One of the key lessons learned by American automobile marketers in the 1990s was: friendly cars flop, aggressive cars sell. Have they learned this lesson too well?
The Neon should have been a home run for Chrysler, with its all-Detroit, no-Mitsubishi-or-Simca ancestry and Civic/Corolla-beating bang-for-buck specs. This was not the case, and the Neon went on to populate rent-a-car lots and— soon after— junkyards in large quantities. Some blame alleged lack of quality in the Neon, but I’ve always suspected the Neon’s happy “face” and Chrysler’s 1995-96 “Hi!” ad campaign was the bigger factor.
After the defeat of the Evil Empire and the ass-kicking triumph of the Gulf War washed America’s palate clean of the nasty taste of the Fall of Saigon and the Iranian hostage crisis (not to mention the not-quite-ass-kicking farce of Reagan’s only real war), American car shoppers wanted vehicles that looked like victory!
Honda staggered into this new reality with the sugary-sweet-looking del Sol and alienated all the young first-time male car shoppers who had once snapped up CRXs in a frenzy. This was exactly what Honda USA didn’t need on top of Soichiro Honda‘s death, Acura’s lack of a V8, and a weak economy hammering Accord sales. Blame cuteness!
After the “Hi!” debacle, Chrysler decided that the Neon’s replacement would sprout fangs, facial tatts, and a glovebox full of temporary restraining orders. The very name suggested a car that would cold blast its opponents: Caliber!
Just in case there was any lingering doubt about this car’s lack of cuteness, here’s a lug-wrench-to-the-teeth ad for yez. And yet… perhaps the pendulum has swung too far. The broad-brush-strokes glory of the Gulf War and Cold War victories has been replaced by a couple of incomprehensible conflicts that drag on and on and on, and the highways are clogged with increasingly angry-looking machines snarling at one another. Could the focus groups decide that they want friendly after all?