Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Does The Big "3" Design A Car Americans Will Buy Anymore?

Car designers and their engineers try to make a vehicle a fairly wide audience will purchase. If you are Porsche or Ferrari that is not often a consideration. However, if you are Ford or Chevrolet, Toyota or Honda, you are hoping to get the biggest bang for your investment buck.

1958 Edsel
American cars, at least in the United States ruled the road. That began to slip I remember as a child when in 1960 Ford gave us the Falcon, GM the Corvair and Chrysler the Valient. Their take on a "small" car. They were going to be the import killers. If you see one today you are rather surprised at how big they were. They also didn't stem the flow of imports, If anything, probably hastened it.

Compared to a 1959 Cadillac however, they were well, smaller. That '59 Caddie is bigger than my full sized 2003 GMC pickup; weight, length and width!

With this in mind walking my dog the other day, I became aware that every single car on the street, the place looks more like a used car lot than suburb, was an import. I went several blocks before a saw an American vehicle and they were two beat up old Dodge Vans. Everywhere there were Toyotas, Hondas, a Nissan or two, a few Audi's, Kia's, a few Lexus' and BWM's. Then, in one yard sat a forlorn, 1980's Cadillac not unlike the sad picture above of an even more forlorn vehicle in its day, the 1958 Edsel! The Caddie was out in the open, dusty, tires half inflated while under the carport was a snazzy Infiniti coupe and SUV.

You had to walk down to my house to see American. A 2006 Buick Renaissance and the 2003 GMC pickup. Kind of a sad state of affairs.

How could the American car companies ignore the fact that imports, first from Germany then Japan and now Korea were making what their audience wanted and were fleeing their offerings. Yet, as I discovered on trips to Europe, Ford and Opel (GM) were making great cars that held off Japanese imports in Europe because they made the same type of cars there, oftentimes better looking and just as reliable. You have to wonder. All they needed to do was build the same cars here.

It wasn't that Ford and GM were clueless. The German Ford Capri was a snazzy little coupe that was all the rage in the 70's. It went head to head against the 240Z and was more fun to drive and cheaper. Then Ford imported the small Fiesta a truly cheap small car that was a favorite of the college crowd. Cheap to run and reliable you see them once in awhile still.

Finally, in the midst of the "Great Recession" Ford brought over the new Fiesta to acclaim and sales, then the Focus in several model changes and now the Hybrid C-Max, very popular in Europe right now. There is an S-Max but you would never know that in the states. In fact there are quite a few other small cars they sell there but for some reason not sell here.

GM - Opel is no different. In its dying days in desperation GM brought over a series of Opel models and branded them with the Saturn label. They got rave reviews but it was too late. The bankruptcy forced them to shed product lines so the Saturn, Oldsmobile and Pontiac's bit the dust.

I remarked that the Tesla-S won one of the highest rating ever on Consumer Reports and is, for American cars at least, the gold standard to be compared to. While there are some remarkable features unique to this car, it was their design AND attention to detail in every aspect of their vehicle that makes it a standout. It was DESIGNED to be successful from the beginning to end.

One can hope American auto makers have learned their lesson. It was gratifying to read the other day that the 2014 Chevrolet Impala, at one time a great car but wandering in the bloated wilderness for 30 years, got a 95 rating in Consumers Reports, 4 points below the Tesla. They were stunned. The model it replaced scored 62 and you get the idea is was a gift.

Design is so much a part of our life that we, as artists, often don't even realize the strategies we use. However, just like "quality" you know it when you see it even if you can't define it!

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