What matters in the world of cars? It’s a question we’re always asking here at TTAC, and depending on your perspective, the answer could be almost anything. But for all of their cultural significance, cars are ultimately a business, and if you had to boil down the value of a vehicle to one single attribute, it would have to be profitability. But that’s a tough measure to make, considering automakers don’t typically break out profits by vehicle, let alone by model line. Which is why I was so excited to see a list of the 12 most profitable vehicles since 1990 compiled by Max Warburton of Bernstein Research, and published in Automotive News Europe [sub]. So, what’s the most profitable vehicle in modern automotive history? The answer can be found just after the jump…
According to Tesla CEO Elon Musk, the EV luxury brand has pre-sold all 6,500 units of its new Model S to be built next year, and the company is on-track for a 2013 profit. Bt if you’re comparing Tesla to the erstwhile EV darling BYD in order for it to look good, you have to wonder how good things really are. If anything, Tesla should be compared to Audi, an established (and hot) luxury brand with the same EV technology and one of Tesla’s founders on board. Losses for this fiscal year are estimated at $437m, and Tesla’s crucial loans from the Department of Energy are attracting a distracting investigation in the wake of the Solyndra scandal (but hey, Musk is “personally guaranteeing” those loans, so no worries…). And, in a truly puzzling move, Tesla is ignoring the SAE J1772 protocol for rapid EV charging because it isn’t sexy looking enough. As EV guru Chelsea Sexton puts it to the New York Times
It’s hardly unusual for Tesla to zig where the rest of the industry zags. But it’s particularly counterintuitive not to use the J1772 standard, since Model S drivers will be more interested in public charging than Roadster owners. Tesla’s proprietary connector choice requires getting customers to care about form over function on one of the most utilitarian aspects of the car. How many people stare at a gas nozzle and think, ‘If only that were better looking’?
Selling out of a first-year production run is good news, but hardly surprising (all plug-in vehicles are currently capacity-constrained). Preventing buyers from using public charging infrastructure because it’s unsexy is the kind of surprising news that could seriously damage Tesla’s long-term efforts. Meanwhile, we still don’t know how this company will do with regards to manufacturing quality and reliability, especially as volumes ramp up to 20k units per year. After all, Tesla’s hype and niche marketing efforts are well-proven… it’s all the other aspects of building and selling cars that we’re still unsure about.
AlixPartners, the consulting firm that led GM’s reorganization efforts, has put the perennial optimism of auto industry analysts on notice, introducing its 2011 Automotive Outlook by arguing
The AlixPartners 2011 Automotive Outlook finds that while automakers and suppliers have seen profits bounce back handsomely – North American original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) posted $12.5 billion in 2010 profit on a net margin of 4.6% and North American suppliers reaped $8.2 billion on a net margin of 4.3% – no one should be tempted into thinking that things are now back to “normal,” or at least the normal defined by the consumer-incentive-induced sales levels of the past. In sync with its past annual auto studies, AlixPartners continues to predict that U.S. auto sales will climb slower, and to a lower peak, than many others are predicting. Specifically, the firm estimates U.S. auto sales will reach just 12.7 million units this year and only 13.6 million in 2012.
This is a tough moment for us: on the one hand, pessimistic economic forecasts don’t make anybody happy… on the other hand, the AlixPartner outlook is a significant validation of TTAC’s longtime bearishness. So rather than either moping or self-congratulating, let’s just take a look at why AlixPartners is so gloomy about the near-term outlook.
Chrysler lost $84m last quarter on an operating profit of $239m, showing slow but consistent progress from last quarter’s $172m loss [Press release here, slides here, both in PDF]. Chrysler has lost $453m since the beginning of this year. Overall deliveries and sales were down slightly compared to Q2 2010, but thanks to a strong launch for the profit-generating Grand Cherokee, revenues were up just over 5 percent to $11b. As the slide above proves, “Mix and Net Price” accounts for one of the biggest contributions to operating profit, and that’s largely thanks to the new Grand Cherokee which (at 12,721 units last month) is the second-best selling vehicle in Chrysler’s lineup after Ram pickups. That’s a good sign for the future of a company that needed a hero, but there are some troubling signs under the surface.
With its IPO hitting markets, GM has released limited preliminary results that show the firm earned $1.9b to $2.1b in the third quarter of this year. That performance outstripped Ford’s $1.73b Q3 profit, and GM’s $36b in revenue also beat Ford’s $29b figure for the same quarter. GM also announced that it expects to generate positive EBIT in the fourth quarter, although it warned that its Q4 results would not be as strong as the previous three quarters in which GM claims to have earned $4b to $4.2b in net income attributable to shareholders. The projection of weaker Q4 results proves that political considerations weren’t the only factor pushing for an immediate post-election IPO. One note of warning, however: GM has not released complete data on its results, meaning we haven’t seen the impact of GM’s recent debt-cutting moves on cashflow. On the other hand, with a $5b revolving line of credit secured and profits rolling in, GM isn’t likely to be facing liquidity problems in the immediate short term. We’ll wait for full results before we pass final judgment, however.
Ford’s profitability outstripped even yesterday‘s $1.37b estimate, coming in at a whopping $1.68b, as Ford made mad money in the North American market in the 3rd Quarter of this year, for a fifth consecutive profitable quarter. Global revenue was down by about $1b, but excluding Volvo from Q33 2009 results, revenue was actually up $1.7b. $1.6b of Ford’s profitability came from North America, as its most crucial market carried the company over weak overseas results. And with $900m in positive cash flow, Ford says its “automotive cash” will equal its debt by the year’s end, sooner than it had previously forecast. Ford paid of $2b of its revolving credit line last quarter, and plans to pay off the final $3.6b it owes the UAW VEBA trust in Q4. By the end of the year, Ford estimates it will have reduced its overall debt by $10.8b over the course of 2010. Hit the jump for a few key slides from Ford’s Q3 financial presentation.
We’re hardly shocked by the idea that Chrysler won’t turn profit this year. After all, Auburn Hills has barely made its minimum monthly sales volumes (at best, and with rampant incentives and fleet mix) this year, and lost $50m+ in “industrial inefficiencies” on the Jeep Grand Cherokee launch alone [Q2 results analysis here]. With plans to close out the year with a non-stop barrage of product launches and attendant media spending, it would take a minor miracle for Chrysler to break even. But we’ve essentially known this all for some time… what’s truly shocking is that Chrysler’s CEO Sergio Marchionne actually admitted to the media that Chrysler won’t turn a profit.
When Chrysler’s CEO Sergio Marchionne took the stage over the weekend to honor Lee Iacocca with an induction into the Walter P. Chrysler Legacy circle, he admitted to feeling unworthy of honoring Chrysler’s most famous executive in recent memory, and called Ford’s Alan Mulally and the UAW’s Bob King to help share the honor. And being the business-obsessed type he is, Marchionne wasn’t about to let Mulally get on stage without at least a mention of Ford’s just-announced $2.6b profit. And though the recognition and ensuing awkward “moment” helped add to the usual Detroit gala hometown booster vibe, it also highlighted the fact that Chrysler still has yet to announce its Q2 results.
Ford Motor Company has announced its second-quarter results for 2010, and the company says it earned $2.6b over the last three months on $2.9b in operating profit before special items. In a departure from the typical model for domestic automakers, Ford’s growth was largely driven by improvement in North American results: Ford earned $1.9b in pre-tax operating profits in North America after boosting its Ford brand to the top spot in the American market over the first six months of 2010. Ford earned $31.3b in Q2 revenue, a $4.5b improvement over Q2 2009 (a $7.4b improvement excluding Volvo). Ford’s operating cash flow improved by $2.6b despite ending the quarter with $21.9b in cash, a $3.4b drop since the end of Q1. However, that drop in cash-on-hand was the result of a $3.8b debt reduction, and Ford figures its total automotive liquidity (including all credit facilities) is $25.4b. Automotive debt was reduced by about $7b, to $27.3b, the result of both the UAW Retiree Medical Benefit trust buydown and a $3b repayment of a revolving credit line. The shutdown of Mercury has reportedly cost Ford about $229m so far, and Ford expects that amount to equal slightly under half of the total cost of eliminating the brand.
Ford’s results aren’t very surprising given the fact that it Ford brand outsold all other brands over the first half of 2010, but the healthy profit shows that a rumored dependence on fleet sales wasn’t enough of a factor to weaken Ford’s financial results. Though debt levels remain high and its overseas performance remains weak, Ford has proven once again that it’s the healthiest American automaker… if only in terms of its North American market performance.