Cars at Paris Motor Show are fashionably fast and efficient

The 2014 Paris Mondial de l’Automobile – The Paris Motor Show – on through October 19, immediately on the heels of Paris Fashion Week. Paris is the cradle of high style and this show has as much automotive high style as the catwalks had fashion style.

So, it comes as no surprise that Paris’s most talked-about debut is the ultra-fast, ultra-stylish Lamborghini Asterion LPI 910-4 hybrid concept. It has three driving modes: a 300-hp battery that has a range of up to 30 miles, a 610-hp V10 gasoline engine, or combined for the 910 hp in the name that does zero-60 mph in an amazing three seconds. Shown in vibrant blue, it could justifiably be dubbed “the blue streak,” and it may never be produced for sale.

Slightly down the speed chart are the Mercedes-AMG GT S, Ferrari 458 Speciale A, Peugeot Quartz concept, Citroen Cactus Airflow 2L concept, and Infiniti Q80 Inspiration concept. The Mercedes-AMG GT S is being billed as competition for the Porsche 911 with a twin-turbo 4.0-liter V-8 that makes 503 hp. In fact, from the rear it even looks a bit like a 911. According to Ferrari, the 458 Speciale A could take on the Lamborghini for speed and acceleration. It has 597 hp and also does zero-60 mph in three seconds. It’s an Italian beauty with convertible top and its weight is lightened considerably through use of aluminum and carbon fiber. Ferrari plans to produce just 499 of them.

French Peugeot’s Quartz concept, even if manufactured, likely will never come to America. The crossover plug-in hybrid has a 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine producing 270 hp, married to twin electric motors for total output of 500 hp. In all-electric mode it has a range of about 31 miles.

France’s other major carmaker, Citroen, is making waves with the Cactus Airflow 2L concept. It has an exciting hybrid engine combining compressed air with gasoline. A regular hybrid harvests energy from braking and coasting while this Citroen actually gathers and compresses air, storing it in an onboard tank to release as power. It’s a cheaper system than standard hybrid technology because it doesn’t require a battery. Citroen says the Cactus Airflow will get 141 mpg. It could be produced in the 2016 cycle – but again won’t be available here.

The sleek, four-door Infiniti Q80 Inspiration concept also is a hybrid with a 3.0-liter twin-turbo V6 developing 450 hp. Adding a 75kW electric motor boosts it to 550 hp still getting 42 mpg.

One the show’s big surprises Volkswagen’s XL1 concept with a V2 engine. Stop scoffing! This V2 shows how motorcycle and automobile can intersect. Driven by a Ducati motorcycle engine, the XL1 gets 192 hp and does zero-60 mph in 5.7 seconds, hurtling you down the road up to 167 mph.

Honda’s been candid about wanting the fastest front-wheel-drive car on Germany’s famed Nürburgring racecourse. In Paris the Japanese automaker hints at impending success with the Civic Type R concept. This hatchback sure looks like it could go fast and the wink-wink responses from Honda to questions hint the Type R could achieve up to 300 hp. It goes on sale in the U.K. next year.

There’s less space here than there are promising cars at the Paris Mondial, including Jaguar’s XE competition for BMW’s 3 Series, Audi’s four-door TT Sportback concept, Bentley’s fast and ultra-luxurious 2015 Muslanne Speed, MINI’s Superleggera Vision concept all-electric roadster, Fiat’s 500x crossover and Land Rover’s Discovery with an airbag on the exterior for protecting pedestrians in collisions.

Très excitants et tres belles!

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Bright future for alternative fueled cars

Simply put, motion requires energy. Automobiles’ energy generally comes from hydrocarbon-based fuel – for 100+ years mostly energy-rich and reasonably inexpensive gasoline and diesel. But alternative fuels are making headway.

The shift begun in the 1970s has accelerated, driven by: 1) the relatively high cost of gasoline, 2) most oil still comes from overseas, and 3) government regulations mandating higher fuel-economy and lower tailpipe emissions.

Steam and electricity predated petroleum power. Electric cars’ costliness, plus their limited range, led to their early phase-out. Despite steam’s efficiency, Henry Ford adopted the internal combustion engine (ICE) for the Model T. It was much cheaper than steamers, and when an electric starter motor was added, steam’s popularity dropped.

Inefficient gasoline combustion causes annoying and potentially damaging engine knock. Engineers knew early on that controlling knock would allow higher compression, better fuel efficiency and power. Automobile manufacturers found an inexpensive anti-knock agent early in the 1900s: ethyl alcohol (ethanol). But in 1921, a General Motors chemist discovered that tetraethyllead also worked. It was introduced in 1923 and aggressively marketed.

Eventually GM joined Standard Oil of New Jersey to create the Ethyl Gasoline Corp. Promoted for speed and power, lead-added Ethyl gasoline became ubiquitous despite evidence that its lead content was poisonous and lasted in the environment. Ethyl wasn’t banned until the 1970s when catalytic converters, which weren’t compatible with leaded gasoline, were introduced to reduce smog.

The government began requiring oxygenated gasoline in ozone-polluted areas – including Denver – in the early 1990s. The first additive, MTBE, polluted drinking water, and was replaced by ethanol. Cheap and mainly produced from corn, ethanol was popular with powerful U.S. agriculture. Most cars can run on E10 (10% ethanol/90% gasoline). In recent years, Flex Fuel vehicles have been developed that can run on E85. The Environmental Protection Agency has approved an E15 blend for vehicles 2001 and later. Ethanol produces lower emissions, higher octane and can be produced from plant waste. But it’s less fuel-efficienct, increases food prices, and production may actually lead to a net pollution increase.

Diesel – used widely in domestic trucks and in foreign markets – is catching on for automobiles. Refiners were required to remove polluting sulfur so diesel now burns cleanly, offering more torque and 30 percent better efficiency than gas. Renewable biodiesel produced from plant waste is available, although petroleum diesel is much more prevalent. Diesels cost more but generally hold value better and last longer than gas-powered vehicles.

Compressed natural gas (CNG) is cheaper and cleaner than gasoline with comparable power. Many buses and trucks run on CNG but it hasn’t yet caught on for American automotive use. Now the U.S. is a leader in producing natural gas, CNG automobiles may become more available.

Hybrid vehicles with gasoline engines, electric motors and battery packs have surged in America since the Prius was introduced in 2000. Hybrids are more fuel-efficient but also more expensive. Plug-in hybrids can operate for limited distances on stored electricity supplemented with gasoline for longer trips. They take time to recharge and also are more expensive. However, sales figures show that both hybrids and plug-in hybrids are increasingly popular. Most automakers offer at least one model. Diesel hybrids – on the horizon promise even more efficiency.

All-electric vehicles are the next step and a few are now available. They have no tailpipe emissions and cost-per-mile is low. However, drivers have to plan ahead to recharge and there’s still an argument over whether overall they pollute less since much electricity still comes from coal-powered plants.

Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles that emit only water vapor are the new fuel frontier. Several manufacturers promise fuel cell vehicles within the next few years but there is no fueling infrastructure in place and hydrogen fuel production is itself polluting.

There is no perfect solution to the efficiency-emissions-economics equation but huge progress is being made. The range of alternative-fuel options available at your local dealer is greater now than it’s ever been.

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Lighter weight materials bring greater fuel efficiencies to new cars and trucks

Responding to federal CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards requiring their vehicle lines to average 54.5 mpg by 2025, automakers have gone all-out offering hybrid, electric, natural gas, clean diesel and fuel-cell vehicles. They’ve maximized gasoline engines with strategies like turbocharging, start-stop engines and regenerative braking. Higher gasoline prices and concern about greenhouse gas emissions and climate change also are creating market pressure for efficiency without sacrificing power.

Trimming weight is another way to increase efficiency. Lighter vehicles use less fuel. And manufacturers are looking to aluminum, carbon fiber reinforced plastics and other materials to “lightweight.” Steel, the industry standard, is undergoing some changes to make it lighter and stronger, as well.

Ford’s announcement in January that it would build F-150 trucks – America’s most popular vehicles – out of aluminum instead of steel was “a game changer,” says Kevin Shaughnessy, general manager for Denver’s Phil Long Ford. Trimmed by more than 700 pounds, “F-150s will have greater fuel economy. With lighter weight the brakes will last longer and it will mean less wear and tear on the components.”

Some high-end cars have been using aluminum, but this is a first for a mass-market vehicle. Shaughnessy says consumers seem less skeptical than might be expected, something he attributes to their understanding how well Ford trucks’ EcoBoost six-cylinder engine worked out in the F-150’s last big change.

To balance aluminum’s higher cost, Ford totally redesigned the truck, reducing the labor needed to repair it. Parts once made in one piece now are segmented and each segment is replaceable. “Ford also consulted the insurance industry on the design to lessen the cost of repairs,” Shaughnessy says. “Ford has put this through unbelievably rigorous testing.”

One potential worry is collision repair. Aluminum repairs must be isolated from steel body repairs, and technicians require training in aluminum bodywork. Shaughnessy says the sheer volume of F-150s will pressure collision repair centers to acquire the space, equipment and training needed to repair them and to earn Ford certification necessary to purchase replacement parts. “Aluminum is definitely the direction the industry is going and Ford opted to be the leader,” he says.

While Ford has gone big on aluminum, BMW’s adoption of carbon fiber reinforced plastic (CFRP) is just as revolutionary. CFRP has been used for several years in racecars and BMW has used it for some body parts on high-performance vehicles. Now BMW is taking CFRP mainstream with carbon fiber passenger compartments (Life Modules) on its new i3 electric and i8 plug-in vehicles.

Carbon fiber is lighter, stronger and more easily shaped than steel. Instead of welds or rivets, carbon fiber uses super-strong adhesives. Its repair also takes specialized training and facilities. “It’s unique because you can cut out a piece of carbon fiber and replace it. You don’t have to replace a whole panel if there’s a crack or tear or break,” according to Schomp BMW’s Business Development Director Michael Dunlap. BMW’s CFRP vehicles can only be repaired in BMW-certified facilities.

BMW is so committed to CFRP that it built a hydroelectric manufacturing plant in Washington State, whose size it’s already expanding. BMW and other manufacturers are researching how carbon fiber can be used in other automotive components, such as springs and brakes, as well.

Both aluminum and CFRP vehicles cost more to produce and have higher initial prices but manufacturers and the government hope customers will understand that they will recoup more than their initial investment with lower long-term fuel costs.

Meanwhile, don’t count steel out. New alloys and manufacturing methods have made it lighter, stronger and easier to fabricate. Since steel’s raw materials are cheaper and more abundant than aluminum or carbon fiber, it will continue to be a contender. And while none of these materials may come out the victor, ultimately consumers will win with stronger, safer and more fuel-efficient vehicles.

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Recall Overdrive – Why Consumers Should Not Be Overly Concerned

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Does the latest recall news have you wondering whether many of the automobiles driving on U.S. streets and highways are dangerous? It seems like there’s a news report about recalls almost daily – almost 20 announced so far this month.

In fact, automobiles are safer today than they have ever been. And the newer the vehicle, the safer it is – whether there’s been a recall notice on it or not. That is not a contradiction because behind the many recalls there are several different dynamics at work, including advanced technology and engineering, automobile manufacturing methods, politics, and the 24-hour news cycle. They all converge in this latest wave of recalls.

The average age of automobiles in the United States is about 11 years, so consumers who have been waiting for improvement in the economy – and their own personal finances –are beginning to think about buying new cars. Not surprisingly, they want their new cars to be the most technologically advanced possible, and include every bell and whistle they can afford, because they will probably hang on to that car for several years. After all, a new car is barely broken in at 100,000 miles.

This demand for highly advanced machines means there’s a lot more in those automobiles that can go wrong. Manufacturers are constantly testing their technology and when they find there’s a problem, especially a safety problem, they voluntarily recall the affected vehicles without any prompting from the government. If the government has to intervene it can result in big fines to the manufacturers, so they’re becoming even more vigilant about ferreting out any safety defects.

As the technology becomes more complex, and more expensive to research and develop, automakers are finding ways to use the same technology in several models, thereby keeping consumer prices lower. But this also means that if a safety defect is found in one model it will necessitate recalling all of the models in which that technology is used, driving up the number of recalled vehicles.

Politics plays a role in recalls, too. The recent problems with Toyotas and Chevrolets are good examples. While these manufacturers should have voluntarily recalled their defective vehicles the NHTSA also bears some responsibility for not investigating as soon as problems were identified. Now, with Congress and the public watching, NHTSA is being very aggressive about investigating complaints. A case in point is a recent investigation on 2014 Chevrolet Impalas for a fuel-line problem after a single consumer inquiry. Of course, the government should be very careful where human safety is involved. Nevertheless, this will result in a higher number of recalls and more news about recalls than ever.

News about recalls, while providing an important public service, also serves to magnify the impact of recalls. Reporting has gone from a daily newspaper and single newscast to a 24-hour news cycle with huge competition to make every story more detailed and more interesting. What once might have been a matter-of-fact announcement of a vehicle recall now is repeated many times and advanced with video, multiple interviews, reporter talk-backs and snappy graphics.

The upside is that consumers are more conscious than ever of safety. It provides us in the automotive industry the opportunity to highlight the ever-increasing number of safety features that new vehicles have. For example, in the last few years vehicles have added anti-lock brakes, more air bags, collision and lane departure warning, adaptive headlights and many more features. Cars don’t drive themselves – though that’s in the works, too – but they certainly help protect their drivers in more ways than ever before, and the rate of fatal accidents has dropped consistently as a result.

The news about recalls may also help us all to focus on safety, prompting us to drive more carefully by not engaging in distracted driving or driving while intoxicated, getting enough rest before driving and always wearing safety belts.

 

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Quietly, consistently air quality improves

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Have you heard the good news on the environment?

Well, it’s not exactly new but it may surprise you.

Since 1980, emissions of six common pollutants have declined by two thirds, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Meanwhile, the U.S. population increased by more than a third, energy consumption grew by more than a quarter, and travel by car increased by 92 percent.

It’s the kind of data that would seem to merit a parade or at least popping of champagne.  Consider:

  • Carbon monoxide pollution is down 83 percent.
  • Ozone, bad for health at ground level, has been cut by a quarter.
  • Lead, whose effects on young brains were linked a spike in violent crime, has declined by 91 percent.
  • Nitrogen dioxide, which can cause respiratory problems, has been reduced by more than half.
  • Sulfur dioxide, which contributed to acid rain, has declined by more than three quarters.

And the good news extends to Colorado. The United Health Foundation ranked Colorado as the eighth healthiest state, in part because of low air pollution levels.

Yet the public may not appreciate these gains. A decade ago, in the midst of this steady improvement in air quality, a poll found that nearly seven out of 10 Americans thought air quality was the same (31 percent) or worse (38 percent) compared to 1970.

Ground-level ozone has been a more stubborn challenge in Colorado but new rules adopted Feb. 24 on oil and gas production – rules embraced by some big industry players – will help reduce it.

Why are we as a society so trusting of sky-is-falling warnings and so skeptical of good news on the environment?  Certainly, environmental activists – who have a vested interest in maintaining high levels of anxiety – contribute with overheated rhetoric.

But do most of us have a tendency to trust bad news more than the positive?

As author Gregg Easterbrook once noted, “Though by almost every measure the Western environment at least has been getting better for decades, voters, thinkers, and pundits have been programmed to believe the environment is getting worse. Thus conditioned, Americans greet environmental bad news with a welcoming sigh as confirming the expected, while regarding environmental good news as some kind of deception.”

Similarly lost in the sometimes apocalyptic narrative is the transformative power of technology. It’s unlikely we’ll see many flying cars in 2015 – sorry, fans of Back to the Future 2 – but automobile manufacturers continue to unveil a dizzying array of new environment-friendly technologies including flex fuel, clean diesel, electric, hybrids, hydrogen fuel cell and natural gas-powered vehicles. These technologies – along with today’s incarnations of the classic gas-powered internal combustion engine — emit 90-plus percent less on average than vehicles sold in 1970, while offering exponentially better performance, safety and fuel economy.  

As Matt Ridley wrote in Wired magazine 2012: “Over the past half century, none of our threatened eco-pocalypses have played out as predicted.”

He added, “Humanity is a fast-moving target. We will combat our ecological threats in the future by innovating to meet them as they arise, not through the mass fear stoked by worst-case scenarios.”

We all have a role in supporting a clean environment. For example, Colorado’s new car dealers launched the Clear the Air Foundation (cleartheairfoundation.org), which has recycled nearly 1,000 older, higher-polluting cars.  And we use the revenue from the value of the scrap to educate tech students interested in entering automotive fields.

But let’s take a moment to celebrate the gains we’ve made, even while we work to extend them for the next generations.

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Beijing Auto Show brings out big crowds and new car concepts

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More than 120,000 people flocked to the Beijing International Automotive Exhibition every day during its run April 21-29, making the best-attended auto show in the world. No wonder most of the world’s automakers are jockeying so hard for position in the Chinese new car market. Overall, more cars are sold there than anywhere and it will become the largest premium car market in the world soon.

The Beijing show featured more than 1,100 vehicles, including 118 world-premiere vehicles, 71 concepts and 79 so-called “new energy” vehicles – all or partly electric.

The show was like most auto shows, with lots of gleaming sheet metal and glitzy displays with attractive models. What US consumers would have found strange were the nameplates from the fast-growing Chinese automotive industry, both private and state owned. In all, nearly 100 different auto manufacturers were in Beijing to show their newest, best and brightest.

There were two distinct focuses: luxury and the environment, both very important in China. It is struggling with serious air pollution, making EVs, hybrids and plug-in hybrids important, but it’s also awash in newly rich consumers wanting powerful, plush and pretty status symbols.

Chinese tycoons are eager for cars like the Rolls-Royce Pinnacle Travel Phantom debuted here, or the world premier Bugatti Veyron Type 19 “Black Bess” of which three are available at $3.61 million each. China’s top-dollar entry was the $840,000 Hongqi L5 sedan with an all-aluminum 6.0-liter V-12, featuring 402 hp and 405 lb-ft of torque, plus hand-carved, cloud-motif wood inlays and celadon-jade door handles!

The Hongqi and most Chinese models won’t come to America, but we’ll see Japanese, Korean and European entries, like the BMW Vision Future Luxury concept. It takes the carbon fiber used in BMW’s i3 and applies it to this long, lean luxury sedan. It’s rumored this could become BMW’s top-of-the-line plug-in electric. Meanwhile, Mercedes-Benz unwrapped the Concept Coupe SUV with a twin-turbo 3.0-liter V6 delivering 333 hp and 354 lb-ft of torque. The adjustable chassis offers Comfort, Sport Plus, slippery-condition and driver-customized modes.

Audi unveiled the TT Offroad concept with innovative Wireless Charging technology that powers up via inductive pad instead of a plug. It has a 292-hp turbocharged four-cylinder engine that produces 408 hp and sprints zero-60 mph in 5.2 seconds and 123-mpg fuel efficiency. Inside are a 12.3-inch display with 3D graphics and an in-cabin ionizer to get rid of allergens…and polluted air.

Two concepts from Volkswagen stood out. The R400 Golf sports a turbocharged four-cylinder 395-hp engine that can do 174 mph and race from zero to 62 mph in 3.9 seconds. And it was splashy in silver-flake paint with yellow touches. VW’s Midsize Coupe concept (it will get a better name if produced) is sporty looking, shorter and wider than the Jetta. With a 2.0-liter, 217-hp engine it races from zero-62 mph in 6.5 seconds. It gets an estimated 37 mpg.

Lexus showcased its upcoming NX compact SUV, headed to the US with either 2.0-liter four-cylinder, 235 hp engine or as a hybrid offering 194 hp, both available in AWD. Lincoln’s showstopper was the MKX concept, about which one reviewer raved, “M-K-Meow” for its sexy styling. This is definitely not your father’s Lincoln, and it’s surely US-bound. Hyundai displayed a crossover concept, too, the ix25, that’s likely to make it to North America. Its compact size will make put it in competition with Chevy’s new Trax CUV, tricked out like one of the “Transformers” movie characters for its Beijing showing.

The Nissan Lannia concept, a sedan with sharp styling, was designed and built in China but with global appeal that hints at eventual wider distribution. Nissan called it a “sedan theory-breaker.” Honda’s B Hybrid Concept is designed for China but U.S. drivers would love its low, sleek and sexy look.

One clear takeaway from Beijing is that gas-guzzlers are being nudged aside by speedy, powerful, beautiful but lower-emission vehicles that consumers will want to buy.  Yet, if you want to see trendy, this is the place for the world to see.

 

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New York International Auto Show brings muscle and more

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There was a time when pony and muscle cars inspired songs and dreams. Candy-colored, fast and throaty, their time came – and went – with high gas prices. New automotive technology has brought them back. This week’s New York International Auto Show, ending Sunday, showcased new, more gorgeous than ever versions of the legends.

Most anticipated: the 50th anniversary Ford Mustang. While impressive on the show floor, it looked spectacular atop the Empire State Building. Ford is building just 1,964 anniversary edition GT Fastbacks, but mass-produced Mustangs capture the icon’s essence.

Dodge’s Challenger and Charger embody Americans’ thirst for speed. Dodge’s research reportedly indicates 25 percent of car buyers say performance is their purchasing priority. These Dodges deliver performance and outstanding connectivity. The Challenger’s 8.4-inch Uconnect infotainment system can handle 10 Bluetooth-enabled devices, turning the car into a WiFi hotspot. The Charger comes with paddle shifters on some models and the availability of a 5.7-liter HEMI V-8 that does zero-60 mph in under six seconds.

Chevrolet brought another fabled speedster to NYC: the Corvette Z06 Convertible with 638-hp and a zero-60 mph potential of under 3.5 seconds. But real speed-demons must check out the Koenigsegg Agera One:1 Mega. Its 1,322-hp engine, capable of 200 mph in 17 seconds, may top all competitors – for a cool $1.4 million.

Other fast Europeans in New York included Germany’s Mercedes-Benz S63 AMG 4MATIC coupe with 577-hp, governed top speed of 186 mph, and ability to do zero-60 in 3.9 seconds. Italy’s Maserati GranTurismo, not meant for racing, still zooms from zero-62 mph in 5.2 seconds with a top speed of 177 mph. And after 20 years, Alfa Romeo is back in the USA with the sexy 4C, coming this summer with a smallish 237-hp engine that still does zero-62 in 4.5 seconds.

Britain’s Aston Martin’s Vantage GT would enchant 007 with its 430-hp engine achieving zero-60 in 46 seconds. Not as fast, but promising lots of sportiness, is Japan’s Mazda Miata roadster, teased with its suspension and powertrain on display, but no sheet metal. The 25th Anniversary Miata was shown, looking radiant in racy Soul Red.

Consumers looking more for space or economy also had plenty to see. Nissan’s 3rd-generation, restyled Murano, called “funky” by some and “dramatic” by others, is also supposed to be 20 percent more fuel-efficient and comes with high-end technology and safety features.

Land Rover’s Discovery Vision concept foreshadows a new mid-level line of SUVs coming soon. It’s sleek, has big wheels, suicide doors and very advanced tech features, including lasers that gauge the depth of streams you want to drive through.

You probably won’t take Honda’s new crossover, the HR-V, off road. It’s built on the subcompact Fit platform, and while there was only a photo – no car – to be seen it still generated mega-buzz for its cargo-carrying potential.  Chevy’s new Trax subcompact SUV comes with loads of available connected-car technology, including OnStar, a 4G LTE mobile hotspot, Siri EyesFree and more. Jeep jumps in the subcompact SUV fray with the 2015 Jeep Renegade; the Trailhawk model is built for off-roading.

VW’s new Golf SportWagen is slightly larger with an AWD version possible. It goes into production early next year. The restyled Kia Sedona minivan takes comfort and spaciousness seriously with mid-row loungers with pop-out leg rests and outstanding UVO infotainment and telematics.

Some Americans want muscle and speed, but efficiency and reliability still sell. Toyota bids to hold onto to its overall sales lead with the redesigned 2015 Camry. Coming next fall, it promises stiffer suspension, crisper steering and decidedly more aggressive styling.

Too many cars packed the show to mention here, but we also noticed the new BMW X4 crossover and the Audi A3 TDI Sportback. Hyundai’s 2015 Sonata will have high-end tech for middle-end pricing. Acura’s 2015 TLX packs more power and comes with a push-button gear selector.

The automotive world is off to Beijing. More next week.

 

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