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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.