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The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly

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On: Fri, Apr 9, 2010 at 12:49PM | By: John Welch


The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly

Carlos Ghosn and Deiter Zetsche hopped into bed this week, and this unholy Franco-Hun alliance is already producing some interesting love children. Mercedes four cylinder in an Infiniti? Wouldn't that be a little, I don't know, difficult for Benz dealers to swallow?

GM is repaying tax-payer loans five years early, sure, but does that mean that they are on the road to profitability? Short answer, NO. Long answer, Double NO! The General has shed $4.3 billion dollars since bankruptcy, $1.9 billion in the last three months of 2009. We can see the light at the end of the tunnel, but it's still a pin-hole. Profit in 2010? We shall see . . .

Audi has dominated sports car racing for the better part of a decade. With countless R8s and R10s, the storied marque has taken every major trophy more then once, from Le Mans to Laguna Seca. Their red and silver rocket-sleds have yet to win any beauty contests, however. With its racing introduction this weekend in the south of France, at the Paul Ricard Circuit 8 Hour, Audi continues a proud tradition of function over slightly hideous form. You be the judge, inside the post . . .

The Good: Every car-maker has to figure out new ways to increase fuel economy across their entire range. CAFE regulations, Euro5 compliance, even China is considering emissions regulations that mirror those of the industrialized West. What better way to increase the average economy of your fleet than to downsize engines in your most popular models? A good example is Ford; the Blue Oval continues to downsize their "Eco-Boost" range of engines, and has announced plans to replace two cylinders with two turbos in most of its most popular models. Think six-cylinder F-150s and four-cylinder Explorers. Daimler and Renault/Nissan jumped to the front of this pack after cementing a well publicized deal that would see the two companies sharing production and technology costs. This contract was signed on Wednesday, and already the two firms have announced their first, and widely unexpected, first collaboration.

The Infiniti G-Series could be considered a direct competitor for some of Mercedes more profitable models. The C-Class, SL, and SLK spring to mind. Carlos Ghosn said during a conference call with reporters Thursday that his data and Mercedes' data show there is little cross-shopping between Mercedes' and Infiniti's U.S. customers. Now that they are bedfellows, Mercedes doesn't really care. What's good for Nissan is now good for Stuttgart, and improving economy for any brand under this new umbrella will help Benz avoid an all-hybrid S-Class.

So, naturally, plop a Mercedes-derived four cylinder into the base G. Mercedes sells the C-Class with a 1.8 liter four in Europe, but doesn't currently offer anythig smaller than a V6 in the States. Infiniti could select from the broad range of four-cylinders already offered by Nissan/Renault, but my feeling is that none of those econo-car derived powerplants would be immediately suitable for a luxury car. Too thrashy, too coarse. Also, the fact that this engine is starting life as a Mercedes product may help Mercedes make a case for including the Infiniti models in their average fleet economy. Look for this sort of car company mash-up to become common-place in the near future.

The Bad: After paying up, to the tune of $8.1 billion dollars, to the US and Canadian treasuries, it's sort of depressing to hear the final tally for 2009. $4.3 billion lost, in the second half of the year, mostly the fault of UAW payments, $1.3 billion tied to remeasuring foreign currency values. Though losing money is always a bad thing, this isn't all that bad, according to Chris Liddell (it'd be kewler if his name was "Charles" . . .), GM's current CFO.

"We don't need the industry to be significantly better to achieve profitability," Liddell said. "Having said that, in the way the year is shaking out, the industry is looking better, and that's certainly helping." He added, "This company has been guilty of over promising and under delivering, I would like to turn that around. I would rather under-promise and hopefully over deliver." Phrases like "I would rather" and words like "hopefully" kind of take the wind out of that statement's sails, but at least Mr. Liddell is as positive as is believable.

The Ugly: Bow to the might that is Audi Sport. Cower before the Quad-ringed Gods. Just don't look them in the face. It's not pretty.

Audi released the livery and official specifications for its new Le Mans contender, the R15 Plus, this week. The livery is, well, loud, an attempt to lure the eye away from the walrus tusks I presume. None of Audi's all-conquering prototypes have been all that attractive; the R8 was slab-sided and angular, the R10 was just plain huge, and the first R15 reminded of a gap-toothed Dale Mabry bag-lady, wearing gawd-awful LED earrings. See the image gallery. . . Honestly, the only truly beautiful modern race car that Audi has had anything to do with wasn't even an Audi; it was a Bentley. And it won Le Mans, too.

Cue the R15 Plus, a race car with a pedigree a mile long, a locomotive-grade V10, and a busted schnoz. It is bathed in red and silver, like all of Audi's former Le Mans entrants, but the colors are draped over the entire car in huge swaths, a departure from Audi's normally staid branding. The livery definitely helps one get over the weird aeroplasty going on at the nose of the car.

The previous R15 used a design philosophy that is unproven at best. Instead of routing air over the bodywork of the R15, the design team attempted to reduce drag by devising a series of openings and tunnels that would allow air to move through the bodywork. Large openings toward the back of the car would allow air to evacuate, basically "tuning" the air to create more downforce without also slowing the car down. On the nose of the R15 you can clearly see a large cut-out in the middle section; air is routed up by canards on the splitter, and forced out over the driver's head. The R15 worked, in theory, and even defeated Peugoet in its first outing: the 2009 12 Hours of Sebring. Over the course of the 2009 season, however, the design of the R15 chassis proved to be more trouble than it was worth. Low top-speed, less-than-awesome fuel-economy, and a penchant for oversteer convinced Audi that the R15 needed an update, a significant update.

The R15 Plus reverts to the tried and true method of creating downforce by directing air over the bodywork, essentially designing a whole new car without actually designing a whole new car. All of the bodywork is new, and there have been a few modifications to the chassis as well. The diesel V10 is retuned for more power, and the wheelbase lengthened slightly for more predictable handling. Otherwise, changes relate to bodywork.

I'm all about function over form, but there are plenty of race cars that look good while they're hauling ass. Audi will most likely wreak havoc with their new toy, there is no denying history. This is a purpose built racing-car with one goal in mind: speed. And lots of it; it doesn't have to be pretty. In fact, I sort of like its devil-may-care baby-eating maw, all gaping and tusked. It isn't pretty, but "pretty" doesn't win races.


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