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.
When government, media and industry agree that a trend exists, it’s generally taken as fait accompli. After all, these three institutions wield immense cultural power, and together they are more than capable of making any prophecy self-fulfilling. But there’s always a stumbling block: acceptance by the everyday folk who actually make up our society. And when a trend is taken for granted, the ensuing rush to be seen as being in touch with said trend often generates more heat than light. Such is the case with the trend towards “green cars.” Few would deny that they are “the future,” but at the same time, there’s been precious little examination of how this future is to be realized. And when such examination does take place, it tends to raise more questions than it answers.
Derek Kreindler is pondering selling his lovely BRG Miata and using the funds as “a down payment on a home of my own.” *Sigh.* Here on the West Coast of Canada, I’d have had to sell my (imaginary) Aventador to pull off the same trick. Spend half-a-million bucks: get half-a-bunkbed in some split-level commune. Pot to piss in, not included.
But that’s not his point, it’s whether or not to let the First One go. The first car you paid for with your own money. That first taste of wheeled freedom. Be it ever so humble, you’ll never walk away from your first without a twinge of regret and many backwards glances.
I remember when I did it. (Read More…)
It’s just a car. That’s what I keep telling myself. It’s my first car. A 1997 Mazda Miata. British Racing Green with tan leather. A rip in one of the seats. Torsen LSD, Bilstein coilovers, a roll bar. Needs a new 02 sensor. Otherwise in great condition. In the last year, it’s needed a new alternator, new brakes. Body is good, paint is only so-so. Someone made me an offer I’d be stupid to refuse. I am usually responsible with my finances. No debt to my name. Rarely carry a balance on my credit card. Roughly a quarter of each paycheque goes into a dedicated savings account. I’d be an idiot not to sell it. My self-control is failing me.
A 19 year old student in Halifax, Nova Scotia put up a classified ad looking for a vintage car. The make, model, year and body style are all irrelevant. What Spencer, the ad’s creator, is looking for is “…a classic car with a past that I can keep alive, and continue to keep alive through future generations, continuously adding to the history of a special car.” And he doesn’t want to pay a cent for it.
2011 was a fascinating year to follow auto sales. With the overall market up over 10%, and hot new products hitting showrooms, there was definitely room to grow… and yet everyone seems to have an excuse for why growth wasn’t stronger. Japanese automakers, the biggest losers of 2011, had a strong of natural disasters to blame the bad year on. Detroit showed strong volume gains in terms of percentage growth, and earned respect in growing segments where they were previously weak, but couldn’t match the expectations of its perennially over-optimistic boosters. The Korean manufacturers showed strong market share growth but lack of capacity prevented them from bounding into the top tier of the US sales game. In fact, only the European luxury manufacturers could point to 2011′s sales performance with unalloyed satisfaction, as they grew some 29.5% as a group, from an already-strong volume position. So, given these mixed results, what was the lesson of 2011?
Back in September, I attended the launch of the Chevrolet Sonic for another outlet. Despite GM’s insistence that the Sonic was being marketed at “millenials”, I was the sole member of the press that fit that demographic. Despite the cheesy, ham-handed attempt at being in touch with the demographic (a parking garage festooned with contrived, faux-urban graffiti, for example), the Sonic left a favorable impression. It is an honest, practical, fun to drive car that is affordable for young people – well, some of them.
All told, this has been a successful holiday season for your humble editor. I have showered myself with gifts, avoided annoying family entanglements, kept my pimp hand
weak strong, and made sure there’s a three-hour gap in my Christmas to re-watch Michael Mann’s Heat in its glorious entirety.
And yet… I’m dissatisfied. Perhaps because there are ten simple things the automotive industry and/or its various players could do to make this the best season ever, and as of yet, none of them have been done. So here’s my list, delivered nice and late. Warning: mixture of hatred, sarcasm, and foolish sincerity ahead.
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.
With NHTSA opening a formal defect investigation into the Chevy Volt, GM is moving to defend its rolling lightning rod (no pun intended) and allay consumer fears about its safety. Yesterday I briefly appeared on Fox Business’s Your World With Neil Cavuto show to talk about what the intro to my segment referred to as “the hybrid from hell” and the “killer in your garage.” I tried to explain that the danger to consumers was basically nil, and that the real concern is for rescue, towing and salvage workers. And I would have explained why NHTSA’s tests still leave some serious questions open, but my “fair and balanced” approach meant that my segment ended up being extremely short. So let’s take the opportunity now to look past the hysteria and pinpoint the real issues with NHTSA’s investigation into the Volt.