Auto industry Auto shows Branding Cars Driving

The $250,000 Muscle Car Mashup

At first glance, the Equus Automotive Bass 770 looks like a macho mixture of a 60s Dodge Challenger and a Ford Mustang with a touch of Ferrari thrown in for good measure — and that’s exactly the point, according to Ian James, the boutique car company’s “brand ambassador” (and a race-car driver who was at the wheel for this promotional video.)

James introduced the company to a small group of journalists in Detroit at the North American International Auto Show. The Bass 770 (pronounced “base” because that’s the deep throaty sound the 770 horsepower V8 makes) is built by hand in Rochester Hills, an affluent city not far from Detroit. Production is set to start soon and the company plans to make 100 cars a year, each available for US$250,000.

Equus is owned by a “European businessman” whom James says wishes to remain anonymous. He politely refused to divulge any further details — despite repeated questions and reporters who came at the question from different angles — saying only that the businessman was bankrolling the whole thing and wanted to keep his identity hidden. Journalists were skeptical and James seemed mildly amused, repeatedly saying that yes, the businessman truly does exist; the car is truly about to go into production, at an actual facility. He even gave out the address: 2094 Bond St.

“There’s one owner. There’s no management by committee. That’s why we’ve been able to move fast,” said James.

The Bass 770 is aimed at “high net worth” people in Asia, Europe and the Middle East with a taste for American muscle cars; the kind of person “who wants the best and wants to be seen in the car.” That’s why it has borrowed design elements from Plymouth, Dodge and Ford and combined them on one vehicle, with an engine made by General Motors.

As well, the Equus logo is a galloping horse with shades of both Ferrari and Mustang and Equus itself is the name of a luxury car produced by Hyundai. James maintains despite all that the company hasn’t stepped on any of their competitors’ toes, insisting that the car has its own distinct style. “The styling looks different to everybody,” James said.

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Stealing the show

A version of this post appeared on the Totem Brand Stories blog

For the automotive world, winter typically means two things: driving in snow and auto show season.  While the cars are always the stars, the shows themselves are almost as competitive.

The Los Angeles Auto Show kicks off the season in late November, followed by the North American International Auto Show in Detroit (on now, the media preview was last week) with the Montreal Auto Show muscling into the spotlight and running concurrently with the Detroit show. Toronto gets its turn February 15 – 24 when the Canadian International Auto Show marks its 40th annual year.

Despite the Motor City’s struggles and the former Big 3’s troubles, horsepower and sex appeal are still a big part of any auto show.  This year was no exception in Detroit, thanks to the unveiling of the 2014 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray, a 450-hp beast that is loaded with an array of futuristic technology.

But, while the Corvette and other performance cars like the Acura NSX and the Hyundai HCD-14 concept car got the lion’s share of attention, there were two reveals in Detroit that truly reflect consumer tastes.

Honda’s Urban SUV concept and Nissan’s Resonance concept point to a growing and key competitive market for most car companies: the compact SUV – also known as a crossover, or my favourite descriptor: trucklet.

Take a look at the driveways on your street or in any mall parking lot and you’re bound to notice the many Toyota RAV 4s, Honda CR-Vs and Ford Escapes. Each of these vehicles combine car-like handling with varying degrees of truck-like utility, making them useful for hauling around kids and dogs and groceries. Equipped with four-wheel drive, they can also prove handy in a snowstorm. Plus, that 4×4 capability gives them a touch of attitude that you just can’t get from a minivan, even though the minivan is truly the perfect vehicle for hauling kids and dogs and groceries. That’s just one reason why crossovers are so popular – automakers know that we consumers don’t always buy cars for the most practical reasons.

Crossovers have an interesting lineage. The sport utility vehicle boom was led by the Ford Explorer and Jeep Grand Cherokee – both big, brawny, thirsty machines. Gradually the SUV segment expanded into smaller vehicles that have nearly come full circle back to being cars again, and many look like long lost descendants of the old station wagons that pre-dated the SUV boom in the first place. Two key examples are the Subaru Forester and the redesigned 2013 Nissan Pathfinder.

Honda and Nissan believe this segment still has legs (er, wheels) and are aiming the Resonance and the Urban SUV concept (one assumes it’ll have a catchier name when it hits production) at young city dwellers. Honda’s machine will be smaller than the CR-V but not quite as small as its subcompact Fit “making it the ideal size for navigating both crowded city streets and open mountain roads,” says Honda.

The Resonance, assuming it makes production, will carry five people and be powered by a hybrid electric drivetrain. Hybrid and other alternative powertrains are important as automakers look for ways to win over urban consumers and meet government fuel economy standards.

Many of us like to think we’re more Corvette than Caravan when it comes to our choice of vehicle. But small trucklets could actually be one instance where automakers’ need to sell more small, fuel efficient cars might align with our desire to look cool while we ponder heading off on the road less travelled.

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The cars that drove the culture

This book review appears in the Winter 2012 edition of CAA Magazine

Engines of Change-A History of the American Dream in Fifteen Cars

Engines of Change (Simon & Schuster, 2012) by Paul Ingrassia is a fascinating look at the intersection of cars and culture. And it’s as much about the ground-breaking cars of the 20th century as it is about the people who championed and built them, like Lee Iacocca and Hal Sperlich

In 1961 Iacocca, the relentless marketing man, tapped into the fast-growing “youth movement” and found that young Americans were hungry for a small, fast, sporty car. He and Sperlich, an ambitious product planner, led the teams that took the chassis of the dowdy Ford Falcon and gave it a modern sleek body, creating the Mustang. The car personified youthful optimism and ushered in the Pony Car movement and Detroit’s horsepower wars.

Iacocca and Sperlich were both eventually fired from Ford and found their way to Chrysler in the ’70s. As Iacocca fought to save Chrysler from collapse, Sperlich saw potential profits in a new type of family vehicle: the minivan. He bet that the young people who had bought Mustangs in the ’60s now had families and needed a more practical vehicle. Ford had already rejected Sperlich’s idea, but Chrysler had little to lose. And they had a front-wheel-drive platform that begat the dull but successful K-car, which in turn would underpin the Dodge Caravan when it debuted in 1983.

Engines of Change is full of great stories and anecdotes—from Honda’s audacious entry into North America to Jeep’s many near-death experiences. Even the most oil-stained car enthusiast will be entertained for hours.

Paul Ferriss

Auto industry Cars Driving Reviews

2012 Chevrolet Volt Review

Although it could be the way of the future, there’s something odd about plugging in your car. It’s like having a giant cellphone parked in your driveway, powering up. And that’s the biggest mental hurdle you need to leap when you drive a Chevrolet Volt—the way you’ve fuelled up your car since you got your driver’s license isn’t the way this machine works. Electricity is its prime propulsion method, not gasoline.

2012 Chevrolet Volt

When I first picked up the Volt from a Toronto GM dealer, I was told it was charged up and ready to go. When I got in the car, however, it was down to 20 km range on the battery (with another 360 km range in the supplemental 1.4-litre gasoline-powered engine.) After a couple stops, I was down to about 12 km on the battery.

So, on my way home, I watched as the kilometres slowly ticked down on the battery display on the dashboard. There were no warning lights or alarm bells, just a matter-of-fact ticking down of numbers, 3, 2, 1 … and then, nothing. Seamlessly, the gasoline motor kicked in and the Volt and I kept moving. Had I not been watching the dashboard display I wouldn’t have noticed much except for a change in the engine note. Once the gasoline engine started it went from being nearly silent to sounding a like a small four-banger.

Once I got home, I parked the Volt for a while and then later took it out on a few more short trips, at first feeling somewhat guilty for driving an electric car on a normal 20th century internal combustion engine. That’s when I realized what sets the Volt apart from gas/electric hybrids: the Volt’s gasoline engine doesn’t drive the wheels, it instead uses a small amount of gasoline to create electricity to keep the car going.

When I plugged it in later that evening, it took about 12 hours to fully charge via a regular 120-volt household outlet (it doesn’t have to be fully depleted before being charged up). That’s not bad, but ideally GM engineers will work to reduce that time. GM does offer an optional 240-volt recharging unit that its says can charge the car in four hours. GM also claims that the Volt can run from 40 to 80 km on battery power alone, depending on cargo and outside temperature. My review model needed charging after just under 40 km following a single day of city driving.

During those drives, however, several people stopped to admire the car, which, to GM’s credit, is a handsome machine. It’s also a cleverly designed hatchback that doesn’t look like a typical hatch. Four people can sit comfortably in front and rear bucket seats—the battery stack runs up the centre of the car, taking up some foot room and dividing the four seats. But there’s also a substantial cargo area behind the rear seats. The sloping front windshield and large rear window also provide excellent visibility. The console touch screen works well but some of the touch controls on the console can be tricky unless you hit them exactly right.

Driving the Volt is a futuristic experience. Here’s hoping GM will be able to tweak the Volt’s battery to make that experience last longer.

This review originally appeared on

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2012 Nissan Juke Review

The 2012 Nissan Juke crosses several automotive categories

The Nissan Juke is a true crossover. At first glance it looks like a sporty, two-door coupe—until you notice the nearly hidden rear door handles. It also has the deep wheel wells and tall profile of a small, Jeep Wrangler-like SUV. And that’s the point. The Juke crosses over different car categories (compact car, crossover/SUV, sports car) to create an almost entirely new style of vehicle.

The base model SV with front-wheel drive is priced at $19,998. The Juke version I drove was the AWD model, which starts at $26,778. All four trim lines are equipped with a CVT (continuously variable transmission). Unlike CVTs on some other cars, the Juke’s is quiet and doesn’t drone at higher speeds. The 1.6-litre, 4-cylinder direct injection gas engine is turbocharged and provides strong acceleration and ample power, even in “Normal” mode. Two other engine modes are available with the push of a button on the centre console, Sport and Eco. In Eco mode, the engine’s power is reduced slightly to maximize fuel economy–perfect for a short daily commute.

The Juke’s exterior design is striking. Four headlights give the impression of two sets of eyes keeping watch on the road. Two of those eyes protrude longitudinally from above the front fenders with two circular lights below. But the design also creates some challenges. The low, sloping roofline that looks great from the outside also makes the back seat feel cramped, as does the way the cabin narrows towards the rear. A child can sit comfortably back there, but an adult would feel cramped on longer rides.

The interior design could use some work too. While the navigation/audio system is easy to learn, its buttons are small and hard to use while wearing gloves. Also, for a car that boasts such a high-tech look and is fitted with an array of toys, why are there no power adjustable seats? It seems odd to use a key fob and a start/stop button; change your driving mode with the push of a button and then resort to using a hand crank to adjust the seat. Speaking of the start/stop button, it’s located in an awkward location behind the windshield wiper stalk, making it hard to access without hunting around for it. Same goes for the switches for the heated seats. They’re located between the front seats in the centre console meaning the driver has to reach down and back to turn them on and off, taking their eyes off the road while doing so.

The rear backup camera (standard on the SL trim levels) is a great feature, even for a small car like the Juke. The cargo area is small, but is nicely concealed by the cargo cover and tinted windows.

Overall, if you’re looking for a family hauler, this isn’t the car for you. But if you’re looking for a small car that’s sporty enough to feel like a sports car with available AWD and the tall stance of a crossover, look closely into the four eyes of the Juke.

(This review was originally published on 01/27/12)