The Name Game

Hello, PQR.  How is the family, SD 405?  Good to see you, Bill.

Now you tell us, which of these three is the easiest to remember and the most convenient to say?  Yes, after this simple experiment we suggest that naming your next child Bill (or Karen or Marv or Angelina) is a better choice than naming that child with a combination of capital letters (e.g., PQR, BVD or SOS) or a combination of capital letters and numbers (e.g. SD 405, I 95 or 7 UP).

While the convention of applying word-names to people has really taken hold over the past 4,000 years or so, many car companies have decided to eschew this practice when it comes to naming their new models.  Some think this is progress and makes cars easier to sell worldwide, but others suggest that it is another cloud in an already cloudy picture for automotive consumers, who have enough trouble trying to distinguish between all the vehicles on the market.  Kelley Blue Book says that as we speak there are some 250 individual models on the market in the United States.  To that m‚lange just add the further complication that many of them don't have conventional names but are identified by a series of letters, sometimes accompanied by numbers.

Take, for example, the venerated Cadillac brand.  It has decided to straddle the fence on this issue by offering the popular and easy-to-remember Escalade while also featuring the SRX, XLR and CTS.  The fact is the SRX is a terrific cross-over sport utility vehicle; the XLR is a well-received two-seat sports model and the CTS a fine mid-sized sedan.  But even Cadillac admits there is some confusion in the marketplace over its naming scheme. 

"They (the alpha names) can be difficult for consumers to remember," said Schryse Crawford-Williams, Cadillac marketing manager.  "It will be an educational experience for them.  It will take some time."

The question is, do consumers want to take the time or will confusion leave them frustrated?  And what about the most effective type of advertising, consumer word-of-mouth?  Will potential buyers hear good things about the SRX only to walk into the Cadillac dealer and ask to see the XLR or the SXZ or the TWA?

We only cite Cadillac because it is an obvious example, but the car industry is full of them.  Another perhaps even more obvious case is Acura, Honda's luxury division.  There was a time that Acura had a leadership position in the Japanese luxury segment on the strength of its Legend and Integra models.  In fact the Legend was the first icon of the segment.  But then competition entered the segment in the form of Lexus and Infiniti, both using alpha-numeric model designations, so Acura executives decided to adopt an alphabetic scheme to identify their vehicles.  Now, in place of the Legend, Acura offers the RL.  It's a truly fine car with many advanced features but no longer is it the segment's top dog.

Certainly ill-chosen names can create their own problems.  Witness the infamous Edsel or the much more recent Buick Lacrosse, which is Quebecois slang for self-gratification of a sexual nature.  And, too, choosing names for models implies those names necessarily have to be changed in other markets.

But it seems clear that in America the use of a well-crafted name can help a car achieve all the success it deserves.  Unless the letters have been cemented in the public mind for decades like, for example, BMW.

When working undercover Driving Today Contributing Editor Tom Ripley has occasionally adopted other names.  He writes on the auto industry and the human condition from his home in Villeperce, France.

Rental Car Sticker Shock

You've booked your reservation ahead of time so you know a shiny Chevrolet Cobalt is waiting for you at George Bush International Airport in Houston.  What you don't know is that the charge for that rental car is going to be 66.1 percent more than the daily base rate quoted to you when you booked the reservation.  How can this be? 

You've heard of the two inescapable factors of life -- death and taxes?  Well, the bigger fees aren't caused by death, but if you stay for a week or more those added costs are likely to make you want to kill somebody (and I know just how you feel).  Government fees and taxes are the problem we have in Houston...and in many other cities where local interests have decided one way to sock it to travelers is through rental car charges. The added taxes are imposed by local and state governments in order to fund local projects.

Travelocity has conducted a study of these taxes and fees, and it found the average taxes added to base rates for car rentals at major U.S. airports increased from 24.4 percent in 2003 to 25.8 percent in 2005. Texas leads the nation in terms of sticker shock, having four of the top 10 airports with the largest difference between base rate and total price. The average taxes at top Texas airports decreased somewhat from the 2003 findings, though the dip was minor -- from 51.7 percent to 47.1 percent. Houston's Bush Intercontinental continues to lead the nation overall in airport taxes, but the 2005 figure is lower than 2003, where taxes averaged 71.7 percent.

On the other side of the coin are California and New York, but not because their taxes are low.  Instead California and New York include such taxes in the quoted daily rates, so cities in those two states were prominent throughout the top 10 list of airports with the least sticker shock. At Orange County airport, add-ons equaled 7.7 percent, which was the lowest among the top 100 airports.
 
So is there a way to avoid the big taxes?  Travelocity suggests renting at neighborhood locations rather than at airports.  Its research findings showed taxes to be dramatically lower at neighborhood car rental locations than airports, averaging only 14.1 percent of the final cost. And the difference can be significant.  In Dallas/Fort Worth for instance, consumers can save 44.3 percent on taxes by renting at a neighborhood car rental location.  Houston, Kansas City, Cleveland, Dayton and Phoenix are other cities where a trip to a neighborhood rental location can result in substantial savings.

Neighborhood rental locations are the fastest-growing segment in the rental car industry leaving consumers with several more options to choose from when renting. In addition to the convenience of accessing a neighborhood location close to home or work, taxes at neighborhood locations were usually lower than or equal to airport locations nationwide. Honolulu is the only major city where neighborhood taxes are considerably higher -- 12.8 percent -- versus taxes at airport locations.

Driving Today Contributing Editor Tom Ripley has traveled the world reporting on the auto industry and the human condition.  He is presently based in Villeperce, France.

Dust to Glory

You might call it the best-known motorsports event you've never seen.  For sheer drama the Baja 1000 rivals the Indy 500, the Grand Prix of Monaco and the 24 hours of Le Mans. Yet, because the Baja 1000 trundles the length of the peninsula of Baja California, it is impossible to view as a spectator and incredibly difficult to cover even with a huge team of cameramen, off-road vehicles and helicopters.  The challenging terrain, coupled with the fact that the Baja 1000 is the longest point-to-point race in the world, doesn't just test the mettle of the competitors; it tests the mettle of those who would choose to cover it as well.

Happily, a second-generation documentarian, Dana Brown, has taken on the challenge in a new IFC Films title "Dust to Glory."  The son of Bruce Brown, who created the evergreen surfing documentary "The Endless Summer" and the Oscar-nominated motorcycle pic "On Any Sunday," the younger Brown was seemingly born to make this film.  At 10 he started making 8mm movies, using the neighborhood kids and his siblings as cast and crew, following his dad's lead by creating a documentary on bicycle racing.

As Brown was coming of age, the Baja 1000 was rising to legendary status. With roots that stretch back to motorcycle runs of the early 1960's, Ed Pearlman and NORRA created the original Mexican 1000 event in 1967. Soon after Bruce Brown and "ABC's Wide World of Sports" plunked it in front of the American public for the first time.  Such noted figures as Parnelli Jones, James Garner, Bill Stroppe and Malcolm Smith were all part of the early fabric of the race, which had a unique feel because anybody could drive in it.

Through the years the grueling race has kept its down-home, dual-nationality demeanor, while at the same time proving elusive to capture on film.  That is, until Dana Brown decided to employ a crew of about 70 action film production experts who were asked to do things a little differently. In many cases, they were given only GPS coordinates to their locations and then were asked to shoot for as long as 35 hours continuously. Armed with a Mad Max-like battle plan crafted by DP Kevin Ward, Producers Scott Waugh and Mike McCoy and Brown, the camera ops team set out to cover the race ubiquitously, deploying more than 50 cameras. 

After the gargantuan task of shooting footage during the 2003 race, which took place in November of that year, Brown was confronted with the equally gargantuan task of taking the enormous amount of footage he's gathered into a riveting 90-minute film.  Now he has accomplished that task, and "Dust to Glory" is set to open in April in theaters across the country.

The story is multi-layered.  Certainly the racers lend their own, idiosyncratic presences to the documentary, but equally important to the texture of the story are the Baja Californians themselves and the wild, rugged country they call home.

Driving Today Managing Editor Jack R. Nerad is a fan of off-road racing, but he admits he's never really seen an off-road race.

Going Nowhere Fast

It's one thing to be caught in a traffic jam caused by an accident or by simple road repair.  It is quite another to be trapped into a traffic jam caused by the folly of some highway engineer or by a construction project that rivals the building of the Great Pyramid in duration.  Yet, more and more, these built-in bottlenecks -- places where the savvy commuter knows darn well she's in for trouble -- are becoming the norm in our big cities.

Recently AAA catalog its Top 10 List of "Commuter Hotspots," but in this case that title might be misplaced unless it is used in reference to that hottest of all hotspots, Hell, because these chokepoints are just that for urban commuters.  So to further illustrate what many of our city drivers are going through, here is a look at the ten worst of the worst:

Boston, Massachusetts: Interstate 93 north and south

Boston's central artery has been the site of one of the most complex public works projects in history.  It's called the "Big Dig" because it replaces the elevated pass through downtown. The on-going project has created a major traffic snarl, but it is already reaping benefits for commuters because a major section of the tunnel is now open for traffic. The previous major artery was built in the 1950s to carry 90,000 cars daily, but it now overflows with more than 200,000 cars each day. The on-going project replaces the six-lane elevated highway with an eight-to-ten-lane underground expressway directly crossing the Charles River.

Chicago, Illinois: Interstate 88 at the Eisenhower Expressway

Traffic from western suburbs comes to a halt as 34,000 cars from I-88 merge with 43,000 cars from the Eisenhower Expressway (I-290) every day. The road goes down to a single lane for one-and-a-half blocks before opening up to multiple lanes, so what should be a 20-minute trip to the city may end up taking well over an hour.  (Driving Today's managing editor was routinely caught in this mess 30 years ago when he was in college and, sadly, nothing has changed, except he has gotten older.)

Dallas, Texas: Interstate 35 at Interstate 30

Known as the "Mix Master" by local motorists, these two local highways merge and struggle to carry more than 200,000 vehicles per day from downtown through the steep hills of "The Canyon."

Los Angeles, California: 710 Freeway

As the major artery to and from the port of Los Angeles, this freeway currently carries over 47,000 trucks per day, roughly the equivalent of 15 percent of the nation's total sea-borne cargo volume. The movement of goods through Southern California will continue to grow as the region's economy does, and the existing configuration cannot handle current truck and traffic volumes.  The anticipated increases will make the heavily congested conditions even worse.

Los Angeles, California: US 101/405 Interchange

Some 20 miles away from the dreaded 710 freeway, the intersection of Highway 101 and the 405 freeway has been called the worst intersection in the nation.  Even after re-engineering of exits eased some of the pain, traffic congestion lasts for about five hours every weekday afternoon.

Salt Lake City, Utah: Interstate 15 and the SR-92 Interchange

Lakes to the west and the Wasatch Range to the east have funneled explosive population growth into this corridor. This interchange connects an existing two-lane highway to the Interstate in a rapidly developing area.  It is predicted that residents will see traffic increase 275 percent in the next five years alone.

Atlanta, Georgia: I-75 at I-85 Interchange

Known as the "Downtown Connector" these highways intersect about three miles north of downtown Atlanta. The resulting traffic jam passes through midtown and downtown Atlanta in a north/south direction. This interchange has one of the highest volumes of highway traffic in the country, carrying more than 340,000 vehicles per day.

New York, New York: George Washington Bridge Exit Ramp for Northbound Major Deegan Expressway

This spiraling ramp is congested by trucks that must weave across two lanes to get to the upper level of the George Washington Bridge. The inevitable results of this are traffic jams on both the Deegan and Cross Bronx expressways. Traffic jams can last from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. and from 3:30 p.m. to 7 p.m., adding up to six and half hours of congestion daily.

Seattle, Washington: SR 520 Bridge

At the heart of Seattle's traffic congestion is SR 520, Puget Sound's major artery for transporting people and goods. One of the oldest floating bridges in the world, the SR 520 Evergreen Point Bridge is at the end of its useful life and needs to be replaced for the safety of the traveling public. If this bridge were to suffer a seismic failure (or a really mean troll took over,) travel time between downtown and Seattle and Redmond would nearly double from an average of 33 minutes to 55 minutes.

Washington, DC Area: I-495 at the I-270 Interchange

One of the most congested sections of the Capital Beltway for Washington DC-area commuters, this bottleneck crosses through both Maryland and Virginia. The problem is I-270 terminates where it meets I-495 and runs northwest to Frederick, Maryland. Traffic volumes at the I-495 and I-270 interchange are extremely high in both the morning and evening commutes. Breakdowns and accidents on this span can have a major impact on the traffic flow in both Maryland and Virginia suburbs.

Cleveland-based automotive journalist Luigi Fraschini is often stuck in traffic, and he doesn't like it.

Chery-Chery Bang-Bang

The concept could revolutionize the American auto industry...or it could be a stupendous flop.  As of now, though, there is no talk of failure from Malcolm Bricklin, the man who brought America the Subaru, the Yugo and, of course, the Bricklin.  The veteran auto exec, who first brought Subarus to this country 37 years ago, is poised to lead a new onslaught on the U.S. market on a bigger scale than he has ever attempted, and with the lure of incredibly low prices as his calling card, he is generating a high level of dealer interest for his Chery-brand, Chinese-built line of automobiles.  Bricklin plans to unleash his brand in the U.S. market in January 2007, and his unabashed goal is 250,000 vehicle sales in the first year.  By way of comparison, that's about 60,000 more vehicles than Subaru currently sells annually in the United States after nearly four decades in the market.  In other words it's a tall order.

But Bricklin feels he has the magic bullet in the form of low labor costs.  Initial estimates held that Chery vehicles would retail for as much as 30 percent less than comparable models now on the market, including the low-priced Korean-built vehicles from Hyundai and Kia (and Chevrolet's Daewoo-built Aveo.)  When one looks at the plethora of Chinese-manufactured consumer products on the U.S. store shelves these days, you have to think that maybe Bricklin is onto something. 

The entrepreneur was tantalizing in his press conference at the recent Chicago Auto Show, promising things like a $14,000 V-6-equipped sport utility vehicle, $19,000 seven-passenger, V-8-powered "sport wagon," and $19,000 V-8-powered sports sedan.  Since none of these vehicles is yet developed, much less on sale, speculation about them comes easy.  But Bricklin says his Visionary Vehicles LLC and Chery Automobile Company have engaged topnotch suppliers to make these dreams a reality.  For instance, the new models now under development will be styled by famed Italian coachbuilders Pininfarina and Bertone, while AVL List GmbH is participating in engine design. 

Though 250,000 sales annually in the United States seems to be a high target, Visionary Vehicles has its sights on a million sales in the United States as it matures.  To help the company reach that level, some 14 different vehicle models are said to be in development. 

Bricklin has equally high aspirations for the Chery dealer body.  His plan calls for each of 250 Chery dealers to invest at least $15 million each in what he described as "destination dealerships."  With that kind of investment each of these dealerships should be the automotive equivalent of the Taj Mahal (or should we say the Great Wall of China?), because most auto dealerships cost a fraction of that.  But the big investment might be enticing to car dealers, because sales per store (1,000) are projected to be much higher than the industry average.

Certainly there are huge hurdles to be jumped before any of these dreams will be realized, and Chery is already the subject of some controversy.  General Motors has sued Chery Automobile Company saying the company's QQ minicar model is a blatant rip-off of a Daewoo vehicle GM sells in China.  As of now, though, the outcome of that suit is unresolved.

And of course, the future of Visionary Vehicles is unresolved as well.  Will it flourish like Subaru or flounder like Yugo?  The proof will be in the driving, still some years away.

Driving Today Managing Editor Jack R. Nerad writes frequently on auto industry trends.  He wrote the definitive study of Bricklin's experience with the Yugoslavian-built Zastava in his story "Wherever Yugo There You Are."