Friday, December 5, 2008

New Chevrolet 3S dealership on Penang island

Chevrolet owners in the northern region have another full-fledged dealership to look after their vehicles. The new Chevrolet dealership, situated at Jalan Pinang, on Penang island, is the seventh new one to be opened since HICOM-Chevrolet took over distributorship. It is operated by Cergazam Sdn Bhd which also has dealerships in Petaling Jaya, Prai and Johor Bahru.

“We are extremely delighted to be awarded a fourth Chevrolet dealership. It is a strong reflection on the confidence that HICOM-Chevrolet has placed in our capability to help boost the Chevrolet brand in Malaysia,” said Eddie Chai, Managing Director of Cergazam.

“Our commitment to deliver on the Chevrolet brand promise of quality and value is well noted by this award. It is certainly a significant milestone for Cergazam following our decision to venture into the automotive industry. Indeed, Chevrolet cars are renowned throughout the world for its world-class quality and value and we are proud to be associated with this global brand,” he added.

Cergazam's flagship 3S dealership in Petaling Jaya, Selangor

Speaking on behalf of HICOM-Chevrolet, its CEO, Yukontorn Wisadkosin said: “Today’s launch marks the seventh Chevrolet 3S centre in Malaysia, which reflects on Chevrolet’s commitment and keeping our promise to bring convenience of service and the Chevrolet quality and value to our customers across Malaysia.”

“Our new mantra, ‘Chevrolution’ – a philosophy that is focused on the buyer – is emphasized and carried through in all that we do. At any one of our 3S dealerships, Chevrolet customers can expect quality service and a one-stop convenience from sales to service and spare parts – this is what we mean by a 3S centre. Chevrolet customers can be fully assured that all our service centres will be 3S-only”, said Ms Wisadkosin.

Commending Cergazam efforts, she added, “Our hitherto experience with Cergazam assures us with absolute confidence their capabilities in meeting our mission to strengthen the Chevrolet brand in Malaysia. Cergazam has clearly proven this with the three other Chevrolet 3S centers they operate that they are truly committed to help us take Chevrolet to the next level”, continued Ms Wisadkosin.

The opening event, which also coincided with the first anniversary of the launch of the Captiva in Malaysia, saw many Chevrolet owners coming from as far as Kuala Lumpur to join in the celebration.

The Captiva also celebrates its first anniversary in Malaysia this weekend. Over 500 units have been sold since its launch.

Cergazam is also celebrating its first anniversary in the auto dealership business. In conjunction with this milestone, Cergazam is offering up to RM5,000 services voucher and 5 years extended warranty for Chevrolet vehicles, as part of its Anniversary Sales Package. During the month of November, Cergazam also offered an Anniversary Service Package to customers who came to a Cergazam service centre for service after receiving a SMS from the company.

Mitsubishi i-MiEV

During the past decade, development of alternative ways to move cars accelerated and this decade is seeing production models either going on sale or in the final phase of testing. Different manufacturers have focused on different approaches although some have also chosen a range of options since no one is sure which will actually be the right one.

For Mitsubishi Motor Corporation (MMC), electric vehicles or EVs have been a strong focus since the 1970s (although it has also explored other solutions), initially in response to air pollution. In fact, in 1971, the company already made its first EVs - around 150 electrically-powered variants of its Minicab and Minicar that were supplied to government agencies and power companies.

The early Mitsubishi EVs used lead-acid batteries (the same as what you have in your car’s engine bay) which were the only high-capacity storage batteries available then. However, lead and acid are poisonous so the future of such batteries for EVs was not there and when lithium-ion battery technology became available in the 1990s, this became the choice of most EV manufacturers.

MMC has positioned EVs as the pinnacle of its environmental technology and the culmination of its almost 40 years of development is the i-MiEV (or ‘i-meef’, as it is referred to), an electric variant of the innovative Mitsubishi i car. The i-car, which was displayed at the last KL International Motorshow, has a radical design and compact size that lead many to think it was an EV but it actually has a petrol engine.

The unique construction of the i-car, which has its engine mounted towards the back of the cabin and the fuel tank under the middle, was ideal for switching to an electric powertrain. In place of the 35-litre fuel tank, a flat lithium-ion 330V battery pack with a capacity of 16 kWh is under the floor and the hardware for the permanent magnet synchronous electric motor goes under and behind the rear seat. The battery pack is a heavy item and positioning it low and in the middle also benefits vehicle dynamics.

The electric motor may be small and light and produce only 47 kW but when it comes to torque, it sure packs a punch! As the chart show, 180 Nm is available from start to what would be the equivalent of a third of the rpm range of the 660 cc turbocharged engine of the i-car. In comparison, the petrol engine’s torque curve starts much lower down and never gets anywhere near 180 Nm. But that’s a normal characteristic for a petrol engine and a small one can only deliver so much torque.

Driving range on a full charge is the big issue for EVs and one which has been of concern to consumers. If you have to keep recharging to drive long distances, then it’s not going to be much fun and furthermore, will there be recharging stations available? Extending the range has been a major challenge but as battery technology has advanced, this has slowly improved and the i-MiEV has a claimed 160 kms using the Japanese 10-15 mode (an industry standard for fuel consumption measurement) at an average speed of 22.7 km/h. That suggests the car is pretty much an urban commuter rather than for intercity travel. A top speed of 130 km/h is possible but that also means the battery ‘juice’ will drain faster and range will be reduced. There is regenerative charging which captures ‘wasted' energy during braking and coasting to recharge the battery but this is not significant.

Until recent years, EVs have required special charging stations, a fact that was very discouraging since consumer acceptance of such vehicles would be dependent on the assurance of an extensive network of stations – an infrastructure which would be costly and take a long time to establish. The i-MiEV eliminates this issue by having a plug-in recharging system where the car can be hooked up to a household power socket (like the one you have powering your computer) and fully charged within 7 to 14 hours, depending on whether it’s a 200V or 100V supply. There’s also the option of a quick-charging system (which requires a 3-phase 50 kW/200V supply) that will have the battery pack 80% charged within 30 minutes.

As Mitsubishi Motors Malaysia (MMM) had brought in an i-MiEV to display at the International Petroleum Technology Conference in Kuala Lumpur, the company gave the motoring media a chance to also try the car. Given that the range was limited on one charge, the route was short and confined to the area around the Saujana Golf and Country Club near the old Subang Airport in Selangor.

Driving EVs is not new to me as I have been in a few over the past ten years. I recall the very first experience in a Toyota RAV4 EV (yes, Toyota did make such a variant) in 1997 where I turned the starter switch a few times because all my driving life, I had been conditioned that turning the key was accompanied by some sound and a bit of vibration as the engine fired up. The engineer had to stop me and said, ‘No need – already on’. Then it dawned on me that with an electric motor, nothing happens till you start using it and turning the switch only allows it to start operating.

Plug-in capability allows i-MiEV to recharge using household electrical outlets

Inside the lithium-ion battery pack which is positioned under the middle of the car

I always remembered that whenever I drove an EV and it was the same with the i-MiEV except the MMC engineers must have found that virtually all drivers do need some sort of confirmation that all systems as ‘GO’ so when the switch is turned, a ‘READY’ light comes on in the instrument panel along with a soft chime!

As expected, the car surged forward like a Tamiya R/C model with so much torque coming right at the start and the weight only 1,080 kgs. There was no wheelspin, however, because the electric motor is at the back and the drive wheels are also at the back but as mentioned earlier, the battery pack in the middle helps to balance the weight distribution. Having driven the i-car last year, I felt the i-MiEV had a better ride although both cars still didn’t take bumps too well, probably because the wheels are small.

The interior is spacious for a minicar and the dashboard is laid out sensibly. It's amazing that MMC chose to give the i-MiEV quite a number of exclusive parts which only makes production cost higher when this is a low volume model (2,000 units annually at the start). But then again, it may be that the designers felt it's necessary to give the car a more high-tech image to emphasise its uniqueness.

There was no chance to check out the performance but it certainly zipped around briskly. However, hard driving will certainly drain the battery faster so an owner would have to be conscious of the fact all the time and refrain from enjoying the exhilaration of acceleration too often.

An EV makes almost no sound as it moves, which is great for the environment and great for the occupants but I wonder if it might become dangerous for pedestrians. Today, we can hear a car coming up behind and move out of the way but you might not hear an EV (especially older folks whose hearing might be poorer). So it might be pertinent for carmakers to look into this matter and perhaps have some sort of scanner like a parking sensor which will be able to identify humans and sound the horn automatically if the driver does not do so.

The i-MiEV is now going through real-world testing as MMC has supplied it to various Japanese companies to use daily. It will then be offered for sale to the public sometime in 2009 only in Japan. From next year, roadtests will also commence in selected markets with a view towards introducing the car there as well.

The projected price in Japan is around 3 million yen (about RM114,000 at today’s rates) - double that of the i-car - and that price is with a government subsidy (already confirmed). The cost of R&D has been high to make the i-MiEV a reality for the public to buy but if MMC is to include the R&D cost, the even higher price would be totally unacceptable.

It is for this reason that carmakers keep emphasizing that while they are prepared to undertake the huge investments – and risks – of developing advanced new technologies for more environment-friendly vehicles, when the vehicles are ready to be sold, governments must also share in the cost by providing subsidies to keep prices down to acceptable levels. This is crucial because the carmakers need to get up to volumes that give real economies of scale and can start to push costs down. Many governments don’t seem to see that the carmakers have done their share of ‘corporate social responsibility’ for the betterment of the country’s environment and they need the subsidy to help them make it worthwhile.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

All-New Nissan 370Z

In the nearly 40 years since the first-generation S30 model debuted in 1969 as the Fairlady in Japan and 240Z overseas, it has as earned a reputation as one of the most desirable sportscars in the world, with approximately 1.7 million units sold to date. The iconic sportscar evolved over time and became more powerful but market trends changed too and by 1996, Nissan found sales too low in its major market, the USA, to justify keeping the model alive and made no plans for a successor. However, when Carlos Ghosn moved into Nissan, he supported calls to bring back the sportscar and approved development of an all-new model which went on sale in 2003. This weekend, the all-new second generation gets its first sales launch in Japan.

Carlos Ghosn supported the revival of the Z and approved development of a new model for the 21st century

The latest Z – now designated 370Z - embodies the first generation's signature “Z-ness” in terms of high performance, design and high value, incorporates dramatic advances in dynamic performance and perceived quality. The new 370Z’s unmistakable front-engine, rear-drive body proportions only hint at the overwhelming performance inherent under its beautifully sculpted skin. Further suggestion of the exhilarating driving experience that awaits is given by its iconic “Z-ness” – from the dynamic character line that runs from the headlights to the rear, delineating the waistline and cabin arch to the flared rear fenders that strongly accentuate the drive wheels.

The headlights and the rear combination lamps function as the "stop, flick and pullout" motions that end brush strokes in calligraphy. Their treatment produces a “boomerang motion” that has the intended effect of drawing all the styling elements together.

The wheelbase of the new 370Z has been shortened by 100 mm from that of the previous model, a move that is claimed to make handling more crisp and enhance dynamic performance as well as give a more aggressive sport stance.

The new model weighs approximately the same as the previous model, despite its enhanced equipment features and the body rigidity measures that have been adopted to improve safety performance. Significant weight savings were achieved by using aluminium for the bonnet, door panels and hatchback and by optimizing various body structures.

The new Z’s cockpit design pursues a sense of solid security and a feeling of unity with the driver. For example, a wire frame was added to the shoulder portions of the driver's seat for better support. The cushion and main section of the seatback are covered with a slide-resistant suede material. A low driver’s seat hip point keeps the body from shifting laterally, providing support for withstanding powerful cornering forces. These features, along with a lumbar support, enable the driver to maintain a proper driving posture at all times.

The interior features a new suede cloth which can be attached to 3-dimensional panel surfaces (something that was not possible with the types of trim cloth used previously). This high-quality, dense suede cloth has a pleasing tactile feel and imparts a soft, embracing sensation to the cockpit area. The lid of the centre stack storage bin is covered with a new soft-touch synthetic leather that is embellished with double stitching. Meticulous attention was also paid to the material, firmness and finish of the driver's kneepad, providing comfortable support for the inside knee. The centre armrest is thoughtfully rounded to avoid interfering with the driver's shifting action.

In addition, the layout of the pedals and steering wheel was revised for easier operation, enabling the driver to execute driving actions quickly. The front pillars are positioned so as to allow the driver to see ahead easily on curves, while maintaining wide visibility to the right and left sides.

The three large-diameter, independent meters feature a sporty design, excellent legibility and superior functionality. The diameter of both the tachometer and speedometer was increased and the shape of the steering wheel rim was extended outward on both sides to expand the visible area of the meters. The traditional trio of ancillary gauges, a signature Z design from the first-generation, now has an oil temperature gauge as befitting a true sports car (instead of an oil pressure gauge).

This new model is the first in the Z series to adopt Nissan's Intelligent Key system and a push-button engine starter. When the “Engine Start” button is pushed, the needles of the tachometer, speedometer and the trio of three gauges swing in unison as the engine comes to life.

New 3.7-litre VQ engine has world's first 6-speed manual transmission with synchronized rev control
The new 370Z is powered by the VQ37VHR engine with Nissan's Variable Valve Event and Lift (VVEL) system. It generates a maximum output 247 kW/(336 ps) at 7000 rpm and maximum torque of 365 Nm at 5200 rpm.

A world's first is claimed for the 6-speed manual transmission with synchronized rev control that regulates the engine speed to the optimum level, matching the driver's shifting action when changing gears. Also available is a 7-speed automatic transmission with a manual shift mode that lets drivers enjoy the direct shifting sensation of a manual gearbox along with world-class shift response.

The chassis combines a double-wishbone front suspension with a multi-link rear suspension. In addition to adopting a dual-flow-path construction and internal rebound springs, the shock absorbers incorporate high-responsive ripple control to provide both excellent handling response and supple ride comfort.

Aluminium-caliper opposed-piston Akebono brakes are fitted at all four wheels for driving ease in urban areas and in congested traffic, together with stable braking performance on winding roads and in high-speed cruising.

In the Japanese market, Nissan expects to sell 500 new 370Zs a month at prices ranging from 3,622,500 yen (RM138,017) to 4,462,500 yen (RM170,021). Exports should begin in the new year with the US market obviously being among the first to get the car since that is where the Z has been so loved by enthusiasts.

Toyota Hilux for Rain Forest Challenge

For this year’s Malaysian Rainforest Challenge (RFC) - internationally known as one of the world’s toughest 4x4 off-road adventure events – the Toyota Hilux will serve as support vehicle. Four units have been specially prepared by UMW Toyota Motor (UMWT) for the event which will be held in Terengganu from December 5 - 14 2008.

UMWT was unhesitant about providing the Hilux since its toughness has long been proven and the RFC would showcase the vehicle’s capabilities in extreme conditions which are likely to include floods and muddy tracks if current weather conditions are an indication.

“The history of the Hilux has been a story of continuous development based on customer’s needs all over the world. It has become a legendary and trusted 4x4 vehicle in the global market,” said UMWT’s MD, Kuah Kock Heng.

Mr Kuah added: “Given such a reputation, we truly believe that our tough and reliable Toyota is up to the mark and can withstand extreme conditions that it will encounter during the Rainforest Challenge. Being the support vehicles mean that the Hilux will be used extensively on the rough terrain to support the participating teams and must be reliable enough to do the job.”

The reputation for toughness and reliability has made the Hilux a highly respected product for those whose businesses require a tough ‘business partner’. As of September 2008, UMWT has sold more than 60,000 units of the Hilux, capturing 45% market share of its segment and a clear leader in the pick-up segment.

The four units of Hilux UMWT is providing are the 2.5D STD 4x4 Manual version. No modifications have been done to the D-4D 2.5-litre turbodiesel engine with Common Rail Direct Injection system which produces 75 kW/102 ps of power at 3600 rpm and 260 Nm of torque at 1600 rpm. However, additional parts and equipment necessary for the role that the vehicles will play have been installed, along with items that are mandatory for off-road driving.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Third Generation Lexus RX350/Toyota Harrier

During the 1990s, while sales of sedans slowed in the US market, demand for SUVs soared. The compact Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V were partly responsible for the trend, having shown that SUVs can be comfortable and drive like passenger cars. Prior to these two models arriving on the scene, SUVs had been derivatives of pick-ups trucks, riding on chassis frames which made them less comfortable and handling was not all that great.

Toyota watched the SUV trend taking off and saw that car-buyers tastes were changing. The image of the SUV was appealing, conveying a rugged and adventurous image – even if the owners never ventured further off-road than the beach. At Lexus USA, there was evidence that 15% of owners were buying a SUV as their next car but Lexus didn’t have a SUV then.

First generation RX300

Second generation RX350

This led to the development of the Lexus RX300 (Toyota Harrier in Japan) which, like the RAV4, was a ‘parts-bin special’ meaning it used many parts and systems from existing models, thereby lowering cost and reducing development time. For example, the front suspension was the same as that in the 1997 Camry and the 4WD system was from the Celica GT4, all proven mechanicals. This made it possible for the development time to be just 18 months and Program Manager T. Uchimoto recalled that the short program time was a considerable competitive advantage because the final design and specs could be set at the last possible moment.

Surveys showed that people liked the idea of the SUV but they also wanted comfort and good handling dynamics and of course, decent performance on the road. 4WD was not the most important thing though it was a selling feature.

Around the time the RX300 was being developed, Mercedes-Benz had introduced a new SUV, the M-Class, which brought refinement and luxury to the SUV class (up till then, only the Range Rover could claim that). Lexus, already acknowledged as the luxury segment leader in the US market, aimed to take on the M-Class but its engineers adopted a different approach; instead of using to the truck-based chassis-frame construction that the Germans believed was necessary to maintain off-road durability, the RX300 had monocoque construction, like a passenger car’s where the bodyshell and floorpan are welded as a single unit.

The result was a new benchmark in SUV design with the RX300 offering refinement, and comfort plus the things which people liked about a SUV such as high ground clearance and moderate ‘go-anywhere’ capability. Lexus didn’t boast about how the RX300 could take a family across the desert or search for ruins in the Brazil but it said that the model had full-time 4WD for poor weather and road conditions. The refinement was impressive (the engineers liked to say ‘NVH’ did not mean ‘Noise, Vibration and Harshness’ but ‘No Vibration and Harshness’!) as it was claimed that road noise in the RX300 was as low as that in the GS400 sedan.

The RX300 went on sale in March 1998 and in the years that followed, it became the top-selling luxury SUV in the USA. Demand was so great that Toyota decided to have it produced in Canada for the North American market, the first time a Lexus model was allowed to be made outside Japan (a move which some of the manufacturing people didn’t agree with as they felt that ‘Made-in-Japan’ was a significant feature for Lexus).

The RX has gone through two generations now and in Los Angeles yesterday, the third generation was shown to the world for the first time. Completely redesigned, it is said to set new benchmarks in areas that have made it such a success: innovation, styling, performance, utility and comfort.

Third generation (left) and second generation (right)
The exterior of the all-new RX has a strong stance and powerful new body design with the goal of enhancing comfort and maneuverability. The inverted-trapezoid design in the front and the horizontally integrated rear are incorporated together via a pronounced shoulder along the RX's profile. Overall dimensions are slightly increased but aerodynamic efficiency is still a segment-topping 0.32 Cd, thanks in part to a specially-designed undertray.

RX450h has unique styling features

The RX 450h hybrid will have its own unique styling features, including an exclusive grille, hybrid badging including blue-trimmed Lexus logos, unique front bumper, a special 19-inch optional wheel design, blue-tinted headlamps and taillamps, and optional LED headlamps.

The new RX350 (there might be a 3-litre engine for some markets) and RX450h hybrid have improved powertrains. The RX 450h gets an enhanced Hybrid Drive system with a 3.5-litre V6 petrol engine which delivers a total system output of 295 bhp, 27 bhp more than the powerplant in the RX hybrid before.

The RX 450h can be ordered with front-wheel or electronically-driven, part-time all-wheel-drive (AWD) which supplies the rear wheels with the optimal amount of torque as conditions demand. Unlike mechanical AWD systems that reduce fuel efficiency due to added weight and friction, the RX 450h's rear-mounted electric motor-generator allows all four wheels to perform regenerative braking, charging the hybrid battery more effectively.

The new RX 350 has an improved 275-bhp 3.5-litre V6 petrol engine mated to an electrically controlled, sequential-shift 6-speed transaxle. The AWD version has an Active Torque Control AWD system that optimizes torque depending on driving conditions, resulting in improved efficiency and performance.

The suspension has a new, uniquely designed double-wishbone rear suspension said to provide exceptional agility and control. To complement this new rear suspension and provide excellent dexterity and ride comfort, the front MacPherson strut geometry has been optimized.

RX350 instrument panel

RX450h instrument panel
The new RX offers a number of Lexus-first technologies that are intended to enhance the ownership experience. Customers can order a Hard Disk Drive-based navigation system with a "Remote Touch" controller that is both intuitive and ergonomic. Positioned on the centre console, it is as natural to the driver's hand as a computer mouse. While the RX will feature voice recognition as standard, the new navigation system will also include a new casual language voice-recognition system that acknowledges conversational commands.

The spacious 5-passenger interior includes a new "dual-zone cockpit" design. This intuitive layout helps the driver navigate the advanced interior of the new RX, which features two distinct yet integrated zones: a "display zone" and an "operation zone." The "display zone" assists the driver via an 8-inch, navigation display that is set back in the dash for improved visibility. A white Organic LED multi-informational display ensures exceptional readability from a wide angle. An optional Heads-up Display is also available and its high-intensity LEDs make the display bright enough to be read in direct sunlight. The "operation zone" provides access and control to a large range of information through the available "Remote Touch" navigation controller and the steering-wheel-mounted multi-information switch.

The third generation RX will go on sale in North America in early 2009 and other markets like Malaysia should see it being launched later in the year.

Monday, December 1, 2008

L.A. Auto Show 2008, a New Automotive Era

Posted by Dave Terebessy

On November 19th the doors of the Los Angeles Convention Center will open for “press days” at the 102nd annual Los Angeles Auto Show. The public gets their turn starting Friday November 21st.

Our Honda booth at the Paris Motor Show. was impressive, but L.A. will be privy to some new, exciting stuff. I can’t give away any specifics, but I can tell you that the Insight Concept will be featured front and center, and there may be some surprises along the way.

This is my first auto show as a Honda employee so I’m really looking forward to it. The L.A. Auto Show is known for its emphasis on showcasing design and green technology, so I expect quite a few unveilings on the efficiency front this year. Los Angeles is big on hybrids and it’s a very prominent automotive market. And the entire industry is focused on efficiency these days.

I have a lot of work to do to get ready—our Honda press conference is tomorrow morning. Be sure to come back soon for all the latest news from the show.

A Silver Bullet for Green?

Posted by William Walton III on November 25, 2008 5:38 PM

Walking around the Honda display at the L.A. Auto Show, I am reminded that there is no real silver bullet for green—at least in the near term. Sure the spotlight is on our exciting new concept vehicles like the hydrogen-powered FC Sport design study, the CR-Z hybrid concept and the Insight Concept. But we also proudly feature vehicles you can buy today, like the Civic Hybrid, the Fit, and a shiny Civic GX natural-gas vehicle as well as the available Phill®[1] Station.

So, gasoline, hybrid, electric, natural gas, fuel cell—which one is best?

At Honda, we believe strongly in the potential of hydrogen fuel cell technology. Hydrogen is a clean energy source. We’re excited by the possibilities for our compact and efficient V Flow Fuel Cell powertrain. It has allowed us to design the FCX Clarity as a comfortable sedan in the hands of real drivers today, and to envision the FC Sport design study, which illustrates what the future of high-performance sports cars could be.

However, there are many hurdles yet to cross before hydrogen fueling can be made available to a large market. The infrastructure is not yet in place to support widespread adoption of this promising technology. We are working on solutions to that issue—such as the Home Energy Station, which generates hydrogen from natural gas and is designed to provide heat and electricity for the home through fuel cell cogeneration and to supply fuel for a hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicle.

Until hydrogen refueling is more convenient and widely deployed, we believe the best approach is to explore and bring to market a range of technologies that people can start to use right now. For example, the AT-PZEV[2] Civic GX NGV runs on compressed natural gas—a source of energy that’s cleaner than gasoline and readily available today.

And since the most widely available fuel source right now is still gasoline, we are happy to be able to offer more fuel-efficient vehicles like the 35-mpg Honda Fit[3] and our hybrid vehicles: the Civic Hybrid, the soon-to-be-released Insight and the CR-Z concept .

Although widespread fuel cell use is still a ways away, there are viable alternatives available today that can serve as stepping stones on the way to a gasoline-free future. So the answer to which technology is best right now? Whatever works with your lifestyle.