The Cream of the Crop

To those critics who say that the American auto manufacturers cannot build world-class quality cars, we say just look at the recently released Vehicle Satisfaction Scores by Tustin, California-based AutoPacific, Inc. The scores, (which reveal owner satisfaction levels with new 2001 model year cars and light trucks) pointed to a new brand leader, the venerable "Standard of the World" Cadillac. The General Motors division took the crown from last year's leader, the Lexus division of Toyota.

Based on surveys of 34,000 owners of new 2001 vehicles acquired in September through November, 2000, the (Vehicle Satisfaction Score) VSS ratings record satisfaction with vehicles overall, as well as with some 40 features important to a vehicle's operation, comfort and safety. The VSS study is an industry benchmark for objective new vehicle buyer and lessee satisfaction.

Though Cadillac did capture the VSS brand crown, the study still held plenty of good news for Lexus and Toyota. The individual vehicle model registering highest overall satisfaction was the Lexus LS 430 sedan, the successor model to the 2000 Lexus LS 400 that took the title one year ago. In addition to the LS 430, which was the winner in the Premium Luxury segment, the corporate combination of Toyota and Lexus had five segment leaders: Toyota Avalon in the Premium Mid-Size class, Toyota Camry in the Mid-Size class, Toyota Prius in the Alternate Fuel Vehicle class and Toyota Tundra in the Large Pickup Truck class.

While Toyota-Lexus took the most top spots, there was also glory for Ford and General Motors in the survey. Ford Motor Company had four representatives among the segment leaders, three of which were trucks. The Ford Excursion was named tops in the Large Sport Utility class; Ford F-150 Super Crew led the Four-Door Pickup Truck segment and the Lincoln Navigator was top scorer among Luxury Sport Utility vehicles. The Navigator was also the highest ranking truck overall. Ford's single car winner was the Ford Mustang in the Sporty Car class.

General Motors scored segment-topping honors in the Luxury Car class with the Cadillac DeVille and in the Full-Size Van segment with the GMC Savana and Chevrolet Express in a dead heat. Like General Motors, Nissan scored three segment wins. Its Infiniti I30 tied with Acura's RL as best among Contemporary Luxury Cars. The Nissan Quest was the surprise winner among Minivans, and the Nissan Frontier was the segment leader in the Compact Pickup Truck class.

DaimlerChrysler scored two segment wins with wildly different types of vehicles. The Mercedes-Benz SLK was the winner in the Sports Car class, while the Jeep Grand Cherokee was named best among Mid-size Sport Utilities. Honda hit paydirt in two categories: the Acura RL, as mentioned, tied the Infiniti I30 in the Contemporary Luxury Car class, and the Honda Civic, not surprisingly, took honors in the Compact Car category. Hyundai put Korean carmakers in the elite for the first time by taking the top prize in the Compact Sport Utility segment.

In addition to establishing segment winners, VSS also establishes numerical ratings for virtually every passenger car and light truck in the North American market. Among passenger cars, following LS 430 as top scorer was the Cadillac DeVille in second place, BMW 7-Series third, Toyota Avalon fourth and Mercedes-Benz S-class fifth. Among light trucks, ranking second behind Lincoln Navigator was the Ford Excursion, followed by the Lexus RX300 in third, GMC Yukon fourth and Acura's new MDX sport utility fifth.

As the survey showed, vehicles from all around the world are getting better than ever.

Luigi Fraschini observes the automotive scene from behind the wheel of a word-processor located in Cleveland.

Insurance Fraud Costs Us All

Ever wonder why you pay hundreds of dollars each year for automobile insurance when you've never had an accident, never had your vehicle stolen and never submitted a claim? One reason is an explosion in insurance fraud across the country. Of course, automobile insurance is complicated by various regulations that differ state-by-state, but there is no doubt that criminal activity is a big reason that insurance costs are high even for those of us with a good history in terms of accidents and claims. Some states instituted so-called "No-Fault" regulations in a effort to stem the rising tide of fraud and rampant litigation (which is also costly), but recent history indicates that no-fault is largely a bust when it comes to keeping costs down.

An example is the state of Florida where the state legislature has recently taken steps to overhaul the no-fault regulations instituted 30 years ago. The state's Department of Insurance (DOI) has estimated that auto insurance fraud cost Floridians $500 million a year in increased premiums, and DOI rate filings show that at least 35 companies have raised rates in Florida in the past 12 months.

Under the Florida no-fault system adopted statewide in 1971, medical bills and lost wages are paid regardless of fault through Personal Injury Protection (PIP) coverage. The system was designed to pay auto accident victims faster by avoiding the delays and expense of lawsuits, reduce the volume of lawsuits by eliminating minor injury cases from the court system and minimize overall motor vehicle insurance costs. But recent evidence indicates that instead of reducing overall auto insurance costs, it has caused them to skyrocket.

One difficulty is that the no-fault statutes, as they have been interpreted by the courts, make it very difficult to weed out fraudulent insurance claims, and insurance companies in Florida say, because of this, fraud plus litigation has skyrocketed. Recent case law and a provision in the PIP statute nearly guarantees attorney's fees for lawyers filing PIP-related lawsuits, regardless of the amount of the benefits recovered, fueling the surge. According to Progressive, Florida's third largest auto insurer, one Florida attorney recently filed suit to recover seven cents in interest for a medical provider in the state. In return for recovering the seven cents, the attorney was paid more than $1,000 in fees. Another attorney filed suit over a $4 reduction of benefits, and he received $1,000 in attorney's fees.

A recent Florida court decision makes it very difficult for insurance companies to weed out fraudulent claims, even when they are obvious. The Perez vs. State Farm decision dictates that insurance companies must pay all claims (fraudulent or legitimate) within 30 days of notification of services rendered. If the insurer is unable to conclude its investigation within the 30 days, the insurance company is deemed to have waived its right to refuse payment of the claim, even if it obtains proof on day 31 that the claim is fraudulent or otherwise not owed. Faced with this, you have to wonder why they investigate at all.

While not all states suffer from Florida's convoluted no-fault system, insurance fraud costs us all in a number of ways. Our premiums rise when fraudulent claims are paid, and they rise when fraudulent claims are investigated and go to litigation. And our premiums rise when litigation smothers our courts' abilities to sort out right from wrong. The solution is far from clear, but our auto insurance system does need scrutiny.

Tom Ripley observes the automotive scene and the human condition from his home in Villeperce, France.

More Underrated Rods

Last week I reported how the hot rod movement has evolved over the years. As most of you well know, hot rodding owes its origins to low-buck efforts of add performance to used cars, but over time it has transformed itself into a more sophisticated and more costly pastime. While the cars that the top hot rodders are turning out these days could be described as nothing less than automotive art, the fact that the hobby (lifestyle?) is getting increasingly expensive has made it difficult for some budding and resurgent car modifiers to get in the game. Frankly, the price tags on many prime models are out of sight these days. If you glance through Hemmings Motor News at prices of in-demand iron like the '55-57 Chevrolet, '64-'70 Pontiac GTO and '32-35 Ford coupes, among countless others, you might well find your mood for getting that hot rod of your dreams fade fast.

But those of you who harbor the hot rod dream can take heart. Our colleague and fellow old car fan Richard Lentinello of Hemmings Rods & Performance has identified several vehicles that can become the basis of worthwhile hot rods, while at the same time not putting an incredible crimp in your pocketbook. For those of you who are unaware, Hemmings Rods & Performance is a new publication from the same people who offer Hemmings Motor News, the Bible of the collector car hobby, and Special Interest Automobiles. When it comes to old cars Lentinello certainly knows whereof he speaks, and his staff's picks combine value, availability, performance potential and just plain fun.

So here, without further ado, are three more sleepers that might find a happy place in the corner of your garage:

1948 Hudson Commodore Club Coupe Do you like the look of the current Ford "49" concept car? Do you dig the lines of a late Forties Mercury, especially when it has been "chopped?" Well, if long, wide and oh-so-low is your thing, a '48 Hudson Commodore with its "Step Down" chassis design might just be the ticket without costing you an heir to your family fortune. As the Hemmings staff puts it, "Hudson's Commodore is as close to a factory-built custom as they come." Depending on your own desires, relatively little effort is required to transform this sleekly styled Club Coupe into a real head-turner. The car features a three-bar horizontal grille augmenting its width and rear fender skirts emphasizing its length. Originally powered by either a straight six or a straight eight, this Hudson has plenty of space under the hood to accommodate a larger engine. The staff at Hemmings suggests a Chevrolet 502 cubic inch big block, but a 350 cubic inch small block Chevy is probably the better choice for real-world driving. Average Price: $5,000.

1961-62 Buick Skylark/Special Produced in sedan, coupe and convertible body styles, the most interesting part of this cool little Buick is what resides under the hood: an all-aluminum 215-cubic-inch V-8. This engine was not a big hit in the United States, but Rover bought the tooling in the Sixties and kept it in production until the early Nineties so a modern version of the mill can be purchased for a reasonably small outlay of cash. In fact Edelbrock, a high-performance parts manufacturer, offers an alloy intake to increase low-end power and torque. The light, compact Skylark and Special were originally available in either 155- or 190-horsepower trim, so these conservatively styled flyers make an excellent basis for a unique street machine. For ultimate performance, pick the coupe. For outstanding fun, the convertible is the model to buy. Average Price: $3,000.

1965-66 Oldsmobile Starfire Sure, the car of choice in this genre is the Oldsmobile 4-4-2. Your author had a '65 example, and it was one of the best all-around vehicles he ever owned. Now, though, with current prices of 4-4-2's beyond what many enthusiasts can afford, the Starfire is a reasonable alternative. Built on a slightly larger platform than the F-85/Cutlass-based 4-4-2, the Starfire offers nearly comparable performance when equipped with the 425-cubic-inch "Rocket" V-8. Since the engine spun out 375 horsepower in stock trim, not to mention mountainous gobs of torque, the Starfire is a natural platform for simple hop-up techniques. In addition, you'll have yourself a very versatile vehicle with room for as many as six passengers and a trunk that resembles Meramec Caverns. On top of that the Starfire two-door hardtop delivers distinguished Sixties-era Oldsmobile styling, so you'll be hard-pressed to find a more powerful, good-looking touring car that's comparably priced. Average Price: $5,000.

Hemmings Rods & Performance includes in-depth parts reviews focusing on the pros and cons of particular components' construction, theoretical articles explaining the functions and designs of individual engine and driveline components, and different engine build-ups, complete with dyno results, costs, and insights from the engine builders themselves.

Cleveland-based Luigi Fraschini has owned a number of hot special interest cars including a 1965 Oldsmobile 4-4-2 and a 1968 Pontiac Firebird convertible.

Underrated Rods, Part I

The hot rod movement started when teenagers and young adults took cast-off cars, "souped-up" or replaced their engines with stronger mills and trimmed off unnecessary weight. It was a hobby that was long on ingenuity and short of required cash. Of course that was then and this is now.

Today, nearly 60 years after hot rods got their first toe-hold on the American psyche, things are different. Those teenagers and young adults have grown older and wealthier, as have many who were slightly younger but aspired to own the same hot cars. With the growing affluence of the hot rod community, hot rods themselves have grown far more sophisticated -- and far more expensive. So where is the wannabe hot rodder who is not particularly bucks-up going to turn these days? Well, it's certainly not to the '55 Chevies, '32 Ford coupes or '65 4-4-2's. No, the popularity of those cars has priced them out of the reach of many, but, happily, there are alternatives out there.

Richard Lentinello of Hemmings Rods & Performance has identified several vehicles that can become the basis of worthwhile hot rods, while at the same time not putting an incredible crimp in your pocketbook. Hemmings Rods & Performance is a new publication from the same people who offer Hemmings Motor News, the Bible of the collector car hobby, and Special Interest Automobiles, a slick magazine that features interesting autos from the 1920s to the 1980s. When it comes to old cars Lentinello certainly knows whereof he speaks, and his staff's picks combine value, availability, performance potential and just plain fun.

So here, without further ado, are a couple sleepers that might find a happy place in the corner of your garage:

1934 Plymouth PE Business Coupe align=left>

With '32 Ford prices reaching the stratosphere, the '34 Plymouth Business Coupe is an excellent option for those wanting to build a hot rod with the same classic looks. The '34 Plymouth features an upright grille, louvered hood, low-profile roof and what the staff of Hemmings Rods & Performance called "near-perfect proportions." In hot rod show fields crowded with Fords, the Plymouth could become a real standout. And there is no shortage of appropriate engines available since Chrysler is now offering over-the-counter 360-cubic-inch V-8s with 300 horsepower not to mention the legendary 465-horsepower 426 Hemi. Better still, Lentinello advises, drop in a V-10 and watch the small block crowd run for cover. Average Price: $6,000.

1956 Mercury Montclair 2-Door Hardtop align=left>

If you love Detroit's irresistible styling of the mid-Fifties but don't have the disposable income to purchase a '55 Chevy, this handsomely styled two-door hardtop from Mercury makes a great alternative. With its wrap-around windshield, hooded headlights and aggressive stance, the Montclair shares many similarities with the mid-50's Chevrolet, but the bonus is, you won't see scores of them at every car meet. And because many of the Montclairs were originally equipped with a 312-cubic-inch, 210-horsepower V-8, the chassis can easily accommodate a tweaked Ford 351 Cleveland or another Ford V-8 for some real tire-smoking excitement. Since more than 50,000 '56 Montclairs were built, finding a decent example is relatively easy. Average Price: $7,000.

Editor's Note: Part II of this article will be available on Driving Today next week.

Hemmings Rods & Performance includes in-depth parts reviews focusing on the pros and cons of particular components' construction, theoretical articles explaining the functions and designs of individual engine and driveline components, and different engine build-ups, complete with dyno results, costs, and insights from the engine builders themselves.

Cleveland-based Luigi Fraschini has owned a number of hot special interest cars including a 1965 Oldsmobile 4-4-2 and a 1968 Pontiac Firebird convertible.

New From New York

From the tenor of proceedings in New York, America has seemed to have talked itself into a recession. At the very least, car manufacturers are bracing for a sales year that will be down significantly from last year's record levels. Particularly wary are the domestic manufacturers, who have suffered double-digit sales declines, and DaimlerChrysler is reeling from huge losses in the last two quarters. But that doesn't mean that the New York International Auto Show, which drew to a close on April 22, wasn't filled with bright, shiny new bodywork. Sport utility vehicles and station wagons captured many of the headlines, but a wide variety of vehicle types received attention during the week. The following are thumbnail sketches of some of the most important unveilings at the show.

Chrysler PT Cruiser Convertible

align=left> In a press conference much more austere than in previous years, Chrysler presented another version of its popular PT Cruiser, this time sans top. Chrysler designers lowered the header and roof and resculpted the rear wheel flares, giving this latest PT Cruiser styling exercise a new personality. Unlike the stock PT Cruiser, which, of course, began as a styling study itself, the PT Cruiser Convertible is a two-door. It features a new rear quarter panel to accommodate the newly designed longer doors. To further enhance the exterior, body-colored bumpers and a chromed-accented grille were included to reinforce its customized look. In addition, the vehicle was lowered by 1.5 inches (which is 38 mm, for your information). The soft-top is power-operated and creates a "fastback" appearance when the top is up. No powertrain changes were made on styling study, but the vehicle is fitted with New York-themed "Empire" 19-inch cast aluminum wheels and custom-made B. F. Goodrich 225/35 ZR19 tires.

Land Rover Discovery Series II Kalahari

align=left> In contention for longest name at the show, the Land Rover Discovery Series II Kalahari made its debut in New York. To go on sale in October, it is the first in a series of special Kalahari Land Rovers that will feature heavy-duty, off-road components and a rugged, extreme look. The production-ready Discovery Kalahari features a dramatic Borrego Yellow paint scheme and an array of specialized off-road equipment including a Saudi/Gulf states front bumper and grille; black seating surfaces with Tetra technical fabric center panels; a black steel wraparound brush bar and lamp guards; a black steel rear ladder; and a matching roof rack finished in black steel and equipped with a steel mesh floor. It is equipped with a 188-horsepower, 4.0-liter aluminum V8 engine, a four-speed automatic transmission, permanent four-wheel drive with a two-speed transfer case, Hill Descent Control, four-wheel electronic traction control and a four-channel, all-terrain anti-lock braking system. Land Rover's Active Cornering Enhancement and Self- Leveling Suspension systems are optional. Only 150 Discovery Series II Kalahari vehicles will be produced for the 2002 model year with an estimated base MSRP of approximately $40,000.

Kia Sedona

Kia says the Sedona, its first entry into the minivan segment, will be filled with exclusive, class-leading features. Its debut marks the fourth new model introduced by Kia in the last two years, and it is scheduled to appear in showrooms this summer. The front-wheel-drive Sedona includes many features that equal or surpass the class leaders, among them the standard engine. The 3.5-liter dual overhead cam V6 is the largest displacement engine available in an import minivan, and it produces 195 horsepower, among the best in class. The engine is backed up by a sophisticated five-speed, electronically controlled automatic transmission. Inside the Sedona offers seating for seven with front bucket seats, a middle row of two captain's chair and a third row that accommodates three in a split, removable bench seat. The minivan features 10 cup holders and four electrical access points.

Nissan Altima

align=left> In a bid to woo mid-size car buyers who are currently opting for Toyota Camrys or Honda Accords, Nissan displayed its 2002 model year Altima. Scheduled to go on sale in September 2001, the all-new, third generation Altima sedan is a radical departure from the previous model with a much larger, avant-garde styled exterior; a choice of powerful four- and six-cylinder engines; completely new, cockpit-style interior and a new, performance-tuned suspension with available 16- or 17-inch wheels and tires. Interior space is said to be larger than its up-level sister vehicle, the Maxima, a significant change from the previous Altima, which was perceived by many consumers to be too small in comparison to the Toyota and Honda competitors.

Honda Civic Hatchback

align=left> An all-new Hatchback version of the Honda Civic carrying the Honda signature "Si" badge will go on sale in early 2002. The Civic Si prototype displayed in New York was based on the three-door hatchback recently introduced in Europe. Under the hood is a high-output DOHC 2.0-liter i-VTEC engine that produces 160-horsepower and 130-lbs/ft of torque, while attaining Low Emission Vehicle status. The i-VTEC engine is the next generation of cleaner and more powerful engines that feature Honda's patented VTEC (Variable Valve Timing and Engine Control) technology. A unique, performance-oriented close-ratio five-speed manual transmission is mounted, rally-style, on the center dashboard. The close proximity to the steering wheel allows for quick shifts and a sporty feel, says Honda.

Tom Ripley, whose most recent piece appeared in AIADA Showroom, observes the international automotive scene from his home in Villeperce, France.