The Truth About Cars » Sales and Marketing http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Sun, 05 Jul 2015 18:22:25 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.2.2 The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars no The Truth About Cars editors@ttac.com editors@ttac.com (The Truth About Cars) 2006-2009 The Truth About Cars The Truth About Cars » Sales and Marketing http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/wp-content/themes/ttac-theme/images/logo.gif http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/category/editorials/sales-and-marketing/ How to Best Sell Your Car on eBay from a Former Bring-A-Trailer Deal Spotter http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2015/06/best-sell-car-ebay-former-bring-trailer-deal-spotter/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2015/06/best-sell-car-ebay-former-bring-trailer-deal-spotter/#comments Tue, 30 Jun 2015 15:00:31 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=1102537 As I’ve mentioned before, I spent about four years as a “deal spotter” for Bring A Trailer. Much of that work consisted of browsing eBay, Craigslist, and various marque-specific forums looking for interesting deals on classics. Of course, I have a day job as well, so I try and minimize the time I actually spend […]

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As I’ve mentioned before, I spent about four years as a “deal spotter” for Bring A Trailer. Much of that work consisted of browsing eBay, Craigslist, and various marque-specific forums looking for interesting deals on classics. Of course, I have a day job as well, so I try and minimize the time I actually spend looking at cars while simultaneously looking like I’m actually working. The eBay app for my Android helps in this matter, so I can work on my side job while indisposed.

So, I spend nearly an hour or two every day trying to quickly assess every car by the lead photo before moving on. I can quickly spot deals or find those auctions that won’t sell. It’s like automotive Tinder – swipe left for the rotted F-body, swipe right for the longhood 911.

(I did have to reference Wikipedia on Tinder, by the way. I’m a happily married man.)

Since my friends know I have this ample shopping experience, they all assume I know the best ways to sell a car on eBay.Funny thing, though: I’ve never actually sold any cars there. After all, I’m a writer, and as such, I’m not paid enough to actually afford any car I want. Those who can afford to buy, do. Those who can’t, write about it.

I have a good friend who’s a real estate photographer – and, incidentally, the least-douchey BMW fanboy I’ve ever met. The key to marketing anything online is putting your product in the absolute best light possible. In realtor’s parlance, it’s called “staging.” He ensures each room is properly lit, is clean, with absolutely no clutter. The images he produces are astounding, and they sell houses.

Car sellers on eBay need to consider staging as well. No, you don’t need a trunkload of Nikon glass like my friend, but most people have a decent camera in their pants right now.

Take Good Photos
You get at least twelve photos with a basic for-sale auction. Another $2 doubles it. Make that $2 back by going for a Tall rather than the Venti tomorrow; it will be worth it. Shoot each quarter panel, a profile, front, and rear. Front seats, rear seats, VIN plate, odometer and trunk all need to be shown, too. If you omit something, buyers will think you’re hiding something. This car, for example, is shown well, with two dozen pics from all angles, even the undercarriage:

Hemi

If there are flaws in your car, take detailed pics of those flaws so the buyer can judge for themselves. Maybe the cracked front valence isn’t a big deal to you, but it could be to someone looking for a clean car.

Post Those Photos
Next, you need to know how to get those photos off of your camera and onto eBay. Last spring, I happened across an auction for a vintage Chevy truck. Not typically something that would catch my eye, but for the lead photo. The seller had taken pics with his iPhone, and then took a photo (not a screenshot, a photo) of his iPhone to show the truck. Memorable, yes. It got me to click. It got me to make fun of him on Facebook. But that’s no way to capture good detail of a vintage car.

Of course, once you get the pics on your computer, they need to be properly oriented:

Sideways Fairlane

Though it is theoretically possible in your particular part of the world there could be an unusual sideways pull of gravity that causes bias-ply tires to grip sheer cliffs like a rock climber, most buyers and shipping companies will not be appropriately equipped for these loads.

Look At The Background
Also, consider the fella at the top of the page.

Willys

The background is cluttered, distracting from the vehicle for sale. Also, the inclusion of human or canine subjects in the photo inevitably leads to stupid questions from buyers: “Is the dog included?”

Minimize Misogyny
On that note, please: lose the scantily-clad women from our photos. Clearly, those people shopping eBay know how to “get online” as we used to say when our modem tones made it clear to all around that we were doing so. One could make the parallel assumption that most of those who happen to be horny while car shopping would be best served by opening a second tab on their browser of choice and typing words like “The Chive” or “Pornhub” into said browser. An orange-peel coated Eleanor clone draped with a similarly-orange-peeling forty-something in a too-small bikini is just sad, and does nothing to sell the car in question.

Bikini

Oh, yeah: objectifying women is bad too. Funny thing, though, the bikini-model is almost exclusively posed with American iron. You never see a woman posed atop a Miata. Hmm.

Write Well
Please, use reasonably proper English when writing the description of your car. NO CAPS LOCK. Write complete sentences and include all of the appropriate details about the car in question. Space those sentences out into paragraphs – no one will read a wall of text. And, for God’s sake, the name of your car is typically printed somewhere on the car. Go to your car, write down the spelling of the model name, and type it into your auction listing.

I’d have to say there are nearly as many Cameros for sale on eBay at any given time as there are Camaros. However, the Camero is not listed in Hagerty’s Classic Car Valuation Tool, and won’t be rolling across any stages in Arizona next January.

Avoid Clichés Like The Plague
Mariska HargitayPlease stop using the term “unmolested” when referring to a clean, stock vehicle. What you do in the privacy of your own garage is your business and Sergeant Olivia Benson won’t be inspecting for enlarged tailpipes. Just stop using that word.

I often see dealers using eBay to shill their stock. That’s fine, I suppose, though some of the stock language they use isn’t appropriate for every car. Don’t make the mistake of copy/pasting their ad copy. A couple years ago, I was looking at a 1947 MG TC on eBay. The dealer’s boilerplate read:

“The factory warranty has expired, and we can’t get it extended.”

No kidding. In fact, the MG factory in Abingdon has expired. I’d imagine the new Chinese owners of the MG marque would chuckle a bit at a warranty claim for a car designed before Mao was in power.

Stop calling your car “one of a kind.” Technically, I know it’s true, as there shouldn’t be any other car out there with the exact VIN as yours. That doesn’t make it a special snowflake.

Unless your car is a truly limited edition, like one of 750 Shelby CSXes made in 1987, let’s end the trend of “one of only 17 Q94 packages in white-over-black built the week of July 9th on the second shift, so it wasn’t driven off the Hamtramck line by the magnificently flatulent Steve G.” Again, it’s not special. Stop it.

Target the Right Market
If you are selling a car with any sort of enthusiast value, consider cross-posting (with permission) to the appropriate forums. Don’t spam every forum out there, though. Get involved with the forum well prior to posting your car for sale, else you come off as a untrustworthy, opportunistic troll. If the forum has rules against posting eBay links, follow the rules.

Remember, there are enthusiasts and forums out there for just about everything. I’ve been a lurking member of boards dedicated to Honda Odysseys, Chrysler minivans, and Nissan SUVs. Mostly, I joined in an attempt to glean cheap repair tips, as these places can be quite useful. But don’t upset the fanatics. They will turn on you.

eBay can be a minefield. There are fraudulent buyers and sellers everywhere, so it pays to do your homework. But there are few outlets with the national and international reach that eBay has. Follow these guidelines, and you should get the most for your ride.

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Will the GenX Nano Erase Tata’s ‘Cheapest Car’ Stigma? http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2015/05/will-genx-nano-erase-tatas-cheapest-car-stigma/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2015/05/will-genx-nano-erase-tatas-cheapest-car-stigma/#comments Mon, 25 May 2015 13:26:09 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=1071194 It’s not often a car company, or any group of people for the matter, will admit mistakes – particularly billion dollar mistakes. That’s why the launch of the all-new Tata GenX Nano is refreshing. Based on former CEO Ratan Tata’s dream of moving Indians who transport their entire families on scooters and motorcycles into safer […]

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It’s not often a car company, or any group of people for the matter, will admit mistakes – particularly billion dollar mistakes. That’s why the launch of the all-new Tata GenX Nano is refreshing. Based on former CEO Ratan Tata’s dream of moving Indians who transport their entire families on scooters and motorcycles into safer – albeit, basic – four wheeled automobiles, the very fact the original 2009 Nano was the least expensive car on sale anywhere in the world proved to be an albatross around the Nano’s tiny neck. Even Indians aspiring to the middle class of a developing country, it turns out, aspire to be seen in something other than the cheapest car in the world. They’d rather buy a used Maruti Suzuki Alto 800, the hatchback that more or less defines India’s entry level car segment. In recognition of that reality, the new GenX Nano will now be positioned as an entry level hatchback to more directly compete with the Alto 800, Hyundai Eon and the newly announced Renault Kwid.

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While some saw the Nano as India’s Model T, prompting comparisons of Ratan Tata to Henry Ford, the historical reality is while Henry Ford had a great idea in making cars for the average consumer, not just the wealthy, the Model T was far from the cheapest car on the market when it was introduced. While it’s true that productivity and cost improvements allowed Ford to eventually drop the price of the T to less than $300, that was in 1924. When the Model T was introduced in 1908 (as a 1909 model) it cost $850. By comparison, a Brush Runabout cost less than $500 in 1908. Henry Ford didn’t face the stigma of selling the cheapest car in the world when he launched the Model T.

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In a 2013 interview, while claiming it was never his personal goal, Ratan Tata admitted it was a mistake for his company to market the Nano on price.

“It became termed as a cheapest car by the public and, I am sorry to say, by ourselves, not by me, but the company when it was marketing it. I think that is unfortunate,” Tata told CNBC.

Around the same time, which would have been while the GenX Nano was being developed, brand positioning guru Jack Trout publicly suggested that Tata kill the Nano. But, in launching the GenX Nano, Tata Motors Senior Vice President for passenger vehicle product and chief Nano engineer Girish Wagh said, “Never did we have discussion about killing the brand.” Wagh admitted the company erred in not recognizing the “societal status” needs of those upgrading from a two-wheeler to an actual automobile and that the launch of the GenX Nano meant creating a “perception change” for both the Nano and for Tata as a maker of passenger cars. Wagh told the Economic Times, while they haven’t yet discussed killing the Nano, the relaunch is indeed a “make or break” effort for Tata’s sub-brand.

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When the original Tata Nano was launched, the “cheapest car in the world” was big news globally, even though it was designed primarily for the domestic Indian market. The Nano’s existence persuaded some very big automakers to reexamine their plans concerning low cost passenger cars and their strategies about export hubs and the developing world.

 

Bajaj Re60

Bajaj Re60. Image: Bajaj

In the Indian market a number of companies started developing low cost cars, with Maruti introducing the Alto 800, the latest version of the Suzuki Alto with a smaller, older engine. Scooter and three-wheeler maker Bajaj, working with Renault-Nissan, introduced their first four wheel vehicle, the RE60, a low cost, low speed car for the commercial autorickshaw market. The French-Japanese automotive alliance revived the Datsun brand with the $5,000+ Go for the Indian market. The Go hasn’t exactly gone as well as Mr. Ghosn had hoped, so Renault itself just introduced the $4,700 Kwid to India. The GenX Nano will be priced from $3,150 to  $4,550.

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For all that news and influence, Nano sales have been disappointing for Tata. Tata has sold only as many Nanos in six years, about 250,000 units, as they had hoped to sell in the first two years of Nano production. Currently, the factory in Sanand, Gujarat is operating at just 15 percent capacity and sales this year are down 20 percent from last.

 

Original Tata Nano instrument panel

Original Tata Nano instrument panel. Wikimedia commons photo

Tata acknowledges they misjudged just how aspirational Indian consumers are at even the lowest entry level of car ownership and they are now relaunching the Nano for the third time. It’s really more than a relaunch, though. The Nano has been substantially rengineered and equipped with features to reposition it as a city car, an entry level hatchback, hopefully removing the stigma of being the cheapest car in the world. That’s a stigma the corporate owners of one of the world’s storied luxury automobile brands, Jaguar, can’t really afford to have.

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After collecting consumer impressions from over 1,000 Nano owners and half again as many of owners of other entry level Indian cars, Tata is hoping that a safer, all-new design and features like an automated transmission and Bluetooth connectivity (not earlier available at the price point) will allow it to more directly compete with other small hatches like the Chevrolet Beat, Hyundai Eon, and the Maruti Alto 800. The Eon and Alto 800 each sell about ten times as many units per month as the outgoing Nano. Even the highest priced GenX Nano will still undercut comparable Maruti Altos by 50,000 rupees, or about $800 at current exchange rates.

 

Renault Kwid

Carlos Ghosn introducing the new $4,700 Renault Kwid. Round trip Business Class airfare on Air France for Paris-Mumbai starts at $2,500. Kinda puts global business into perspective. Renault photo.

There is talk, not denied by Tata, of a bigger 1.0-liter engine to be offered a year down the road in addition to the 660 cc twin that currently powers the Nano, along with a possible diesel option. Right now, the GenX Nano has about half of the power to weight ratio of the Alto 800, which has, as the name indicates, a 796 cc engine. Because the engine is relatively loaded down, the GenX Nano is projected to get slightly worse fuel economy than the Alto 800, about 21 km per liter of petrol vs 22.7.

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The Tata Nano began as Ratan Tata’s dream of getting Indians who sometimes transport entire families on motorcycles and scooters into an unquestionably safer, enclosed, four-wheeled vehicle. It then became what, I think, was a rather impressive feat of engineering to a price point, removing all but the essential. That price point was “one lakh” or 100,000 rupees, the equivalent of about $2,000 US when the Nano was launched in 2009. The project had setbacks from the beginning, with farmers and politicians protesting the original factory location, delaying production. And because we’re in the internet age, fires in a small number of early production Nanos went viral around the world, harming the car’s image. Then Ratan Tata’s dream ran into the fact the families riding on motorcycles had aspirations greater than owning the world’s cheapest car. Indians would apparently rather drive a used example of a more expensive car.

 

Original Tata Nano

Original Tata Nano. Wikimedia commons photo

The first relaunch stressed the value of the Nano by emphasizing low monthly payments, but that only reinforced the image of the Nano as a cheap car. A second relaunch of the slightly more upscale Nano Twist models ran into the fact that, by then, competitors in India had products like the Beat and Alto 800 on the market.

 

Tata Nano Twist

Tata Nano Twist

This time, Tata has abandoned the cheapest car in the world scheme and decided to make a better Nano. As mentioned, much of the design and engineering of the original Nano was about taking things out, like using three lug nuts instead of at least four. By comparison, the GenX Nano’s development was more about putting things in than taking things out.

 

Maruti Alto 800

Maruti Alto 800

Tata says with the use of more high strength steel, crush zones, and side intrusion beams, the Nano’s body is much stronger and safer. It now also has a functional hatch with up to 110 liters of cargo space in the trunk. The original Nano was a four door, not a hatchback. Though the engine has been more or less unchanged, it’s been recalibrated for better urban fuel economy based on Tata engineers’ real-world observations of driving in major Indian markets. Mechanically, the biggest change is the availability of an automated manual transmission. While Tata is no longer marketing the Nano as the cheapest car in the world, the launch publicity did mention that the GenX Nano will be the “most affordable” car with an automated manual transmission.

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In addition to the structural and drivetrain changes, the GenX Nano has a new instrument panel, a stronger air conditioner (something very important with India’s climate), power steering, modern connectivity, and better NVH performance. While the overall silhouette hasn’t changed, the GenX Nano has a new face and rear end, with new bumpers, lamps and a honeycomb grille. The changes are intended to appeal to young, aspirational Indians, particularly women who will like the “Easy Shift” automated manual. Women take a targeted role in the GenX Nano’s marketing and dealers report 20 percent of those who have already booked a GenX Nano – which is already on sale with deliveries scheduled in about two months – are females.

Click here to view the embedded video.

When the original Nano was introduced in 2009, I saw more than a couple of online comments from consumers in North America wondering why a car that cheap couldn’t be sold on this continent. As it turns out, a car that cheap can’t be sold in great numbers on the Indian sub-continent, let alone in North America, where something as relatively advanced and luxurious when compared to the Nano, like the Mitsubishi Mirage, struggles in the market. In time, the Nano project may turn out to be a success. But, whatever success it will have will now be based on its virtues as an automobile compared to competing products, not by being the cheapest car anywhere on the planet.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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The Comical World Of Dealer Internet Advertising http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2015/02/comical-world-dealer-internet-advertising/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2015/02/comical-world-dealer-internet-advertising/#comments Mon, 16 Feb 2015 22:05:38 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=972442 After I purchased my S2000 and was about to drive off the lot, my salesperson regaled me with stories about the Honda’s previous owners – an elderly couple who loved the sports car, called it their “baby,” but traded it for a Mercedes-Benz E350 Coupe because they wanted more room. None of this history was noted […]

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Focus Ad 3After I purchased my S2000 and was about to drive off the lot, my salesperson regaled me with stories about the Honda’s previous owners – an elderly couple who loved the sports car, called it their “baby,” but traded it for a Mercedes-Benz E350 Coupe because they wanted more room. None of this history was noted in their website or internet ads for the S2000, but why wasn’t it?

It turns out that most franchised dealer’s new and pre-owned vehicle ads on AutoTrader and cars.com as well as their own websites do not tell such stories because they are composed by automated services. The fun part is that dealers sometimes never proofread them, like in the example above showcasing the ultimate in Additional Dealer Markup.  Even better is when dealers try to write the ads themselves. Let’s take a look.

Assuming you do not pop for the $114,000 Focus, you might want to jump on the deal below from a Georgia dealer. Another fat finger typo or a low ball to get you in the store? Amazingly, both ads have been on AutoTrader for several days.
$6000 C7 Courtesy autotrader.com

One of the services supplying automated text to dealers for used car ads decided to quote an published road test on the 2011 BMW 528i. It sounds like a good idea but here is the excerpt currently being quoted by a dozen BMW dealers around the country:

“Dead center in the BMW sausage case is the 5 Series, always a strong choice for buyers who want vigorous acceleration and crisp handling, but not the limited interior space of the 3 Series, nor the girth, weight and fee-fye-foe-fum price of the 7 Series.”

Bash the other cars you sell in order to move the 5-Series? Manufacturers and consumers wish dealers would be this transparent, but in the words of Lewis Grizzard, “I don’t believe I’da told that one, brother.”

Here is the first line from an Audi dealer’s self-composed AutoTrader ad designed to educate high-end prospects about the $191,350 2015 R8 V10 Spyder:

“Biener Audi does not charge any Dealer Administrative fee. BUYER BEWARE! Many of our competitors charge exorbitant Dealer Administrative fees above the previously agreed selling price or tack on charges for unnecessary items like window etching which are not disclosed until delivery!”

Hey, why talk about the car when you can criticize other dealers instead?

It is safe to say that most pre-owned managers neither have the time or the talent to write compelling used car blurbs. Witness all this Houston dealer could think of to say about one vehicle:

This 2009 Aston Martin V8 Vantage 6-Speed Coupe has had it’s annual service and is Warranty ready. It is ready to get back on the road.

Does this mean the car is ready for more warranty work? Or that you need to buy an extended warranty?

Some dealers try to be too cute. In honor of Bark’s story, here is what a San Diego BMW dealer has to say about the yellow 2013 Boss 302 on their lot:

Luxuriate from Alpha to Bravo. Be a part of this innovation Nation. Don’t pay too much for the family car you want…Come on down and take a look at this superb 2013 Ford Mustang. Power is nothing without control, and the incredible brakes on this Mustang means that you are always just a quick pedel press away from bringing life to a halt.

To be fair, here is a dealership that does a nice job of telling the story of each vehicle, witness this text from Alderson Mercedes-Benz in Midland, Texas:

“..this beautiful Certified C-Class served as the faithful travel companion of an up and coming law student, taking her back and forth from her home in Dallas to the prestigious Rice University in Houston. Now a successful attorney in the Permian Basin, she entrusted Alderson to find her C300 a new owner…”   

A lot of other dealers might have written, ” ONE WOMAN OWNER! HIGHWAY MILES! E-Z FINANCING!” to sell this Benz.

Bleary-eyed from reading hundreds of car ads in an attempt to be half as funny as Doud DeMuro in this post, I also learned:

  • The first line in Jaguar Nashville’s dealer information webpage says, “Let’s break down just how much we have to offer here at Jaguar Nashville…” Hint: never use the phrase “break down” when advertising Jags.
  • Dealer mega-group AutoNation has either 9 million or 43 Million happy customers, depending upon whether it is AutoNation corporate or one of its retailers making the claim.

**All prices exclude $599.50 Pre-Delivery Service Fee (which represents profit to the dealer), any applicable taxes, estimated tag and title fees, any reconditioning expenses, $699 certification cost (if applicable), $350 auction purchase fee (if applicable), $300 transportation expense (if applicable).

So if the dealer bought the unit at the auction in Orlando, transported it to Clearwater and certified it, you would be asked to pay an additional $1948.50 plus reconditioning charges beyond the price of the car.  I bet the locals have nicknamed this retailer, “Dimwit Chevrolet.”

I suppose we next could do a story making fun of dealer’s newspaper ads, but that would be too easy…

 

Car Ad Courtesy automotiveaddesign.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Jerry Gordon’s Car Kippah http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/12/jerry-gordons-car-kippah/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/12/jerry-gordons-car-kippah/#comments Mon, 29 Dec 2014 16:23:05 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=968801 If you have any kind of tribal affiliation, you probably have the experience of spotting signs of others who might have the same affiliation. Deadheads will spot a dancing bear decal on a VW bus and car enthusiasts, no different, will note a track decal on a coworker’s bumper. That’s how I found out about […]

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If you have any kind of tribal affiliation, you probably have the experience of spotting signs of others who might have the same affiliation. Deadheads will spot a dancing bear decal on a VW bus and car enthusiasts, no different, will note a track decal on a coworker’s bumper. That’s how I found out about Jerry Gordon’s car kippah.

A kippah, also known as a yarmulke or a skull cap, is the small head covering religious Jewish men wear to showtheir respect for God’s omnipresence. While it’s not a biblical commandment and as far as I can determine it has no basis in scripture, a man covering his head is one of a number of Jewish traditions that was embraced so long ago that it epitomizes the rabbinic idiom, minhag Yisrael k’dat hu, a tradition of Israel is like religious law. Tevye wasn’t kidding about Jews and tradition. We take that stuff seriously. I may fight with God on a regular basis, another old Jewish tradition, but I’ve worn some kind of head covering, a Kangol style cap, a baseball cap or a fedora since I was a teen.

I suppose “men who wear hats” is another one of those tribes. As someone who owns two Stetson Sovereign Temples in black (my opinion is that Stetsons are every bit as good as the twice as expensive Borsalinos) and a recently acquired grey Selentino made in the Czech Republic that’s just a little more casual than my black hats, I’ll compliment someone on their haberdashery.

I’ll get back to hats in a second but let me digress. Have you ever known, or even done business with a professional career car salesman? Sure, they’re rare, but the ones who are good are really good. Joe Girard was a legend around Detroit and ended up in the Guinness Book of records after selling 13,001 cars in just 15 years. A guy or gal has to know what they’re doing to do that. Ask our reader Buickman. I get the impression that the best car salesman stay at the same store for years.s. The two times that I bought brand new cars were both from older, experienced car salesmen. No bullshit guys who knew that getting you the best deal was the route to making them the most money.

Jerry Gordon was one of those pros. A lifelong salesman who eventually gravitated to car, he ended up retiring from the Grossinger group of car dealers in the Chicago area. Maybe I liked him because he reminded me of my father. People who knew my dad would tell me, after he died, how much they loved him. I recently asked Jerry’s widow, Arlene, if she ever gets tired of hearing how people loved her husband, and she said, “Never!” I know exactly how she feels.

Speaking of never, I never bought a car from Jerry. I don’t live in Chicago and never have, but my cousin Gary went to podiatry school there, met and married Jerry’s daughter Cheryl there, and they settled down in Skokie. I use a lot of words but I can’t say enough about what wonderful people Gary and Cheryl are. Most of the times I’ve worked the Chicago Auto Show, I’ve stayed with them, not in a hotel. Sweet and generous people who go out of their way to be nice. Jerry was like that too. He died much too young.

Gary and Cheryl’s youngest child, Scott, is getting married this weekend to a girl from New Jersey and the wedding is in Teaneck. It’s an orthodox Jewish wedding and since it’s being held on Sunday, with lots of out of town guests from both Chicago and Detroit, logistics meant that many of the folks from the groom’s side came in on Thursday or Friday and then spent the Sabbath in a hotel in Fort Lee.. With that many observant Jews, it made sense to hold religious services in one of the hotel halls.

Showing up on time has never been one of my strong suits and as I found a seat in the back row after Friday evening services had already begun, I noticed that the slightly grey haired gentleman sitting in front of me was wearing a black leather kippah that had been embellished with colorful cars hand painted around the border, along with the word Zaida, one of the Yiddish variants for grandfather. Remember what I said about indicators of tribal affiliation? I know what it means when a guy has a dancing bear on his kippah and the same is true of cars. I thought to myself, “Cool, a car guy. We have something in common.”

Isn’t it amazing how the human mind works? I’m sitting in a makeshift synagogue in a room filled with Jews like myself,  people that know many of  the same people that I know, attending the same wedding, many of whom are related either by blood or by marriage and I’m thinking that the fact that the guy has cars on his hat gives us something in common? Go figure.

During the short break between the afternoon and evening liturgies, I tapped him on the shoulder and asked about the kippah. It turns out that it was Cheryl’s brother Lee and that we had something else in common. He’s a writer and editor in the sports department of the Chicago Tribune, responsible for all their published stats.

Lee told me that the kippah was originally his father’s, a gift from Arlene 36 years ago after the birth of their first grandchild. Cars weren’t just Jerry’s way to make a living, he was a genuine car guy. I remember talking cars with him at family celebrations. Lee told me that his mom gave him his dad’s yarmulke, but only after he himself had become a grandfather. Call me sentimental but I think that’s charming.

The car hobby has its clones and replicas of significant automobiles. Lee told me that the kippah he was wearing was actually a ‘clone’ car kippah, a reproduction that he had had made after he thought he’d lost the original. I can understand just a little how he must have felt. One year when working the NAIAS, I thought, for about 20 minutes, that I’d lost the famous autographed bag. It turned out that my son had left it in the car but I was already going through the stages of grief by the time he told me. The same was true with Lee and his dad’s beanie, though, obviously, a family artifact is more important then Carroll Shelby and Richard Petty’s autographs. Lee Gordon already had commissioned the reproduction when, a week after losing it, he found it between some couch cushions. Appropriately it had fallen there when he’d been playing with his grandkids. The image at the top of this post is of the original.

To preserve that original, he usually wears the reproduction, saving Jerry’s actual car kippah for special events, like his nephew’s wedding. Lee was wearing another piece of family art during the weekend, a necktie dye sublimated with photographs of his grandchildren. I told him that some day one of his descendants will be wearing both his tie and his father’s kippah and he smiled. Cue Tevye.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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The Streets Of R-Ado http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/10/streets-r-ado/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/10/streets-r-ado/#comments Wed, 29 Oct 2014 18:00:19 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=936762 I felt like a spy within my own company. It was a hot summer day in 2003 and I was at the DaimlerChrysler proving grounds in Laredo, Texas to attend a focus group on the upcoming 2006 Mercedes-Benz R-Class minivan/crossover/sport touring wagon. My dozen or so fellow attendees were all wealthy owners of high-end Mercedes-Benz cars. I was here because the […]

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2006 R500 Courtesy cimg.carsforsale.com

I felt like a spy within my own company. It was a hot summer day in 2003 and I was at the DaimlerChrysler proving grounds in Laredo, Texas to attend a focus group on the upcoming 2006 Mercedes-Benz R-Class minivan/crossover/sport touring wagon. My dozen or so fellow attendees were all wealthy owners of high-end Mercedes-Benz cars. I was here because the Mercedes-Benz USA focus group invite filter did not recognize my net worth nor the fact that I worked for Mercedes-Benz Financial Services. And I was not about to tell anyone that…

The Laredo facility included an assortment of handling, hill-climb and torture tracks, all on the infield of an imposing high-banked 5-mile circle track. The first impression of the scene was intoxicating to a car nut: Hey, there’s a Dodge Magnum, looks just like the spy photos! There goes the next generation S-Class! We were shown the upcoming GL-Class and the next-generation M-Class SUVs. Those vehicles, as well as the future S-class circling the track, were lightly masked but easily recognizable while the “sport touring wagon” was heavily, almost comically, disguised.  It looked like a giant black shoe box with a sloping hood.

My group of five folks and an engineer jumped into the future R-Class. The interior was well-crafted and amazingly roomy: I could stretch my legs out in the third row. Our moderator led us through the various obstacle courses around the grounds, switching drivers along the way. Finally we headed for the 5-mile circle. It was “Clockwise Day” which seemed strange to someone used to driving counterclockwise on oval tracks.  Our leader cranked it up to an indicated 150 mph and took one hand off the wheel to demonstrate the wagon’s stability. We were duly impressed.

We then each proceeded to take two laps each behind the wheel and several of us hit the magic 150 mph barrier. We were quietly cruising with six people aboard and blasting past Plymouth Neons on the inside lane doing endurance testing.  The original R500 with the 302 hp V-8 had a governed top speed of 135 mph. The Benz engineers would not answer questions about this drivetrain. In retrospect, I think it must have been the 503 hp V-8 from the planned R63 AMG under the hood.

We always said the R-Class would make a great hearse...

We always said that the R-Class would make a great hearse…

Years later I think: Were we really doing 150 mph with six passengers in a prototype with a drag coefficient of Melissa McCarthy?  Was the speedometer clocked? Or is driving on a banked, circular track as safe and easy as driving in a straight line? Regardless, I highly doubt there are many car companies who would allow a bunch of yahoos to drive their mock-up models at high speeds on their secret proving grounds. That day in Laredo was one of the highlights of my time in the car business.

Two years later when I first saw a production R-Class, I was shocked: it looked awful, a combo of awkward lines. I thought about Laredo. Were they hiding the R’s styling from us because previous groups had given it a thumbs down? Or was Germany so proud of the edgy styling that they did not want it leaked?  By disguising its looks, letting us behind the scenes to drive flat-out at their proving grounds, and not talking price or specs, were they guaranteeing that we each would  vote an enthusiastic “yes” when asked if we would consider buying one, which we did?

I was pleased to see one suggestion from our focus group about the poor location of the third-row shoulder belt hanger had been addressed.

 

It appears the Daimler is now selling their Laredo test track. Note the 2-mile oval track within the 5-mile highbank circle.

Daimler is now selling their Laredo test track. Note the 2-mile oval track inside the 5-mile circle track

The R-Class was released in the summer of 2005 to the sounds of crickets on the showroom floors. Press reactions were mixed, (“It’s big and it’s ugly, but inside it you can live like a king,” said the Sunday Times.) Within 30 days of the launch, Benz had to add dealer incentives to counter consumer resistance to the base MSRP of $48,000 for the R350 and $55,500 for the R500. A constellation of factors led to the R-class being a rare failure for Daimler: high pricing, murky marketing and product positioning, mediocre gas mileage, the recession and most of all due to its undeniable ugliness.

Sales of the R-Class in the US peaked at 18,168 units in 2006, far short of the corporate objective of 50,000 sales per year. Less than 3,000 were sold each year between 2009 and 2011 before the car was discontinued in North America in 2012. The R-Class continues to be assembled in Mercedes’ Alabama factory for sale in overseas markets. (US dealers toured the plant recently and upon seeing the R line, several joked, “Oh noooo, it’s back!”)

I had an R-Class company car in 2009 and it rode as well as I remembered, every bit an S-Class on the highway. Even better was the fact it was the CDI diesel variant with its gobs of torque and great gas mileage, a truly underappreciated engine.

I still think the R stands for Repulsive but if I could find one of those eighty 2007 R63 AMGs brought into this country…

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Ford, King Ranch “Brownout” the Houston Rodeo http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/03/ford-king-ranch-add-extra-brown-to-the-houston-rodeo/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/03/ford-king-ranch-add-extra-brown-to-the-houston-rodeo/#comments Tue, 25 Mar 2014 12:03:07 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=779481 Perhaps you haven’t lived in a flyover state where brown leather gear dominates your town during Rodeo season.  While the Ford+King Ranch press release celebrating the 15th Anniversary of those famous brown leather pickups reached the autoblogosphere, only a local writer with an internationally known knack for automotive snark both finds the sweet mochalicious lede and […]

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Perhaps you haven’t lived in a flyover state where brown leather gear dominates your town during Rodeo season.  While the Ford+King Ranch press release celebrating the 15th Anniversary of those famous brown leather pickups reached the autoblogosphere, only a local writer with an internationally known knack for automotive snark both finds the sweet mochalicious lede and refuses to bury it in the dirt.

And what does that mean?  You gotta click to find out.

I’ve been blacklisted (brownlisted?) from Ford PR events as long as I remember, but I attended this shindig via the King Ranch side of the Ford+King Ranch love fest.  So I donned my cheap cowhide boots, my thrift store boot cut jeans and herded the Duratec Ranger’s 150-ish horses to the Rodeo…pardner.

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As the massive complex–housing the once amazing Astrodome—filled up, I noticed how this Rodeo’s grown in the last 10-20 years.  Ford’s booth hawked their latest wares much like any auto show, complete with a “media only” area for us bloggers, social media influencers and local autojournos. There was the new aluminum F-150, the new-ish Expedition and the current Super Duty…all in King Ranch guise, ‘natch.

And yes, the King Ranch is actually a famous Ranch, much like Bill Blass was a name on Lincolns attached to an actual person. They sold cowboy grade stuff nearby at their Saddle Shop at the Rodeo, too. But I digress…

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So what does a native Houstonian think of the aluminum cage’d F150? Pretty cool inside and out, as their design/engineering embodies continuous improvement, even if the rig is far too big for its own good. The doors close with less vault-like heft of the last-gen steel body, but it still feels great. And even the door card is all kinds of broughamy from the days of Ford LTDs with covered headlights and Ghia-clad Granadas.

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Now, even more than before, Ford’s take on the American Workhorse is the unquestioned Audi of Pickups.

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The new Expedition is a modest evolution, lacking the “WTF” face of the Tahoe’s buzz saw headlights. Its refined snout is a pleasurable throwback to the beard trimming grille of the UR-Fusion.

The hallmark all-wheel independent suspension and the massive fold flat 3rd row seat still bowl me over: shame on GM for not following suit.  But the interior feels distinctly cheap compared to the F-150. But every Ford product takes an R&D back seat to the almighty F-series, right? #pantherlove

 

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The Super Duty (ever present on the Rodeo’s dirt floor) has a new oil-burnin’ motor for 2015, but the stuff you can touch looks about the same.  The new-ish center stack loaded with SYNC looks functional enough, but again, the interior lacks the refinement of the F150.  Ditto the exterior.  But the King Ranch trimming in all three models drove home the fact that this is the brownest lineup in the car biz. Or at least the truck biz…and it’s been that way for 15 years now?

And, as a founding member of the Brown Car Appreciation Society on Facebook, a tail-wags-the-dog group that made brown as “important” as diesels and manual transmissions to auto journos and to the PR flacks that do anything to get their attention, it’s nice to believe our mission adds to the King Ranch’s reach. Because brown makes the King Ranch a cut above, even if the leather isn’t as buttery soft as before: hopefully the lack of tenderness means it’ll hold up better than older models.

Ford also had a brief presentation, after most guests Frank Bacon-ized themselves with free food/booze in the luxury suite.  Succumbing to the urge I felt in 2011 when buying my Ranger, I asked the Ford F-series rep why Dearborn talked me out of an F-150 by making it impossible to configure what I wanted: a regular cab, XLT, short bed, 4×4, limited slip differential with the 6.2L Hurricane-Boss V8.  You know, a Ford Tremor without the poseur trim, the tacky console and a half-ton of big block V8 instead of that funny soundin’ EcoBoost motor.

The rep went into some detail about the cost-benefit of offering everything under the sun (a fair point for any corporation, to some extent) and then threw me a bone:

“You definitely know what you want, maybe we can accommodate you in the future.”

So if the BOSS V8 ever shows up in some twisted FoMoCo homage to the GMC Syclone…well…YOU ARE WELCOME, SON. For now, enjoy these chocolatey photos showing a time when Ford, King Ranch and a lot of brown joined forces to impress rodeo-going pistonheads.

 

 

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Good News, Guys! Someone Wants To Pay Top Dollar For My Town Car! http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/02/good-news-guys-someone-wants-to-pay-top-dollar-for-my-town-car/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/02/good-news-guys-someone-wants-to-pay-top-dollar-for-my-town-car/#comments Sun, 23 Feb 2014 15:00:24 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=752289 Just when you think you’ve seen it all… you haven’t, apparently. This letter came to me yesterday, in what appeared to be a hand-addressed envelope postmarked Santa Ana, CA. I assumed it was some sort of medical bill, but it turned out to be a fairly intricate sales pitch for a Dodge dealer located in […]

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Just when you think you’ve seen it all… you haven’t, apparently.

This letter came to me yesterday, in what appeared to be a hand-addressed envelope postmarked Santa Ana, CA. I assumed it was some sort of medical bill, but it turned out to be a fairly intricate sales pitch for a Dodge dealer located in Marion, Ohio, about thirty-five miles from me. As you can see, the letter purports to be a printed-out email from a sales manager who is desperate to get his hands on my 2009 Town Car. You know, this one:

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I’m not sure why they need it so desperately. Perhaps they are playing a practical joke on someone who owns a white Town Car, or perhaps they are starting up a “Scared Transverse” program to convince people not to drive RWD cars. Either way, they’re offering 110% of Kelly Blue Book!

Those of you who have worked in a dealership know how this stuff happens. It’s a dead Tuesday and some guy pulls up in a rental, demanding to see “the decision maker” at the store. Your sales manager or GM is a brilliant closer but he doesn’t have any experience with being closed himself. So, before you know it, your dealership has paid someone $25,000 to “generate leads” for you that are, shall we say, not exactly up to Alec Baldwin’s standards.

The people who come in on these letters are looking to make impossible deals; they’re worse than regular “ups” by a factor of ten. At the end of the program, the company that sold it to your store points to the increased traffic, tactfully failing to mention that sales were about what they’d been before the start of the program. Everybody gets angry, someone gets fired, and the whole shop catches a case of corporate amnesia about the thing until the next super-salesman in a rental car knocks on the GM’s door.

What’s interesting about this particular piece of direct mail is the effort put into it. How did the Post-It get written? Was it an autopen device, some robot that writes letters and Post-Its and sticks them together and mails the whole thing out? Or is it a sweatshop somewhere in downtown Los Angeles? Could it be Chinese workers across the Pacific, faithfully copying the cursive shapes from a computer screen, assembling the letters, then filling a Maersk container with their earnest weight? The possibilities are nearly endless, but most of them are not cheering.

But I don’t have time to worry about the fate of the worker bee, whether American or Chinese; I have to high-tail it to the junkyard before they feed my 110%-of-Blue-Book Townie to Murilee’s Crusher!

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GPS Tracking: Catch This Fly With Honey http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/01/gps-tracking-win-this-fly-with-honey/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2014/01/gps-tracking-win-this-fly-with-honey/#comments Tue, 14 Jan 2014 21:22:19 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=697681 Last week, Ford’s Global VP of Marketing and Sales, Jim Farley, told a panel discussion at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas that Ford has access to data on its customers’ driving habits via the GPS system installed in their cars. “We know everyone who breaks the law, we know when you’re doing it. […]

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Photo courtesy of media.ford.com

Photo courtesy of media.ford.com

Last week, Ford’s Global VP of Marketing and Sales, Jim Farley, told a panel discussion at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas that Ford has access to data on its customers’ driving habits via the GPS system installed in their cars. “We know everyone who breaks the law, we know when you’re doing it. We have GPS in your car, so we know what you’re doing. By the way, we don’t supply that data to anyone,” he said. The next day Mr. Farley adjusted his statement to avoid giving the wrong impression saying that the statement was hypothetical and that Ford does not routinely collect information on, or otherwise track, drivers through their GPS systems without those drivers’ consent and approval. That approval comes from turning on and opting into specific services like 911 Assist and something called Sync Services Directions, a system that links the GPS system to users’ cellular phones. So that’s that, right?

I’m going to say right here that I believe Ford when they say they aren’t collecting information on individual drivers because, if you think about it, they really don’t need the level of detail that sort of tracking can provide. It matters little to Ford whether or not you like to run 5 MPH over the speed limit on your morning commute or just how often you go to the gym so it seems unlikely that they would seek to collect that kind of data. No, I think that, just as Mr. Farley speculated in the comments that followed his initial revelation, they really are interested in the big picture issues, the kind of data that urban planners may want or even the sale of bulk data to other marketers, say a retailer trying to determine the best place to open a new store.

Of course, what’s true about the Ford Motor Company may not be true of others. The Federal government, for example, may want to track the movements of certain people and state and local governments may want to link into that data stream to determine whether or not people are obeying traffic regulations. Right or wrong, necessary or not, the government using your cars’ onboard computers to keep tabs on you is something that will continue to evolve in the years to come, but it the actual topic I wanted to discuss today wasn’t government intrusion into our lives, it was where I think this is really headed – a new form of advertising.

Years ago I read a factoid that said when most Americans have the opportunity to opt out of junk mail, things like advertising brochures and store catalogs, we actually sign up for more. I think that’s as true today as it was back then. We don’t like intrusive forms of advertising like phone calls during the dinner hour and pop-up ads in our browsers, but generally speaking the average American doesn’t mind things like targeted ads that appear off to the side or above a website’s banner. These things are, we know, a necessary evil, the price we pay for free content. After all, someone has to pay the bills in order to keep a website running and targeted ads based on my browsing history are an effective way of getting me to see a product I might actually buy. I’m OK with that. If I read an article about a mini-van and, as a result, get links to companies that sell mini-vans, that’s actually helpful.

2013 Hyundai Elantra GT Interior, Infotainment, Navigation, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. Dykes

So why aren’t these things happening with our GPS units? If I frequent hamburger joints, then sponsored content might actually get me to try some place new, right? If I search for an auto parts store, why not do what Google Maps already does on my home computer and put sponsored links on top and then others down below? It’s the way the yellow pages used to work and so long as I get all the information I need then I’m willing to look at your sponsored content. Of course, I want something in return, maybe a free GPS head unit or a free satellite radio subscription, but if you make it worth my while and it could be a win-win situation.

I’m serious! It’s how the free market works and I, along with a great many others I am sure, don’t mind the intrusion as long as you make it worth my while. All that other “big brother” stuff is going to get sorted out eventually and I am firmly in the camp that believes that, since I’m not doing anything wrong, someone looking over my shoulder doesn’t hurt me at all. Give me something for free while avoiding pop-ups and you can track me all you want. In fact, I’ll be the first in line to subscribe and I’m sure that tens of millions of Americans will be right behind me. Bring on that better, brighter future.

Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.

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Adventures In Marketing: 1970 Toyota Corona Beats Green Monster Jet Car In Drag Race http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/09/adventures-in-marketing-1970-toyota-corona-beats-green-monster-jet-car-in-drag-race/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2013/09/adventures-in-marketing-1970-toyota-corona-beats-green-monster-jet-car-in-drag-race/#comments Fri, 13 Sep 2013 13:00:34 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=516745 Since my first car was a 1969 Toyota Corona sedan, I always look for these cars in junkyards. I toy with the idea of getting another first-gen Corona sedan someday, into which I will swap a 1UZ-FE engine out of a Lexus LS400, so of course I check the internetz for old Corona ads. Here’s […]

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1970_Toyota_Corona_Commercial-Picture courtesy of Toyota USASince my first car was a 1969 Toyota Corona sedan, I always look for these cars in junkyards. I toy with the idea of getting another first-gen Corona sedan someday, into which I will swap a 1UZ-FE engine out of a Lexus LS400, so of course I check the internetz for old Corona ads. Here’s a good one!

Yes, the ’70 Corona sedan beats the mighty F-104-engined Green Monster LSR car in all categories, including a 98-yard drag race (in which the Corona gets about a 95-yard head start). As for trunk space and ease of parking… well, you’re better off with a Corona than a jet dragster any day!

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Salesmen, Beware Of The Backseat Boys http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2012/06/salesmen-beware-of-the-backseat-boys/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2012/06/salesmen-beware-of-the-backseat-boys/#comments Sun, 10 Jun 2012 09:51:30 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=448268   In 2001 during an early evening with a piercing December chill, Jason splayed the salesman’s grin when Dad and Son showed up in a warm showroom. Well of course he’d be happy to let them try a new Passat, “but first can I get a copy of your license?” Moments later, Jason pulled up […]

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In 2001 during an early evening with a piercing December chill, Jason splayed the salesman’s grin when Dad and Son showed up in a warm showroom. Well of course he’d be happy to let them try a new Passat, “but first can I get a copy of your license?”

Moments later, Jason pulled up to the glass front doors in a black B5. He hopped out and assumed the passenger seat. Ten-year-old Son scurried in past the back door and settled in the center of the backseat with a commanding view forward.

Despite his 30 minutes of interactive product training, salesman-Jason wouldn’t be the expert in the car that evening. He didn’t stand a chance against the ten-year-old in the back. That boy’s bedtime stories came from Consumer Reports and Road & Track.

As Dad secured himself in the driver’s seat with the Teutonic click of the seat belt, the boy was already reaching forward from the back seat to show off the seat heaters.

“You can roll it to turn on the bun warmers, see!? And look, if you move the lever to the side you can shift the gears like a manual car!”

“Son, put your seat-belt on so we can go,” Dad said over his shoulder.

Salesman Jason racked his brain for Passat arcana that would put the boy in his backseated place.

Jason prescribed Dad and Son an anemic test drive route with a quick hop onto and off of the highway. Soon, salesman and boy sounded like an old couple.

Salesman: “And this car has…”

Boy: “…190 horsepower!”

Salesman: “So you can get up the driveway when it snows …”

Boy: “…this car has four wheel drive.”

During the drive Jason had a difficult time getting a talking point or a question across without Son finishing the salesman’s sentence.

Salesman: “And if you move that dial up there…”

Boy: “…you can open and tilt the sunroof!”

Salesman: “And if you pull on the handle…”

Boy: “…it goes back into the roof softly!”

When the three rolled back into the dealership parking lot, Jason mustered as genuine an expression he could stomach, turned back and said, “Hey kid, you seem to really know your stuff. You probably know…”

Boy: “…more about this car than you do?  It’s child’s play.”

By virtue of going to Road & Track night-school, Son knew more about the Volkswagen, and every other automaker’s lineup, than any salesman should ever need to know.

At the end of the day, Jason focused on selling to the front-seat driver when really he should have focused his efforts on the fifth-grader in the back.

Instead, the boy in the back settled on an Acura TL.

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Blind Spot: America’s New Motor City http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2012/05/blind-spot-americas-new-motor-city/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2012/05/blind-spot-americas-new-motor-city/#comments Mon, 21 May 2012 20:40:16 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=445389 Throughout the history of the automobile in America, one city has been synonymous with the industry and culture of cars. Booming with America’s great period of industrialization, Detroit became the Motor City, the hometown of an industry that created a blue-collar middle class and a culture based on personal mobility. But as America has entered […]

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Throughout the history of the automobile in America, one city has been synonymous with the industry and culture of cars. Booming with America’s great period of industrialization, Detroit became the Motor City, the hometown of an industry that created a blue-collar middle class and a culture based on personal mobility. But as America has entered the post-industrial age, as the focus of our economy has shifted from production to consumption, Detroit has been left behind. Long used to defining consumer tastes, Detroit was caught unawares by the changes wrought by globalization and the rise of information technology. And as America’s traditional auto industry struggles to redefine itself in the new economy, another Motor City is rising to meet the challenges of a new age.

Though not often recognized as such, Los Angeles has long been America’s “other” car capital. Developing during the rise of the automobile, Los Angeles has become a place where automobile ownership is not just a necessity, but a fundamental aspect of the culture. And as a result of its headlong embrace of the automobile, Southern California has contributed some of the most important elements of automotive culture. From the drive-through fast food joints that now dot America’s landscape to Harley Earl’s design revolution, from hot rod culture to smog control, it is impossible to imagine modern American life without L.A.’s unique automotive achievements.

Industrial-age Detroit was surely grateful for Southern California’s innovative attempts to reshape society around the cars it produced. But as long as the automakers dominated the wealth produced by America’s love affair with the automobile, Los Angeles was seen as little more than Detroit’s best customer. Though an important ally in promoting automotive culture, Los Angeles’s value to the industry was little more than offshoot of its major industry: entertainment. But as global competitors entered the US market, Southern California’s car-crazed culture became one of the first to embrace the imports. And as Detroit’s near-monopoly began to erode, the balance of power shifted: from this point on, consumers would drive automotive tastes with increasing independence.

With this shift, Los Angeles began its ascent in the automotive world. While Detroit lay mired in the industrial age, Southern California developed a taste for the new global menu of automotive options, and simultaneously embraced the new revolution in information technology. Its status as a taste-maker grew, and its focus on consumer opinion, fashion and communication put it in close touch with the values that were reshaping America’s economy. Now, with the information and consumer-economy revolutions largely realized, Southern California is becoming the new center of gravity for America’s auto business.

In fitting with the values of this new world, L.A.’s automotive juggernauts neither produce nor themselves sell automobiles. Instead of factories and dealerships, they have invested in server farms and data models. Rather than controlling information to maximize profits in support of an industrial supply chain, they create and share information in service of the consumer and market efficiency. And through this revolution, the two titans of Southern California’s “automotive industry,” Edmunds and Truecar, have become some of the biggest players in the business of buying and selling cars.

Edmunds.com got its start just as Los Angeles was coming into its own as the capitol of American automotive consumption, and well before the information revolution began to take hold. In 1966, it began publishing booklets which consolidated automotive specifications as a tool to help buyers make informed decisions. Over the years, it has evolved this service from print to CD-ROM, to web page and mobile app. And with new technology, it has dramatically expanded its services, offering everything from news, reviews, and specifications to industry analysis and forecasting, from a live consumer-advice hotline to dealer reviews and its “True Market Value” pricing tool. Never losing focus on its original insight, that consumers need help navigating the crowded new car market, Edmunds has embraced every new technology to expand on its mission and become the most established gatekeeper to the burgeoning world of online auto research and sales.

Entering Edmunds’ brightly-colored offices in Santa Monica, it becomes instantly clear that the company looks to Silicon Valley rather than Detroit. With its whiteboard walls, open cubicles, espresso machines and video game room, the ambience is clearly inspired by Google rather than GM. And like Google and Facebook, Edmunds is finding that its consumer service is just the beginning of its opportunities. So massive is the traffic that Edmunds’ car buying website generates, it has developed its own value as a model for the larger market. As the patterns of research at Edmunds.com shift, the company can track changes in interest in specific cars and brands with an ingenious in-house application, giving it insights into the market that no automaker  can ignore. By serving consumers with the latest technology, Edmunds can not only generate huge revenue from advertising and sales leads, but create valuable intelligence for the industry as well.

Though Edmunds’ business model may now embrace the industry as well as consumers, it hasn’t lost sight of its original mission. Indeed, as it has assumed leadership in the burgeoning auto consumer services industry, it has embraced its role as an advocate for automotive consumers in every venue. Leading this charge is former CEO and current Vice Chairman, Jeremy Anwyl, an intense, often-iconoclastic dynamo who has become the closest thing the automotive business has to a public intellectual. Rising to prominence through his regular commentary and industry analysis, Anwyl has become a regular figure at Washington D.C. hearings on everything from fuel economy regulations to distracted driving. Over a brief lunch, he jumped with ease from topics as diverse as EV tax credits and NHTSA incident reporting to sales forecasting and media criticism, fusing a generalist’s fascination with every aspect of the automotive business and culture with an unshakeable focus on serving consumers. While Detroit’s executives often seem inward-looking and overly focused on their traditional industry patterns, Anwyl demonstrates the importance of an automotive culture that engages every arena in which automobiles play a role. His ability to serve as the auto consumer’s advocate-in-chief, not only serves Edmunds’ mission and image well, it helps cement the consumer power that launched his company to prominence.

But Edmunds’ rise, from booklet printer to market-making, policy-influencing juggernaut, has not gone unnoticed. Numerous companies have tried to match its success and compete for its influence, but few have given it any real trouble. The simple fact is that Edmunds has been working at its mission so long, and has been so in tune with cultural and technological shifts, that any rival would have to make enormous investments in order to match its suite of services and aura of leadership. And yet, in just a few short years, one company has managed to break through Edmunds’ near-monopoly, and join it as the second Southern Californian juggernaut of automotive consumer services. That company is TrueCar.

The short roots of TrueCar’s stunning rise to prominence lead back to Edmunds. Formed by a core of Edmunds employees, TrueCar grew out of just one element of Edmunds’ sweeping empire: the “True Market Value” pricing tool. While the larger site spread its resources across an entire ecosystem of consumer information and advocacy, TrueCar’s mission was laser-focused on creating the best real-time pricing tool on the web. By investing in every possible source of data on new car sales, and by developing a slick, intuitive interface focused solely on delivering localized market price transparency, TrueCar has been able to claw out a niche in one of the most lucrative automotive consumer services. And though Edmunds downplays comparisons with TrueCar, it’s clear that the upstart firm has established itself as a major player.

TrueCar’s more focused culture is evident in its almost zen-like offices high atop Santa Monica’s historic clock tower. In sharp contrast to Edmunds’ primary colors, copious espresso machines and young employees blowing off steam at the company pinball machine, TrueCar’s headquarters are smaller, less self-conscious, and a more obviously-focused workplace. Not that TrueCar couldn’t have a vast Google-like complex if it wanted: just last year, in the depths of of the economic downturn, the company brought in a $200 million round of investment. But, as CEO Scott Painter explains, TrueCar’s spends its millions largely on acquiring and analyzing pricing data. Where Edmunds seeks to offer a complete research and shopping experience, Painter refuses to break focus on pricing until total market transparency is achieved.

But where Edmunds’ broader focus has allowed it to assume the mantle of consumer advocate in a generally non-confrontational manner, TrueCar’s narrower but deeper approach to serving consumers has ruffled feathers among dealers and manufacturers. For an industry long used to consumers overwhelmed by the vast variety of brands, models and trim levels, and for dealers who have long relied on asymmetrical information to pad their profits, TrueCar’s crusade for pricing transparency has tipped the balance of power so far towards consumers as to be seen as a threat.

Towards the end of 2011, TrueCar, falling victim to its own success, came into conflict with dealer groups, manufacturer “dealer marketing allowance” schemes, and state regulators tasked with protecting local franchise laws. In the wake of that confrontation, TrueCar has had to make some specific changes in how it operates its business, but the industry’s reaction showed that TrueCar’s mission to deliver real pricing transparency was changing the way automotive retail works. And as Detroit has proved over the last 40 years, businesses who cling to a comfortable past in the face of inexorable historic forces get left behind.

Though Edmunds and TrueCar eye each other warily, and though there is certainly some overlap in their business models, they aren’t really competitors. Together, they form the vanguard of a movement to use information to empower consumers, and I would argue that a consumer that wants to make the most of this new movement would use Edmunds to help decide what kind of automobile might suit them best, and use TrueCar to help price and negotiate for it once that decision has been made.

Competition between the two will make both better, which in turn will arm consumers with ever-greater power in the marketplace. In this way, the two behemoths of online car buying services will continue to strip power from the automakers, force them to pay closer attention to consumers, and drive the innovations that will allow producers to more efficiently serve an increasingly-informed market. And as this dynamic plays out, the producers and marketers of Detroit and elsewhere will have no choice but to recognize the rise of America’s new Motor City in sunny Southern California.

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Jen Friel, Sam The Eagle, TTAC’s Disinvitation To The Dodge Dart, And The Slut Event Horizon http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2012/05/jen-friel-sam-the-eagle-ttacs-disinvitation-to-the-dodge-dart-and-the-slut-event-horizon/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2012/05/jen-friel-sam-the-eagle-ttacs-disinvitation-to-the-dodge-dart-and-the-slut-event-horizon/#comments Thu, 03 May 2012 15:37:27 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=442776 No sense beating around the bush on this one: TTAC won’t have a Dodge Dart review for you to read when the embargo expires later this week. We weren’t invited to the event. If you want to find out what it’s actually like to drive the Dart, you’ll have to read about it somewhere else. […]

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No sense beating around the bush on this one: TTAC won’t have a Dodge Dart review for you to read when the embargo expires later this week. We weren’t invited to the event. If you want to find out what it’s actually like to drive the Dart, you’ll have to read about it somewhere else. If you want an honest review, you will have to wait until I can rent one, I suppose.

Yesterday, Jalopnik’s Matt Hardigree teed-off on Chrysler for inviting sex blogger Jen Friel to the Dart release. Although Hardigree himself is embroiled in a long-term struggle with our own Derek Kriendler for the unofficial title of Most Interesting Young Auto Writer, a battle he cannot help but eventually lose, I heartily recommend that you check out Matt’s article when you have time, because it’s a fun read, and it’s straight out of the Jack Baruth Handbook For Dissing The Living Shit Out Of Hack Writers & The Auto Industry In General, Yo. When I read stuff like that, I feel the same way Madonna must while watching a Lady Gaga performance.

What Matt doesn’t realize, however — or doesn’t say, at any rate — is that Chrysler’s decision to effectively replace TTAC with Ms. Friel isn’t an anomaly. It’s the arrow-straight path to the future,and it is part of a bigger trend that affects everyone from your humble author to the New York Times. Here’s why.

I want to talk about the idea of efficient markets for a moment. Most Americans are brought up to equate “efficient” with “good” in this context. Sometimes, an efficient market is a good market. Imagine, if you will, an old frontier settlement with a single general store. The owner of that store effectively controlled what goods and services were available to the residents of that town, and he also effectively controlled the prices of those goods and services.

If the settlement expands and becomes a town, then a city, a second store will eventually arrive, and then a third. At that point, you have competition, which means that prices will drop. Good for the market, right? Of course. Let’s suppose, however, that the original general store had been so profitable that the owner had been able to sponsor the local Boy Scout troop. The arrival of additional stores, and the pricing competition that results, would eventually reduce his margin to the point where it would no longer be possible to sponsor the Scouts. At that point… poof! No more Boy Scouts, but everybody pays fifty cents less for soap. Is that good or bad? Depends on whether you’re a Scout or a bulk soap consumer, right?

Once upon a time, newspapers were like frontier general stores. They had effective monopolies, or something close to it. If you wanted to advertise, you had to do business with them. If you wanted to find out what the weather would be tomorrow, or how much your new neighbors paid for their house, you had to buy the product. Simple as that. Like aristocrats who felt their wealth imposed a noblesse oblige, most newspapers took the profits created by what we would today call “channel ownership” and spend some of them on giving you the vegetables. The vegetables, of course, are what’s good for you. Investigative reporting. Exposing the corrupt. Safeguarding the public. Printing the truth. And so on.

Make no mistake, though, “exposing the corrupt” never pays the bills at a newspaper. Printing classified ads and yesterday’s baseball box scores is what pays the bills. The idea is that you, the newspaper owner, owe the public something since you are profiting from your ability to distribute information to them. You charge them for red meat but you make sure there are vegetables on the plate. It’s that simple, and it’s what gave us everything from Woodward and Bernstein to Consumer Reports.

Automotive “journalism”, however, never got the memo about noblesse oblige Sure, every once in a while Patrick Bedard would put his foot up some kit car builder’s ass, and CAR magazine once ran an investigative series by Jamie Kitman about the dangers of leaded fuel, but by and large, autojournalism is all red meat, all the time, with as much salt and sugar as they can pile on. “New Camaro ZL1 Tells The Shelby To Step Outside!” “Ferrari 458: World’s Greatest Car?” “Top Sport Sedans Go Head To Head In Ibiza, Spain!”

When the Internet came along and access to information was truly democratized — when “citizen journalists” began reporting on CNN and the Arab Spring was covered on Twitter by the people doing the springing — the newspaper world took a monstrous hit. Why put a classified ad in the paper when you can put it on Craiglist? Why wait for tomorrow’s paper to get the box scores? They’re online now. Need a weather forecast? It’s on your iGoogle. All of a sudden, newspapers didn’t control the flow of information.

The major papers have fought back by attempting to raise the price of vegetables, putting investigative articles and real content behind paywalls. Whether that will work or not is anyone’s guess, but if it does work, it will be because the Times still has the knowledge, tools, and ability to do the kind of real journalism that the HuffPo can’t. Bloggers earning twenty-five bucks a pop to aggregate content from their basements can’t break Watergate, Travelgate, Iran-Contra, et cetera. Even an article like the one done by Frank Greve on the autojourno game itself requires too much time and effort to ever come from a traditional blog. Vegetables. Tough to grow, hard to swallow.

The car rags didn’t have any vegetables, with the possible exception of reliable instrumented testing, and that’s why they are disappearing. Motor Trend may be on its hands and knees sucking-off the Nissan GT-R right now, but Jalopnik can do it sooner, faster, and better, plus they can run an article about some drunk skank who ran into a tollbooth. It’s the Connery-in-The-Untouchables approach. They put a picture of a Ferrari on the cover? You put a picture of a crashed Ferrari on the website. They declare the Chevy Sonic to be the best car ever? You do the same, plus run a story on a guy driving an electric scooter on the freeway.

Now, let me show you Jack’s Foolproof Chart Of What Young Male Readers Like, from Least to Most:

Detailed reliability data
Sophisticated, knowledgeable automotive testing
Fun stories about stuff
Stories where something blows up
Pictures of cool stuff
Pictures of stuff blowing up
An article about girls doing slutty things
Mugshots of girls who have done slutty things
A girl talking about having the “back of her eyeballs” knocked out by some dude raw-doggin’ her in a hallway
A picture of the above
A video of the above
A video of the above, with two guys
A video of the above, with two guys and a dog
A video of the above, with two guys, a dog, and a tight-ass dubstep soundstrack

You get the idea, right? It’s always possible to increase viewership by moving farther down the list. Jalopnik is farther down the list than Car and Driver, but that doesn’t mean they get to cry “Hold!” at the Mugshots of girls who have done slutty things level. Somebody’s gonna take it farther.

Jen Friel takes it farther. She writes about getting fucked, for lack of a less direct description. By 103 guys on OK Cupid, by random “buddies”, whatever, whenever, she’s down. She’s not terribly attractive in the conventional sense, so she’s “approachable” and that plays even better with a lot of her audience than it would if she looked like a young Kim Basinger. She’s more interesting to young men than a Ferrari would be, even if that Ferrari is being driven into a toll booth at high speed. Her stuff isn’t great writing, and some of it doesn’t even rise about the level of functionally illiterate teen sexting, but that doesn’t matter.

Given the choice between inviting someone with years of experience owning and racing Mopars — namely, moi — and having someone attend who could put a brief advertorial for the Dart in-between stories of being eyeball-fucked and out-skanking strippers at a club, Chrysler followed the money. The future, if you will. What does that future contain? The Slut Event Horizon, where everything having to do with young and young-ish men will probably be sold using as much sex, violence, and spectacular imagery as possible. Face it: this is how Jalopnik beat the car rags, and it’s how they will eventually be dethroned. Plain and simple.

Those of us who are of a certain age will remember “Sam The Eagle” from “The Muppet Show”. Sam was very conscious of his dignity, and he was anxious to censor prurience, violence, and just plain silly behavior out of what was planned for each night’s show. Of course, he was always frustrated in this attempt. Once, in the middle of decrying nudity, he was informed that he was “naked under his feathers” and, after considering the issue, he ran off the set in shame. Let’s face it: once you’ve tried this, how can you complain when this is even more popular? Sam The Eagle wouldn’t understand, but I do.

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Harry Belafonte’s Kids Sing Olds Troféo-ized Version of Dad’s Big Hit, Civilization Collapses http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2012/04/harry-belafontes-kids-sing-olds-trofeo-ized-version-of-dads-big-hit-civilization-collapses/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2012/04/harry-belafontes-kids-sing-olds-trofeo-ized-version-of-dads-big-hit-civilization-collapses/#comments Fri, 20 Apr 2012 15:00:30 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=440721 After creating today’s Oldsmobile Toronado Troféo Junkyard Find, it becomes my duty to share one of the most brain-scrambling examples of the “What Could GM Have Been Thinking?” genre of car commercials. Yes, it’s a version of Harry Belafonte‘s “Banana Boat Song,” with “Tro-FE-oh” replacing the famous “DAY-oh,” and sung by Belafonte’s offspring. Let’s study […]

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After creating today’s Oldsmobile Toronado Troféo Junkyard Find, it becomes my duty to share one of the most brain-scrambling examples of the “What Could GM Have Been Thinking?” genre of car commercials. Yes, it’s a version of Harry Belafonte‘s “Banana Boat Song,” with “Tro-FE-oh” replacing the famous “DAY-oh,” and sung by Belafonte’s offspring.

Let’s study the new lyrics:

Troféo,
Trofé-oh-oh-oh!
It’s a new generation and we want a new Olds.
Sequential port fuel injection, anti-lock brakes,
(?) come and they want a new Olds.
Visual Information Center, handles great.
This Oldsmobile is not our father’s,
New generation for the sons and daughters.
Trofé-oh-oh-oh!
This is the new generation of Oldsmobile.

It’s hard to figure out what GM had in mind here. If the idea was to pitch the Troféo to younger buyers considering a Detroit alternative to European marques, why use a song that was a hit in 1956? If the idea was to woo Oldmobile’s traditional purchaser demographic (i.e., grumpy octogenarians in the Upper Midwest), why use a song by a well-known Civil Rights-era activist and all-around opponent of American foreign policy, who was loathed like Satan by 99 and many more nines percent of grumpy Midwestern octogenarians? Hey, maybe they’ll buy a Reatta!


Let’s check out another Olds ad from the same era featuring equally an equally C-list celebrity. Quick, someone put that marque out of its misery!

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Adventures In Marketing: In An Alternate Universe, the Corolla Is All About Sex http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2012/04/adventures-in-marketing-in-an-alternate-universe-the-corolla-is-all-about-sex/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2012/04/adventures-in-marketing-in-an-alternate-universe-the-corolla-is-all-about-sex/#comments Thu, 05 Apr 2012 15:45:59 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=438453 Having suffered behind the wheel of a few rented Corollas during my travels with the 24 Hours of LeMons Circus, I’m here to tell you that the current generation of Corolla— the version you get in rental fleets, at any rate— is one of the least fun motor vehicles you can buy. I am convinced […]

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Having suffered behind the wheel of a few rented Corollas during my travels with the 24 Hours of LeMons Circus, I’m here to tell you that the current generation of Corolla— the version you get in rental fleets, at any rate— is one of the least fun motor vehicles you can buy. I am convinced that the suits at Toyota have ordered their top engineers to devise a Fun Prevention Control Module™ for the Corolla, a little box under the dash that does everything from preventing you from finding a good song on the radio to ensuring that you will never, ever be able to pull off even a half-assed e-brake turn in a muddy racetrack paddock. With the FPCM™ in full effect, you’ll drive your Corolla for hundreds of thousands of trouble- and fun-free miles, all the while fantasizing about setting the thing on fire and giving some crackhead $119 for a much more fun ’95 Mercury Mystique rolling on three space-saver spares. So, it came as a shock when I spotted this Corolla-hustling ad on a Saigon Toyota dealership during my recent trip to Vietnam.
According to Toyota’s global website, the Corolla Altis “throws in a staggering change that will definitely blow you away.” Wait, a 21st-century Corolla that will blow you away? A woman in red high heels flashing a few yards-o-leg… associated with a Corolla? What’s going on here? Could this be the foot in the door that banishes the FPCM™ from the Corolla and brings us back to the spirit behind the FX16 Corolla? Well, probably not. But we can hope.

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Blind Spot: The Twilight Of The Volt http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2012/03/blind-spot-the-twilight-of-the-volt/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2012/03/blind-spot-the-twilight-of-the-volt/#comments Mon, 05 Mar 2012 00:44:30 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=433724  “Do you want to accompany? or go on ahead? or go off alone? … One must know what one wants and that one wants” Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight Of The Idols This week’s news that GM would stop production of the Chevrolet Volt for the third time in its brief lifespan came roaring out of the […]

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 “Do you want to accompany? or go on ahead? or go off alone? … One must know what one wants and that one wants”

Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight Of The Idols

This week’s news that GM would stop production of the Chevrolet Volt for the third time in its brief lifespan came roaring out of the proverbial blind spot. Having watched the Volt’s progress closely from gestation through each month’s sales results, it was no secret to me that the Volt was seriously underperforming to expectations. But in the current media environment, anything that happens three times is a trend, and the latest shutdown (and, even more ominously, the accompanying layoffs) was unmistakeable. Not since succumbing to government-organized bankruptcy and bailout has GM so publicly cried “uncle” to the forces of the market, and I genuinely expected The General to continue to signal optimism for the Volt’s long-term prospects. After all, sales in February were up dramatically, finally breaking the 1,000 unit per month barrier. With gasoline prices on the march, this latest shutdown was far from inevitable.

And yet, here we are. Now that GM is undeniably signaling that the Volt is a Corvette-style halo car, with similar production and sales levels, my long-standing skepticism about the Volt’s chances seems to be validated. But in the years since GM announced its intention to build the Volt, this singular car has become woven into the history and yes, the mythology of the bailout era. Now, at the apparent end of its mass-market ambitions, I am struck not with a sense of schadenfreude, but of bewilderment. If the five year voyage of Volt hype is over, we have a lot of baggage to unpack.

When a history of the Volt is written, it will be difficult not to conclude that the Volt has been the single most politicized automobile since the Corvair. Seemingly due to timing alone, GM’s first serious environmental halo car became an icon of government intervention in private industry, a perception that is as true as it is false. I hoped to capture this tension in a July 2010 Op-Ed in the New York Times, in which I argued that

the Volt appears to be exactly the kind of green-at-all-costs car that some opponents of the bailout feared the government might order G.M. to build. Unfortunately for this theory, G.M. was already committed to the Volt when it entered bankruptcy.

But by that time, the Volt was already so completely transformed into a political football, the second sentence of this quote was entirely ignored by political critics on the right. The culture of partisanship being what it is in this country, any nuance to my argument was lost in the selective quoting on one side and the mockery of my last name on the other. One could argue that that this politicization was unnecessary or counter-productive, but it was also inevitable.

The Volt began life as a blast from GM’s Motorama past: a futuristic four-place coupe concept with a unique drivetrain (which still defies apples-to-apples efficiency comparisons with other cars), a fast development schedule and constantly-changing specifications, price points and sales expectations. It’s important to remember that the Volt was controversial as a car practically from the moment GM announced (and then began changing) production plans, becoming even more so when the production version emerged looking nothing like the concept. But it wasn’t until President Obama’s auto task force concluded that the Volt seemed doomed to lose money, and yet made no effort to suspend its development as a condition for the bailout, that a car-guy controversy began to morph into a mainstream political issue.

At that point, most of the car’s fundamental controversies were well known, namely its price, size, elusive efficiency rating, and competition. Well before the car was launched, it was not difficult to predict its challenges on the market, even without the added headwinds of ideological objections (which should have been mitigated by the fact that they were actually calling for government intervention in GM’s product plans while decrying the same). But GM’s relentless hype, combined with Obama’s regular rhetorical references to the Volt, fueled the furor. Then, just two months after Volt sales began trickle in, Obama’s Department of Energy released a still-unrepudiated document, claiming that 505,000 Volts would be sold in the US by 2015 (including 120,000 this year). By making the Volt’s unrealistic sales goals the centerpiece of a plan to put a million plug-in-vehicles on the road, the Obama Administration cemented the Volt’s political cross-branding.

When GM continued to revise its 2012 US sales expectations to the recent (and apparently still wildly-unrealistic) 45,000 units, I asked several high-level GM executives why the DOE didn’t adjust its estimates as well. But rather than definitively re-calibrate the DOE’s expectations, they refused to touch the subject. The government, they implied, could believe what it wanted. Having seen its CEO removed by the President, GM’s timid executive culture was resigned to the Volt’s politicized status, and would never make things awkward for its salesman-in-chief. And even now, with production of the Volt halted for the third time, GM continues to play into the Volt’s politicized narrative: does anyone think it is coincidence that The General waited until three days after the Michigan Republican primary (and a bailout-touting Obama speech) to cut Volt production for the third time?

Of course, having used the Volt as a political prop itself from the moment CEO Rick Wagoner drove a development mule version to congressional hearings as penance for traveling to the previous hearing in a private jet, GM is now trying to portray the Volt as a martyr at the hands of out-of-control partisanship. And the Volt’s father Bob Lutz  certainly does have a point when he argues that the recent Volt fire controversy was blown out of proportion by political hacks. But blaming the Volt’s failures on political pundits gives them far too much credit, ignores GM’s own politicization of the Volt, and misses the real causes of the Volt’s current, unenviable image.

The basic problem with the Volt isn’t that it’s a bad car that nobody could ever want; it is, in fact, quite an engineering achievement and a rather impressive drive. And if GM had said all along that it would serve as an “anti-Corvette,” selling in low volumes at a high price, nobody could now accuse it of failure. Instead, GM fueled totally unrealistic expectations for Volt, equating it with a symbol of its rebirth even before collapsing into bailout. The Obama administration simply took GM’s hype at face value, and saw it as a way to protect against the (flawed) environmentalist argument that GM deserved to die because of “SUV addiction” alone. And in the transition from corporate sales/image hype to corporatist political hype, the Volt’s expectations were driven to ever more unrealistic heights, from which they are now tumbling. Beyond the mere sales disappointment, the Volt has clearly failed to embody any cultural changes GM might have undergone in its dark night of the soul, instead carrying on The General’s not-so-proud tradition of moving from one overhyped short-term savior to the next.

Now, as in the Summer of 2010, I can’t help but compare the Volt with its nemesis and inspiration, the Toyota Prius. When the Toyota hybrid went on sale in the US back in 2000, it was priced nearly the same as it is today (in non-inflation-adjusted dollars), and was not hyped as a savior. Instead, Toyota accepted losses on early sales, and committed itself to building the Prius’s technology and brand over the long term. With this approach, GM could have avoided the Volt’s greatest criticism (its price) and embarrassment (sales shortfalls), and presented the extended-range-electric concept as a long-term investment.

Even now, GM can still redefine the Volt as a long-term play that will eventually be worth its development and PR costs… but only as long as it candidly takes ownership of its shortcomings thus far and re-sets expectations to a credible level. And whether The General will defy and embarrass its political patrons by destroying the “million EVs by 2015″ house of cards in order to do so, remains very much to be seen. One thing is certain: as long as it puts PR and political considerations before the long-term development of healthy technology and brands,  GM will struggle with a negative and politicized image. And the Volt will be seen not as a symbol of GM’s long-term vision and commitment, but of its weakness, desperation, inconstancy and self-delusion.

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Hammer Time: What Should Have Been http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2012/01/hammer-time-what-should-have-been/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2012/01/hammer-time-what-should-have-been/#comments Fri, 13 Jan 2012 14:26:06 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=426035   I remember looking at the then brand new Ford Five Hundred and thinking to myself, “This would make one heck of a Volvo.” Like the Volvos of yore this Ford offered a squarish conservative appearance. A high seating position which Volvo’s ‘safety oriented’ customers would have appreciated. Toss in a cavernous interior that had […]

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I remember looking at the then brand new Ford Five Hundred and thinking to myself, “This would make one heck of a Volvo.”

Like the Volvos of yore this Ford offered a squarish conservative appearance. A high seating position which Volvo’s ‘safety oriented’ customers would have appreciated. Toss in a cavernous interior that had all the potential for a near-luxury family car, or even a wagon, and this car looked more ‘Volvo’ than ‘Ford’ to me with each passing day.

Something had to be done…

Hmmm… why not subtract ‘twenty’ from the Five Hundred name. Call it a 480, and put in a nice classic Volvo styled fascia on the front end. Throw in an interior inspired by the best of Swedish design and, Voila! Ford would have offered a Volvo that would have hit the square peg of the brand’s main customers… and maybe even a few others who were considering an upscale Camry or a Lexus ES.

Sadly Ford never made a Volvo version of the Five Hundred, or the Flex for that matter. Instead they mis-balanced the diverging priorities of competing simultaneously with BMW (S40’s, C30’s, S60’s) and conservative middle-aged Americans who valued luxury transport over driving dynamics (Xc90, XC60, C70).  The brand became a disaster.

I am starting to see the same ingredients mixed into other brands these days. Take for instance Scion.

Yes this brand will get a nice pop and halo in the form of the upcoming FR-S. Then again, halo sports cars that are shared with other brands tend to be short-lived. Just ask Pontiac and Saturn about the Solstice and the Sky.

So what would be the perfect car to put into Scion’s kinship?

Two years ago I would have strongly argued for making the CT200h a Scion. It didn’t have the luxury trappings of a Lexus. However it offered tons of sporting character and attracted the type of youthful and educated audience that Scion sorely needed at that point.

You know. The type of people that quickly walked away from Scion after they started marketing bloated SUV-like compacts that should have been marketed as… Toyotas… or Volvos. Who knows.

Wait a second. YOU know!

A lot of potentially great cars over the years have been marketed to the wrong brands for the wrong reasons.  So I ask the B&B, “What cars were given the wrong brand, and where should they have gone?”.

Like most marketing classes in modern day MBA-land there are no right answers. Just SWAG’s and opinions. Feel free to demote a Cadillac to a Chevy if you must. So long as you can defend it, let’s hear it.

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The Fix Is In As GM Makes Changes To Volt After NHTSA Investigation http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2012/01/the-fix-is-in-as-gm-makes-changes-to-volt-after-nhtsa-investigation/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2012/01/the-fix-is-in-as-gm-makes-changes-to-volt-after-nhtsa-investigation/#comments Thu, 05 Jan 2012 22:25:23 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=424566 General Motors announced changes to the Chevrolet Volt’s design after a NHTSA investigation into why a Volt caught fire following crash testing. The changes will go into effect once production restarts at the Hamtramck, Michigan facility, but customer cars already sold will follow a different protocol. Starting in February, GM will initiate a “voluntary customer satisfaction […]

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General Motors announced changes to the Chevrolet Volt’s design after a NHTSA investigation into why a Volt caught fire following crash testing.

The changes will go into effect once production restarts at the Hamtramck, Michigan facility, but customer cars already sold will follow a different protocol.

Starting in February, GM will initiate a “voluntary customer satisfaction program” to make the necessary changes to the Volt. According to GM’s Rob Peterson said that  formal recalsl must be initiated by NHTSA, and their lack of movement prompted GM to enact a voluntary one instead.

The fix involves changes to the Volt’s battery pack housing, as well as a coolant temperature sensor and a special bracket to prevent overfilling. The previous system allowed the battery housing to be punctured, which then resulted in coolant overflowing onto a circuit board causing an electrical short. The short was determined to be the cause of the fire.

 

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General Motors Trying Stealth Tactics For Super Bowl Ads http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2012/01/general-motors-trying-stealth-tactics-for-super-bowl-ads/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2012/01/general-motors-trying-stealth-tactics-for-super-bowl-ads/#comments Thu, 05 Jan 2012 19:46:59 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=424547 Rather than running commercials during the Super Bowl, General Motors is looking to try something more subversive – product placement within other brand’s TV spots during the big game. Automotive News reports that GM marketing man Joel Ewanick was investigating the possibility of paying other advertisers to insert GM vehicles into their ads. But various […]

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Rather than running commercials during the Super Bowl, General Motors is looking to try something more subversive – product placement within other brand’s TV spots during the big game.

Automotive News reports that GM marketing man Joel Ewanick was investigating the possibility of paying other advertisers to insert GM vehicles into their ads. But various contractual elements related to Super Bowl advertising may kill the idea in its nascent stages.

Super Bowl ads are apparently restricted via a form of non-compete clause. Ford and Chevrolet could not run ads in the same “pod” (i.e. commercial break), and GM’s plan would cause havoc with this arrangement. Having GM products inserted into another company’s ad, as well as commercials for GM’s own products would cause a logistical nightmare for the people who decide where and when ads are placed.

Furthermore, the plan would run afoul of a long-standing policy against buying a 30 second spot and then re-selling 5 or 10 second blocks of time. NBC, which broadcasts the game, would also have to approve any ads that feature the promotion of an unrelated brand. The article also mentions a “reward system” that would give small prizes to viewers who are able to spot product placements, though no details on this seemingly silly scheme were given.

As much as Super Bowl ads have become a part of pop culture, meriting their own examination, the undeniable fact remains that for many, the ads are a great way to grab another beer or, shall we say, recycle the liquids via the municipal sewage system.

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TrueCar Versus Honda: Online Car Buying Challenges Hit Home http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/12/truecar-versus-honda-online-car-buying-challenges-hit-home/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/12/truecar-versus-honda-online-car-buying-challenges-hit-home/#comments Wed, 21 Dec 2011 17:45:59 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=422978 The rise of the internet has had myriad effects on everyday life, not the least of which has been its profound impact on consumer behavior. With ever more data being made available online, and with the rise of independent alternative media outlets like TTAC, car buyers in particular are fundamentally changing their relationship to the […]

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The rise of the internet has had myriad effects on everyday life, not the least of which has been its profound impact on consumer behavior. With ever more data being made available online, and with the rise of independent alternative media outlets like TTAC, car buyers in particular are fundamentally changing their relationship to the car buying process. Dealers have been noting for some time that the internet has created better-informed buyers who, armed with more information, are demanding the car they want at the best possible price, wreaking havoc on traditional car dealer tactics like upselling and opaque pricing policies.

But as the eternal dance between supply and demand shifts in favor of consumers, some dealers and OEMs are having a tough time adjusting to the new reality. At the same time, the need to make money off of online consumer education has created some tension for the new breed of consumer-oriented websites. This conflict has now broken out into the open, as the auto transaction data firm TrueCar has found itself locked in a battle with American Honda over the downward pricing pressure created by more widely accessible transaction data. And the outcome of this conflict could have profound impacts on the ever-changing face of the new car market.

Early last week, TrueCar CEO Scott Painter took to the TrueCar blog with an “Open Letter To The Automotive Industry,” in which he argued

Our world is changing. Unprecedented access to information and a massive shift in consumer behavior has resulted in a challenging new automotive retail landscape. It has also enabled a consumer appetite for data transparency. To hide from evolving consumer behavior is to deny change. At TrueCar, we embrace this opportunity. We also believe that transparency is the centerpiece of trusting relationships. Some in the industry disagree.

And indeed, from personal experience I feel comfortable saying that TrueCar does provide consumers with some highly valuable information by tracking vehicle transactions from several data sources and publishing the range of transaction prices on a local level. This clearly helps consumers navigate the often opaque and confusing world of dealer-level pricing, and facilitates a more efficient interaction between supply and demand. And if that’s all TrueCar did, it would be impossible to argue with the valuable service it provides.

But in order to fund its business model, TrueCar cannot simply give away data and hope everything pans out for the best. In order to generate profits, TrueCar works with “dealer partners,” allowing them to present a lower “haggle-free” price for the model being researched at no upfront cost. If the consumer buys that car, TrueCar gets a $299 commission from the dealer; if not, the dealer pays nothing. Dealers can tailor these “guaranteed lowest prices” based on TrueCar’s data, and they seem to generally beat non-“guaranteed” prices in the TrueCar “price curve” display by only a few hundred dollars. But by offering this service to its dealer partners, TrueCar has opened itself to conflict with OEMs, as this fiscally-necessary service muddies TrueCar’s role as a pure consumer service. Which is where the conflict with Honda comes in.

In his “Open Letter,” Painter mentions no OEM by name, and TrueCar’s EVP for Dealer Development Stewart Easterby tells TTAC

 We’re not trying to pick a fight… we very much value Honda/Acura. We have strong OEM relationships through our recent acquisition of Automotive Lease Guide, and we have lots of people on staff who have work for OEMs, so we generally have strong relationships with the industry.

But in an Automotive News [sub] piece published on the same day as Painter’s “Open Letter,” the TrueCar CEO claimed that American Honda was warning dealers away from advertising below-invoice “guaranteed lowest” prices. After talking to American Honda, AN updated its piece, noting that it had

incorrectly reported that Honda singled out TrueCar.com when the automaker warned dealers that they would put their local marketing payments from Honda at risk if they offered prices below invoice on Internet shopping sites

In fact, what had happened was that American Honda had simply warned its dealers that any advertisement of below-invoice prices could jeopardize the marketing assistance money Honda sends dealerships. American Honda’s Chris Martin clarified the automaker’s position in an emailed statement to TTAC, noting

Dealers who wish to receive marketing funds are expected to adhere to certain guidelines that govern dealer participation in its Honda Dealer Marketing Allowance (DMA) Program and its Acura Carline Marketing Allowance (CMA) Program.  Among the many advertising guidelines to which dealers must adhere to in order to receive DMA/CMA Funds, Honda dealers are restricted from advertising new Honda vehicles at a price below dealer invoice plus destination and handling charges and Acura dealers are restricted from advertising new Acura vehicles at a price below MSRP plus destination and handling charges.  Such guidelines do not limit a dealer’s discretion to advertise a new vehicle at any price if the dealer is not seeking DMA/CMA Funds.  Furthermore, the dealer is free to charge customers any price it chooses, in its absolute discretion, for a vehicle.

Martin goes on to identify the central bone of contention:

The development of third party websites used for advertising is not any different than advertising pricing in a traditional newspaper or on TV.

And here, American Honda has something of a point. Whereas TrueCar’s price curve is a pure reporting tool, simply reflecting otherwise available data, it’s not entirely unfair for Honda to characterize TrueCar’s service to dealer partners as an advertising service. In practice, the only real difference between this service and any other form of advertising is that TrueCar only gets paid if a car gets sold at the “guaranteed lowest” price offered by one of its dealer partners. If you accept that reality, Honda has some very valid reasons for threatening to withhold dealer marketing assistance, as Martin’s statement explains

The function of these [DMA] guidelines is three-fold. First, it encourages dealers to use the advertising money provided by American Honda for interbrand advertising.  That is, rather than providing funds to dealers so that they can engage in discount advertising against other Honda and Acura dealers (which does American Honda and consumers no good), American Honda wants dealers to use the funds to promote the advantages of Honda and Acura vehicles when compared with competing brands. Second, discount advertising is detrimental to the Honda and Acura brand images.  American Honda has no wish to pay for ads that portray its products as “cheap” or “low-end” vehicles.  This may be appropriate for other manufacturers; it is not appropriate for the Honda and Acura brands.

So far, so reasonable. TrueCar’s service may be more palatable than the local, low-rent “Check Out Our CRAAAAZY Prices!” ads you see on TV, but in practice there’s little meaningful difference. Besides, the choice belongs to dealers: either accept Honda’s money with the inevitable strings attached, or throw in your lot with the new lower-price, but potentially higher-volume TrueCar (or CRAAAAZY Prices!) strategies. But with its third rationale for its policies, Honda strays from this reasonable territory, and betrays a distinct bias against TrueCar, arguing

Third, American Honda believes that much discount advertising is bait-and-switch advertising, which is not beneficial to the consumer and reflects badly on the manufacturer that condones it.  Dealers that advertise vehicles for extremely low prices (as some do on the TrueCar site) may engage in either direct bait-and-switch tactics or using the automobile’s brand name to sell expensive accessories, service contracts and the like.

Memo to Honda: these practices are as old as the auto industry itself. Suggesting that these tactics will never be used at dealers who toe Honda’s DMA line is just as disingenuous as the implication that TrueCar’s dealer partners are more likely to use them. If anything, TrueCar’s major sin is that it makes below-invoice advertising easier for the OEM to monitor and therefore squelch than in the pre-internet days, when consistently maintaining these DMA standards would have required a survey of every local publication and TV/radio broadcaster (not to mention direct-mail marketing), a task that no automaker was or is equipped to do.

But Honda’s apparent antipathy towards TrueCar is just the tip of a growing resentment towards the site. In a speech cited in the AN piece published last Monday, AutoNation CEO Mike Jackson expressed the angst that appears to be spreading across the auto retailing industry, especially in light of its recent deal with Yahoo [sub].

The good deal that they’re pitching to the consumer is lower than average. So to the extent that everyone goes with the TrueCar price, it moves the average down. It’s a death spiral, and the question is whether they are powerful enough to unleash that dynamic in the U.S. marketplace.

But Jackson’s implication, that TrueCar can essentially manipulate the market in favor of consumers, simply doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. On an abstract level, you can’t repeal the law the law of supply and demand. As Painter puts it

They’re trying to say Hondas are worth more than invoice, but if everybody’s paying less than invoice, that’s not true

More practically, however, TrueCar’s own data seems to refute the industry’s fears. Specifically, Easterby tells TTAC

TrueCar represents two to three percent of new car sales… we’re flattered that people think we’re influencing the market, but at that share, we clearly aren’t. The 21st C consumer demands transparency in all products and services, that’s what the web has done. TrueCar reflects the market, just as Zillow reflects the market for real estate, rather than determines it.

Even more importantly, Painter insists

Our goal at TrueCar is to foster healthier relationships between manufacturers, dealers and consumers through data transparency. To deliver on this promise, we require a high standard from our 5,800 dealer partners – an upfront competitive price and a commitment to a great customer experience. A discoverable upfront price is the cost of getting noticed. Contrary to popular concerns this does not create a “race to the bottom.” The lowest price only secures the sale 19.2% of the time within the TrueCar network. The sale is still won by location, selection and good old-fashioned customer service. [Emphasis added]

So where does this all leave us? Clearly Honda has the right to withhold DMA money from dealers violating its reasonable conditions on that money. By the same token, dealers have the choice of pursuing higher volumes with less traditional advertising by choosing the TrueCar strategy, or continuing to follow the time-honored tradition of collaborating with the manufacturer. And here, TrueCar’s price curve, which it says is not populated by dealer partner data but from independent, anonymized sources, becomes the killer app: it’s so good (reflecting a claimed 90% of all new car transactions), it can’t help but draw ever more buyers, who will then be exposed to its dealer partner “advertisements.”

Ultimately, it’s difficult not to conclude that TrueCar (and sites like it) won’t continue to draw ever more dealers away from the old DMA agreements, especially as online research becomes more important to the car-buying process and as traditional advertising dollars flow from TV, radio and print towards the internet. And if dealers and brands are sufficiently hurt by downward pressure on pricing, the alternative is always there. This is how competition works, and because TrueCar has more fundamentally aligned itself with consumers and the power of the market, it’s tough seeing them not coming out ahead in this struggle. And if they do, car buying could be changed forever. Again.

 

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The Final Countdown for an Alabama-Mahindra Truck? http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/12/the-final-countdown-for-an-alabama-mahindra-truck/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/12/the-final-countdown-for-an-alabama-mahindra-truck/#comments Thu, 15 Dec 2011 15:45:34 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=422496     This is one of my favorite music knock offs, the Hindi version of Europe’s “The Final Countdown”. My point? If the folks at Mahindra Planet are right, it’s only a matter of time before the Bollywood Music types rip off Skynyrd’s classic, “Sweet Home Alabama.” Which will be pretty awesome, I assure you! […]

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Click here to view the embedded video.

 

This is one of my favorite music knock offs, the Hindi version of Europe’s “The Final Countdown”. My point? If the folks at Mahindra Planet are right, it’s only a matter of time before the Bollywood Music types rip off Skynyrd’s classic, “Sweet Home Alabama.” Which will be pretty awesome, I assure you!

 

The big box of a building in Muscle Shoals is rumored to be the future home of the Mahindra TR20 and TR40 compact pickups. The truck gurus at Navistar supposedly signed a 10 year lease on the facility this October: could the company that fought Ford tooth and nail take Ford’s compact truck market share once the Ranger officially dies next week?

 

 

But let’s not get too excited about our prospects for a pure compact pickup, a stickshift, gutsy Miata with a bed if you will. Nothing’s ever perfect.

 

 

If the EPA figures are right, the TR40 is a bit of a buffet slurping Yankee. Considering the price volatility of diesel and the fuel economy of gas trucks, that’s a big problem. And who knows if these rigs have enough engineering prowess to overcome the road/dirt driving dynamics of a Tacoma. It’s same (potential) Achilles’s heel that put the Model T out of production and Chevrolet on the map.  Then again, this interior shot suggests the TR isn’t a bad place to do business.

 

 

Rear HVAC vents?  Not too shabby! Who knows what the future will provide?

Off to you, Best and Brightest.

 

 

 

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Adventures In British Leyland Marketing: You Ain’t Seen Nothing Like the MG Maestro Yet! http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/11/adventures-in-british-leyland-marketing-you-aint-seen-nothing-like-the-mg-maestro-yet/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/11/adventures-in-british-leyland-marketing-you-aint-seen-nothing-like-the-mg-maestro-yet/#comments Wed, 16 Nov 2011 19:00:35 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=418436 Even though I’ve never been in a Austin/MG Maestro, I feel fairly confident in stating that the Rover Group’s little front-drive compact was unexciting at best. Still, the advertising folks must have though (after 11 rounds of Singapore Slings down at the pub) we can make it look cute and sexy! You decide. Bachmann-Turner Overdrive […]

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Even though I’ve never been in a Austin/MG Maestro, I feel fairly confident in stating that the Rover Group’s little front-drive compact was unexciting at best. Still, the advertising folks must have though (after 11 rounds of Singapore Slings down at the pub) we can make it look cute and sexy!

You decide. Bachmann-Turner Overdrive plus models in post-apocalyptic/crypto-punk outfits plus a general jittery sense of enforced silliness equals… big sales? Not really. The surreal touch of having the post-chick-consumption car say “BURP!” with a Mylar balloon poking out of the trunk adds something special, though.

You want happy silly instead of grim silly? Those ad hucksters should have gone to Japan for some education in making miserably underpowered small cars look fun. For example, pick just about any Starlet ad.

Or they could have talked to Renault’s UK-market ad agency about combining music and babes to make a boring commuter car look exciting. Poor British Leyland. Hey, do you think the Maestro had any Whitworth fasteners?

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How To Sell New Cars (Without Hating Yourself) http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/11/how-to-sell-new-cars-without-hating-yourself/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/11/how-to-sell-new-cars-without-hating-yourself/#comments Sat, 05 Nov 2011 17:00:01 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=416945 I remember the look on my father’s face when I explained to him that I would be selling cars. It was the look any of someone who has just heard the details of a grisly murder; a bit of curiosity, quickly overtaken by disdain. He sank into his chair. “It’s a job,” he grunted, and […]

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I remember the look on my father’s face when I explained to him that I would be selling cars. It was the look any of someone who has just heard the details of a grisly murder; a bit of curiosity, quickly overtaken by disdain. He sank into his chair. “It’s a job,” he grunted, and I realized that was as strong an endorsement for my new job as I was going to get. Truth be told, I felt about the same.

It’s no surprise that the car salesman has been painted as a snake-oil pusher; a charlatan peddling his wares to people in an unethical manner. Like all stereotypes it’s a vast overgeneralization, but I had the same perceptions of car salesmen as anyone going into my first day at work. I wondered: how accurate were the portrayals in popular culture? Would I have to get white shoes and slick back my hair? Would I have to wear a pinky ring?!

My fears were assuaged as I was let in on the trade secrets. Here’s the dirty, sordid summation of car salesmanship: guide, but don’t push. That’s it in a nutshell. Sure, we accentuate the positive attributes of a car and explain why the car fits the needs you, the buyer, have laid out for us, but it does neither you nor us any service to try and push you into a car you don’t want.

The nature of the business is a strange one; both sides, neither friends nor foes, feigning small-talk while each wanting to retain money that is up for grabs. As my contempt for my new profession faded and I discovered that a few bad apples had soiled the reputation of all car salesmen, I began to observe the odd interactions between buyers and salesmen. Certain unexpected truths quickly revealed themselves.

Truth #1: Everybody Wants to Buy, but Nobody Wants to be Sold

On my second day at the job, a veteran salesman summed up every buyer: everybody wants to buy, but nobody wants to be sold. He was right.

Instead of pushing anything, I began to familiarize myself with cars and whenever I talked to an “up” (an on-the-lot customer), I started by asking buyers what were “musts” and what were “preferences”. The process started with them narrowing in on what they envisioned for their ride. If people envision driving down the freeway in a luxury SUV, no matter what kind of sedan you show them, they will feel conned if you push them towards a sedan. Then, you will have lost their trust and most likely, their business. So, we always take the buyer’s lead. “You want a ½ ton Chevy with an extended cab? Great, we have several of them. You mentioned you would like it black. If the price was right, would you consider a different color?” Every preference has its price.

Despite the shady reputation, car salesmen really do listen and care what car you want. The problem is that most buyers aren’t sure of what they want themselves. We have to guide you to the sale, but make sure it’s your idea. Honestly, it’s exhausting. Our persuasive skills mainly come into play in the negotiation process. So, before you step on the lot, write out your “musts” and be prepared to articulate them to your salesman and you’ll make it easier to find that for which you are looking.

Truth #2: Buyers are (Most Likely) Not Professional Negotiators

As we walk amongst the rows of cars, buyers are wary of salesmen. They’re fearful we will pull some voodoo magic mixed with a Jedi mind-trick and force them into buying a car against their will. Once they’re in the office, a façade of skepticism and unearned bravado washes over them and anxiety dissipates like a Xanax in full effect. Husbands will swagger as if to say, “I’ve got this. I know how to haggle.” It’s an odd phenomenon because this is where buyers should feel the least confident.

We know the buyer likes the car. The average person goes through the car buying process a handful of times in their lives. Yet, while the salesman deals in car sales frequently, the buyer often puts forth a confident front. It’s reminiscent of the stereotypical tourist who saddles up to the blackjack table in Vegas insisting that he has a “system” after having read a book about gambling on the plane. Remember: they didn’t build Caesar’s palace by losing to tourists, and we don’t sustain a living by being bested by buyers. Does it happen? Sure, but not often.

It’s weird to witness; the theatrics people pull to show they won’t be pushed around. They will stomp out in a huff and hope we chase after them. They will low-ball us and claim that they saw the exact same car down the road for that price. If they had, they would be down there buying it.

The best way to get a killer deal is to approach the negotiation from a prepared standpoint. Do your research! Know, realistically, how much the car is worth (not according to Kelley Blue Book, but local market value), and understand that the dealership needs to make a profit, too. If they offer you a ludicrous deal, showing them that you know your stuff goes a long way to getting them to knock off the high-balling. If you come prepared with a reasonable offer, based on facts and not wishful thinking, things will go a lot smoother for everybody and you won’t appear foolish. While bravado is often a sign of unsure footing, preparedness illustrates to us someone who is not easy fooled and will often yield a better deal.

Truth #3: The Real Savings are in the Trade-in Allowance, not the Price

People do whatever they can to not pay sticker price. Paying full sticker can feel like a moral defeat. However, where salesmen often have the most wiggle room is in the trade-in allowance.

We get a commission based on the profit the dealership made. We also give you the littlest amount for your trade-in so that when we sell it, we make the most money. Furthermore, we need to allow as much room as possible in case your trade-in (that you swore “runs like a top”), needs costly repairs.

When you come into our office and demand we lower the asking price, we are hesitant to do so because it eats away at the profit margin as well as our commission. A better tactic is to ask for a better price on your trade.

This is tricky. Don’t be defensive. Everybody is defensive when that jewel of a car is appraised for two-thirds its actual value. Instead, insist that the sticker price is a bit high, but that you are more concerned with the trade-in allowance. Getting a thousand dollars more for your trade-in is the same as getting a thousand dollars off the selling price. But it can be easier to get the trade-in number to budge.

Of course, every dealership is different and may have different policies as to how they figure commission. So it won’t necessarily work at every dealership. But if raising the trade-in allowance doesn’t affect the salesman’s commission, then you will likely get less resistance from him.

It’s a strange business, alright. However, people need cars and as my dad said: it’s a job.

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Top 3 Automakers 2011: Bloomberg, Please Report To Remedial Math Class http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/10/top-3-automakers-2011-bloomberg-please-report-to-remedial-math-class/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/10/top-3-automakers-2011-bloomberg-please-report-to-remedial-math-class/#comments Mon, 24 Oct 2011 21:33:24 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=415776 There are days when I wish industry analysts and auto industry journalists should be required to carry maltreatment insurance. This is one of those days.  Bloomberg reports that “Volkswagen AG will probably become the world’s biggest carmaker this year, vaulting past Toyota Motor and General Motors on gains in emerging markets.” Pure and unadulterated nonsense. […]

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There are days when I wish industry analysts and auto industry journalists should be required to carry maltreatment insurance. This is one of those days.  Bloomberg reports that “Volkswagen AG will probably become the world’s biggest carmaker this year, vaulting past Toyota Motor and General Motors on gains in emerging markets.” Pure and unadulterated nonsense.

Bloomberg bases this daring prediction “on the average of three analysts surveyed by Bloomberg.” The analysts and their detailed predictions remain unmentioned – which is probably better that way. The analysts see Volkswagen’s sales “rise 13 percent to 8.1 million vehicles this year. GM sales will gain about 8 percent to 7.55 million, while Toyota will drop 9 percent to 7.27 million.”

Excuse me? The totals are waaaaaaaay off.

The percentages jibe halfways. We predicted similar ones last August. Let’s assume, they are right. It doesn’t take a genius to get them straight. Volkswagen just reported 13.9 percent plus for the first 9 months. GM will announce its quarterly results in November, but 8 percent sound about right. Toyota had budgeted a shortfall of 6 percent for 2011, but just for the sake of argument, let’s assume the analysts are right with 9 percent less. Now for the hard part: Let’s do the math.

I don’t know what kind of a spreadsheet Bloomberg is using, but if you apply the predicted percentages to last year’s official numbers (as supplied by OICA), then GM can hardly gain 8 percent and end up at 7.55 million if they sold 8.48 million last year.

A rise of 13 percent won’t bring Volkswagen to 8.1 million, but to 8.29 million, a little bit less than a million behind the world’s largest carmaker, GM.

And just for the record, 9 percent down from 8.56 million won’t land Toyota  at 7.27 million, but at 7.79 million. Not that it matters ranking-wise.

2010 2011 Growth Rank
GM 8.48 9.16 8% 1
VW 7.34 8.29 13% 2
Toyota 8.56 7.79 -9% 3

Unless the sky falls (and it would have to fall quickly), the year will end as we predicted it back in June: GM #1, Volkswagen #2, Toyota #3. It also should end with Bloomberg in remedial math class.

The numerical nonsense has already been picked-up widely by likewise mathematically challenged news outlets. One of them is – to our great disappointment – the Financial Times, which usually has its act together.

Instead of rectifying the story, the FT added to the confusion by predicting combined Renault and Nissan sales numbers of 6.8 million. Wrong. Renault and Nissan never consolidated numbers in the past, and probably won’t consolidate in the future either. A usually well informed source told us that the consolidated number would be 8.15 million – if the Alliance would consolidate. This includes results from the joint venture with AutoVAZ, which must be taken in consideration when joint venture results of GM, Volkswagen, and Toyota are counted. This would put the Nissan/Renault Alliance in the #3 slot, but again, it won’t, because they don’t want to be counted as one.

 

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“War On Cars” Watch: GM Bashes Cycling, Apologizes http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/10/war-on-cars-watch-gm-bashes-cycling-apologizes/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/10/war-on-cars-watch-gm-bashes-cycling-apologizes/#comments Wed, 12 Oct 2011 20:30:44 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=414530 The idea that environmentalists in this country are waging a “War On Cars” has gained some currency within the right wing in recent years, fueled by the Obama Administration’s increased emphasis on public transportation and cycling. Of course, statistically speaking, the car is proving more than capable of defending itself, as sales and ownership levels […]

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The idea that environmentalists in this country are waging a “War On Cars” has gained some currency within the right wing in recent years, fueled by the Obama Administration’s increased emphasis on public transportation and cycling. Of course, statistically speaking, the car is proving more than capable of defending itself, as sales and ownership levels remain improbably robust (in per-capita and per-GDP terms) despite the recent “Carmageddon.” But GM waded into the fray anyway, running the anti-cycling ad seen above in several campus publications (via bikeportland.org), likely in hopes of fighting against the kuruma banare phenomenon that began with Japanese youth abandoning cars and has progressed to a full-blown national love affair with bicycles. But cyclists are a passionate bunch, and GM’s ill-advised ad prompted a torrent of Twitter protests (see for yourself), eventually causing the automaker to apologize and pull the ad.

GM’s Tom Henderson tells the LA Times

The content of the ad was developed with college students and was meant to be a bit cheeky and humorous and not meant to offend anybody. We have gotten feedback and we are listening and there are changes underway.  They will be taking the bicycle ad out of the rotation…. We respect bikers and many of us here are cyclists.

In other words, this is the ultimate proof that outsourcing ideas to consumers is lazy and ineffective. A good marketer would have instantly seen the problem with this entire ad concept and tossed it (and the Deans Lister who came up with it) as soon as he saw it. There are basically two reasons to bicycle: because you have to or because you want to. Those who have to bicycle can’t afford new cars, while those who want to cycle are going to be alienated by any slight to their passion… especially from a company like GM. In other words, an ad like this is not only ineffective, it exacerbates the nascent antipathy to automobiles among young people.

And make no mistake: automotive ambivalence among young people is growing. As someone who lives in America’s cycling and hipster capital, I can confirm that carlessness is cool… and cycling as a lifestyle choice is even cooler. As I wrote two years ago

Historically, America’s youth have flocked to Automobiles as a tool of personal freedom, an escape pod from the world of adult responsibilities and a way to connect with other young people. Today, these crucial marketing values have been stood on their heads.

If a young person does buy a car, it’s almost always because they need it for their job. Though debt, insurance, maintenance and speeding tickets are the real-life downsides of auto ownership, the crucial issue in the uncooling of cars is the image of car ownership as a a complex of obligations all of which add up to less freedom. The automobile has become a tool for connecting people to their responsibilities, a symbol of debt and talisman of that youth anti-icon, the beaten-down, middle-aged commuter. And what’s less cool than that?

This perception has only increased in recent years, fueled by a cultural “perfect storm” of generational changes. Indeed, today I’m even less optimistic about the car’s cultural relevance than I was when I concluded

America will not stop being the giant, spread-out country in which cars are the major mode of transportation. But the fact that there are nearly as many cars as people in this great land means that the auto industry is ultimately a victim of its own success. Still, if the industry is able to connect with the values that are leading young people away from automobiles, there’s a chance to check this trend.

But it won’t be easy, because young peoples’ expectations of automobiles are actually rising. If automakers are able to offer vehicles which can embody fun, freedom, practicality, efficiency and timeless design, there’s a chance to refocus the youth market’s desire onto automobiles… Recapturing the cool is a major task for the automotive industry, and fighting this perfect storm of cultural changes won’t be easy. This is a marketing, development, design, and technology challenge that makes getting consumers to consider GM look like, well, child’s play.

And yet, ironically, here is GM flaunting its complete ignorance of this crucial cultural dynamic with a single ad. And not for the first time. A 2005 ad that ran in the Vancouver area displayed the same out-of-touch insecurity, bashing public transportation and offering a Chevrolet Cavalier as its alternative.

Despite GM’s recent breathless enthusiasm for marketing to the under-30 “Millenial” set,  these two ads prove that the company’s ability to understand and market to young, car-ambivalent people hasn’t improved in the last six years. If anything, bashing bikes is worse than bashing public transportation because of the immense enthusiasm for cycling and its health and environmental benefits. The fact that a significant number of cyclists choose the two-wheeled lifestyle for political reasons make even a relatively minor slight from a multinational automaker all the more tone-deaf. Rather than mocking cyclists, automakers should be appropriating the bicycle’s cultural appeal with ads showing cars and bicycles coexisting in a youthful lifestyle.

With Millenials on the verge of becoming the majority of the car market, GM needs a massive gut-check if it hopes to have a chance of understanding and addressing the “uncooling” of cars. A potent symbol of the social and economic reality of being a young person today, bicycles are fundamental to that understanding. In fact, I’d argue that bike rank second only to handheld devices as a symbol of youth culture. Cars, meanwhile are dropping off the list, not because of an environmentalist agenda or hostile White House but because of the changing conditions facing young people today. Until the car industry wakes up to that reality, blunders like this one are inevitable, further driving the wedge between the industry and the young people it’s desperate to reach.

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Generation Why: Veloster vs. Sonic: A Millennial Perspective http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/09/veloster-vs-sonic-a-millennial-perspective/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/09/veloster-vs-sonic-a-millennial-perspective/#comments Fri, 30 Sep 2011 18:29:55 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=413062 I like to tout myself as the youngest full-time auto writer in the industry, but sometimes it backfires – like when an Acura exec came up to me on my first press trip (at 19 years old) and warmly told a few assembled journalists and PR types that he hadn’t seen me since I was […]

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I like to tout myself as the youngest full-time auto writer in the industry, but sometimes it backfires – like when an Acura exec came up to me on my first press trip (at 19 years old) and warmly told a few assembled journalists and PR types that he hadn’t seen me since I was this big.

On the other hand, my youth gave me particular insight into two products that launched within the last month, and are aimed squarely at my demographic – the Hyundai Veloster and the Chevrolet Sonic. Both cars launched at the 2011 North American International Auto Show, though their reception couldn’t have been more different.

The Veloster was absolutely mobbed on the Hyundai stand, with the assembled press crawling all over the swoopy hatchback, while the Sonic was tucked away in the back of Chevrolet’s display, prematurely written off as “the replacement Aveo”. I admit complicity in both of these prejudicial acts. At the time, GM had the underwhelming Cruze, while Hyundai had not only kicked it to the curb with the 2011 Elantra, but also launched the Sonata Turbo, Sonata Hybrid and the Equus, as well as riding the success of the Genesis lineup.

I went on a couple Hyundai events in the run-up to the Veloster’s launch and talking with the engineers and PR people, I got the sense that they were on to something. A number of them have some kind of “enthusiast” background, and not in the sort of forum-posting perpetually single know-it-all sense. They ride sport bikes, take part in NASA HPDEs or race in Grand-Am (in the case of one engineer), and have had experience working on high profile sports cars (one chassis engineer is a veteran of Ford’s SVT group).

Hyundai put together a launch that insufferable marketing types would describe as “experiential” to give an insight into what the supposed Veloster customer would do with their time – events included a music festival, eating at food carts and tailgating at a college football game. Doing bong rips and playing Call of Duty was noticeably absent, likely for legal reasons.

I was able to see some good bands, attend my first college football tailgate (us godless, socialist Canadians don’t really have NCAA-style sports) and take trip to Portland’s famous Union Jack’s gentleman’s club, but things started to fall apart before we even got in the car. We were treated to the typical Hyundai presentation, boasting of their booming sales numbers, their competitive advantages over other vehicles and the various advanced technological features that the Veloster had to connect with music players, smart phones and even an XBOX.

The car turned out to be a bit of a dud to drive. My review is essentially a diplomatic explanation of its adequate nature as a road car that really doesn’t like to be driven hard. The biggest problem for the Veloster is that expectations were set too high, and to Hyundai’s credit, they were put in place by the media and auto enthusiasts who expected the next CR-X but got something more like a Scion tC.

The Sonic launch was the quickest I have ever gone from cynic to believer, and GM didn’t even have to ply me with a trip to Dubai or a supercharged Cadillac. Walking into the presentation area of the hotel, I saw the room (well, the parking garage) decked out in Chevrolet Sonic themed graffiti – the automotive equivalent of seeing your Dad trying to “Superman Dat Hoe” at a Bar Mitzvah. Chevrolet went on and on about “millennials”, the 18-29 demographic that the Sonic is aimed at, but somehow forgot the most crucial thing about this generation – we cannot stand any contrived attempts to pander to us via marketing. I wanted to wretch when one marketing flack, talking about the generational anxiety regarding our economic situation said that “They are navigating these tensions [and]…we feel there’s a very big supporting role for a brand to play.”

Even though that remark made me near-homicidal, the next thing that came out of his mouth was the best bit of wisdom I’ve heard in my too-brief career as an auto journalist. The same exec said that while millennials are 40% of the car buying population in America, that does not mean they will buy new cars. On the contrary, he said that most new cars do nothing for this demographic and a lot of them tend to buy used. The team responsible for this car did what no one else did, and saw the world for how things really are rather than trying to have it conform to whatever vision they dreamt up in a board room according to sales targets and management directives. Hyundai pegged the Veloster’s competition as the Honda CR-Z and Mini Clubman, two cars that the 18-29 demographic wouldn’t be caught dead in. Chevrolet knew that for the same $14,500-$18,000 that a Sonic costs, one can buy a used 330ci, G35, S2000 or something else with a lot more panache, performance and prestige than a Chevrolet econobox hatchback. The Sonic has to be really damn good to force people to shy away from something that will impress their friends.

And it is. I’ll say right off the bat that the interior isn’t great. I made some rude comments to a GM Design employee about how the hard plastic would be great for rolling blunts, and her retort was that Chevrolet decided to go right for hard plastic rather than try and make it look like faux leather or carbon fiber. I get that the car is built to a price. Fortunately the rest of it is on point. It looks pretty decent, the 1.4L Turbo and 6-speed gearbox do the job well – it’s about half a second quicker to 60 mph than the Veloster – the steering is excellent and the car’s handling limits are far beyond what’s reasonable to expect for a subcompact. Ford can hype up their Ken Block Rallycross nonsense as much as they want, but the Sonic is the real deal for the real world, a sort of poor man’s Mini Cooper S without the awful reliability.

I’ll save any meta-judgments about whether this is Hyundai’s first mis-step or whether Chevrolet is really back. Parking the Sonic outside a trendy lounge won’t get you past the velvet rope, but it’s a well-made, unpretentious product that is genuinely good and doesn’t cost too much money. Car companies spend exorbitant sums trying to promote their crappy wares via concert promotions, X-Games athlete endorsements or even launching entirely new brands. Meanwhile these contrived efforts are totally transparent to those they’re hoping to sell their cars to. Take those funds and just make a decent car that doesn’t suck and you’ll get the best kind of marketing in the world; one young person telling another “I just bought (insert vehicle here) and you know what? It’s a fucking great car.” Hopefully Chevrolet proves my theory right, or we’ll be seeing another Gymkhana video in a few months time.

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