Monday, November 23, 2009

Tarrif cut: Bonus for new-car buyers?

Which cars could drip in price?

THE import tariff reduction applies only to imported passenger cars. Even more specifically, it applies to imported passenger cars from countries with which Australia does not have a free trade agreement — essentially Japan, the European Union, South Africa and Korea.

Japan Aims to Take Lead in Hydrogen Fuel Cell Cars

Tokyo, Japan — In the wake of last year's soaring crude oil prices, coupled with a growing environmental awareness, the development of alternative energy sources is moving into high gear. Among next-generation energy sources, hydrogen is proving to be a favorite.

Japan started selling the world's first household hydrogen fuel cell this year, and stands on the verge of selling fuel-cell vehicles. But there are still difficult challenges involving the manufacturing, storing and transporting of hydrogen. For these reasons, some experts say the advent of the hydrogen economy might be a pipedream.

Fossil fuels, which have been supporting modern civilization for over 100 years, contain two fatal flaws: they are not sustainable and they cause environmental pollution. In contrast, hydrogen can be manufactured even from water, and is clean with no harmful emissions.

"When the oil runs dry, it is necessary to substitute something different. Hydrogen is a leading candidate for alternative energy," said Professor Kazunari Sasaki, director of the International Research Center for Hydrogen Energy at Kyushu University in southern Japan.

Japan, with energy self-sufficiency of only 4 percent, has been forced to pursue diversified energy sources. It has been consistently developing fuel cells that generate electricity from hydrogen and oxygen, and is now in the forefront of this field.

Replacing oil with hydrogen all at once is unrealistic, Sasaki says. Therefore, he suggests, “We should increase the proportion of using hydrogen technology little by little in fields where there are benefits. Those are at home and in vehicles."

Japan imports most of its oil from the Middle East, and 40 percent of this is used in vehicles. If even a small part of the nation’s cars switch to hydrogen, it would be significant.

Only a handful of automakers are currently leasing fuel-cell vehicles, or FCVs, called the ultimate eco-cars because of their zero emissions, by way of experiment. These include Japan’s three major automakers – Toyota, Nissan and Honda – the German auto giant Daimler, and the U.S. auto giant General Motors. Less than 100 fuel-cell vehicles are on the road in Japan, and a few hundred in the world.

One obstacle is the high price of such cars. An FCV is currently valued at around US$1.1 million. Toyota leases its FCV for US$9,400 a month, or US$110,000 a year.

In 2015 Toyota and Daimler are expected to introduce mass production of FCVs, after 20 years of research and development. They will have to substantially reduce the price, however.

"By the time FCVs are commercially available in 2015 they will be cheaper than a Rolls-Royce, but it will be difficult to price them down to the level of a Corolla,” said Kenichiro Ota, a professor at Yokohama National University. A Rolls-Royce costs around US$550,000 and a Corolla $22,000.

The FCVs themselves seem to meet all expectations, apart from cost. At the Tokyo Motor Show in Chiba City east of Tokyo early this month, the author test-drove Toyota's latest fuel-cell vehicle, the FCHV-adv, believed to be the world's most advanced model. It runs 515 miles on a full 156-liter high-pressure hydrogen tank. The car’s motor is the same as that of an electric vehicle, with no unpleasant engine sounds and almost no vibration, and the ride was comfortable.

According to Shogo Saegusa, a senior researcher at the Japan Automobile Research Institute, FCVs face five key challenges: low efficiency, endurance reliability, cold-start durability, travel range and high cost.

However, Japan's three auto manufacturers have already extended the travel range of their FCVs to a level similar to that of gasoline vehicles. Toyota has achieved 515 miles, Honda’s FCX Clarity has reached 385 miles, and Nissan’s X-TRAIL FCV is up to 310 miles.

Hydrogen must be artificially produced as it does not exist in isolation in nature. This means it is a secondary energy like electricity, not a primary energy like fossil fuels.

Since hydrogen is a gas at room temperature, it must be reduced to minus 487 degrees Fahrenheit to liquidize it, or kept under pressure to retain it as a gas. In short, a great deal of energy is required at each stage of manufacturing, storing and transporting hydrogen. After several studies, car manufacturers adopted the high-pressure hydrogen tank for FCVs.

Although the cost of compression is less than that of manufacturing liquefied hydrogen, it still requires considerable energy and technology. Naturally, expanding the infrastructure of hydrogen stations is also a challenge in making the vehicles popular. Currently, Japan has only 14 stations in major cities capable of pumping compressed hydrogen into vehicle tanks.

Energy supplies are secure, however, as hydrogen can be made not only from natural gas or kerosene but also from water or seawater. That is the one reason Japan, in trying to build a society without fossil fuels, has been pushing ahead with hydrogen.

Some Japanese Cars Fare Better in Korea Than Japan

Several Japanese car models have been selling better in Korea than in Japan, a report revealed Sunday. More Honda Accords, Honda Civics, and Toyota Camrys were sold in Korea than in their home country during the first nine months of the year, according to the report by the Korea Automobile Importers and Distributors Association and the Japan Automobile Dealers Association.

Honda sold 1,468 Accords in Korea between January and September with average monthly sales of 163 units, while 1,057 Honda Inspires, a domestic Accord equivalent model, were sold in Japan with average monthly sales of 117 units. The Civic recorded total sales of 595 units with average monthly sales of 66 units in Korea, while only 10 units were sold in Japan during the same period.

The same story goes for Honda CR-V. Some 786 Honda CR-Vs were sold in Korea and 2,613 in Japan in the first nine months, while the Honda Legend achieved sales of 90 units in Korea and 340 in Japan. When the figures are adjusted to account for the fact that the Korean market is about one third the size of the Japanese one, the sales performance of the CR-V and Legend were about the same in the two countries.

Toyota sold 327 Camrys within just 20 days of its launch in Korea last month, while only 136 units were sold in Japan in September. The Lexus LS460 luxury sedan recorded sales of 562 units in Korea in the first nine months, compared to 1,103 units in Japan. On an adjusted basis, sales of the two models in Korea were double those in Japan.

The reason for the stronger sales performance in Korea is that most of these models are mid-size or large sedans, which appeal to Korean consumers but are unpopular among the Japanese. Hybrids, light passenger cars, and compacts dominate the Japanese market while mid-size and large luxury sedans are less common. The hybrid-electric Toyota Prius is the best-selling car in Japan, with sales of about 30,000 units per month, and only one or two mid-size or large sedans are among the top 50.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Cars are evil. Which one should I buy?

I need a car, yet I hate the very thought of them. Cars are responsible for the sprawling suburbs that have alienated us from one another. I see those long lines of commuters sitting on the 401, day after day, and I can only conclude cars are evil.

But I'm going to buy one and I want something cheap, reliable and I don't care about image. Fuel economy? Of course. A good warranty from a company that will back it up – I want that too.

So sharpen your pencils and get to work. What do I want?


Cato: You've come to the right country, Amelia. Canada may be a big place, but it's a small-car country, an entry-level nation, the land of frugal, affordable transportation. More than half the cars sold here are entry-level runabouts. You have choices.

Vaughan: Choices? Amelia has issues. If cars are evil and ripping the fabric of society then what has possessed her to suddenly abandon her principles and cross over to the dark side. She should either go straight to Honest Faustus Used Cars or, better still, just get a transit pass.

Cato: What are you doing Vaughan? This isn't the Life section. Just answer the question, suggest some cars and leave the amateur psychiatry to the amateur psychiatrists. Perhaps Amelia has seen the light – recognized the need and is going to fill it. With a subcompact or so-called B-sized car, I think.

2009 Toyota Yaris


2009 Toyota Yaris

Vaughan: Accepting that even B cars clog the 401 and alienate us from one another, here's a list for Amelia: Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris, Chevrolet Aveo, Nissan Versa, Hyundai Accent, Kia Rio and Suzuki Swift.

Cato: To be honest, they all are completely functional, reliable, fuel-efficient runabouts. More like them, but even better cars, are coming next year.

Ford Canada in the summer will start selling the made-in-Mexico Fiesta subcompact – currently the second-best-selling car in Europe, and then toward the end of the year, Mazda has its Mazda2.

Vaughan: I see your strategy Cato. Delay her decision until she comes to her senses and gets that transit pass. Very good. Maybe you can join me in the Life section some day.

Cato: Amelia, ignore Vaughan's sad attempt at career advancement and put the Toyota Yaris on your list. Toyota sells not only a sedan version, but also a four-door hatchback and a two-door hatch.

All three versions share a 106-horsepower, four-cylinder engine. It's fuel-efficient and adequately powerful. This little runabout is an acceptable city car, but for long highway stretches the cabin is noisy and the seats are thinly padded.

Vaughan: You have plenty of padding so that's shouldn't be a problem for you, Cato.

Cato: Seen your profile lately? In any case, Amelia, the Yaris is solidly reliable and the U.S. Government gives it a good, but not great, four-star crash test rating right across the board.

Vaughan: I'm recommending the Hyundai Accent. We were just on a Hyundai dealer lot and it was advertising a new Accent for $9,995 – all in, with the incentives.

Cato: Yes, and Hyundai makes sedan and hatchback versions of the little Accent and both are powered by a 110-hp four-banger. The Accent does its chores nicely, with a pleasant interior and an airy cabin.

Vaughan: Reliability is not a worry, either. Plus safety. In frontal impacts, the Accent earned a five-star rating for driver and passenger.

Cato: And then there is the Nissan Versa. The Accent is loaded up with more sales sweeteners – incentives – but Nissan has a pretty attractive sticker, too.

Vaughan: I think the Versa is a real bargain here. The conscience-stricken Amelia has two body styles to choose from: a four-door sedan with a 107-hp, four-cylinder engine and a four-door hatchback with a 122-hp, four-banger. The sedan is cheaper and the smaller engine is more fuel-efficient.

2009 Nissan Versa

2009 Nissan Versa

Cato: The Versa is a big car for a subcompact. The cabin is very spacious and there is decent cargo room, too. Plus it has a four-star crash test rating for both driver and passenger.

Vaughan: I'd also suggest a test drive of the Honda Fit. It's pricey because it's imported from Japan, but is the most versatile and functional small car, period.

Cato: Great design. Seats flip and fold every which way and fuel economy is excellent, as are the safety scores. If you are willing to spend a bit extra, the Fit is an excellent buy. If not, I'd suggest the Versa.

Vaughan: I'd recommend the Accent and maybe a guilt donation to Friends of the Earth.

Ford, Subaru, VW win insurance industry picks

WASHINGTON — Ford, Subaru and Volkswagen lead the insurance industry's annual list of the safest new vehicles, according to a closely watched assessment used by car companies to lure safety-conscious consumers to showrooms.

The Virginia-based Insurance Institute for Highway Safety awarded its "top safety pick" on Wednesday to 19 passenger cars and eight sport utility vehicles for the 2010 model year. The institute substantially reduced the number of awards compared with 2009, because of tougher requirements for roof strength.

Ford Motor Co. and its Volvo unit received the most awards with six, followed by five awards apiece for Japanese automaker Subaru and German automaker Volkswagen AG and its Audi unit.

Chrysler Group LLC received four awards followed by two each for Honda Motor Co. and General Motors Co.

Toyota Motor Corp., BMW AG, Mazda Motor Corp. and Mitsubishi Motors Corp. were shut out in the annual IIHS review.

Ford's recipients include the Ford Taurus and Lincoln MKS passenger cars and the Volvo S80 and C30 passenger cars and the XC60 and XC90 SUVs.

Ford said in a statement it is "committed to providing customers with safe vehicles for a broad range of real-world crash conditions."

Subaru recorded winners with the Subaru Legacy, Outback and Impreza cars and Tribeca and Forester SUVs. Subaru was the only automaker with an IIHS winner in all four vehicle classes in which it competes.

The automaker, which has bucked the brutal U.S. sales market with a 13 percent increase during the first 10 months of 2009, attributed its safety success to a unique engine design that sits low in the vehicle chassis and moves down and under occupants in a frontal collision.

Tom Doll, executive vice president and COO of Subaru of America, said the awards were a "tribute to the engineering that goes into Subaru products."

Volkswagen scored with the 4-door versions of the Jetta, Passat and Golf, the Audi A3 and the Volkswagen Tiguan, a small SUV. Mark Barnes, Volkswagen of America's chief operating officer, said the "safety of our cars is of the utmost concern, from the initial design stages all the way through the maintenance procedures at dealerships."

Chrysler won the award for the Chrysler Sebring and Dodge Avenger sedans equipped with optional electronic stability control, the Dodge Journey midsize SUV and the Jeep Patriot with optional side thorax air bags.

Scott Kunselman, Chrysler's senior vice president-engineering, said the awards underscore the Auburn Hills, Mich., automaker's "engineering capability and leadership in occupant protection."

General Motors Co. and Honda Motor Co. both received two awards. GM was recognized for the Buick LaCrosse and the Chevrolet Malibu while Honda won for 4-door versions of the Civic with optional electronic stability control and the Honda Element.

Other winners included the Nissan Cube, the Kia Soul and the Mercedes C Class.

The vehicles are selected for best protecting motorists in front, side and rear crash tests based on Institute evaluations during the year. The vehicles are required to have electronic stability control, or ESC, to qualify for the award. Earlier this year, the Institute said vehicles would need to receive its highest score in its roof strength evaluation to qualify the safety pick designation.

"With the addition of our roof strength evaluation, our crash test results now cover all four of the most common kinds of crashes," said Institute president Adrian Lund. "Consumers can use this list to zero in on the vehicles that are on the top rung for safety."

The Institute awarded its top prize to 94 vehicles in 2009 and attributed the decline in awards this year to the roof strength requirement. The Honda Accord and the Ford Fusion both dropped off the list because 2010 versions didn't earn high enough scores on the roof test.

The Toyota Camry would have made the list, the Institute said, if it had received the highest rating in rear crash protection. The Institute said the Camry's seats and head restraints were rated marginal for protection against whiplash injuries.