Posts Tagged ‘Honda’

SCOTTSDALE, AZ: So before we get all down and dirty on Acura’s latest venture in providing an entry-level luxury vehicle (sounds almost oxymoronic) to the North American and even the fastest-growing market in China, market. Let’s deal with some tasty bites of information.

1. Acura’s newest model, the ILX, slots in below the Acura TSX and is loosely based on the Honda Civic platform.

2. Three models are offered, including a base 150 hp 2.0L 4-cyl, a 201 hp 2.4L –and a 38 mpg combined Hybrid.

3. Pricing for the base ILX starts at $29,790 and tops out at $32,900. The ILX 2.4L is priced at $29,990 and the Hybrid at $34,990 to start.

Acura Canada has some interesting sales projections for this model and believe that the bulk of their numbers will be made with the 150-hp 2.0-litre when coupled with a five-speed automatic. The ‘drivers’ out there will be attracted immediately to the 201-hp 2.4-liter with a six-speed manual. And then there is the Hybrid which uses the Civic hybrid’s power train – but with a slightly jumpier throttle. Sales numbers? Well, Acura Canada are being quietly optimistic; the addition of the ILX will take Acura’s overall vehicle sales to more than 20,000 – 5,000 of those numbers being directly attributed to the ILX.

Photos: David Taylor

I had the opportunity of driving all three vehicles on the terrific US Army Engineers-designed roads sweeping through the hills/mountains outside Scottsdale, Arizona. Initial thoughts? A Hybrid with CVT is not a great choice for roads where the incline changes quickly and often suddenly. As a commuter vehicle involving in-town and highway driving, fine. The 2.4L with MT was a fun ride. The vehicle responded very well – whatever it was asked to perform. The downside is that it’s only available with standard transmission. Acura may have missed the mark with this decision. As an entry level sedan for a luxury brand, the 2.0 does not miss the mark, either. We were advised that the ILX has class-leading safety performance and is expected to achieve industry leading safety ratings from both National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).

While the similarities to the 2012 Civic are, perhaps a little obvious, at this point, we cannot comment on this vehicle as it relates to the anticipated Civic ‘refresher’ expected later this year. We may well be dealing with a chicken and egg situation.

Regardless. the suspension and floor are vintage Civic.  Acura stylists have stretched the hood – perhaps to match the ILX’s premium aspirations? Stylists also worked at moving back the A-pillars 7.9 inches and the windshield base only  3.9 inches, necessitating deeply curved glass.

The Civic’s traditional front overhang has been stretched slightly while the rear was chopped – a little abruptly, creating odd visual proportions when the car is viewed in profile. Acura engineers and stylists refer to the exterior design concept as ‘aero-fused dynamics’. To use their words, “Cabin and body feel like they are pulled back, creating an impression that the rear is firmly planted.” Right.

The interior is comfortable and familiar buttons are positioned on the console – in fact, it appears that the audio and climate controls are from the TL.

In the ‘boiler room’ the 2.0-litre is bigger than the 2012 Civic’s engine and the 2.4 is the same as the Civic Si’s. Acura’s engineers and stylists have worked hard to provide a car that is quite quiet in the cabin at highway speed. The ILX achieves its targets by being quieter and feels more substantial, especially with its deluxe Acura interior, though there us some road noise from the standard all-season tires – especially when imperfections on the blacktop were hit. The electric-assist steering is almost typically light and drivers will not struggle to place the vehicles longer nose in its best driving position while the aforementioned tires and suspension keep it there. Getting back to the chicken and egg premise, this ‘driving feel’ is something that all Civics should have – including the Si.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Will the Acura ILX succeed?

Acura is introducing a luxury, albeit entry level vehicle to the market with a starting price point under $30,000. That is a good thing. Considering the level of finish inside and out and compared to their direct competition, they may well have a winner on their hands – especially with the 2.4L when compared to the BMW 3-series or even the less expensive Buick Verano.

Acura sees the ILX as a true luxury gateway model. And maybe that’s not a bad way of looking at things. Other premium manufacturers have almost stepped back from the compact segment in recent years. Acura has a huge opportunity to make premium compacts a mainstream category.

The Acura ILX offers luxury for less and is certain to also deliver brand qualities like reliability and durability. And, customers have a choice, too; not just one model fits all.

We’ll pay attention to the monthly sales numbers and see if they, Acura Canada are being, like Acura owners, aspirational.

Three jet black Civic Si HFPs… there were also three white ones!

A little while ago an invitation came into my email inbox asking if I would be interested in attending a session on driving vehicles with a standard transmission.

Given that the invite was via Honda Canada, I mentally narrowed down the list of available Hondas – and Acuras – that are available with standard transmission.

On the Honda side? Civic, Fit, Accord and the only hybrid with standard, the CR-Z.

And on the Acura side? The TSX, TL and the new just released ILX.

But there was something more intriguing about the invite. The concept for the event was to take those that drive standard would be transformed into drivers – by teaching the principles of safe, controlled handling and the art of the manual transmission.

The giveaway? Our instructors were to be Daniel Morad, a World Karting Association Manufacturers Champion and who recently signed to Status GP in the newly formed GP3 series. The icing on the cake? Chris Bye. A former race car driver with a long and distinguished list of achievements to his credit and now president of Franczak Enterprises Ltd.

So now, with an invite specifically from Honda Canada, the field was narrowed down to two possible cars: the Civic Si or the CR-Z.

Imagine our surprise when we showed up on a glorious sun-drenched afternoon at Polson Pier, east of the heart of Toronto’s downtown to see three black and three white Honda Civic HFPs. Surprised? Sure, here were six of those vehicles – and only 200 have been manufactured and distributed for sale around the world!

What is HFP? Honda Factory Performance (HFP) is about more than Honda’s commitment to crafting reliable, high-performance vehicles. It’s about fuelling excitement and exhilaration to those who know driving is so much more than getting from one place to another. It’s about taking Honda’s race-inspired engineering to a new level. It’s about transforming already head-turning vehicles into awe-inspiring works of performance art. Most of all, Honda Factory Performance is about the pure thrill of the ride.

Each of these nimble warriors comes standard with a laundry list of equipment, but the heart and soul? Standard 2.4-litre, 16-valve, DOHC, i-VTEC® 4-cylinder engine with 201hp and 170 lb.-ft. torque; 18″ HFP alloy wheels with Michelin Pilot® Super Sport performance tires; HFP suspension package; and, HFP front, side and rear under body spoilers. Not too shabby at all.

Slow corner at Polson Pier

We were going to have an afternoon full of fun and promise!

Game on.

Most people think they drive fast. Some even consider themselves to be speedy pseudo ‘race’ drivers. Frankly, while some did impress, most of us, although we might have the ability to double declutch and employ the classic heel-toe manoeuvre, at the beginning of the afternoon, we were all rank amateurs. Learners, really.

However, all was not lost. Some classroom-like instruction and then time on a make shift track with terrific instruction and practical pointers soon made a huge difference in our respective driving styles. By the time the afternoon was over, everyone, men and women were totally jazzed and in possession of a much better understanding of driving a standard transmission car. And not just fast. We learned control. To think ahead, to visualize next moves… all very Zen-like for sure – but it made a difference.

Even now, a couple of weeks after the fact, as I zip onto a highway on-ramp, I can hear either Daniel or Chris’ voice in my mind, repeating simple instructions, over and over ultimately making me and my passengers feel safer somehow as I negotiate and better appreciate the camber and line of the ramp.

Thanks, everyone. Lessons well taught – and well learned.

2013 Acura RDX at The Phoenician Resort in Scottsdale, Arizona

With Acura’s introduction of the 2013 RDX, it would be safe to say that the Japanese manufacturer’s latest and improved version of their popular entry-level crossover SUV will be a consistent performer. In every meaning of the phrase. In fact, at a recent unveiling inScottsdale,Arizona, company spokespeople went out of their way to tell the world that they are very optimistic about the 2013 model. In fact, they anticipate selling 4,500 vehicles which represents 500 more than the RDX’s previous best sales numbers back in 2008, two years after its introduction to the buying public in 2006.

And there is much to suggest that this target could well be achieved – easily. Think of the all new Honda CR-V but with more power, features and cache. Truthfully, what’s not to like in this 2013 RDX package – especially if you have never been exposed to the slightly more spirited 2012 model with its turbo-charged four cylinder engine? A feature which some drivers seemed to prefer – but were often vocal in their complaints since many felt it lacked some of the expected refinement associated with a premium brand. But if you were only using it to shuttle your kids to school and sundry practices on city roads, it likely never really had any negative impact.

Available in dealerships across the country at the beginning of April 2013, the MSRP for the 2013 will start at CAD $40,990 and the model with the Technology Package which we test drove on terrific roads north and east of Phoenix through seemingly endless scrub lands, desert and mountains, for CAD $43,900. It should be noted that for 2013, Acura has added significant additional features worth about $3,400 and some major engineering refinements – yet the price is only around $500 more than 2012.

So, as stated, it’s safe to say that the 2013 RDX has managed to significantly up its game with all new looks, increased comfort and new technology. The RDX features a new 3.5L V-6 engine with 33 more horsepower than the outgoing model, mated to a new 6-speed automatic transmission and a new, all-wheel-drive system.  Alexandre Roger, VP of Acura Canada enthuses, “It’s more powerful, roomier, quieter and has improved fuel efficiency. In short, it’s everything we know customers in the luxury SUV market expect – and more.”

Interestingly enough, the 2013 RDX with a bigger, more powerful engine also manages, according to the manufacturers, to achieve superior fuel economy than before. While we road-tested the vehicle over the better part of a day, we were not looking for numbers that would cause excitement in the hypermiling community. We were driving. Often hard. Especially when the opportunity presented itself on the spirited jaunt onArizona’s Hwy. 87 into Payson. Here, the vehicle felt most comfortable and that gas consumption willing, might have cruised forever. The 2013 model is also significantly quieter and smoother (some might say too much so) than previous iterations thanks to a longer wheelbase and all-new Amplitude Reactive Dampers and a new motion adaptive electronic power steering system. No compromise in the audio level of conversation in this luxury; most occupants will likely appreciate the new interior design with increased utility, rich interior materials and the generous use of noise insulation throughout.

Standard features on the RDX include leather seating surfaces, heated power front seats, a power moon roof and a 360-watt audio system. New technologies such as an SMS text messaging function (which this writer has difficulty comprehending given many provinces new distracted driving laws), a keyless access system with the convenience of pushbutton start, an active noise control system and the most welcome addition of a rear view camera system with three unique viewing angles are also standard on all RDX models. This latter feature is also now standard on all levels of the all new Honda CR-V.

The RDX tech package adds Acura navigation system with (bi-lingual) voice recognition; a hard disk drive (HDD) system with 60 GB of storage capacity; GPS-linked solar-sensing, dual-zone automatic climate control system; power rear tailgate; and an Acura/ELS surround premium sound system with 10 speakers, DVD-audio, multi-format CD player, AM/FM tuner and XM radio.

The 2013 RDX is then, in its competitive category with Audi Q5, MB GLK and Infiniti EX35 and BMW X1, in pretty good company. With its expected Acura-styling, room and highway driving comfort and handling, the future should auger well. Acura hopes to appeal to more women drivers – without producing an overtly feminine vehicle – whatever that might be. Will they succeed? We’ll leave that to the buying public at large. However, nothing has been done to deliberately alienate any demographic with the introduction of this safe – in all respects, CUV.

You can be sure that February 16, 2012 is a date that will long resonate in the hallways of Hyundai around the world – but especially here inCanada.

It was that morning when Richard Russell, Chair of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC) opened an envelope and declared the 2012 Hyundai Elantra had been awarded AJAC’s Car of the Year.

Just a few moments before, a room full of media from across North America exploded when Steve Kelleher, President and CEO, Hyundai Auto Canada Corp. made the short walk to the podium to accept the “Best New Design” award for 2012 for the new and innovative Hyundai Veloster.

For Hyundai, this morning was, indeed a moment to savour.

Earlier this year at the Detroit Auto Show on January 9, the Elantra was selected as the North American Car of the year for 2012.

A double honour; one that many had been quietly debating around water coolers and in the shadows for some weeks.

Validation for the Korean-based manufacturer who has slowly convinced many auto journalists and aficionados over recent years that their engineering, value proposition and fluidic styling were the real deal. In fact, back at the beginning of 2009 those two exact same awards were bestowed upon Hyundai’s rear-wheel drive sports coupe, the Genesis. What made this award all the more special was that the three finalists for this honour were all Korean manufacturers. Hyundai with the Accent and the Elantra and sister company, Kia, the upstart, new kids on the block, with the Optima.

No longer would Hyundai be considered a one trick pony – pun completely intended.

Now, the general public will have to pay attention to another Asian manufacturer of well-engineered, value-laden and stylish modes of transport for practically every budget.

Later the same morning, I was able to sit down with the affable Mr. Kelleher for a quiet, far-reaching and informative one-on-one interview as he and his staff slowly began to realize the enormity of their accomplishment.

DT: Congratulations on this win. Feel any different today than you did yesterday?

SK: Thank you. I have to admit that it was all a bit nerve wracking early on. While we did have finalists for two of the three cars, there was always the thought what if we split the vote? Even with the Veloster’s win earlier, we were still unsure.

DT: Now do you believe that consumers will afford Hyundai the respect that you deserve? Do you see a pay off now for the value proposition – that and the fact that you may now be more than just a rational purchase?

SK: We’re not about bragging rights. We do what we do very well and have been consistent in our styling, engineering and value-proposition for some time. It’s true that in the early years, we struggled. No question. But we stayed our course and made it through. 2011 was where many things went very well for us as a manufacturer and a marketer. From a consumer point of view, in the past, we would be perceived as a rational purchase – the price was right. But now, we offer a complete package. It’s not multiple choice. Now a car buyer will look at the design, the technology, the performance, the mileage – and, of course price and is more likely to want to buy us! Becoming an emotional purchase? That’s a change for us that while slow in coming, has built in momentum. We need to maintain that and build upon it.

You know, Japan has been looking at us for a few years now – as has Detroit. We believe that Japanese manufacturers will work very hard to regain any lost market share from 2011 as a result of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan and later flooding inThailand.

We respect our competition. All of it. It makes us stronger and hopefully better. We expect that Honda, for example, will do what they do best with their marketing and product, and will likely regain some of the market share they lost in 2011. Our goal is to build upon our successes.

DT: The Elantra saw an overall increase in sales acrossCanadaof 30.1%, representing 44,970 vehicles. This January, Hyundai sold 7,460 vehicles, an 11.6% increase over last year. Where do you believe your sustained growth is coming from?

SK: It’s a well-known fact that sales in Quebec and Eastern Canada for our various models have, until last year been the heart of our combined efforts inCanada. It’s practically been that way since 1984, our first full year in Canada. Ontario consumers have been rewarding us over these last few years with significant increased purchases. Approximately 20% each year. In fact, inCanadawe are fortunate to have enjoyed 37 consecutive months of year-over-year sales growth. It is our belief that going forward, we will likely not lose ground as far as market share goes. But we are not going to rest on our laurels and expect results.

Going forward, we need to continue to offer our loyal customers the innovation, styling and pricing they have come to expect. This morning, we unveiled a 2-door coupe of the Elantra; later this year, an exciting all new Santa Fe will be rolled out.

DT: So, complacency is not about to set in any time soon?

SK: (smiling) Let’s hope not! We’re serious about who we are and what we can do. As a global corporation we’re proud and pleased to be in the position we are today. But we keep thinking “what have we done lately?” Just a few days ago I was in Korea for a series of meetings with head office. I also spent time in our design facility. The Namyang R&D Centre located in Hwaseong, Gyeonggi (about one hour south of Seoul) is a world-class technology research centre. Hyundai now employs approximately 10,000 engineers, designers and researchers here working around the clock to create and develop the best automobiles in performance, quality, and eco-friendliness. A year ago, it was around 8,000.

DT: Since Hyundai came to Canada, you made it clear that value-pricing and innovation was going to be your calling card. The Pony arrived with three price points: $3,999; $4,999; and, $5,999 – almost take it or leave it. Should what you are accomplishing today inCanadaand many other major markets come as a surprise?

SK: Yes, the Pony! It’s true; we made no secret of our planned intent from day one. In many ways, we took what many of our Japanese friends were already doing and stayed pretty much on message.

DT: How does Hyundai consistently package great styling, quality and technology for such a great price?

SK: Obviously, we have been true to our intent. We work hard as a corporation to keep manufacturing costs as low as we can. We have the added advantage of producing our own steel inKoreain our own plants. Hyundai is a global entity with a great deal of vertical integration. Stepping back, consider the message – some would say commitment – from our Chairman Mong-Koo Chung. He stated that in 2011 Hyundai Motor Company would launch a campaign to ensure the energy for growth with a new slogan: “New thinking. New Possibilities.”

DT: Meaning?

SK: Simply, new ideas create new values. Hyundai will respond to the fast-changing international management environment by constructing a system for organic cooperation between production factory and sales headquarters in each country worldwide.

DT: So there is buy-in around the world – including Canada?

SK: Yes. Absolutely. Our corporate team and dealer network has been working harder to prioritize our customers and also the talent in all departments. It’s important we remain competitive. We will continue to do so through exceptional and even fundamental technologies; with environmental management and by continuously expanding our overall R&D and investment in eco-friendly vehicles. Hyundai Motor Company will work hard to provide this new value to yet more customers.

We call it our modern premium concept. We need to give our customers the best car per dollar. What it means is that we put the features in the vehicle that people really want and need. Features in a compact car that are unheard of. Heated rear seats in the Elantra for example. We look at our competition. Very closely. We also noticed that some manufacturers were losing some of the quality on the interior. We made it clear internally; there could be no compromise. No damage to the integrity of the brand.

DT: In a relatively short space of time, Hyundai has turned the industry on its ear. Now you have a line up of vehicles that can cater to almost any budget. Starting with the Accent and all the way to your super-premium Equus – the flagship marque. Is being all things to all people a misstep?

SK: It’s tough to sell both. Each buyer’s wants and needs are so different. Two things: Equus and Genesis as a halo have done a lot for us as a manufacturer. I think they’re brand builders. It adds credibility. But is it the right move? Maybe… perhaps. Let’s look atToyota for example and their Avalon. Similar situation to ours. Do they sell many? No, not really. But it does sell and it does not seem to affect their brand – overall.

DT: OK then, so why create an Equus… a Genesis? Because you can?

SK. (laughs) Well, there is truth in that. But regardless, at this stage, if we do bring product to market, even with limited production, it must still be designed and built with our core principals in mind.

DT: Where do you see the industry going long-term?

SK: Long term? This year? Next year? Five years from now?

DT: Do you see more hybrids, for example?

SK: There’ll be variations. They may not sell well. But they will be there. We need to produce them for many reasons, optics included. However, technological innovations for the internal combustion engine will continue. Remember our engineers were the first to bring out gasoline-injection. Everything you can do to increase efficiencies will continue to be developed. We mentioned our steel plant earlier. We’re now producing lighter, much stronger steel than before. This year? The light truck market will continue to do well, but will probably slowly decline – unless gas prices go really high. Probably flat, over 2011. Perhaps a 2 – 3% increase across the board…

DT: Does Canada have much influence in Korea as far as product development is concerned?

SK: Well, the Elantra for North America has heated rear seats. Not available elsewhere.Canadadoes have influence, definitely. From the get go, Canadian input from this cold weather climate market was important. We even set up a cold weather test facility here.

Getting back to your earlier question; I also believe that there will be greater innovation in 4-cylinder engines – from everyone – and especially ourselves. Turbo-charge technology will continue to be developed to bring performance and economy to the fore. Wait until the all new Santa Fe comes out…

DT: Yes…?

SK: (grinning) That’s about all I’m allowed to say right now! But it is something. You’ll see soon enough!

DT: Are there similarities to the car market in Korea compared to Canada?

SK: The fundamental difference is that larger cars are the norm; just like in Japan. OK, so that’s a generalization. The car market in Korean is pretty much the same size inCanada. But look around the roads for Hyundais and you’ll see more Genesis, Equus and of course Sonata than you will our own compact and sub-compact cars.

DT: Now that’s a trend you’d like to emulate here.

SK: Yes, but as long as we can sell and make competitive automobiles for any market, that’s our job.

DT: Thank you.

Just recently, my wife bought a new car.  It’s been 11 years since her last purchase so she was particularly excited over the end result, considerably less enthusiastic about the actual process.

Over the course of a month or so, she had narrowed down her selection.  Her biggest considerations?  Does it look good; will she look good in it; is it comfortable, will our Bernese Mountain Dog fit in the back; and, can two sets of snow tires and steel rims fit in the rear twice a year.  Her final selection made, negotiations, such as they were, commenced.  All went well until the ever-obliging sales representative proudly placed a brochure on the desk.  He started to make the pitch.  I could see my spouse’s eyes glazing over.  She turned to me.  “What is this? I don’t understand.”

Long story short, this manufacturer’s dealer was ‘subscribing’ to the benefits of tires on all their new vehicles being filled with nitrogen in lieu of air, plain old boring air. Fair enough.  My wife’s disenchantment with this discussion was becoming evident.  “Will this cost me more?  We already agreed on a price. I don’t wish to pay any more than we have agreed.”  Recognizing the  distinct possibility of a customer walking away, our ever-genial representative quickly and quite professionally agreed that arrangement would be made to still provide this ‘premium service’ –  but at no additional cost.

Smiles all around, papers were signed, the meeting with the dealer Business Manager occurred and everyone was happy. This, however, got me thinking.

What are the benefits to nitrogen-inflated tires?

For some time, nitrogen has been used for inflating tires in aircraft, military vehicles, race cars, and heavy off-road equipment.  However for a few years, this odorless tasteless inert gas has slowly been creeping into the everyday lives of the general public.  It all started innocently enough, but soon, in apparent stealth mode, nitrogen as an inflation option, managed to make its move toward its mission of ubiquity.  Costco/Price Club, the single largest retailer in the world for Michelin tires, started to offer nitrogen fills for all new tires sold.  They would also provide the same service for previously air-filled tires, too – at a price.  Soon, inNorth Americaat least, other retailers also offered the same service.

Why?

The three main reasons as stated by proponents of the practice, including a Canadian company, Sym-Tech (www.sym-tech.ca), would appear to be:

  1.  Nitrogen  increases gas mileage.  Filling your tires with nitrogen ensures constant proper inflation of tires, therefore increasing gas mileage.
  2. Nitrogen decreases tire wear.  When a tire is properly inflated it wears out evenly giving you more miles/kilometres on the rubber.
  3. With improved wear and tire, tires are less likely to be dumped in landfills sooner than later, therefore initiating environmental rewards all around.

Interesting, but what does it really mean?  Well, when it’s all distilled, here is the ‘pitch’ for: nitrogen is a more efficient and effective gas for filling car tires as opposed to oxygen due to the fact that molecules of nitrogen are larger, relatively speaking, than molecules of oxygen. Oxygen and nitrogen are both diatomic (composed of two atoms) molecules but since oxygen has a smaller kinetic diameter, it flows through polymers that make up the structure of the tire and may lead to poor tire inflation if not checked regularly. Nitrogen and oxygen also expand and contract differently. Nitrogen is not as responsive to heat fluctuations as oxygen and therefore, pressure irregularities within the tire are not as pronounced or pervasive. This translates into reduced tire wear and overall improved efficiency of the tire. OK, so there may be a longer-term benefit to one’s pocket book – after an initial upfront investment.

Advocates of plain old ordinary dry compressed air would like to point out one or two key arguments to the pro-nitrogen position:

Tires wear from the outside, not the inside.

‘Plain’ air’s make up is approximately 20% oxygen, 80% nitrogen. Is that 20% critical?  Maybe yes, maybe no.

By way of casual research, we visited a few major tire manufacturers’ web sites.  We saw no statements from a single one making any relevant reference to inflating their brand of tires with 100% nitrogen, instead of compressed air. While the Internet can be a wonderful resource, there are occasions when the voracity of certain claims needs to be verified.

In an interview with Jeremy Smith, Manager, Brand Public Relations Community and Corporate Relations for Bridgestone Americas, Inc. we asked the question; air or gas for tire inflation?  Cutting to the chase, Smith made it clear that for Bridgestone, in consumer or general commercial vehicles, they do not necessarily advocate one over the other. “However, any tire, when properly inflated and whose pressure is checked regularly, will offer definitive economies to the end user.”  While clearly sitting on the political fence, a gentle nudge suggested that paying to maintain proper pressure really did not make much sense.  A similar response was given by Darla Elkins, Smith’s counterpart in the motorsport division.

To round things out, we had similar discussions with representatives of Michelin, BF Goodrich and Uniroyal.  Each of those three companies recommend nitrogen inflation but make it clear that they are not insistent.  Nitrogen-inflated tires will lose pressure more slowly, but if any tire is properly and regularly maintained and inspected, it really makes no difference.  It is, to these major manufacturers, all still a matter of preference.

Looking for further ‘proof’? Visit any top automobile racing group website, and you’ll find the same… Indeed, if nitrogen inflation was so critical, surely NASCAR, F1, Indy and others would be strong proponents of this idea?  Instead, nothing is heard from some of the most critical tire users out there. Again, in fairness a few years back, the world of motorsport racing embraced nitrogen.  Studies were conducted and ultimately no outrageous advantages were clearly evident.

In fact in January 2007, Honda issued a bulletin to all their dealers; we discussed this with Richard Jacobs of Honda Canada. “When it comes to inflating automobile tires, it’s our position that ordinary, dry compressed air – which is about 80 percent nitrogen already – is the best choice. That’s because it’s more readily available, and the benefits of using nitrogen simply don’t appear to outweigh those of using compressed air.”

Honda goes on to state that the practice of inflating tires with nitrogen has been around a long time. It’s been commonly used on aerospace vehicles, commercial and military aircraft, military vehicles, race cars, and even heavy off-road construction equipment. And here’s why:

• To meet rigid safety and performance specs, the required tire inflation pressures are often very high, especially in the aerospace industry. The tire inflation pressure for NASA’s space shuttle, for example, is an astounding 315 psi – close to 10 times the pressure in the tires on your every day vehicle.

• Nitrogen is an inert gas; it doesn’t combust or oxidize.

• The process used to compress nitrogen excludes water vapour. Water vapour can expand if the temperature climbs above 100°C.

• Tires inflated with nitrogen leak slower over time than those inflated with compressed air.

So, there is a definite case to be made for the use of nitrogen for tire inflation – under the above scenarios.

However, with automobile tires, they on the other hand, are subjected to an entirely different set of conditions. Here’s Hondas position on why inflating tires with nitrogen offers no significant or real advantages:

• Nitrogen offers no better protection against road hazards such as cuts and punctures. So no matter what you inflate the tire with, you still need to check the condition and pressure of the tires at least once a month, just as recommended in any vehicle’s owner manual.

• Tires that are inflated with compressed air and properly maintained offer the same fuel economy tread wear, and ride comfort as those inflated with nitrogen.

• Nitrogen inflation does offer the advantage of having little or no water vapour present in the tire which can cause internal corrosion of the wheel or damage TPMS (tire-pressure monitoring system) sensors. However, if your dealership, tire store of even local gas/service station uses and properly maintains air drying equipment on its compressed air supply, this isn’t an issue with normal air inflation.

• Nitrogen for automobile tires is produced by nitrogen generators, which typically achieve about 95 percent purity. But to actually get that level of purity into an automobile tire, you would have to deflate and inflate that tire with nitrogen several times – it’s like purging a new propane tank before first use. If you’re not careful doing this repeated deflation and inflation process, the purity level winds up being closer to 90 percent (compared to the approximate 80 percent nitrogen already in compressed air). Because of this, those claims of less pressure loss with nitrogen are not entirely valid.

So at the end of the day, what to do?  Like many things in life, you have a choice.  Is either method necessarily better?  Is either method necessarily worse?  Let’s be perfectly clear; it’s personal – and, it comes down to dollars and cents.  And yes, while it is true many gas stations now offer air from machines for a very small fee, which is still considerably less than an up to $10 per tire charge for a nitrogen fill.

If a major tire and automobile manufacturer do not believe there are any inherent benefits, then, what are you going to do?

Let’s allow Honda to have the last word (for now) on this topic; if nitrogen offers no apparent advantages over dry compressed air, then what is their advice to you? Are you ready for this? Stick with the air you breathe. And check your car’s tire pressure regularly. Saving gas consumption through better mileage from properly inflated tires, regardless of the method selected, will have ecological and cost benefits for us all.

If nothing else, remember this; it’s all more than just hot air.

Imagine that you were one of the last drivers to see Dan Wheldon as medical staff frantically wheeled him into the on-track medical centre at Las Vegas Motor Speedway that fateful afternoon, October 16, 2011.

Wheldon’s death that day was devastating.

Especially to Paul Tracy who saw his friend and fellow driver being frantically worked on by medical staff as the gurney careened through doorways and down cold, fluorescent lit hallways to waiting additional medical personnel.

“I saw things that day I wish I hadn’t,” says Tracy on a recent visit to Toronto as he participated in the celebratory 25th Anniversary of Rick Hansen’s Man in Motion world tour. “Much of the accident was a blur, flying parts, debris going everywhere, cars literally flying… and the smell of burning. And then… after… seeing Dan. Laying there being wheeled in. I pretty much knew that was it…” he turns away, voice trailing.

For the record, Tracy’s preference is to see more limited fields – 24 cars, just like the Indy 500 many years ago. That way, you are racing because you qualify; you deserve to be there.

Regardless, that day was life-altering. Many questions are yet to be answered. Some drivers are still distraught. In spite of on-track rivalries, many, especially the veterans are tight. Phone calls filled with long stretches of silence. Text messages and emails that say so little – but also say way too much.

That day has forced many drivers to look inward. To reluctantly face demons. What to do? Was this a result of a too short track and too many cars? Driver error? Opinions and theories vary. There may never be any absolute resolution. Many will take the long off season to think things through.

Paul Tracy has already done that. Alone. With his wife, Patty. And with his two children, Alysha and Conrad.

The last few months he was working hard toward finding a full-time ride for the 2012 season. He’d had enough of being a part-time driver.

That terrible accident reinforced his resolve. His driving career would not end with a whimper; he would end his professional driving days behind the wheel.

With the support of his family, Tracy is working the phones. Taking meetings. Going through “… the whole grip and grin routine.”

“I may be 42 years old, but I still believe that there is a place in racing for drivers with experience. Look at Dario (Franchitti); he’s a little younger (than me) yet the man has won four championships – three back-to-back. Knowledge and skill counts for everything.”

Paul Tracy refuses to deal in what ifs, as in what if he doesn’t get enough sponsorship to run what he calls his “farewell tour” of IndyCar racing next season. Remember, this is a man who has accumulated 31 victories in 20 years of racing in the big leagues.

“We’ve been talking to a few teams,” Tracy said. “Ideally I’m looking for a team that already has some sponsorship money; what I can bring
will be enough to put them on the track for a full season.”

Tracy does have a long-standing partnership with Honda Canada through its Honda Dealers network that provides enough sponsorship for him to race at the Honda Indy Toronto and the Edmonton Indy. While that may sweeten the pot as he goes looking for a deal, it also handicaps him; next season the IndyCar Series adds Chevrolet and Lotus as engine suppliers and it is believed that at least two of the teams Tracy has talked to will use those power plants.

“Honda has been a great supporter of mine and I would like that association to continue,” he said. “Ideally I would like a deal with a team that runs Honda engines.”

Meantime the Thrill from Westhill is putting all his future marbles into one basket; he’s not looking beyond 2012 in his racing life. Asked about his life after racing Tracy quickly and firmly replied, playing with the ubiquitous can of Diet Coke, “I haven’t even thought about it. I still have work to do.”

Just announced earlier this morning from Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, The Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC) announced the names of 11 vehicles that will now compete for 2012 Canadian Car, and Canadian Utility Vehicle of the Year.

The annual event known as Testfest and held in Niagara-on-the-Lake, brought 70 Canadian automotive journalists together to road and track test some 57, 2012 model year vehicles now arriving in dealer showrooms.

Today’s announcement followed almost a week of rigourous road and track testing by AJAC members, with the purpose of narrowing a field of 57 entries down to winners in 11 categories.

The winners in the 11 categories are:

  • Best New Small Car under $21K: Hyundai Accent
  • Best New Small Car over $21K: Hyundai Elantra
  • Best New Family Car under $30K: KIA Optima LX
  • Best New Family Car over $30K: KIA Optima Hybrid
  • Best New Luxury Car: Mercedes-Benz C-Class C350 4MATICSedan
  • Best New Sports/Performance Car under $50K: Hyundai Veloster
  • Best New Sports/Performance Car over $50K: BMW 1 Series M Coupe
  • Best New Prestige Car over $75K: Mercedes-Benz S-Class S350 Bluetec 4MATIC
  • Best New SUV/CUV under $35K: Dodge Journey
  • Best New SUV/SUV $35K-60K: Volkswagen Touareg TDI Clean Diesel
  • Best New SUV/CUV over $60K: BMW X3

Did you spot the lonely North American automobile? Does this surprise you? Seriously?

The AJAC 2011 car of the year was General Motors Cruz; is that once highly regarded vehicle now considered flavour of the month – yesterday’s news?

Of the 70 Canadian journalists who participated in Testfest this month, there are few, if any changes from last year. Why the apparent about face? Public opinion? Or can North America not build a decent automobile? Hold on a moment; consider Honda Canada with their Alliston manufacturing facilities. Recently back on line at full production, they are producing between 1,400 and 1,600 Honda Civics per day for the North American market. A Japanese car, built in Canada that may well lay claim shortly to its 14th consecutive year of being Canada’s number one selling car. When was the last time we saw that honourable statistic bestowed upon one of Detroit’s Big 3? Oh yes, right… before there was any serious competition from European or Asian manufacturers, that’s when.

I digress. As can clearly be seen, Korean automakers did extremely well, actually winning five of the 11 categories — including the KIA Optima, which sewed up both family car categories.

If you follow cars, the end result may not come as a complete surprise to many. For the past couple of years, Korean manufacturers Hyundai and Kia, a once bankrupt manufacturer not too many years ago has been bringing cars to the market with tremendous style and appeal while loaded with safety features and excellent value for the dollar.

We’ll still have to wait a few months to hear the declared overall winners for 2012 Canadian Car of the Year and Utility Vehicle of the Year; they’ll be announced at the Canadian International AutoShow in Toronto in February 2012.

One wonders; given the bailouts in North America to some automakers who were teetering on the brink, can they too, in the future return to their once former glory? Or are the stakes quite simply way too high?

Time and public opinion will tell.