Goodbye, Saab?

It was a very slow death.  But Saab's car division, long separated from their legendary aircraft division, has finally died.  Or at least it is heading that way.  

You could argue that Saab was the Subaru of Europe.  It was born out of an aircraft company.  It had a strong cult following.  During the 1970s and 1980s, driving a Saab or Subaru was an act of left-wing subversion - something a small New England college professor might do.  But there are key differences.  Subaru's cult following slowly went mainstream as word got out just how valuable their all wheel drive systems are (Subaru produces three systems and all of their cars have at least the basic, part-time AWD system).  Subaru never shied from making hatchbacks, while Saab slowly phased-out their iconic hatch designs.  Both companies have occasionally designed aviation-inspired cockpits.  

But Subaru stuck to a unique engineering and design philosophy in 1972 (with the Leone 4WD wagon) and stuck to it.  Saab lost its way in the early years or GM ownership.  It found its way back to greatness only in the later years of this decade thanks largely to its last two chief designers, the German Michael Mauer and the Englishman Simon Padian.

Saab was one of the best makers of front-wheel drive cars.  Like Citroen, Saab stuck to front-wheel drive and made it better with each car generation.  I think Citroen, Peugeot, Volvo, and Saab are the best engineers and implementers of front-wheel drive in the automotive world.  Alfa Romeo learned a lot on how to switch to front-wheel drive from Saab.  The two automakers even occasionally shared platforms.  For example, the Saab 9000 shared its chassis with the Alfa 164.  And the last-generation Saab 9-3 shared its platform with the Afla 159, which is still sold in Europe today - notably the distinctive and award-winning wagon version.

Saab was the first automaker to introduce heated front seats....in 1972!

Saab's classic cars all had the number 9 in them.  The 99.  The 90.  The 900.  The 9000.  The 9-3.  

Saab did make the unconventional move of producing Sweden's first convertible in 1986, which somehow became the favorite luxury coupe in Provincetown, Massachusetts until Saab folded.

Improved reliability came late, well after General Motors bought the brand in 2000.  But by then, the design shifts away from hatchbacks began to seal Saab's fate.  The Saab 9-3 was briefly offered as a sedan only until the beautiful 9-3 SportCombi entered the lineup in 2005. Saab fans were thrown a bone with the 9-2X hatchback, which was actually a Subaru Impreza dressed as a Saab.  GM had planned to dress-up the Subaru B9 Tribeca as the Saab 9-7X, but by then, GM had sold their share of Subaru to Toyota.  

From 2007 onward, Saab offered the fourth-generation Haldex AWD system in its 9-3 and 9-5 vehicles.  It was Saab's best engineering move in years.  Saab finally had an all wheel drive system from the world's leading manufacturer of AWD systems (and Haldex is a Swedish company, to boot).  

The 9-3 and 9-5 today are better than ever.  The 2010 9-5 (pictured above) is ready to to be produced in Europe.  And there is a beautiful 9-4X crossover waiting to be built in Mexico (on the line that recently stopped producing the Saturn Vue). But GM's bankruptcy reorganization has forced it to sell Saab.  So far, it has been unsuccessful, and time is just about out.  If Saab isn't sold it will have to wind down.

UPDATE, December 30th 2009, 11:00 EST:  GM has announced that it will fill orders for the new 9-5 sedan and 9-3 convertible.  But it still intends to either sell Saab or shut it down. 

UPDATE, January 9th, 2010:  The wind-down commences.  Saab is gone.

UPDATE, January 26th, 2010:  Not so fast.  GM sells Saab to Spyker in an 11th hour sale.  Spyker is not profitable, but Saab might both save itself and Spyker.  So for now, Saab is alive.

A Week Of Many Anniversaries

David Plotz's famous essay about all the bad anniversaries in August has many valid points. But this past week reminded me of all the dramatic anniversaries of late December.  Not all of them are negative, but most are. Let me try to count them:

December 15, 1995: The Dayton Accords are signed in Paris, formally ending the Bosnian War (1992-1995).

December 16-25, 1989: The Romanian Revolution.

December 21, 1988: Pan Am flight 103 is blown out of the sky by a Lybian bomb, and falls in Lockerbie Scotland.

December 22, 1979: The Boston Bruins invade the stands of Madison Square Garden and subsequently beat the crap out of a few unlucky fans after one of their teammates, Stan Jonathan, is assaulted by a fan.

December 22, 2002:  Richard Reid completely fails to detonate PETN in his shoes on a transatlantic flight.

December 25, 2009: Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab completely fails to detonate PETN in his briefs on a transatlantic flight.

December 25, 1989: Billy Martin dies when his friend, William Reedy, drives his pickup off the road in upstate New York, plunging 300 feet down a hill and into a tree.  Both Reedy and Martin are dunk at the time of the crash.  Reedy, owner of two saloons near Tigers Stadium, survives the crash and lives until July 2009 when he succumbs to pancreatic cancer.

December 26, 1919: The Red Sox trade Babe Ruth to the Yankees.

December 27, 2007: Former Pakistan Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto is assassinated on her way out of a political rally.  She was considering going back into politics to challenge the military junta that was in-charge under General Pervez Musharraf.

In Other License Plate News...

The effort to produce explicitly Christian license plates in Florida failed.  But the effort by the Sons of Confederate Veterans to have a plate produced in the Sunshine State is going forward following a legal victory. While I find a plate with a Confederate flag to be in poor taste, I agree that it does not violate the state or federal Contitution.  Apparently, Sons of Confederate Veterans has successfully established Confederate plates in nine other states. So I expect this proposed plate in Florida to go into production soon.

And I like the prospect of plates that reflect my rebellious political beliefs.  So if, say, New York State ever approved a 'Choose Life' plate, I would lobby Planned Parenthood to sponsor a 'Family Planning' plate.  It's only fair.  The 'Choose Life' plates are knocking on our door.  Pennsylvania and Connecticut both offer them.

Five years ago, Planned Parenthood sponsored plates in Montana and Hawaii.  The Hawaii plate failed to attract the required 150 customers.  The Montana plate is still in production.  The Montana plate is not as subversive as my 'Family Planning' idea.  It has the more diplomatic phrase, "Pro-Family, Pro-Choice".

The Right-Wing Rape Fetish

I learned a few things in college.  One of them was a checklist of identifying characteristics of fascism.  There are certain ingredients in fascism that make it undeniably fascist.  Not all fascist societies had all the ingredients, but they are key to identifying the system in question.  

It's a weird analogy, but think of asian cuisine.  You see stir-fry chicken dishes all over east Asia.  But if the dish has lemongrass in it, you know it is southeast Asian.

It is similar with political systems.  You could examine two similar systems that have a totalitarian, military junta in-charge, a strong propaganda infrastructure, and state-ownership of industry.  You're pretty sure one of them is communist.  But if the other has added flavors such as xenophobia, constant scapegoating of immigrants and ethnic minorities, and an explicit rape/humiliation claim to motivate and anger the people, then that one is fascist.

Case in point:

 

Utah Screens Lead Twilight Revenue (Again)

I am very late reporting this news, but since I addressed it in a previous post, I figured I should try to compare how New Moon performed on Utah movie screens compared to Twilight just over 12 months ago.

Here are the ten highest-grossing screens for the opening weekend of New Moon (November 20-22), courtesy of Variety:

1. New Moon, Larry Miller Megaplex 20, South Jordan, UT
2. New Moon, ArcLight, Hollywood, CA
3. New Moon, Larry Miller Jordan Commons 16 & IMAX, Sandy, UT
4. New Moon, AMC Garden State 16, Paramus, NJ
5. New Moon, ArcLight, Sherman Oaks, CA
6. New Moon, Regal Pinnacle 17 & IMAX, Knoxville, TN
7. New Moon, Regal E-Walk 13, New York, NY
8. New Moon, Edwards Long Beach Stadium 26 & IMAX, Long Beach, CA
9. New Moon, AMC Burbank 20 & IMAX, Burbank, CA
10. New Moon, Edwards Ontario Palace Stadium 22 & IMAX, Ontario, CA

Last year, four of the top ten screens were in Utah.  This year, there were only two, but both were in the top three screens nationwide. Obviously, Utah had more competition because the rest of the country's women and girls have gone Twilight Saga crazy.  But still the Utah megaplexes beat out their counterparts in the LA and New York metro areas.  Simply amazing.  

And yes, women.  Friends have reported seeing night time audiences in New York City comprised entirely of women in their 30s.

 

NY State Brings Back The Old Gold...Maybe



The 2010 New York state license plate was unveiled yesterday.  Anyone over the age of 30 recognizes the return of the amber/gold color scheme.  

We haven't seen this color on a New York license plate since 1986!  Bloggers and commentators are just adding their opinions now.  When I saw the press release mockup (above) I laughed out loud.  I had childhood flashbacks of seeing all the amber license plates on the backs of German and Swedish cars in Wellfleet and Truro, Massachusetts every August.

The state is unable to spin why they want all 12 million registered cars to change their plates - the state simply needs the money.  If this goes forward, the state will generate $129 Million in revenue.  And obviously this has triggered a political controversy for the increasingly doomed Governor David Patterson.

NY1 reports this morning that Governor Patterson will 're-consider' the plan.  We'll see how this goes, but for now, I have to assume that the old Empire Gold plates will be returning sooner or later.  The 1980s revivial is not quite finished, apparently.

 

The 2005-2011 Volvo S40 / V50

A Front Wheel Drive Role Model

Beautiful, luxurious, high quality, and so much fun, I almost forget it's front-wheel-drive.  That's what I think of when I reflect on one of the best cars sold in the USA these past five years, the Volvo S40 sedan and V50 wagon. 

Although its sticker price approaches that of the entry-level rear-wheel-drive BMW 3 series, I believe the S40 is one of the best designed, best engineered sedans available in the US.  If this were Europe, there would be many similar cars to choose from, including the European Ford Focus 5-door, which probably comes from the same factory in Gent, Belgium.  There would also be some quality front-wheel-drive hatchbacks from Peugeot and Alfa Romeo.  But we Americans have the S40 as a prime example of a premium compact European car (Volkswagen and Audi fans will be quick to point out that their best cars also come to the US). 

The S40 shares its platform with the Ford Focus and Mazda 3.  All three cars underwent a major revision in 2004 (and a second revision in 2008, retaining the same platform).  While the Focus tops-out at $20,000, and the Mazda 3 tops-out at $25,000, the Volvo V50 AWD wagon can go as high as $34,000.  Very few consumers are willing to pay that premium price.  I agree these Volvos are not worth more than $30,000, but they are worth about that amount.  It's just a shame the option packages on European cars cost so much.  The S40 quickly jumps from $24K to $30K when you add heated seats, premium audio, fog lights, and sunroof - with leather and GPS still unchecked.

The Volvo S40 and V50 offer the same firm chassis, tight turning radius, and European feel of the Focus and Mazda 3.  But they offer some key upgrades, such as stiffer coil springs, a 5-speed geartronic transmission, thin-profile seats in either waterproof polyester or real leather, and a 2.4 liter inline five cylinder engine that simply purrs loudly and likes to be pushed.  Shifting through gears 1 through 3 in this car, even using the geartronic, is a fun experience.  The car is very quick to get into fifth gear and stay there, trying to maximize fuel efficiency.  


The S40's engine is one of the best sounding engines available to the common car driver.  It's one of the big reasons I fell in love with the S40.  And those seats.  Up until very recently, the S40 was the car I had driven the most in my lifetime, with over 2000 miles driven using Zipcar's New York City fleet.  I can say that the S40 is the most comfortable car I've ever driven (all the photos here are from my collection, 2004-2006).

With a cradle-like seat, firm support, and a perfect sitting position for a tall driver (I'm 6'3"), the S40 was a car I could easily drive 220 miles (the distance between my house and Boston).

The S40 was not without some drawbacks, which I tolerate, given its fun factor.  The engine's fifth cylinder is the reason the car's economy is closer to a BMW 325i than a Ford Focus.  I consistently got 20MPG city and 28MPG highway, for a combined average of 24MPG.  The Focus, driven correctly, gets 29MPG overall.  While 24MPG overall is not bad, considering the car's power, the smaller than average, 12-gallon fuel tank emptied quickly.  I think that would be annoying to an owner.  Essentially, the car has to go to a gas station every 200 miles.

The biggest drawback might be the positioning of the pedals.  They are too close together.  I quickly became accustomed to it, but I cant assume other drivers did.  It felt like the brake pedal was just 4 inches to the left of the gas pedal. 

The S40 arrived on the US market just as rear-wheel-drive cars were resurgent.  The Ford Mustang had been redesigned to resemble the classic 1967 version.  The Dodge Charger and Chrysler 300 were leading Chrysler's return to rear-wheel-drive platforms.  BMW was preparing to launch the latest generation 3-series, which was the best selling premium RWD car in the US since the 1980s.  Also at this time, auto critics were falling in love with rear-wheel-drive again.  It was becoming clear that driving enthusiasts were demanding balance in dynamics, and rear and all-wheel drive systems were becoming more appealing.  BMW, Mercedes, Audi, and Subaru all benefited from this development.

But the S40 is a front-wheel-drive car that still deserves accolades during the rear-wheel revival.  Volvo, a late adopter of front-wheel-drive in the early 1990s, seems to have engineered it better than most other manufacturers.  The Japanese long established that a FWD car shouldn't have more than 270 horsepower (although the Acura RL and Nissan Maxima violate this rule).  But only a few Japanese FWD cars balance the torque and horsepower for optimal driving fun and road feedback (the Toyota Celica, Acura Integra, and Acura TSX come to mind as recent examples which have the right balance).  After years of driving both American and Japanese FWD cars in the 1990s, the S40 completely changed my appreciation of FWD cars. And if consumers are willing to pay $2,000 extra, a part-time AWD from Haldex is available for the S40, and is apparently now standard on the V50 wagon.

Up until the S40 / V50, there were only a few thrilling, perfectly-engineered front-wheel-drive cars that arrived in the US market in the last 15 years.  Seriously.  By 'perfectly engineered', I mean front-wheel-drive cars that didn't have too much oversteer or torque steer.  Going back to 1989, we have seen only a few such FWD cars.  I would include the Peugeot 405 mi16, Acura Integra (roughly 1999-2003), Honda Civic Si and CR-X, Toyota Corola FX-16, Volkswagen Golf GTI, Mazda Protege, Saab 9-3, and the new Mini Cooper on that list.  When the S40 sedan debuted, the Mini Cooper was widely considered the most fun FWD car in the US market.  

But my vote is with the S40.  It's the front wheel drive car that acts like it belongs with the rear-wheel drive standards, the BMW 3 Series and Mercedes C Class.  And it has the design edge all the way.  The clean gauges and ergonomics were unique to Volvo in 2004 (BMW and Mercedes have caught-up since).  The fantastic 3-spoke steering wheel is small but beefy, similar the BMW M editions.  And the thin 'ribbon' center stack has become iconic.  Volvo introduced a new design aesthetc with the S40 and it continues to this day in all their vehicles.  Four knobs control the climate control, entertainment system, car information center and lighting options.

The S40 is a tight handler with sports car-like acceleration.  Its compact size, road hugging suspension, responsiveness, and ultra-clean, contemporary cockpit make it the most fun to drive compact 5-passenger car on the US market.  The Mazda 3, the S40's sibling from Hiroshima, follows closely in second place.    

 

 

Weak 2009 Red Sox Look Forward To 2010

 

The 2009 Red Sox were more than good enough to make it to the playoffs over the Detroit Tigers, Texas Rangers, and the resurgent Seattle Mariners.  But they clearly were not pennant material.  And as I mentioned in an earlier post, this year's version of the Red Sox lacked the fire and passion of other Red Sox teams this decade. They were professional and kept their cool, but they never turned-up the temperature when it was needed.

So what do the Red Sox need to do this offseason?  They need to do the following, in my humble, amateur opinion:

1.  Do not renew Jason Varitek's contract

2.  Renew Jason Bay's contract

3.  Renew Tim Wakefield's contract

4.  Do not renew Mike Lowell's contract, unless he is willing to be the DH

5.  Move Kevin Youkilis to Third base

6.  Find a new starting First baseman (Lars Anderson?)

7.  Find a new middle / long reliever (you know, to replace Justin Masterson)

8.  Sign another outfielder (Nick Markakis, Carlos Quentin, etc.) to help out Rocco Baldelli / J.D. Drew or to replace J.D. Drew.

 

Just my opinions.  More as the off-season progresses in November and December.

 

Ship Breakers And Ship Takers


Many of us familiar with Newcastle and Sunderland have heard of ship makers and takers before. But I've been waiting many months for a chance to post about activities we almost never see in the news - ship breakers and repossessors.

Over at Slate.com, Jacob Baynham briefly describes a part of the world we never see - the ship breaking scrapyards of Bangladesh and India (one is pictured above).

And then there's Max Hardberger, a former freighter captain who now works as an independent vessel repo man and recovery agent in some of the most dangerous places in the world.  

LA Times: He's His Own Port Authority (.pdf file)

Now if I only had time, maybe I could pen a screenplay that somehow combines these two extraordinary stories.  Maybe a ship recovery agent hired to go to a third world scrapyard to recover a stashed whatzit/muggufin.  But of course his actions attract the attention of criminal organizations and spy agencies. Cat and mouse on the high seas and on multiple continents ensues.

So The Red Sox Are Playoff-Caliber?

The Red Sox might have turned their season around, and at the right time. In the last 10 days, they have swept the Orioles in a two game series, then swept the Devil Rays, nearly swept the Angels, and then swept the Orioles. That's 10 wins and 1 defeat. With today's win, they have improved their road record to .500, and they have virtually assured their appearance in the playoffs as the AL East Wild Card.

If they are truly a playoff team, they will will win their next two series - four games at The K, and then a weekend series against the Yankees at the 161st Street Crackhouse.

Hitter Of The Decade: Ichiro Suzuki


No mean to disrespect the heavy hitters and 500+ HR hitters active in the Big Leagues, but power alone does not get you in to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Hitting and running is another way to get in. And no one this decade has been a better lead-off hitter than Ichiro Suzuki. The man who brought Japanese-style hitting to the US is just 1 hit shy of MLB career hit number 2,000. 2,000 hits usually puts a player in Hall of Fame contention. But when we add Ichiro's other two major feats - being the first MLB player to ever get 200 hits in 9 consecutive seasons (pending 6 more hits), and 339 steals in 417 attempts - we can argue that he already qualifies for Cooperstown.He has an interesting pose/stance, in which he holds the bat upright with his right hand, while staring between 2nd and 1st base. Usually he will hit a liner between those bases or hit a blooper to the outfield. Not exactly the hits of legend. But he does it game after game, year after year. Also, I don't want to project, but he is the only contemporary hitter who reminds me of the no-nonsense at-bats of Ted Williams. Ichiro will do the pose when he enters the batters box, but he typically wastes no time getting back in the box between pitches (Williams was even better - he would step out, take a breath, and step right back in). With his 28" waist (the same as Williams'), he even resembles Teddy Ballgame as he uses all his muscle groups, from his quads, to his knees, obliques, shoulders, and his wrists, to make 100% contact with the ball. He springs and twists when he hits the ball, very much like Ted (again, Ted was the master of 'rotational hitting'). Perhaps fans unimpressed with the distance of his hits should study his form, because it is both classic and beautiful. He in unintentionally a living example of how American-born players hit the ball generations ago. And I think that's one of the many reasons why he is the big league hitter of the decade.

A Better Form Of Corporate Responsibility: Target Experiments With Wellness Clinics


To this blogger, there seem to be four levels of 'corporate responsibility' actions (also called 'social responsibility' or 'corporate citizenship.')

First, there is external communication, be it posters in a store, a tab on a corporate website, or a print advertisement, announcing what the corporation does to be more responsible. A corporation might be taking actions to consume less energy and produce less waste (Subaru). A company might be investing in wind power to off-set it's consumption of coal-based electricity (Brooklyn Brewery and the new Brooklyn Bowl come to mind).

Second, there is philanthropy, which I consider to be all donations to social, cultural and community organizations that are not designed to act as lobbyists nor expected to promote the company in return. So this would include museums, schools (public or private), hospitals, clinics, and all types of private service organizations that are designed to help people who live nearby (think rehab clinics, domestic violence centers, and career counseling and assistance groups (Dressed for Success comes to mind)). Corporations that have an advanced philanthropy structure (like the late Lehman Brothers) eventually set-up a foundation, and invite employees to contribute to it and have a say on which organizations should receive cash gifts.

Third, there is 'community outreach.' This is usually more difficult to organize than the actives above, but it involves having employees volunteer their time to any number of local activities. In New York City, one of the easiest ways to accomplish this is to have employees join a New York Cares project (cleaning parks and public gardens, running clothing drives, consulting non-profits, tutoring students, etc.).

And fourth, there is the kind of community service that might not have been asked of the company directly, but it was in a position to provide a valuable service from its location(s). That's what we're seeing from Minneapolis-based, Target. Since 2006, Target has been experimenting with affordable health clinics in both Minnesota and D.C. I was surprised to find this, and from the looks of it, they are expanding their services to include flu and hepatitis vaccinations.

When going beyond corporate citizenship lip service, a public health clinic can go a long way to prove that Target actually cares about preventive, afforable health care.

...But Boston Offense Needs To Wake Up


And the starting pitching needs to stabilize....and the bullpen needs to be re-shuffled....and....

When the White Sox scored three runs aginst Tim Wakefield early in Saturday's game, the damage had been done. The weather was near-optimal for knuckleballs (70 degrees, high humidity). But Wakefield's back was giving him a lot of pain.

The Rod Sox bats should've had a god day against the White Sox, but for the second straight game, they didn't.

Now, the Red Sox really need to win the third game of the series, stop the White Sox winning streak, and put the windy city behind them. Southpaw Jon Lester gets the ball this afternoon.