mileage or motoring pleasure. Because there is quite a difference between the two vehicle’s fuel consumption numbers.

On the highway, the tiny Micra consumes fuel at a rate of 6.6 litres/100km, according to the manufacturer. This translates into 43 mpg (Imperial), or 21 mpg less than the Mirage’s highway figure –  a consideration for those making long commutes.

Of course, if the buyer just wants a cheap car for running errands every now and then, it’s doubtful this will matter much. After all, the 2014 Micra is not a 1972 Caprice.

With the opening volleys now fired, we eagerly await updates in this ongoing battle.

Undercover brother

"Where's our guy?! D'ya think we've been double-crossed?"

“Where’s our guy?! D’ya think we’ve been double-crossed?”

I was thinking lately – and not for any particular reason – about what would make a good getaway car.

Or, alternatively, what would make a good undercover police pursuit vehicle.

I’m not talking about the unmarked-yet-obvious Tauruses, Explorers and Chargers you see waiting in speed traps, either – I’m talking deeper cover than that.  For a stakeout operation or a tail job, you don’t want Starsky and Hutch’s ride.

At first glance, the list of automotive choices out there seems pretty much endless. However, to properly execute either role I believe a smart driver would demand certain attributes from his trusty steed.


I’m not here

First off, anonymity. You want the car to be rolling camouflage, seen but not noticed by either cop or felon. Just part of the landscape.

Non-descript is key, but as our mustachioed hero once stated in an episode of Magnum, P.I., you can go overboard on it and end up shouting your presence to the world. If I recall, the ‘loud’ shadow car in that episode was a beige Ford Fairmont.

I’ve always said the best car for non-descript would be a 5 to 10-year-old GM sedan like a Grand Am or Malibu – ubiquitous, bland, and usually one of two colours. Most popular Japanese sedans have the problem of being either a heat score (Accord, Altima, Maxima), or simply too un-sketchy to fit in (Camry, Camry, Camry).

However, going cookie-cutter isn’t the whole game plan. If your needs include more than just being incognito, these sensible sedans pose a problem.


Need for speed

 If a pursuit/chase will at some point be likely – whether it’s collaring bad guys or shaking the heat – you’ll need muscle and handling. Boring the other party to death isn’t an option here.

And as important as power is, it needs to be subtle. Racing stripes, modifications and a aftermarket exhaust might be cool in heist flicks, but it’s a dead giveaway in the real world. The power needs to have been born on a factory assembly line.

Also, the vehicle model itself can’t be synonymous with performance. You’ll want to have a top-end drivetrain in a car whose model lineup contains some real tepid stuff. There should be an engine lower down the totem pole than yours, with less cylinders.

The setup I’ve described, a hot engine coupled with an aging, dime-a-dozen design and no exterior add-ons, should do the trick (though nothing’s foolproof, of course).

Any suggestions, you ask? Any particular vehicular preference, after weighing the key criteria?

After some careful thought, as well as observations on the road, I think I’ve narrowed down a decent choice.

Your forgettable hero has arrived. (Bull-Doser, Wikimedia Commons)

Your forgettable hero has arrived. (Bull-Doser, Wikimedia Commons)

 2011-2014 Dodge Avenger

Yes, it’s the car that’s barely there.

Chrysler was recently slinging these off their lots so fast, and at such discounted prices, you’d think they had been stolen. If there was a cheaper midsize car on the market, I didn’t notice it.

There are many things that make this outgoing model a good candidate.

First off, the 2011-2014 Avengers look an awful lot like the 2007-2010 Avengers that came before them. The mid-life cycle design refresh gave the bland car a slightly improved appearance, but at a distance, or in the dark, or to an untrained eye, they may as well be the same thing.

“Is that a nearly-new car, or seven-year-old clunker?”

The 2011 upgrades also endowed the Avenger with a decent shot of power, courtesy of the available 3.6-litre Pentastar V-6. This well-regarded unit serves as the base engine in hotter models like the Dodge Charger, Challenger, and Chrysler 300.

The Pentastar’s 283 horses and 260-lb-ft of torque, delivered through a modern 6-speed automatic, provides big pull in a smaller, less-assuming package than its storied stablemates. Zero-to-60 (mph) times were listed at 6.3 seconds with this drivetrain, according to the manufacturer.

No slouch, for sure. To put this into perspective, results from the Michigan State Police’s vehicle evaluation program in 2013 show the fastest police cruiser on the road – the Taurus-based and EcoBoost-equipped Ford Police Interceptor – ran up a 5.66 second 0-60 time.

The Explorer-based Police Interceptor utility, equipped with the same turbo 3.5-litre, emerged with a 6.28 second 0-60 time. The non-turbo utility returned a 8.02 second figure.

In the same tests, a V-8-powered Dodge Charger cruiser hit 60 mph in 6.04 seconds when equipped with optional all-wheel-drive.

 While I certainly don’t condone running from the cops (they have many ways of getting you), those high-performing vehicles’ numbers are very interesting when contrasted with the lowly Avenger.

Besides the upgraded powertrain (at least in higher trim levels), the 2011-2014 Avenger saw fairly major suspension upgrades, which would help both cop and felon stay on the road while enjoying their car’s newfound power.

Chrysler sold a good number of Avengers in the latter part of the model’s run, but it was never a vehicle anyone talked about. Lately, I’ve begun to notice them more and more – often outfitted with blacked-out rims that aren’t unattractive on this boxy vehicle.

Frankly, in some cases, the Avenger looks a little bit badass, and isn’t that really just perfect for both criminal and cop?



Lincoln’s identity crisis

Kissin' cousins...

Kissin’ cousins…

Automotive columnist John Phillips has an interesting piece in the July edition of Car and Driver.

In it, Phillips describes the Lincoln Motor Company as being devoid of direction and purpose – an automaker undecided as to what it wants to be in the automotive landscape. Lincoln’s badge-engineered lineup (essentially, luxury re-treads of Ford vehicles), are a “distracting abstraction,” Phillips argues, existing solely as a second sales stream for Ford.

This kind of speculation is nothing new, as Lincoln has been drifting like a ship without a rudder for some time, but it’s still worthwhile. Lincoln is a storied nameplate that has become almost invisible, and deserves to return to prominence.

While traditional rival Cadillac now boasts an appealing lineup of aggressively styled vehicles that knows who their competition is, Lincoln’s offerings lack an overall design philosophy.

Judged on their own merits, each vehicle in Lincoln’s lineup has things to like about it, but there’s no denying they’re simply ‘Fords…with luxury’. Luxury, and an odd grille.

I know the retro waterfall thing is supposed to emulate the face of the classic 1940 Continental, but it always looked like a beached whale to me. The MKS is nice but forgettable, the MKT is a bizarre land boat that’s rarer than a Toronto Conservative, the MKX seems to be a top trim level for the Ford Edge, and the MKZ – the most visible new Lincoln – boasts a no-cost Ford Fusion hybrid drivetrain as its centrepiece along with ‘different’ styling.

The Lincoln MKS: a whale of a sedan.

The Lincoln MKS: a whale of a sedan.

Phillips argues that Lincoln needs to do something completely new – something that’s distinctly a product of Lincoln, and not Ford – in order to emerge from automotive purgatory.

I don’t see why this isn’t possible. Ford is making money, and I’m sure it would like to make Lincolns that generate large sales (and buzz). In the 60s and 70s, Lincoln was a powerhouse, selling luxury coupes and massive formal sedans like they were going out of style (and they were).

In the 1980s, Lincoln held its own over Cadillac precisely because they hadn’t gone on the badge-engineering ride that GM had entered Cadillac into.

(See clip for evidence that Lincoln played up this angle, advertising its “uncompromised individuality.”)

Things started to fall apart in the 1990s after the Mk VIII was put out to pasture and the front-drive Continental started withering on the vine, leaving the Town Car as the remaining ‘classic’ Lincoln.

The rear-drive Lincoln LS (2000-2006) that followed earned some impressive accolades, but is now as remembered as the Cadillac Catera of the same era – ie, not at all. Badge engineering began in earnest in the LS’s wake, with the introduction of the Fusion-based Zephyr in 2006.

The Zephyr thudded into the marketplace with lacklustre sales, forcing the Ford Motor Company to almost immediately rebrand it as the MKZ (while also giving it an engine upgrade and grille redesign).

The rest is history.

I’m sure Lincoln will one day find the direction it needs, but what direction that will be escapes me. I know many car enthusiasts still wish for a modern, rear-drive incarnation of the Continental (with suicide doors, no less!), but Cadillac’s newfound hotness didn’t come from re-hashing the deVilles and Fleetwoods of years past.

On its own, the new MKC small crossover is fairly attractive, with a duo of interesting turbo fours. However – call me a traditionalist – Lincoln needs to be primarily about sedans. We will watch.

Hey there, Stude…

1964-65 Studebaker Commander (Lark), spotted inside the former RCAF Picton air base in Ontario.

1964-65 Studebaker Commander (Lark), spotted inside the former RCAF Picton air base in Ontario.

There’s something about a late-model Studebaker Lark that commands respect.

From its homely beginnings in 1959, when it was introduced as Studebaker’s new compact car, the Lark eventually blossomed into a competent, competitive sedan with a distinctive style. By shedding its initially bulbous sheet metal, the Lark went from frumpy to foxy over the course of its life – one that ended when the Studebaker Corporation bit the dust in 1966.

In the early 60s, the compact class was a new breed in America, and a competitive one. Each major automaker tackled the new challenge in a different way, aiming for the biggest market slice but also appealing to different demographics.

Ford’s Falcon was bland as a wool cardigan (but sold well), while Mercury’s Comet stood apart with (purposefully) upscale, Lincoln-esque styling cues. The Dodge Dart/Plymouth Valiant twins emerged in the compact field with awkward looks in 1962, but soon evolved into a vehicle with safer styling and a reputation for performance. The basic Chevy II Nova of the period went so far as to offer a base 4-cylinder for economy, but later turned its focus to sporty models to battle Chrysler for youth-oriented sales.

In contrast, the Lark offered a combination of appealing traits – understated style, roominess, power, and economy  but nothing too radical. The Lark was conceived at a time when Studebaker desperately needed a sales hit, as it was bleeding cash from its ill-fated merger with Packard.

With little to work with, Studebaker created its new compact by essentially ‘compressing’ an existing full-size bodyshell, resulting in a still-roomy vehicle of shorter length. Stodgy on the outside but spacious on the inside, the Lark tempted drivers into its un-flashy confines by offering a available, class-exclusive 289-cid V8 sourced from the Hawk.

A short recession in the United States in 1958 spurred interest in downsized vehicles, and the early Lark sold in respectable numbers. However, when Studebaker found itself facing a full broadside of new compacts from the Big Three in 1960-61, another design miracle needed to be pulled off for next-to-no money.

An industrial designer named Brooks Stevens was brought in to work design (and financial) magic on the Lark, a task he pulled of admirably. A longer body combined with creased, upright styling, a grille that emulated a Mercedes-Benz, and new trim options made the ’62 Lark a credible option.

Further refinements in design were made to keep the model fresh, and in 1964 what was to become the last Lark model started rolling off assembly lines – though not for long. The third model (1964-66) kept the crisp, upright body style but moved towards a more integrated, American-looking front end.



Alas, the end was nigh for the Lark and Studebaker as a whole. Struggling to keep its automotive division afloat amid stagnant sales, Studebaker’s top brass decided to wind down vehicle sales in in a bid to leave the market altogether.

Different... and soon to be dead. America kissed the Studebaker goodbye in 1964; Canada, in 1966.

Different… and soon to be dead. America kissed the Studebaker goodbye in 1964; Canada, in 1966.

The automaker’s South Bend, Indiana plant ceased operations in December, 1963, with production moving to Studebaker’s smaller Hamilton, Ontario plant. At this point, the Lark name was replaced by the Commander.

After producing a 1965 model that was a carbon-copy of the ’64, a refreshed ’66 Studebaker was produced in small numbers until the Hamilton plant closed in March, 1966.

Even as the automotive division was drawing its last breaths, dedicated staff at Studebaker Canada were busy planning how they could bring the company – and the car – into the 1970s.

That Studebaker managed to soldier on so long after its near-bankruptcy in the mid-1950s is a testament to the company’s determination.

The last dinosaur?

"Thar she blows!"

“Thar she blows!”

In a previous post, the topic of full-size front-wheel-drive American vehicles was given a thorough look-see.

Hot stuff, I know.

In the post, I stated I felt the Buick Lucerne (2006-2011) represented the end point of a lineage of General Motors vehicles that began with the introduction of the C-Body platform in 1985. On this platform rested the downsized, front-drive Olds 98, Cadillac de Ville and Fleetwood, and the Buick Electra.

The following year, the H-Body platform added the front-drive Olds 88,Buick LeSabre and Pontiac Bonneville to the lineup. And, of course, the rest is history.

When the plush, full-size Buick Lucerne and Cadillac DTS were put out to pasture in 2011 (taking their front bench seats and 4-speed automatics with them), it seemed that the last heirs to the fortune had died.

The lineage was broken, yes, but was the spirit, too?

As Rod Serling would say if he were alive today, “Submitted for your analysis…the Cadillac XTS.”


A Chariot for the Geriatric?


It would seem that General Motors just couldn’t stomach the gaping hole the departed DTS left in its lineup, so it introduced the XTS in 2013. With the taught, import-fighting ATS and larger, business-like CTS adding fresh style and performance to the marque, GM must have realized it couldn’t alienate traditional buyers while trying to attract new ones.

The retiree community needed a traditional Caddy to drive to the early bird dinner at 4:30 p.m., and funeral homes needed livery cars for when the Last Supper has come and gone.

Though it contains modern underpinnings (a stretched Epsilon II platform), and an up-to-date drivetrain (GM’s direct-injected 3.6-litre V6 and 6-speed automatic), the XTS is clearly the spiritual successor to all those front-drive plushies that came before it.

The 3.6 makes admirable power – with 321 horsepower and 274 foot-pounds of torque on hand, an XTS driver will have no trouble getting to the pharmacy before it closes. With available all-wheel-drive, handling and all-weather capability gets a boost.

The available 410-horsepower twin-turbo V-Sport model just seems pointless, however, and I’d be curious to see who actually springs for this.

Style-wise, the XTS is something of an odd duck. The front end, viewed head-on, is inoffensive, contains adequate brightwork and clearly marks this car as a Cadillac.

Side-on, the front end appears stumpy, with the leading edge of front door nearly touching the wheel well. A long, flowing crease originating at the front fender carries on to the rear of the car, breaking up the expanse of sheet metal and giving the long sedan less of a slab-sided look.

The XTS’s side crease, flowing roofline and sharply raked C-pillar are not unattractive – at the very least, the package is inoffensive, which is the design goal of many an automaker when trying to woo traditional return buyers.

Like the abbreviated front end, the rear deck can also be seen as stumpy, despite the car’s otherwise large rear overhang. Though it’s hard to see when an XTS is scooting past, the rear taillights actually have a vestigial tail fin thing going on.

Don't cut yourself by accident...

Don’t cut yourself by accident…

Certainly, towering fins were once the hallmark of Caddy design, so this represents a nod to the marque’s storied past. As well, given the vehicle’s short rear deck, the tiny fins serve to carry the car’s presence just a little bit further aft.

Overall, it’s something of a strange vehicle, but it’s one Cadillac clearly felt needed to exist.

How long will the XTS soldier on in the Cadillac lineup? Who knows, but it will be interesting to see what the design department does when it comes time for a mid-cycle refresh or even a full re-design.