As Fuel Prices Rise, Small Cars Get Hotter

If you throw a line in the water and a fish bites the hook, do you think you’ll make a catch every time you go fishing in that same spot? You may be wondering what this has to do with cars and fuel prices. Well, if you look at the trends over the past several decades, you will quickly see that consumers are pretty unsophisticated when it comes to dealing with fluctuations in fuel price. Our present situation is a case in point.

Just as they have done so several times through the years, fuel prices have jumped up once again. It is not that the world is running out of petroleum -- at least not any more than we were two months ago before the latest price surge hit. As is usually the case, an outside influence is behind the relatively quick price run-up. The wave of unrest in the Middle East has boosted current oil prices, largely because there are fears that one or more oil-producing countries in that embattled part of the world will stop supplying crude. On top of that, economic activity seems at long last to be picking up some, and the spring driving season is nearly upon us. So fuel prices are up. In some areas of the United States, gasoline is nearing $4.00 a gallon and diesel fuel has already exceeded the $4.00-a-gallon mark.

All of this occurred in very similar fashion about three years ago. Then, the one-time event that triggered the price jump ended, and prices fell. The recession that quickly followed deadened economic activity and kept prices low until the Middle East started to go up in flames in the past few weeks. So, yes, we have seen this before -- but to many consumers, the whole process seems utterly new. Why do we say that? Well, just as they have in years past, consumers have responded to the increases in prices at the pump by shifting their attention to more fuel-efficient vehicles. An obvious example of this is activity on the Internet, where auto-buying and information sites have already reported much greater consumer interest in smaller cars, hybrids and electrics.

In February alone, consumers’ experience with the new higher prices for fuel -- plus the media’s focus on the increases -- influenced them to seek out information on more fuel-efficient vehicles. Internet traffic to sources of information about hybrids and electrics jumped some 75 percent during that period, while interest in compact cars as a segment blossomed 45 percent in the same period. Higher sales of compact, hybrid and electric cars are sure to follow.

What is most interesting is this is a recurring pattern. It is possible to predict with great confidence that, if fuel prices keep increasing, compact and hybrid-electric vehicles will become more popular -- and larger, less fuel-efficient cars will be out of favor. Pricing for small cars will likely go up; pricing for larger vehicles will go down. The rule of thumb is simply this: If consumers experience an increase in fuel prices as they recently have, they’ll automatically expect that fuel prices will continue to rise -- even though history has shown us that will not be the case. Further, the vehicles they choose to purchase are selected on the mistaken assumption that fuel prices will rise in a largely unending trend. The quick takeaway: If you are considering purchasing a large vehicle, like a truck or an SUV, the next few weeks may be prime time to get a great deal.

Ford Mustang Boss 302: Reviving a Legend

Ford engineers gave themselves a daunting assignment as they gathered to create the 2012 Ford Mustang Boss 302. The first Boss 302 became a legendary car more than 30 years ago, so following up on that without disappointing the Mustang faithful was tough enough. But Ford execs also received additional marching orders -- namely, to create a Mustang that could lap Laguna Seca faster than the highly tuned, highly expensive BMW M3, which many think is a bargain at $60,000.

Mustang chief engineer Dave Pericak has led a team that has accomplished both goals admirably. One of the key ingredients was, as it always seems to be, more horsepower. The 412 horsepower from the 5-liter V-8 engine in the 2011 Mustang GT seems like plenty, but if 412 horsepower is good, then 444 horsepower is even better. Ford’s Mike Harrison and his crew added the extra go-power with lots of manifold work. The runners-in-the-box plenum and velocity stack give the engine an uncanny ability to breathe, and the manifold is accompanied by more aggressive camshafts actuated with the same twin independent variable camshaft timing mechanism used on the Mustang GT. Unique cast-alloy cylinder heads that receive hours’ worth of CNC-machining are also part of the program, as are lightweight hollow-stem valves that help the valvetrain remain happy and smiling all the way to the 7500-rpm redline. An oil-cooler and a larger radiator were fitted to the Boss 302’s engine as well.

Certainly, if the airflow going into the engine is important, then so is the airflow going out of it. The 2011 Mustang GT exhaust system works very, very well in this regard, but the Ford engineers felt it needed tuning … and in this case, a tuning fork may have been an appropriate tool. Exhaust note, something that in the old days just was, has been the subject of heavy doses of tuning. The Boss 302 offers two rear exhaust outlets, plus two side outlets that send exhaust gases through a set of metal discs chosen for the mellifluous sounds they make when vibrated by exhaust gases.

The Mustang GT’s suspension system was changed substantially with the addition of an adjustable suspension that offers customers five levels of performance. Don’t look for a knob on the console, though; the shocks are adjusted by using a standard flathead screwdriver to rotate the adjustment head at the top of each shock tower. Simple. Cheap. Light. But what about the possibility of screwing up (so to speak) the adjustment from one shock to the other?

You probably won’t screw up gear changes with the six-speed manual transmission that features a short-throw shift lever topped with a pool-ball knob. Handling is enhanced by a larger-diameter rear stabilizer bar, higher-rate springs and stiffer bushings, but Ford has decided to retain the solid rear axle, largely for cost and durability reasons.

We have to admit, we like the looks of the unique, lightweight 19-inch black alloy racing wheels shod with high-performance summer tires. Stopping power is provided by a brake system that includes Brembo four-piston calipers acting on 14-inch vented rotors in the front, and upgraded Mustang GT brakes in the rear.

In the looks department, Ford designers definitely took a gander at the archives. Each Boss 302 that comes off the line will have a white or black roof panel, coordinating with the color of the side C-stripe. The biggest styling change from the current Mustang GT is the massive lower splitter, designed to manage airflow around and under the car. At high speeds, it cuts front-end lift, under-car drag and -- as a bonus -- it helps direct air into the cooling system.

So, does the Boss 302 beat the M3 around Laguna Seca? Yes, in the right hands -- not ours -- it certainly did. But what surprised us was that the new model offers good road-holding and fine handling with a more forgiving ride than we imagined. Said to be priced a bit over $40,000 when it arrives later this year, we think the new Boss 302 may start a legend of its own.

Ford Mustang Boss 302: http://www.ford.com/cars/mustang/2012mustangboss/

Chevrolet Camaro ZL1: The Thrill Is Back

Are you bored by all the talk of electric and hybrid transport devices? Heard enough about tiny, fuel-sipping grocery-getters and commuter pods? Well, if you are, Chevrolet is ready to jet you right back to 1969, when the concerns that spawned many of today’s cars were way over the horizon. Back in the Woodstock era, Chevrolet slipped a 427-cubic-inch Corvette ZL 1 V-8 into a select few Camaros, and the car became the best-performing Camaro of all time. To honor that heritage, Chevrolet has decided that its new model, which was unveiled at the Chicago Auto Show, will be called ZL1.

Though it has already been seen by the press, the new ZL1 will not go into showrooms until early 2012, likely as a 2013 model. That’s a long time to wait for what will be the hottest-handling, best-performing Camaro ever, and the most technically advanced car of its type the world has ever seen. The heart of the new ZL1 is Chevrolet’s LSA 6.2-liter supercharged engine, which is expected to produce 550 horsepower and 550 pound-foot of torque. Built on the legendary Chevy small-block architecture, the LSA features an intercooled supercharger system, premium heat-resistant aluminum-alloy cylinder heads, lightweight reciprocating parts, high-strength hypereutectic pistons and piston-oil squirters. (Yes, squirters.) The forced induction comes from a sixth-generation Eaton supercharger with four-lobe rotors.

Backing the engine is a high-performance MG6 version of the Tremec TR6060 six-speed manual transmission used with a dual-mass flywheel and twin-disc clutch. The ZL1 also features a dual-mode exhaust system, which alters the sound level and character in response to engine rpm. First used on the Corvette and specifically tuned for Camaro ZL1, the dual-mode exhaust will give the car a signature sound.

To make certain handling match its acceleration, the ZL1’s suspension tuning has been revised, and the magic elixir of Magnetic Ride Control has been added. The advanced magnetic system will offer two driver-selectable modes (Tour and Sport). In keeping with its track-ready persona, the ZL1 features massive Brembo brakes.

All this is accompanied by bodywork that enhances the car’s no-nonsense performance image. The front fascia includes a front splitter and vertical fog lamps, while the aluminum hood is combined with a carbon-fiber center section that creates aerodynamic downforce. The 20-inch forged aluminum wheels are lighter than the 20-inch wheels used on the Camaro SS. We especially like the new treatment of the front fog lamps, which is both functional and attractive.

Inside, the ZL1’s front seats have microfiber suede inserts. Other enhancements include a redesigned steering wheel, alloy pedals, head-up display with unique performance readouts, and the retro four-pack auxiliary gauge system with boost readouts. Testing of the ZL1 will continue throughout this year, and the ZL1 will finally appear in Chevy showrooms early in 2012.

Photo Credit: Getty Images

Giving the Red Light to Red-light Runners

One incontrovertible fact: Drivers who motor through red lights can be deadly. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), red-light running killed 676 people and injured an estimated 113,000 in 2009. One of the cruelest aspects of this problem is that nearly two-thirds of the deaths were people other than the drivers who ran the red lights. They were occupants of other vehicles, passengers in the red-light runners’ vehicles, bicyclists and pedestrians -- and none of them deserved to die.

What to do about the problem? One solution that has been tried is the use of red-light cameras. Intersections equipped with the camera systems use automated enforcement to deter the passing of red lights. The systems issue traffic citations with photographic evidence of the wrongdoing. But after more than 20 years of use, red-light cameras have gotten a bad reputation. Many citizens claim that red-light cameras are nothing more than revenue-generating machines that do little or nothing for overall public safety, causing as many accidents as they prevent.

Well, color the IIHS as solidly opposed to that point of view. According to a just-released IIHS study, red-light cameras saved 159 lives between 2004 and 2008 in 14 of the biggest U.S. cities. According to the same analysis, had red-light cameras been operating during that period in all large cities, a total of 815 deaths would have been prevented.

“The cities that have the courage to use red-light cameras, despite the political backlash, are saving lives,” says IIHS President Adrian Lund.

The researchers examined data from the 99 U.S. cities with populations over 200,000, comparing those with red-light camera programs to those without. Because they wanted to see how the rate of fatal crashes changed after the introduction of cameras, they compared two periods: 2004 to 2008 (the red-light camera era) and 1992 to 1996 (the pre-red-light camera era). Cities that had cameras from 1992 to 1996 were excluded from the analysis, as were cities that had cameras for only part of the later study period. The researchers found that, in the 14 cities that had cameras from 2004 to 2008, the combined per capita rate of fatal crashes resulting from red-light running fell 35 percent, compared with the 1992 to 1996 timeframe. Interestingly, the rate also fell in the 48 cities without camera programs in either period, but only by 14 percent.

Based on that comparison, the researchers concluded that, in cities with cameras, the rate of fatal crashes caused by red-light running in 2004 to 2008 was 24 percent lower than it would have been if the cities didn’t have cameras. That calculates to 74 fewer fatal red-light-related crashes in that time period, and approximately 83 lives saved.

While saving 83 lives is impressive enough, IIHS claims the actual benefit is even bigger. The rate of all fatal crashes at intersections with signals -- not just red-light-related crashes -- fell 14 percent in the camera-equipped cities and crept up 2 percent in the cities not equipped with cameras. In the camera-equipped cities, there were 17 percent fewer fatal crashes per capita at intersections with signals in 2004 to 2008 than would otherwise have been expected. That translates into 159 people who are alive because of the automated enforcement programs.

This suggests that red-light cameras reduce not only fatal crashes associated with disregarding red lights, but other types of fatal crashes at intersections as well. One possible reason for this is that red-light fatalities are undercounted due to a lack of witnesses to explain the circumstances of individual accidents. Drivers also may be more cautious in general when they know there are cameras around. Based on these calculations, if red-light cameras had been in place for all five years studied in all 99 U.S. cities with populations over 200,000, a total of 815 deaths could have been avoided, says IIHS. That’s enough to take a second look at the devices.

A Warning on Warning Lights

Sometime during your life behind the wheel of your car, you’re going to see a red light come on, illuminating words like “Check Engine” or “Oil Pressure.” The wildcard question: How will you react? Will you immediately pull to the side of the road and start sobbing? Or will you continue on your way as if nothing has happened?

Part of the problem is the cryptic nature of the messages. For example, if you heed the advice to check your engine, you will likely peer under the hood and determine that the engine is still there -- and that it looks pretty much like it did when you saw it before, assuming you have seen it before. Similarly, if you see the words “Oil Pressure,” you may immediately think that you must somehow add oil to the pressure -- whatever and wherever that is -- and that could be a problem. It was Franklin Delano Roosevelt who famously said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Sadly, this is not true when it comes to your car.

“Warning lights are there for a reason: to let us know something is wrong with our car,” says John Nielsen, AAA national director of auto repair and buying. “In some cases, ignoring a warning light can quickly result in catastrophic damage to your car’s engine, so it’s important to know what each light means and what you should do if it comes on while driving.”

Sure, easy for him to say. He’s a font of automotive knowledge. What about the typical driver in the typical car on the typical freeway in the typical city? Well, good news has arrived: Deciphering warning lights doesn’t have to be as arcane as reading tea leaves. Here, with the help of AAA’s experts, are some quick facts about three very important warning lights you may someday see:

Oil Pressure Light
The oil pressure light -- which usually appears as a symbol that resembles an oil can or as the word “OIL” -- illuminates when there is a major drop in engine oil pressure. This is serious, folks. Oil lubricates the vital portions of your engine, and if that lubrication isn’t happening, your engine can quickly grind itself into rubble. AAA advises to pull off the road immediately, shut off the engine and call for assistance. Do not attempt to drive the vehicle any further than is absolutely necessary. Doing so will significantly increase the extent of any engine damage, turning what might be a minor repair into a complete engine replacement. Big ka-ching!

Engine Temperature Light
The engine temperature light -- which usually appears as a thermometer symbol or as the word “TEMP” -- comes on when the engine temperature has exceeded the level the manufacturer considers to be the safe maximum. High engine temperatures can cause major engine damage and even catastrophic failure, but you do have a little more time to deal with the situation than with the oil pressure warning. If there are any signs of a cooling system leak -- such as steam or liquid coolant coming from under the hood or trailing off behind your vehicle -- pull off the road at the earliest and safest opportunity, shut off the engine and call for assistance. Coming into contact with boiling coolant can cause severe burns, so be careful when opening the hood in the presence of steam, and never remove the radiator cap when the engine is hot.

In the absence of obvious symptoms like that, though, the overheating may have resulted from a temporary overload of the cooling system. This can sometimes occur in hot weather when the vehicle is heavily loaded or pulling a trailer. To help lower the engine temperature: Reduce vehicle speed, turn off the air conditioning, roll down the windows, set the heater to the full hot position and operate the heater fan on its highest setting. The heater is actually a second radiator that can provide additional cooling for the engine. In this mode, you can likely make it to the next service station, where a professional mechanic can assess your situation.

Charging System Light
The charging system light -- which usually appears as a battery symbol or the word “ALT” or “GEN” -- illuminates when the vehicle electrical system is no longer being supplied with power by the alternator. Charging system failure rarely results in serious mechanical damage, and of the “big three” warning lights, this one gives you the greatest latitude to take action. First, shut down all unnecessary electrical loads (radio, heater, air conditioning, etc.), then drive the vehicle to a repair facility for further inspection. Generally, you will have at least 15 minutes of daylight driving time (non-headlight use) before the battery voltage drops to the point where the ignition system will no longer function and the engine will quit.