GirlDriver, USA

GirlDriver, USA
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Tuesday, September 25, 2012

A GOOD IDEA Call For Entries: $500k Lexus Eco Challenge Revs Up

While we like to take the hard line at GirlDriver, USA keeping our auto companies on their toes and serving you, sometimes they harness their horsepower to the good and we love to talk about that too.  Actually, they're always doing good stuff.  Here's one you can give to your kid's school or any teachers you may know.  Lexus and Scholastichave launched the   Sixth Annual Environmental Contest with $500,000  in Grants and Scholarships to be Awarded
2011 - 2012 Lexus Eco Challenge Grand Prize Winner 003
The "One-Towel Wonders” team from 
SCAPA Bluegrass in Lexington, Ky., is 
a grand prize winner in the 2011-2012
Lexus Eco Challenge. The team demon-
strated how a simple idea – using one 
towel per person per week – would 
benefit the environment.

Young people are committed to making a difference in the world, and for the sixth year, their efforts will be rewarded through the Lexus Eco Challenge. An educational program and contest, the Lexus Eco Challenge has inspired and empowered more than 22,000 middle and high school students to learn about the environment and take action to improve it. For their efforts, more than $3.5 million has been awarded to students, teachers and schools across the nation. This fall, students are invited to participate for a chance to win part of $500,000 in grants and scholarships. Lexus, the luxury automaker, has once again joined with Scholastic Inc., the global children’s publishing, education and media company, to create the eco-friendly educational school program.

“The Lexus Eco Challenge is an integral part of the environmental studies curriculum at our school,” said Ashlie Beals, teacher advisor for the 2011 grand prize-winning team called the “One-Towel Wonders.” ”For the past five years all of my 8th grade students have worked in teams to create and implement innovative campaigns to encourage others to make one small change that can have a large positive impact on our environment. During the challenge students sharpen their oral and written communication skills, utilize many forms of technology, and work together actively and enthusiastically to solve real-life problems. My younger students eagerly look forward to their chance to participate in the challenge when they are in 8th grade. I can’t thank Lexus and Scholastic enough for offering this tremendous opportunity to my students.”

The Challenge has two distinct elements:
• Standards-based supplementary educational materials - encourages teachers to integrate creative lesson plans into their classrooms to help teach students about the environment.
• Competition to reward environmental action - helps young people apply what they’ve learned in class through the program and empowers them to make improvements in their community by participating in the environmental team challenges.
"Year after year students tell us that the Lexus Eco Challenge helped them learn how to improve the environment," said Mark Templin, Lexus group vice president and general manager. "But they say the most important aspect of the competition is the revelation that they can make a difference. That knowledge and experience will be powerful as their generation takes responsibility for making decisions about the environment.”

The Challenges and Rewards
The Lexus Eco Challenge registration is open now and will conclude with the announcement of the first-place and grand-prize-winning teams in spring 2013. Middle and high school teams, comprised of 5-10 students and a teacher advisor, are invited to participate in one or both of the two initial challenges, each addressing different environmental elements – land/water and air/climate.

For each of the challenges, teams define an environmental issue that is important to them, develop an action plan to address the issue, implement the plan, and report the results. Submission deadlines are: Challenge #1 (land/water) – Oct. 29, 2012 and Challenge #2 (air/climate) – Dec. 17, 2012.

Each of the challenges will have 16 winning teams – eight middle school and eight high school teams. The winning teams will each receive a total of $10,000 in scholarships and grants to be shared among the students, teacher and school. In addition, the winning action plans will be featured on a special Web page to inspire other students to take action in their communities.

In early January, the winning teams from the first two challenges will be invited to participate in the Final Challenge. Teams will be asked to reach beyond the local community and inspire environmental action around the world through innovative ideas that are communicated to a wide audience. From the Final Challenge entries, eight first-place teams and two grand-prize-winning teams will be selected. Each of the eight first-place teams will receive a total of $15,000 in grants and scholarships, and the two grand-prize-winning teams will each receive $30,000. The money will be shared by the students, their teacher advisors and their schools.

Lexus’ Environmental Efforts
Lexus is the luxury hybrid leader with five low-emission hybrid vehicles available. When Lexus began selling hybrids in 2005, it helped advance the concept of sustainability without sacrifice. The Lexus Eco Challenge is part of The Lexus Pursuit of Potential, a philanthropic initiative that generates up to $3 million in donations each year for organizations that help build, shape and improve children’s lives.

Contact:  Nancy Hubbell
Lexus Communications
(310) 468-7633

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Elantra--the sporty, "functional" family

The 2013 Elantra GT with 17" wheels and super slanted headlamps.
I knew even before I started the engine that I was in for a sporty ride.  The aluminum-covered foot pedals and foot rest gave it away.  Then I started the engine.  The engine notes bring you right back to that date you had in high school with the bad guy who wore too much pomade.  Lose the pomade buddy and you got yourself a girlfriend.  And that's kind of what the Elantra GT does.

The Hyundai 2013 Elantra GT is such a curvaceous little darlin' it would be a shame if it weren't also a terrific car.  No worries there.  It is, as most of Hyundai vehicles in America today, well made, packed with content, stylish and reliable.  Who could ask for anything more--rhetorical question.

My test car is the 2013 Hyundai Elantra GT with  front-wheel drive.  It comes with a 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine that produces148 horsepower and 131 lbs-ft of torque.  A partial zero-emissions vehicle (PZEV) version of this engine lowers output to 145 hp and 130 lb-ft for vehicles sold in California-emissions states. The engine is paired with a 6-speed automatic.

EPA fuel economy estimates are the same for each transmission, with 28 mpg city/39 mpg highway and 32  combined.  My combined fuel economy on the 2013 Elantra GT was 33.9 mpg over a distance of 343.3 miles.  Most of my miles are parkways.

The lighting of the instrument panel makes the interior notable.  There's a particular glow to the white background, accented with blue and red.  It's handsome.  It's well-designed so that it doesn't make an overly ambitious statement--a comfortable, easy-to-like interior--no pomade.  It's quiet in the cabin though the noise bafflers don't separate you from the endearing engine notes. I particularly liked (and I usually don't like) using the navigation system and the audio as well as Hyundai's blueLink that finds restaurants and other (POI) places of interest and pairs bluetooth phones to their system.  The interior offers leather, heated seats, front and rear.  It is roomy--surprisingly so.  Don't reject the idea of a test drive because you're tall.  Steering comes in three flavors, normal, sporty and comfort.  I chose sporty to go along with the engine's pugnacity.

Nifty interior.  Notice aluminum foot pedals.  Center panel reminds me of Volvo's waterfall design.
Standard safety features include electronic stability control with traction control, AVS with electronic brake-force distribution and brake assist,  many airbags, front seatbelt pretensioners, tire pressure monitor and daytime running lights.  I fault Hyundai for not having blind-spot detection and some of the other accompanying newer safety features.  They are lifesavers and I'm sure they will soon show up on lower end models.

The Elantra GT competes with the Ford Focus, Mazda3, Volkswagen Golf and Chevy Cruze--tough competition.  This "functional" family consists of the sedan, the coupe and the GT.  As equipped my vehicle was $25,365.  Base price was $19,395. But in general, the Elantra's balance between ride and handling is one of the best in the segment. 

This is one to look at if you want to meet a functional family.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Chevy Volt? It's Complicated.

Real person charges her Volt.
It's one thing to drive the Chevy Volt around a parking lot on the West Side Piers of New York City.  It's another thing to own the car for a weekend.  First, let me say that  General Motors has spent a wad on developing electric technology for the car, although someone told me last weekend that his great-grandmother drove around in an electric car.  But that was then.  GM developed the EV1 and we all know what happened there--they crushed almost all of them after spending a billion dollars on a car that had a range of 60 miles and only a handful of customers.  Oops honey I have an MBA and forgot to add a gas engine for range.  That said, Reuters just published a story estimating how much money GM loses on every Volt.  GM came back with the statement--accurately--"Reuters’ estimate of the current loss per unit for each Volt sold is grossly wrong, in part because the reporters allocated product development costs across the number of Volts sold instead of allocating across the lifetime volume of the program, which is how business operates. The Reuters’ numbers become more wrong with each Volt sold."  GM notes that the investment in all the Volt technologies are applicable across many platforms--meaning we'll see those technologies in other GM cars.

Door for electric charger.  Door for putting gas in the car is on the passenger side.
Door open and charger plugged into the Volt.
Ordinary household outlet taking the Volt charger.  Photo is sideways because blogger is inept.
The current situation is that GM has an electric car that comes with a gas tank, the Chevy Volt.  They call it an extended range electric vehicle differentiating from a hybrid which is defined as a vehicle that is propelled by two powertrains or propulsion systems, battery electric and gasoline.  The Volt is a battery-operated, plug-in hybrid.  Here's how it works:  fully charged battery propels the car on battery only for 40 miles--in my case 37.  A 9.3 gallon gas tank holds premium fuel.  When the battery runs down completely after 40 or so miles, the gas fuels a generator that sends a charge to the electric motor as needed and stores remaining electric in  the battery.  The car continues to be propelled by electricity.  When you brake, energy is captured and used to recharge the battery.  That is called regenerative braking.  When you get home or to where you are going, you plug one end of the battery charger into a outlet of there is one available.  Then you open the door for the electrical charger, plug that into the car.   A green light goes on on the dashboard indicating that the car is charging.  A screen on the instrument panel tells you how long it will take to charge the battery fully--in my case using 120v it would take 13 hours, less if I had 240v.  What is downplayed by GM in the promotion of the Chevy Volt is that the gasoline engine does in fact help to power the car at high speeds.

Great looking car proving that new environmentally conscious cars don't have to look weird.
If you are supportive of the need to develop new technology to power automobiles, you'd be wowed by this vehicle. It is a trip to be in a plug-in hybrid and to know that you can travel, as I did, 435.4 miles on 6.3 gallons of gasoline, averaging 68.5 mpg.  And it is very sophisticated technology.  Those GM engineers know what they're doing.

Even though intellectually I knew the range of the car was in the 600 mile area, I saw those bars depleting on the battery on a dark, not-well-traveled road at night and I thought--hmmm, has AAA ever seen a Volt before?  Yes, GirlDriver had a brush with range anxiety, which is good because consumers who think about buying these new technologies have it lurking in their subconscious.  And to that point, most consumers are not buying either the Volt or the Nissan Leaf.    GM has sold about 16,000 Volts since its debut last year.  GM just idled the plant because it has too much inventory.  The major difference between the Leaf and the Volt is that the Leaf is all electric--there ain't no backup folks.  Range anxiety city.

I found driving the Volt a genuine pleasure.  I love its get up and go and had it running at 80 with no hiccups at all.  It's a real car.  It has a full complement of safety equipment and is gets five stars from government testing.  It does not have blind spot detection or some of the newer safety measures like pedestrian detection.  I didn't like the placement of the cup holders--high and too far back because of the battery storage in the center panel.  I had a hard time putting my drink in the holders and had to look down.  I really didn't like the very limited range of the AM and FM radio.

Other than that I thought the car was great.  There's one other problem and this is the biggest problem facing GM.  This 4-seater compact sedan cost $46,000.  There were $5,670 worth of options on my car with a base price of $40,000.  With compact sedans on the market that get 40 mpg and don't take premium fuel and additional expense for electric, it will be the rare consumer who buys this car--even with generous givebacks from the government. In addition, fuel economy on cars with only an internal combustion engine keeps improving year.  The monroney (sales sheet) says the consumer saves $7,600 in fuel costs over the average new vehicle.  I don't know what that means or what new vehicle they calculated against but, again, it does not include the cost of kilowatt hours you use to charge the battery.  In New York State the average rate currently is 6.668 cents per kilowatt hour.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Competing in a tough class, Mazda's CX-5 is up to it.

Exterior styling for people who don't want a compact SUV
 Doesn't Mazda's trademarked word SKYACTIV sound like something that connects you wirelessly to the universe?  It does to me.  When I hear the word or see it in print I immediately see myself sending and receiving messages from outer space.  But that's me:  I'm the playwright who wrote a musical about Microbes from Mars who hurtle to earth to steal Hollywood DNA and bring it back to Mars.
In reality SKYACTIV has nothing to do with interconnectivity or Mars.  It's funny that Jim O'Sullivan, president and CEO of Mazda North America, in a talk he gave, goes to lengths to tell us what SKYACTIV isn't.  Mazda needs to be clear about what it is because it has to do with Mazda's greatly improved ability to deliver Zoom-Zoom, which Mazda now calls sustainable Zoom-Zoom.   If you have experienced Zoom-Zoom, you know what I'm talking about.  If you haven't, you must, especially now that it's sustainable.
What is it? SKYACTIV is Mazda's let's-tweak-everything-and-make-it-more-zoom-zoom technology that combines engine, transmission, exhaust, body, steering and suspension.   In semi-layman's terms (semi because engineers are involved).  SKYACTIV combines a more fuel effiicient and lighter engine, with a new transmission and a cleaner exhaust system.  The SKYACTIV body is comprised of lighter stronger steel. They shaved 4.4 pounds off the 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine making it 10 percent lighter than the previous one.  They added multi-hole direct fuel injectors, along with specially developed piston cavity shapes that ensure a shorter combustion time and suppress the impact on power and torque from engine knocking. Pumping loss also is decreased by employing dual sequential valve timing (S-VT).  (I told you it was "sort of" layman's terms.)  The net is that the engine has more torque, with a faster response time and a sportier ride, uses less fuel and lowers emissions without sacrificing performance.
A subtle, comfortable interior.
Steering and braking controls are very responsive and keep the driver engaged.  This is the new engineering that will be used in all new Mazda vehicles from here on out. 

The CX-5 competes with the best selling Honda CR-V which I drove last weekend and the Toyota RAV-4 which I drove in May.  Both of these vehicles delivered top performance in every way so the competition is stiff for a company that doesn't have the distribution network or the corporate heft of Toyota or Honda.

The CX-5 is powered by the SKYACTIV 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, which is rated at 155 horsepower and 150 pound-feet of torque and can be combined with either a six-speed automatic or an available six-speed manual transmission on the front-drive CX-5There's all-wheel-drive CX-5 Grand Touring  also available.
Optional navi is easy to read.

EPA fuel economy for the CX-5 is 26 city/35 highway mpg for the front-wheel-drive model with the six-speed manual. The front-drive automatic  is estimated at 26 city/32 highway mpg, and an all-wheel-drive CX-5 (available only with a six-speed automatic) should get  earn 25 city/31 highway mpg.  Mazda says there's a diesel coming.  Base prices runs $21,790 - $29,390.
Being inside the CX-5 feels roomy and comfortable.  There's plenty of storage space.  if rear seat room is of concern to you as an owner, know that rear leg room is a little tight .  There's a standard USB port and optional Bluetooth and navigation, but Mazda hasn't gone overboard to enable drivers to connect--thank you Mazda for that.  As a class these vehicles can be noisy compared to other types of vehicles but I did not notice this as particularly annoying. 
Mazdas all have handsome interiors with a focus on simplicity--the designers, shall we say, have constraint, which, if we are holding onto our vehicles for longer periods of time, is a good thing.  We're not going to get tired of the interior because it doesn't overwhelm.  What is notable about this car in a compact SUV category is that is is fun to drive.  You're not going to ever get tired of that--go Zoom-Zoom.