Nissan’s LEAF 2.0: room for improvement

Nissan has sold more than 260,000 LEAF electric vehicles (EV) since December 2010. As battery-powered cars go, one could argue the LEAF has been a rousing success. Nissan is the world’s No. 1 EV maker, period.

The world’s best-selling EV is the Nissan LEAF, but overall it’s been a disappointment.

Yet in the bigger picture, the LEAF has been a savage disappointment. Nissan had hoped it would ignite a frenzy of interest in EVs – among buyers and automakers racing to meet mounting consumer demand for zero-emissions vehicles.

Yet last month, only 122 Canadians bought a LEAF ($33,998). LEAF buyers may be eligible for up to $14,000 in provincial incentives, but a $20,000-something Nissan EV still has little mainstream appeal – even one like the zero-emissions LEAF, a five-door hatchback with a range of up 172 km.

The next-generation LEAF really must be a vast improvement over the outgoing one. And now the tease is on.

The Nissan Vmotion 2.0 is a new concept vehicle that signals the company’s future sedan design direction and Intelligent Mobility technology.

We’ve already seen a tiny bit of the “next chapter in Nissan’s Intelligent Zero-Emissions Mobility.” The teaser image is just the start of Nissan’s campaign to reinvent not just the LEAF itself, but its place in the world and how people perceive it. There will be more photos and infobits to come, culminating in the global reveal of the next-generation LEAF in early September.

So what’s Nissan’s plan for LEAF 2.0? It will go on sale by the end of this year and it surely will remain a hatchback. Expect it to go perhaps 400 km on a single charge.

We might also see the LEAF become something of a brand unto itself, one that includes an all-electric crossover. Nissan has hinted at this in discussing the coming Vmotion 3.0 concept to be shown later this year.

Teaser image: The new #Nissan #LEAF. Coming soon.

We’ve already seen Nissan’s EV design ideas in the Vmotion 2.0 concept. Nissan has talked about the styling demands and opportunities presented by electric motors and batteries and has said we’ll learn more about Nissan’s views here when we see Vmotion 3.0.

Nissan will also try to tie together the three emerging trends in the global car market: electrification, autonomous driving, and connectivity in LEAF 2.0.

“Why not try something new?” Alfonso Albaisa, Nissan global design chief, said in Automotive News. “In the future, we’re not going to have just one EV. So we’re starting to map out what is the DNA that can go across different genres.”

He told the industry publication that flat flooring, sleek aerodynamic shapes, and narrower, low-resistance tires will likely be prominent in Vmotion 3.0.

“We are clearly focusing our attention on a crossover EV, because it’s our DNA,” he said. “The crossover will really embody the latest Nissan Intelligent Mobility features.”

As for the current LEAF, the soft, bubble-like look is the automotive equivalent of a Birkenstock sandal. Ugly, but comfortable. And while that design might have some appeal for a sliver of true believers, we know from Tesla’s success that sleek styling sells electric cars.

The 2017 Nissan LEAF features a high-response, 80kW AC synchronous motor that generates 107 horsepower and 187 lb-ft of torque.

Here’s what else we can expect in LEAF 2.0. It would make sense for it to improve on the Chevrolet Bolt, which has a 60 kWh battery, a range of 383 km and a 0-100 km/hour sprint of about seven seconds. Nissan should also be able to improve on the Bolt’s recharging capability.

Using a DC (direct current) station, the Bolt can be juiced up to a range of 145 km in 30 minutes. However, rumours are circulating that Nissan might launch LEAF 2.0 with a pedestrian battery, say 36 kWh or 48 kWh. That would be a mistake. It would put the car at a big disadvantage versus the Bolt and Tesla’s promised Model 3 due later this year.

One advantage the LEAF will have is on the production side. Nissan makes the LEAF in three locations: Japan, Tennessee and the U.K., so buyers will have easy and quick access to the new car regardless of where they live.

We can expect Nissan to launch a well-tested, proven LEAF 2.0, one remarkably durable and reliable. The LEAF’s proven quality is one selling point going forward, and Nissan’s work on autonomous and connectivity technologies will surely shine in LEAF 2.0, too.

That leaves design. It’s time for Nissan’s stylists to step up and make LEAF 2.0 sexy, not just practical and durable.

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Will Ford’s new CEO fix wonky gearboxes and other quality woes?

One wag described Ford Motor’s new CEO as a “former furniture salesman and college football fan-boy.”

2017 Ford Focus: 14 recalls in Canada just since 2012. Ford quality has been terrible for years now.

Whatever his credentials, Denise Cuthbert would like new Ford CEO Jim Hackett to do two things: fix once and for all the wonky gearbox in her 2012 Ford Focus and put some serious effort into boosting her investment in Ford Motor shares.

Cuthbert has been through three transmissions since buying her Focus and “another is likely in the future.” At first, she had to fight Ford Canada tooth and nail to get the problem-plagued gearbox replaced. Then new ones were installed with maddening regularity, year after year.

The latest one, she adds, “is supposed to be good, but it was awful at New Year’s.” Going up hills during the holidays, her car stalled frequently and a dashboard light warned of overheating. “Ford said it was common when not broken in and it would get better. It did,” she adds.

Beleaguered Ford shareholders will not be happy to learn that Ford has told Cuthbert – and we can assume many thousands of others like her – that the company will cover all the costs of this disaster of an automatic transmission for 10 years.

Jim Hackett, Ford’s new president and CEO, with Executive Chairman Bill Ford (right).

The Focus, in fact, has been the subject of 14 separate recalls in Canada just since 2012. Last year, Transport Canada said it was investigating a “significant” number of concerns over Ford Focus and Fiesta models after owners said their cars began jerking and stopping suddenly.

Cuthbert and others appear to have been terrorized by Ford’s PowerShift Dual Clutch automatic. German automakers have had great success with dual clutch gearboxes, but Ford’s foray has been an utter catastrophe.

The problem boils down to this: Ford moved too quickly to introduce its dual clutch setup, pushing ahead with new technology before it was ready for prime time.

For Cuthbert, this experience has been especially troubling because she’s been a loyal Ford shareholder for more than half a decade. As a Ford owner, she’s embarrassed by Ford’s technological incompetence and she’s been troubled by a languishing Ford share price – despite a healthy and consistent dividend in the 5%-range.

Former Ford Motor Company CEO Mark Fields reportedly was more concerned with the nuts and bolts of running a car manufacturer than artificial intelligence, 3D printing, robotics and so-called “deep learning.

Shareholders and owners like Cuthbert may or may not be comforted by this week’s dismissal of Mark Fields, the ousted CEO who spent his entire career rising through the ranks of Ford. Under Fields’ leadership, Ford spun off record profits and a solid dividend, but the share price declined 40%.

Ford’s shares today sell for about $11 (US), down from $15 (US) two years ago. If you invested in Ford exactly two years ago, you would be down 27 per cent. Sure, sure, the dividends have been nice — including special dividends in 2016 and 2017) – but an investment in a basic S&P 500 index fund would have delivered a far richer return.

During that time, and dating back several more years, the quality of vehicles produced by Ford Motor has been terrible. In the latest J.D. Power and Associates’ long-term Vehicle Dependability Study (VDS), Ford is near the very back of the pack.

Indeed, Ford’s quality woes can be traced to the early part of this decade when the company began a serious push to become known as a maker of innovative, technologically advanced and very stylish cars and light trucks. As Ford has introduced new technologies and designs, quality has suffered and suffered badly.

How bad is Ford’s quality? As Automotive News reported last month, Ford’s top executives forfeited hundreds of thousands in bonus dollars after the company fell short of its internal quality targets in 2016. Ford’s proxy statement said senior leadership achieved just 52 per cent of the quality goals its board of directors set in 2016.

Ford’s fully autonomous Fusion Hybrid research vehicle on the streets of Dearborn, Mich.

And yet on Monday, when Bill Ford Jr. announced that Mark Fields would be replaced by new CEO Hackett, Henry Ford’s great-grandson didn’t focus on a renewed effort to improve Ford’s quality and boost its manufacturing and product-cadence efficiencies. Instead, he dwelt on this:

“Well, if you think about the trends that are coming at us, things like artificial intelligence, 3D printing, robotics, deep learning, we need to have a point of view on all of these things and not only a point of view, but a plan to either integrate them into our business, to help us drive our business, or a thoughtful reason as to why we don’t think that’s a right reason at the time.”

Ugh.

Let’s be very clear. Ford in 2017 is a car manufacturer. Of course Ford’s leadership needs to think strategically and for the long term, and it must be deeply concerned with “innovation.” But not at the expense of its core business – which is making and selling a commodity, in this case cars, to people like Denise Cuthbert.

Owners like her might enjoy owing a talking car that can do the laundry and drive itself. But what they really want is a reliable, safe, comfortable and affordable car that goes from A to B. Period.

And Ford owners and Ford stock owners don’t care whether or not Ford is a “transformative” company; they want cars that work every time with the turn of a key and a share price that goes up, not down.

This brings us to Hackett. Of all the potential replacements for Fields, he appears to be the most spectacularly unqualified candidate possible. New CEO Hackett, we’re led to believe, is a change agent who will push autonomous vehicles and drive all sorts of other technological marvels into new generations of Ford vehicles.

Hackett comes to the top Ford job after a brief stint as head of Ford’s autonomous vehicles subsidiary FordSmart Mobility LLC. He has been on the board of Ford since 2013 which is at least helpful in understanding the complexity of a global carmaker.

But Hackett’s resume should worry anyone with a deep understanding of the complex car business on a global scale. As former General Motors CEO Dan Akerson once told me, running a car company is more challenging and difficult than anyone can imagine who hasn’t done it. That from a man who ran two telecom companies and worked as an investment expert before taking on GM.

Hackett? Well, he was CEO of Steelcase, an ages-old Michigan furniture manufacturer before moving on to run the athletic department at the University of Michigan, famous for its massive football program and a big stadium He may be, as his supporters have argued, a wonderful leader, a gifted cultivator of corporate culture and a change agent of unparalleled skill. He’s also 62 and has never run a car company.

He seems a little late in life for on-the-job learning – like a branding expert becoming president of the United States. The truth is, Hackett simply cannot appreciate what’s in store for him. But he’ll find a cautionary tale in the story of how Ford botched the introduction of its innovative dual clutch gearbox.

After he studies that debacle, he should call Akerson right away. If that doesn’t sober him up, and before he gets all carried away with being a change agent, he should reach out to Cuthbert and all the other unhappy Ford owners and explain how his deep knowledge of making furniture and managing a college football program is going to get her Focus fixed now and forever.

 

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2017 Infiniti QX30: the alliances strike their compromises

The car business is glamourous and gritty. Complicated and simple. Global and local.

Every product decisions is a $1 billion investment, or more. The oversized egos who run car companies are amusing yet somehow manage to retain their sanity while managing creative types — designers and engineers who are passionate, eccentric and sometimes unruly.

2017 QX30: as interesting to look at as Scarlett Johansson in her Black Widow Costume.

Point is, while what you see in showrooms is sexy, the gritty business of conceiving, designing, engineering, building, marketing and selling cars demands courage, discipline and luck in the form of good timing. Governments are always a regulatory force, by the way. They impose costly rules and want to see car companies building “in-market.”

As a matter of economics, car companies form alliances and relationships with other car companies and with suppliers. This is often a strategic piece intended to help them navigate a thicket of consumer advocates, lawyers, and fickle consumers. Vehicles today come from global companies looking to sell to the entire world, yet cars are sold one at a time to local buyers.

But if a new model is a hit, fat profits pad expanding bottom lines. A failed model, however, wrings red ink from the balance sheet. Something like the Pontiac Aztek is a costly, embarrassing disaster that can become a metaphor for the company.

The undersized instrument cluster is not ideal for Boomers, but that miniature screen is completely behind the times.

This brings us to Infiniti’s QX30, a small, all-wheel-drive crossover wagon that is a perfect example of what’s happening in the auto game. The Q30 takes Infiniti into the “C-segment,” which is huge and growing. Small, luxury SUV sales in Canada are up 21.2 per cent this year, notes DesRosiers Automotive Consultants. This is where wealthy buyers are spending their money.

The QX30 is, in fact, a global model and the product of a tie-up between one alliance and another: the Renault-Nissan Alliance and Daimler. The QX30 uses the MFA chassis architecture of the Mercedes A-class, which provides the basis for the Mercedes GLA in Canada. The two share an engine, transmission, and interior elements.

When you look at these sister cars, you see similar dimensions, but different shapes, labels and badges. But under the surface, they are the same, though built in different factories. For now.

The 2017 QX30 ($38,490 base plus $8,150 in options) has a swoopy design that makes it is as interesting to the eye as Scarlett Johansson in her Black Widow costume. The driver’s seat offers supportive comfort. But from there, you look disappointment in the eye.

Sadly, the instrument cluster is slightly undersized, which makes no sense. Potential Baby Boomer buyers have aging vision that demands big gauges and readouts. Worse, the infotainment screen mounted atop the centre stack is just a little bigger than a postage stamp.

Okay, it’s 7.0 inches. But Infiniti’s designers need to take a look at what Volvo has done in this area. Start with the XC90. HUGE screen. Better still, go sit in a Tesla Model S, which boasts the absolute industry standard for big, colour touchscreens.

The optional Bose 10-speaker audio system isn’t exactly Bowers & Wilkins, but the sounds it produces are clear and crisp.  The cabin has space for four adults, no more, and even then the two in back might get stressed after an hour or two. Cargo space in the rear is adequate, given this is a small wagon: two sets of golf clubs. The Nappa leather and stitched dash insert are country club-ish.

The little turbocharged four-cylinder engine (208 horsepower) is strong, but the seven-speed automatic gearbox gets lost at lower speeds, in lower gears. But the dynamic responses – turn in, and so on — are first rate and highly entertaining.

As for extras, the $2,500 Technology Package delivers intelligent cruise control, lane-departure warning, emergency braking, and a parking maneuvers-friendly “around view” monitor. Bose sound is part of a Premium package that also includes a panoramic fixed glass sunroof and other things.

All told, the QX30 seems like a collection of compromises. Perhaps that’s an outshoot of the partnership that conceived it. It’s fine, but not great.

If this is the type rig you want, also look at Audi’s Q3, BMW’s X1, the Mini Countryman and, of course, the GLA. Of those, I’d put the Q3 at atop the heap, the X1 second, followed by the Countryman and the GLA/QX30.

2017 Infiniti QX30

Base price: $38,490. As tested: $46,640, plus $1,995 freight and PDI.

Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder, turbocharged (208 horsepower/258 lb.-ft. of torque).

Drive: all-wheel drive.

Transmission: seven-speed automatic.

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 10.6 city/8.0 hwy using premium  fuel.

Comparables:  Audi Q3, BMW X1, Mini Countryman, Mercedes-Benz GLA.

 

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Fear and dread: Trump brings unpredictability to a car business needing stability

During the presidential campaign, Ford Motor became Donald Trump’s favorite example of what’s wrong with U.S. trade agreements and industrial policy.

Indeed, Trump attacked Ford repeatedly for shipping jobs to Mexico, most recently highlighting Ford’s decision to shift all small-car production to lower-cost Mexico.

Trump called Ford’s decision “horrible,” telling crowds in Michigan, “We shouldn’t allow it to happen.” For Trump, hammering Ford for investing $1.6 billion in Mexico was a winning tactic in a broader strategy aimed at convincing voters that he could and would end trade agreements that cost American jobs and restore property to a U.S. Rust Belt hurt by jobs lost to overseas outsourcing and automation.

But Ford is only doing what all car companies do in this global industry – moving production around to where the economics make sense.

Trump also failed to talk about the success of Ford’s joint ventures in China. Year-to-date sales for Ford, Changan Ford and Jiangling Motor Corporation total 966,000 vehicles (up 10 per cent). That growth offsets Ford’s stalled North American business, keeping the company profitable and growing and making it possible for Ford overall to employ hundreds of thousands worldwide.

General Motors is also heavily dependent on its China business, and its divisions elsewhere around the world, as is Fiat Chrysler (FCA). In the car business, it’s go global or go away entirely.

And that’s one reason why the Detroit 3 automakers must surely be nervous about President-elect Trump. They compete in an industry that bets billions on global product plans, investing billions in technologies to mitigate the effects of the auto industry on climate change.

The incoming President Trump, however, has said global warming is a Chinese hoax: “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive,” he famously said in a 2012 Tweet.

Now it’s possible that Trump is just making this up. After all, Politifact found that 70 per cent of what he says is “mostly false,” “false” or “pants-on-fire” false. So during the heat of the campaign he might have taken lying to new heights on only a temporary basis – just to get elected.

The thing is, the auto industry operates on five- to seven-year product cycles that require massive investments and long-range planning. Car companies need to know that they are making the right product and technology bets so that what comes to market years later will be acceptable to regulators and politicians, as well as popular with consumers.

So when a Donald Trump says the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) should be shredded or renegotiated, car companies cringe. Will Trump really carry through on his NAFTA threats – his pledge to renegotiate NAFTA or terminate it, or impose a 35 per cent tax on products made in Mexico?

And China? Detroit automakers have made big bets on China. Trump says China is a currency manipulator, pushing down the value of its currency to make exports to the U.S. more competitive. Trump’s threats to unilaterally apply new tariffs on Chinese and Mexican imports could result in a trade war that would hurt the Detroit 3.

Energy policy? Trump is a global warming denier. He has said he would neuter rules designed to lower CO2 levels and relax fuel economy and emissions rules put in place by President Obama – rules the auto industry has been working successfully to conform to with new technologies and designs. Without Obama, there would be no Tesla and the incipient electric vehicle boom would not exist at all.

The challenge for the Detroit 3 and all the rest is that Trump is as an unknown with a confusing and contradictory track record. This is in sharp contrast to President Obama.

Early in his first term, Obama laid out strict new fuel economy rules for the auto industry, but set them out over a reasonable time line with goalposts stretching to 2015. The idea, said Obama was not to “further burden an already struggling industry” but instead “help America’s automakers prepare for the future.”

The industry was not thrilled, but as Automotive News reports, then-GM CEO Fritz Henderson conceded that “”GM and the auto industry benefit by having more consistency and certainty to guide our product plans.”

And, indeed, since then, the car business has responded. Automotive News points out that nearly half of the 2015 model year fleet used direct-injection engines, compared with two per cent in 2008, according to the EPA.

“Six-speed transmissions jumped to 57 per cent of the fleet from 19 percent, while gearboxes with seven or more speeds grew to 17 per cent from 2 per cent. In addition, automakers now offer 12 battery-electric vehicles and 13 plug-in hybrids, according to the EPA.”

For the past eight years, the auto industry has had a tough but predictable and even sympathetic Obama to deal with. Trump, often criticized for being erratic, inconsistent, uninformed, incurious and vengeful, promises to be the antithesis of Obama.

No car company executive will say it, but rest assured the prospect of a President Trump terrifies every single one of them.

 

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Maserati is on fire as consumers turn to trucks

Maserati is on fire.

Sales are up 43.1 per cent year-on-year in Canada, and 11 per cent in the U.S. The Levante SUV (sport-utility vehicle) is leading the charge.

The Maserati Levante is a key piece in FCA's plans to revive the 2012-year-old Italian brand. The sales numbers aren't big, but the profits are fat.

The Maserati Levante is a key piece in FCA’s plans to revive the 2012-year-old Italian brand. The sales numbers aren’t big, but the profits are fat.

Yes, the 102-year-old Italian brand now owned by FCA (Fiat Chrysler), the one that brought us the delicious 1967 Ghibli, the 1960 3500 GT and the mid-engined 1971 Bora, is now a truck company. That’s where the action is in cars these days – trucks, or crossovers.

Bentley has the Bentayga, Jaguar the F-Pace, Porsche the Macan and Cayenne. Even brands whose history is dotted with sexy sports cars and sleek coupes are bowing to market pressures. I mean, Jaguar brought us what many consider the most beautiful car in history – the E-Type – is now selling a two-box F-Pace. That’s the car business, these days — the truck business.

Light trucks so far this year have outsold passenger cars by almost 2:1, reports DesRosiers Automotive Consultants (985,339 to 522,636). Car sales are down 7.7 per cent, trucks up 10.1 per cent.

The fanboys are not depressed by this turn of events. Even a staid publication like Consumer Reports says the Levante “shamelessly packs the verve of this luxury Italian designer marque,” oozing “performance and personality, as well as its fair share of imperfections. Yep, it’s a Maserati all right.”

Meantime, Car and Driver says the Levante “offers zesty Italian performance backed with an expressively designed exterior — kind of like an automotive Monica Bellucci.” Of recent Spectre (2015 James Bond) fame or her Elite modeling days in the 1980s. Or both? Hmm. The mind boggles.

Now let’s get real. So far this year, Canadians have bought exactly 468 Maseratis in 2016. By comparison, DesRosiers says that through the end of September Canadians had bought 114,674 F-Series pickups and 50,386 Honda Civics.

Still, while the numbers are miniscule now, Maserati is a central pillar in FCA’s long-term plans. High-end crossovers are magic for car companies, padding the bottom line for premium and mainstream brands alike because consumers are willing to pay thousands more for a tall wagon than a traditional passenger car. Indeed, right now Maserati delivers a tidy double-digit profit margin (11.8 per cent). Most car companies are happy with margins in the high single digits.

Of course, the car business is known to make up for low margins with high sales numbers. Most of Canada’s most popular cars are only a little bit profitable – perhaps in the 5.0 per cent range, or less. Less?

Indeed, car sales are tanking in Canada this year. Sales of big names like the Mazda3, Chevrolet Cruze, Volkswagen Jetta and Ford Focus are all down by more than 20 per cent (23.1, 21.4, 24.1 and 20.1 respectively). Trucks? The F-Series is up 26.2 per cent, the Toyota RAV4 up 22.6.

Trucks aside, the big sales winners this year are the luxury brands, largely because they’re all getting into the truck business. Aside from Maserati, up 43.1 per cent, the big winners in the latest year-on-year sales are luxury brands, notes DesRosiers: Jaguar (up 295.0 per cent thanks almost entirely to the F-Pace), BMW (up 21.4 percent), Porsche (up 13.9 per cent), Acura (up 12.1 per cent) and Audi (up 10.0 per cent).

Losers? Among those brand that suffered double digit-decreases last month: MINI (down 20.4 per cent), Hyundai (down 13.8 per cent), FCA (down 12.8 per cent) and Volkswagen (down 11.1 per cent).

Mini is desperate for the arrival of the new Countryman crossover; Hyundai’s Santa Fe SUV line is old and tired; and FCA needs to replace the ancient and thoroughly unsophisticated Dodge Journey.

Okay, enough of the commentary. Here’s a look at the top 10 best-selling cars and light truck in Canada, through the first three-quarters of this year – the numbers courtesy of DesRosiers Automotive Consultants:

Passenger Cars

2016       2015             % gain/loss

1 Honda Civic                50,386    49,609        1.6%

2 Hyundai Elantra        40,418    37,922         6.6%

3 Toyota Corolla             36,268    38,972       -6.9%

4 Mazda3                          21,255    27,626       -23.1%

5 Chevrolet Cruze            19,174    24,399       -21.4%

6 Volkswagen Jetta          17,108    22,573       -24.2%

7 Hyundai Accent              16,476    15,869          3.1%

8 Volkswagen Golf            13,806    13,655           1.1%

9 Toyota Camry                  13,140   13,690          -4.0%

10 Ford Focus                      13,125    16,435         -20.1%

 

Light Trucks

1 Ford F-Series                115,674   91,659       26.2%

2 Ram pickup                   70,247    72,144        2.6%

3 Dodge Caravan              40,488    34,762      16.5%

4 GMC Sierra                     39,486    41,037        -3.8%

5 Toyota RAV4                  38,276     31,220         22.6%

6 Ford Escape                    35,123     36,510          -3.8%

7 Chevrolet Silverado        34,947    35,051          -0.3%

8 Honda CR-V                    33,931    29,298          15.8%

9 Nissan Rogue                   29,730    27,495           8.1%

10 Jeep Cherokee               24,672     23,161            6.5%

Source: DesRosiers Automotive Consultants

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