Five years ago, I decided I would solve all of the American auto industry's problems. Then again, five years ago was 2007; the worst was yet to come. With the changes wrought by Carmageddon — a brace of bankruptcies and an infusion of Italian brio — perhaps it's time to see if anyone took my advice.

We begin with Vent #525, "Advice to the General":

  • Lose the damn four-speed automatics, fercryingoutloud. I have no inherent dislike for these critters — my last three cars have been so equipped — but they're perceived as being low-tech, and you can't afford to look low-tech, especially with the Volt on the way.

  • Work on those interiors. The Silverado was a giant step in the right direction, and the new CTS looks promising, but too many GM cars have too much obviously-cheap plastic, and the fact that Chrysler is generally worse doesn't allow you the luxury of complacency.

  • Hang tough against the UAW. If that means giving [then-UAW head Ron] Gettelfinger the finger, so be it. Every $100 you don't have to spend on health care is $80 you can put into improving those interiors — and $20 you can stash in the bank for the next rainy day.

One of the last quadracogged holdouts was the ancient Chevrolet Impala; the next version will have six speeds and, yes, a decidedly-upgraded interior. Other GM models have been similarly updated, though I'm told that the low-end Chevy Spark will still be offered with a four-speed. And Ron Gettelfinger has retired; Bob King, his replacement at UAW, is no more tractable, but the union, through its Voluntary Employment Benefit Association, owns 17.5 percent of the post-bankruptcy company, and King is presumably smart enough not to rattle the sabres too loudly.

From Vent #527, "Blue-oval blues":

  • Do something with Lincoln. This is supposed to be your answer to Cadillac. Lately, you haven't said anything: the Zephyr/MKZ (make up your mind) is nice enough, but everyone knows it's a Ford, or at least a Mercury, and the Navigator doesn't compete with Caddy's Escalade in any way other than chrome content.

  • Get rid of Jaguar. It's a drain on the corporate exchequer, and considerations of Jaguar's market positioning are keeping you from doing something with Lincoln (see above).

  • Come up with some better advertising. There hasn't been a memorable Ford ad since "Have you driven a Ford lately?" You may have some competitive, even superior, vehicles, but who's going to know, other than a handful of motorheads?

  • Solidify Mercury as an alternative brand. Current Mercury marketing is aimed largely at women, and that's fine, but women have other interests besides style. Give them some unique vehicles. Ford of Europe — and, for that matter, Ford of Australia — have good contenders. It's about time Mercury was something other than Lincoln's budget brand.

Ford CEO Alan Mullaly did in fact get rid of Jaguar — and Land Rover, Aston Martin and Volvo as well — but Mercury's solidification is due entirely to rigor mortis, and Lincoln, despite improving the dealer experience, is still nothing more than a vaguely über-Ford. And while some individual TV spots have been memorable — this one, grumbling about the bailouts granted to their Detroit rivals, got major traction — we're still waiting on a new slogan.

Finally, from Vent #549, "Getting over the Benz", a reference to Daimler's terminated tenure as Chrysler's Designated Savior of the moment:

  • Shorten the development cycle. The PT is now going into its eighth year. This is not by any means the longest tenure in Detroit — Ford has sold the same Focus in the States for nine years, and Chevy managed only three generations of Cavalier in twenty-three years — but the PT, while it's treated as simply the entry-level Chrysler, is as much a "halo car" as the 300 and deserves the same level of attention.

  • Get rid of the non-convertible Sebrings. With a fixed roof, the Sebring is just another rental car; with a ragtop (or a retractable hardtop), it's a fair amount of fun. Let Dodge sell the sedan version.

  • Enough with the Jeep variations. The new Wrangler Unlimited is a hit, the Liberty stands in well enough for the old Cherokee, and the present-day Grand Cherokee is nearly Wagoneer-plush; I can appreciate wanting to expand the brand, but you can't slap a vertical grille on a Dodge and make a Jeep out of it. The Compass must die, and the Patriot might as well go with it.

In retrospect, so to speak, the PT perhaps wasn't so much of a halo car as I might have thought, inasmuch as neither of Mopar's successive overlords, the vulture capitalists or the Fiatisti, bothered to replace it in the lineup. Both the Patriot and the Compass are still with us. And while the Sebring name has been buried, the 200 that superseded it is still selling in both topped and topless versions, with hardly anybody buying the Dodge Avenger, despite its perfect-for-road-rage name.

So my advice went largely unheeded. I should not have been surprised. (I mean, if I did have someone's ear in Detroit, I'd be raking in the bucks as a consultant.) Not that this will encourage me to refrain from offering it, of course.

The Vent

#799
  1 December 2012

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