Thursday, April 28, 2011

New York Auto Show 2011, part 3

On Friday, April 22 I returned to the Auto Show. My day started early. I had to remove the Saab from its spot by 7am—not a problem for someone used to getting up at 4:15, though I did sleep in until about 6:00. While alternate-side parking rules were suspended that week for Passover, finding anyplace to park that was legal was a bit of a challenge. Forty minutes of doing haphazard laps through the cross streets finally yielded a legal spot, and I decided to leave the car there for the duration of my stay.

After a leisurely breakfast, I borrowed a Metro card and took the #6 train downtown to 33rd Street, then walked across town to the Jacob Javits Center. This was opening day for the show, and as made my way closer toward the Hudson I became part of the throng that was heading, en masse, to the JJC. After the relative quiet of the JJC on Thursday, Friday was different—more New York: it was crowded, bustling and noisy. After securing my ticket I went straight to the Saab display.

The Saab display was teeming with people. The Phoenix was on a turntable, as it was on Thursday. This day, though, it was rotating and there was a fence to keep gawkers at a safe distance. That’s when I realized that I had never availed myself the opportunity to sit in it. Perhaps another time. Swade was there. He recounted his morning, and how he had been doing a filming of the Saab display with his tiny Hero Cam, with the intent to show it in high-speed, condensed form—thirty minutes of recording replayed in four as seen
here. After hanging around some, listening to the attendees, and staying rather incognito, we retired to the food court to grab some lunch. Afterward, Swade retrieved his bags from the coatroom and bade the NY Auto Show goodbye as he headed off to Kennedy Airport.

Since my hosts would not be back until late day, I went back into the show. I did spend more time at the Saab display. Again, I was looking more for peoples reactions than looking at anything in particular myself. While the Phoenix, Ice Block, massive video screen and Independence Day Convertible were all draws to the stand, the 9-5 Combi seemed to have the most people lingering over it and giving it real, thoughtful attention, as though they were picturing themselves in it, or it in their driveway. I can see why. Say what you will about the treatment of the rear door windows and the awkward line they create moving to the rear. I was not terribly bothered by this when seeing the car in person. I was happy to see the European hatch, with its lower portion deflecting rearward to be flush with the rear bumper. While adding visual appeal and being unique, I think this would present a nightmare in our real world. It wouldn’t take much of a bumper tap to stove that hatch in, and likely leave it incapable of being opened. Overall, the balance of the design is aggressive, cool, and much striking than the sedan’s.

While there were inquiries about the 9-4x, there wasn’t much fuss about it. This is unfortunate, since this vehicle comes to market quite soon. The 9-4x was off to the side and locked. I did not understand this. Sure, that 9-4x was likely not a production car and there may be some subtle differences compared to an actual production version. Who cares? The presenters did speak about the car, but that didn’t bring too many around. There should have been a bright light on the 9-4x, and it should have been open. The other misstep on Saab’s part was the absence of iQon. After all the buzz that came out of Geneva, there should have been a mock-up, or even just something on the display screen. This omission seems very odd to me.

Eventually, I tired of the Saab display and decided to take my tour of the show. I started on the lower level, which touted trucks from every manufacturer, and a few automobiles from manufacturers who must not have wanted to pay the upstairs rent. I’m not a big truck or SUV guy, so I skipped most of those displays. I did spend a few minutes at the Mercedes display. I’ve always fancied the old G-wagon, though not all tarted out the way MB sells them now, and the Sprinter vans were presented in a variety of configurations. I did go and see the Subaru stand, to see the new Imperezza…..yawn. I had hoped there would be rally car, but I couldn’t find one. The most entertaining display was from Suzuki. They were spending a lot of time proclaiming the Kizashi as the greatest car since the invention of the Otto-cycle engine. I’m sure it’s fine…What I liked there, though, was that they included everything Suzuki. There was a big outboard engine (I loved the Suzuki built outboard we once had) and a trio of motorcycles. The one that made me stop and stare, as it always does, was the Hayabusa. I am not a speed freak. Rather the opposite. Yet I revere that machine and all that it is capable of. I appreciate its unorthodox style, its fundamental simplicity and ordinary architecture, and admire Suzuki for building such a no-holds-barred contraption. It is a beast like no other.

I took a peek at the electric car indoor test-drive, also in the lower level, and concluded that it was just stupid. I also wondered about the people queued up for this test drive. Conversely, on my way back to the upper level, I went outside to see what the Jeep contingent was up to. They had a large installation outdoors, that consisted of a test-track to demonstrate the off-road prowess of a Jeep. It was a great amusement park ride! Attendees rode along as passengers, and Jeep provided the driver. First, the Jeeps, many different models, drove up, over and down a huge metal arch at such steep angles, you’d swear the Jeep should just slide off, especially coming down. Then it was through some sloppy stuff (deep mulch), big bumps, off-set bumps to lift individual wheels off the ground, and over an obstacle to prove its ground clearance. Jeep had enthusiastic hawkers with bull-horns encouraging onlookers to go for a ride, and they were packed all day. Good for Jeep!

Next, it was back to the upper level. I saw a bit of everything. Besides the cars that ought to take your breath away, like the Aston Martin, Bentley, Lotus and Spyker, there were two displays I did not tire of looking at: Jaguar and Fiat. I am Jaguar ignorant. I know the difference between an XKE and an XJ6, but not much more than that, especially regarding the new offerings. I can tell you that based on pure automotive sex appeal, these were the class of the show, both individually, and especially when seen as a group. It was just hard for me not to stare, and then stare again. The Fiat 500 was loads of fun. The sardine-can retractable cloth roof, reminiscent of the 2CV, is wonderful. I wanted to get inside one for pictures but it was just impossible with so many people trying to do the same. I love diminutive cars. An original Mini is on my bucket list. [I might like the current Mini, but an acquaintance whom I loathe drove one and now I can’t look at a Mini without being reminded of them, so new Minis I do not like.] So is a 2CV. I never craved the original 500, and they did have a lovely one there. The new 500 shows well, and I am sure, especially with gas prices doing what they’re doing, that these will sell well. Good for Fiat!

Some honorable mentions need to go out: Audi, for building the A7 (Take a look Saab. The 9-5 could have been such a hatchback.); Mazda, for getting rid of the Joker-face on the 3; Mercedes, for showing an A-class sized car, albeit some alternate power version; Infiniti, for displaying the Renault F1 car; Scion, for showing that Japanese car makers can have an interesting display; all the European brands, except Volkswagen, for having attractive presentations. Boos and hisses go out to Volkswagen, who seems to bask in the glory of indifferent blandness in both its cars and its display; to Lexus-Toyota-Acura-Honda for being uninspired in their presentations (except for Lexus having really cushy carpeting at their display—how appropriate!); Mercedes, for presenting a concept car so fake, it had painted cardboard behind the wheels to look like brake components.

At the end of the day I had museum legs and I was tired. Still, I had a fabulous time at the Show. It was great to meet up with old Saab friends, especially Swade, meet new ones, like Jason Castriotta, and see all the exciting product in the pipeline. Thank you, Dan Leahy and Charles River Saab, for permitting me to go on this junket. I hear that Frankfurt is going to be something this year…..

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

2011 New York Auto Show, Part 2

Once secure in knowing that I could leave the 9-5 in parking without having to take out a mortgage, I decided to enjoy the nice—if windy—weather with a walk through mid-town. I am no stranger to New York, having grown up in its shadows. I am also not ignorant of cities. I’ve visited a number of them and lived in Boston for several years. Still, the New York experience is like no other. No, I have not been to Hong Kong, Shanghai or Tokyo. But from my limited urban experience, New York takes everything to a degree not found elsewhere. The most immediate attack on my senses was not the smell (New York still smells worse than other cities), not the visual intimidation of its scale; it was the noise. While I might live in a remote setting, and Watertown isn’t a metropolis, I am compelled to listen to traffic and air-impact guns sounding all day long. Those are but a whisper when compared to the relentless din of New York City streets. I found I never got used to it.

The energy of mid-town, with its masses of people and vehicles, creates an excitement which is hard to ignore. Not only were sidewalks and roadways crowded, but every store was packed with people. I wandered into Macy’s, the self-proclaimed “World’s Largest Store.” From the look inside, you would have thought it was Christmas Eve. Say what we want about the state of economy. I can tell you that in that part of Manhattan, it is nothing if not a boom time.

I stopped for a time in the vicinity of Herald Square to watch the passers-by, both pedestrian and vehicular. With respect to the vehicles, I noted that the Lincoln Town Car is passé, and that black Mercedes, BMW, Land Rover and Audi vehicles are ubiquitous. There were no exotic cars to be seen that day, though our fanciful cars like one Aston and a few Porsches. Of note was the fleet of the NYPD. Unlike most police departments, which drive only Crown Vics, or only Dodge Magnums, or a combination, it seems that when the NYPD requisitioned their fleet, they just asked for one of everything. I can recall: Ford Explorer, Ford Escape, Ford Fusion (hybrid?), Chevy Impala, Crown Vic, Dodge Magnum, a Pullman (three-wheel contraption) and several Toyota Prius. Yes, Prius. I guess if you sign on to do police duty in NYC, you have to check your machismo at the door. Given that the weather was fairly nice, I was surprised to see few two wheelers: a few couriers on single speed bikes, a few Vespa and only one motorcycle, a V-twin Suzuki sport bike. There was one cantankerous dude on a long board, a huge long board, who got frustrated when turning cars would not let him proceed through the intersection. Exasperated, me picked up the board and walked across, like the rest of us.

When retrieving the car, I had to help the lot attendant locate the Start/Stop switch. After his moment of embarrassment, he raved about the car and how beautiful it was. While he is a lot attendant, he is also in a lot of very pricey cars all day long. I accepted the complement. After picking up Swade in the 9-5 and shuttling him to his hotel later in the day, we parked and did a bit of shopping on foot. Even as the early evening came, the crowds seemed not to abate at all. I fancied that perhaps we’d go up the Empire State Building to show my Aussie friend a rarified view of Manhattan; that was, until we got close enough and saw that the queue counted into the hundreds. So much for that. Afterward, we dined at Ben and Jack’s Steakhouse. It was superb. I think Swade was caught off guard when the waiter, in my absence, asked if he’d prefer flat or sparkling mineral water, only to see a $10 charge for mineral water appear on the bill later, and again when he asked what the very pricey steaks came with. You guessed it—nothing. So we each had a simple dinner—steak and fries. Simple. Fabulous. Yes, expensive.

After leaving Swade at his hotel, I headed up-town where I was staying with friends. Driving through the Upper East Side, I came upon a display window for a small shop, whose name was too high up to be seen. In the window were white T-shirts with the KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON poster imprinted on the front, the very same one which Saabsunited and Swade posted so often during the trying times prior to the Spyker sale. How a propos, I thought. When I parked the 9-5, between Park and Lexington Avenues, I admired its presence in that tony neighborhood. It looked distinctive among all the other fancy cars, in large part because of its Glacier Silver color which contrasted not only with the other cars, but the grayness of the New York background. Then, too, it's just a fine looking car, no matter where it's parked.

Coming next—Part 3, the rest of the Auto Show.

Monday, April 25, 2011

2011 New York Auto Show, Part 1

When it comes to auto shows, I’m a bit of a neophyte. I’ve attended and worked at the Boston show a number of times, but that’s it. On the heels of Saab’s wild success at Geneva, I got an invite from Steven Wade, founder of, and newly appointed social media director at Saab, to join him at the New York Auto Show. I couldn’t resist. New York is so close, I knew I could see the Phoenix and 9-5 Combi, and I could spend some time with our friend Steven whom we had just seen at Swedish Car Day 2010.

While the official opening of the show was April 22, there was a dealer meeting and press conference going on there on the 21st so I made my way down that day to see if I could muster my way—having no valid credentials—into the proceedings. I left early Thursday morning from New Hampshire, stopping briefly in Acton to pick up some goods from Ralph Bockoven for Steven to take back to Trollhattan, and then made a leisurely drive to Manhattan. My steed was a 2010 9-5 Aero. While I had driven these before, this was my first long drive. I took time to set up the car for my use, including making the Bluetooth connection for my phone, and hooking up my iPod via USB. What I hadn’t previously realized was that when the iPod is thus connected, the car recognizes the device as an iPod, and suddenly the radio controls, including those on the steering wheel, and manipulate the iPod and display on the radio screen what otherwise is on the iPod screen. I know this is nothing really, but I’m glad to see the interface is so complete.

I did hit a delay in Hartford, where what appeared to be a construction site was in fact a clean-up operation for a rolled tractor trailer whose contents were spilled all over an entrance ramp to I84. There was another, on the West Side Highway in New York, but that was it. I turned onto 34th Street at about 10:30. I located a few parking locations a few blocks from the Jacob Javits Center, and all seemed to have the same “$8.32” out front, for the first 30 minutes. I chose a smaller, outdoor lot, left the car, and walked to the JJC. I entered and surveyed the area. Yes, there was security at all the entrances to the halls. Undeterred, I sent a text to someone already inside (not an employee of Saab, but he shall remain nameless to protect his integrity) to see if there was any way of surreptitious entry on my part. I was told to wait in the lobby.

My accomplice met me a few minutes later and whisked me around the corner to a blind corner out of sight of all the security types. There, he produced the requisite lanyard and wrist band. I was now “Chris” and he headed into the main hall. Through the guard station—no problem. We reunited with Chris, whom I did not know, and I returned the credentials. I was now running around naked, with no lanyard and no bright wrist band. I had no idea if I would be thus spotted and thrown out, so I knew that I should stay in groups at the Saab stand and not venture too far off—there would be time for that tomorrow. Before long, I was attacked from behind, a massive bear hug thrown on me. No, it wasn’t security—it was Steven Wade!

We chatted at bit, and he filled me in on the goings-on in New York. Then as he went about his business, I started catching up with friends and acquaintances at the stand. First off, the stand itself was spectacular. If you saw the Boston show, picture the same basic layout, but with the addition of the Independence Day convertible, the 9-5 Combi, the Phoenix, and graphics on the video screen specific to the Phoenix. It was all spectacular. So was the company. Working clockwise around the Saab display were Porsche, Audi, Spyker, Lotus, Volvo and Jaguar. At the stand were Saab reps John Longo and Roger Marlowe, dealers Tom Backes and Kurt Schirm, our very own Dan Leahy (who kindly authorized my attendance), and SCD attendee and Saab salesperson Meg Haviland. I was introduced to Jason Castriotta. I’m a diminutive guy, so almost everyone looks like a giant to me. When I saw pictures of Jason from the Geneva show, he looked sort of small—must have been all the giant Dutch and Swedish standing around him. He is anything but small. He’s not tall—just taller than me (who isn’t?). But even in a suit, in person, he has a physique which is quite imposing! He was very gracious, and displayed his Saab knowledge by knowing very much who we are at Charles River Saab.

After a time, Swade signaled it was time for lunch, and we, joined by Curvin O’Reilly, retired to the food court for a sandwich. At this point, I had traversed the security check point and was not able to reenter the show—that would have to wait until the next day.

I walked back to the parking lot, unsure if I should retrieve the car. My math isn’t that good, but I know that at $16+ per hour things would ring up fast. When I got to the lot and inquired about the cost if I took the car out then or later in the afternoon, I was pleased and stunned to learn that the $20 I had left that morning was enough to park all the way until 10pm! When I pointed to the rates on the sign, I was informed that those rates only applied to cars left from 7-10 am. There’s a lesson there—just go to NYC a little late, and park in mid-town for less than you could in Boston.

Friday, April 15, 2011

When distraction meets impatience

I’m a commuter. I have never lived closer than 25 miles from work. This never seemed abnormal to me, having grown up with a father who commuted great distances to New York city every day, albeit by bus or train. Having recently moved, I have a new set of roadways to consider—I had done the old commute from Ipswich for so long that I knew every permutation and possibility for getting to Watertown, and I also knew which stretches of road required extra attention.

My new commute requires that I drive a ten mile stretch on Interstate 495. It had previously occurred to me, from traffic reports and first hand accounts by veterans of that roadway, that 495 is a dangerous place. More bizarre things seem to happen there than on all the other superhighways in greater Boston combined. [Do a Google image search for route 495 and see what I mean.] This has been borne out in my months of driving that short section of 495. I have witnessed: a flipped horse trailer; stalled tractor trailers on the same bridge crossing the Merrimack on consecutive days; a wheel fall off a BMW directly in front of me; a mobile home, a great BIG mobile home, come off its trailer hitch producing a shower of sparks as the front of the trailer hit the ground and I wondered if the safety chains really could hold—they did long enough for me to build some boost and rocket away.

Last night, 495 was uneventful. They next leg on my journey as I head north is a few miles on a divided, four lane road with lots of stop lights and commercial activity. It’s tedious, but only lasts a few minutes, and until last night was never exciting. Right at the state line, a ratty looking Mitsubishi sport coupe (lots of primer and dents) zoomed up behind me and then cut hard into the left lane and passed me. She certainly was in a hurry. Over the next mile she made so many lane changes trying to get ahead that I lost count. Not surprisingly, despite her haste and irresponsible maneuvering (never a directional), she actually lost ground and ended up behind me again. At this point, we were at a light, one of the last in this stretch, and I was in the left lane and she in the right, a car or two back. The light turned green and we pulled away.

Ms. “I’m in a Hurry” cut into the left lane (eliciting a horn blow from the driver she cut off) and after passing the cars on the right then dropped back into the right lane and started to pass me, again. We approached another intersection; the light was green. As we arrived at the intersection, a Jeep Grand Cherokee, driven by “Ms. I’m talking on my Cellphone” ran her red light, cutting directly in front of “Ms. I’m in a Hurry.” Ms Hurry slammed on her brakes and her horn. Actually, Ms. Hurry was OK, because while Ms. Cellphone was trying to turn right, into Ms. Hurry’s lane, since she had only one had on the wheel, she couldn’t cut the wheel enough and ended up in my lane. Now I was the one on the horn and brakes.

We all pulled up to the next traffic light together and stopped. I looked over at Ms. Cellphone. She had never stopped talking. Her distraction caused her to blow a red light, and her holding that phone in her right hand caused her to have such diminished control that she almost crashed into me. That made me mad. Really mad. I think Ms. Hurry was frightened by Ms. Cellphone because she stayed put in that right lane thereafter.

I can’t preach about cellphone use behind the wheel because I am guilty of it. It is wrong. It is always wrong, even with a hand’s free device. Had Ms. Cellphone had a hands free device, she still would have run the red light, only she would have negotiated her turn better and left me out of harm’s way. I’m a good driver with many skills at my disposal behind the wheel, but I know that I am diminished when on the phone. We have to find a way, everyone, to look at driving for what it is. It is not a void that needs to be filled with other activities. Driving is about driving. Leave the other junk aside, including your phones. As to Ms. Cellphone and Ms. Hurry—perhaps you would feel more at home if you confined your driving to Interstate 495. At least there, we’d be expecting you.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

DMS = Dealer Management System

Every auto dealer has, as its information backbone, a DMS. The two big players in the United States are ADP and Reynolds and Reynolds. Not a penny moves around inside a dealership without being tracked somehow on the DMS. Want a part? Need to generate a parts invoice or service repair order. Want to pay a technician? Need to do that on an opened repair order. Want to calculate payments on a used car? You’ve got it, you do that in the DMS. All said data from the three departments are then funneled into the accounting department for scrutiny and application to a P&L statement. That all makes sense.

At Charles River Saab, we use the Reynolds and Reynolds system. I have used it for so long that it seems rather normal to me. However, I bet that if I were to hire a new employee who was young and had never worked with this system before they would be dumbfounded by it. Nothing about it is intuitive. Nothing about it is consistent. Want to close a function? Sometime you press S, Enter. Sometimes E, Enter. Sometimes END. Want to go to the next page? Sometimes you press N. Other times F. Want to go back a page? Sometimes it’s B, other times, its P, Enter, [page number], Enter. Who wrote this stuff? Obviously, lots of different people who never used the system and didn’t talk to one another. Mouse? What’s that for?

This came to mind today when I sat with a nice representative from R&R who came in to show us some new functionality on the system. Sounded good to me. After going through a few new shortcuts—again, if you don’t know they are there, there’s know way of knowing they exist—I got down to asking questions. I have had two that have bugged me since I first encountered R&R in 1988: what about word wrap; what about spell checking?

You probably think that I can’t be serious. Here we are, in 2011, and in thousands of dealerships across the country, auto dealer employees are struggling with a system that requires that they hit “return” at the end of a typed line, like they were typing on a Selectric. Remember those? Worse, especially in this business, is the lack of spell checking. Words and language matter to me, and while I have no particular gift for the written word, and am largely ignorant of grammar and usage (other than the ability to know when something sounds incorrect), I always tried, in my days as a service advisor, to prepare service invoices with clean, concise, correct English. I would like to have advisors everywhere do this, but some of us just have better spelling than others. Oh, and if you make a mistake in R&R, you can’t glide your mouse over it and fix it. Remember, no mice allowed. Have to go back and re-write the entire entry. At the end of some long days, I know that I let pass “ajdusted” or “isntalled” as entries.

In 1988, I went to R&R headquarters in Dayton, Ohio, for training. The system we were using at that store in those days was pretty crude. Essentially, the computer was used in service to create a repair order header (name, address, phone, VIN, plate etc) and then the complaints were all hand written. Once the customer was in the system, at least you could bypass all that header writing in the future. More important, some amount of crude vehicle history was stored, and all the parts and service information could be entered into accounting, but this was done manually. It was 1988, and that was a start. The system was capable of much more, but that dealership hadn’t bought-in to such a degree. The training was excruciatingly boring. Most of the people in the class had never touched a computer before. Hard to imagine now there ever was such a time. I had a leg up on the others. I had been using a Macintosh SE30 at home for a time. It even had MS Word loaded on it. During the class, I asked why the R&R system didn’t word wrap. I was met with a blank stare by the instructor, and he provided some lame excuse. Nobody else in the room knew what I was talking about. I wasn’t completely sure the instructor did.

When I came to CRS in 1989 we were running an ADP system that was fully implemented—no hand writing required. A year later we switched to R&R. Still no word wrap. It must be coming soon, I thought. As years have become decades, R&R still does not word wrap, and as a reflex, I always ask anyone from R&R when it is coming. At this point, I don’t care what they say….I won’t believe them. The R&R system is a very powerful accounting and data management tool, but everything else about it is hideous. I can’t believe that someone out there, even Microsoft (I thought they had floated the idea to try?), hasn’t jumped in to give us better product and break this duopoly.