Made with "military grade" aluminum, Ford's new F-150 has some tricks up its sleeve.
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A new type of company lures activist entrepreneurs
Oregon’s A to Z wineworks became a B in 2014. That’s B as in B Corp, short for “benefit corporation.” It’s a fast-growing business structure that reorders the traditional hierarchy, which dictates that investor returns must come first. In B corporations, profits still matter, but employees, suppliers, the community and the environment can be on equal footing with owners or shareholders. …
This combination cargo vehicle and passenger van is a welcome hybrid of American power and European design.+ READ ARTICLE
In the narrow, congested city block where I live, traffic gets blocked every day by some boxy truck making a delivery. Horns honk, as do drivers, and general unpleasantness ensues. Life in the big city would be so much calmer if trucks were smaller, like they are in Europe, where the streets are even narrower and more congested.
That’s now happening. As car companies globalize their products, vehicles such as Ram’s new ProMaster City are making headway, joining the likes of Ford’s Transit, Chevy’s City Express and Nissan’s NV200. The ProMaster City is a Eurotruck through and through, because it’s a Fiat Doblò that’s made in Turkey and rebadged for the U.S. market. It comes in both a passenger and cargo version, and Chrysler has a customizing operation so you can trick out the cargo version to fit your business needs.
One reason Fiat bought Chrysler is that Fiat boss Sergio Marchionne realized that the two companies had offsetting strengths and weaknesses. Fiat does small really well; Chrysler is Detroit muscle all the way, and its big-ass Ram pickups are gobbling up market share.
In the ProMaster City, both companies’ strengths are brought to bear. When you build small cars and trucks as Fiat does, you think inside out — that is, using design not only to maximize interior space, but also to create visual space. Look out the ProMaster City’s windshield and you would think you are in a much bigger truck, a feeling that’s exaggerated by the short nose and narrow A pillars. At the same time, there are nooks in unexpected places — for instance, a shelf at the roofline so you don’t have to jam all kinds of stuff behind the sun visor.
Where’s the Chrysler in this thing? That’s under the hood. The ProMaster City is powered by one of Chrysler’s go-to engines, the 2.4 liter Tigershark, an inline four-cylinder number that puts out 178 h.p., tops in its class. The Tigershark also powers the Chrysler 200, the Jeep Renegade, and the Dodge Dart, and it’s attached to a sophisticated nine-speed automatic transmission. But even here there’s a touch of Fiat: The Tigershark uses the Italians’ MultiAir variable valve timing technology that helps to push the mileage to 21 miles per gallon in the city and 29 mpg on the highway. And there’s more than ample power.
Where this corporate combination goes astray is in the dashboard, for some reason. The speedometer and information panels are not easy to see, the fog lamp is in the wrong place and the navigation system is a bit silly. The screen is iPhone-sized but with about a third of the resolution. You half expect to see Pac-Man start playing.
Still, the ride is comfortable, in part because of seating and in part because of the rear independent suspension. It’s surprisingly quiet and car-like at speeds below 60 miles per hour. It also claims a very maneuverable 32-ft. turning radius. The fold-and-tumble rear seats maintain the same comfort level, and easily convert into a vertical position in a two-latch process that maximizes the cargo space. You’ll get 131.7 cubic feet of space in the cargo version, and you can deliver nearly 1,900 lbs. of payload. The asymmetrical rear doors are designed to be opened to a full 180° for easier access.
The ProMaster City isn’t the cheapest of these Eurotrucks. Our City Wagon SLT model had a base price of $25,655, and options such as a rear window wiper, rear view camera, and some of the fancier accessories push it up a couple of thousand. But the combination of Italian styling and American power in a well-thought-out package is attractive. And maybe it will help bring a little peace and quiet to my neighborhood.
This elongated version of the classic car is in a tug-of-war between cute little touches and a not-so-cute price tag.+ READ ARTICLE
Well look at you, Mini Cooper S 4-door, you’re not so mini anymore.
We have to expect that. After all, in the U.S., Mini is now a teenager, and you know what means: a growth spurt. Indeed, the Mini 4-door has added nearly more than six inches to the car’s length, in part by extending the wheelbase. This squareback has become more rectangular and with more room in the back seat. A teenager might like that.
The Mini 4-door also comes with a more grownup price. It starts at $21,700 for the base model, while the one we drove, the Mini Cooper S, weighs in at a less-than-mini $25,100.
The tags start there, but it is unlikely that any buyer could ever get away with those entry prices. The company boasts that you can get your MINI in any of eight million combinations. Eight million! As if that were a good thing.
For instance, you can choose the Cooper S sport package ($1,250), the premium package ($1,750), the media package ($750), the wired package ($1,750), the wired upgrade ($850), the loaded package ($2,250), the fully loaded ($4,500), or the flash package (a mere $400). You want rear fog lights? That’s $100. How am I supposed to know if I want rear fog lights? Apparently, no one in this company ever heard of the tyranny of choice. Why not make the most useful and popular stuff—a rear camera, say—standard and give consumers a real base price so they don’t need a spreadsheet to figure out the final cost?
Then again, that’s part of the issue with Mini, at least for me. This brand has never screamed value; it’s more about you and the unrelenting cuteness that BMW tries to impart in Mini. And it has done so brilliantly. You can personalize your Mini to the nth degree and give it a name. But this means that our test car had a sticker that neared $36,000, what with its moon roof, heated seats, and the $4,500 fully loaded package, which included everything from bonnet stripes to Xenon headlamps with cornering lights to a navigation system—but no rear camera.
At that price you are inviting competition, and there’s plenty of it. You want cute? There’s the Kia Soul, with the same hipster demeanor and a slightly lower sticker, at $21,000 all tricked out. There’s the new Fiat 500L, starting at $20,900, plus Honda’s Fit. And don’t forget the Ford Fiesta, which despite the Detroit nameplate is a true Eurohatch and starts at around $21,400. (The ST version of the Fiesta, with its 197-horsepower engine, gets admiring nods from the likes of Car and Driver, among others.) Less edgy but ever so practical is Volkswagen’s new Golf, the SE version at about $25,000 being just about everything you’d want in a Mini, but with more room and just as much vroom.
Certainly the 4-door Cooper S is a clever little devil and it may be the first color-coded car in the industry. The dash is dominated by oval designs, from the vents to the temperature controls to the giant information hub that rules the center. It’s an automotive mood ring with an 8-inch screen. The Cooper S has three driving modes—green, standard, and sport—and the ring is there to guide you, in case you’re not used to driving, I guess.
In green, or efficiency mode, the ring is of course green—unless you adjust the heat, upon which the ring goes red, white, and blue, the length of each color moving to match your temperature adjustment. If you have the nav system on—and it BMW’s clumsy version—the ring lights up in white as you approach a turn and gradually recedes around the circle as you get closer and closer to turning. Accent lighting finishes off the show: You can adjust the colors, in case you’re in a purple driving mood. Little kids are going to love this thing, and maybe drive you crazy: “Make it go orange, Mommy.” If you have difficulty distinguishing colors, alas, this isn’t your machine.
The disco dashboard has some sophisticated touches, too, including a clever adjustable steering wheel that’s integrated with the speedometer/tachometer so that the whole unit shifts; because of that, the steering wheel should never get in your sightline. At the top and bottom of the center column is a series of toggle switches, including the red on/off switch, that are reminiscent of WWII vintage aircraft. It’s a nice touch, although one toggle operates a pop-up, heads-up display that defines useless. The windshield falls away at a steep angle, giving you a wide open sensation, and the optional moonroof only adds to it. The Mini doesn’t feel as mini as it is, even in the stretched version. But it is still a Mini. Despite what the company has done to enlarge the rear seating area, including scooping out the backs of the front seats to create a knee nook, the back seats aren’t going to be anyone’s ideal of spacious,
Stretching the Mini hasn’t hurt its driving characteristics. The company still touts its go-kart steering, made possible by the car’s wide-set wheels. The basic Mini 4-door is powered by a 1.5 liter, turbo three-cylinder, 134-hp engine, which doesn’t promise to be a thrill ride. The cornering and parking ease, however, makes it a true city car. The Mini Cooper S we tested ups the ante, to a four-cylinder, twin-turboed 228-hp engine that can reach 60 miles per hour in 6.6 seconds. Perfectly adequate on the highway (and you’ll be well north of 30 miles per gallon). And when you switch to Sport mode, the difference in the 6-speed automatic transmission ($1,250, or $1,500 with paddle shifters) is noticeable.
It’s a fun ride in a fun car, but at a fairly serious price. Alas, the nimble steering of the Mini couldn’t help us evade a pothole on dark and rainy I-95 in Connecticut, which would reveal another benefit of the Cooper S model: runflat tires.
This amazing gas-electric hybrid will stop traffic — then leave it in the dust.+ READ ARTICLE
The commotion started before I even got to the car. People were taking pictures. The BMW i8 did indeed stop traffic; a guy in a delivery truck braked in the middle of 50th Street to ask permission to take a picture — as if truck drivers in New York City are always asking permission to do things.
When you get to test drive a lot of cars you try to be blasé about them. Bentleys, Benzes, Mustangs, Corvettes, Jags. Next.
Not this time. The BMW i8, a hybrid-electric sportscar machine, is unlike anything else I’ve ever driven. Yes, maybe the lowercase ‘i’ in i8 is a deliberate reference to Apple’s elegant gadgetry, but it’s not by any means a stretch. If you married an iPhone to SpaceX and put the thing on wheels, this is what you might get. The shape is exotic, a curvaceous wedge that is screaming aerodynamics. Its winged doors could make Agent 007 envious. They open skyward, but on the practical side they require only a foot and a half of clearance.
The i8 is priced from about $137,000 to $140,000, although I’m sure you could get one for $130,000 if you negotiate hard. Take it. A steal. Why do I write this way? Wasn’t the Jaguar F-Type and its 550-horsepower power plant a cushy blast? Yes indeed. Is the 2015 ‘Vette not an All-American power avenger going from 0 to 60 miles per hour in a heartbeat? Yes and yes. Love it.
The i8 is a different animal. It has two engines, a battery-powered variety fore and a gasoline-powered one aft. And the latter is a 1.5-liter, three-cylinder number borrowed from the MINI Cooper. How could that putt-putt possibly provide any punch? It does, thanks to some clever German tinkering. The MINI engine is a mini-monster, with an attached turbo booster that raises the output to 228 hp. No big deal, right? Hitch that threebee to the battery-powered, 128-hp traction machine in the front and you get a hybrid 330 horses in a car that weighs 3350 lbs. That’s some 500 lbs. lighter than a Volt. We’re talking about a thrust-to-weight ratio out of a 757.
One of the keys here is the electric engine. As with all electrics — whether you’re driving a Volt, Tesla, or Lionel model train — you get instant torque, because the power reaches the wheels at close to lightspeed. You aren’t actually going to be traveling that fast, although when you punch the i8 in Sport mode, it sure does feel that way. The two large circular indicators that dominate the dashboard change color from cool blue to hot orange. You are in rocket mode, and the i8 starts ripping up pavement at a hellacious clip as you click through the paddle shifters. It’s an elevator ride to 60 mph in four seconds and change. Am I being a tad hyperbolic here? I fear not.
Yet even in the battery-only eDrive mode the ride is special. You drift along as if you are driving a submarine in an urban aquarium, motoring in near silence as spectators gawk. Put on Miles or Mozart or Maroon 5 or whatever you like and you get the sensation that you are seated inside your iPhone listing to iTunes. Try not to notice the people noticing the car. The battery-priority modes you can choose from include Comfort, which imparts much of a sedan feel to the ride, and Eco Pro, which maximizes the fuel savings.
Fuel savings. It’s sort of ironic in a car that clocks in at $136,650 that fuel efficiency is part of the conversation — especially with gas prices under $2 — but BMW is taking the view that energy efficiency is relevant at every price point. And it certainly is. Toyota’s Prius became a status symbol in California for exactly that reason — at least until Tesla got going. The i8 has an electric-only range of about 30 miles, which stinks, before the conventional motor kicks in to charge it. There’s also a portable charger that plugs into a standard 110-volt socket. Combined, the i8 touts a 76 mpg efficiency rating. That gives it a combined range of about 300 miles considering its smallish fuel tank. But as is the case with the Volt, the gas-electric combo eliminates range anxiety from the equation.
Drawbacks? Of course. The i8’s light weight derives from the carbon fiber tub that forms the body, which creates a large lip at the doorway. To say it’s awkward getting in and out of the i8 would be an understatement. The two nominal back seats are very comfortable…for a couple of bags of groceries. There’s a sort of trunk, too, that holds the charger and not much else. On the other hand, the interior is nothing short of cool and elegant, with blue seatbelts and accent lighting offsetting the light gray leather.
So maybe only rich tree-huggers will want to buy an i8, which is a shame. Not that people shouldn’t buy gas guzzling Viper SRTs if that’s what they want in a sports car. To me, it’s all about the ride, and the i8 is just ridiculously fun to drive.
Bud wasn't wrong to move back to marketing beer as beer, no matter what craft purists say
It’s no surprise two beer companies would find themselves in a pissing match. Which is exactly the state of play between MillerCoors and A-B InBev, maker of Budweiser. MillerCoors, as well as the craft beer community, are foaming at the mouth over an advertisement that Bud ran during the Super Bowl.
No, not that one. I mean the advert in which Bud proudly proclaimed its American, mass-market roots, perhaps trying to steal a march from Chrysler’s brilliant “Imported from Detroit” spot of a couple of years ago.
“Budweiser Proudly a Macro Beer,” the ad proclaimed, while the visuals highlighted Bud’s industrial brewing capacity. “It’s not brewed to be fussed over,” it went on. You could feel that slap all the way from Seattle to Williamsburg. According to AdAge, MillerCoors released and tweeted an ad of its own headlined “We believe all beers should be fussed over.” The supposed crybaby craft beer types, being creative of course, responded with wicked parodies of the Bud ad. Good for them, although if you put a glass of Bud in the middle of a dozen craft-brewed lagers, there’s a very good chance the craft aficionados wouldn’t know the difference.
It’s about time that Bud sold beer. Both MillerCoors and Bud have been dropping market share for more than a decade to the microbrew onslaught. That’s why they’ve purchased a couple of craft companies themselves—MillerCoors has Blue Moon Brewing, for instance and A-B In Bev bought Blue Point. MillerCoors is upset because the company still sees itself as part of a beer community that includes the craft brands and doesn’t want to irritate drinkers who are potential customers. Once upon a time, Coors was a cool brand, at least until it went national. The company must still think it is.
In its Super Bowl spot, Bud was trying to reassert its brand’s relevance as a true and acceptable choice for beer drinkers. This is what advertising is supposed to do, isn’t it? Buy us, not them. An ad that’s says “Drink our beer, it’s good enough—and we make a lot of it” makes more sense to me than one of Bud’s other ads. Yeah, that one, the one with the stupid lost puppy that everyone went gaga over.
Bud’s lost puppy ad is unbelievably good if you are selling puppies—and every pet shop owner in America should go out a buy a case of Bud as a thank you—but it’s completely meaningless if you are selling beer.
And Bud and MillerCoors have been having a hard time doing that. Consider the BudLight tagline, The Perfect Beer for Whatever Happens. Whatever does that mean? It means that the product isn’t good enough to sell on its merits so you’ve got to come up with something else to sell. With light beer, it’s always been about partying and sex or humor, because let’s face it there’s really not much taste to sell.
A bottle of Bud is still great on a hot summer day but I personally prefer craft beers—cask conditioned traditional ales, to be exact—to our mass market brews. Once upon a time Budweiser was a craft beer, too. Every beer in America was. Bud just happened to beat up the competition up over time, including Pabst Blue Ribbon, a trendy former mass brew that somehow gets a pass.
Why did Bud become No. 1? In part, because it was a better brew; and in part because it was marketed and distributed better than everyone else. This is a company that helped create the modern advertising industry. So I’m raising a glass to Bud for getting back to basics, to blocking and tackling. Let the craft crowd mock and whine all they want. Bud needs to pour it on now, or risk become completely irrelevant in a decade.
The settlement is huge news and proof that the shady arrangement between Wall Street and Washington is back to business as usual
The bill finally came due for Standard & Poor’s Financial Services: $1.37 billion. That’s what the company will pay to the federal, state and D.C. governments to resolve the culpability of its ratings agency in draining trillions of dollars from our bank accounts, 401ks and home equity not to mention contributing mightily to the global financial crisis.
As Attorney General Eric Holder put it: “As S&P admits under this settlement, company executives complained that the company declined to downgrade underperforming assets because it was worried that doing so would hurt the company’s business. While this strategy may have helped S&P avoid disappointing its clients, it did major harm to the larger economy, contributing to the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.”
But S&P got off cheap and the fact that none of the people in charge of the company at the time are going to jail tells you it’s business as usual between Washington and Wall Street. It’s just a speeding ticket, people. Move along. The company was quick to point out that it wasn’t guilty of what it admitted to: “The settlement contains no findings of violations of law by the Company, S&P Financial Services or S&P Ratings,” the company’s press release asserts.
Nope, just a level of odiousness that still resonates eight years later.
S&P, part of McGraw Hill Financial, Inc. rates bonds for a living—it still does—and it was living well up to the financial crisis by rubber stamping its top, AAA rating to tranche after tranche of residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS) and collateralized debt obligations (CDOS) from 2004 to 2007. The way this works is that the bond issuers pay the ratings agencies to rate them. No conflict there, right? Triple-A is the rating reserved for the best of the best. But RMBs and CDOs that S&P was rating were partially underwritten by the vast number of no-doc, “liar loan” and other mortgages being handed out by equally sleazy outfits such as Countrywide Financial.
It all collapsed like the Ponzi scheme it was when these unfit buyers started to default on their mortgages and the value of the bonds crashed. It would lead to cascading calamities including the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the bailout of AIG, Freddie and Fannie Mac (quasi-government mortgage agencies) not to mention widespread contagion in the auto industry. S&P will also pay $125 million to calPERS, the California pension fund that, like many other pension funds, bought some of these AAA bonds under the guise that they were safe.
Nice work, that. For years, S&P was able to fend off lawsuits by claiming that its ratings were merely statements of opinion protected by the First Amendment, which particularly ticked me off. Don’t use our free-press/free-speech amendment to shelter your atrocious behavior. But that defense finally collapsed after the government took another tack: alleging that S&P committed fraud. “As S&P knew,” read the Justice Department’s lawsuit, “these representations were materially false, and concealed material facts, in that S&P’s desire for increased revenue and market share in the RMBS and CDO ratings markets led S&P to downplay and disregard the true extent of the credit risks posed by RMBS and CDO tranches in order to favor the interests of large investment banks and others involved in the issuance of RMBS and CDOs.”
S&P continued to resist, despite the DOJ uncovering emails that showed S&P employees knew they had clearly underestimated the risk of the RMBs and CDOs. Here’s my personal favorite: “Let’s hope we are all wealthy and retired by the time this house of cards falters.” (Some, in fact, did and are.) S&P’s other defense is essentially that the bankers all knew we were full of it.
In the agreement that S&P signed with prosecutors it admits to the fact that the company was selling garbage. The DOJ also made S&P eat the company’s assertion that the lawsuit was retaliation for S&P’s downgrading the debt of the United States in 2011. S&P was wrong about the quality of its bonds and wrong about the quality of U.S. treasuries. Treasuries have never been more desirable.
So now S&P is free to go about its business, which is an oligopoly that it shares with Fitch and Moody’s, the same threesome that controlled the rating market in 2007. In its reregulation of the financial industry, Congress left the ratings agencies alone. Which means that at some point in the future you can expect the same problems to crop again.
This mid-size truck squeezes utility and power into a nimble package.+ READ ARTICLE
The snow was already falling when I climbed, ever so smugly, into the Chevrolet Colorado. There was no anxiety on my part, because Chevy’s new midsize offers available on-the-fly 4-wheel drive as well as a 4-low setting for off-roading, part of the Z71 package on my test vehicle. I was ready for whatever the road and Mother Nature served up.
Chevy reintroduced the Colorado in late 2014, sensing that there was a gap that a newly designed, mid-size pickup truck could fill. Ford had ceded some of that turf when it discontinued Ranger, and General Motors clearly feels that Toyota’s 10-year-old Tacoma and Nissan’s similarly aged Frontier are vulnerable, given that its marketing calls those pickups out directly. Already knighted Truck of the Year by Motor Trend, what Colorado (and GMC sibling Canyon) brings to market is a smartly designed and executed pickup at a reasonable price.
A couple of months ago, we demo-ed the GMC Sierra Denali 2500HD, a high-riding, 6,500-lb.-or-so truck that had an enormous V-8 Allison diesel engine paired with every kind of creature comfort in the cab. It was a dazzling combination of brute and beauty, but the price tag was a beast, too: around $64,000 fully tricked out.
The Colorado cuts that weight by more than a third and the price by more than half — the entry level price is around $20,000 — but still offers somewhat surprising comfort. And, while short on frills and add-ons, it covers just about everything you need. For instance, there are four USB ports to power phones and tablet. There’s a blessedly simple-to-use navigation/infotainment system that includes 4G LTE and a built-in WiFi hotspot. One-touch icons pop up on the 8-inch screen, allowing you to access the radio or Pandora or weather with minimum distraction. All systems should be this simple, but car companies seem to go out of their way to tech them up for no good reason.
One of the themes of the Colorado could be that it gives you less, but in a good way. It’s about six inches narrower than its full-size siblings. That might not mean much in rural areas, but in the city it’s the difference between nimble and not. Squeezing past double-parked cars in Manhattan’s crowded streets was relatively easy. You can buy the Colorado in extended cab and two crew-cab versions with either a very parkable 5-ft. 2-in. truck bed (which runs about 18 ft. in length), or a 6-ft. 2-in bed. One thing you get more of is mileage: about 25 miles per gallon combined.)
The Colorado’s city/country capabilities are what might make it a good fit for cities like Denver or Salt Lake or Burlington, Vermont. On the highway, the Colorado has car-like handling qualities in both steering and ride quality; on city streets, although you’re sitting up a bit, you don’t have the bumpy ride that pickups can produce. The truck is pulled along by either a 200-horsepower 4-cylinder front-wheel drive or a 305-hp sixpack, available in two- and four-wheel drive. I drove the 4WD Z71 Crew Short Box, designed for off-roading, which had the bigger engine. Price: $36,710, including the premium audio/info system.
Although I drove only the six-cylinder, it’s hard not to recommend it over the standard version. Despite the larger displacement, the V-6 is not the smoothest in acceleration, particularly in two-wheel-drive mode, but you’ll appreciate that power, which you really have to have if you are towing something. On snow-covered roads, the 4-wheel drive was comforting, with very smooth acceleration and power distribution. We also took the Colorado off road for a brief test up and down a relatively steep, snow-covered incline. Piece of cake.
Too bad the Blizzard of ’15 proved to be a bit of a flop in my area. Not so the Colorado — it lives up to expectations.
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Behind the botched predictions
The warnings were dire. With forecasts of an epic blizzard barreling down on the Northeast, airports cleared out, travel bans were enacted, and for the first time in its 110-year history New York City’s subway system was shut down because of snow. And then the Blizzard of 2015 blew off course. …