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Detroit design disasters today.

FIAT:  Fix It Again Tony, still applies.

When people ask me about the big three and their small cars, I love to say "Detroit can build pretty awesome grandfather clocks, but don't ask them to build a swiss watch"!

It's just not in their culture, which is still anchored in the era of tail fin Cadillacs.

Over the years, they've had the opportunity to learn from their European subsidiaries, but the "What's good for GM is good for America" insularity has always caused them to design and produce an inferior product.

Enough, already. This isn't the 1980s, when GM could claim to be surprised by oil leaks, like those on Chevy Cruze compacts. It's not 2009, when Chrysler could blame a foreign owner that denied it first class technology and the resources to build first-class compacts. It's not even 2012, when Ford could claim to be surprised buyers didn't like the feel of the Focus compact and Fiesta subcompact's automatic transmissions and the performance of Sync voice recognition.

The Detroit 3 are out of excuses.

They built poor small cars for a generation, but they were honest about it. Vehicles like the Chevrolet Cavalier, Ford Escort and Dodge Neon made no pretense to matching the design, engineering and materials of a Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla.

Some of the blame went to a fundamentally flawed strategy. There was no profit-based business case for most of the cars. They existed solely to satisfy corporate average fuel economy regulations so the companies could build the bigger vehicles on which they turned a profit.

The cars were doomed from the start. Today's Focus, Fiesta, Cruze and Dodge Dart were not. They've got world-class engineering, electronics and designs. They're fun to drive, with competitive fuel economy and prices. They should be popular, profitable vehicles. Chrysler, Ford and GM have a chance to change how people view their small cars, but not if they get many more quality scores like this.

Chrysler, Ford and GM took advantage of their global resources, new labor contracts and the debt-rinse bankruptcy provided GM and Chrysler to develop a lineup of cars that should hold their own versus any competitor.

Despite that, the Focus, Fiesta, Dart turbo and Cruze are four of the five least reliable small cars on the market, accoding to Consumer Reports. Don't expect the fifth to provide a ray of hope: The Fiat 500L, built by Chrysler's owner, was the worst vehicle in the whole survey.

Whuch only goes to show that even the Euro types can get it wrong - but not consistently and not for the whole of 60 years.

The D3 can't afford to write small cars off as loss leaders any more, but unless they clean their act up, they could be headed that way.

Enough, already.


You may have noticed that I don't generally bother to mention air bag recalls on my recall page.

Even though, this week, 6 million of them have been recalled. For 15 years, now, I've been saying that forward facing airbags are a waste of time and money
IF you wear your seat belt.

The problem is a typical engineering situation. Normally when an idea is tried out and proves to have serious drawbacks, the idea is abandoned.
Which is where the phrase "experience is a large pile of ruined equipment" comes from.

However, when nanny state politicians get involved, engineers are forced to continue to try and improve a fatally flawed idea.

Bags come out too fast and break childrens' necks? Start weighing the passengers.

Then modify again so that the bags deploy at three different speeds and so on and so on.

This is why I have long held the opinion that airbags are credited with saving lives, when their effect in any given crash is debatable.

People call me up and ask how many air bags a particular model of car has, as though that was the only criteria by which a
new car should be chosen.

The real question is how many seat belts does the car have, because all the responsibility for your safety lies with the belts
and not with the air bags.

For instance and in confirmation of this, when New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine was critically injured in an SUV crash, 
investigators now concede  that the SUV was doing 91 mph in a 65 mph zone with its emergency lights flashing.

Corzine – who was in critical condition – was on his way to a meeting between radio personality Don Imus
and the Rutgers University women’s basketball team, and was reportedly running late.

The SUV crashed into a guard-rail and Corzine, who wasn’t wearing a seat belt at the time, suffered multiple broken bones.
Even though the air bags deployed on both sides.
The trooper behind the wheel was wearing his seat belt and had minor injuries.

Corzine broke a thigh bone, ribs, his breastbone and collarbone. Doctors say it could be six months before he regains the use
of his leg.

My question is:

Where were the air bags in all of this and what were they doing? They undoubtedly deployed, but as long has been the case, they
were absolutely useless without the primary protection provided by the seat belts.

Air bags were initially designed to protect an unbelted adult male in a 30 mph crash. But do air bags protect a child passenger?
And are air bags really effective in protecting unrestrained adults?

Air bags are said to reduce the overall risk of passenger death in all crashes by 12 percent, but for some passengers
- including young children - air bags may increase the overall risk of death. 

While air bags reduced the risk of death by 15 percent for restrained passengers in crashes, air bags afforded no protection
against death or serious injury for those passengers who weren't wearing seat belts.

Air bags are associated with a net increase in the risk of death among children ages 12 and under.

Because the effect of air bags may be related to passenger age, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ruled in
1997 that vehicle owners could have a switch installed to deactivate a passenger air bag and I wonder what that tells us
- exactly? Probably that the air bag is not considered to be vital to the survival of passengers in a crash.

The agency also advised that children younger than 13 years old should ride in the rear seat and that, of-course, is a no brainer.

Children do NOT belong in the front seats of a vehicle, although I think that the specified age of thirteen is probably a bit restrictive
and over zealous.

Although air bags were intended to offer protection to passengers who aren't restrained, they are a hazard to unrestrained children
and offer little benefit to unrestrained adults. This unfortunate accident last week once again supports the conclusion that the theory
of "no seat belt, no protection" really holds true. 

Sometimes it isn't possible to put a child in the rear seat because the vehicle may lack a rear seat or that seat is already filled with
other children, in which case, a bigger vehicle may be needed, or if the transportation of children is a regular occurrence,
a seat belt switch may be installed, with a special release from the DoT.

A lot of pick up trucks already have passengers side air bag switches for this very reason..



Rampantly uncomfortable, dubiously assembled and devoid of fun, the 500L is the kind of car that Europeans drive because they have to, while secretly wishing for a Range Rover.

In this class of car, beauty is certainly up to the beholder. The Fiat seems clumsy and derivative. It comes across as the Mini’s poor, homely cousin, fresh off the boat. With 42 percent more interior room than the standard 500, the L’s cargo-hauling ability is about its only winning feature. The losing side includes the driving experience; the expanses of rock-hard, gap-ridden plastic; and the long list of ergonomic and engineering goofs. 

Every person who sat in the front seats — that noun seems too kind to describe the rubbery-upholstered back-breakers — complained within minutes about the lack of comfort. The top of the short backrest ended between my shoulder blades. The bottom cushions are ridiculously short and are rounded off rather than square. The effect is like balancing on a barstool. As in the 500, you sit on the Fiat, not in it, in an awkwardly high, buslike position that also exposes an unsightly mess of metal seat rails and hardware. - New York Times.

When four people travel together, the problem is always the same coming off the flight. Finding enough luggage capacity in a rental car to accommodate at least eight pieces including carry ons. What is needed is a Toyota 4 Runner for the first few kilometers. After the luggage is unloaded, a MINI would be just fine.

Which is why, in spite of  NYTs' accurate road evaluation, the FIAT 500L was chosen. It did, indeed, accommodate all that luggage for the first 100 kilometers between Bordeaux and Bergerac, even though the rear seat passengers had a few more flexible small items wrapped around them.

Much of what the NYT had to say is correct, but in addition, the standard shift gearbox was vague beyond belief and the clutch was - well - very sudden. This car also had an auto-stop system, so that as 200 combined years of driving experience struggled with the gearbox, the engine would suddenly cut out. Leaving you not knowing whether you'd engaged third gear instead of first, or if the engine died because you took too long finding a gear - any gear. A frustrating car to drive in the city. On very narrow little farm tracks, however, the FIAT was a goldilocks car. Not too wide and not too narrow.

The saving grace of this car was the diesel engine. Which gave it enough get up and go to make highway driving a much more enjoyable experience.
Diesel fuel is the cheapest fuel available in France. But at the equivalent of $2 a liter, the economy of the FIAT was much appreciated at 5.5 liters per hundred kilometers.

 Would I rent this car again? Yes, if nothing else was available and as long as it had that performance enhancing, money saving, diesel engine.


A rare find in France!

For the last two weeks or so, I've been driving around in the South of France near Bergerac and Bordeaux. Wonderful unspoilt country side and very old well preserved ancient villages.

However, there's a statistic that says that the accident rate in France is twice as high as it is in Britain, even though France is five times the size and has much less traffic density and frankly this fact doesn't surprise me very much.

Our rental car was a FIAT 500L, not the fastest car around, but much better than the New York Times would have you believe for one very good reason - (more on that subject next week.)

The roads in Southern France are in very good condition, so that potholes and rough going don't exist to discourage people who like to drive fast.


The speed limit is far more generous at 120 km/hour and it seems to be exceeded by every car and tradesman's van on every possible occasion.

If you are a tourist, even one driving at the speed limit, but looking for the next turn that is showing up on the GPS system, you will be flashed and tailgated by the locals, because they know exactly what lies ahead and are anxious to get there.

Frankly, give me my Porsche 944 and let me drive on my own and I'd be out there having a lot of fun. But with a car full of holiday makers intent on getting there safely and not necessarily very quickly, one can only dream of the possibilities.

France LOVES its traffic circles, otherwise known as roundabouts. Throw a sheet of bug screen on a map of France and you'll probably find a roundabout in every square. They are everywhere. Which makes the Frenchmen even more more adventurous as they try to see how far they can roll their tires off the rims as they corner as fast they know how.

Gasoline in France is the equivalent of $2 a liter which means you won't see many high performance cars and most cars are hatchbacks in the 1.5 litre range.


If you plan to travel much by car in France, my advice is to buy a large CANADA sticker for the trunk lid. At least then you've got a chance of being left alone by the hot shoes that will inevitably come up behind you and dog your back bumper, on a long and arduous stretch of twisty road with no chance to pull over.




         





 
 



   

We chose another (our third) Mazda3 for several reasons:

First because the previous two had been bullet proof reliable. Secondly for "zoom-zoom" road worthiness and lastly for fuel economy.

The first four months of this cars' life, with a stiff engine, was spent on short runs and cold garage starts.

One very useful feature on this car is a fuel economy graphic read out that analyses overall economy and instantaneous economy based on this journey.

Every time you turn off the engine, the instant average fuel economy is recalculated, but you have to manually delete the long term economy  calculation.

The first four months gave a read out of 8.1 liters per 100 km ( L/100k), a disappointing 33 mpg.

However, this long weekend we made a long distance run to LaMabaie, a distance of 900 Km return.

The journey from Montreal to Quebec City is flat, straight and utterly boring. Setting the cruise control at the "forgiveness" speed of 118 Km/h produced an astounding 5.7 L/110k, or 47 mpg.

After Quebec City, along the North Shore of the St Lawrence River, the road undulates, with steep hills and equally steep declines. Cruise control mostly cannot be used, due to the varying 2 lane road system. Nevertheless, the fuel economy readout continued to say we were only using 6 L/100Km, or 45 mpg.

At the end of the run, upon arrival in LaMabaie, the range indicator said we still had enough fuel to go back to Montreal without filling up. This type of fuel economy is almost as good as the Citroen Diesel that we used in Spain. There, the speed limits are much higher and even then, the diesel gave us 5.3 L/100km (51 mpg).

Our overall lifetime fuel economy has been reduced to 7.1 from 8.1 L/100Km

On the steep and winding roads of the Charlevoix region, the brakes, handling and steering were exceptionally good. Particularly over some quite badly pot holed sections of road. On very steep hills, the manual override feature of the transmission was useful in saving the brakes, but is not put to too much use otherwise. The seats are comfortable and supportive.

Cruise control is digital. Consequently, you can dial in your desired cruising speed ahead of time. It is not necessary to wait for an indicated speed to set the system. With such memory, the resume button on the steering wheel is also very useful.

The rain sensing wipers work in a more sensitive and intelligent way than on our first 3, but still fall into the category of "nice to have, but not really necessary".

The engine is so quiet that on a couple of occasions we started to walk away from the car, leaving the engine running. This is one of the downsides of push button starting, but we've gotten used to that somewhat unnecessary feature by now. You could argue, in view of GMs' problem with ignition switches, that push button starts are better, but only if you don't know how to design an ignition switch properly. No other manufacturer has had this problem.

One disappointment is that the side mirrors have flashers built in, but for some strange reason the driver cannot see the flashing. It would have been really useful to have that extra reminder that your indicators failed to cancel, if such is the case. I'm trying to devise some sort of prism or lens that will reflect visible light around the corner of the mirror.

Finally, for now, we had 3,900 kliks on the odometer when the 4 month period arrived, at which time the owners manual tells you that you must change the oil. So, at the time of the summer tire installation, I got my friendly independent garage to show a "complimentary, no charge" oil change on my invoice. My guess is that at the time of winter tire installation we will have covered the more reasonable oil change distance of 8000 Km and we will switch to a full synthetic 5W30 and proceed from there.

Stay tuned.
 


   Other blogs worth reading


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40) Treat your car battery with respect, or it can kill you.

41) In praise of the good old station wagon.

44) Future shock, the unending complication of electronic devices in you car.

45) Overheating engines.


47)  The case for annual safety inspections.

50) Rusty brake rotors (or discs)- no easy solution.

51) The piston engine is going to be with us for a very, very long time.

52) Avoiding rip offs in the car repair business.

57) Paint protection and car polishing.

58) Electronic brake force distribution.

61) Hydrogen vs electricity - no contest.

63) Why flushing brake oil makes sense.

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68) Recirc A/C

69) Inspection by test drive.

70) Electric car radiation danger

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75) Scheduling repair appointments.

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79) Autumn leaves.