By on June 13, 2011

Just a week after GM CEO Dan Akerson slammed Ford’s Lincoln revival, Ford is asking its Lincoln dealers to put big money down on the brand’s future. Automotive News [sub] reports

A group of 120 Lincoln dealers had been invited to the meeting to hear Ford’s plans to rebuild its remaining luxury brand, say dealers who attended.

Ford expects stand-alone Lincoln dealers to spend an average of $1 million on renovations, dealers say. Owners of Ford-Lincoln duals are expected to spend about $1.9 million to remodel, dealers who went to the meeting say.

If dealers do not invest in renovations, Ford says it will seek to take back their franchises in exchange for compensation. The investment requirement applies only to urban dealers — for now.

And what do the dealers get in return for their hefty outlays? Hot new Lincoln product, or, in the words of a Lincoln rep “seven new or significantly refreshed vehicles coming out in the next three years.” Which means that if you want to get aboard the Lincoln express (destination:viability), you’ll have to get your store to Lincoln standards by the end of 2013, when a redesigned MKZ and a Focus-based Lincoln compact hit dealers.

(Read More…)

By on June 12, 2011

I missed the latest twist in Chrysler’s California dealer drama when I was traveling in Iowa last week, but because it’s such a significant story (and because Ford recently proved how expensive dealer drama can be), we’ll commit the cardinal rule of blogging and take a look at some week-old “news.” California’s DMV won’t report the findings of its investigation into Chrysler’s allegedly non-compliant “company store” until September 29, but the Detroit News has reported that ”about 75 percent” of these dealer complaint cases end in settlement and that

Chrysler Group LLC may be on the verge of selling its company-owned flagship dealership in Los Angeles to a private retailer, which could appease angry franchise dealers in California.

So much for ChryCo leaving the state in an angry huff. In fact, angry is about the last thing CEO Sergio Marchionne sounds about the whole thing…

(Read More…)

By on June 11, 2011

Cadillac dealers were disproportionately targeted by GM’s bailout-era dealer cull, with some 900 cut before GM reinstated many of them after enduring a downturn in Cadillac sales. The problem, as we noted in a meditation on “Detroit’s Small Town Luxury Lament,” is one of identity:

Is Cadillac a European-grade maker of world-class, dynamically-focused and fashion-forward driving machines, or the small-town America symbol symbol of petty-bourgeois success, with an emphasis on the old-school American  values of wide seats, big power, and a cosseting ride? The brand’s product line displays this identity crisis (compare CTS and DTS) as much as the dealer network does.

The answer: yes. GM is keeping a lot of small-time Cadillac dealers on the roster, and is asking them to upgrade their facilities to a new design created by San Francisco-based architecture firm Gensler. GM talks up the new look’s “contemporary architecture and premium materials” in its presser, but it too seems to try to bridge the yawning gap between a fashion-forward, Euro-inspired look and a more traditional, conservative  look aimed at a more “traditional” customer (see image above?). But does it work? Does the new look communicate “Cadillac values” to you, or does it strike you (as it does me) as a bit of a compromise?

By on June 11, 2011

An Ohio judged has ruled [full ruling in PDF here] against Ford in a 2002 case alleging the automaker overcharged dealers by selling commercial trucks at unpublished prices between 1987 and 1998. According to the summary judgement, Ford’s “CPA” program violated its contract with dealers by publishing “unrealistically high” wholesale prices and using “secretive, unpublished discounts” on an uneven basis, thereby overcharging some 3,000 dealers by an average of $1,650 for each of the 474,289 medium- and heavy-duty trucks sold in the applicable time period (about $1.2b of the ruling is for unpaid interest). The story is intriguing in its illustration of the differences between consumer and dealer incentives: while consumer-end incentives can be applied on a market-by-market basis, dealer invoice prices must be evenly applied across all markets according to Ford’s contract with its dealers. The story is also of major significance considering Ford’s still-shaky financial position, with automotive gross cash exceeding total debt by a mere $1.4b. Ford will appeal the ruling, but because the damages awarded are material rather than punitive, an expert tells the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Ford’s appeal could be “interesting.” Which doesn’t sound like great news to us…

By on June 10, 2011

GM has announced details for the 2012 Model Year Chevrolet Volt, and for the second year of production The General is already addressing the Volt’s most controversial feature: its high price. The base MSRP for the Volt will drop from $41,000 to $39,995 for the 2012 year of production, an accomplishment that GM explains

is possible in part because of a wider range of options and configurations that come with the expansion of Volt production for sale nationally.

Wider range of options and configurations? According to the Detroit News, this means navigation and a Bose speakers are no longer standard features on the base-price Volt, but that seven options configurations are now available compared to the 2011′s three. And, on the other end of the pricing equation, the Volt’s fully-loaded price has increased to $46,265 from the $44,278 that Chevy’s configurator tops out at for a loaded 2011. Keyless access with passive locking is the only new standard feature for 2012. With more choices and a slightly lower price of entry, GM is clearly trying to move the Volt away from the “novelty” image that CEO Dan Akerson referenced earlier this week, as it ramps up Volt production for 60,000 units next year. But until the Volt’s price starts dropping without simply offering a less-contented version, the road to mass sales will continue to be a tough one.

By on May 30, 2011

It took a bit of research to fully parse the California New Car Dealer Association’s complaint against Chrysler and its partially company-owned store in Los Angeles, and our finding is that the CNCDA is actually gunning for Chrysler with gusto. But, argued some of the B&B, surely Chrysler doesn’t want to be kicked out of California? Surely Chrysler’s California dealers don’t want to see their manufacturer banned from selling vehicles in the state? Well, it turns out we were missing a little context that seems to indicate why Chrysler’s California dealers are willing to go to war over a single dealership: Chrysler is overhauling its California retail presence with the help of Wall Street hedge funds. Having used the bailout to wipe out 789 dealerships across the country, Chrysler appears to be working around franchise law to exert more control over its retail network in the Golden State. No wonder then that California’s dealers are standing together to attack Motor Village, the most egregious example of Chrysler’s new retail model. And there’s no knowing where the conflict could end…

(Read More…)

By on May 27, 2011

About two months ago, we heard that Chrysler’s “prototype” Motor Village dealership in the Los Angeles area had been hit with a complaint [PDF] from the California New Car Dealer’s association, arguing that it violated state laws against manufacturer-owned dealerships. The store, a test bed for what Chrysler terms “new retail concepts,” is in fact a partnership between Chrysler and LaBrea ChryslerJeep, making it appear to fit a legal loophole allowing OEM partnerships in retail ventures. But the CNCDA argues that Chrysler is undercharging for rent on the dealership building which it owns, and according to Automotive News [sub], the California Department of Motor Vehicle’s New Motor Vehicle Board just voted unanimously to open a formal investigation into the situation. And the stakes couldn’t be much higher, as AN reports:

If the DMV finds that Chrysler violated state law, the automaker could have its business license in California suspended or revoked.

Ruh-Roh!

(Read More…)

By on May 19, 2011

Speaking at Nissan’s Smyrna, TN electric car factory, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood noted that his staff is working with Congress to make federal tax credits for plug-in car purchases available as a rebate on the dealer level, saying

We’d like for people to get a $7,500 rebate on the day they buy the Leaf. We’re doing a lot of talking about it. When you give people that incentive to buy a battery-powered car, they’ll do it. We know these incentives help.

Speaking to Automotive News [sub], LaHood even went as far as to argue that the new direction for the tax credits, which were previously only claimable when filing taxes, would be successful for the reason that it would make the credits more like the Cash For Clunkers program. Apparently LaHood has completely forgotten how riddled with waste, inefficiency, fraud, confusion, delays, unintended consequences and all-purpose madness that program was. And that’s just scraping the surface. Foolish as it is to subsidize vehicles during the “fleecing the early adopters” phase of a new technology rollout (perhaps we should be saving stimulus for the inevitable “trough of disappointment”?), making those credits available at the dealer level is even worse, increasing the hype and incurring C4C-like downsides along the way.

 

By on May 16, 2011

Ford’s arduous Lincoln turnaround is having another one of those awkward moments, as Ford and its dealers seem to once again be at odds about how to go about fixing Lincoln. And though it’s tough to tell what exactly is going on in Ford’s fandango with Lincoln dealers, it’s easy to see that it ain’t good. For starters, last week, Automotive News [sub] ran a blog item that noted

In just a few weeks, a group of Lincoln dealers will converge on Detroit for an invitation-only brand meeting with Ford Motor Co.

Mark Fields, Ford’s president of the Americas, promises that the meeting in early June will spell out some specifics about Ford’s plan to reignite its luxury brand.

But some dealers have put their invitations in the round file.

One says he won’t “waste” his money on airfare, adding that when Ford has “actual future product to show us, then I’ll go meet with them.”

One Lincoln dealer with a stand-alone store did not get an invitation, but he doesn’t care.

So, clearly things don’t sound happy in Lincoln Land. And what does Ford have to say to the non-attending and uninvited dealers? Ford’s Alan Mulally personally delivered a response the next day at Ford’s annual shareholder’s meeting…

(Read More…)

By on May 10, 2011

Detroit’s brand managers, particularly those at the resurgent premium and luxury brands, have made West Coast sales a high priority as they seek to bring new buyers into once-moribund brands like Buick and Cadillac. California, in particular, is a huge market for luxury and premium cars, and it’s generally an edgier, more youthful market that has long shunned domestic offerings. Everything from “lifestyle events” to no-cost hybrid drivetrain options on Lincoln MKZ have been introduced in an effort to get California’s copious yuppie population interested in Detroit luxury, but the results just haven’t shown up yet. According to Ford’s Mark “MKF” Fields [via AN [sub]], only about 25% of MKZ buyers were tempted by the free-hybrid deal in March, and meanwhile, the San Francisco Chronicle reports that the Golden Gate City has just lost its final domestic auto dealership, a Ford/Lincoln store. Detroit may be California dreaming, but the Buicks and Lincolns of the world are still a long way from gaining ground in the West Coast.

(Read More…)

By on May 10, 2011

Saab has started paying suppliers again (although production hasn’t restarted yet), and CEO Victor Muller is once again all popped-collar confidence as he dismisses the “speed bump” that he blames on negative publicity. But behind Mueller’s yacht-club breeziness and talk of “true Saabs,” major changes are afoot in Saab’s business model. Saab’s deal with Hawtai, the product of a desperate search for support in the midst of a liquidity crisis, has changed how Muller sees the global car business, and as a result he’s shopping what may be Saab’s last meaningful asset: Western dealerships. Muller explains his thinking to Automotive News [sub]

We laughed when the Japanese came. We laughed when the Koreans came. But we will not be laughing when the Chinese come. The Chinese are like a steamroller. It took 67 years to build up our dealer network. It is the biggest asset not on our asset sheet, and these guys buy into it for free. If they make the proper cars, can you image how much simpler it will be to push product through the distribution network that is already there? It is like a railway network that is already there.

Bertel and I have a running bet about whether the first actual Chinese import to the US (not a converted glider) will be a Chinese brand or one of the western brands… but it’s not much of a bet because neither of us can ever commit to picking one brand that seems most likely to bust America’s Chinese car cherry, and our “bets” change on a weekly basis. In any case, though, think it’s safe to say that neither of us saw Saab as playing much of a role in any of the scenarios we’ve discussed.

(Read More…)

By on May 9, 2011

Electronics retailer Best Buy raised a few eyebrows when it began selling Brammo electric motorcycles alongside its flatscreens and Xboxes a few years back. Two years after that agreement was announced, however, Brammos are sold at only three West Coats Best Buys (one here in Portland, OR, two in California) and Brammo is expanding its own dealership network independently of the big box chain. Was Best Buy’s Brammo experiment a disappointment? If so, it’s not stopping the retailer from pursuing other electric vehicle opportunities, as Best Buy’s mobility and transportation honcho Chad Bell tells Automotive News [sub] that it’s talking to electric car firms about a possible retail deal.

We are having conversations with some of the startups. I would say the conversations are going well. We are very excited about several partnerships that we can’t talk about yet. We probably get more traffic in a weekend than some of these dealers do in a month. The benefits for a small automaker trying to cobble together a sales and service network are obvious.

And despite the emphasis on startups and his use of the term “cobble together,” Bell insists that electric mobility is a long-term strategy for Best Buy.
By on April 19, 2011

Speaking at the New York Auto Show today, GM CEO Dan Akerson defended his inconsistent approach to sales incentives, telling the AP [via The Washington Examiner]

I feel pretty good about that. I think we’re in pretty good shape. I don’t want to be a predictable competitor. I don’t want the other guy to know exactly what I’m doing.

For some context,

GM surprised the industry — and Wall Street — when it raised discounts by $400 per vehicle in January and February. Most automakers didn’t raise them because demand for new vehicles has been rising in line with supply…

GM pulled back on its incentives in March, spending $600 to $800 per vehicle less on the deals. But it was too late for some investors, who shied away from the company’s stock because higher rebates lower car companies’ profits.

But does Akerson’s upside, the element of surprise, outweigh the downsides of his hot-cold incentive strategy?

(Read More…)

By on April 12, 2011

Exactly a week ago, Fiat said it would up its stake in Chrysler “within weeks,” and according to the Detroit News, the deed is now done. Having earned 5% of Chrysler’s equity by building a FIRE-family engine in the US (for use in the Mexico-built Fiat 500), Chrysler had to confirm that it has brought in $1.5b in non-NAFTA foreign revenue, and (according to Chrysler’s LLC agreement [PDF])

[execute] one or more franchise agreements covering in the aggregate at least ninety percent (90%) of the total Fiat Group Automobiles S.p.A. dealers in Latin America pursuant to which such dealers will carry Company products

in order to bring its stake up from 25% to 30%. We already know that Fiat will achieve this goal by rebadging Chrysler vehicles as Fiats for Latin American markets, a move that is technically compliant with the letter (if not the spirit) of the LLC agreement. But, it turns out that Fiat still had to get the Treasury to amend its agreement in order to bend the rules just a little bit more.

(Read More…)

By on April 11, 2011

Reuters reports that auto market research firm CNW Research is projecting April transaction prices to be the highest in 15 years, when measured as a percentage of MSRP. According to the report, early April sales show average transaction prices hitting 87% of MSRP, the highest such level since 1996. By comparison, transaction prices were running at around 77% of MSRP during the industry’s down year of 2009. Looser credit (subprime sales are up 92% from last year), tsunami-related production delays and lower supplies of used cars, particularly small cars, are all given credit for contributing to the rising prices, although bailout-era capacity reductions clearly set the stage for this comeback. And with tsunami-related interruptions still working themselves through the system, demand could push prices higher still. But, says CNW principal Art Spinella, don’t look for the manufacturers to reap all of the rewards of rising transaction prices.

Dealers are the primary beneficiary of these dwindling discounts since they are using fewer of their own dollars to close a deal than was necessary just a few years ago

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