Mustang Parts
   Carrying Saleen wheels and Bullitt wheels.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Depressing Scenes At The Motor Mall

I drove through the Troy motor mall today. If you are local, you know about it, it is a huge collection of car dealerships clustered together on Maple Road between Coolidge and Crooks. Every major brand has a dealership there, and some minor ones, including Aston Martin, Jaguar, Saab, Lamborghini, Maserati, Bentley.

It was so quiet you would have thought it was Sunday and not Friday afternoon. There were no customers walking any of the lots I could see. Even huge dealerships like Chevrolet and Honda didn't seem to have anything going on. The Saab store looked closed--I couldn't tell if the lights were on. Jaguar also. Even Honda and Toyota were still. Pontiac? Dead.

If people don['t buy cars, everyone will be broke, from top to bottom. The economic impact of the Troy Motor Mall is huge, when you consider the hundreds of salesman, mechanics, accountants, porters, truckers involved. And the restaurants surrounding it.

If you don't need a new car, that's fine. But maybe throw these guys an oil change or something to keep them fed, keep them working. Maybe let the dealer do your next regular service, or take it in for detailing.

But what is our Governor doing? According to Frank Beckman on WJR, she's working on a plan to double car registration fees and gasoline taxes. "In five years you'll be blown away!" she famously said. Now she's working on blowing us away.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Standalone Saturn?

There has much discussion recently in the press about the possible future of Saturn as a stand-alone auto company. One scenario has GM spinning off Saturn to the dealer network, and the independent company would source cars from wherever it could, and sell them as Saturns, much like Sears' Kenmore brand.

There are some major problems with this idea. First, Saturn would have to find suppliers of cars that would be worthy of being sold as Saturns. Speculation centers on Chinese automakers. But the issue here is, none of the Chinese, as far as we know, are ready to enter the U.S. market. Malcolm Bricklin's big plans to bring Chery here with Visionary Vehicles fell apart; so apparently did plans for Dodge to bring a Chery sourced Hornet. I had the chance to examine a Chery car at last year's NAIAS, and I can tell you it was not up to North American standards for fit and finish. Even if Chinese Saturns were within a couple of years of being ready for U.S. customers, they would have to be very good to win over a skeptical public.

The other problem is the issue of market capacity. Without big-brother GM adding its corporate heft to Saturn, it would be yet another small import car company, similar to Subaru, Mitsubishi, Suzuki, Kia, and the former Isuzu. It would be another little brand trying for customers, in a market that is oversaturated with nameplates.

Saturn's problem is that it's brand has ceased to represent anything unique. It was started as a moderately priced seller of small cars and wagons with a no-hassle sales experience. It was morphed into a mid-market to up-market seller of decent but unexceptional cars and crossovers (they even had a Saturn minivan!). The only constant was the no-hassle dealership. In this market, basing a car brand around a sales attitude is not going to cut it.

Unless a foreign carmaker buys the Saturn brand and distribution network, I really doubt that Saturn has a future as an independent company. And if someone does buy Saturn, they are going to have a hard time making money.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Beginning Of The End Of Personal Mobility?

Mark Tapscot is feeling down on the auto business, judging by his latest blog post, here.
In it he points out that the leftist technocrats sweeping in with Obama ultimately want to reduce our use of personal vehicles, and force us to live packed more densely together in cities, and to rely on mass transportation. Their strategy to do this is to make gasoline expensive, keep the road system under-developed, and perhaps down the road tax our mileage.

No, the people now deciding what kind of products will be made by Detroit are working in Congress, the U.S. Department of Transportation and, most crucially, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Virtually to a man, these people hate privately owned cars and the individual autonomy they symbolize.

That means it's not just the kind of cars and trucks produced by the manufacturers' skunk works that are in Washington's cross-hairs, it's the very notion that all individual Americans ought by right be able to buy and drive the vehicle of their choice anywhere and anytime they choose.

I have blogged on this topic before, and i generally agree with what Mark says. However, there are some big roadblocks in the way of the anti-car left.

First, Americans love cars, and even if they can't have fire breathing 300HP V8's, they will find a way to get fun fast cars. If people get the idea that the bureaucrats are trying to take away the great American right-to-drive-what-I-want, there will be some nasty electoral surprises.

Second, Obama is now caught between two opposing forces, which are going to grind up his campaign agenda: the economy and labor unions on one hand, and the green lobby on the other. To keep his promise of saving jobs, and particularly of helping "working families", Obama must prop up the domestic auto industry. If it fails, it takes his economic promises with it. Propping up the auto industry means getting people to buy lots of shiny new cars. The days of cheap V8's are over, but the days of shiny new cars in every other driveway won't be.

Also, as part of the economic stimulus plan, a ton of money is going to be spent on "infrastructure", and some of that is actually going to go to road repair and construction.

Obama's not dumb, he knows that economic fear is what got him elected, and at the end of the day, I expect that he will throw the greens under the bus.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

How To Watch A Movie On Your PC, The Fun Way

I recently discovered VLC. VLC ( is an open source media player application which can handle just about any kind of file you can throw at it, such as VOB (DVD), DivX, XVid. One of the neat things it knows how to do is to play movies at higher rates than normal, with sound.

So, take your average pompous over written Hollywood crap-fest. You want to get through the story but you don't want to waste 2 1/2 hours to do it. Throw the DVD (or DivX, or whatever) into your computer, fire up VLC, and watch it at 2x or 3x. Slow it down for the important parts, the ones that actually advance the plot, then speed it back up again for the filler. There's also comedic value in watching people deliver their lines sounding like chipmunks.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Dissecting The Stimulus Bill

I spent a few minutes combing through the final version of the economic stimulus bill passed by the U.S. Congress (the huge PDF files are availible here). Here are some highlights, with regards to automotive and transportation related spending.

Divisiion A, Title IV: Energy
  • $2 billion for grants for manufacturing advanced batteries and components, to be produced in the U.S.
  • $3.4 billion for "Fossel Energy Research and Development". This includes $800 million for "clean coal" research, $1.5 billion for carbon capture and efficiency improvements, and money for geology research for carbon sequestration.
  • $10 million for administrative costs for the Advanced Technology Vehicle Vehicles Manufacturing Loan program.
Division A, Title XII: Transportation
  • $27.5 billion for highway, rail, and port infrastructure spending\
  • $105 million earmarked for Puerto Rico highway program
  • $550 million earmarked for transportation improvements on Indian Reservations and Federal Lands: $310 million for Indian reservation roads, $170 million for park roads, $60 million for forest highways, $10 million for the Refuge Roads program
  • $1.3 billion for Amtrak
  • $100 million to fund high fuel economy vehicles for the federal fleet, including gasoline hybrid vehicles, plug-in hybrid vehicles
Division B, Title 1
  • Sec. 1008: new vehicle sales tax deduction: sales taxes on new vehicles are federally deductible, for vehicles which cost less than $49,500 and for taxpayers with income below $125,000 ($250,000 married joint filers).
  • Sec. 1141: tax credit for plug in hybrid vehicles, $2,500 plus $417 for each kWH of battery capacity in excess of 5 kWH, maximum of $5,000. Phases out after the first 200,000 such vehicles sold after December 2009.
  • Sec. 1142: tax credit for plug-in electric (battery electric) vehicles, 10% of the cost of such a vehicle, capped at $2,500. Vehicle must have battery capacity of at least 4 kWH, less is allowed if 2 or 3 wheels. 2 and 3 wheel vehicles qualify for the tax credit.
  • Sec. 1143: tax credit for plug-in conversion kits, 10% of the cost of a conversion, not to exceed a cost of $40,000 (credit capped at $4,000).
A few observations. First, lots of pork in the highway portion, with earmarks specifically for Indian reservations and park roads.

The federal tax deduction for a new vehicle purchase sales tax is nice, but not a huge incentive. Consider: $20,000 vehicle, sales tax of 6%, deduction is $1,200. And if you are leasing, your tax deduction might only be half of that, or less, depending on the value of the lease.

The tax credits for plug-in hybrids, battery electric vehicles, and plug-in conversions are mostly window dressing. In the next few years, there won't be very many plug-in hybrds on the market, and certainly there won't be very many battery electric vehicles, in any volume. Eventually, enough products may enter the market to make this tax credit useful to more people, but it will take years to happen. Plug-in conversions are silly, in terms of their economics, and a 10% discount isn't enough to fix it, I don't see them ever being a high-volume business.

The $2 billion for advanced battery manufacturing grants is a good idea, this should provide a badly needed boost for the domestic battery industry, and should recover some lost jobs. A123 systems has already proposed a battery plant to be built in Michigan, pending government funds.

The "clean coal" money, and carbon sequestration projects are not likely to produce much useful result. I'm not sure there is such a thing, really, as "clean coal", at least not by the standards of the green lobby. Scrubbing coal emissions of CO2, and pumping it underground to hide it may be so expensive that it makes coal non-competitive as a power source. This, of course, may be the whole point. I would have liked to see more money for nuclear power subsidies instead.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

My New Gadget: WD TV

Up to this point, my favorite a/v gadget has been my Roku Soundbridge wireless MP3 player. But the other day, I got a Western Digital TV HD Media Player, which is one of the coolest gadgets I have ever owned.

What the WDTV does is play just about any type of media file, from all kinds of video formats (DivX, Xvid, AVI, MP4, MKV, DVD ISO, etc.) to photos and music. It will play to your TV through composite video (RCA) or HDMI, and will output in SD or HD. It uses USB for storage, USB flash drives or USB HDDs, and can mount two of them at once. It is cheap, around $100.

The goodness here is in the details, and the simplicity of the device. The user interface is attractive, and easy. The menu response is snappy. The remote is clean, attractive, and works at wide angles to the unit. To play video, you rip your DVDs, or download your webisodes to a USB drive. You carry it over to your TV, plug it in, and after short boot-up time where it indexes the new media, you are in business. It even worked with an old USB 1.1 flash drive. Fast forward/rewind is smooth and responsive. You can zoom in, pan, and zoom out the view during playback. WD has issued several firmware updates since the product launched, which fixed bugs and added features. Firmware updates are easy.

I thought I wanted something like a Popcorn Hour A110, which would allow streaming from my PC to my TV, but they are fairly expensive ($200) and you have to supply the HDD yourself. Also, my previous experience with streaming videos from my PC (Hauppauge MediaMPV) was not stellar, with significant network buffering and transcoding delays. By removing the network capabilities, Western Digital came up with something that is, for the money, more than good enough.

*I'm not a paid promoter or official reviewer, just a happy customer.