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Carmakers look down the road, small car crash tests

By AL SWANSON, UPI Auto Writer   |   Aug. 11, 2013 at 5:30 AM   |   Comments

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Results of overlap front crash tests of a dozen small cars by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety were mixed.

The Honda Civic had the best performance in the test that replicates what happens when 25 percent of a vehicle's driver-side front end slams into a 5-foot tall rigid barrier simulating hitting a utility pole or tree at 40 mph. Nearly 9,000 people are killed in such crashes each year, IIHS chief research officer David Zuby said.

Civics -- both 4-door and coupes -- were the only small cars to earn the Institute's top rating of good in the test. The Civics are among six models evaluated to earn a good or acceptable rating and get an IIHS Top Safety Pick+ award.

The others were the Dodge Dart, Hyundai Elantra, Ford Focus and Scion tC. The plus sign indicates the model had a good or acceptable performance in the small overlap crash test.

The Volkswagen Beetle, Chevrolet Cruze and Sonic earned marginal ratings while the Nissan Sentra, Kia Soul and 2014 Kia Forte were rated poor.

The Toyota Corolla was not tested because a redesigned model is coming this month for 2014.

The institute said small cars as a group performed better in the test than small SUVs but not as well as midsize passenger cars.

"The small cars with marginal or poor ratings had some of the same structural and restraint system issues as other models we've tested," Zuby said. "In the worst cases safety cages collapsed, driver airbags moved sideways with unstable steering columns and the dummy's head hit the instrument panel. Side curtain airbags didn't deploy or didn't provide enough forward coverage to make a difference. All of this adds up to marginal or poor protection in the small overlap crash."


Demographics rule car sales

Automakers are on pace to sell more than 15.4 million vehicles in the United States in 2013, the best sales in six years, but they are focused on the future.

Right now things look rosy for the industry in the second half of the year, with July sales of 1.3 million vehicles, 14 percent more than the same month a year ago. But demographics are shifting.

In 2011, baby boomers purchased 23 percent of the cars and trucks sold in the United States, up from 18 percent in 2007, while gen-X customers bought 22 percent of the new vehicles, a 29 percent decrease from 2007.

Vehicle sales are expected to keep rolling, while car companies are targeting younger millennials born after 1980, who have indicated in surveys they may be more attached to their smart phones than to motor vehicles.

Some don't even crave a driver's license, considered a rite of passage by earlier generations.

Automotive data company R.L. Polk & Co. said customers 18-34 were responsible for just 11.5 percent of new vehicle purchases, down nearly 3 percent from 2008.

Analysts cite the cost of new vehicles [averaging more than $31,000], high repair and operating costs and insurance as reasons why younger buyers are choosing to hang out in cyberspace and social media rather than hitting the road. Many automakers are adding Internet connectivity to infotainment systems in vehicles, but getting the right mix of Web access while limiting driver distraction and ensuring safety may take time.

"I don't see any evidence that the young people are losing interest in cars," General Motors' chief economist Mustafa Mohatarem told participants last week at the Center for Automotive Research's Management Briefing Seminars at the Grand Traverse Resort in Acme, Mich.

Mohatarem indicated the economic downturn, high youth unemployment and record-high student loan debt are the most likely factors keeping younger buyers out of dealer showrooms. It's all about having the money to buy a new car.

Carmakers are currently spending $200 million a year to reach millennials via social media like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, The Detroit News said.

R.L. Polk said the recession and its aftermath "negatively impacted" the net worth of many in the 25-44 age bracket who may have lost jobs or seen household income decline during the downturn.

"No matter how you look at it, this has been a subpar recovery," Mohatarem said.

Pent-up demand will keep sales going for the near future as the age of the average car or truck on U.S. roads is a record 11.4 years and boomers can find incentives to get financing to buy a new car. Ten years ago the average age of cars and light trucks was 9.7 years.

R.L. Polk found while the number of vehicles 6-to-11 years old is declining, more vehicles remain on the road after 12 years as motorists pay for repairs to keep them going.

Polk found baby boomers were 15 times more likely to buy a new vehicle than recent college-educated millennials, but as the economy improves more younger people will be able get out of the family homes and buy a car.

Ninety-three percent of 18-to-19 year olds in a University of Michigan study of 618 unlicensed young adults ages 18-39 indicated they plan to get a driver's license -- 69 percent in the next five years, the Detroit Free Press reported.


Chevrolet cuts 2014 Volt sticker price $5,000

Taking a page from Nissan's all-electric Leaf, Chevrolet is cutting the price of its plug-in gas-electric Chevrolet Volt by $5,000.

When it debuted as a 2010 model, the Volt cost $41,000, minus a $7,500 federal green car tax credit and state rebates. The latest price cut reduces the hybrid's base price 12.5 percent, from $39,995 to $34,995.

Volt sales have been lagging while Leaf sales took off after the base price of 2013 models of the bug-like all-electric car was slashed 18 percent to $28,800. Nissan also added cargo room and a high-capacity charger on high-end Leafs that cuts the charging time in half.

GM sold 9,855 Volts from January through June, up 12 percent from the first half of last year, while Nissan sold 9,839 Leafs in the first half of 2013. Chevy sold 1,788 Volts in July, 3.3 percent fewer than July 2012, Autodata reported.

Don Johnson, vice president for Chevrolet sales and service, told The Detroit News "great strides [have been made] in reducing costs as we gain experience with electric vehicles and their components."

Last month, Chevrolet unveiled a $5,000 give-back on the 2012 Volt and $4,000 on the 2013 model. Ford announced it was cutting the price of its slow-selling 2013 Focus EV by $4,000 to $35,200.

The Volt can go about 38 miles on battery power alone before its gasoline engine kicks on to generate electricity extending the range up to 380 miles. The all-electric Leaf has a range of 84 miles on a single charge depending on driving style, geography and temperature.

The cost of leasing a 2014 Volt is expected to be $299 a month, $30 more than for a 2013 model, a GM spokeswoman told the News. Chevy is adding two new colors -- Ashen Grey Metallic and Brownstowne Metallic.

Germany's BMW showed off its first all-electric, the i3, in New York, London and Beijing last month with a starting price of $42,275. The i3's 170-horsepower electric motor gives the compact a top speed of about 93 mph with a range of 80 to 100 miles before the batteries run dry.

The 2,700-pound i3 should be fun to drive hustling from 0-60 mph in around 7 seconds.

Customers willing to pay an extra $3,850 can add an optional 34-horsepower, 650-cc gasoline motor to extend the i3's range to about 180 miles in Eco Pro+ mode.

The high-tech i3 envelopes the occupants in a carbon-fiber reinforced plastic "life module" BMW claims is as strong as steel with half the weight. A "drive module" protects the electric motor and batteries and BMW plans to program the navigation system to find nearby charging stations and offer roadside assistance for i3 drivers who run out of juice.

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