GM shows a bit too much respect; gas prices and more
General Motors this week denied allegations that they tried to bribe a commentator into saying something positive about their employee buyout plan. The commentator, Robert B. Reich from the American Public Media radio program claimed that GM, through a PR agency, contacted him and offered up some cash as a sign of respect, if he were to say something nice about the buyout plan. At least they didn't ask him to say something nice about the recent gas price increases. The automotive world kicked off Earth Day celebrations with gas prices that zoomed past $3 and touched the $4 mark in many metro areas. According to the Automobile Club of Southern California, the average price of self-serve regular gasoline in the Los Angeles-Long Beach region is now over $3.00. That’s 11.5 cents higher than last week, 33 cents higher than last month, and 41 cents higher than last year. And there’s no end in sight. Several factors have collided to set up a piggy-bank breaking summer at the pump. There’s the drop in U.S. gasoline inventories, a shortage of refining capacity, and new regulations calling for cleaner-burning fuels – not to mention those thin-as-ice profit margins oil companies are struggling to maintain. Why, they’re only making billions of dollars a quarter – and we expect them to live off of that? Silly us.
There’s always ethanol. But the problem with ethanol is that there are no E85 gas stations outside of Iowa, at least until Congress spends our tax dollars on an emergency spending bill that takes oil companies off the hook by paying for the national distribution of E85 fuel. Until then, we’ll continue to pay $3 to $4 for a gallon. Where did I put that bus schedule? Anyway, all the noise about ethanol has actually roused the Hybrid King from his contented slumber. Toyota, up to now the leader in all things hybrid, has announced plans to sell ethanol cars in the US by 2008. It will surprise no one that Toyota is already developing flexible fuel vehicles for South America. The automaker says that it needs to ensure that the highly corrosive nature of ethanol won’t eat away at engine seals. Toyota also claims that a lower mix of 10-15 percent ethanol into gas might actually produce greater savings. Ethanol. Hybrids. Diesel. What’s a car buyer to do? Go out and buy a compact vehicle that emits low emissions and gets great fuel mileage, that’s what. Many people are already doing that, in fact, as the subcompact market is booming, with new tiny boxes such as the Toyota Yaris, Nissan Versa, Honda Fit, Chevy Aveo and, believe it or not, the upcoming Ford Reflex, either selling well or much anticipated. The success of the Dodge Caliber, a new small hatchback from Dodge (you know, the truck guys) is proof positive that we car buyers are looking for small and simple. Heck, hybrids are nice, and E85 would be great – but who can afford such boutique solutions, when all you have to do is buy an efficient subcompact?
One great thing about subcompacts is that you’re closer to the road. Something we apparently need. You know, more road in your face, less chance to get distracted. According to the Virgina Tech Transportation Institute, that’s a big problem. According to a recent study conducted by the institute, eight in 10 US accidents are caused by distracted drivers. What? Oh. Yeah, distracted drivers. The landmark $4.2 million study tracked more than 200 drivers for more than a year, using cameras to monitor their behavior. The result was a look at the relationship between American driving habits and automotive safety that could impact how Americans shave, apply makeup, read, drink, and do pretty much everything but drive. Despite agreeing to be monitored for a year, some drivers drank beer, one smoked marijuana while at the wheel, and others repeatedly engaged in road rage incidents or routinely violated traffic laws. Yeah. We Amerikanz is smart! Speaking of smart…despite losing billions -- and bailing water from failing brands, like, say, Lincoln -- Ford has decided to boost the price of the Zephyr, soon to be named the MKZ. Not only do you get a new name that’s hard to remember (and pronounce as "Mark Z" rather than M-K-Z), but the sedan will also get a more powerful 3.5-liter V6 engine, all-wheel drive and cosmetic tweaks. Sources say that the price hike will boost the sticker past $30K. It’s a curious move, given that, according to JD Power & Associates, incentives on the Zephyr average over four grand.
Saturn is also making a move, which is news all by itself. At the just concluded 2006 New York Auto Show, GM’s happy brand debuted three vehicles, and there’s news that Saturn will get the Opel Astra as a replacement for the Ion. The Astra is a stylish and popular car in Europe, and would look quite nice next to the new Sky and Aura. Good cars that look nice never go out of style, so here’s hoping that GM’s renewed interest in the Saturn brand will result in renewed interest from car buyers. They may even get the attention of the New Orleans police department. Not that it’s hard to do, if you’re a new car. Apparently, during the post-Katrina chaos, at least 90 police officers helped themselves to vehicles from the local Pete Sewell dealership. Rather than complain, the dealer put up billboards in the area that read: "New Orleans' Finest Drive Sewell."
Photos courtesy of the automakers