Saturday, January 21, 2006

Not My Father's Olds. Please.

This is a subject that has been on my mind for a long time. I've been reluctant to tackle it in print because though I have a sense of what I feel, I'm not sure I can trace my way to my conclusion as convincingly as I'd like. Which is another way of saying that I'm not sure I'm really settled in a secure place with my opinion. Anyway, this may require a couple posts or more.

Here's the deal. As I alluded in #13 of this post, I have owned a bunch of cars and trucks and motorcycles over the years. I'm a car nut, a machinery geek (so I'm definitely in the right line of work from that standpoint). But while some people are fans of, say, old Mustangs or big-tired trucks, my enthusiasm is for cars generally, and for the industry that leads and follows market demands for this important segment of American culture and the economy. Perhaps in no other country is the automobile so important, or so tightly interwoven in the fabric of the culture as it is here. While we can trace our expansion westward across the continent to the perfection and growth of the railroads, it is the automobile that represents individuality and freedom in our culture, and the signs of the central importance of personal transportation are everywhere. Anyway, I'm keenly interested in everything automotive. Blah, blah, well and good.

But I'm evidently not alone: last year Americans bought 17 million new cars. Of my 25 cars, half have been American. The other half were Japanese, save for one Volvo. I've never owned a German car. Just under half of both the Japanese and American were bought new. I've also had my fingers in the pie, so to speak, of several friends' car purchases, advising and assisting in their decisions. So I've seen a pretty good cross section of the industry. The performance and quality of a car are things I pay attention to, and these things occupy a notable portion of my waking hours each day. (To save my buying another magazine with each airport I pass thru, my wife took out subscriptions to every major car magazine to save money.)

I concluded about 20 years ago that I was simply not a fan of American cars, or of the American auto industry, though I have continued to buy American cars (in fact, in this last decade my purchases have been 6/3 in favor of American machinery). I have owned a collection of Toyotas, Hondas and Subarus, and have found them simply superior to their American equivalents in nearly every respect. I will avoid a tiresome litany of pluses and minuses of each camp, and suffice it to say that while it's not a slam-dunk--American cars do have some consistent virtues--I think the Japanese simply have us beat.

Now, I've known quite a few people who have waved the "buy American" flag, and who, though they did not identify it as such, always purchase domestic vehicles out of a sense of duty. And I have rejected this argument, since I think the idea the we cannot compete without artificial incentives is an insult to our culture and to the domestic industry. My feeling has been, let the market forces apply their pressures and we will respond accordingly. If the Toyota Camry outsells the Chevy Impala, the obvious solution is to get up on our hind legs and show 'em who's boss! Dig into what they're doing better than us and start from THERE and move forward.

But it hasn't worked out that way. We have been in catch-up mode now for thirty years, and we have seen our share of both the domestic and the worldwide automotive market shrink, year after year, while foreign brands have increased as steadily. Whatever progress we make in efficiency or design or quality, we are outstripped by our competitors; there ensues a whirlwind of promises and hyped-up claims about what is coming and how great such and such a product is, but the reality always turns out to have been marketing spin and corporate doubletalk, a glittering, sequined gown draped over a store mannequin. For years.

The only areas where we've been consistently able to hold our own are in severely traditional forms: full sized pickup trucks and large, rear-drive sedans. And I think it's an open question whether we actually excel in these genres or whether these vehicles rather pander to the most traditional buy-American crowd. In any case, these traditional forms represent what we already know, and show the least level of innovation; they are by definition variations on a 50-year-old theme.

This all to me is an egregious failure of management. Of top management. There may be other contributing causes, but they are just that: contributing, not causal. (There, buried in the middle, is my thesis statement.)

I have railed for years about how fucked up it is that we continue blindly in the direction we're going and do not, Japanese-style, begin systematically tracking our quality problems back to their sources and fix them permanently; I have bitched at a management style that looks to how many defects it can get away with versus striving for an ever-smaller number; I have stood gape-jawed at another new line of SUVs and at new Hummer dealerships when $5 a gallon (and beyond) gasoline is clearly visible in the very near future, while in the meantime Honda and Toyota are perfecting hybrids and bringing supreme refinement to large 4-cylinder sedans that get 30+ miles per gallon, and the Germans are refining super-efficient diesels.

It's another entry--hell, another whole blog--to talk in some detail about the causes of all these things, and about who bears responsibility for all the issues facing the industry. But my purpose for the present entry is to question what I as a consumer should do.

So here's the dilemma. My militant disagreement with the management of these huge companies is moot; we are now facing very serious crises in this industry, serious enough that it avails no one to shout "See? I told you so!" An ocean liner that sinks will pull the lifeboats next to it down to the depths with it. No one will escape the storm. I can buy another Toyota--and I'm very happy to do this--but it will not save me from the turmoil that will surely come if Ford or GM declares bankruptcy (I'm assuming that Daimler-Chrysler is holding its own).

And so I've begun contemplating my next car being a mercy purchase. A few of the domestic cars I've driven (I am, you may recall, always shopping for that next purchase) have been really quite impressive--the Cadillac CTS and SRX, the Chrysler 300C, the Dodge Magnum, the Dodge Ram--and they tend, feature-for-feature, to be a bit less expensive than their Japanese counterparts. (It's worth mentioning that most "Japanese" cars are made in the US now, while a significant portion of "American" cars are built out of the country.) But all of these are pretty heavy drinkers, and one has to accept that one will have to make regular trips to the garage for problems big and little--all my new American cars have been considerably more troublesome than any of my Japanese cars. And I don't know how to shake the feeling that I am caving in to something that I ought not to have to bow to. It should be incumbent upon the very highly-paid management of these companies to innovate and to make an industry-leading product.

But they can't, or they haven't. And so what do we do?


Esbee said...

I think we should all just buy Le Cars. Remember those?

I'm not sure what the solution is, says she of the Volkswagen. I wish there was an American car that was fuel-efficient AND not incredibly ugly ( to me) or cheaply made.

And nothing has gone on forever problem-free like the Hondas I've had over the years. Nothing.

wunelle said...

Ah. LeCar. I remember that Motor Trend granted a sister car, the Alliance, the honors of Car of the Year. It was a decision later regretted.

I've had several Honda cars and a whole spate of Honda motorcycles, and not a lick of trouble with any of them. By contrast, our 2004 Saturn has been in the shop a few times, and my used '97 Buick Riviera--an expensive car when new--took a cool $2,500 out of my pocket in the first year or so I owned it.

Honda and Toyota seem the state of the regular person's car art. I would say that Toyota at least equals Honda in iron-clad reliability, but Honda wins hands-down for driver involvement. My current top two or three cars I'm looking at are Hondas.

This post only kind of touches on a bunch of things. I have a lot more to say on the subject, and while I know it will never make a popular blogging topic, it's good to try and work through in writing.

A gold star for you for reading any or all of it! ;-)

Kate said...

I appreciate my gold star but I deserve a medal if I read the Supreme Court and car post plus the novel you have written.

All I can tell you about the cars is that, with the exception of the Tobacco Industry, the automobile industry has had more signs that they needed to change direction than any other. I share your frustration and grieve at the thought of the loss of jobs and manufacturing base.

Kate said...

My mistake, this is the novel. The next post I can handle. ;-)

wunelle said...

You're quite right! If Esbee gets a gold star for reading the post, you ought to get something like the Blogger's Iron Cross (BIC) for reading all three posts in one sitting!


(Actually, I'm grateful that anyone would take the time to read what was mostly an exercise in getting something off my chest. :-)

But I agree with your sentiment: the writing has been on the wall for as long as I've followed these things. And that's why I'm inclined, whatever roles other entities have played, to place the responsibility for this meltdown squarely in upper management's lap.


Anonymous said...

As any parent knows, you have to firmly resist the urge to cave in as the whining and moaning escalate. Giving the US manufacturers a mercy purchase only rewards them for their lousy behavior - not the message you want to be sending. The longer these dinosaurs hang on the more out of touch they will be with their market and the more useless old factories they will have to find a way to retool to move forward.

Just as with the kids, if you let them get by this one last time and expect them to get it right the next time they never will - they don't have the incentive to change if they can keep getting it their way.