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Atlantic Racing Scene

Wouldn’t you want to buy a new chevy for $2000?

xBy John Cannell

Oil prices, unprecedented prosperity, military build-ups, almost daily technical innovation, all conspire to deliver mixed signals regarding the automobile industry, which is, my friends, as you know, our bread and butter. Some pundits would have you believe the privately owned automobile is past its prime and that production will now diminish.

Reasons given, include the escalating purchase price of a vehicle, the burgeoning cost of operation, which includes fuel, maintenance, insurance, and depreciation. I can recall being in a small store when I was teenager, and hearing one old gaffer say to his friend, who had just purchased a new vehicle, “Never thought I’d see the day you would have to pay $2000.00 for a Chevy”! A friend of mine just paid $2000.00 for a set of tires for his luxury sedan.

Does this mean we will all soon be riding bicycles? No, of course not, but it does mean that automobile manufacturers will be looking for, and finding, new and innovative ways to sell and finance their products.

We will see more and more leasing, with different ways to lease. Most families can set aside a predetermined monthly amount for a vehicle(s). You will see them using this money to lease vehicles for shorter terms, perhaps, with no end-of-lease buy-out, and generous trade-in plans which tie the customer to the manufacturer. In other words you will never be free of a car payment, but you will always have a relatively new vehicle covered by warranty, and you will use each vehicle for as little as twelve months.

The car-driving world, North America, in particular, can be divided into three basic groups. One camp is comprised of those who like or love automobiles and buy them for the sheer joy of driving them. They tend to buy the latest, the most powerful, the best handling, the largest, the roomiest, and the most gadgets.

A second group sees the car only as a necessity, and they tend to buy basic transportation only. The third group simply hates cars, period. They feel automobiles are responsible for much that is wrong in the world today. These are the people who would like us to ride in or trains, or, better yet, ride bicycles and use our feet for personal transportation.

This sector includes the most vociferous activists whose long-term objective is to plant flowers on the highways and rid the world of noisy, smelly, automobiles and trucks. Often they do not own driver’s licences and view the vehicle enthusiasts in group 1 as something akin to criminals.

Fortunately, group one remains the largest group. Most people buy cars they like, for whatever reason, and this is why the market offers such a variety of content.

The search for improved fuel economy gained by enhanced streamlining, has tended to produce distinct similarities in appearance, nevertheless a variety of powertrains, suspensions, wheels/tires, and interior accommodation offers the buyer a greater variety than ever before.

Even the most powerful vehicles, mostly through the miracle of computer powertrain management, achieve remarkable fuel economy when compared to previous and far less powerful or efficient generations. Notwithstanding, the manufacturers are not resting on their laurels. Instead they are researching new and better ways to enhance the efficiency of the gasoline engine which is now well over one hundred years old, and, basically unchanged in basic architecture.

Hybrid vehicles, which combine gasoline engines with electric propulsion have become a practical, even if a little expensive proposition. All-electric vehicles, while improved, still await a miracle battery which will combine greatly increased range, with faster recharging or replacement, reduced bulk, and lowered cost. If you have a super battery you are working on in your basement, now is the time to call on the car companies.

One engine receiving quite a bit of R&D is the diesel. Recent research at GM, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and others is resulting in a new generation of diesels which are as quiet and powerful as gasoline equivalents but are much more economical and longer lasting. Many of the more powerful versions are destined for high-end sedans such as GM’s Cadillacs, M-B’s 500 series, and BMW’s 7 series.

It would appear the reason for this is to prove them acceptable as luxury engines, plus, it is easier to hide the increased cost of a diesel powerplant within the higher cost of such a vehicle. Like the hybrids, diesels are more expensive, however, if you keep them and drive them into the two and three hundred thousand kilometre range the cost will be recovered.

Many manufacturers are working on fuel cells to propel vehicles. A fuel cell produces electricity by separating the fuel (usually hydrogen gas) via a catalyst. The by-product is water, so they are absolutely environmentally safe. They use carbon plates (reminiscent of battery construction) in series to act as electrodes and channels for fuel and oxygen, and operate at several times the efficiency of gasoline engines.

Although fuel cells, theoretically can be made small enough to power a radio, or, perhaps even a cellphone, the first application will probably be transit busses or similar. With time, there is little question that fuel cells will be uprated and down-sized for automobiles, but not this year.

For those of you who must have the most “Gee-whiz” features, this year’s crop includes, keyless technology – no more keys, Scratch-Guard paint (from Nissan) which resists scratching, especially from car-wash brushes, inflatable rear set belts (from Ford), Airbags for motorcycles (from Honda), and, total LCD dashboard which exactly duplicates current electro-mechanical displays (from Mercedes for their new W221 series). Cars, in one form or another, are here to stay. This year’s crop offers more content and innovation than at any time in history

The car business remains one of the prime engines of the world economy, and all of us who read and write this magazine will benefit from its continued good health.
Best Wishes for 2006 to all our readers.