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Anton Wahlman
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I am a former sell-side analyst -- UBS 1996-2002, Needham 2002-2006 and ThinkEquity 2006-2008. These days I review automobiles and other technology products, as well as analyze the automotive and technology industries, and coming up with long/short ideas. I also continue to write (less... More
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  • Quick Spin: 2015 Toyota Yaris -- Not Good

    I took a quick spin in the revised (mid-cycle refresh) Toyota Yaris, which has an MSRP of $17,705, and the bottom line was that I was not impressed at all. At this price, a buyer has many more attractive options, and for just a thousand or two more, even more dramatically better choices.

    The most positive thing that happened to the 2015 Yaris was is new looks, especially from the front. People may disagree with me, but I think it now looks great. It's fresh and bold.

    Unfortunately, that's where the positives stop. Pretty much everything else about this car is among the worst I have experienced in driving numerous new cars in the last couple of years.

    Aside from the price simply being too high for what you get, the single biggest deal-killer for me is the horrific seating position for someone with long legs and/or short arms. The main reason for this is the non-telescoping steering wheel, a top pet peeve of mine. For all of the other negatives, this story came to a full stop on this point alone in my case.

    The infotainment system seemed ancient, although in fairness I didn't spend a lot of time finding any important features such as the ability to play my podcasts over Bluetooth or dialing into SiriusXM. That said, it can't be as bad as in Subaru Forester or Subaru WRX STI I drove in recent months.

    On the positive side, the climate controls were very easy to operate, as they usually are in the cheapest cars in the market. Toyota's are as good as any.

    The overall look of the dashboard and interior is good. It's plain black, no-nonsense design, and the materials chosen seem to be of high quality.

    The engine seemed gutless, no doubt not helped by the four (yes, four) speed automatic. I thought four-speed automatics passed away shortly after Lada and Yugo.

    The fuel economy is rated at 30 MPG city, 36 MPG highway -- a minor insult to this tiny size car with the weakest of engines. 36 MPG highway is similar to the $87,000 Audi A8 diesel.

    In summary, the 2015 Toyota Yaris -- while surprisingly great-looking, finally -- is a car that I see absolutely no reason to buy. It's got a horrible seating position, terrible performance, a variety of other weaknesses, and it's definitely over-priced.

    Recommendation: Without a doubt, stay away. Almost any 2015 model year car is a better choice, especially for $17,705 MSRP.

    Apr 25 3:21 PM | Link | Comment!
  • Jaguar XF 3.0 Sport: Good, But Competition Is Tough

    This is yet another example of a good car, which might have been the class leader three years ago, but which shows that the competitive environment has advanced materially in three years. The goal posts have shifted.

    The Jaguar XF 3.0 Sport is a midsize to almost-large rear wheel drive sedan, somewhat equivalent to BMW 535 and Mercedes E350 as examples. One might also suggest Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger, although they feel like they have bigger interiors.

    This sport model comes with a relatively aggressive tire and wheel package, and the engine is a 340 horsepower V6. This leads me immediately to the biggest strengths of this car.

    The engine is on par with the smoothest and strongest I have felt, especially in combination with how quiet it is. You can floor it, and still almost not hear anything at all. I don't think the 2014 Rolls Royce Wraith I drove in late 2013 was any quieter.

    Basically, the drivetrain is smooth, strong and silent. Perhaps three years ago, this would have been a knockout blow, trumping any other downsides with the car.

    However, these days there are enough cars that are only fractions behind the powertrain performance of this Jaguar. The Volvo V60 T6R that I drove a few months ago was extremely impressive, and close to $10,000 less. The Mercedes C400 was not too far behind to not being able to make up for it in other areas.

    If you think creatively and expand the circles further, how about either the Volkswagen Golf R, which was shockingly flawless to drive, or at the other end of the spectrum both the heavily revised 2015 Dodge Charger and Chrysler 300? The point here is that competition is brutal.

    You see, the Jaguar XC 3.0 Sport also has some annoying drawbacks compared to the competition. Let's start with the seats. They are just not as comfortable as anything from VW/Audi, Mercedes, BMW or Volvo. They are hard and uneven. Very strange.

    The overall look of the dashboard is not great. It feels a bit dated, and not as expensive as anything from Audi or Mercedes. The controls on the steering wheel are very mushy. The volume control in particular is worst-in-class.

    Other little things: There are too many steps, on too small a screen, to turn on the seat heaters. Oh by the way, the steering wheel isn't heated. And the seats aren't cooled. You get that on a $28,000 Kia these days. You should get it on a $58,100 Jaguar.

    The trip meter is controlled by a button at the end of the steering wheel stalk, which isn't good. Also, there is too little information provided in any case.

    Bluetooth connection to podcast on an Android smartphone? Worked well, most of the time -- but not always. Could be slow to connect. Nobody should be anything but 100% flawless here, especially anywhere near this price.

    The single best part of the interior is the transmission shifter. It is a big round knob, similar to Chrysler 200 and 300, except this one goes up and down when the car starts and shuts down. The up and down part is completely unnecessary, but the function is superb. I like it as much here as I do in the Chryslers.

    The rear seat has sufficient leg and foot room, but sadly as with a few other peer group entries, not enough headroom. Seriously, a car this long and expensive shouldn't have less headroom than the excellent Volkswagen Golf. The trunk is okay, but certainly not class-leading either.

    All in all, the Jaguar XF 3.0 Sport is a good car, and the $58,100 price is not totally unreasonable given where BMW and Mercedes price their class-equivalent cars. Three years ago, this car may have been the class leader.

    But this is early 2015, not early 2012. Competition has improved, not only among the traditional Mercedes and BMW competitors. From VW/Audi to Chrysler/Dodge and Volvo, the competitive environment has gone through the proverbial roof. I mentioned earlier in this article some of the more competent competitors, some located outside the traditional competitive matrix-box.

    I found just as much joy driving an Audi A3 diesel or a Volkswagen Passat diesel, and their MPG is dramatically better than the Jaguar. In the Jag, I got 17 MPG city and 29 MPG highway, which is not the worst in the class, but also not the best. This car deserves a diesel, among other things.

    The fact that this Jaguar XF 3.0 Sport doesn't rise to the very top of my evaluation, despite having such a superior engine, transmission and silent power delivery, speaks volumes of how rapidly the automotive competitive landscape has moved in just the last three years. I look forward to the next Jaguar, which could set the bar even higher.

    Feb 21 9:50 PM | Link | 5 Comments
  • Mercedes' Most Beautiful Sedan In 50 Years: The New C-Class

    I spent a week driving the all-new 2015 Mercedes C400, four wheel drive. While the price starts a hair below $50,000, the version I drove was just over $63,000. It is the first Mercedes sedan manufactured in the United States.

    In my opinion, this is the most beautiful Mercedes sedan since the epic and enormous flagship 600 that was first shown at the 1963 Frankfurt Auto Show, and was in production from 1964 to 1981. It is simply a piece of art in the design columns -- exterior as well as interior.

    The exterior design is very well balanced. It is clearly the younger brother of the all-new 2014 S-Class sedan. However, it has removed all the "fat" from the design, paring it down to the more athletic essentials. The proportions are flawless, as are the individual design details.

    As with the mid-cycle refresh of the E-Class for the 2014 model year, the all-new 2015 C-Class comes in two exterior trims -- Sport and Classic. The Classic has the traditional Mercedes grille and stand-up star, as well as more conservative -- and non-staggered -- tires, and more compliant suspension and ground clearance. I prefer the Classic, but that wasn't the car I drove this time.

    The beautiful design continues to the interior. The first thing the strikes you is the one big center stack piece of wood. It is unlike anything else in the industry. It's big, beautiful, and spectacularly shaped. The only piece of wood in the industry that I remember being even more impressive is the door inlay in the Rolls Royce Wraith. That car starts around $300,000 and can easily hit $400,000 with various customization options.

    Speaking of the doors, the Burmester speaker grilles are also industry-leading in design. In any case, this is Gorden Wagener's finest sedan exterior, and in strong competition for his finest interior job to date.

    The only fly in the ointment with that magnificent center stack wood piece, is that once you open the storage compartment (for keys, etc), it doesn't look quite as impressive anymore. But you need the space.

    Front seat comfort is excellent, approximately on par with the other German automakers as well as Volvo. I am not a fan of the infotainment system, as it's not as good as the ones in Audi, Chrysler/Dodge/Jeep and of course Tesla (NASDAQ:TSLA). That said, it's better than BMW, Jaguar, Subaru and a few others.

    The back seat lacks in head room. Otherwise, the car has just enough room for four or five adults.

    Power is more than ample at 329 horsepower, and the four wheel drive makes for outstanding handling. The stalk-mounted transmission shifter is one of my favorites.

    If I had driven this car a month or two earlier than I did, I would have declared it class-leading in terms of the overall drive feel. It really is superb. However, I had just become polluted with a surprising discovery, in the month or two before driving the Mercedes C400, and that was the Volvo V60 T6R.

    As near-flawless as the Mercedes C400 was, the Volvo was simply even better. I never expected this. The Volvo's steering and throttle feel were the best ever, trumping the superb Mercedes C400. The Volvo was just barely above $48,000, significantly below the $63,000 price tag on the Mercedes. Yes, the Volvo didn't even have a rear view camera, but still.

    From a fuel economy perspective, the Mercedes C400 is rated at 21 MPG city, 29 MPG highway. For what it's worth, that's better than the 18/28 in the Volvo as well as in a similarly powered (but not 4x4) Jaguar XF Sport I drove recently.

    It is pretty obvious to me that Mercedes will soon offer the C-Class with the same 2.1 liter four cylinder diesel engine that it now offers in the E, ML and Sprinter nameplates. That engine should yield at least 45 MPG highway in rear wheel drive, and 42 MPG in four wheel drive configurations. My advice is to wait for this one to enter production. It ought not to take long.

    All in all the Mercedes C400 -- as well as its smaller-engine brother C300 -- is a design masterpiece. It also drives supremely well. If a sedan is what you want, and you don't want, need or can buy a larger sedan, then this is about as well as you can do in the market today, assuming that this is the amount of money you can and want to spend.

    That said, I cannot say that it is the very best-driving car of this general class that I've driven in recent memory. That crown goes, surprisingly, to the Volvo V60 T6R, which also costs a bit less.

    Personally, I would look to another small premium car for my first choice, and that is the Audi A3. It has a better infotainment system, a diesel available today, and costs only $43,000 fully loaded ($34,000 base). Yes, it doesn't have four wheel drive in the diesel version, and yes it is considered a hair smaller than the Mercedes C-Class, but I found that the Audi A3 just fits me like a glove in so many dimensions.

    Tags: TSLA
    Feb 15 2:51 PM | Link | Comment!
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