BACK SEAT DRIVING - MARCH 2007
This article is from our archives and has not been updated and integrated with our "new" site yet... Even so, it's still awesome - so keep reading!
Published on Wed, Feb 28, 2007
By: The LACar Editorial Staff
Well, it looks like the guy who tried to sell his carpool stickers for $10,000 on eBay wasn't that far off the mark (see March 10th Back Seat Driving, below). According to a USA Today report, Californians appear willing to pay $4,000 more for used gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles that have state-issued carpool stickers than for hybrids that don't. The data was obtained from a sampling of prices by Kelley Blue Book for USA Today. As many LA Car readers know, the "Access OK California Clean Air Vehicle" carpool stickers allow certain low-polluting hybrids (the Toyota Prius, Honda Civic Hybrid, and Honda Insight) to use the low-density, faster-moving carpool lanes - even if the driver is alone in the car. California ceased issuing stickers to hybrids last month after hitting the legislative ceiling of 85,000 stickers. The no-longer-available stickers are valid through January of 2011 and stay with the car when it's sold, benefiting subsequent owners. "Being able to use the carpool, or high-occupancy vehicle, lanes easily saves half an hour a day in congested Los Angeles or San Francisco, making the stickers valuable to time-pressed Californians," says Chris Woodyward of USA Today. "Now that no new permits are available for hybrids, asking prices average $4,000 more for used Priuses with stickers than without, the survey by car-price tracker Kelley shows.". "It appears people buying Prius vehicles had a different angle" than just saving fuel or polluting less," Kelley market valuation director.Eric Ibara informed USA Today, "Kelley sampled prices of 30 2004-06 Priuses offered at used car websites. That's sufficient to confirm the price difference," Ibara says. Evidently, not enough used Civic hybrids were for sale to include it in this survey. "If gasoline is $3 a gallon - it's been at least that much for about two weeks here - a used-Prius buyer could offset the carpool premium in 30,000 miles," Ibara calculates. "That values the owner's time at $20 a hour and assumes the sticker saves half an hour a day," reports Woodyard. Your Back Seat Driving comments can be sent to: Letter to the Editor
ROY NAKANO: BACK SEAT DRIVING HOW CONSUMER REPORTS' CAR SEAT TESTS WENT WRONG March 21, 2007
A series of misjudgments and a key misunderstanding between Consumer Reports and an outside laboratory led to the publication of erroneous crash-test data in its recent report on infant car seats, an expert investigation and interviews with those involved has revealed. The report, in the February 2007 issue of Consumer Reports, was made public on January 4th but was withdrawn - along with its test results - 14 days later when evidence first surfaced that it was flawed. The report attracted wide public attention because it said 10 of the 12 seats tested provided poor protection. CR urged recall of two models that got our lowest rating of Not Acceptable. The withdrawal, which also generated broad publicity, shook the confidence of the public and safety experts in a 71-year-old institution that had enjoyed a largely unblemished record of product testing. "Mistakes are rare at Consumers Union but this one went right to the heart of what we do," says Jim Guest, president of the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports. "We had to figure out exactly what went wrong." Soon after the withdrawal, Consumers Union asked two independent consultants to review the tests: Kennerly H. Digges, former director of Vehicle Safety Research at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which regulates vehicles and child seats, and Brian O'Neill, former president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), which runs its own crash-test program. Digges and O'Neill were given access to documents and communications concerning the project, and interviewed technical staff from Consumer Reports, the outside laboratory where the tests were run, and NHTSA. Their review concludes that Consumer Reports stumbled into methodological errors with misleading results. The project's rationale was simple. NHTSA requires car seats sold in the U.S. to pass a 30-mph front-impact crash test, the same standard to which all new passenger vehicles are held. But many vehicles are also tested in tougher 35-mph front- and 38-mph side-impact crashes as part of the agency's New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) to measure their crashworthiness. Child seats are not required to pass the more rigorous tests, and CR wanted to know how they would behave under NCAP-like conditions. The series of misjudgments, Digges and O'Neill said, stemmed mainly from CR's decision to develop and run the side-impact tests without extensive consultation with other experts. That decision was a mistake, they said. No federal standard exists for simulating 38-mph side impacts, they noted, and "as such, there were large opportunities for tests to go wrong." CR's practice differs from that of some other test organizations, which discuss protocols with manufacturers and others before, during, and after testing. "This openness does not have to mean that the manufacturers can subvert or weaken programs," Digges and O'Neill said, "but it does provide opportunity for important changes to programs to occur and greatly reduces the chances that there will be major criticisms when results are released." The key misunderstanding concerned the proper speed for the test. In written and oral instructions, CR engineers asked that the side-impact tests be run at 38 mph to mimic the NCAP protocol. Under NCAP, that number refers to the speed of the striking vehicle - a car-sized moving barrier that smashes into a stationary vehicle being tested. But once the two collide, they move off more or less as a unit. The resulting velocity of the struck vehicle, and hence of the crash dummies inside, is only about half that of the striking vehicle, since the striking vehicle's momentum is shared between the two. The contractor, on the other hand, assumed the 38-mph figure referred to the post-impact speed of the struck vehicle and set up the test accordingly. "This fundamental misunderstanding goes back to the early communications between CU and the contractor," Digges and O'Neill said. The result? All the side-impact tests took place under conditions that could occur only if the striking vehicle were traveling at 70 mph or more - close to twice the speed of 38 mph. That rendered the results nearly meaningless. Relatively few side-impact crashes occur at such speeds, experts say, and in those that do, the greatest risk of injury is from "intrusion," the tendency of the striking vehicle to crush the other car's passenger compartment, which sled tests generally do not simulate. "Our engineers did not have deep knowledge of side-impact sled simulations and relied largely on the expertise of the lab, which has many years of experience in this field," says Guest. But the contract did not specifically call for the lab to consult on test development, Digges and O'Neill said, adding that the lab "viewed its role as little more than a sled operator. The contractor was willing to run whatever tests were requested." CR has withdrawn its 35-mph front-impact results, although neither the consultants nor others identified specific flaws like those of the side-impact tests. "Given the lack of a widely accepted test protocol, we think it's better to hold off for now," Guest explained. "To shut manufacturers out of the process was shortsighted," says Robert Waller Jr., president of the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association, a trade association, since consultations could have turned up the flaws. "We are willing to work with CR in addressing this issue. We have the same goal##wanting to develop safer products." Your Back Seat Driving comments can be sent to: Letter to the Editor
ROY NAKANO: BACK SEAT DRIVING March 18, 2007
For its annual automotive issue for April, Consumer Reports published its usual articles on reliability and safety. As expected, Toyota and Honda topped the reliability charts. The Prius provides the most miles per gallon. And of the top picks in 10 categories for 2007, all 10 are Japanese cars: Honda Accord (family sedan), Honda Civic (small sedan), Honda Fit (budget car), Infiniti G35 (upscale sedan), Infiniti M35 (luxury sedan), Mazda MX-5 Miata (fun-to-drive), Toyota Highlander Hybrid (midsize SUV), Toyota Prius (green car), and Toyota RAV4 (small SUV). On the other hand, one American car makes the "Most Impressive" list (Ford Fusion/Mercury Milan), while a Toyota makes the "Most Disappointing" list (Toyota Yaris). In the "Which Car Would You Buy Again?" category, the Toyota Prius ranks as the most satisfying vehicle for the fourth straight year. Second place again goes to the Chevrolet Corvette. The Chevrolet Uplander minivan was the lowest-ranked model in this category. One of the most interesting articles in the issue is "Which Companies Make the Best Cars?" Here, reliability is not factored into the equation. Instead, factors such as quality, performance, comfort, and safety features were tabulated to see which car company made the best cars overall. The result? Volkswagen/Audi makes the best cars, according to Consumer Reports. Holding the Number Two spot is Honda/Acura, while BMW/Mini ranks third and Mercedes-Benz forth. "To shed light on why some automakers are thriving while others are spinning their wheels, Consumer Reports dug deep into its own data to show the highs and lows for major carmakers, state the editors. "We analyzed how vehicles performed in a battery of CR's road tests, coupled with reliability histories based on more than 1.3 million vehicles representing 250 models. We huddled with CR's team of expert auto engineers and interviewed business analysts who follow the industry closely." Here's what CR found:
- "No carmaker does everything right. Volkswagen builds vehicles that perform very well in our testing but vary in reliability. Despite very good reliability, not all Toyota models score well."
- "Just because a car is Japanese doesn't mean it's a great car. Honda, Toyota, and Subaru make consistently reliable cars, but other Japanese automakers have mixed results."
- "U.S. automakers build some good models. But many vehicles are mediocre, and even the best seldom rise to the top of their categories against still competition."
- "Some automakers' vehicles consistently do well in important areas such as handling, braking, or fuel ecnomy, which weigh heavily on our Ratings."
The editors are quick to point out that the companies that make the best cars are not necessarily the same ones that make the most reliable ones. Indeed, the Mercedes line, which scored near the top in the "best cars" ratings, ranked at the bottom of the reliability ratings. Conversely, Toyota/Lexus/Scion, while very reliable overall, finished in the middle of the field. All of the Detroit-based companies finished in the bottom half. My take on the story: It's not all about reliability. In reality, all of the car companies make vehicles that are significantly more reliable than the cars of the past. If you choose your car solely on the basis on reliability ratings, you may be missing out on a better car. Your Back Seat Driving comments can be sent to: Letter to the Editor
ROY NAKANO: BACK SEAT DRIVING GHOSN HANDS OFF U.S. OPERATIONS OF NISSAN March 16, 2007 Carlos Ghosn has relinquished direct control of Nissan's Americas operations to Hiroto Saikawa, executive vice president and a purchasing expert, reports Erik Schlzig of the Assocated Press. "Few thought at the time that would mean Ghosn himself would hand over a piece of his empire, which includes Nissan and its alliance partner Renault SA of France, to an underling. Nissan Motor Corporation said the move doesn't mean Ghosn was spread too thinly, but it's likely to give him more time to focus on the company's problems in Japan - where a domestic sales slump led the company to announce Friday it will cut auto production at two factories." Ghosn remains CEO of both Nissan and French automaker Renault SA, which sent in Ghosn to turn the fortunes of Nissan around back in 1999. Ghosn cut costs by closing plants, reducing jobs and selling off assets. Ghosn also oversaw Nissan North America's move from California to Nashville last year, a series of management changes and the launch of several new models. "Less than half of Nissan's professional, management and executive level employees decided to relocate from Southern California when the headquarters was moved to Tennessee last summer," reports Schlzig. Nissan North America's operations include automotive styling, engineering, consumer and corporate financing, sales and marketing, distribution and manufacturing. Your Back Seat Driving comments can be sent to: Letter to the Editor
ROY NAKANO: BACK SEAT DRIVING CARPOOL STICKERS FOR SALE, ONLY $10,000 March 10, 2007