Detroit Needs New Home Sales To Pickup

DETROIT – At Kevin Haner’s construction company in Las Vegas, three of the four Dodge Ram pickup trucks are starting to get a little old. He may replace one if he gets a great deal, but he’ll keep running the others until he’s convinced that the housing slump has ended.

Haner’s reluctance to spend is typical of contractors nationwide. This presents a huge problem for the Detroit automakers because truck sales are directly tied to new home construction. Pickup sales are on pace for their worst performance in 17 years, and GM, Chrysler and Ford still sell 91 percent of all full-size pickups in the U.S.

Even as Detroit tries to gain traction with new small cars and electric vehicles in a government-mandated shift toward greater fuel economy, it needs to sell more Rams, Chevrolet Silverados and Ford F-150s. Pickups often sell for $30,000 or more and typically command higher prices and generate more profits than small and midsize cars. They account for 22 percent of sales for the Detroit Three. Until pickup sales rebound, steady profits and solid financial footing will likely prove hard to come by.
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Haner and others have reason to be cautious. While October new home sales were up 6.2 percent over September, construction of homes and apartments fell a larger-than-expected 10.6 percent, and building permits, a key indicator of future construction, slid 4 percent.

“I’m not inclined to take on any more exposure until I see that the building-housing market is thoroughly back out of recession,” Haner said Wednesday after the Commerce Department released the latest reading on new home sales.

“Right now, construction companies are going out of business,” said Erich Merkle, president of the auto industry consulting firm in Grand Rapids, Mich. “And those companies that are surviving are making do with the existing fleet.”

The housing slump has pushed U.S. pickup sales downward for the past three years. Sales routinely topped 200,000 per month as recently as 2007, but in February they fell to less than 89,000, the low point for the year. They’re off 32 percent from the first 10 months of 2008, according to Ward’s AutoInfoBank. Ford, Chrysler and GM combined to sell 843,000 pickups through October.

In Las Vegas, once among the hottest housing markets in the nation, building declined rapidly in the recession and is just starting to show signs of recovery, Haner said.

His work force surged to 25 during the boom years earlier this decade, but now its down to six. He paid off three of his trucks in 2007 while business was still good, and he’s maintained them so they’ll last.

With the casual truck buyer all but out of the market, automakers have been offering big incentives such as zero percent financing to entice contractors out of their bunkers. But like Haner, most are not budging because of uncertainty about a housing recovery.

The big drop in October home construction numbers brought fears of a double-dip recession in the industry and warnings that 2010 may still be sluggish for the sector. Yet inventory in October dropped to the lowest level in nearly four decades, leading at least one housing industry analyst to predict that builders will be swinging their hammers soon.

Mike DiGiovanni, General Motors’ top sales analyst, said the automaker still projects an upward trend in new housing into the fourth quarter of next year.

Pickup sales are particularly critical to GM. The Chevy Silverado is by far the company’s top-selling vehicle. Even in the recession, GM sold 261,142 Silverados through October, but that’s 35 percent fewer than in 2008.

DiGiovanni believes a recent stabilization in home prices, after months of declines, indicate the industry is starting a comeback.

Markets like Las Vegas have seen prices drop for 12 straight months. But prices have risen for at least six consecutive months in Denver, Washington D.C. and Chicago, according to the Standard & Poor’s/Case-Shiller index of 20 major cities.

Nationally, the median price of a new home was $212,200 in October, almost even with $213,200 a year earlier, but up almost 1 percent from September’s level of $210,700.

“We do think that as we move into next year, residential investment is going to become a small positive for the economy,” DiGiovanni said.

Merkle predicts that housing, and pickup sales, will lag behind the rest of the economy in recovering but still show small improvements next year. But it may take until late next year before contractors like Haner feel safe enough to buy new pickups.

Haner may replace his own Ram pickup because his dealer is offering zero-percent financing. But he plans to run the three company pickups, one of which is nearly six years old, for 250,000 miles or more. A 2004 model has only about 60,000 miles on it, he said.

Haner, who builds custom homes and does renovations and other work, has lived in the west for 35 years. He’s seen many boom-and-bust cycles in the real estate business, and he’s sure the Las Vegas market will rebound.

But when asked what it would take for him to replace his trucks sooner, Haner said: “A hell of a lot more work than we’ve got right now.”

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2010 Kia Soul

2010 Kia Soul

2010 Kia Soul

Click here to listen to the 2010 Kia Soul review.

It’s about this time of year that we start to think about that jolly old soul St. Nick. You know the… ahem, slightly obese, sleigh driving North Pole resident. No not Todd Palin. I’m talking about Santa and if you want to leave him something worthwhile on Christmas Eve ditch the cookies and milk and leave him a 2010 Kia Soul. Come on, it wouldn’t look bad being pulled by a few magic reindeer. But, if Rudolf hits the magic dust a little too hard Santa could just put the key in the Soul and continue on his merry way without missing a beat.

You see, the 2010 Soul makes people happy. When a friend of mine saw it last week the grin was so large on his face I could see it fifty yards away. What’s not to love about a short round, red bundle of fun.

The Soul drives like and economy car. It should, it is one. But some economy cars are fun to drive. They don’t disconnect you from the road. You feel the road in your hands, butt and feet. You actually hear the sounds around you. A lot of you are thinking that maybe I’ve been hanging out with Rudolf and tried the magic dust myself but, I really do love this car.
It’s obvious that Kia is placing a shot over the bow of the Scion xB. I say they took good aim. I prefer the Soul over the xB. It is more fun to drive. Looks cooler in my opinion and has trim levels advertised with two symbols, a plus sign (+) for the base and an exclamation mark (!) for the sport level. That’s cool. Wonder whether Prince would appreciate that. Regardless of the trim level the Soul comes with a great list of features, including anti-lock brakes, stability control, a USB audio jack and satellite radio. If you want you can even order a sunroof. Standard equipment includes 15-inch steel wheels, rear drum brakes, air conditioning and a tilt wheel. If you want, you can even order 18-inch wheels.
The icing on the cake however is an option sure to elicit excitement from anyone under twenty years of age. The interior, it’s loud, obnoxious, gaudy and perfect . The speakers even light up when played. My six-year-old ate this option up. It’s just fun! I smiled the whole time, like a jolly St Nick.

The horsepower numbers are unimpressive and no one will be purchasing the new Soul for its quarter mile times. You buy this car because you are fun and don’t take yourself too seriously. You buy the soul because it’s affordable, and comes with a 100,000 mile warranty.

Starting out with a base price of just over $13,000.00 the Kia Soul can be completely optioned out for well under twenty grand. That’s affordable. Even on Santa’s salary.

*I know Todd Palin is not overweight. I just really reached there.

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Ford Fusion Named Motor Trend Car of the Year

The Associated Press


The 2010 Ford Fusion was named Motor Trend magazine’s car of the year Tuesday, beating out the Toyota Prius, BMW 7-Series, Chevrolet Camaro and others in the closely watched competition.

Ford Fusion Named Motor Trend Car of the Year

Ford Fusion Named Motor Trend Car of the Year

It was yet another accolade for Ford Motor Co.’s midsize sedan, which got high reliability scores in the most recent rankings from Consumer Reports and was the top-selling car made by a Detroit automaker through October. U.S. Fusion sales were up 15 percent in the first 10 months of this year, to 148,045, despite a 25 percent drop in overall car sales.

Still, the mid-size Fusion continues to lag behind the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord — perennial leaders in the competitive U.S. mid-size market.

Motor Trend said the Fusion can compete with the Camry and Accord in performance, comfort and fuel efficiency. It praised Ford for offering several versions of the Fusion, including a fuel-efficient gas-electric hybrid and a sporty version with a V-6 engine.

“Ford has proven its resilience in these tough times by delivering to market a car with broad appeal to a broad range of consumers,” Motor Trend Editor in Chief Angus MacKenzie said in a statement.

Motor Trend considered 23 new or significantly refreshed vehicles. The Fusion, introduced in the 2006 model year, was redesigned for 2010 with a new lineup of engines and transmissions, new exterior and interior and new options, including the Sync entertainment system and a blind-spot warning system.

Derrick Kuzak, Ford’s group vice president of global product development, said the 2010 Fusion has a sportier look and better fuel economy than previous versions. It gets 34 miles per gallon on the highway when equipped with a four-cylinder engine and six-speed automatic transmission. The gas-electric hybrid version gets 41 miles per gallon in the city.

The Mercedes-Benz E-Class sedan, Buick LaCrosse, Lexus HS 250h and Hyundai Genesis coupe were among the cars Motor Trend considered. The Fusion also beat out other Ford models, including the Mustang sports car and Taurus sedan.

It was the first time a Ford car had won since 2003, when the Ford Thunderbird got the honor, Kuzak said. Ford’s 2009 F-150 was Motor Trend’s truck of the year last fall. The Nissan GT-R was the car of the year for 2009.

“It reinforces the progress that we’ve made, particularly on the car side of the business,” Kuzak told The Associated Press. “When people think of trucks they think Ford, but we needed to put Ford cars and crossovers in people’s consideration.”

Motor Trend conducts road tests on each vehicle and judges vehicles in six categories: design advancement, engineering excellence, intended function, efficiency, safety and value.

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No Scully Needed

Cars are approaching ‘auto’ pilot mode
With humans known to be unreliable sorts, vehicles get helping ‘hands’
By Daniel H. Wilson contributor
updated 8:13 a.m. CT, Fri., Nov . 6, 2009

When it comes to driving, human beings have an appalling safety record. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, more than 2.35 million people were injured in car accidents last year in the United States. That’s a breathtaking statistic until you consider that 37,261 others were killed — and that’s the lowest number since 1961.

But a new breed of prototype automobile can drive without the help of unreliable humans, and major car companies are paying attention.

In 2007, the federal government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency sponsored the Urban Challenge. Corporate-sponsored teams from all over the nation retrofitted regular cars with sensors and artificial intelligence, transforming them into fully autonomous ground vehicles. Eleven finalists unleashed their driverless cars on a peaceful mock city where they proved capable of obeying traffic signals while merging, passing and parking.

After winning the Urban Challenge together, General Motors teamed up with Carnegie Mellon to form a five-year, $5 million dollar Collaborative Research Laboratory. The manager of the group, Bakhtiar Litkouhi, wants GM to leverage university brainpower to accelerate the development of autonomous driving technology. “It’s important for these features to become production viable,” said Litkouhi, who has a Ph.D. in electrical engineering and systems science.

With motor-vehicle accidents claiming more than a million lives worldwide annually, car companies are pushing the development of technology that increasingly borrows control from erratic human beings, allowing the car to drive itself.

Low-level autonomous safety features have been around in various forms for decades.

Antilock brake systems, which automatically sense when a wheel is skidding and reduce brake pressure, were introduced back in 1971.

In 1997, General Motors introduced an Electronic Stability Control system that can sense the difference between the direction a car is going and the angle of the steering wheel, and then pump the brakes to keep the car on course.

These safety features are so commonplace today that federal legislation requires they be installed on all new cars, along with airbags and seatbelts.

And the next generation of autonomy is already here. The 2010 Ford Flex boasts Active Park Assist — just target a spot and the car uses ultrasonic range finders to park itself.

The 2010 Toyota Prius has a Lane Keep Assist system that uses a camera to detect lane markers and automatically steers the car toward the center of the lane. And the Honda Accord comes standard with Adaptive Cruise Control, which uses a radar pulse to scan ahead for other vehicles and then increases or decreases speed to maintain a safe following distance.

Modern cars can steer, brake and accelerate all by themselves, but they still need a human driver behind the wheel.

“The way into a fully autonomous vehicle follows an evolutionary path,” said Litkouhi.

Multiple features
The current set of semi-autonomous safety features can quickly combine into something more. For example, a car could use Lane Keep Assist and Adaptive Cruise Control together to drive itself under highway conditions, sticking to one lane and not hitting the car in front.

The next step is to expand these capabilities. Adaptive Cruise Control currently works only over 25 mph, but the next version (called Full Speed Range ACC) lowers that number to zero so that cars can begin to handle traffic jams in the city.

“As these systems mature, the drivers have to do less and less. There could be a natural tendency for the driver to do other things,” said Litkouhi, which means that autonomous cars must watch their drivers as much as they watch the road, or more.

Even fully autonomous cars will keep their human drivers, however.

“We have aircraft that can be piloted automatically, but that does not mean that the pilot can go back and mingle with the passengers,” said Litkouhi.

“At the end of the day, the driver is the one who gives control to the vehicle. At no time do we want to take the fun of driving away from the driver.”

Daniel H. Wilson ( is an Oregon-based writer and the author of “Where’s My Jetpack?: A Guide to the Amazing Science Fiction Future that Never Arrived.”
© 2009 Reprints


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America’s Dirtiest Cars and Trucks

Just because a car has low fuel efficiency doesn’t mean it’s the worst polluter on the road. The Chevrolet Suburban and Dodge Challenger are some of the biggest gas-gulpers available, but they don’t cause quite the environmental harm other cars do.

America's Dirtiest Cars and Trucks

America's Dirtiest Cars and Trucks

That title is reserved for vehicles that combine their poor gas mileage with high tailpipe and greenhouse gas emissions. Think along the lines of some of the bulkiest cars on the road, like the Jeep Grand Cherokee, Chevrolet Trailblazer and Dodge Dakota.

While fuel economy is linked to emissions, it’s not the only factor. Pollution levels also have to do with the type of fuel being used and the age and condition of the engine, among other things.

“You can have a really fuel-efficient, dirty vehicle and a really clean, not-so-fuel-efficient vehicle,” says Karl Simon, a director of compliance and innovation for the EPA’s Office of Transportation and Air Quality. “It really is pretty wide open from a technical perspective.”

Behind the Numbers
To determine the dirtiest cars on America’s roads, we used air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The EPA rates air pollution on a scale of 0 to 10; the score reflects the amount of tailpipe emissions a vehicle releases. Vehicles that score 10 are the cleanest–they don’t emit pollutants like hydrocarbon, nitrous oxides, particulate matter, carbon monoxide and formaldehyde. Greenhouse gas levels (carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane) are based on the vehicle’s fuel economy and are evaluated on the same 0-10 scale. That score represents the “relative global warming potential of each car,” the EPA says.

For our list, we combined air pollution and emissions scores and then chose the vehicles with the smallest results (the greater the score, the more environmentally friendly the car). We broke ties by evaluating the combined fuel efficiency of each vehicle. (Driving a car that gets 25 miles per gallon rather than 20 mpg will prevent 10 tons of carbon dioxide from hitting the air over a vehicle’s lifetime, according to EPA data.) We did not evaluate models that will end production after this year, like the Bentley Arnage and Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren Roadster, or vehicles classified as “heavy duty,” like the 3500 series of the Dodge Ram, which are exempt from federal fuel economy requirements.

We also deliberately omitted some vehicles that rated higher on the particulate-emissions scale, including exotics like the Ferrari F430, uber-luxury cars like the Bentley Continental Flying Spur, and high-performance variants from Mercedes-Benz’s AMG line. Those cars have marginally worse emissions ratings than some of the entries on our list but are produced in such small quantities and driven so infrequently–on weekends or on racetracks–that they often don’t contribute much to air-pollution problems.

Lonnie Miller, an automotive analyst for R.L. Polk, says it’s OK that performance and design dictate the aim of those vehicles, while others emphasize fuel economy and practicality. There’s a place in the market for each type, he says.

Repeat Offender
Even had we included those supercars, though, the Jeep Grand Cherokee still would have topped the chart. It scored a paltry three out of 10 for air-pollution ratings and two out of 10 for greenhouse gas emissions. The flex-fuel engine–prized because it uses a renewable resource that reduces dependency on traditional gasoline–on the Cherokee was even worse: three out of 10 and one out of 10 for the air pollution and gas emissions, respectively.

In terms of finger-pointing, however, it’s not just Jeep maker Chrysler that needs to clean up its act. In all, cars and trucks account for almost one-third of the total air pollution in the United States. And while EPA emission standards have gotten increasingly strict since they first were instituted in the early 1970s, there’s still a long way to go, especially at home: 60% of the entries on our list are from domestic automakers. The remainder are German; no Japanese or Korean cars make the list.

Of American automakers, though, Chrysler is the worst offender, with six vehicles on last year’s “dirtiest” list (the Jeep Commander, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Dodge Durango, Chrysler Aspen, Dodge Ram 1500 and Dodge Dakota), and five this year.

It’s important to note that each of the cars on our list are street legal–and much cleaner than anything on the road years ago.

“We continue to drive our fleet average even lower,” Chrysler spokesman Nick Cappa said in a written response to the rankings. “Chrysler Group products are 99% cleaner than vehicles of 30 years ago and meet or exceed United States federal emission standards, the most stringent in the world.”

Going Clean
Many auto manufacturers are making concerted efforts to produce models that are easier on the environment; most offer hybrid, compact or turbocharged 4-cylinder versions, all of which record low pollutant scores. Next year will see the long-awaited arrival of several low- and emission-free options, like the compact but “ecoboosted” Ford Fiesta and the plug-in electric Chevrolet Volt.

Some high-end carmakers are making considerable emissions efforts as well, but don’t look to them for the latest in high-volume electric technology. It’s prohibitively expensive and technologically difficult to get anywhere near the same performance out of an electric motor as a combustion engine, and aside from notable entries from Tesla and (perhaps) Fisker, it will be years before any meaningful amount of electric motors find their way into high-performance and luxury cars.

Besides, there’s much to be done to improve the combustion engine, engineers from Bentley, BMW and say, either through increasing its efficiency or developing alternative fuels. Bentley developed the flex-fuel-capable, $245,000 Continental Supersports coupe for that very reason.

“We believe bioethanol is a really good alternative to reducing CO2 emissions,” says Brian Gush, Bentley’s director of chassis and powertrain engineering. “This is a renewable source, which will be growing into the future.”

Simon at the EPA says emissions levels have indeed improved significantly over the last 20 years and will continue to do so. But with 40,000 Jeep Grand Cherokees sold this year so far, there’s a long way to go.

In Depth: America’s Dirtiest Vehicles

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