08 June 2007

New Scion xB

Some interesting observations about the new toyota. I think if American car companies want to thrive again they need to look at bringing in ideas from overseas. The new ('08) Ford Mondeo in Europe is an amazing new vehicle. GM bring over the Vauxhaul VXR and Monaro.

By Paul Niedermeyer
May 14, 2007

Having wrested the title “world’s largest car manufacturer” from General Motors, Toyota’s already committing some of the same mistakes that brought GM down. The all-new 2008 Scion xB is a blot on Toyota’s relatively unblemished copybook. It bristles with classic GM-think: dumb it down, fatten it up and cheapen it out.

The original xB was a brilliant design, an instant cult-classic, as iconic as the first VW Beetle. The box fresh box elicited the same emotional responses as the old bug: children, freshly-minted motorists and the young at heart all loved it. The xB was barely longer than a MINI and almost as much fun to drive, with the accommodations of a Tahoe and 30-plus mpg.

If the last gen xB evoked images of a laquered bento box lunch, the new xB evokes a big, sloppy hamburger wrapped in greasy paper. Toyota’s drive to assimilate into the American heartland is relentless; its Texas Tundra brand BBQ sauce-stained fingerprints are all over this little porker.

The xB has gained 650 pounds, a foot in length, and three inches in width. Obviously, there’s a price to pay at the gas pump for that corn-fed heft. EPA numbers are down almost 25 percent for the city cycle (’06 adjusted), from 28 to 22 mpg.

That xB’s extra 12 inches are totally wasted; it all goes to making the hood longer. More room to mount a set of Texas steer horns? And since height is reduced, the XB actually loses usable passenger space.

The throne-like seating position has lost four inches of leg room. Headroom has also diminished. Ditto the back seat, where my 6’4” frame once sat in limo-comfort, with a good four inches of clearance to the front back-rest. Now my knees graze the horrendously cheap-feeling fabric of the front seats.

The xB’s front seats might as well have been lifted straight out of a 1971 Chevy Vega. Where the old thrones were nicely bolstered and contoured, with a nubby textural two-tone fabric, the new ones are molded blobs covered in a dreary monolithic black fabric. The Chevy Aveo’s seats put these to shame.

Toyota must have scored a volume deal from GM for vintage interior molds; the door panels are now harder than a trigonometry quiz. The xB’s lamentable polymerization also includes the upper arm-rest surface where my elbow likes to rest. At least the Vega had a little cushion there.

The xB’s interior package suffers mightily from the reshaped dimensions, the new seating position and the new model's higher belt-line. The xB’s superb view– favored by many of its elderly patrons– has been cruelly reduced. Now one sits deep and low, Hummer style, peering out gun-slit windows. And less of them: the rear three-quarter windows have disappeared.

The cute, perfectly positioned, oval-shaped analog instrument cluster that once perched atop the xB’s artistically shaped and textured dash has been replaced by four small oval, orange-lit displays. They're buried low and deep in the middle of the ponderous dash. The nervously-flashing digital speedometer is yet another 1980’s GM throw-back.

The new XB has the Camry’s 2.4-liter 158hp engine. It’s a competent and smooth mill that makes the new xB a faster vehicle, but a less engaging one. The old XB’s little 1.5-liter engine had an eager willingness and mechanical presence that made every trip to the pizzeria fun, especially with the stick.

In another GM-esque move, the Camry’s five-speed automatic didn’t make the bean-counter’s cut; the xB’s old four-speed slushbox soldiers on. Buyers opting for the manual tranny now row their boat with a shifter that protrudes from a large extension from the bottom of the dash– which enhances the perception of lost interior real estate. Equally annoying, the vague-acting clutch pedal sticks up higher than the brake pedal.

The new XB is faster, but the fun (and challenge) is gone. The new-found heft and softer ride takes XB handling from MINI territory right to into Camry Land. And we all now how engaging and exciting THAT is.

The xB’s electrically-assisted steering lacks the crispness and linearity of the former hydraulic unit. There were times I swear I could feel the electric motor on the other end of the steering column muttering at me under its breath– in a way that reminded me of my fifteen year old son.

Is there anything good to say about the new, ostensibly improved Scion XB? Yes. It now comes with cruise control and more air bags.

In short, the xB has become nothing more than a low-content five-door Camry. It’s Toyota’s el-cheapo ($16,230) version of the Chevrolet Malibu Maxx.

In fact, the new xB doesn’t deserve the Scion moniker, which established the brand's U.S. reputation as a provider of affordable automobiles with style, efficiency, quality, innovation and fun. Maybe Toyota could get a deal on the Oldsmobile name from GM.


06 June 2007

I am frustrated at the fact that election campaigning has started so early. However that seems to be the way it goes in this modern media age. So here are some thoughts from Bob, an op-ed writer for the Times.

The Passion of Al Gore
By Bob Herbert
The New York Times

Tuesday 05 June 2007

Al Gore is earnestly talking about the long-term implications of the energy and climate crises, and how the Arctic ice cap is receding much faster than computer models had predicted, and how difficult and delicate a task it will be to try and set things straight in Iraq.

You look at him and you can't help thinking how bizarre it is that this particular political figure, perhaps the most qualified person in the country to be president, is sitting in a wing chair in a hotel room in Manhattan rather than in the White House.

He's pushing his book "The Assault on Reason." I find myself speculating on what might have been if the man who got the most votes in 2000 had actually become president. It's like imagining an alternate universe.

The war in Iraq would never have occurred. Support and respect for the U.S. around the globe would not have plummeted to levels that are both embarrassing and dangerous. The surpluses of the Clinton years would not have been squandered like casino chips in the hands of a compulsive gambler on a monumental losing streak.

Mr. Gore takes a blowtorch to the Bush administration in his book. He argues that the free and open democratic processes that have made the United States such a special place have been undermined by the administration's cynicism and excessive secrecy, and by its shameless and relentless exploitation of the public's fear of terror.

The Bush crowd, he said, has jettisoned logic, reason and reflective thought in favor of wishful thinking in the service of an extreme political ideology. It has turned its back on reality, with tragic results.

So where does that leave Mr. Gore? If the republic is in such deep trouble and the former vice president knows what to do about it, why doesn't he have an obligation to run for president? I asked him if he didn't owe that to his fellow citizens.

If the country needs you, how can you not answer the call?

He seemed taken aback. "Well, I respect the logic behind that question," he said. "I also am under no illusion that there is any position that even approaches that of president in terms of an inherent ability to affect the course of events."

But while leaving the door to a possible run carefully ajar, he candidly mentioned a couple of personal reasons why he is disinclined to seek the presidency again.

"You know," he said, "I don't really think I'm that good at politics, to tell you the truth." He smiled. "Some people find out important things about themselves early in life. Others take a long time."

He burst into a loud laugh as he added, "I think I'm breaking through my denial."

I noted that he had at least been good enough to attract more votes than George W. Bush.

"Well, there was that," he said, laughing again. "But what politics has become requires a level of tolerance for triviality and artifice and nonsense that I find I have in short supply."

Mr. Gore is passionate about the issues he is focused on - global warming, the decline of rational discourse in American public life, the damage done to the nation over the past several years. And he has contempt for the notion that such important and complex matters can be seriously addressed in sound-bite sentences or 30-second television ads, which is how presidential campaigns are conducted.

He pressed this point when he talked about Iraq.

"One of the hallmarks of a strategic catastrophe," he said, "is that it creates a cul-de-sac from which there are no good avenues of easy departure. Taking charge of the war policy and extricating our troops as quickly as possible without making a horrible situation even worse is a little like grabbing a steering wheel in the middle of a skid."

There is no quick and easy formula, he said. A new leader implementing a new policy on Iraq would have to get a feel for the overall situation. The objective, however, should be clear: "To get our troops out of there as soon as possible while simultaneously observing the moral duty that all of us share - including those of us who opposed this war in the first instance - to remove our troops in a way that doesn't do further avoidable damage to the people who live there."

I asked if he meant that all U.S. troops should ultimately be removed from Iraq.

"Yes," he said.

Then he was off to talk more about his book.