An automotive New Year
New Year’s is the most two-faced of celebrations. According to ancient lore, Janus is the god of transitions and the concept of the New Year’s resolution begins with all those pagan Romans looking back at the year that had just passed and then promising not to make the same mistakes twice. The more modern version is that, just before we get falling-down drunk (or is that just after?), tradition dictates that we’re supposed to determine what has tormented us for the last 12 months and, gleaning the wisdom of mistakes past, resolve to never repeat them.
Of course, the same could be said of corporations. And, goodness knows, there have been plenty of faux pas of a grandiose nature in the automotive world recently. Having a ready answer for everything, your not so humble Motor Mouth suggests the following industry-wide resolutions:
To Saab, I say stay down: The late, great Joltin’ Joe Frazier was one of the toughest men to ever step inside an 18-foot ring. Maybe too tough. Against the colossus that was George Foreman (Frazier stood but 5-foot-11 versus the towering 6-foot-4 current purveyor of grills), he was knocked down no less than six times in just two rounds, refusing, each time, to quit until the referee —— and most of the ringside observers — could watch no more and called a halt to the fight.
It’s time for Saab to take the 10-count. Yes, the company was once an innovator. Yes, Made in Sweden used to stand for something. But any view of Saab as a going concern is more than two decades old now, its best years over long before its acquisition by General Motors in 1988. The last few years have featured nothing but bad cars, even worse financing and some pretty phantasmagorical projections of its rebirth. But the once proud company is finally filing for bankruptcy, its saviour of last resort, Zhejiang Youngman Lotus of China, rejected by former owner GM for potential conflict of interest reasons. It really is time to throw in the towel.
To General Motors, I say listen up: Here’s a little pop quiz for all those GM marketing whizzes who think that, because things are finally looking up again, they can become as insular and haughty as The General of old: What is the fastest-growing trend in automotive propulsion besides electrification? The answer: small — usually four-cylinder — turbocharged engines. And who was the acknowledged master of turbocharging? You guessed it: Saab.
Long before EcoBoost was a twinkle in Dearborn’s collective eye, Saab was giving us high-output, incredibly sophisticated turbocharged four-cylinders. I remember watching, mouth agape, the company’s 1993 introduction of its Trionic engine management system that used feedback through the spark plug to monitor engine performance and emissions. Saab’s emissions control systems were so advanced for their day that you could feed the exhaust of an oil-burning two-stroke Saab 99 into its air intake and the internal-combustion engine would actually clean up the pollution, spewing purer air out its exhaust pipe. If it had listened, GM would be thumbing its nose at Ford, Audi, BMW and Mercedes and all of the rest of the automotive world just now discovering the miracle of forced induction.
To Honda, I say grow some: It’s no mystery that Honda’s perennial best-seller, the Civic, has not been well received. Pretty much universally panned, the 2012 model’s essential problem is that it’s a timid response to challenges that require bold answers. Perhaps, as Honda claims, almost 2,000 parts are all new. But it feels, looks and drives the same. Hence, the less than warm response from critics and consumers alike.
It is, I suppose, endemic of any car company that is too successful for too long to stay the same. The fear of retrenchment is stronger than the allure of growth. Honda was once the company of the Prelude, CR-X and the NSX. It needs to be that car company again. Thankfully, there are signs the company is getting the message. And not a moment too soon.
To Ford, I say grow some (part deux): It’s tough to criticize the darling of the North American auto industry, but, despite excellent sales and the adoration of the mainstream media that seems to forgive any ill because Ford managed to eschew government bailouts, all is not perfect in Dearborn. Yes, it is ecologically correct. Yes, it is to be congratulated for the recent unveiling of a full complement of electrified vehicles — Focus Electric, C-MAX hybrid, C-MAX Energi plug-in hybrid. And, most emphatically yes, its marketing mavens are to be lauded for the best ads in the car business.
But the untold story is that Ford’s actual cars are pretty run-of-the-mill. No FoMoCo product I’ve tested in the last few years has stood out. There have been no stinkers, it must be said, but neither have there been any home runs. Styling aside, which is yet another strength, Ford seems to be trying to usurp the Japanese stranglehold on middle-of-the-road cars. Ask Honda how that’s working for it.
To Volkswagen, I say cool it: Volkswagen has been on a roll lately, its cars selling like hot cakes even in North America, long a wasteland for VW. But, if I were Ferdinand Piech, major-domo extraordinaire of the Volkswagen board, I’d be throttling back on the “we’re going to be Number One” rhetoric (VW is publicly saying it wants to be the world’s top automaker by 2018). For one thing, look at what’s become of the last two Numeros Uno. GM filed for bankruptcy and, then, no sooner had Toyota taken The General’s perch atop the leader board, it, too, imploded, i.e., on fast forward.
And managing all the diverse brands that make up the Volkswagen Group (what are there 10? 12? 47?) is a serious case of juggling egos and product. Audi engineers were in a serious snit when Volkswagen tried to foist its luxurious Phaeton in competition with their A8. And, more recently, there’s been the rather public divorce between Volkswagen and Suzuki, as acrimonious a split as the automotive world has seen of late. This smacks of spreading oneself too thin.
To Mazda, I say scream it: I’ve already devoted an entire Motor Mouth to Mazda’s corporate mantra. Seemingly kept secret (I’ve only seen it as a banner at Mazda’s Canadian headquarters), it contains such gems as “for people who would rather clean off a little brake dust in exchange for a brake pedal that speaks to their foot” and “We’re enthusiasts. That’s why we race what we build.” And my favourite, “If it’s not worth driving, it’s not worth building.” One might expect such lofty ambitions from BMW, Mercedes or even Ferrari, but Mazda? On the other hand, on any given weekend, more Mazdas are being raced in North America than any other brand of automobile. Mazda needs to remind everyone it’s not just another run-of-the-mill automaker.
To Tesla, I challenge it to sell it: The little electric car may be a media darling, but, in reality, it’s just an overpriced dilettante’s toy to be paraded on Rodeo Drive along with the trophy wife and the owner’s latest $300 cigar find. Oh, yes, the media chimes, it’s a real car because it can speed around a race track as fast as any gasoline-fuelled competitor. The only problem is that you can’t actually drive it to any race track because it doesn’t have enough range to get there! The company has barely sold 1,000 cars and, yet, CEO Elon Musk says he won’t quit until all cars are electric. If that’s not the height of hubris, then I don’t know what is. Oh, and you can throw Fisker under the same bus as well.
To Ferrari, I say can it: Come on, guys. Surely you know that the new FF is as ugly as sin? My God — and there is really no way to say this politely — it looks like a Volvo mated with a #$%&#% dachshund. Really, did somebody accidentally squish an XC70 in a compactor and then paint it red? This abomination wears the same badge as the Testarossa? As the GTO? For shame!
Here’s a question everyone involved in the creation of the FF should have asked themselves: If Enzo came back to life right now, would he have approved something so hideous? At least rebadge it something else. Call it a Buick, maybe. Nah, that would be insulting Buick.
To Maserati, I say can it (part deux): Seriously, you’re going to take a Jeep Grand Cherokee, dress it up all Italian and then sell it for, what, a hundred large? Does anyone really think Jeep’s product portfolio can stretch this far? My Lord, what’s next, an Aston Martin based on a Toyota?
Oops . . .
To Aston Martin, I say fire him: Dr. Ulrich Bez, CEO of Aston Martin since 2000, isn’t just a little past his sell-by date, he’s plain old sour milk. Once a towering giant in the engineering department (he oversaw Porsche’s first attempt, pre-Panamera, at building a four-door sedan), Bez is now a walking caricature of the oligarchs — Enzo Ferrari, Ettore Bugatti, et al. — that used to rule the automotive world. He’s defensive to the point of alienation, seemingly remote from his clientele and still peddling old ideas in a new world. A rebadged Toyota/Scion iQ as a $50,000-plus Aston Martin! Seriously now!