Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Retirement for Cars Makes a Difference

I am not retired, and my 7-year old car is far from it, as well. 
There's nothing like new rubber to make the an older vehicle drive like this year's model...unless there's a snag.

The set of new tires were plopped on my doorstep like a pair of double-bound donuts. Fresh from the factory and tied with plastic strips, the Firestone Firehawk Wide-ovals begged to be mounted, balanced, and spun into action on my test vehicle--a 2007 Mazda MX-5 Miata. But what followed became an experiment and an education in tire design and application, and a greater appreciation for the technology in both the car and the tires.

I took the new set of Firestone's to my local Discount Tire outlet, where I have purchased tires and maintained all my cars for years. They mounted, balanced, and set pressures for the tires, and put them on my car in less than an hour's time. The beefy-looking new tread rolled smoothly and soundlessly, and the tires' stiffness made the Miata drive like new--despite its low 6-digit mileage on the odometer.

Driving joy turned to concern, however, when it became apparent that I could steer the car by using the gas pedal. Even at moderate speeds, a gentle push on the accelerator would goose the engine, and cause the car to veer to the left. Reducing fuel to the engine would cause the car to pull abruptly to the right. I headed back to the tire shop.

The technicians took a look at the tires--no obvious blemishes could be seen. They double checked the balance and the tire pressures, and just to be safe, rotated the tires on both sides of the car, front to rear. The problem was even more pronounced at all speeds. Acceleration caused the Miata to pull to the left; de-acceleration sent it into a dip to the right. Freeway acceleration was hair-raising, as the car seemed to want to go in its own direction.

When I explained what was happening to the Firestone media rep, she was aghast, and immediately consulted Firestone Engineers. The word came back down the line to get the car to a designated Firestone store, where the manager would swap out the tires for another set. And so I made an appointment to have the problem addressed.

Not all tire stores are created equal.
I've been in some of the great ones, and I've been in some places that I frankly would not trust to patch a bicycle tire. The Firestone store in Tomball, Texas is a beautiful facility--clean and efficient. I was immediately put at ease by the manager, Jason Harris.
His crew un-mounted the Firehawks and inspected them for damage.

When I described what was happening, Harris commented that sometimes tires have imperfections and do strange things. Then he told me Firestone was going to replace the Firehawks with a different tire--one recommended by their engineers for my vehicle.
They mounted a set of Bridgestone Potenza's on the car. Same company, but a slightly different tire architecture, and as it turns out, a different manufacturing process, as well.

 Modern tire making today is mostly automated, with robots forming the elements of the tires, with uniform precision. In some plants, however, the placing of key components--like some of the radial bands inside tires like Firestone's Firehawks--are still applied by humans. There will be some variation, although most American-made vehicles are designed with an element of forgiveness for such imperfections.

T. J. Tennent is Engineering Manager for Bridgestone-Firestone. He knows tires inside and out--especially inside.
"In every tire, there is an element of conicity," he explained. The root of that word, "cone," is the key--it's a slant of the tread relative to the sidewall, which will cause a tire to veer left or right if allowed to roll independently. And as he explained, the Firehawk tires, while an excellent tire for American iron, just don't play well with cars with more sensitively-tuned suspension systems--like Mazda's MX-5.

"You're basically driving a Japanese Lotus Elise," Tennent told me. The suspension on the Lotus two-seater is so finely tuned, factory mechanics must weigh the driver, and tune the car accordingly. The Mazda is similarly peculiar, and even a one-pound difference in tire pressures can cause the car to veer and pull. That was the key to the trouble I was having with Firestone's Firehawk tires--they're just not made for such nuanced suspension harmonics.

"The Firehawks are engineered for big American muscle-cars with lots of horsepower," Tennent said. Those cars are more forgiving of variations in tire manufacturing. Further, Tennent explained, "no tire is truly, perfectly round." During the manufacturing process, the conicity phenomenon comes into play, which is caused by the belts inside the tire not being totally centered. As you accelerate, the conicity pulls the tire in one direction; as you slow down, the center of gravity on that tire shifts, and the tire pulls the other way. "It only takes one tire on a vehicle to be out of tolerance to cause this," Tennent said.

The Bridgestone Potenza's are made for the metric suspension harmonics of the Mazda MX-5. I could immediately tell the difference in the car's handling--straight and true while accelerating through the gears; solid and stable while de-accelerating.

Tennent says it's not too common a mistake, but one that is warrantable, if caught immediately.  The bottom line is understanding the suspension of the car you're mounting tires on. Firestone and Bridgestone tires are excellent products, but they're not interchangable.

"Typically, Firestone's are going to go on American muscle cars, like the Dodge Challenger," Tennent says. "The Bridgestone's are going to be found on more high-end, performance vehicles, and the Potenza's are the top of the line for those cars," he says.

One other interesting acknowledgement from Tennent: "Discount Tires by and large do an excellent, excellent job of selling and mounting tires," he said. "I don't always let them know who I am when I come into the store," (being a Firestone engineer). "They always do it right."

That's high praise from the high priest of tire design.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Automotive Reporter/Biz News for the Week of 2-23-15

It's 67-degrees outside, just before sunrise, and 68-degrees inside the house this morning. The Weathermen tell us Winter is about to deliver one more cold blast to South Texas for the season, as the rest of the country shivers through the chill.

Baby, it's cold outside!
By now you have seen the iconic image of the frozen Jeep Cherokee grille in a hospital parking lot. Several people snapped photos of the same phenomenon, so it's definitely not a stunt.  
Jeep says a nurse captured the image as she was leaving work last week, it was a hot commodity on social media all weekend. Still, no one knows the owner of the vehicle that left the parking lot ice sculpture. Yet.

Ram Engineering is taking advantage of the chill to test its trucks for severe cold and plow testing--without having to recreate any special conditions. In Houghton, Michigan, sub-zero conditions are perfect for determining trucks' performance under circumstances only a fraction of owners will experience. Some of the experiments include Slush Testing. 

"Slush does not drip off the undercarriage," says Mike Cairns, Director of Ram Truck Engineering. "It hangs on, filling gaps and covering components." Ram enginers know that during a hard freeze, anything covered in slush becomes encased in ice -- fuel lines, diesel exhaust fluid tanks, engine oil pan, brakes, etc. Ram runs trucks through 12-inch-deep slush, and immediately park the trucks overnight in a refrigeration facility set at minus 20 degrees.

2015 Ram Truck with Snow Plow
Each truck is thoroughly inspected to assure components and systems are functioning properly. The diesel exhaust fluid (DEF) tank is allowed to freeze in such conditions. The tank and lines are made of materials to allow a hard freeze without breaking. An independent heating system keeps just enough DEF above freezing temperatures to allow engine start up while meeting tailpipe emissions. 

The location of vent lines is another key design feature. Water can freeze, clogging vent lines for the axles, transmission and transfer case. And in such sub-zero conditions, windows must continue to roll up and down, as well as windshield wipers and defrost mechanisms must continue to function.

Got Snow?
Ford F-150 with optional plow.
Ford Motor Company is now offering snow plow options for all of its F-series pickup truck cab configurations, including Regular, SuperCab and SuperCrew. 

Now that Ford is using more high-strength steel in the frame, and new, high-strength, military-grade, aluminum alloy in the body, there's a weight reduction of about 700-pounds. You can make up for that with a nifty $50 snow plow mount option--Ford's fine print says, "snow plow not included." In Houston, we could use these for the "Steer it or Clear it" operations on our freeways. In all kinds of weather. 

2015 Silverado Black-out option
If you're weary of white-out conditions, Chevrolet is offering a Black-out package for its 2015 Silverado pickup trucks.  The $1,595  option for regular- and double-cab 1500 WT models  includes 20” black painted aluminum wheels, P275/55R20 all-season blackwall tires, deep tinted glass and black bowties. The package is available for order now, and you can have any color you want, as long as it is black.

A chicken in every pot, a Pullman in every garage? 
Not exactly, unless you live in a very tony neighborhood. To mark the 50th Anniversary of the Mercedes-Benz 600--the epitome of luxury sedan travel, the German automaker is rolling out the Mercedes-Maybach Pullman S-600 at the Geneva Autoshow

1887 Pullman "Vestibule" Railcar
Historical note: The Pullman label was originally applied to railway carriages with luxurious open-plan compartments. They were built by the American Pullman Palace Car Company. The designation was soon also applied to motor cars from Mercedes-Benz which were based on an extremely long wheelbase, with a generously-sized passenger compartment. In the rear, separated from the driver's area by a partition, there was space for four passengers to recline regally in four single seats facing each other.

 The new Pullman is 21.3-feet long--another 3.5 feet longer than the Mercedes-Maybach S-Class. The wheelbase is 14.5 feet, and the car is 5.2 feet tall--more than 3.9 inches higher than a Mercedes S-Class.

The absolute top-of-the-range model is the Mercedes-Maybach Pullman S 600. This behemoth is powered by a V12 biturbo engine, producing 523hp from a 5.9-L engine, generating 612 lb-ft. of torque at 1900 rpm. Growl.

If you have to ask, you can't afford it, but prices for "unarmoured models" start at $566,922. Deliveries will commence in 2016.
Grey Poupon?

Yutaka Katayama (1909-2015)
The man credited for developing the iconic Datsun 240-Z now belongs to the ages. Nissan legend Yutaka Katayama, the man known as “Mr. K,” died Thursday, February 19, 2015 at the age of 105.

Katayama joined the company in 1935 handling publicity and advertising. He built the Datsun brand from scratch--the first US exposure to the Japanese company, and assembled the pieces that would become the venerable "Z-car" series. Mr. K. was team manager for two Datsun 210's entered in a grueling rally circumnavigating the Australian continent. Their victory vaulted the brand into worldwide renown and set the stage for Datsun exports. 

Yutaka Katayama
 Katayama promoted the first All-Japan Motor Show in 1954, and in 1998 was inducted into the American Automotive Hall of Fame for introducing a generation of vehicles that redefined the US car market.

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Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Automotive Reporter/Biz News for the Week of 2-16-15

Because one pair of awkward,
yellow lamps weren't enough...
1976 Honda CVCC Hatchback
My father used to always tell me that owning a car was more than the monthly payment.  By the time I had purchased my first new car (a 1976 Honda CVCC 5-speed), gasoline was selling for .59/gallon on average, so “what, me worry?” to quote Alfred E. Newman

All that changed in the ‘80’s, and now the price of gasoline can cause apoplexy if it varies more than a few cents from week to week. Hey, remember what you were paying for gasoline a year ago??

The editors at Kelly Blue Book have just published their cost estimates for the most fiscally prudent cars to own from the Class of 2015 (on a five-year basis). 

According to the report, the winners in their categories are based on the costs of financing, insurance and state fees, as well as the estimated costs of fuel, scheduled maintenance and repairs.  The purchase is based on Kelley Blue Book’s exclusive Fair Purchase Price. Then there’s projected depreciation, derived from KBB’s industry-standard residual-value analysis.
The results are pretty impressive.
Yes, I am a nerd.

2015 Audi A-5 Coupe
The Subaru brand snags the overall KBB 5-Year Cost to Own Award with its line-up of all-wheel drive vehicles, spiffy styling on the outside, and improved appointments on the inside. The best luxury brand in this category goes to Lincoln, which has made major strides towards affordability while retaining classic good looks. The best luxury car to own, however, is the Audi A-5, with a projected cost of ownership of $57,527.

KBB has proclaimed the 2015 GMC Sierra Regular Cab Pickup Truck the best-to-own full-size truck over 60-months, estimating the total cost of ownership at $42,881.

2015 Ford Mustang GT
 The 2015 Ford Mustang GT is Best High-performance car to own over 5-years, at an estimated expense of  $49,545. (Editorial comment: This is the most-beautiful rendering yet of the classic Mustang design, with lines that excite even when the car is inert.)

2015 Mazda M-5 Miata
The most cost-efficient sports car to own for a 5-year span, according to KBB, is the 2015 Mazda MX-5, at $40,178. Remember, these figures include the purchase price of the automobile. Yes, here's my weekly, obligatory photo of the Car I Most Covet.

The Best Sub-compact car award goes to the 2015 Chevrolet Spark, at $26,905 over the same period.
2015 Toyota Prius-C
And since it appears there’s a trend headed that way, KBB says if you’re going to buy a hybrid-alternative-energy car, the Toyota Prius-C is the way to go. Estimated average cost to own over five-years clocks in at $34,780.

You can look up your own prospects on the Kelly Blue Book report site here.

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