Tuesday, April 29, 2008

GM Hybrids: +2 MPG!

Poking around on AutoBlog Green, I saw that your nice new Chevy Malibu (and its fraternal twin, the Saturn Aura) both are offered with hybrid technology. Cool, I thought.


What is not so cool, is that for a $2500 upcharge on the Malibu, or $3500 on the Aura, you can look forward to an improvement in your gas milage of exactly 2 MPG. That is awesome. No wonder Toyota, Honda, and even Ford are actually selling hybrids. They actually deliver some benefit to the owner, and the planet. Even Nissan is getting into the act with a limited number of Altimas, with parts bought from Toyota. 

If GM is going to bother, they should be able to do better than a hybrid system that gets you 32 MPG vs. 30MPG delivered by their 4-banger. 

Hell, I've said it before, but my '95 Volvo gets 30 on the highway if you treat it nice. If you really want to save money, you can buy an older (and I mean ~1997) Volvo sedan with 100K miles (that means another 100K miles left in it) for about 2 grand. Get the wagon if that makes your pants tight. Think of all that metal and other resources you'd be re-using. That in its own way is pretty "green". And, you save some green on your next car purchase. 

If you want to save the planet, well, thats not so cheap. Just don't throw money away on GM hybrids.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Lets Nip this in the Bud

I'm starting to see a design element pop up on new cars that is mighty ugly. Extrenious chrome doo-dads clipped to the side of the car, just forward of the front door. The '08 Ford Focus, already challenged in the eye candy department, forced to wear this f-shaped thing as if it was f'ing pretty. And the poor Saturn Vue, also a bit of a mash-up, had to have one more thing added on, some vent looking things. 

Ford Focus Side BadgeThe Saturn Vue

One of the things I keep hearing about design, is when you think you are done, try taking something away, and see if it added anything. I hate to see the thing they took off these ugly ducks.

Sunday, April 20, 2008


Did I mention I have a 65 Falcon Squire?

Well, it's true. So you can imagine my shock and dismay when walking to work that I see a total rip off of the tail lights on some kind of new GMC SUV:

Not that Ford was the only one doing tail-lights like these back in the day. I bet there was an Impala around the same time that had round lights with 4 or 6 radiating chrome doo-dads. But since a while back when Lexus shocked the auto world with its jewel like head- and tail-lights with their RS400, everyone and their mother has been cramming dozens of different light elements under one big uber lens. The idea for these things is to say, "look how cool and modern I am." So to see retro details inside a modern fixture makes one wonder where they were going with this. I wonder if the turn signals blink sequentially like my Dad's '69 Cougar. It says, "Look at my car. It has a little tail-light history museum built into the back."

Which in turn brings up this whole styling of rear lights in general. In my opinion, they are all way too big. If you look at a PT Cruiser, or a MINI, you can see that street legal lights don't have to be huge. So this is a design decision. Guy with the biggest red glowing things wins, I guess. Me, I'd prefer some sleek slim horizontal strip of light that seems tucked into a character line, and is perhaps even wraps around the side. Audi is starting to do something like this with the LED lights, but they are housed in a huge block of red plastic. Oh well.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Early '60s Compact Wagons: Modernists Before Their Time

I like the cars of the early 1960's. And I like small cars. So it only makes sense that I like the 60-63 new compacts put out by the "big 3". My longtime favorite is the Corvair. The ultimate Corvair for me is a 62 Monza wagon. Yep, they made a wagon for two years. I'm not talking the Greenbriar van things, though I have fond memories, sorta. For '61, the Corrvair wagon was called the Lakewood. in '62, they called it the Monza, and put bucket seats in it. In '63, they called it a day, and introduced the convertible instead.

Those Corvair wagons were odd looking. The back of the car seems somewhat awkward, especially compared to their coupe brethren. The rear passenger doors seem huge, and the cargo area somewhat tall. I think this part of the design program must have been done by members of the Impala team. Maybe it was all to provide access to the engine sequestered under the cargo area. No 3rd row of seating here! But maybe there should have been a rumble seat up front! It would have been like those fiberglass motorboats, only even more unsafe!

But even still, they have a bit of grace, and a well restored one is quite delightful, as evidenced by this video.

Check out the four door sedan in the background, and how it's rear doors are actually cool in comparison!

Far more common, and I mean that in every sense of the word, are the Falcon wagons. But even these had some odd members of the family. There was the two door wagon, from which they built the Ranchero, or visa versa. And there was the Falcon Squire, complete with fake wood sides, and a list of upgrades inside and out, including a power window in the tailgate. In the interests of full disclosure, that pic of the blue Squire here is mine. Driving this baby around town gets looks, and it's great for running to the nursery to pick up plants when spring rolls around! There are some people who think it takes up too much space in the garage, but I disagree.

And then for sheer wierdness, look no further than the early Valiant wagons. Complete with Virgil Exner's trend setting body sculpting for the early '60s, the very first Valiants and Lancer wagons are now so rare that a search on Google comes up with just a few pictures from old "for sale" listings, and a mention on Wikipedia. By '63, the styling was toned down and the new models were easier to look at over time, meaning more seem to have survived. Meanwhile, Exner pretty much lost his job over the fact that the styling trends he put forth backfired. Other companies were cleaning up their styling. That, and he downsized the full sized models way too much right around the same time. Ooops.

Most of what Rambler was doing in their smaller cars at during this time was derived from the 50's cars and platforms, and were reminiscent of upturned claw-foot bath tubs. The Japanese were just getting going here, and if there is a wagon from this period, let me know! European imports were starting to take off, and the the only "wagon" I can think of would be the VW passenger van. The Morris Minor had a "woodie", but that was really seems like a 50's car. I am sure there were Holden wagons, or Vauxhalls, or some such thing. But these babies, while nice and surely idiosyncratic, are a bit outside of my world.

So, whats the point? These were practical little haulers. They are the same size as most sedans are now, and get about the same mileage. And with SUVs sales dropping like horse turds, it seems to me these cars are looking more modern all the time.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

When Cute-Utes were cute

So who remembers when "Cute-utes" were in fact, cute? Well, cute is hard to define, but it at least implies the fact that they were smaller than the regular SUVs. 

Consider the Toyota RAV4. I just learned that is supposed to mean "Recreational Active Vehicle", while the 4 suggests either 4 passengers, 4 cylinders, and in some models (I assume) 4WD and 4 doors. There, 4 things that the 4 might mean. Nice symmetry.

Ok, so this RAV4 thing started out quite small. As a two door, and later, as a two door convertible, it was in fact, tiny!

So what happened, as typical in the US auto market, if a car is popular, it gets bigger. As the soon to be largest car company ever ever on the planet, Toyota sagely followed the GM playbook, and has progressively made the thing bigger. Now, 10 years later, it is the size that Ford Explorers were back when the RAV4 was introduced. Not so cute anymore!

I dont even want to think about how big Ford Explorers have gotten. Anyone remember the International Harvester TravelAll? The shiney new Explorer I saw the other day had to be as big as one of those!  Just about as pretty, too. No wood though. Too bad.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Shut your mouth when you chew!

The front of a car says alot. It sets the tone for the rest of the design. So what were the designers at Audi and VW thinking when they did these:
Gawd dang. Those grills are just plain ugly. I know they are trying to do something to conceal that 6" battering ram that the feds require, but Audi's corporate look makes me think of sitting back in the dentist chair... one of my least favorite activites. VW seems to have been unable to figure out a way to make this look good, so they just threw alot of shiny stuff at it. People like shiny things, right?

And it is too bad, as the rest of these cars are so darn nice looking. But I can't buy (or love) a car that has an ugly grill. I just can't.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Jeep in a Nash frock?

Who da thunk it? Jeep, who has pretty much built a design vocabulary around a single model designed over 50 years ago, seems to be reaching to its long defunct cousin Nash for some fresh ideas. Rummaging around in the family photo album, someone seems to have fixated on the Nash Metropolitan...
Might I bring your attention to the Jeep Compass, a FWD cute-ute (remember cute-utes?). Styling themes seem to have gone straight from one to the other...

Notice the design similarities:
  1. Headlights at the leading edge of a tunnel that reaches back along the hoodline
  2. Squared off wheel openings. There is a complete posting on squared off wheel openings somewhere in the future of this blog...
  3. The dip on the doors under the windows on the Nash are enlarged all the way down the side of the Jeep, nearly to the rocker panel
  4. The reverse angle used at the C-pillar, while used in a different way is there
  5. Bumpers fared into bulges in the fenders
  6. The Compass even tries to look like a 2-door, hiding the rear door handles in a very Pathfinderish way
  7. and the parking lights/turn signals on the Nash becomes the fog lights on the Jeep.
Granted, the first two of these have been seen on other Jeeps, but it is still pretty odd that such dissimilar cars end up with such a similar overall feel. The picture here actually makes the Jeep look OK. In person, it looks just as dorky a Nash Metropolitan, but not as cute. Just bigger. And dorky.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Corporate insignias: Corporate looking-glass

Walking home the other day, I saw a 2 or 3 year old Chevy Malibu with a GM insignia on the right fender, just aft of the front wheel. That got me thinking.

Chrysler used to have their "star" shaped pentagram logo in chrome on the entire corporate fleet. No more. Checked their sites, and didnt see insignia one. 

Looking on the GM sites, Chevies have it, Pontiacs have it. Caddy's got it. Even Saturns got it. Buicks dont seem to. Which made me wonder why.

Did you know that Buick has exactly 3 models to sell? Enclave, LaCrosse, and Lucerne. 3 models. The pathetic thing is they have a web page on their discontinued models, so you can pine for a Lesabre or Ranier. 

I'd put money on Buick going to where they put Oldsmobile. 

ADDED 6 APRIL 08. OK, so I was walking at lunch today, and saw a Lucerne. Stuck on the side of it was a GM insignia. Checked the other side. GM insignia. So, I stand corrected: The Buicks got them too. But with 3 models, and more Buicks being sold in China than in the US, you gotta wonder, does GM need a niche brand for the golf set?

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Is Toyota the new Chevy?

Ok, for our first regular posting, lets fire up the way back machine...

Back in the '60s, when I was buying Hershey bars for a dime, it was the "Big 3", and then everyone else. Now, it is pretty much the reverse of that. Toyota is the new Chevy, aping the styling cues of its luxury cousins. Lets call Honda the new Ford, with its luxury divisions not quite ever getting it together. The new Ford (Honda) and the new Chevy(Toyota) still seem to be trading off who is winning the styling wars (personally, I am voting for Honda right now). And who gets to be the new Chrysler? Probably Nissan, since they have their "Imperial" line up all worked out now, and a bevy of trucks to boot. 

My point is that American cars are pretty irrelevant these days. Ford seems like those loose conglomerates of Britain, circa 1963: the Austin/Sunbeam/Healy mess that no one could ever keep straight who is in and who is out. GM might as well be the Toyota of those days, turning out odd looking vehicles that seem to linger in your peripheral vision. Not sure what the hell Chrysler is these days. Foreign cars are where the action is now. That part of the picture is kinda sad. Will these former greats make their comeback? Not if they keep turning out vanilla milkshakes on wheels.

The bright spot these days, is there seem to be more options to choose from. Gone are the small american independents, but we have an increase overall of makes available, giving us some great choices. The wierd thing is that Hyundai makes better looking cars than Chevy (yes, even the new Malibu), and Mazda made the greatest sales advances in '07, arguably a result of pretty good styling overall. 

Style-wise, the fun stuff is happening in the smaller car segments... Land-yacht and truck buyers are stuck wanting their Cordobas and 98's, with or without a cargo bed out back, regardless what it costs to send our boys to secure our energy future.  Oops, I wasnt gonna get political.

About AutoClay

What this blog is about:
Cars. Mostly about car design. I am not all that interested in the motor. I dont like to look under the hood. I like the fenders, the chrome, the look of the whole. But dont get me wrong: the thing has to move too. I love good results, and a quick and nimble ride makes me smile too. But mostly I like the styling of new cars, old cars, and those odd cars in between. Oh, and I like small cars. And station wagons. A lot.

Why am I blogging about this:
Not finding much discussion focused on this topic, and while I am inspired by some other blogs, I hope to get my thoughts on "paper" and share them with whoever might care to read. Also, I am no authority on the subject, but I am not finding much on the history of car design, and the relation to what is happening today. Classic car folks stay in their play pen, and new car folks stay in theirs. I like to look at both.

The name, "autoclay":
The challenge was to say automotive design in a quick, easy, smart way. I was thinking about the days when whole teams were responsible for modeling clay into design proposals. No computers, just paper, pencil, clay, and long hours. Not sure it makes any sense, but I'm not sure Jalopnik makes any sense either!

And so here goes... I have a nice list of topics I want to talk about. Please comment. Argue back! Thanks!