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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Sunday, February 08, 2015

The Automotive Reporter/Biz News for the Week of 2-9-15



FCS US LLP, the company formerly known as Chrysler Group, will have a major announcement this week from the Chicago Auto Show.
My sources tell me the Ram Brand is going to take the wraps off its latest offering.

How big a deal is it?
Remains to be seen, and that's the point.
You can catch it with the rest of the world this Thursday (2/12) at 2:30p Eastern/1:3op CST via this link.

If you bought one of those snappy, new Fiat Abarths this year, but haven't had the time (or a proper place) to wring it out, Fiat's Abarth Experience is hitting the road this week. The two-day drive events will launch from the mecca of road racing, Laguna Seca, in Salinas, CA, and scream through Texas twice--including a stop at MSR Houston in Angleton on April 27-28. 

Fiat 500 Abarth
The Abarth Track Experience is a performance adventure for Fiat 500 Abarth owners, "offering professional driving instruction sessions designed to maximize your driving skills on the street, strip, or track." The cost of the event is already included in the price you paid for your car, so might as well take advantage! (Hint: You'll need your VIN to register to participate.)

Ford Motor Company is so positive about its newly-designed, aluminum F-150 pick up truck, it loaned a pair to Barrick Gold USA, and said, 'go ahead, abuse them.'  The company did--and you can see how in this YouTube clip.

2015 Ford Aluminum F-150 Supercab
Barrick was so impressed with the trucks' abilities, they're initially ordering 35 new F-150's to replace older vehicles in their fleet. The company says its fleet trucks operating at its Nevada gold mine typically last only two years, and rack up over 100k miles. 

Barrick plans to eventually replace all of its current fleet--hundreds of trucks--with the new F-150 SuperCab 4x4's, powered by 3.5-liter V6 and 5.0-liter V8 engines.

Last week I told you about a little friendly competition that's underway among Microsoft X-Box gamers, all vying to design the livery for the all new 2016 Mazda MX-5. Nick Beard at Mazda USA tells me the submissions outpaced even his highest predictions.

2016 Mazda MX-5. Eau my.
"Just as is true with our enthusiasts, each entry was full of passion, thought, creativity and self-expression," Beard says. 

Mazda has narrowed the entries down to five finalists. Beard says the two final designs will be chosen by the fans of Forza and Mazda through the Xbox 360 and Xbox One platforms. The winner will be revealed at SXSW

"At this point I cannot anticipate the outcome," says Beard. "It is anyone’s race at this point." Beard did reveal more details about the smaller, lighter 2016 MX-5: The car will develop 155 horsepower and 148 lb-ft of torque from a 2.0L.
Zoom-zoom, indeed!

Dodge now boasts the fastest production sedan in the world, the 
Charger SRT Hellcat, and it's got video proof. The test car is all OEM, including the special Pirelli tires engineered to achieve 200mph+. 

2015 Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat
Only in America can you pay cash for a car that can top 200mph--even though it will cost you nearly $64,000. 

That's way cheaper than the BMW M-5 (at $93,600), which has an engine that's electronically limited to hold you at 155mph. 
Where's the fun in that?

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Friday, February 06, 2015

Looking for Work in the Land of Milk and Honey

The wannabe-workers came in droves.
While a debate rages over the true meaning of the US Government's reporting of  current unemployment figures in the mid 5-percent range--a number that does not include the unemployed who have given up looking for work--the nattily-attired men and women in the lobby of the Omni Houston Hotel Westside seemed unfazed.

They lined up to check in.
They lined up to meet representatives from eleven companies operating in the Oil & Gas realm of possibilities for work. I was among them.

I've been "under-employed" since December, when I secured two part-time jobs in the media field. I was full-bore unemployed from October until that point. Today's  Oil & Gas Job Fair was an exercise in expanding beyond my safety zone, and pitching energy companies with my skill set as a communicator.
They were intrigued, at least.

Some were dismissive to the point of near-rudeness, but most of the near-dozen companies I spoke with were more than a little impressed by my pitch. One thing is certain--I was unique. I can safely say there were no other out-of-work Radio people there.

The Rigzone Oil & Gas Job Fair was produced by Targeted Job Fairs, a part of Dice Holdings, LLP, which promises to "organize the world’s talent by compiling the most current data in the most searchable fashion." Dice also has some pretty interesting metrics to track various parameters, like how long it takes to fill a job opening (25.6 working days in November--up from 24.3 working days in October), and a Recruiting Intensity Index that reflects how hard businesses are working to fill those empty slots (a metric that tapered slightly in November). 

The women working the registration desk wouldn't comment on the record for this blog, but said the first Job Fair of the year is always well-attended. They didn't have an estimate of how many persons showed up. My guestimate would be somewhere north of 600.

Inside the Texas Ballroom, there were lines upon lines of job hopefuls. Lines snaking along the walls. Lines converging, diverging, and undulating around the room. We stood in line for 90-minutes to have 90-seconds with one company representative.
One applicant wise-cracked it was like "speed-dating" for the unemployed.

I stood behind a University of Houston Law Center candidate, specializing in Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Law; she's graduating in May, and starting her job search ahead of the pack.  Behind me was a logistics specialist from Baylor who boasted proficiency in Spanish and Portuguese. Oh, and she had a Masters' in Economics.
Yeah, I blended.

I don't know what kinds of connections these two women made today. We all agreed the real value may have been the informal networking in which we engaged while standing in line together--with a few hundred of our close, professional friends. A referral to a law firm; a query for a factory foreman; and shared information for other job-networking events in coming weeks were among the nuggets of information gleaned from our communion.
There was a lot of that going on in the room.

Towards the end of the day I observed one team from a consulting company that was not waiting behind their table, but proactively working the line of prospects looking for an introduction. A light bulb went on over my head...

I quickly went to the hotel lobby and ordered a half-dozen chocolate chip cookies from the kitchen. Then I stood at the end of that line and waited to make eye contact with one of the company reps. It didn't take long. As I introduced myself, I presented the boxed cookies, with my business card strategically placed front and center, and acknowledged their team had been there all day without a break, and that they were like due for a treat. The woman said, "why don't you come with me?" and escorted me to the head of the line at their table.

We're supposed to follow-up next week.
They've got needs--I've got skilz.

Monday, February 02, 2015

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

...this just in:

The Super Bowl is past, and with it the apex of television ad campaigns descends to a denouement of disappointment for those who were expecting more than Clydesdales and puppies, and missed the obligatory cheesecake from Danica and friends at her favorite domain name registry czar. 

Finally, the car companies are getting with the program the beer companies have been effectively exploiting for seasons on end--tugging at heartstrings, Family, and Country. Both Nissan and Toyota produced some slick pieces that tied coming-of-age themes with the supreme wisdom of purchasing one of their featured vehicles.

2015 Jeep Renegade
Jeep used its commercial time to introduce the new Renegade, against a backdrop of sweeping vistas in the US and beyond, with IRS/Capitol recording artist, Mark Scibilia, warbling, "This Land is Your Land." 

Not sure where the Great Wall of China fits into that particular context, but the commercial was pretty to watch. 
In addition to Fiat-Chrysler's running its mildly amusing "Blue Pill" offering (wherein a Fiat 500 ingests a viagra-like pill, and metamorphoses into a beefier Fiat 500X), Dodge ran a 60-second version of its wildly popular "Wisdom" homage to centenarians in honor of the 100th anniversary of the Dodge brand in 2014.

I like this spot. I have tremendous respect for anyone with the grit to hang around for 100-years, and hang on to their senses. Paired with quick edits of the Dodge Challenger passing across the screen, the comments of the young at heart are priceless.  Bravo, Dodge (and The Richards Group in Dallas). 

With cyber crime on the rise, it might be a good time to beef up your password security. Ford Mustang, one of the most popular cars ever built, now it has the distinction of being one of the most common passwords on the Internet.

SplashData, a company specializing in password management, notes the word “mustang” was the 16th most common password found on the Internet in 2014, and the only nameplate that found its way into the top 25. 

Mustang is also apparently a slayer of superheroes--the proper noun more popular than “Batman” and “Superman” as people’s secret code for accessing their personal networks and accounts.

If you must follow the crowd, SplashData recommends strengthening your “mustang” password by adding numbers--perhaps the year you bought your 'Stang, or incorporate Mustang option codes, paint codes, engine codes or digits from your VIN.

Mazda is using public input for the final touches on its much-anticipated 2016 MX-5. The company enlisted X-box users to help design the livery appointments for the fifth generation Miata, running a contest last month among Forza Horizon-2 players. You can vote for the finalists by going to the X-box website. The results are to be revealed at the SXSW event in Austin next month.

2016 Mazda MX-5 cockpit
The newest MX-5 is reported to be lighter, faster, and a bit smaller than the current iteration of the car, taking design themes from Alfa Romeo. The new skin also retains the ability to make Miata owners weak in the knees all over again.

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