Jesus. Obama has just managed to push through a stimulus bill, and now--the very same day as he signs the stimulus--the car companies are back sheepishly asking for billions more. I can't imagine how these companies could more clearly demonstrate their managerial incompetence than with this turn of events, which has the double-whammy effect of making us feel like idiots for being duped into giving them the first billions and of making clear that further assistance is absolutely pointless. We're now virtually guaranteed to see them making the same plea again and again, and we have no reason whatsoever to think they've NOW hit on just the right approach to guarantee solvency. OK, so maybe they're not responsible for the tanking economy (though I think one can argue they've played a starring role in their own demise), but can the management of a multi-billion dollar concern not project better than a Magic 8-Ball? I'm an idiot with no business training, and I feel I could have predicted a lot of this.
But what to do? The previous aid came after urgent pleas that the industry's very existence was in imminent peril, and god knows what else in our teetering economy would be sucked down in the same vortex. Now we have exactly the same stakes plus the billions in (borrowed) public money we just threw down that hole, and all of it tainted by the demonstrated incompetence of the management teams upon whom rests any hope of a viable US auto industry. (Aren't these the same white good ol' boys to whom the Republicans gave huge tax cuts because they're the ones who drive the economy? Or is the teetering economy another liberal plot like global warming?) There's no good solution. Take the aid back away from Chrysler, I suppose, and let them go; concentrate one's efforts on salvaging the viable portions of GM.
So much for my philosophical hand-wringing; on to the practical.
Here's my deal. I'm shopping for a new car to replace my three year old Civic. I determined a long time ago that I wanted three things in my next car: AWD, more interior space and a more upscale interior (leather, heated seats, automatic climate control, etc.). I've narrowed my search down to two finalists, and now I'm flummoxed about what to do. My two prospects are the Honda Pilot and the Ford Flex (well, I'm still also considering an Acura RDX and a Honda Ridgeline, and I could be persuaded by a really good deal on an Acura TL AWD as well, but I've mostly eliminated these choices).
My dilemma is this: all things being equal, I really like the Flex better than the Pilot. I never thought I'd say that, but it has a more spacious interior, is noticeably quieter, and I can get a tremendous deal on one. The Flex has been getting glowing reviews on the Long Term Test blog at Inside Line over at Edmunds.com, and I can order one and get exactly the equipment I want (which I've never done before). I've taken two test drives in the Flex and it's a really nice drive. It would be a nice car to live with, especially on my long drives to and from Kentucky, where my Civic gets good mileage but is noisy and rides like a buckboard. But I've had only one Ford in 27 cars--and that one years ago, an unimpressive Escort--and I have little doubt that it will be a more troublesome car in the long haul than the Honda (I've owned a bunch of Hondas and never had a lick of trouble with any of them). My local Ford dealer offers a seven year / 100K mile warranty, which will help, but it's still a weaker prospect than a Honda which will likely not need repairs at all. And I'm concerned about resale value. A $40,000 Flex can be had without much bargaining for $33,000 or so, which makes a mockery of the $40K sticker price. And because nobody else thinks they will age very well either, I'm bound to give up even more when I go to trade it in three years hence. Hondas typically lead the pack in resale.
So I no sooner feel decided in these deliberations than I either get another salvo of bad news about the American car industry or I stop by my local Honda dealer for an oil change and find myself test driving a Pilot. Surprise, it's a really nice car, and... it's a Honda! But here we are with our car industry hemorrhaging its life's blood away (and who knows what of the US economy with it), and it's hard for me to not care what happens. This seems a bad time to stand on some principle--the principle that our industry should sink or swim in the marketplace, that we should reap what we sowed--especially when an American manufacturer has in fact built something that's in the vicinity of what I would ask them to build. On paper I really do like the Flex better than the Pilot.
So what to do? I feel quite assured that a Honda Pilot--in addition to being aptly named--would bring me years of trouble-free and gratifying service. I love my local Honda dealer, too: they are a no-bullshit dealership (no high pressure, no bullshit compulsory fabric protection and pinstripes, etc.); I am eagerly given the keys to anything I want to test-drive, and they offer me a very reasonable bottom-line price without any haggling. But Honda is not hurting as a company relative to the rest of the industry (including Toyota, which will lose $6 billion this year for their first loss in history--a measure, I think, of just how bad the economy really is); they will not much miss my purchase. The Ford dealer is an unknown to me. Their sales department has been more typical of what I expect than the Honda dealer, wanting to get all my information when I stop by to look around, and accompanying me on test drives. (I suppose that's only fair; we have no history.)
Jeffy and I have talked about the "mercy purchase" before, and as a general rule I'm opposed to it. And now when I have nearly talked myself into thinking it wouldn't in fact be a mercy purchase, here come GM and Chrysler basically admitting that they are quite unable to cope, that their best thinking of only a month ago is now--yet again--catastrophically wrong. Ford is not joining them at the moment, but it still leaves my legs a bit wobbly. While Ford does in fact seem on sounder footing than GM, with a pretty nice lineup of models available and in the pipeline, their history seems about 1:1 lemons-to-success stories.
So why a prisoner's dilemma? Because my one purchase won't matter for beans in the end, at least not to Ford's well being (though the wrong choice might matter for my blood pressure). And in any case, I'm already going to be paying for the stimulus which will go much further toward rescuing Ford than my one car purchase.
What to do?