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Friday
Apr282017

Random Thoughts 4/28/17

By Christopher A. Sawyer

Honda recently touted that its latest Civic Type R — the one with the 315 hp/295 lb.-ft. 2.0-liter VTEC turbo and goofy fanboy bodywork — set a benchmark lap time for front-drive cars at the Nurburgring. The development car lapped the Nordschleife in 7 minutes 43.8 seconds. Honda says the technical specs of the development hack were “representative” of the final production car, which is seven seconds quicker than the previous Type R. But the feat brings up a good point: How representative are the vehicles that set fast times on the track compared to what you can buy from your local dealer?

When I started out in this business one manufacturer had two press fleets. The first was for what were termed “courtesy cars”, vehicles that would be used under normal circumstances by journalists, politicians, celebrities and others. The second fleet was filled with cars that had been “super tuned” for best performance, and were only lent out to magazines (there was no Internet at the time) who were going to do instrumented testing or visit a race track. When asked what a super tune entailed, one of the company’s fleet managers said it included optimizing the powertrain (he didn’t specify to what level his company was willing to go to do this), fit tires that had been shaved and scrubbed, close the body gaps as much as possible by carefully aligning the body panels, fitting harder brake pads and more. It was deceptive, but the automaker saw no problem in that its competition was doing the same.

This same procedure was used by a foreign automaker who would optimize the powertrain, brakes and steering of the cars it would bring on launch programs prior to the vehicle going on sale. And it explained why my colleagues and I would be impressed by the on-road performance during the drive program, and scratching our heads as to why the vehicle pulled from the press fleet months later didn’t feel as crisp or as fast. And those launch programs? They’re designed to highlight the vehicle’s positive attributes, which is no surprise. However, one unusually talkative PR person was asked how they set up the tests for the (in this case) trucks journalists were driving for the first time, especially since they had brought the competitions’ vehicles along for comparison. “That’s easy,” she said. “We choose the tests we have you go through based on what puts our truck in the best light, and the competitors’ trucks in the worst light.” Which is why you don’t write a definitive drive story based on the introductory drive.

But the fascination with fast lapping the Nurburgring brought up a Facebook “conversation” I participated in with former colleagues from Lotus and others. As usual the late Roger Becker grabbed the bit and ran with it. “You are so right. It is an [OEM] pissing contest with no sales relevance other than to replace the cars crashed on the ‘Ring, though it is a great endurance test for critical high-performance car parts such as brakes and tires!! At Lotus we used the ‘Ring to sensibly help tune braking and stability control systems and tires, but never used [a fast lap time] as a primary goal for current or future models. A car set up on/for the ‘Ring will have poor ride quality, and you don’t want that for a road car.” Another Lotus alum, Luke Bennett, finished with this gem: “I’ve seen Roger Becker at work when it comes to damper tuning, and I can tell you it was not in Germany!”

I was reading Automobile magazine’s story about its week with the Chevy Bolt, and nearly fell off my chair when I saw this from Detroit Bureau Chief Todd Lassa: “I also tried using a Nissan EVgo fast-charger located on Woodward Avenue in neighboring Ferndale (it’s next to the Dunkin' Donuts just south of Nine Mile Road).The car was already juiced up to 158 miles of range, causing the fast-charging process to slow down. A half an hour at 43 amps and an $11.95 charge to my American Express pushed the Bolt up to 188 miles of range, with both the charger and the Bolt’s dashboard gauge indicating that the battery level was about 93 percent.” Look at those numbers again.

When a battery is discharged, the charging rate is quicker than when it is near capacity, as it was in this case. You have to feed the electricity in more slowly to keep the heat down, and it gets tougher to stuff more electrons in the battery efficiently. (Which is one reason I think the VW Group talks about plans for ultra-fast charging at 150 kW in terms of bringing the battery to 80% of capacity. Going beyond that does not significantly increase driving range, and doing so greatly increases the time spent at the charger.) But it was the amount that Lassa paid that really struck a chord. Earlier that morning I had topped up the family VW Passat (a 2015 model with the 1.8-liter turbo four), and put $11.96 of regular fuel onboard. This took five minutes (which included cleaning the windshield and rear window), and cost $2.49 per gallon. Those 4.7 gallons, at the average 28 mpg the car usually returns, added 132 miles of range. As far as I can see, the EV math just doesn’t add up.

Proof of that was the press release Chevy put out earlier in the week trumpeting the fact that the 3,492 Bolts sold thus far (availability is restricted right now) have covered a total of 4,570,300 miles. That’s a not inconsiderable sum. Unfortunately, when you divide this number by the number of Bolts sold, you discover this is an average of 1,308.8 miles per vehicle traveled from 12/16/2016 to 4/2/2017. That’s 15 weeks, give or take, and an average of 87.25 miles per week or 349 miles per month. From the numbers, it appears that early Bolt adopters aren’t using it as a primary vehicle. It’ll be fascinating to see how the numbers stack up for the Model 3 when Tesla finally gets it into production.

Staying with electric drive, at the 2017 Auto Shanghai motor show GKN Driveline introduced a concept for a fully integrated electric drive system. The package, which is 15% smaller and 10% lighter than current designs, packages the power inverter, electric motor and eAxle reduction gearbox in a single casing for greater mechanical and electrical efficiency. The cooling system is more efficient, and the optimized housing design helps suppress both noise and vibrations.

It’s becoming apparent that suppliers will be taking the lead in the development of electric (and electrified) vehicles, with large portions of the drivetrain (if not the complete unit) designed and built outside of automakers’ facilities. They will work closely with the OEMs to create units that meet the needs of the automakers, and work side-by-side with them to develop them to provide a product consistent with each brand’s image. For the suppliers, this means higher production volumes for individual components and complete systems, which will lower prices for them and the OEMs. It also runs the risk of making these pieces, and the cars and trucks in which they reside, commodities distinguishable only by styling, size, features and on-road personality. Though it’s tough to say how hard a hit that last item might take should the autonomous vehicle revolution ever arrive.

If EVs are ascendant in the next decade, it would make sense for a company like VW, which plans to build millions of EVs on a modular platform, to license this technology to other automakers or build the platform for them. This would concentrate volume and reduce costs, and alleviate the necessity for less profitable automakers to develop the technology and platforms on their own.

Speaking of VW, it showed its latest EV concept, the I.D. Crozz (enough of the hip-hop wannabe spelling VW) at Shanghai. Like the I.D. and I.D. Buzz, the Crozz uses VW’s modular electric platform (MEB) to create a crossover (hence the name) with a lower roofline but the same interior room as the 2018 VW Tiguan. It’s powered by a pair of electric motors — one on each axle —  with a combined total of 302 hp. The front unit provides 101 hp, while the rear motor adds 201hp to the mix. Except for off-road and other low-grip situations, where the drivetrain can be locked into all-wheel drive mode, it acts much like any other crossover in that it activates the rear drive unit when needed, and can shift torque fore and aft on the fly. VW claims a 150 kW fast charger will bring the batter pack to 80% charge in 30 minutes.

Audi showed its own electric crossover, the e-tron Sportback, built on the same basic MEB platform. Except for cars like the VW Golf-based A3, Audi has distinguished its vehicles from sister VW’s by using a longitudinal engine placement and all-wheel drive. What, other than styling, appointments, features and materials will separate the two brands in the future?

Getty ImagesDale Earnhardt Jr. may not be an electric vehicle or drivetrain, but his effect on NASCAR fans and merchandise sales has been just that, electric. Junior accounts for 25% of all NASCAR merchandise sales, and this number should rise through the year as fans grab everything in sight in this his final year as an active Cup driver.

Now 42 and recently married, Dale Jr. has decided to hang up his helmet after a terrible start to his season. He sat out half of the races last year as he worked to recover from the lingering effects of concussions sustained in on-track accidents, but that absence did little to lessen fans’ ardor. Earnhardt remained NASCAR’s most popular driver despite not competing. His return has been driven by hopes that he would finally win the Cup title that has eluded him, but the early returns suggest this may not happen.

What should be sending shock waves through NASCAR headquarters is that there is no one currently running who even approaches the Dale Jr.’s popularity with the fans. When he retires, merchandise sales inevitably will drop, taking a big bite out of the series’ shrinking bottom line. You have to wonder how many fans will skip attending the races once Earnhardt is no longer behind the wheel, especially when you consider the number of people who leave the stands and head for their cars in those races where he is eliminated early.

Dale’s dad, Dale Earnhardt Sr., Richard Petty and current champion Jimmie Johnson are tied with seven Cup titles each, yet fans have never taken to Johnson. Even NASCAR, with its continual changes to The Chase (now The Playoffs) format to prevent him from sweeping all before him, has tried its best to hinder Johnson’s progress in the name of leveling the playing field. However, this barely disguised disdain places NASCAR in the precarious position of losing its most popular driver, and not being able to believably support a man who is arguably the greatest to sit behind the wheel. The interregnum between Dale Jr.’s retirement and the rise of a new fan favorite could have been filled with NASCAR’s promotion and support of its most successful active driver. However, the series’ past short-sighted provincialism has eliminated this option, and will deeply affect the bottom line.

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