Sleuth: The Week of June 22

Hot off the press!

Nissan’s Maxima goes diesel: The trend, my friends, is clear. Either go diesel (or something other than really expensive, low-fuel efficiency unleaded gasoline) or go home. It seems that Nissan is about to jump on the bandwagon. The Sleuth’s gumshoes report that the Japanese automaker is going to throw a diesel into the 2010 Maxima. It will only be available with an automatic to stay in line with North American preferences for non-manual transmissions.

Doom and gloom in the market: You might call Chrysler CEO Bob Nardelli the ultimate realist. Chrysler has kept a fairly optimistic outlook amid the current market slump, but an internal email written by Nardelli to Chrysler employees reveals that things aren’t so rosy at the third largest automaker in North America. Nardelli revealed in the email that June sales are about 20 percent below what Chrysler had originally predicted, greatly contradicting his statement from late last month that Chrysler’s sales forecasts “have been spot-on.” With a sales decline that sharp, it seems almost inevitable that Chrysler will make further cuts to bring its production in line with consumer demand, which begs the question: How long will the Detroit Big Three be three . . . or “big”?

A diesel in Stuttgart?: Porsche is one of the few European automakers to have never offered a diesel option, but it looks as though that streak will come to an end in 2009. The sly Sleuth hears Porsche, which is based in Stuttgart, Germany, will launch a diesel-powered version of its Cayenne sport utility vehicle next March. At the current clip, Porsche’s fleet fuel economy will cost the automaker a ton in government fines (for low fuel efficiency) by 2016, a leading factor in Porsche’s diesel deviation. Will we eventually see a diesel 911 or Boxster? Well, Audi, which is related to Porsche, has a diesel A5 coupe . . . hmmmm.

Hyundai goes hybrid: In the me-too game that most automakers are playing these days, the Sleuth hears that Hyundai plans to launch a hybrid gas/electric version of the Elantra sedan in 2009 and eventually bring it to North America. The car, due to launch in 2009, will be the first of several cars in the pipeline from the Korean automaker. Hyundai isn’t unreasonably optimistic, hoping to sell 50,000 hybrids a year by 2011. So far, Hyundai’s real-life hybrid experience was limited to nearly 3,000 hybrid versions of its Getz and Accent sub-compacts produced since 2004 and sold to government fleets for testing.

Insight on the way back!: Honda’s Insight was the first gas/electric hybrid to hit the U.S. market in 1999, but the tiny hatchback ceased production in 2006 due to practicality issues. The Sleuth hears that there is a good possibility that Honda will revive the Insight nameplate for its all-new Toyota-Prius-rivaling model. In addition, Honda is expected to equip the new hybrid with the same 1.3-liter Integrated Motor Assist system found in the current-generation Honda Civic Hybrid. Although the new Insight will be loosely based on the Fit small car, it will measure in at three inches longer and one inch wider than the Fit. One Honda insider said the Insight’s fuel economy would be “insane,” with some Japanese sources predicting 71 mpg. Actual mileage will likely be lower when it hits our shores, but the Prius rival will likely achieve 50-55 mpg. And if those lofty fuel-economy numbers weren’t enough to cause an instant waiting list for the new vehicle, the next-generation Insight could undercut the Prius by thousands. The new Insight is expected to debut at the Paris Motor Show, but Honda could also wait until November’s Los Angeles, Calif., Auto Show. It should hit dealerships early next year.

Market indicators

Japanese sports-car race: During the 1990s, there was no shortage of Japanese performance cars with offerings such as the Nissan 300ZX Twin Turbo, Toyota Supra Turbo and the Acura NSX. Those days ended with the three makes concentrating on volume vehicles and luxury. But things are back into full swing and it looks as though the competition heating up. Nissan was the first to fire a shot across the bow of its rival Japanese automakers with its GT-R, and now the likes of Lexus and Acura are preparing to fight back. Lexus has already stated that it plans to best the GT-R’s fastest time around Germany’s Nürburgring with its upcoming LF-A and now Takeo Fukui, CEO of Honda, Acura’s parent, has reportedly ordered that the next-generation NSX beat both rival supercars around the famous track. Acura’s next supercar is said to be powered by a 550-horsepower 5.5-liter V10 derived from the V8 to be used in the company’s all-new RL sedan, with power being sent to all four wheels. An eight-speed gearbox should help to keep the V10 find its sweet spot in a hurry.

Eastern European expansion: In an effort to expand its entry-level offerings, Mercedes-Benz has announced that it will open a new plant in Kecskemet, Hungary. In addition to producing Mercedes’ current lineup of entry-level cars — the A-Class and B-Class — the German automaker plans to produce  a new entry-level sport ute based on the B-Class, with Mercedes likely adding a new small coupe in the not-so-distant future. The small sport-utility vehicle will compete with the BMW X1 while the coupe will likely take on BMW’s 1-series. Mercedes joins General Motors, Ford, Toyota and Hyundai in the low-cost production market of eastern Europe.

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