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2:07 AM

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Back in the Saddle: Saleen is poised for a comeback with a potent Mustang

Rafay Ansar

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Saleen traditionally has been about speed--specifically, frenetic Mustangs. But lately, it's been more about controversy. And lawsuits. And piles of other stuff, none of which translates well to fast cars.

But now that it has been absorbed by a group of Michigan-based auto-parts companies, Saleen Performance Vehicles is trying to shift the conversation back to sheetmetal. It's rolling out a new, souped-up 'Stang with more power and some subtle styling cues that should help put the speed shop back on enthusiasts' radars--for the right reasons.

We recently tested Saleen's new creation, the 435S, in the backwoods of Michigan, and it's an enjoyable, fairly minimalistic take on the iconic Ford Mustang, with some pure sports-car ethos.

The most significant modification is under the hood, where the Saleen Series VI supercharger boosts output to 435 hp and 425 lb-ft of torque. The pull is strong, particularly as the revs build, and the short-throw five-speed manual gearbox returns quick, proficient shifts.

The 435S is fitted with a Racecraft suspension, and ride height is lowered about an inch and a quarter. The car feels fast in corners, definitely sporty when you push it, but it's comfortable enough not to be abusive over gravelly roads or choppy pavement.

There are relatively few cosmetic changes inside and out. The exterior is dressed up with hood and windshield graphics, chevrons, an optional rear spoiler, a blacked-out Saleen panel in the back and, of course, badging. The cockpit gets some minor stitching on the headrests and slightly modified gauges. Our test cars wore 19-inch, five-spoke wheels; optional 20-inchers and the base 18s also are available. Otherwise, it's a stock Ford Mustang GT, though even at a glance, there's obviously something special about this steed.

Saleen is looking to sell a modest 300 units of the 435S for the 2010 model year, and it's really the entry-level model in Saleen's new lineup. The S281, revealed at the SEMA show, offers even more power, gaudier styling and perhaps a return to the lofty “American exotic” status Saleen once strived for.

Steve Saleen is gone; his new speed shop actually competes with his former company. But if the 435S and the S281 can conjure the emotions and visceral appeal of their forerunners, this new (old) Saleen might pull off an improbable comeback.

2010 Saleen 435S Ford Mustang

ON SALE: Now

BASE PRICE: $39,940

DRIVETRAIN: 4.6-liter, 435-hp, 425 lb-ft supercharged V8; RWD, five-speed manual

CURB WEIGHT: 3,535 lb

0-60 MPH: 4.6 sec (mfr)

FUEL ECONOMY: 17 mpg (mfr)



1:14 AM

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Make like a tree and Leaf: We drive Nissan's coming electric vehicle

Rafay Ansar

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From behind the wheel, the production version of the Nissan Leaf electric car is smooth, silent, feels nearly friction free and offers all the prodigious torque inherent in an electric car. That's what we found after a short drive around Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles on Friday.

The body you see in the photo is a Versa. But the platform on which it rode was a "modified B," modified to hold 24 kWh worth of laminate lithium ion batteries and still take a side-impact as per U.S. government crash test standards. The rest of the drivetrain of the car we piloted was all production Leaf.

The Leaf was remarkably quiet--no gear whine, no electric motor whine. No clunks from the suspension and no squeaks from the interior panels. The driving sensation was just one of smooth, silent torque powering the front wheels. Acceleration was electric-quick, with 100 percent of torque available from zero rpm. And the rest of the componentry--steering, regenerative braking, ride--felt even a little more refined than the production Versa. Range for the Leaf will be 100 miles when run on the EPA City cycle.

If all goes according to plan the Leaf will be the most affordable, most practical and most mass-production electric vehicle on the market when it rolls into showrooms in 2012. Both fleet and some private sales will start next year. Nissan has said that pricing will be between $25,000 and $33,000 for the Leaf. To get your name on the list, go to www.nissanusa.com/leaf-electric-car.
the Nissan Leaf electric vehicle.
A picture of the Nissan Leaf electric vehicle.

MARK VAUGHN



The production version of the Nissan Leaf will look like this.

Our drive was the first stop of the 22-city Nissan Leaf Zero-Emission Tour. The tour will go to 22 cities across the country and will make a stop in Vancouver. At the Los Angeles stop CEO Carlos Ghosn spoke.

"This has to happen," said Ghosn, sounding almost like he was running for office instead of running a car company. "When you look at what's happening in the world, when you extrapolate that, it leads to absurd results."

The price of oil is not going to go below $60 or $70 a barrel, Ghosn said. An alternative to gasoline is inevitable.

"This is not about the electric car, this is about saving the planet," Ghosn said.

The next electric vehicles coming for the planet from Nissan: the e-LCV, based on NV200 commercial vehicle; an Infiniti compact, high-performance 4-seater; and an unnamed new concept. No dates were released on those.






1:31 AM

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Ford to introduce inflatable seatbelts

Rafay Ansar

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When the 2011 Ford Explorer hits showrooms, its move to a unibody platform won't be the only major change. Ford will use the next-generation Explorer to introduce inflatable seatbelts for rear passengers.

According to Ford, the inflatable seatbelt will help distribute crash forces across five times more body area, compared with traditional seatbelts. The combination of airbag technology and a seatbelt is expected to reduce head, neck and chest injuries, especially in children and older occupants.

In event of a crash, the seatbelt airbag takes just 40 milliseconds to inflate across the passenger's torso and shoulder. Instead of using a heat-generating chemical reaction common on front- and side-airbag systems, the seatbelts are inflated with cold-compressed gas stored in a cylinder beneath the seats.

At all other times, the inflatable seatbelts can be used just like a normal seatbelt. They are compatible with infant safety and booster seats and were found to be more comfortable to 90 percent of the test subjects Ford polled because of the softer and padded feel. The added comfort may go a long way toward increasing rear seatbelt usage in the United States, which stands at 61 percent, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The inflatable seatbelts will be offered as an option on the 2011 Explorer, but Ford plans to eventually offer them on vehicles around the world.





4:51 AM

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2011 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG: An Carz-Arena flash drive

Rafay Ansar

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The Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG is good enough to stand next to supercars from Ferrari and Porsche.

What is it?

The distinctive new coupe with gullwing doors goes on sale in North America in February, at a price that AMG boss Volker Mornhinweg says should come in slightly below $200,000.

Developed from the ground up by AMG at its headquarters in Affalterbach, Germany, the two-seater aims to put Mercedes-Benz back into the thick of the supercar ranks following the disappointment of the considerably more expensive SLR. It also sets out to resurrect the spirit of one of the most revered sports cars of all time--the classic 1954 300 SL, or Gullwing as it is known to generations of car lovers.

From the first glance the connection between the two is clear. The retro-inspired styling of the SLS AMG bears the obvious stamp of its forebearer--that long hood, upright windshield, long wheelbase, short cabin and stubby rear end all recall the 300SL.

Opened by an automatically retractable handle at knee height, the doors arc upward to an overall height of 76.7 inches in dramatic fashion to give the new car a unique appearance.

This is a menacing looking car: low, wide and tremendously well planted. At 182.6 inches long, 76.3 inches wide and 49.3 inches tall, it's slightly longer and wider and sits 1.8 inches lower than the SL63 AMG.

But it is what lurks underneath the body that should have every dyed-in-the-wool enthusiast salivating. This is not a dressed up SL seeking supercar glory. The SLS AMG has its own aluminum space frame and rear-drive platform. AMG development boss Tobias Moers says: “It is the car we’ve always dreamed of producing. There are no compromises caused by having to share parts with existing Mercedes-Benz models."

Housed under the long hood is a revised version of Mercedes-Benz’s M156 engine--the 6.2-liter V8 engine found in all but a handful of AMG models these days. But the modifications are so significant that the four-valve-per-cylinder unit has been given a new codename: M159.

Sporting dry sump lubrication, it is mounted low in the engine bay and positioned way back and hard against the front bulkhead to concentrate its weight within the SLS’s 105.5-inch wheelbase.

With 563 hp at 6,800 rpm and 479 lb-ft at 4,750 rpm, the SLS AMG out grunts the already potent SL63 AMG to the tune of 46 hp and 14 lb-ft. But while the SL63 AMG weighs 4,178 pounds at the curb, the SLS AMG tips the scales at 3,572 pounds, giving it a weight-to-power ratio of 6.3 pounds per horsepower.

The SLS AMG receives a state-of-the-art seven-speed double clutch gearbox from German transmission specialist Getrag. And no, it’s not directly mated to the engine. AMG has placed it out back in a classic transaxle arrangement, integrated into the rear axle. It is connected to the engine via an aluminum torque tube, through which runs a 67.3-inch long carbon composite driveshaft weighing 8.8 pounds. It’s a layout that helps provide a 47:53 percent front-to-rear weight distribution.

How's it drive?

Brilliantly. This car is so well developed it is going to give Ferrari, Lamborghini and Porsche a big fright. This is the first time we’ve had a chance to put the SLS AMG through its paces on public roads and already it is quite clear that it is better than the McLaren-built SLR.

Still, with massive sills and the gullwing doors it is not an easy car to get into. The best procedure seems to be to sit on the high sill then swivel your legs down into driver’s footwell and pull the overhead hinged door down as lower yourself into the thinly padded but generously adjustable driver’s seat You don’t want to simply slide down and buckle up because you’ll then be forced to unbuckle and climb halfway out of the car again in a bid to close the overhead door, which is mounted on a sturdy gas strut.

You sit low, lower than in any other current Mercedes-Benz model, and you’re greeted by a thick-grip, flat-bottom steering wheel that's electronically adjustable for tilt and telescope. Behind it is a high-mounted dashboard housing two large dials--on the left a speedometer marked up to 240 mph, and on the right a tachometer redlined at 7,200 rpm.

The upper part of the dashboard is simple in style, carrying just the monitor for the entertainment system and satellite navigation. All controls are concentrated along the wide center console. Some of the switchgear is from other Mercedes-Benz models, but there are also unique details such as the air vents. It’s a luxurious driving environment, full of leather and aluminum. Carbon fiber trim is optional. A safety highlight: the doors have pyrotechnic elements that separate them from the body in the case of a rollover.

Depress the starter button down and the 6.2-liter V8 bursts to life.

The SLS AMG pulls away lustily and handles low-speed running without any apparent slack within the driveline. It feels incredibly solid at around-town speeds. There’s already 369 lb-ft of torque available at 2,000 rpm, and you can sense it in the way it rips through the lower part of the rev range the moment you give the command with your right foot.

There’s tremendous urgency through the mid-range. The engine develops peak torque at 4,750 rpm and Mercedes says the SLS AMG will hit 60 mph in just 3.7 seconds and 124 mph in less than 12 seconds--times that make it as fast in a straight line as the more powerful SLR. Make no mistake, the SLS AMG is mightily quick. It also possesses tremendous high speed stability, thanks in part to a retractable rear spoiler that deploys from the trunk lid at 75 mph to increase downforce. Find the right road and it’ll haul to a top speed of 197 mph.

Using the performance is no hardship, either, as the seven-speed double-clutch gearbox shifts precisely, smoothly and rapidly. Its also automatically introduces a blip on downshifts to match engine speed with the selected gear. A knob on the console allows you to alter the mode of the gearbox, from comfort through sport, sport plus to a fully manual mode. If you’re feeling really aggressive, there’s also a race-start function. There’s tremendous traction from the rear end, so much so that even during full bore getaways there’s no unruly wheelspin as the electronics and locking differential apportion the drive--just relentless acceleration and the tremendous sound of the exhaust note.

The SLS AMG can scythe into one corner and then into the next with the sort of fluidity and accuracy that makes it a proper rival to the likes of the Ferrari F599 Fiorano. It feels secure and planted in a way no other series production Mercedes-Benz does over challenging stretches of blacktop. There’s no unruly weight transfer, no nervousness being telegraphed back through the steering wheel.

Given the serious reserves lurking under your right foot, unsettling the rear end is not as easy as you might imagine, allowing you to confidently come off the power late into corners without any unnecessary interruption from the electronic stability program. The electronic safety net has been set up to operate in one of three modes--ESP on, ESP sport and, for those who just can’t get enough sideways action, ESP off.

The brakes--optional 15.4-inch front and 14.2-inch rear carbon ceramic rotors on our test car--offer terrific feel and fade free characteristics. You can lean on them time and time again right up to the point where the anti-lock kicks in without detecting any fade.

Still, there’s more to the SLS AMG than its awesome pace, engaging agility and determined stopping power. It’s also a terrific long distance cruiser. Slotting the gearbox into comfort mode sees it eats up the miles with ease. It’ll haul 75 mph in seventh gear at just 2,500 rpm.

The ride is well sorted with superb levels of rebound damping. You can attack undulating roads with great confidence, knowing the SLS AMG will be quick to settle over crests and track faithfully through depressions. Nasty ruts and ridges are met with a decisive action of the double wishbone suspension, which does without any electronic trickery. The springing isolates bumps with an ability that is going to leave the supercar competition searching for answers.

The new Gullwing is a practical proposition for long distance road trips, too, thanks to a trunk that offers up to 6.2 cubic feet of luggage capacity. Throw in a full armada of luxury features and you’ve got an everyday supercar with few peers.

With a claimed combined cycle fuel consumption of 17.8 mpg, the SLS AMG possess a theoretical range of 400 miles on its 22.7-gallon tank--theoretical, because with some spirited driving consumption drops dramatically, as the 10.7 mpg showing on the instant readout after our outing at Laguna Seca revealed.

Do I want it?

You bet! The SLS AMG is with a doubt the most engaging series production car to ever wear the three pointed star. By way of comparison, it makes the SLR feels almost leaden in its actions. It sets new dynamic standards for the German carmaker and is a tribute to the engineering prowess of AMG. It’s not going to be cheap, but the $200,000 price tag in North America makes it look like a bargain. The bottom line is this: The Gullwing is back and suddenly Ferrari, Lamborghini and Porsche can count Mercedes-Benz among their most serious rivals.





1:21 AM

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GM's Volt engineer Weber moving to Opel

Rafay Ansar

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A picture of Chevy Volt
Frank Weber, the top Chevy VOlt engineer, is moving to Opel.
GM

Frank Weber, the German-born engineer in charge of the Chevrolet Volt, is moving back to Germany to take a senior management role at Opel.

He will be replaced by Doug Parks, who has been working at Opel since 2007 as chief engineer for GM's global compact cars, which include the Opel Astra and Chevrolet Cruze.

General Motors Co. spokesman Dave Roman said today that Weber's title has not been announced. Roman said Weber will help manage Opel product development once GM closes a deal to sell a controlling stake in Opel to Magna International Inc. and a Russian investor, Sberbank.

The move, Roman said, was planned. He said Weber's assignment in the United States is ending now that the Volt development is nearly complete and the car is ready for production.

“Coincidentally, the move timed pretty well for the development team. The Volt is now in execution mode,” Roman said. “Frank's done a great job leading the team.”

Weber, 43, led the powertrain and electronics engineers as they designed and tuned the Volt's gasoline-electric powertrain.

Unlike other hybrids, the Volt's gasoline engine does not drive the wheels. Only an electric motor does. On the Volt, the gasoline engine is connected to a generator that creates power for the electric motor after the car has traveled 40 miles on batteries.

Opel will have its own version of the Volt, called the Ampera, in late 2011, one year after the launch of the Chevy version of the hybrid.

Weber's move is GM's second significant departure from the Volt team in the past month. In September, Bob Kruse, executive director of vehicle engineering for hybrids, electric vehicles and batteries, left to start a consulting firm. GM immediately named GM engineering veteran Micky Bly to replace Kruse.






6:42 AM

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Fisker Automotive: The road less traveled for hybrids--in style

Rafay Ansar

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Fisker Automotive is taking a reverse approach to hybrids.

Traditionally, green machines have been small fuel-sippers that hardly quicken the pulses of enthusiasts. Not so fast, says Henrik Fisker, CEO of the startup automaker and a designer who made his mark with eye-catching products at Aston Martin and BMW.

He visited AutoWeek on Wednesday, and his approach is clear-eyed and focused: “I want to make a car that is so sexy and so exciting you want to drive it.”

At first glance, he's pulled that off with the Karma sedan, a plug-in hybrid due on the market in June 2010. The head-turning car is taking aim at European luxury marques such as BMW and Mercedes-Benz, rather than traditional green cars such as the Toyota Prius, the Honda Insight and the soon-to-arrive Chevrolet Volt.

Part of that is the price. The Karma starts at $87,000 and has swoopy fenders and dramatic lines that evoke imposing luxury yachts of yesteryear. But Fisker also promises that it will be fun to drive--not a yawner like some fuel-sippers. Look for plenty of torque early on, and its one-gear automatic transmission should deliver smooth acceleration.

The appearance does matter, Fisker argues, and his car is a luxury sedan that's also a hybrid; it's not a green car without a soul.

In another break from tradition, Fisker say the engine is secondary, which is contrary to a century's worth of practices saying the motor is the soul of the car. The Karma uses a 2.0-liter Ecotec sourced from General Motors, and Fisker say that's probably a bit much for his product, which can run 50 miles on a single electrical charge and has a total range of 300 miles.

He envisions a future where hybrids will get their own niche powerplants, specially tuned to the need of alternative technologies. A hybrid for example, probably doesn't need to rev to 8,000 rpm.

Fisker considered a diesel for the Karma, and it's possible it could show up in a future product. The company has a hardtop convertible version, the Karma S (for Sunset), set to arrive in 2011, and a lower-cost, family-oriented luxury sedan set for 2012. The third car will sticker around $40,000, when factoring possible tax breaks.

Down the road, a premium vehicle priced at about $25,000 also is possible, Fisker said.

But make no mistake, the company will double-down on eco-technology. It's not the sole identity of Fisker, but it is an advantage considering the ute-laden lineups of most other luxury-car makers. He expects it will take several years to burnish a green shine, if Fisker products take hold in the market.

“We have three or four years to build this as a pure green brand,” he said.






11:40 PM

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2010 Saleen 435S: a first drive of the next potent Mustang from the famous speed shop

Rafay Ansar

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The 2010 Saleen 435S

Saleen Performance Vehicles

Saleen Performance Vehicles is staging a bit of a comeback.

It's debatable if the company synonymous with custom Mustangs actually ever went anywhere--but it's undeniable most of the recent news out of the speed shop has hardly been positive. There have been two sales in recent years, lawsuits, a warranty spat and a brush with liquidation. Oh, and the company's founder and namesake, Steve Saleen, is now a competitor.

Set against that backdrop, Saleen Performance is now moving forward with new products and hopes to change the conversation back to sheetmetal. A new, powerful S-line will be revealed next month at SEMA, which the company promises will conjure images of the Saleen cars of old with “American exotic” mojo.

Until then, Saleen has rolled out an entry-level model, the 435S, that upgrades the 2010 Mustang GT with more power, a tighter, sportier chassis and some subtle styling modifications. We had seat time in coupe and convertible versions of the 435S on Tuesday in the backwoods of Michigan. And for enthusiasts--this go-fast Mustang is worth putting on the radar.

It's actually a minimalistic approach, but it's obvious the car is a Saleen at first glance, with the chevrons, optional rear spoiler, blacked-out “Saleen” insert in back and modified front fascia. And of course there's plenty of badging. But the whole package is not overdone, and the 435S would not look tacky as a daily driver.

Behind the wheel, in fact, it's quiet agreeable. It's fitted with a Racecraft suspension, and ride height is lowered about an inch and a quarter. It feels fast in corners and the body is composed--there's definitely a sporty vibe when you push it, but at the same time it's not punishing on gravel roads or choppy pavement. An enthusiast who had to say, sell insurance to pay for his or her rear spoilers, could comfortably and satisfyingly take the entry-level Saleen into the office every day and not be worse for wear.

The heart of the 435S is the supercharger, and blowers happen to be a specialty of the new owners of Saleen, a Michigan-based group of auto parts companies led by businessman Michael Shields. The superchargers are powerful--but in a sane manner. Punch the throttle and acceleration is brisk. And when the blower kicks on, hold on. The revs build and the pull is strong. Still, at slower speeds it's a normal--albeit powerful motor. It makes 435 hp and 425 lb-ft of torque, and the boost is the heart of what you are paying for over the 315-hp Mustang GT. Saleen pairs it with a five-speed manual gearbox, and the short throws are pleasing and easy to get the hang of.

Inside, you get some stitching on the headrests, more badging and slightly modified gauges. Otherwise, it's a stock 'Stang, which is completely fine. Ford has worked a minor bit of magic with its interiors in recent years, and the Pony Car has not been left out. There's a nice drive position and comfortable seats--Saleen was smart to not mess with a good thing here. Some engine noise is noticeable in the cabin, and in the convertible there's a bit of ambient sound. Still carrying on conversations is easy, and most enthusiasts will savor the exhaust note.

Our time in the new 435S was brief but satisfying. There are a lot of custom Mustangs out there, and this one is a nice addition to the stable. Is it a a harbinger of things to come from a performance-oriented company? Stay tuned for SEMA.




7:40 AM

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Nissan marks Z car's 40 years with special edition

Rafay Ansar

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The 40th-anniversary version of the Nissan 370Z gets a special paint color, a red leather interior and a Sport package.

Forty years ago, America was introduced to the Z car. It gave Datsun--now Nissan--a performance pedigree in the United States. And it elevated to revered status Yutaka "Mr. K" Katayama, the man who fought his bosses in Japan to replace the Fairlady name with 240Z. Katayama celebrated his 100th birthday on Sept. 15 in Japan.

Nissan is commemorating the Z car's arrival in the States with a 40th-anniversary model that goes on sale next spring.

The anniversary Z is a 370Z Touring coupe with the six-speed manual transmission and the Sport package--which adds automatic rev-matching to the shift system, a limited-slip differential, bigger brakes and 19-inch Rays forged wheels. Added to that are red leather covered seats and door inserts, red stitching throughout the cabin and a handful of commemorative badges inside and out. Each anniversary Z is painted in "40th Quartz" and comes with a red satin car cover.

The engine is the Z car's standard issue 332-hp, 3.7-liter V6.

The price? Nissan says we'll find out next spring.

Z car milestones

Oct. 22, 1969: The Datsun 240Z (Nissan Fairlady Z in Japan) goes on sale in the United States.

1974: The inline six-cylinder engine grows to 2.6 liters and the name changes to 260Z. A 2+2 model is added.

1975: The engine grows to 2.8 liters and the name changes to 280Z.

1979: Second-generation 280ZX is introduced.

1981: 280ZX Turbo joins the lineup.

1984: Nissan launches third-generation 300ZX with 3.0-liter V6.

1990: Fourth-generation 300ZX arrives, with 222 hp. 300ZX Turbo follows with 300 hp.

1996: Nissan drops Z car from U.S. market.

1999: Nissan shows a 240Z concept at the Detroit auto show. But it is rejected for production.

2001: Nissan shows a reworked Z Concept at the Detroit auto show. Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn says the car will go into production.

2003: Fifth-generation 350Z goes on sale with 3.5-liter V6.

2008: Sixth-generation 370Z unveiled at Los Angeles auto show.

2009: A convertible version of the 370Z goes on sale.





12:59 AM

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You can make Benz payments on your iPhone

Rafay Ansar

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For our young readers, this may seem like nothing. But for the more mature set, here's a new function for your iPhone or iPod Touch--you can make the payment on your Benz.

Mercedes-Benz Financial has launched its iPhone app, just three months after launching the pay-from-your-smart-phone project. The free application is available at www.itunes.com/appstore.

For customers who have a loan or a lease with Mercedes-Benz Financial, the app lets them view their account status, make a payment and get a payoff quote on their vehicles. To use the app, customers first have to register at www.mercedes-benzfinancial.com.

The first Mercedes-Benz customer to use the app to make a payment had missed the scheduled payment date by 10 days, notes Michael Kanzleiter, senior marketing manager for Mercedes-Benz Financial. So convenience may pay off for the company.

But even if you don't drive a Mercedes, you can still use the app to check out the latest info on the German automaker's vehicles, find the nearest dealer and get driving directions.

Nearly three-quarters of Mercedes owners use a smart phone, notes Kanzleiter.

The finance company chose to develop its iPhone app first because about one-third of the smart-phone-packing Benz owners use the Apple device. Another third use Blackberrys, and an application for those PDAs should be ready within six months, Kanzleiter says.

The app is for U.S. customers now but is poised to expand to Canada and Mexico. But Mercedes is unlikely to use the app in Europe, Kanzleiter says, because most buyers arrange for monthly car payments to be automatically debited from their bank accounts.

There also is another app, Silver Star, which gives information about the Mercedes-Benz museum in Stuttgart and information on the European delivery program.

For now, Mercedes-Benz Financial says it's the first auto-finance company to launch an iPhone app. But we bet it won't be alone for long.



7:15 AM

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Nissan sketches future compact car plans

Rafay Ansar

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Nissan has unveiled a sketch of a compact car that it plans to sell around the world.

The carmaker released few specifics, but the vehicle will be sold in more than 150 countries and is set to launch first in Thailand in March 2010.

The car will qualify as Thailand's first “eco-car,” which is a government policy to help promote energy-efficient vehicles.

The sketch shows a catchy design with a prominent lower grille, wheel arches and snazzy headlights. A Nissan spokesman declined to say whether the car is coming to the U.S. market and did not want to reveal other details.

The car reportedly is the next generation of the March/Micra small car, but Nissan would not comment on that.





12:27 AM

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Ferrari 458 Italia spider in the works, Di Montezemolo reportedly says

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A picture of Ferrari 458 Italia
The Ferrari 458 Italia made its public debut in Frankfurt in September. A spider version is on tap as well, Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo said.
Ferrari

The Ferrari 458 Italia will get a spider version, company president Luca di Montezemolo told Italian reporters.

The Ferrari chief says work is under way on the topless 458 and that it should arrive in about two years. The 458 coupe launches early next year.

“[Deliveries of the coupe] will begin in the second half of January,” Di Montezemolo said in comments reported by Autocar in Britain. “We also plan a spider version, but not for a couple of years.”

The convertible likely will carry the same 562-hp, 4.5-liter V8 as the coupe.

The 458 Italia is the successor to the F430. The car turned heads with its more aggressive styling and was named Best in Show by at Frankfurt by Carz Arena.



5:44 AM

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Daimler considers building Mercedes C-class in U.S.

Rafay Ansar

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Building C-class cars in Alabama could save Daimler millions in wage costs.
Daimler AG could move some production of the Mercedes-Benz C-class to the United States from Germany, a German newspaper reported Wednesday.

The Stuttgarter Zeitung said some C-class production could be transferred to the carmaker's plant in Vance, Ala., from Sindelfingen, near Stuttgart, as part of a wider production shakeup planned by Daimler to reduce costs.

In the future, the C-class sedan could be built in three locations: Bremen, Germany; Vance, Ala., and in China, the newspaper said.

Building about 80,000 C-class cars a year in Vance would save the automaker about $95 million (64 million euros) because the average hourly wage at the U.S. factory is about $44 (30 euros) compared with $74 (50 euros) in Germany, the newspaper said.

Moving some C-class production to the United States would allow Daimler to avoid swings in the value of the U.S. dollar against the euro, and save import duties and freight costs.

The Vance plant, which builds the M-, GL- and R-class models, has spare capacity. The plant built 66,710 units in the first eight months of this year, down from 136,138 the year before, according to the Automotive News Data Center.

The C-class is Mercedes' top-selling car in the United States with 34,432 units sold in the first eight months, down from 50,593 the year before, according to the data center.

Daimler told news wires that it had not made any decision on future C-class production.





12:54 AM

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Ford CEO Alan Mulally to deliver keynote address at CES

Rafay Ansar

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Ford is continuing to double-down on its Sync technology as a way to separate itself from competitors, and in that theme CEO Alan Mulally will again deliver a keynote address at the Consumer Electronics Show in January in Las Vegas.

He's expected to unveil the next round of Ford's Sync features at the show, which is a bellwether event for the technology industry. He also spoke at last year's show, and former GM CEO Rick Wagoner addressed it in 2008 as part of efforts by auto execs to showcase new innovations in their cars.

Mulally will detail a new docking technology for mobile devices in future vehicles, as well as further advancements in voice activation.

“Ford continues to lead by bringing together the automobile and consumer electronics industries,” Mulally said in a statement.

More than 70 percent of Fords are now sold with Sync, said Jim Buczkowski, Ford director of electronics and electrical engineering. Sync was fortified this year with traffic, directions and information features as the carmaker looks to stay ahead of other companies offering their own connectivity and advanced navigation systems.

“There's clear evidence in the Sync world that technology is helping sell vehicles,” Buczkowski said.

Gary Shapiro, CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association, said Ford approaches Sync and other connectivity technologies with a fresh attitude.

“What I appreciate, is Ford is thinking and acting like an electronics company,” Shapiro said.

Meanwhile, Shapiro and Ford executives reiterated they support a ban on texting while driving.




7:03 AM

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2010 Lexus ES 350 to start at $35,675

Rafay Ansar

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The 2010 Lexus ES 350 will start at $35,675, including destination charges, when the lightly updated sedan arrives on the market later this month.

Changes on the outside include side mirrors with integrated turn signals, revised front grille, chrome body side molding, front bumper and rain-sensing wipers. The ES 350 also gets updated headlamps, lower intake with integrated foglamps and revised taillights. It rides on standard 17-inch aluminum-alloy wheels and comes in four new colors.

The interior is has a center console that has been re-done for more storage, new trim options and driver's seat memory. Lexus Enform with Safety Connect, a new telematics system, also is available

Power comes from the 3.5-liter V6 that makes 272 hp and 254 lb-ft of torque. It's paired with a six-speed automatic.






2:24 AM

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Toyota say it will use Prius name on more hybrids

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Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. will use the Prius name on more hybrid models in its U.S. lineup, the automakers' top executives told dealers.

At a meeting of the 60 largest dealers in Las Vegas on Tuesday and Wednesday, Toyota executives said the name Prius would be attached to “a family of models” using similar hybrid powertrains, veteran Toyota dealer Earl Stewart says.

“The Highlander hybrid and Camry hybrid do OK, but calling it ‘Synergy Drive' never resonated with consumers,” Stewart says. “But they can make hay on the Prius name. It's a magic name. If somebody says ‘I drive a Prius,' everybody knows what he means.”

Toyota Motor Sales COO Jim Lentz has been pushing for a multi-platform Prius lineup for a year. But this was the first time it has been openly discussed in front of Toyota Motor Sales president Yoshi Inaba and Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda.

Toyota will have a range of Prius hybrid models “but Prius won't be a separate sub-brand like Scion,” Stewart says.

Toyota executives in Frankfurt this week said the company planned to sell 500,000 to 600,000 hybrid vehicles globally by the end of 2009.



2:16 AM

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Dodge tried to add some muscle-car punch to its smallest car with the Caliber SRT4.

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Dodge is dropping its fastest, most powerful small car for the 2010 model year. The Dodge Caliber SRT4--a turbocharged, muscle-bound version of the Caliber--is being discontinued.

"The Dodge Caliber SRT4 was planned for a limited production run in the highly competitive sport compact market segment," Dodge said in a statement.

Dodge did not provide information on the number of Caliber SRT4s sold since the vehicle was introduced in late 2007.

The Caliber SRT4 was Dodge's attempt to add a little muscle-car panache to its smallest car. It was powered by a 285-hp turbocharged version of the inline four-cylinder engine built at the Global Engine Manufacturing Alliance factory in Dundee, Mich., operated jointly with Hyundai and Mitsubishi. The six-speed manual transmission was supplied by Getrag, of Germany.

Chrysler's SRT (Street and Racing Technology) group now has five vehicles for 2010: the Chrysler 300C SRT8; the Dodge Charger SRT8, Challenger SRT8 and Viper SRT10; and the Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8.






2:52 AM

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Electric Ford Focus to guest on Leno show

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Jay Leno's new show goes live Monday on NBC, and a guest star from Dearborn, Mich., will have a recurring role.

The battery-electric Ford Focus will be the centerpiece of a bit dubbed the “Green Car Challenge” on the show. Leno, a noted car guy, will have celebrity guests compete for the best track times in the Focus.

How this is actually eco-friendly is a little unclear. But it will mean prime-time exposure for Ford's new green machine. The battery-electric Focus is due in 2011, one of four electric vehicles Ford is bringing to the market in the coming years. The company's plans also include an electric Transit Connect.

The Focus for The Jay Leno Show was a joint effort by Ford Racing and the company's battery- and electric-vehicle program. It was built in three weeks.

The made-for-TV car has a split battery pack, with one battery in the cargo area and one in the space under the car where the fuel tank usually is located. It also has a specially tuned suspension for racing, a roll bar and a five-point harness for the driver.

This stunt means that Ford now has two sets of ratings to fret over for the electric Focus: EPA and Nielsen.






3:02 AM

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911’s touch of Class

Rafay Ansar

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Every four seconds our inbox glows with an email from a Porsche tuner promoting some gruesome modified 911. Today we received something more official and less hideous from Porsche.

It’s called the Sport Classic, and it’s taken the chaps in Stuttgart about three years to finish. Maybe that’s because they spent so many hours locked in their museum, pinching bits from old cars for inspiration. Or maybe they were distracted by their dedication to beard cultivation.

But we’ll forgive the tardiness because it’s actually quite cool. There’s a double-domed roof like the original Batmobile's and perched on its boot is a fixed ducktail spoiler, just like the one from a 1973 Carrera RS 2.7, according to the Beards. It gets bumpers like those on all-wheel-drive Porsches (that’s the Turbo) and some lightly redesigned lights.

And, of course, it gets some classic ‘Fuchs’ style alloys. Possibly our favourite kind of rims, those Fuchs.

There’s a sprinkling of special touches in the cabin, but the best changes lie beneath all that. The Sport Classic gets a special Resonance Intake System with six switching butterflies (that’s vacuum controlled flaps to the Beards) which, along with some other bits of engine tweakery, increase the power by 23bhp over the Carrera S to 402bhp.

Just 250 will be made worldwide and the Sport Classic will cost – wait for it – £140,049. Ouch.

That sort of money will buy you a 911 GT2. So while you dream, why not watch Jeremy thrash one around our track?



2:30 AM

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Mini to showcase ‘Mission Control,' anniversary cars at Frankfurt

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Mini is celebrating its 50th birthday at the Frankfurt motor show with a nod to the past and a glimpse of the future.

Two special-edition Minis, the 50 Mayfair and 50 Camden will be displayed at the show--where parent BMW always likes to make a splash. The pair went into production Sept. 1, almost 50 years to the day after Mini's first car. They will be limited to a one-year run and will go on sale in the United States this month.

The Camden is sure to be one of the most talked-about cars in Frankfurt--and it may talk back.

It will showcase a new technology Mini calls “Mission Control,” which allows the car to interact with the driver, sort of like a British version of Ford's Sync. Three voices offer information about the car and its surroundings. There are up to 1,600 different statements, and it's a standard feature on the Camden.

For example:

If the driver hammers the engine on a cold morning too quickly, a voice may say “ouch, I'm not warmed up yet,” in the words of Jim McDowell, Mini USA vice president.
Mini Cooper 50 Mayfair
A picture of Mini Cooper 50 Mayfair
Mini



The Mini Cooper 50 Mayfair

The voices can also offer congratulations for taking a curve with gusto--and plenty of g-force; or say something like “wow 4.5 seconds of full throttle,” after a lengthy launch.

It can also suggest the driver turn on the air conditioning if the program senses ambient temperatures are hot, or tell passengers to buckle up.

Mini, which is known for somewhat off-the-wall innovations--like the giant speedometer in the center of its dashboards or the gauge that tells you how long the roof has been open--also offers a common-sense option: the voices can be turned off.

Mini is calling Frankfurt the world debut of the Camden and Mayfair, though they actually were shown in May at the Mini United Festival at Silverstone. The powertrain lineup includes a 172-hp four-cylinder motor that employs a twin-scroll turbocharger and direct injection, as well as a 118-hp unit. Six-speed manual and automatic transmissions are offered.
Mini Cooper S 50 Camden
A picture of Mini Cooper S 50 Camden
Mini



The Mini Cooper S 50 Camden

The cars are appointed with a slew of special features, including a jubilee placard on the grille that reads “50” in Union Jack colors of red, white and blue. They both ride on 17-inch alloy wheels and take their names from British neighborhoods.

The Mayfair is available in a “hot chocolate” brown color, as well as white and black. The Camden comes in silver, white and black.




12:58 AM

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Ferrari exec to take over top post for Lotus

Rafay Ansar

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A top executive is trading in his Ferrari red for the green of Lotus. Dany Bahar will take over as the CEO of the British sports-car maker on Oct. 1.

Bahar, a Swiss national, fills the spot vacated by longtime Lotus CEO Michael Kimberley, who retired in July because of back problems.

Bahar was senior vice president for Ferrari, responsible for global car sales. He also oversaw marketing for the car and Formula One businesses, as well as licensing and merchandising.

Before working for Ferrari, Bahar was head of corporate projects for Red Bull, where he was involved in commercial strategy for its F1 and NASCAR efforts.

“I am looking forward to taking on the challenges as CEO of this legendary and iconic company with a peerless motorsport history,” he said in a statement.

“Lotus has a worldwide reputation for innovative engineering and superb sports cars that lead the world in efficiency, design and dynamics. With the recent launch of the Evora, there is proof that Lotus is better placed than many to capitalize on the rapidly changing automotive market. I can’t wait to get my plans under way in October.”





4:25 AM

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BMW wants to sell 1,000 of its fire-breathing hybrids in the U.S

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A picture of BMW 7 hybrid

The 2010 BMW ActiveHybrid 7 is shown.

It's literally a grand strategy: BMW is aiming to sell 1,000 of its new hybrids based on the 7-series and the X6 in their first year in the United States.

The two hybrids will be revealed in production trim at the Frankfurt motor show this month. They use eco-technology to boost fuel economy and performance. The X6 hybrid hits the U.S. market in December, followed by the 7-series in April 2010.

The crossover, officially called the ActiveHybrid X6, will make 480 hp and 575 lb-ft of torque. It can run in electric-only mode up to a speed of 37 mph, drawing power from its nickel-metal-hydride batteries. Fuel-efficiency is improved by 20 percent over a gasoline-powered X6.

The ActiveHybrid 7 gets a power surge to 455 hp and a whopping 516 lb-ft of torque compared with the gasoline model, and it employs lithium-ion batteries. Look for a fuel-economy improvement of about 15 percent.

BMW's hybrids are a tantalizing blend of power and fuel efficiency. But they're actually a small part of the luxury-car maker's plan to green its fleet, said Jim O'Donnell, CEO of BMW North America. Sales of 1,000--a collective total for the two hybrids--are a drop in the pan for the company. This year, it projects total sales of 200,000 vehicles.

The company will use more aluminum and lighter-weight materials in an effort to cut weight and employ stop/start technology, direct injection and regenerative brakes as it looks to meet stricter fuel regulations set to take effect for the 2016 model year.

“I think we have the technology to get us there,” O'Donnell said.

More diesels could be added to BMW's U.S. lineup based on the 5-series cars and the X crossovers, he said.

Currently, BMW's U.S. diesels are the X5 xDrive 35d and the 335d, which could get an all-wheel-drive version. Diesels could tally anywhere from 5 percent to 20 percent of the company's sales, depending on market conditions and consumer acceptance.

In other product news, the next X3 will be larger than the current version, which BMW admits is getting roughed up in a competitive market segment. The crossover also will also retain the X3 moniker.

Under the hood, a four-cylinder engine, likely augmented with turbocharging, is a possibility to help boost mpg figures and performance.

But the bread-and-butter V8--a signature for luxury liners and prestige that is slowly disappearing from some brands--will remain an anchor for BMW, O'Donnell said.

“I think in America, what the customer wants is a V8,” he said.






2:30 AM

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BMW's Vision EfficientDynamics concept bound for Frankfurt

Rafay Ansar

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BMW has revealed a radical vision for its future performance-oriented models in a spectacularly styled concept car whose combination of M3-rivaling acceleration and Mini Cooper-beating fuel economy will likely make it one of the stars of this year's Frankfurt motor show.



Called Vision EfficientDynamics, the one-off coupe is a mobile showcase for lightweight construction and plug-in hybrid drive technology, while featuring a variety of futuristic styling, packaging, aerodynamic, lighting and interior ideas under development at the German carmaker's heavily cloaked FIZ development center in Munich. Many of the concepts are planned for use on upcoming BMW road cars, including an exciting Z10 EfficientDynamics range-topping model due by 2015.

At the heart of the concept car is an advanced diesel-electric hybrid system, based on a compact turbocharged 1.5-liter, three-cylinder common-rail diesel engine that will first appear in the second-generation 1-series due in 2011.

The front-mounted engine features a gutsy 163 hp and 214 lb-ft of torque, making it more powerful than the latest and most-economical version of BMW's existing turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder. It channels drive to the rear wheels via a version of the Getrag-developed six-speed dual-clutch gearbox introduced on the M3.

The diesel engine is supported by a pair of electric motors mounted at the front of the gearbox, one supplying drive to the rear wheels, the other to the front wheels via a single-speed transmission.



The electric motor for the rear wheels produces 25 kilowatts and 214 lb-ft of torque, but is capable of up to 38 kilowatts for short bursts. The motor driving the front wheels delivers 60 kilowatts and 162 lb-ft of torque, but can supply up to 104 kilowatts momentarily. Altogether, the combined diesel-electric powertrain is good for 356 hp and 590 lb-ft of torque.

This endows the 3,069-lb concept with a power-to-weight ratio close to that of 4.0-liter, 420-hp V8-powered M3, and with a comparable 4.8-second 0-to-62-mph time, according to BMW. At the same time, BMW says its hybrid concept should be good for a combined fuel-economy rating of 90.2 mpg.

Electricity comes from plugging into to the grid, or from regenerative braking and coasting. Recharging is estimated at 2.5 hours at 220 volts, or just 44 minutes at 380 volts. The 187-lb lithium-polymer battery pack produces up to 364 volts and has a storage capacity of 10.8 kilowatt-hours.
white and black cockpit of BMW Vision EfficientDynamics concept.
A picture of white and black cockpit of BMW Vision EfficientDynamics concept.



The interior of BMW's Vision EfficientDynamics concept includes an iDrive controller.

Depending on the driving conditions, the Vision EfficientDynamics is engineered to run exclusively on its electric motors, the diesel engine or a combination of diesel and electric motors. Maximum range in pure electric mode is estimated at 31 miles, with the diesel engine offering an additional 400 miles.



Together with improved versions of BMW's brake-energy regeneration, auto stop/start and active air control, the Vision EfficientDyanmics also adds a feature to its arsenal to help bolster energy efficiency in the form of what BMW describes as a thermo-electric generator integrated into the exhaust system. Originally developed for use in spacecraft, it converts thermal energy into electrical energy by way of a semiconductor, which is then used to power features such as the steering, air conditioning and seat-adjustment motors.




As well as highlighting technical developments expected in BMW production cars within the next five years, the Vision EfficientDynamics also acts as a template for BMW's future design lineage. The first car to be styled completely under BMW Group design boss Adrian von Hooydonk adopts a radical shape that features ideas that should begin appearing on all BMW models in the near future.

Von Hooydonk's team has attempted to instill visual lightness within the body of BMW's latest concept through the extensive use of glass covering most of the hood, roof, sides and trunk lid. The team also has taken liberties with traditional BMW elements, such as the concept's interpretation of the kidney grille.

Inside, the Vision EfficientDynamics offers 2+2 seating, accessed via butterfly-style doors that extend along the complete side of the car. A prominent center tunnel divides the plush leather-lined interior, which features a futuristic-looking dashboard and associated trim panels mirroring the layered surfacing of the exterior.




A better Bangle?

Since the appearance of the X Coupe concept car at the Detroit auto show in 2001, the design of BMW's road cars has been heavily dictated by what its former design boss, Chris Bangle, liked to describe as flame surfacing--a combination of convex and concave forms within the body surfacing conceived to lighten the visual effect of the sheet metal.

With the unveiling of the Vision EfficientDynamics at this year's Frankfurt motor show, new design boss Adrian von Hooydonk is heralding a new direction in BMW design, described as "layered surfacing." The new look doesn't consign flame surfacing to the dustbin, but instead strives to enhance its effect even further. It involves layering one surface on top of another to improve aerodynamic efficiency and to achieve a more cohesive and harmonious appearance.



For example, the shape of the A-pillars channel the flow of air in the same way as the rear lights with their wing profile, according to von Hooydonk. The concept also boasts very few cooling ducts and a full length undertray, all of which results in a low 0.22 coefficient of drag.




"By using the structure of the surface without adding any appendages, we're able to optimize the air flow," says von Hooydonk, who rose to prominence following the unveiling of the Z9 Grand Turismo concept at the 1999 Frankfurt motor show, a car which previewed the look of today's 6-series.





12:58 AM

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Toyota closing NUMMI factory in California

Rafay Ansar

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Toyota Motor Corp. plans to close its oldest U.S. auto plant, New United Motor Manufacturing Inc., a venture that once symbolized Toyota's zeal to learn the art of automaking in America.

Toyota's board decided to shut the Fremont, Calif., plant in March. The plant builds the Toyota Corolla and Tacoma.

Toyota has never closed an American factory and has spent the past 25 years carefully avoiding the political and public image stigma of plant closings and worker layoffs.

The move will mean that Toyota will rely on its Corolla assembly plant in Cambridge, Ontario, to fill all dealer orders for one of the market's most resilient models.

The Corolla was the biggest seller under the just-completed federal cash-for-clunker stimulus program.

"After the decision by General Motors to withdraw from the NUMMI joint venture, Toyota conducted a thorough review of its alternatives in light of current and anticipated market conditions," Toyota executive vice president Atsushi Niimi said in a statement. "Based on this review, we have determined that over the mid- to long-term, it just would not be economically viable to continue the production contract with NUMMI. This is most unfortunate, and we deeply regret having to take this action.

"We remain strongly committed to maintaining a substantial production presence in the U.S.A. and North America," Niimi said. "To that end, we will consider moving additional Corolla production back to North America over time."

A more challenging issue will be where to move production of the Tacoma pickup. Toyota builds some Tacomas at a small plant in Tijuana, Mexico. But it also has been struggling with excess plant capacity at its big San Antonio plant, which builds only the full-sized Tundra.

A Toyota spokesman says the company will provide details about closing NUMMI later Friday.

Hand-off

The decision to close NUMMI was largely thrust onto Toyota when partner General Motors walked away from the 50-50 joint-venture during bankruptcy this summer. Toyota and GM opened the plant in 1984 to share resources on a small car based on a Toyota platform.

GM would distribute its version of the Toyota car through its Chevrolet dealerships at a time when rising Japanese market share was beginning to alarm Detroit.

GM provided managers to the joint venture in hopes of learning Toyota's unfamiliar approach to lean manufacturing. Toyota leaned on GM's American managers at NUMMI to learn how U.S. automakers handled human resources, the UAW, legal issues, regulatory and compliance requirements, government relations and other issues.

But things have changed in 25 years. Toyota now has 14 North American factories building cars, trucks, engines and other components. The politically charged U.S.-Japan trade friction of the 1980s and 1990s has eased.

Toyota has found itself in 2009 coping with the problems that dogged its U.S. competitors: excess factory capacity, eroding market share and operating losses. Toyota posted losses of $7.7 billion for the January-March quarter, a worse performance than GM's.

GM's departure from NUMMI this summer left Toyota's new Japanese and North American management team to decide what to do with an uncompetitive plant as it slashed costs around the world.

Big factory

NUMMI employs about 4,700 workers, working in 5.3 million square feet--an enormous plant constructed and closed by GM before Toyota arrived.

It is Toyota's only UAW-represented work force.

To cope with the shrunken U.S. sales market, Toyota has cut back factory schedules at all its U.S. operations this year. It also has stopped one large project in its tracks--a plan to build a $1.3 billion Prius factory near Tupelo, Miss. Toyota recently completed the building shell for that plant and has now ceased activity there.

Toyota has avoided laying off any U.S. workers this year. Instead it has offered employees voluntary buyouts, flexible work schedules, and reduced hours and salaries.





12:46 AM

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Ferrari 458 Italia puts interior on display in new photos

Rafay Ansar

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We still have good vibes from the first photos of the new Ferrari 458 Italia, which were released a month ago. So we're happy to get more photos of the new Ferrari in advance of its rollout in Frankfurt next month.



This new batch of photos gives us a first look at the 458 Italia's interior. Ferrari says the design of the steering wheel and gauge cluster is a step forward in ergonomics.

There are no stalks on the steering column of the 458 Italia. Most of the controls are on the steering wheel or grouped into pods that flank the wheel. The design takes its cues from Ferrari's Formula One cars.




Controls on the steering wheel are the turn signals, wipers, suspension setting and engine start. Transmission shift paddles and audio controls are mounted on the back side of the wheel.



The pod to the right of the wheel has controls for the navigation unit, rear parking camera and infotainment unit. The pod to the left of the wheel has controls for cruise control, on-board computer and changing the look of the left display screen in the gauge cluster.



More info on the car, including a video interview with Paolo Pininfarina, chairman of design firm Pininfarina S.p.A, talking about the design philosophy of the 458 Italia, is available at http://speciali.ferrari.com/458italia/index_en.html.




1:02 AM

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BMW expands Mini lineup with two-seat coupe, roadster models

Rafay Ansar

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Mini is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its original model by confirming plans for a new compact performance-oriented coupe.

The two-seater, revealed 50 years to the day after the premiere of the first Mini back in 1959, will make its public debut at the upcoming Frankfurt motor show. At the show, the BMW-owned carmaker also will unveil a similarly styled two-seat roadster, which sources say will head into production as part of a strategy aimed at further raising the appeal of the wildly popular and iconic small car.




Confirmation of the coupe and roadster pairing comes less than a year after Mini revealed that it would build a new four-wheel-drive SUV in the mold of its high-riding Crossman concept. Together, this trio of new models will double the number of Mini derivatives on sale within the next three years--a move that analysts say will help boost the company's worldwide sales above 400,000 annually, despite increased competition in the form of the upcoming Audi A1, the Citroën DS3 (both Frankfurt debuts) and the recently introduced Alfa Romeo MiTo.




Although it is described as a concept and the official line is that no decision on production has yet been made, the Mini Coupe to be revealed in Frankfurt is no mere fantasy destined to be toned down in appearance and mechanical makeup before it reaches dealerships. High-ranking Mini insiders revealed to AutoWeek that the production version due out in 2011 will be a virtual carbon copy both in looks and in the hardware that lurks beneath.

The Coupe was styled by a team working under Mini design boss Gert Hildebrand. He has retained the retro appearance of existing Cooper models while infusing an added dash of sportiness in the heavily angled windshield, the low roofline and the dedicated trunk lid. The result is a less boxy car than the Cooper. With a height of just 53.4 inches, it's also a lot lower. Traditional touches include blackened pillars to give the coupe the same floating roof design found on other Minis.



Inside, the Coupe swaps the four-seat layout of the Cooper for a simple two-seat arrangement, with the space in back used to extend trunk capacity. While the concept car boasts a luxurious leather-lined interior, production versions of the Coupe will come with the same materials and trims used on existing Mini models.

Under its steel skin, the Coupe uses the same front-wheel-drive platform, as well as the aluminum-intensive MacPherson-strut front and multilink rear suspension and electro-hydraulic steering system from existing versions of the Mini. All of that hints at typical agile-driving characteristics and firm ride qualities for the production car, which is expected to be priced at about $36,000 when North American sales begin in 2012.

In keeping with the performance slant evident in its exterior styling, Mini has endowed its Frankfurt concept with the same turbocharged 1.6-liter, 208-hp, 206-lb-ft four-cylinder gasoline engine used in the Cooper S John Cooper Works model.

Nothing is official yet, but expect the top-of-the-line Mini Coupe to hit 60 mph in less than 7.0 seconds and to reach a top speed of about 150 mph. Production versions of the new car should also be available with the less powerful 172-hp turbocharged, 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine from the Cooper S, according to Mini sources.






1:02 AM

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General Motors is dropping corporate logo from all vehicles

Rafay Ansar

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The small, silver GM badge has been placed near the front wheel of the automaker's vehicles since 2005.

General Motors is dropping the GM logo on its cars and trucks.

The badge is a small silver square with "GM" embossed on it. It's usually on the lower edge of the front fenders.

"With the focus really turning toward our four core brands, the feeling was, let's gradually get away from the GM logo," GM spokesman Pat Morrissey says. The logos will be removed gradually, but GM provided no timetable.

In April 2005, the Pontiac G6 was the first vehicle of the current lineup to get the GM logo. Since then, the badge has gone on most GM products.

But those inside GM say another reason to eliminate the badge is to distance GM's stronger brands, such as Chevrolet and Cadillac, from GM's image as a taxpayer-supported company just out of bankruptcy.






1:10 AM

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Maserati GranCabrio is set for a Frankfurt debut, will go on sale this year

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Maserati will debut the GranCabrio, its first four-seat convertible, at the Frankfurt motor show.

The GranCabrio is a soft-top variant of the four-seat GranTurismo. It has a roof that opens or closes in 28 seconds and will go on sale by the end of this year. The price is expected to start at 125,000 euros in Europe, or about $179,000 at current exchange rates.



The convertible was styled by Italian design house Pininfarina, which also styled the GranTurismo and Quattroporte sedan for the Fiat S.p.A. subsidiary.

The GranCabrio is powered by Maserati's 440-hp, 4.7-liter V8.

Maserati says the GranCabrio's 115.7-inch wheelbase--the same size as the GranTurismo--is the longest in its category, giving more room for rear passengers.

The GranCabrio completes the three-car Maserati family with the GranTurismo and Quattroporte sedan.




The car will add volume to the company's sales, especially in the crucial U.S. market, which is expected to be the biggest market for the convertible.




Maserati's unit sales were down 48.2 percent to 2,326 in the first half, which the company said was in line with a 47-percent decline in its market segment.






1:08 AM

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Pigskin and sheetmetal: Redskins host car event this weekend

Rafay Ansar

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A Bentley was on display at last year's event.


With fall just around the corner and summer car-show season beginning to fade, a nice transition will be held this Sunday when the Washington Redskins play host to their second-annual Redskins Rides event.

Pigskin and sheetmetal fans can satisfy their dual addictions with the show at the Redskins' practice facility in Ashburn, Va.

Last year, more than 3,000 attended the event, and players Antwaan Randle El, Jason Campbell and Chris Cooley were among the headliners who appeared from the team.

This year, cars, 'Skins players, food, cheerleaders and music are on tap for the event, which runs from noon to 7 p.m. Tickets are $15 for adults, $10 for youths, and children ages three and younger are free.

Look for vintage and exotic cars, and the categories will include best classic and best custom. There's also an award for the best ride brought by a Redskins player.

Proceeds from the event go to the Easterns Community Care Foundation and the Washington Redskins Charitable Foundation.