What would Charles Darwin Drive?
Peter DeLorenzo latest rant tore US automakers a new orifice. The Autoextremist accused US manufacturers of putting all their eggs in an SUV shaped basket– despite clear warnings that rising gas prices and political correctness would eventually destroy the genre's over-arching popularity. Although Mr. DeLorenzo's essay is a cogent and scathing indictment of the automakers' short-term thinking, he's sure to face some stiff rhetorical competition from the environmental groups who've been railing against SUV's since the first Suburban burbled its way into the American housewife's heart. Guess what? I'm not joining the chorus.
While I'm happy to condemn GM et al for responding to US market trends with all the alacrity of a three-toed sloth, I reject Mr. DeLorenzo's argument that Detroit artificially induced America's "need" for lumbering leviathans. Did Colgate create the "need" for whitening toothpaste? No; they identified a desire, created a product to satisfy it and marketed the Hell out of it. As a capitalistic enterprise, automakers are obligated to follow the same process. Taking automakers to task for making XXXX SUV's handle like cars– instead of simply abandoning the entire genre as "woefully inappropriate"– makes Mr. DeLorenzo more of an Autoelitist than a player of extreme games.
The truth is that no one forced Americans to buy SUV's. By the same token, no one can force US consumers to abandon their "wasteful mastodons" (providing we accept the idea that gas hikes are the result of limited supply rather than conspiratorial collusion). Of course, the combination of high running costs and political incorrectness HAS created an SUV exodus of appropriately epic proportions. But the fact that the Big Three made hay while the sun shined, and used their influence to promote an SUV-friendly legislative environment, is nothing more than good business.
If the party's over, it's over. There's no use blaming Detroit for providing the revelers with jumbo-sized kegs. Everyone involved was, after all, an adult. You can, however, wonder why the Hell GM killed a rear-wheel-drive car platform in order to freshen-up its SUV's at the exact moment when the genre was, no-doubt-about-it, headed for the dumpster. Or what Ford was thinking when it deep-sixed its entire minivan business. Or when DCX will get around to producing a hybrid anything. According to DeLorenzo, these failures are a result of Detroit's lack of "vision, creativity and conviction". In other words, whilst gorging on truck-based profits, the automakers forgot to plan for the inevitable SUV sales crash.
Again, I'm not buying it. Yes, the knuckleheads at GM were dramatically trumped by Toyota in their car-based R&D investments, but you can hardly accuse of them being asleep at the wheel. They've unleashed plenty of new cars over the last five years, and there are more to come. Ford proclaimed last year "The Year of the Car". Their Focus, Fusion and Mustang are an admirable attempt to live up to their own admonition. DCX has also kicked some major car-based butt, what with the 300 and the Town and Country taking their segments by storm. Clearly, the Big Three do have a Plan B. It's just that they also have a Plan C, D, E, F, G and H.
The problem with Detroit is not that they made too many gas-guzzling SUV's; it's that they make too much everything. I've already ranted at length about the patent idiocy of GM running an eight-brand US portfolio, complete with multi-brand product overlap and blatant re-badging. Lest we forget, Ford also sells eight marques stateside, and many of their products compete with each other for the same customer. Is it any wonder that tri-branded DCX is doing better than its domestic brethren? I think not. They have to do more with less.
All three automakers have products appropriate to a marketplace geared towards mileage rather than, um, machismo. It's just that they're not good enough. And that's because no company can do everything well– especially if they're trying to do it eight different ways. If GM, Ford or DCX wants to knock the Accord or Camry from their perches, they should create a single competitive product and keep hammering away until they succeed. Meanwhile, until and unless The Big Three downsize their entire organizations–product, administration and production– they will win some battles, but lose the war.
The Big Three's success in the jumbo-sized SUV market should be a source of inspiration, rather than vilification. After all, the secret to their domination of the genre was their limited portfolios and single-minded product development. In fact, if Detroit uses the death of the large SUV as a cue to pare itself down and concentrate its resources, the gas-pumped shaped comet that's wiping out the large SUV market could be a blessing in disguise.
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