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Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Continental: Time in Detroit and Some Premium-Brand Tidbits

The Continental

Each week, our German correspondent slices and dices the latest rumblings, news, and quick-hit driving impressions from the other side of the pond. His byline may say Jens Meiners, but we simply call him . . . the Continental.

2011 Nissan Juke SLThis edition of The Continental is brought to you from Detroit, where I spent a week following the New York auto show, attending a wonderful and touching memorial service for David E. Davis, Jr. (followed by a splendid gathering of many of the industry’s great names) and generally catching up with my colleagues at Car and Driver in Ann Arbor. It also provided a nice opportunity to sample some vehicles not sold in Europe, such as the Ford F-150 SVT Raptor (needs to be louder) and the Infiniti M56 (rough around the edges, but really fast). The trip to and from New York was undertaken in Car and Driver‘s long-term Nissan Juke, a car that I liked a lot less than most of my colleagues. It is quick, but it doesn’t sound sporty at all, its gearbox is notchy, and the interior looks and feels downright cheap. The gimmicky G-force meter, which doesn’t provide actual numbers, does not make up for the lack of real sporting qualities.

Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini made a brief appearance in a speech delivered by UAW chief Bob King in front of the Automotive Press Association here on Tuesday. They provided context for a diatribe against Michigan governor Rick Snyder and his attempt to cut back on the privileges enjoyed by the UAW. This union has arguably played a pivotal role in bringing Detroit’s auto industry to its knees, despite King’s description of the UAW plants as shining examples of quality and productivity. King now hopes to play a role in the non-unionized transplants of foreign carmakers, with whom he holds “confidential meetings” on the matter. His calculation: Should one of them fall, the “social pressure” on the others will bring them down as well. King’s vision? A seat on the board of every American automaker, such as his “brothers and sisters” in Germany enjoy.

It was an interesting speech. How can you have a democracy without collective bargaining, King asked rhetorically, and went as far as likening policies that aim to liberate the industry from the stranglehold of the unions to “human rights violations,” which would be exposed globally. Preparing to hold trials?

Premium Tidbits

Audi is—rightfully—promoting its A7 Sportback as an automotive designer piece. I just wonder why it is displayed in the bright ads (like on a huge display on Broadway in New York) with the S-line package, which adds boxy front air intakes and is an afterthought to the clean design of the standard A7.

Cadillac is going to be part of the trend towards customization and individualization, the brand’s marketing director Jim Vurpillat tells me. Some of it is going to be factory-installed, some dealer-installed, but “we won’t do 5 million variations like BMW,” he submits jokingly. The German carmakers, of course, have been known for their endless options lists, which generate handsome margins but also add incredible complexity to the manufacturing process.

Lincoln is pondering a performance line to underscore that it is serious about its status as a premium brand. Nothing has been decided, but I think it would be great to have performance variations of the MKS and the next MKZ.

So whom do premium brands benchmark? I asked around for a bit, and it emerges that Audi tops the list by a wide margin, followed by BMW. Lincoln takes a close, analytical look at Lexus and Cadillac as well. Conspicuously absent from the list is Mercedes-Benz, which should give the former global standard of automotive quality and engineering something to think about.

Audi will continue to race with diesels at the 24 hours of Le Mans, the most fascinating race on the planet despite its impossible media-credentials policy. This year, Audi will use a single-turbo, 3.7-liter, V-6 diesel instead of last year’s twin-turbo, 5.5-liter, V-10 diesel. Power is rated at around 532 hp, and the racing experience will be utilized for series production development. Good.

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