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Racing efforts help GM to improve cars

| Saturday, April 27, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

No brand competes in as many North American racing series as Chevrolet, and the brand uses that to connect with customers and improve its cars in ways that aren't always obvious, said Jim Campbell, Chevrolet vice president of performance vehicles and motor sports.

Chevrolet will introduce two new performance cars, the SS sedan and Corvette Stingray, this year plus an updated version of the Camaro. All three models compete in racing series. After a period when racing seemed divorced from the cars most automakers sell, demands for lightweight vehicles and more efficient engines that combine performance and fuel economy are bringing street and track closer together, Campbell said.

“Racing is a wonderful way to train engineers to move very quickly,” Campbell said. “Every seven to 14 days, the green flag drops, whether you're ready or not. They learn to solve problems fast.”

Nissan's big month: Keep an eye on Nissan. Traditionally the third-seller among Japanese brands, the automaker's Altima was America's best-selling midsize sedan last month and displaced Honda.

Nissan has high expectations for 2013. The Versa Note subcompact hatchback joins the lineup soon, and a new version of the Rogue crossover arrives in the fourth quarter.

The Altima's 37,763 sales beat the perennially top-selling Toyota Camry. The last time that happened was May 2011, when Japan's tsunami crippled Toyota production. Nissan also outsold Honda last month, 126,623 to 121,938 — the first time that's happened since it was clearing out the last-generation Altima a year ago.

“It was a great month. We even surprised ourselves,” said Jose Munoz, Nissan Americas senior vice president of marketing and sales.

It's a significant achievement, but Nissan is overly dependent on the Altima, Edmunds.com senior analyst Michelle Krebs said. “It accounts for a huge proportion of their sales. They've got to spread their sales over more vehicles.”

Munoz expects several new models to achieve that. The Pathfinder, which switched from an off-road-oriented SUV to more fuel-efficient crossover last fall, is selling at nearly triple the old model's rate.

Plug-in savings: A new website lets buyers calculate their fuel costs with a variety of plug-in hybrids. “My Plug-in Hybrid Calculator,” created by the Department of Energy, lets you tailor results to any plug-in on the market and your personal driving needs.

Choosing the most cost-effective vehicle is no longer a simple matter of high miles per gallon equals low cost, because plug-in hybrids' cruising ranges vary greatly depending on battery size.

You can find the calculator under the “Advanced Vehicles and Fuels” tab at FuelEconomy.gov.

Mark Phelan is the Detroit Free Press auto critic. He can be reached at mmphelan@freepress.com.

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