We’re almost ready to record Episode #341 of the Autoblog Podcast! Check out the topics below, add your own to the Q&A and join us live via UStream, as well. Keep reading for our embedded UStream player, and thanks for listening!
Discussion Topics for Autoblog Podcast Episode #341
We’re set to record Autoblog Podcast #341 tonight, and you can drop us your questions and comments via our Q&A module below. Subscribe to the Autoblog Podcast in iTunes if you haven’t already done so, and if you want to take it all in live, tune in to our UStream (audio only) channel at 10:00 PM Eastern tonight.
Discussion Topics for Autoblog Podcast Episode #341
Vehicles that perform well in road tests by some of the most popular automotive publications, such as Car and Driver, Motor Trend and Automobile, don’t always score well in in Consumer Reports’ more regimented, practical test procedures, so the Ram 1500’s climb to the top of CR‘s scoreboard is a boon for the well-received pickup truck, which CR also put on its “recommended” list.
To start off with, the freshened 2013 Ram 1500 has a lighter, stiffer chassis than before, and the four-wheel-drive Crew Cab that CR bought and tested performed flawlessly and achieved class-leading fuel economy (15 miles per gallon) with the 5.7-liter Hemi V8 – the most popular engine choice for the 1500 – and the new eight-speed automatic transmission. The unique-in-its-class rear coil spring setup endowed the truck with “one of the best rides of any pickup,” CR reports. That helped it earn its class-leading road-test score of 78, well ahead of the nearest competition still in production, the Toyota Tundra (69) and the Ford F-150 (68). It’s worth noting, however, that the Chevrolet Avalanche outscores the 1500 by two points (80), but production of that vehicle ends after the current 2013 model year.
About the only things the publication could find wrong with the truck were a heavy tailgate and a high step up into the cabin. Get ready for the next round later this summer when CR is finished testing the 2014 Chevrolet Silverado, which is doing well so far in the publication’s tests.
To see what we think of the 1500, head over to our First Drive review of the Ram 1500 SLT with the Pentastar 3.6-liter V6, and feel free to take a look at the Consumer Reports press release below.
I am getting ready to put a new surface material and new railing systems on my existing 600 sq. foot. deck.
I’ve read huge amounts of promotional material from all the manufacturers/suppliers of decking, be it composite, wood, even aluminum. I’ve plowed through tons of “customer reviews” of many of these materials. Every material has its detractors, it seems. This one scratches too easily, that one is prone to black mold, the other one changes color, that other other one has no warranty, blah, blah, blah. It is almost impossible to choose what’s best for my application using just those sources.
Does anyone know of any place on the net where there is a fairly comprehensive, rigorous test of a variety of materials by an independent testing operation? I am not a member of Consumer Reports, but I understand from reading some contractor comments that they have done some comparisons but arrived at Trex as a top performer. Based on the contractor comments, this result was challenged as Trex has its own set of problems with scratching, fading, mold, etc.
Any other side by side tests around? Please note that my post doesn’t seek your personal experience with any particular material, just a suggestion where I might find some good testing of a variety of materials.
As fuel economy regulations tighten all around the world, each part of the automobile is getting a second (and third and fourth …) look to see if there is any way to squeeze out a few more yards per gallon. At the SAE World Congress in Detroit this week, Lacks Enterprises was showing off its contribution to the get-every-efficiency debate: Evolve Hybrid Wheels.
James Ardern, Lacks Wheel Trim Systems director of business development, told AutoblogGreen that wheels, which spin at 1,000 rpm, are pretty much four propellers that can have a big effect on aerodynamics, an effect that hasn’t been measured nearly as much as it could be.
“We have learned that wheels are contributing significantly to the fuel economy of a vehicle.”
“We have learned that wheels are contributing significantly to the fuel economy of a vehicle,” he said. The things right next to the wheels, the tires get tested. Consumer Reports, for example, has shown that better, more efficient tires can raise a vehicles mpg rating by one or two ticks, and Lacks has test results that show that the wheels – at least the Evolve wheels – can do the same.
The Evolve Hybrid Wheels are not to be only used on hybrids. The name comes from the hybrid composite wheel technology that is applied to a structural aluminum backbone that is both lightweight and strong. Then, the designers can add a variety of shapes to blend aerodynamic efficiency with good looks (eye of the beholder and all). Lacks had Rousch conduct some independent tests, and discovered that a Ford Focus SE outfitted with the Evolve wheels got a 0.4 mile per gallon improvement in the average city fuel economy and a 1.1 mpg highway improvement, compared to the car’s stock wheels.
The idea is to co-develop efficient wheels with the automakers, and Ardern said Lacks is currently in discussions with three different OEMs and, “We do have one Evolve wheel already launching on an OEM capacity towards the end of this year,” but he would not name which company. First truck testing will be tested by June and a second in August/September, and the same type of test will be run. An expanded set of tests will be done on the Focus this summer as well. There are no plans to test the wheels on an alternative power vehicle, but Ardern did say the program “will keep expanding.”
“Why hasn’t this happened before? One, it hasn’t been measured. Two, it is difficult to do it. It is not an exaggeration to say wheel development includes to many towers of competency: wheel suppliers themselves from a manufacturing point of view, wheel engineering from a structural and safety point of view, not also weight teams and fuel economy and ride and handling teams are getting involved. But then you’ve still got design and now
Step inside just about any new car these days and you’ll quickly see that vehicle interiors have become a pretty nice place to spend some time in. For the third consecutive year, WardsAuto sat in each and every new vehicle that had received redesigned or updated interiors, and it has now named its 10 Best Interiors.
Judges look at everything from design and fit-and-finish to comfort, safety and technology. Some of the standout selections include budget cars like the Chevrolet Spark and Kia Forte all the way up to more expensive sedans like the $60,000+ Cadillac XTS and Lexus GS450h. An interesting note here is that WardsAuto praises Cadillac for its CUE infotainment system while Consumer Reports generally lambasts the system. Asian automakers definitely won the contest for nicest interiors as the list is comprised of five Japanese automakers and two South Korean, with Toyota and General Motors in a dead heat with the most number of cars on the list with two each.
Scroll down for the full list (in alphabetical order) and press release from WardsAuto for its 10 Best Interiors of 2013.
The results are in. After polling its readers — habitual evaluators of the relative “goodness” of products — Consumer Reports announced this month which cable TV companies are the most hated in America, and which one actually might be worth a try.
Worst of the worst I won’t keep you waiting for the results. Privately owned (and redundantly named) Mediacom Communications comes in at the very bottom of the list of 17 rated cable companies. It’s followed in short order by three publicly traded firms that were rated only marginally better in quality: Charter Communications , Time Warner Cable , and Comcast , ranked Nos. 16, 15, and 14, respectively.
All four of these cable companies get Consumer Reports‘ absolute worst rating for the “value” of the service they provide — a big black circle. (Indeed, Mediacom gets more fully blackened circles than anyone else, scoring unacceptably in five out of eight categories rated.) Of the three firms (barely) outscoring Mediacom, Charter and Time Warner avoid completely black marks on reliability, while Comcast actually scores a middle-of-the-road white circle for the dependability of its service.
Time Warner, meanwhile, can boast of at least the middling quality of its “cable guys” when they come to fix the cable. They probably get a lot of practice at fixing stuff, too. I mean, have you seen Time Warner‘s lousy dependability rating?
Charter, meanwhile, scores equally badly on both reliability and in-home customer support.
Is bigger better? But what about the one company I said “actually might be worth a try”? Interestingly, according to Consumer Reports‘ findings, the best outfit in cable just might also be the biggest outfit in cell phones.
Topping the CR list for “cable” providers this year is a company that actually strings fiber-optics to the home — Verizon‘s FiOS service. According to CR readers, Verizon’s fiber-optic lines get top marks for reliability and picture and deliver decent audio, and the company offers customer service that’s only half-bad, to boot. And as I mentioned above, Verizon is also the country’s biggest cell phone provider, through its Verizon Wireless partnership with Vodafone.So if you’re a fan of “bundled” services, Verizon might be a good way to go.
Sometimes, bigger is better Verizon’s stock doesn’t look like a half-bad value, either. Although possessed of an obscene-looking P/E, the company churns out a lot of cash from its business. “Doing well by doing a good job,” you might say. This gives the stock a price-to-free cash flow ratio of just 9.3 — which seems cheap relative to mid-6% growth estimates and a 4.2% dividend yield.
Meanwhile, the stock‘s occupying the bottom of Consumer Reports‘ list are a varied lot. Comcast, at a price-to-FCF ratio of 12.3, could actually turn out to be a better investment than the best cable provider if it lives up to expectations of a 17%-plus growth rate. Time Warner, also with strong free cash flow, looks slightly undervalued. Charter, unprofitable, but …read more Source: FULL ARTICLE at DailyFinance
CVS (CVS) charges $150 for a monthly prescription of the generic version of the cholesterol drug Lipitor. The same drug goes for $17 at Costco.
That’s according to a recent Consumer Reports nationwide survey that sent secret shoppers to 200 pharmacies that carry five blockbuster drugs: Lipitor, Lexapro, Plavix, Actos and Singulair, all of which lost their patents in the last two years.
Shoppers found they could be paying as much as $749, or 447%, more for a generic prescription drug in one year at the highest-priced pharmacy, compared with the lowest.
The priciest places to pick up these prescriptions were CVS, Target (TGT) and Rite Aid (RAD). The least expensive were Costco (COST) and Sam’s Club, while Walmart (WMT), and Walgreen’s (WAG) fell in the middle.
So what’s behind the huge discrepancy?
Lisa Gill, a Consumer Reports editor who focuses on prescription drugs, said the difference stems primarily from what sells at the stores.
“At places like CVS or Rite Aid, the pharmacy is their major source of revenue and profit,” she said. “Costco and Sam’s Club are using the low drug prices to pull people in stores who will spend money on other things.”
Consumers are often willing to pay higher prices at a drug store because many of them are conveniently located, open 24 hours a day and have drive-through windows, according to Gill.
But for most people, it can be worth the extra hassle. This is especially true for those who take medication long-term, since they will get better deals at the warehouse clubs, or big box stores, Gill said.
Carolyn Castel, a spokeswoman for CVS, said that pricing surveys like this are too small to draw “meaningful conclusions about which pharmacies offer the best overall value.” She also noted that they don’t take into account the discount and third-party insurance programs that pharmacies use to lower prices.
A Target spokeswoman said it offers a number of ways for customers to save on drug prices, like rewards and discount programs.
Consumer Reports‘ Gill said these programs are helpful, but they’re not doing enough to lower costs.
It’s no secret that the cost of drugs can be prohibitive, especially at a time when incomes are stagnating. Consumer Reports found in a separate national telephone survey that Americans who regularly took prescription drugs, spent $758 out of pocket in 2012, or 12% more than the previous year.
Gill said that one way for people to save is by refilling prescriptions every 90 days instead of each month, since most pharmacies provide discounts on three-month supplies.
Heading into this holiday weekend, health-care stocks continue to lead the S&P 500 in 2013. But behind the share-price gains is an industry undergoing dramatic changes. While fellow fool Sean Williams recaps the week’s biotech and pharmaceutical news, here’s a look at the top stories from the other parts of the health-care industry.
Two stories this week displayed the uncertainty that surrounds some forthcoming Obamacare changes. In addition, a Consumer Reports investigation showed which drugstores have the lowest margins on generic drugs.
The Volunteer State and Medicaid Arkansas’ tentative permission to use federal Medicaid expansion money to purchase private insurance led many other states to pursue that route. But the matter’s a bit more complicated, and Sarah Kliffreports at WonkBlog that Tennessee has run into opposition from the Department of Health and Human Services.
The problem wasn’t the state’s desire to use the money for private insurance, but that Gov. Bill Haslam also proposed that the newly eligible Medicaid members should have similar co-pays to others in the health-insurance exchanges. And that could mean the government might spend far more than it would on a traditional Medicaid plan. The HHS remains open to negotiations, but Gov. Haslam seems firm in his proposal.
Tennessee’s Medicaid program includes Magellan as its pharmacy benefits manager and counts UnitedHealth and WellPoint as its major insurance backers. So investors for those companies should keep an eye on this story.
Medicare cuts Turning to the Medicare side of the Affordable Care Act, health plans rose this week on the suggestion that Medicare Advantage rates might see lower cuts than previously announced. Those rates were based on the assumption that Congress will go through with a 25% physician pay cut for next year, which would require the higher insurance rates for balance. But Congress hasn’t implemented the pay cut in more than a decade, so the rate cuts haven’t been necessary. We’ll find out for sure with the final rate announcement on Monday. Humana is overly dependent on Medicare, and shares were up nearly 3% on Wednesday following the news.
Finding cheap drugs Consumer Reports was out with a study showing which drugstores have the best prices on generic medications. Costco had the lowest prices, while CVS Caremark had the highest. The publication theorizes that the price difference comes from how much the pharmacy segment means to the overall business. After all, a big-box store like Costco can afford narrower margins on its generics because there’s more general store than pharmacy, while CVS is more dependent on its pharmacy to drive the bottom line.
Toyota isn’t just one of the world’s most respected auto brands; it’s one of the world’s strongest brands of any kind. Japan‘s largest automaker has become the industry’s reference point for automotive product quality and manufacturing efficiency, and many of the methods it pioneered have since become industry standards.
General Motors and Ford turned around moribund manufacturing operations by emulating, and then building on, Toyota’s vaunted approaches. But for all of its strength, Toyota has faced a sea of troubles in recent years: A massive tsunami in northern Japan decimated its supplier network and left some of its assembly lines idled for months, and global recall scandals have dented its reputation for quality and integrity.
But for all that, Toyota’s resiliency has been impressive. The Japanese giant shrugged off its crises as if they were mere potholes and regained the global auto sales crown in 2012.
But is Toyota a buy? That’s a more complicated question. To help answer it, last fall I created a premium research report to help investors understand the challenges facing Toyota, and the opportunities presented by the company.
That report has just been updated. What follows is an excerpt from the latest edition. We hope you enjoy it.
Toyota is immensely strong, but challenges persist In the U.S., as in most of the world, Toyota’s value propositions are quality and efficiency. Its cars may not be the most exciting, but they are safe choices — likely to last a long time, with minimal maintenance, while delivering good fuel economy. While the sudden-acceleration recall fiasco of 2010 seemed to dent Toyota’s reputation for a time, those impacts largely seem to have faded — helped by Consumer Reports surveys that once again rate Toyotas at the top of the heap for quality. A recent study by Experian found that Toyota had regained the top spot in Corporate Loyalty for the first time since the third quarter of 2009.
That story, with variations, replays itself over and over around the world. In countries from Indonesia, where Toyota’s Avanza is the runaway best-seller, to South Africa, where three of the top five sellers are Toyotas, Toyota’s simple value proposition continues to find plenty of customers.
One exception to that rule has been Europe, where Toyota’s presence is minimal. In recent years, that has worked to the Japanese giant’s advantage, as market leaders VW, Ford, and GM all confront a recession-ravaged auto market that has led to significant losses. Toyota’s decision to largely steer clear of Europe increasingly looks like a smart one, as GM and Ford have both struggled to contain losses running in the hundreds of millions of dollars every quarter.
It’s a good story. But on the other hand, CEO Akio Toyoda and his team still have major challenges to confront.
A California lawsuit over the fuel economy claims for the 2013 Ford C-Max was first reported back in December. Based on the numerous reports we’ve heard of disgruntled owners failing to get their car’s EPA fuel economy ratings on the C-Max and 2013 Fusion Hybrid, we suspected there would be more to this story. The Detroit News is reporting that two California law firms are combining their lawsuits against Ford on this matter for “false and misleading” claims.
A revised methodology in devising its annual Car Brand Report Cards has seen Consumer Reports award Lexus its top overall ranking for 2013. For the first time ever, the institute broke out individual brands from their larger corporate umbrellas, meaning car makers like Lexus and Scion were judged independently from parent company Toyota. That strategy worked out well for Lexus, as the luxury brand earned a top report card score of 79 for the 2013 model year.
The institute has recommended every one of the Lexus models it has tested to date, and said that the company’s products won out thanks to “a foundation of plush and very reliable vehicles.”
Meanwhile, Mazda and Subaru tied for the second-highest scoring report cars, with scores of 76. Subaru earned praised for sporting models like the BRZ, which CR testers apparently had a lot of fun driving (naturally), while the Mazda products were lauded for their blend of practicality, sportiness and efficiency. Both of the Japanese brands offered good handling, fuel economy and versatility, said Consumer Reports.
Acura and Toyota rounded out the top five with twin scores of 74 points. A full eight out of the top ten best brands were Japanese companies, with Audi (eighth place) and Mercedes-Benz (tenth place) the only European companies with high-ranking scores. CR noted that those Euro brands were inconsistent this year, with Volkswagen losing ground and Mini doing the worst overall of the European brands, at 20 out of 26 overall.
Domestic automakers didn’t do particularly well, either. Cadillac was at the tops of the General Motors portfolio, but was still held back by just average reliability and no love at CR for “complicated CUE controls,” a complaint we’ve heard before. Ford and Lincoln were also dinged for their infotainment systems and reliability, as well as for EcoBoost engines that didn’t deliver on promised fuel economy ratings. Chrysler’s brands were the worst off, however, with just the Dodge Durango, Jeep Grand Cherokee V6 and Chrysler 300 V6 being recommended by the publication. Scroll down for the full list of Brand Report Card scores, as well as the Consumer Reports press release. Or, head over to the CR website to read the full feature, and find out the granular info behind each of the brands.
On some level, it’s hard to blame Honda for the strategy it took with its new-for-2012 Civic. Executives looked at the key players on the market as the model was being developed, soaked in the growing global economic malaise, and decided that if they wanted to make decent money on their small car, they’d have to find creative ways to take cost out of its build. In light of the financial crisis, consumers and critics would surely understand some belt-tightening in order to secure the company’s legendary reliability, resale value and ease-of-use, right?
So Honda took a pass on expensive new technology – more complex transmissions, forced induction, active aero, and so on. And it also substituted in some cheaper interior materials, skimped on sound deadening, creature comforts and found lots of little ways to save money. Surely in a segment where the frankly ancient and moth-eaten Toyota Corolla has consistently ranked among the sales leaders, nobody would care, eh?
Well, Honda was half right. After an unusually long product cycle with the eighth-generation Civic, loyal customers were all too eager to plunk down their hard-earned cash for a new model, with 2012 sales totaling well over 300,000 units. But the model’s long-term prospects were less certain. That’s because Honda miscalculated the strategies of its rivals, playing things close to the vest when others chose to double-down in the segment.
Between the time the 2012 Civic’s design was locked in and the moment it hit the market, the compact car fray became exponentially more competitive. Ford took the wraps off of its sophisticated and tech-rich Focus. Hyundai rolled out its audaciously styled and value-laden Elantra. Mazda took its already great-driving Mazda3 and elevated its fuel economy with Skyactiv engineering. Even perennial small car backmarker General Motors put forth a high-quality effort with its mature new Cruze. Critics’ reaction was no less swift and stern: Not only was the 2012 Civic a galactic comedown in terms of interior appointments and design, it wasn’t as much fun to drive as its predecessor, nor was it the least bit innovative. For a company that made its nut – and its reputation – on the back of its engineering prowess, all of this was bitterly disappointing.
We’re not sure whether it was enduring the media drubbing (that Consumer Reports fall-from-grace had to sting), looking around at its suddenly fierce competition, fielding embittered calls from its dealers or just a simple bit of soul searching that spurred Honda to react so quickly, but here we are, just one model year later and there’s a surprisingly comprehensive update on sale. But is it an impressive about-face for Honda or just a bit of apple-polishing and slight-of-hand? We spent a week with a loaded EX-L to find out.
“Musk is at fault, too, for using the car’s driving logs “in the most damaging (and sometimes quite misleading) ways possible.”
Yesterday, the NYT‘s public editor, Margaret Sullivan, wrote the official Times response to the very public dispute between the newspaper’s reporter, John Broder – who wrote a story about how a Tesla Model S failed him on a trip up the east coast – and Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who called that original story a fake and then dumped a bunch of data from the car’s log to show why he used that word. Editor Sullivan admits the drive “did not go well.” In the aftermath, she says she tried to look at the facts in an unbiased fashion, eventually determining that Broder was not precise enough at times and did “not especially” use “good judgment along the way.” Musk is at fault, too, she says, for using the car’s driving logs “in the most damaging (and sometimes quite misleading) ways possible, as he defended his vehicle’s reputation.” Sullivan also says she believes Broder, “took on the test drive in good faith, and told the story as he experienced it” even as he “left himself open to valid criticism by taking what seem to be casual and imprecise notes along the journey.”
This whole story, of course, is really about the fact that electric vehicles suffer a drop in range in cold weather, which matters more than in normal cars since there is less range to begin with (not to mention it takes longer to refuel an EV‘s energy reserves than it does its liquid-fueled counterparts). There are a number of factors in play, but Tesla has said range drop in the Model S is about 10 percent (which, interestingly enough, is about the same as what vehicles powered by gasoline engines suffer in such weather).
Interestingly enough, a 10-percent efficiency drop is about the same as what ICE vehicles suffer.
Consumer Reports has an interesting article up about learning how to adjust to cold-weather changes in its Model S, including a tale similar to Broder’s about running the car down to the “charge now” warning screen, but the institute managed to make it to their destination. CR writes, “To its credit, the Model S delivered 176 miles from a full charge in cold weather – considerably more than any other EV on the planet. While it was in line with what the car predicted, it proved well short of the rated 240 miles the car promised when I started, let alone the 265 estimated by the EPA or the 300 touted by Tesla.”
Meanwhile, over in take-a-step-back-ville, Gristsuggests that the entire public dispute is a “sideshow” and that:
The difference between professional services reviews posted to Angie’s List Inc. (NASDAQ: ANGI) and book reviews posted at Amazon.com Inc. (NASDAQ: AMZN) or the number of video views counted at Google Inc.’s (NASDAQ: GOOG) YouTube is that Angie’s List takes pains to verify that its reviews are not being padded by self-promoters. It’s an Internet version of a model long practiced by Consumer Reports — independent reviews by the person who pays the bill.
Now, consider how that might apply to the ratings agencies like Moody’s Corp. (NYSE: MCO) or The McGraw-Hill Companies’ (NYSE: MHP) Standard & Poor’s or Fitch Ratings. Under their current modus operandi the agencies are paid by the bond issuers for ratings. We all know how that worked out, and S&P now faces a federal investigation related to its ratings of mortgage-backed securities prior to the real estate meltdown of 2007.
The logical thing would be for the ratings users to pay for those bond ratings, but the trick would be how to control the way the data gets disseminated. After all, if a brokerage pays for something, it would want to own it. And the bond brokers wouldn’t want to be saddled with bad ratings either because they couldn’t sell dicey bonds to savvy investors. Corporate bond issuers would hate this too.
How about having the federal government pay? Certainly the cost wouldn’t be nearly as high as the cost of propping up and bailing out the financial system. But, realistically, the philosophical and political issues with having the government pay for bond ratings has virtually no chance of gaining any traction.
The ratings system we’ve got — including the threat of federal prosecution — might be the best we can get. But do you really think Moody’s or S&P or Fitch is as trustworthy as Angie’s List? Really?