Nissan LEAF wins World Car of the Year award!

Nissan Leaf captures World Car Award

At a press conference today hosted by Bridgestone Corporation and the New York International Auto Show, the Nissan Leaf was declared the 2011 World Car of the Year.

As co-chair of the World Car Awards, it was my job to announce the winner at the Javits Center in New York – in typical Academy Award style “and the winner is…” – before presenting the trophy to Nissan Americas’ Brian Carolin, SVP, Sales and Marketing.

The Nissan Leaf was chosen from an initial entry list of thirty-nine new vehicles from all over the world, then a short list of ten, then three finalists:  the Nissan Leaf, Audi A8 and the BMW 5 Series.

“It is a great joy that the world’s first, mass-marketed electric vehicle, the Nissan LEAF, has won the prestigious award of 2011 World Car of the Year,” said Nissan Chairman and CEO Carlos Ghosn. “This accolade recognizes Nissan LEAF, a pioneer in zero-emission mobility, as comparable in its driving performance, quietness and superb handling to gas-powered cars. And it validates Nissan’s clear vision and the values of sustainable mobility that we want to offer to customers around the world.”

The World Car Awards jurors observed that, “The Leaf is the gateway to a brave new electric world from Nissan. This 5-seater, 5-door hatchback is the world’s first, purpose-built, mass-produced electric car. Dropped onto a unique platform and body, the Leaf’s lithium-ion battery modules and electric motor generate 108hp and 206 lb ft of torque, propelling the hatch from zero to 60mph in 11.5 seconds and a top speed of 90mph. It has a range of over 100 miles on a full charge claims Nissan, takes around 8 hours to recharge using 220-240V power supply and produces zero tailpipe emissions. Its low center of gravity produced sharp turn-in with almost no body roll and no understeer. The good news? It feels just like a normal car, only quieter”.

 

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Car industry massively disrupted by earthquake

Parts shortages wreaking havoc globally

With Japanese carmakers closing their factories following the earthquake and tsunami, investors instantly wanted out. So on Monday the value of shares in Japanese automotive companies tumbled as investors started selling up.

A worker gives the final check on a Toyota Yaris, set for export to North America, from February 2011.Initially, many of them bought shares in carmakers elsewhere in the world instead – based on the logic that non-Japanese automotive firms would fill the gap left by Japanese carmakers unable to deliver.

“Hyundai and Ford now are good substitutes for Toyota’s cars, and even more so, Caterpillar tractors made in China can replace Komatsu’s land movers,” according to Peter Morici, a business professor at the University of Maryland.  ”Globalisation offers Japan’s export customers alternatives they might not have enjoyed a decade or two ago.”

Other carmakers, such as Toyota and Nissan, are understood to be facing similar parts shortages to Honda.

Meanwhile, Chrysler has become the latest carmaker in the US affected by disruption in the aftermath of Japan’s earthquake. America’s number three car manufacturer is cancelling overtime work at some of its North American assembly plants due to parts shortages. Last week, Ford said it would idle its Kentucky truck plant, while General Motors has also stopped production at a plant due to parts shortages.

Toyota’s credit rating may be cut

Toyota’s credit rating has been put under review by the ratings agency Moody’s, which said it may downgrade the Japanese car giant.

Moody’s said the company’s profits are likely to be hit by the impact of the 11 March earthquake and tsunami. Earlier on Wednesday, Toyota said that production at most of its domestic factories will remain suspended until at least next week. Production at its plants has been halted since the crisis began.

“There will be no resumption of production at most of our domestic factories next week,” a Toyota spokeswoman said. Moody’s expects the delays to last even longer. ”Limited production re-commenced at some of the factories at the end of March, but normal production cannot be expected for many months,” the agency said in its statement.

It says the company is also likely to hit by the impact of the devastation on Japan’s overall economy. ”Toyota’s dependence on the Japanese market is still high, at about 27%,” the agency said. ”Expected weak consumer sentiment may have a negative impact on domestic demand that ensuing replacement demand may not be able to offset,” it added.

While the suspension of production at its domestic factories is grabbing all the headlines, Moody’s said that issues with quality control will also hurt profits. Toyota has recalled almost 12 million cars worldwide in the past 18 months due to various safety concerns.

The agency said that as the company invests to put in place better safety and testing procedures its margins are likely to squeeze even further. ”The company is trying to recover from the quality problems it suffered last year, so its quality-related expenditures remain high,” Moody’s added.

The spate of recalls has not only hit the company financially but has also dented its image. Moody’s said the recalls may have affected the perception of Toyota’s quality.

It warned that even though Toyota’s credentials still remain high, the company will find it tough to get back its lost market share. ”Restoring its dominance in many of the world’s major markets will be difficult in light of rising competition,”

Honda halves Swindon production

Honda is to halve production at its factory in Swindon from Monday because of a shortage of parts coming from Japan. Honda said that the 3,000 workers would remain on full pay.

It was confident that the 22,500 fewer cars that would be built as a result could be made up by the year end. Many carmakers have struggled because of shutdowns to plants affected by the earthquake and tsunami in north east Japan.

Some good news…

Toyota and Microsoft announce technology partnership

Workers give the final check to Toyota cars

Microsoft and Toyota have announced plans to work together to bring internet services to Toyota vehicles. The world’s biggest carmaker and the world’s biggest software company are investing $12m (£7.3m) in Toyota Media Services, a Toyota unit which handles digital information services.

The aim is to provide features like GPS, power-management and multimedia services. Toyota’s 2012 hybrid vehicles will be the first to get the services. The carmaker hopes to be able to offer them to customers worldwide by 2015.

The services will use Microsoft’s “cloud computing” – the remote storage and handling of data – system called Azure.  ”This new partnership between Microsoft and Toyota is an important step in developing greater future mobility and energy management for consumers around the world,” Toyota president Akio Toyoda said. Microsoft has been involved in the auto industry for several years but has so far focused on working with Ford.

It designed Ford’s Sync entertainment system, which was rolled out in 2007 and allows drivers to make phone calls, listen to text messages and use GPS.

 

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World Car Awards winners announced in New York, April 21

Nissan Leaf vies for two trophies

World Green Car award sponsored by Bridgestone Corporation

The top three finalists in each World Car Awards category (World Car of the Year, World Performance Car, World Green Car and World Car Design of the Year) were revealed at the Geneva Motor Show on March 1.

All four winners will be declared at the New York International Auto Show on Thursday, April 21, 2011.

From an initial world-wide entry list of thirty-nine (39) new vehicles, then a short list of ten finalists, the top three contenders for the overall 2011 World Car of the Year title are, in alphabetical order:  the Audi A8, the BMW 5 Series and the Nissan LEAF.

The top three finalists for the 2011 World Performance Car award are, in alphabetical order: the Ferrari 458 Italia, the Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG and the Porsche 911 Turbo.

The sixty-six (66) member jury chose the following top three finalists for the 2011 World Green Car* award: the BMW 320d EfficientDynamics Edition, the Chevrolet Volt and the Nissan LEAF.

Meanwhile, the top three design finalists as chosen by the jurors for the World Car Design of the Year are, in alphabetical order:  the Alfa Romeo Giulietta, the Aston Martin Rapide and the Ferrari 458 Italia.

WCA trophy

Presenting the 2010 World Car of the Year trophy to Walter de Silva, head of VW Group Design (April 2010)

 

Prime Research International, a global leader in strategic communication research and consultancy is once again the World Car Awards’ research partner and will provide strategic reports in 2011 that analyze global automotive media coverage.

Now in their seventh year, the annual World Car awards have become one of the world’s most prestigious, credible and significant awards programs of its kind.


The awards are administered by a non-profit association, under the guidance of a Steering Committee of pre-eminent automotive journalists from Asia, Europe, and North America.  Peter Lyon (Japan) and Matt Davis (Italy) are the co-chairs; John McCormick (USA), Jens Meiners (Germany) and Gerry Malloy (Canada) are the directors.  There is no affiliation with, nor are the awards in any way influenced by any publication, auto show, automaker, or other commercial enterprise.

 

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Test driving the Lexus LFA Nurburgring 24-hour race car at Fuji Speedway

Downtuned, maybe, but still damn quick

The car we drove was a detuned version of the LFA race car which won its class in the 2010 Nurburgring 24-hour race. One engineer estimated power at around 480hp, down from the race-spec 560hp, an adjustment to “preserve the engine.” Oh, and yeah, Toyota engineers also lowered the ballistically high 9000 rpm “racing” redline to 7500rpm for our drive session, meaning that we only had access to around 85% of the car’s full potential.  But that’s okay. As you will see, the gear shifts generated enough torque to punch my neck backwards significantly. Gotta work on those neck muscles…

Top Speed at Fuji Speedway:  270 km/h

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Groundbreaker: Fisker Karma

FISKER KARMA

Could this luxury EV be a game-changer?

First Drive – at LA Speedway

Photos: Courtesy Fisker Automotive

Fisker_Karma_first_test_1

Faster than a Quattroporte, leaner than a Prius!

LEONARDO DICAPRIO, LISTEN UP. Cameron Diaz, pay attention. It’s time for you guys to upgrade your run-of-the-mill Toyota Prius Hollywood runabouts to the newest kid on the block. Meet the Fisker Karma, the world’s first true electric vehicle with extended range. And crikey, does this multi-talented youngster find itself in a unique position.

The brand new American limo not only boasts Mercedes-level luxury and BMW-like handling wrapped in a sleek exterior worthy of a Maserati badge, but delivers some of the greenest credentials around. Packing a 400 horsepower punch, this 4-seater, 4-door sedan generates cleaner C02 emissions and better mileage than a Prius, delivers 80kms of electric-only driving and even features solar cells and planet-friendly trim. And where better to get behind the wheel of the first pre-production models than at its home base in sunny Southern California.

So how did this potential game-changer come about? In 2005, Danish-born company CEO Henrik Fisker and business partner Bernhard Koehler started rebuilding Mercedes and BMWs convertibles at Fisker Coachbuild until a chance meeting with Quantum Technologies changed everything. The alternative energy company had been contracted by the government to develop a “stealth” vehicle for the U.S. military’s elite Delta Force.

Dropped behind enemy lines

Able to be dropped behind enemy lines, this vehicle could penetrate strategic terrain in silent electric-only “stealth mode,” and then retreat back to friendly territory by engaging an on-board engine that acted purely as a generator, therefore doing away with the issue of range anxiety. When Fisker heard this gem of information, he knew that while this military-biased technology could not be copied for production cars, the system’s theory could be applied to the real world and form the basis for a future range of earth-conscious electric vehicles. So employing the Quantum theory, he created Fisker Automotive, put an R&D team together and by the 2008 Detroit Auto Show, had the Karma concept ready to reveal.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, we need to point out that Fisker doesn’t just head up the company as its CEO. He also happens to be chief designer as well. And when you consider that his previous jobs included penning the Aston Martin DB9, V8 Vantage and the BMW Z8, then it’s easy to see where the Karma’s European-inspired design flare comes from. With definite designs hints from Aston Martin and Maserati, first impressions are that this car just might be the most beautiful-looking sedan penned on American soil since the 70s. Among cars that wear an American badge, the only homegrown talent that comes even close to the Karma’s delicious exterior is perhaps the Corvette.

Benchmark was Panamera

And while, thankfully, it doesn’t draw aesthetic inspiration from the Porsche Panamera, Fisker tells us that the German 4-door was his team’s benchmark.  “I had the basic Karma sketch done in a couple of hours. The final details, like the grille surrounds and wheel arches took a little longer,” he enthuses. Just then Bernhard Koehler cuts in. “But from Henrik’s design sketch to completion of the 2008 Detroit show car, it took us just 7 months! We are super quick with decisions because we are small and don’t have to go through committees like the big carmakers.” Now in the world of concept car creation, that may well be a new world record.

With its long wheelbase, wide track, low stance and sweeping lines, the car certainly stands out, being perfectly at home in the company of rivals Quattroporte, Panamera, Mercedes S550 and BMW 750Li. The sheet metal however, is just the icing on the cake. What sits on the Karma’s bespoke aluminium spaceframe chassis pushes the envelope of EV drivetrains. Co-developed with Quantum Technologies, the car employs that military stealth vehicle-inspired powertrain we mentioned above: twin, rear-mounted 150-kW electric motors and a lithium-ion battery pack.

After the battery charge is depleted, some 80kms later, a GM-built 4-cylinder 190kW 2.0 litre turbocharged petrol engine fires up to drive a generator that recharges the batteries. Simple, right? Interestingly however, unlike that other well-known American EV, the Chevy Volt, the Karma’s rear-wheels are only driven by the two electric motors, never by the engine. Fisker’s patented “EVer” (EV extended range) setup guarantees up to 80km EV-only range and around 400 kms with the engine, totaling over 480kms range extended capability. Plugging the car into a standard 110-, 220- or 240-volt outlet will completely charge the Karma’s fully depleted battery pack in as little as six hours.

 

Stealth mode, quiet and quick

Out on the track, it soon became obvious that Fisker’s team means business. Press the start button, select D from the small pyramid gear selector on the centre console, and the car puts you into its default “Stealth” or EV-only mode. You have the option of flicking a paddle to select “Sport” and engage the engine for a boost in power, but more on that later.

As we taxied out onto the course at around 30km/h, we noticed (as with the Nissan Leaf) that Fisker has fitted an artificially-created ‘tron’ sound forward and aft to warn pedestrians of the Karma’s presence. Cool. Then we floored the throttle. This thing is certainly quick out of the blocks simply because you have 100% of the available torque on tap, instantly.  That’s 1330 Nm of torque, a figure only eclipsed by the mighty Bugatti Veyron. It’s not explosive acceleration, but it’s fast enough to please most. Even though the Karma has an unsubstantiated curb weight of 2 tons, it will sprint from zero to 100km/h is 7.9 seconds and reach a top speed of 155 km/h (in Stealth mode).

Unlike the pure electric Leaf or the Mitsubishi i-MiEV or even the Volt, the Karma is a far more engaging drive because the more you ask of the car, the more it rewards the driver. Apart from the “Responsible Luxury” tag that Fisker aggressively promotes, great handling was a “must” for the Danish boss and that’s why he recruited some very talented engineers from Mercedes, BMW and Toyota to transform his car into a viable EV force.

It only took one lap of the special street course to establish that the Karma handles like a very capable sports car. The double wishbone suspension with its forged aluminium arms and self-levelling rear dampers help rank the Fisker EV at the top of its class for on-road manners. Turn-in is sharp and precise with well-weighted steering and almost no understeer at the limit.

Hangs on like a pitbull

The car’s super long 3.16m wheelbase, wide front and rear tracks, low centre of gravity and huge 22-inch Goodyear Eagle F1 tyres all combine nicely to keep the Karma flat through the corners while generating minimal nose-dive under full braking. And she’s a honey when you go into a corner hot, because this sedan loves to slide. Dab on the brakes, turn-in, and watch the tail step out as you balance it through the corner on the throttle. Don’t get us wrong. Tyre grip is phenomenal and hangs on like a pitbull, but when the rear end does let go, the resulting slide is very progressive and the steering uncannily communicative. Oh, yeah and its 47/53 front-rear weight bias doesn’t hurt that handling equation either.

The only issue we had was with sound. Wind and road noise suppression are well executed. In fact, they are so well isolated that you can hear every little mechanical sound and creaky groan that eminate from the chassis and bodywork as the car flexes under cornering. Now, the fact that we are also cruising in silent Stealth mode only seems to compound those sounds, until, that is, we flick the steering wheel mounted paddle from Stealth to Sport mode. All of a sudden, the silence is broken by an engine that springs to life with a rather loud and raspy exhaust note delivered via orifices positioned down low just behind the front wheels.

Zero to 100km/h in 5.9 seconds

The first thing you notice, apart from the audible exhaust note and the turbo whistle, are the extra herbs. Powered by the engine, the generator not only recharges the battery but lifts the lithium-ion pack’s performance which in turn boosts power by a noticeable 20-25%. That switch to Sport now allows the car to sprint from zero to 100km/h in 5.9 seconds while elevating top speed to 200 km/h.

Strangely, or maybe not so, the exhaust note resembles a Pontiac Solstice GXP tone, a car that employs the same 2.0 litre turbo as the Karma. Many things about this car are unique, and the fact that the exhaust pipes are located in a place that makes them more audible are all part of the Karma driving experience. Just a pity they couldn’t tune the 4-cylinder’s exhaust note to sound like a V8.

A 6-piston Brembo brake setup with 4-pistons up the back, pulls up admirably and resists fade. Brake pedal rigidity is firm and progressive while squeezing the right paddle allows you to engage Hill mode and select between three levels of regenerative braking, a feature that simulates the effects of downshifting.

A class of its own

We can think of no competitor that could negotiate our high-speed twisty course with as much poise as the Fisker and yet look so good doing it, except perhaps the Quattroporte. All that’s not surprising when you think that the Karma might have been designed and engineered in California, but the actual production cars are built at the Porsche factory in Valmet, Finland alongside Caymans and Boxsters. Which begs the question: is the Karma American? We think mostly yes. But there is another in the pipeline that will be conceived and built in the U.S.

By pushing the “Eco” button in a big way, the U.S. government started to pay attention to Fisker’s dealings to the extent of a hefty $529 million injection from the Department of Energy. That allowed him to purchase GM’s former Delaware plant where the next car will be made, the lower-priced and smaller Nina. It will also allow Fisker to expand his ‘responsible luxury’ theme that has seen the green company create a clean luxury EV which incorporates an interior with timber reclaimed from California forest fires and Michigan lake bottoms, as well as leather with minor blemishes and Alcantara for the seats. Speaking of seats, front room is plentiful while I was able to fit my 190cm frame into the back seat, just. Not bad for such a car.

Force-feedback touch screen shines

Yet another first is the Fisker Command Center in the center console. Compared to other fidgety in-car information systems that we find on some German marques for example, this system is a revelation and a cinch to use. It features a huge industry-first 10.2-inch force-feedback touch-screen that centralizes almost every vehicle control. In addition, the Command Center can display power flow in the Karma’s EVer powertrain, including energy gain from the solar panel roof which can generate enough power to drive the car over 300 kms over a year.

 

The Karma might be the newest kid on the block, and the company still has to push hard to get its brand image into the international arena, but the signs are bright for sure. Our brief drive convinced us that this car has a lot in its favour. Starting with those drop-dead good looks, unique engineering, superb ride and handling and a surprisingly quick green “Prius-beating” powertrain that sets new standards for CO2 emissions and mileage, we think it’s going to make a lot of the established names stand up and pay attention. The fact that over 3,000 orders have already been taken for this US$96,850 (base price) car hint at a potential market that could see customers ranging from Porsche and Mercedes cross-shoppers to green driving enthusiasts to the likes of Leonardo and Cameron….and George and Julia and Brad and Tom…. Hmmm, wonder who’s going to be the first one to roll up to the red carpet on Academy Award night in Stealth mode…

 

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Taking a break in Perth

Quake decision

On March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami hit Japan.

This is what the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant looked like….before.

Continue reading

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