What's Old is New in Chicago

Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue. No, we're not talking about a wedding; we're talking about the Chicago Auto Show. In press conferences there, Pontiac said it intends to revive its performance image with a V-8-powered sedan called the G8, while Ford dusted off its recently discarded Taurus and Sable names to breath new life into a couple of revised Ford and Mercury models that previously bore other monikers. Mercedes-Benz put yet more heat into its hot McLaren, and Volkswagen gave enthusiasts yet another reason to pull on their driving gloves. Scion unveiled two new models.

After flailing a bit during the 1990s, Pontiac is serious about its performance heritage. And the proof of that is an all-new, rear-wheel-drive performance sedan called the G8, which will be available in dealerships early next year. While a V6 will be available, the buzz at the show centered around the optional 362-horsepower six-liter V8 that can be backed by six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmissions. Fuel economy is boosted by Active Fuel Management that cuts off four cylinders when they are unneeded.

It is ironic that the 2008 Ford Taurus introduced at the Chicago Auto Show features more than 500 improvements over the old car, since, until Ford execs had an epiphany and decided to rename it Taurus, the car was known as the Ford Five Hundred. (Think that involved a "search-and-replace" in the press release?) One big change that separates the new Taurus from last year's Five Hundred is the 3.5-liter V-6 that delivers an estimated 260 horsepower, a nearly 30 percent increase. It is mated to the same six-speed automatic transmission used in the new Ford Edge.

While they were at it, Ford decided to rename the revised version of its underappreciated Freestyle crossover as well, and what better name to choose than Taurus? So the three-row vehicle is now the 2008 Ford Taurus X. It benefits from the same 3.5-liter V-6 engine and six-speed automatic transmission. And it is equipped with side curtain air bags and electronic stability control. Convenience has been improved with one-touch, flip-and-fold second-row seats and an available power liftgate.

You know how things come in threes? Well, Ford made it a three-fer by renaming the Mercury Montego the Sable, a successful name from Mercury's past. With chassis and powertrain virtually identical to the Ford Taurus sedan, the Sable features Mercury's signature waterfall grille, projector beam headlamps, LED tail lamps and a two-tone interior trim with three different accent trims -- two woodgrains and simulated carbon fiber.

Scion will see if bigger is better by making its new-generation of the xB a bigger box. The wheelbase is longer by four inches and overall the xB has grown by a foot, which should not only increase interior space, but also improve ride quality. The versatile interior provides nearly eight cubic feet of additional storage space behind the rear seats versus its predecessor. The standard and optional sound systems have received serious tweaks including sophisticated iPod connectivity that is far more than just mini-jack port, though that's also standard. For those who want their jukebox to move, the new engine produces 158 horsepower, 55 more than the previous generation.

Scion wasn't content just to show the new xB, though. It also unveiled the xD, a bold new take on the five-door urban subcompact. The xD captures the Scion mojo with its simple surfaces, thick muscular body and accentuated wheel flares.

Other important vehicles to bow in the Windy City included an all-new Dodge Dakota midsize pickup truck, heavily revised versions of the Nissan Titan, Pathfinder and Armada, and a return of the Volkswagen R32.

Driving Today Contributing Editor Tom Ripley writes about the auto industry and the human condition from his home in Villeperce, France.

Detroit Show-Stoppers

General Motors decided to do the Japanese manufacturers one better by offering a new concept car that might never have to be refueled. At the same time, GM and Ford showed other concept vehicles that heralded a renaissance of the musclecar era. Those were two of the major themes at the 2007 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. While the industry certainly is global, there is no global consensus on what automobiles will look like or act like in 2015.

The unique Chevrolet Volt was the concept car that offers the possibility that you will never have to buy another tank of fuel. Unlike today's typical hybrids, which can be propelled by electricity, an internal combustion engine or the combination of the two, the Volt is designed to be driven exclusively by electricity. With a high-capacity lithium ion battery on board, the Volt is recharged from the electrical grid by simply plugging it in at home. And with a range of 40 miles from its battery pack, if you drive fewer than 40 miles to work and back, you might never have to buy another tank of fuel again. But don't worry about being left stranded. An on-board internal combustion engine can recharge the battery pack on the go, so you are never without power.

General Motors is excited about the vehicle and its E-Flex electrical power system because it is both flexible and scalable. The technology can be adapted to use a wide variety of internal combustion engines powering its generator -- for example, biodiesel in Europe, E100/ethanol in Brazil and E85 here in the U.S. It can also be slightly modified to accept a fuel cell as a replacement for the internal combustion engine. As a concept, the Chevrolet Volt is properly radical-looking and utterly silent in operation. GM engineers suggest its projected EPA fuel economy numbers could be triple those of the current fuel economy leader, the Toyota Prius.  

With a five-liter, four-hundred horsepower V8 engine under its long hood, the Ford Interceptor concept is not designed for optimum fuel economy. Instead, it is designed to bring the "Built Ford Tough" slogan back to the brand's passenger cars. With its blunt nose pulled almost intact from last year's Super Chief truck concept, plus a low cabin roof and high beltline, the Interceptor has a sinister "chopped" look. But there are very few hints of retro in this evocative design. It is meant for sedan buyers who need space, but are serious about both power and attitude.

The five-liter V8 is a modified version of the current production engine in the Ford Mustang, and it is mated to a six-speed manual transmission. This should come as no surprise since the concept is based on a stretched Mustang chassis, complete with live rear axle. Inside, the headrests drop from the headliner, and the black leather and metal finishes are cooler than cool.

Speaking of cool, the General Motors design team knows that the upcoming Chevrolet Camaro production car must appeal to twenty-somethings as much as it does to aging boomers, so they walked a very fine line between retro and contemporary in styling the Camaro convertible concept. They wrapped it in a Hugger Orange pearl tri-coat paint that any 1969 Camaro would envy, but the vehicle has more than its share of modern touches as well. The past is represented by a torquey V-8 engine that sends power to the rear wheels via a manual transmission. But instead of a solid rear axle, the new Camaro concept features an independent suspension system supplemented by four-wheel disc brakes. Chevrolet will put both coupe and convertible versions of the Camaro into production in 2009, so this concept is a close approximation of what will be available in your local showroom in a couple of years.

The Camaro convertible concept rides on 21-inch front wheels and 22-inch rear wheels with a deep-dish, five-spoke design. Inside, it features a purposeful interior that cops some moves from the Sixties Camaros but dresses them up 21st century style. The light-and-dark seat upholstery scheme is designed to harken back to the classic houndstooth check interior of the first-gen Camaro.

Driving Today Contributing Editor Tom Ripley writes about the auto industry and the human condition from his home in Villeperce, France.

Auto-Oriented Film Fest in the West

If you love cars, great scenery and movies, an upcoming event seems to have it all. West coast car enthusiasts and racing fans are gearing up for the 2007 Southern Yosemite Automotive Film Festival. The festival is scheduled for March 21-25, in Oakhurst, California, the southern gateway to Yosemite National Park. Featuring automotive-related films from the 1940s through today, the film festival offers something for everyone, including such hard-to-find films as Mickey Rooney's 1949 racing epic "The Big Wheel," the original "The Fast and The Furious" from 1955 and more than 20 others.

Film legend James Garner will be the recipient of the "Southern Yosemite Lifetime Achievement Award" for his work in automotive films. Both the feature film "Grand Prix" and Garner's documentary "The Racing Scene" will be screened, and drivers from his racing team, Scooter Patrick and Davey Jordan, will be on hand to sign autographs and tell stories about their racing careers. One of their original Corvettes, now restored by Jim Herlinger of Santa Clara, California, will also be displayed.

Among the rare films being screened is "The Sound of Speed," a short film about Lance Reventlow and his Scarab racing project. Director Bruce Kessler, who premiered the film at the Cannes Film Festival in 1962, will be at the festival to discuss the making of this film and his own racing career. Pontiac fans will appreciate 2004's "The Last Ride," starring Dennis Hopper and featuring a variety of Pontiacs. Its director, Guy Bee, will be in attendance, speaking about the making of the film. The critically acclaimed "Dirt," a documentary about stock car racing at Devil's Bowl Speedway in Texas and a winner at the Austin Film Festival, will be one of the featured films. Director Jeff Bowden will introduce the film and describe all that went into making it. From "Cannonball Run II," Richard Kiel, who portrayed a Mitsubishi engineer in the film, will attend, signing autographs and talking to fans.

For Corvette buffs, Dick Guldstrand, known as "Mr. Corvette" for his long involvement with the marque and success in racing, will also sign autographs, showcase his latest book and show off his special edition Corvette ZO6. Harold Osmer, best known for his definitive book on long-gone race tracks of Southern California, will not only sign books but also give a brief talk about Southern California racetracks. Speaking of long-gone California tracks, a Riverside International Raceway retrospective will be presented, with a short film of the 1965 Times Grand Prix and stories of racing at the famous track from veterans who ran the first event in 1957 to those who ran the last in 1989.

The recent death of Formula One great Clay Regazzoni has prompted a brief remembrance program, with a special showing of the film of the 1974 Grand Prix season, where Regazzoni, driving for Ferrari, finished second in the world championship to Emerson Fittipaldi. Speaking about the Ferrari racer will be Chuck Jones, former partner in the Ensign Formula One team, and Howden Ganley, former BRM Formula One driver.

The film festival week also includes displays of racing, vintage, antique and exotic cars, automobilia and souvenir vendors, an auction of racing memorabilia, celebrity autograph signings featuring stars and well-known racers, exclusive cocktail parties and wine tastings. And when you can't watch any more movies, tours of Yosemite National Park, ski outings, golf tournaments, train rides on the Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railway, hosted trips to the local Chukchansi Gold Resort and Casino and a variety of family-oriented events are available.

One of the best things about the film festival is that the proceeds all go to charity. From the Lee Iacocca Foundation to the Children's Miracle Network to worthy causes in the Oakhu rst area, everyone benefits from the event. Tickets are now available online at the Southern Yosemite Automotive Film Festival Web site or through the Oakhurst Area Chamber of Commerce at 559.683.7766. Ticket quantities are limited as only a few hundred people can be accommodated. Special accommodation packages with local hotels are also available.

Based in Villeperce, France, Driving Today Contributing Editor Tom Ripley writes about automobiles, the movies and the human condition.

Why You Should Care About Resale Value

We've heard it said that resale value is like the weather -- everybody talks about it, but nobody does anything about it. But that notion is wrong on both counts. First, not everybody talks about resale value. In fact, many consumers who should be paying attention to resale value simply don't, and that can be a costly mistake. On the other hand, suggesting that nobody does anything about resale value is false, too. While consumers tend to either ignore it or just pay lip service to it, most auto manufacturers pay a great deal of attention to resale value, because there are good business reasons to do so. Some carmakers actually go to the extreme of buying used vehicles wholesale at auction to keep prices up.

For manufacturers, the most obvious reason to pay attention to resale value can be summed up in one word: leasing. If a carmaker plans to be a player in the leasing market, which is currently running at around 20 percent of overall new-vehicle sales, then resale value becomes crucial to success or failure. Why? If the resale value of a model in an individual segment lags behind those of the segment overall, that model's lease rates will be uncompetitive. In leasing a car, the lessee is, in essence, charged for the difference between the vehicle's purchase price and the "residual value" stated in the lease contract, plus, of course, interest charges on the entire transaction. The "residual value" is actually the projected resale value of that vehicle, so models with high resale value will narrow the gap between purchase price and residual versus those that don't.  The net result -- a lower monthly lease payment. 

Even if you are not leasing, you, as a consumer, should care about resale value because in the typical ownership period depreciation will most likely be your biggest transportation-related expense. And, of course, depreciation is the flip-side of resale value. The numbers are quite eye-popping. Despite the fact that we continue to hear moans about high gasoline prices, the depreciation cost on a typical family sedan over a five-year ownership period can be nearly twice the projected cost of fuel, and it dwarfs all other costs associated with vehicle ownership as well.

The other important thing the consumer needs to remember about depreciation is that it is insidious. There is no sentence on the Monroney sticker calling it out, no line on the sales contract that specifies it and no payment book for it, but it costs... and costs and costs and costs. You won't write one check for depreciation, but when you find it is time to sell your vehicle and purchase another, it can hit you like a shovel to the back of the head.

So, like size, resale value does matter. You can save yourself thousands of dollars by seeking out comparative information on resale value before you buy your next vehicle. Unlike the rain this morning, it is something you can do something about.

An expert on automotive finance issues, Driving Today Contributing Editor Luigi Fraschini lives in Cleveland.

Holiday Gifts for that Special Driver

Can it be that the gift-giving season is upon us? How can it be nearly Christmas already? Where did those months go since we last lit the Hanukkah candles? And how can Kwanzaa be almost here again? If you're like me, you love to please people with great presents, but you are fearful of getting the wrong thing, which can sometimes lead to an emotional scene, a screaming match and the end of a marriage. So, let's face it, the pressure is on here, but not all great gifts come in little turquoise boxes. Here's a list of unique gift ideas that nobody will see coming, but will be appreciated once they arrive.

Dashing Through the Snow
Remember spinning those donuts in the wintry parking lot years ago and worrying if you were going to get caught? The Bridgestone Winter Driving School is perhaps the most fun you can have in the snow (other than making a snow angel, of course.) The big upside is it could even save your life.  The school can teach someone you love the skills needed to safely drive in snow, sleet and ice. Automotive journalist Robert Kocher said, "The most I ever learned about vehicle dynamics and handling I learned at the Bridgestone Winter Driving School." Not only that, but it's located in beautiful and snowy Steamboat Springs, Colorado, a nice place to visit. The school offers an education for drivers of all ages.  For more information visit the Bridgestone Winter Driving School Web site.

Teen Training
Know a teen driver?  "Driver's Edge" is a half-day hands-on driver training program that teaches teens to "know yourself, know your limits," things most teens don't exactly find instinctual. Students learn defensive driving techniques and a respect for traffic safety from professional race car drivers. And talk about a cost-effective gift. Enrollment is free since the program is co-sponsored by corporations such as Bridgestone and Red Bull.  For more information, dates and locations, visit the Drivers Edge Web site.

Indy 500
Tickets to the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race are a special treat even if you're not a dyed-in-the-Nomex racing fan. If you've never heard of it, the Indy 500 is one of motorsports' most thrilling and time-honored traditions. If you have heard of it, well, the same applies. Visit the Indianapolis 500 Web site to learn more.

Start Your Engine!
Ever dream of sitting in a bona fide race car and putting the pedal to the metal? You can make that dream come true for someone you care about, like or feel obligated to. The Bridgestone Racing Academy offers fans of open wheel racing the thrill of a lifetime. Single sessions and three-day courses are available. Take the checkered flag at Bridgestone Racing Academy.

Never Drive Without It
Okay, it might not be as exciting as a dozen monogrammed handkerchiefs, but beside a spare tire, all vehicles should also carry a roadside emergency kit.  You can purchase one or create your own.  Essentials include road flares, fire extinguisher, flashlight (with extra batteries), jumper cables, first aid kit, bottled water, cash/change, portable tool set, thermal blanket and a traction aid (kitty litter is excellent, especially for kitties).

Air Aware
Looking for a perfect stocking stuffer? Kelly Monaco's legs not available? Then try a digital tire pressure gauge. Proper tire inflation pressure is critical for safety and for maximizing fuel economy, so having a good gauge will allow you to perform monthly checks. Refer to the owner's manual or the door jamb to confirm your vehicle's proper pressures.

Cleveland-based auto journalist Luigi Fraschini would like to remind readers that he could use a new sports watch this year.