Niagara Gazette

October 31, 2013

TOM'S CORNER: Automotive news from the desk at 'America's Car Show'

By Tom Torbjornsen
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — A General Motors executive has confirmed the company is in the early stages of developing a battery-powered sedan that will have a range of approximately 300 miles and a base price of roughly $30,000.

Speaking at GM’s battery laboratory in Warren, Mich., GM vice president of global product programs Doug Parks explained the automaker currently has the technology to build an EV with a 200-mile range but it is far too expensive to enter regular production. The firm will work on lowering the battery pack’s price over the next couple of years, but Parks declined to comment when the EV will hit the market.

Likely taking the form of a large sedan, the unnamed car will provide buyers with a significantly cheaper alternative to the Tesla Model S, whose maximum range checks in at about 265 miles when equipped with the most potent — and expensive — battery pack.

Several months ago, GM CEO Dan Akerson formed a team of engineers and analysts whose task is to keep tabs on Tesla and how the startup can affect GM’s business over time. Executives have not made it clear how the team’s findings will influence the development of the upcoming EV.

  Suzuki recall

Suzuki has announced a recall covering nearly 200,000 vehicles in the United States. Suzuki no longer sells its car and trucks on these shores, but the Japanese automaker is still on the hook for any defects that could compromise safety on vehicles sold before they boogied from our shores.

Suzuki issued a recall on the 2006-11 Grand Vitara models and SX4s from the 2007-11 model years for an airbag defect. In all, the recall includes 193,936 vehicles.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the airbag sensor in the front passenger seat of the vehicles involved in the recall may become disconnected as a result of repeated flexing of the mat from use of the seat.” If that sensor fails, the front airbag will deploy “regardless of whether the front seat occupant is an adult or a child.

The airbag system is designed to shutoff when a child is detected in the front seat in order to prevent injuries from the force of the bag going off.

Rover diesel hybrid bound for US

A senior Land Rover official has confirmed rumors that the brand will offer its new diesel-hybrid powertrain in the United States.

“It’s not a matter of ‘if,’ but ‘when,’ “ Andy Goss, the current CEO of Jaguar Land Rover USA and soon-to-be company marketing chief, told The Detroit Bureau.

Originally announced only for the European market, the hybrid system teams a 3.0-liter turbo-diesel V6 with a 47-horsepower electric motor for a combined output of 355 horsepower and 516 lb-ft of torque.

With the help of an eight-speed automatic gearbox that sends power to all four wheels, the setup enables the hefty Range Rover to return 44 mpg combined in the somewhat optimistic test cycle. Despite that efficiency – and the hybrid system’s additional 264 pounds – the SUV is still capable of sprinting from zero-to-62 mph in 6.9 seconds.

Land Rover plans to offer the system on the Range Rover Sport in addition to the standard Range Rover.

It isn’t yet clear what price premium the diesel-hybrids will carry over their conventionally powered siblings, but given the extra thousands that typical diesel and hybrid powertrains command by themselves, a model with both could be an expensive proposition.

Also unknown is exactly when the hybridized Rovers will launch. Given the looming U.S. mileage regulations, Land Rover will likely have an incentive to bring the SUVs to showrooms sooner rather than later.

Ford offering a turbo-charged 4-cylinder police car

Ford Motor Company says it is responding to police department demands by offering up a version of its Ford Taurus-based Police Interceptor with a 2.0-liter four-cylinder turbocharged engine.

Not rated for pursuit duty, police cruisers powered by the engine would instead be intended for “special service” use - detective work, for example. Ford calls it the Special Service Police Sedan, but it’s essentially a modified version of base Ford Taurus, which uses the same engine mated to the same six-speed automatic gearbox. 

The consumer version of the 2.0-liter Taurus is rated at 22 mpg in the city and 32 mpg on the highway and will be rated at 240 horsepower and 270 lb-ft. of torque.

“Not every police officer needs a pursuit-rated vehicle,” Ford police marketing manager Jonathan Honeycutt said in a statement. “As agencies look to replace older, V8-equipped cruisers with more efficient cars, Ford is ready with the most fuel-efficient - yet still very capable - full-size police vehicle.” 

Honda recall

Honda is recalling the 2003-04 Honda Odyssey for a problem with its airbags. According to Detroit News, the recall also includes 2003 models of the Acura MDX. The flaw stems from a faulty computer chip used in the system that deploys airbags. Chips from the same supplier have caused recalls of other vehicles, including the Jeep Liberty and Jeep Grand Cherokee last year.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has received at least six complaints of Odyssey airbags deploying without a crash, and another 41 consumers have complained about the airbag warning light being illuminated. Thankfully, no crashes or fatalities have been associated with the issue.

The solution to the problem lies in preventing electrical interference with the airbag system. Honda says that it will repair recalled vehicles by installing an electrical noise filter next to the control unit that contains the flawed chip.

In all, some 374,000 vehicles are affected by the Honda/Acura recall — 318,000 Odysseys and 56,000 MDXs.

Honda hasn’t yet published a timeline for the recall. If you own one of the vehicles listed above, contact your local Honda dealer for details, or call Honda Customer Service at 800-999-1009.

Elon Musk is now after Google

Tesla CEO Elon Musk is using Twitter to hire engineers that will be tasked with developing an autopilot system expected to debut on the battery-powered Model S. Musk ambitiously hopes the technology will be ready for mass production in three years.

The yet-unnamed system is still at the embryonic stage of development but the CEO promises it will be capable of controlling the Model S in about 90 percent of driving situations. Musk predicts fully autonomous cars that require no driver input whatsoever would take longer to develop for a host of legal and technological reasons.

A company spokesperson confirmed the system is being developed in-house, putting an end to rumors of a tie-up between Tesla and Google in the field of self-driving cars. Similar to a plane’s autopilot system, Tesla’s technology will drive the car in everyday situations such as when cruising on the highway but it will require driver input in more complicated situations. A switch on the dashboard will enable the driver to turn autopilot on and off.

Tesla’s self-driving system might be the first on the market, but it will face stiff competition from Mercedes-Benz, Audi, Nissan, General Motors, and components manufacturer Continental before the end of the decade.

‘Til next time ... Keep Rollin’

“America’s Car Show” with Tom Torbjornsen airs 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, 9 a.m. Thursday and 11 a.m. Saturday on WBBZ-TV.

"America's Car Show" with Tom Torbjornsen airs 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, 9 a.m. Thursday and 11 a.m. Saturday on WBBZ-TV.