The Big 2.8 Make Their Own Bad Luck

Frank Williams
by Frank Williams

Daniel Howes thinks Detroit is jinxed. In his latest column, “Automakers vexed by external forces,” the Detroit News scribe suggests that The Big 2.8 are latter day Joe Btfsplks, doomed to walk through life with a dark cloud hanging over their collective heads. Just as they're improving their products and cutting production costs, the domestic automakers have become hapless victims of slowing economic growth, rising oil prices and a soft housing market. It's the "Motown curse." Or, as I like to call it, another peg upon which a loser may hang his hat.

"As much as the fundamental gains in this year's contract talks remain," Howes writes. "The queasy reality is that no matter what Detroit's Big Auto and Big Labor managed to achieve, their gains could be swamped by economic forces beyond their control." True but— It’s not bad luck. It’s bad planning. If America’s soaring gas prices and slumping housing market are about to "swamp" The Big 2.8’s best-laid plans, why is Toyota forecasting growth?

Because Detroit’s plans aren’t best laid. They’re, well, I think you know what I was about to say. Despite Howes’ proxy prevarication, Motown’s predicament relative to the current economic downturn isn’t a case of “when a bad economy happens to a good company.” These are simply the times that test an automakers’ soul, and Detroit’s is about to be found wanting. Again. Once again the Big 2.8 are caught flat-footed thanks to their inability to think or plan for the long-term. And in the long term, that’s ALWAYS a recipe for disaster.

Anyone remember the K-car? When the K helped pull the “Crisis Corporation” back from the brink of oblivion, Chrysler took the winning platform and milked it to death, using it for everything from minivans to luxury cars. Management gave two divisions identical vehicles with different badges– and then killed one of them because of plummeting sales. Again and again, great Chrysler products withered from years of neglect. “Cab forward" design anyone?

And what of the Town Car? Lincoln’s passenger product poured billions into Ford’s corporate coffers— which FoMoCo used to purchase brands they didn’t need, whose products then suffered from the cold dead hand of Ford’s erstwhile international brand management and leaden, impenetrable bureaucracy. Meanwhile, the engine of this excess was left to wither and rot on the vine, along with its similarly profitable Panther platform partners.

Mr. Howes might say all this is old news. The “new Detroit” has learned its lesson. And ain’t it a bitch: just when they’ve finally accepted what anyone with half a brain has known all along (like, say, Toyota), BANG! Fate kneecaps them.

Howes’ presupposition is fundamentally flawed. Detroit shows no evidence that it’s learned from its mistakes. Why did the K-car creator just kill the PT Cruiser, a vehicle with a huge following (and no significant update in the last eight years)? Where is the “new” Chrysler 300? While you can't argue with CEO Nardelli's desire to strip and flip rationalize his company's model lineup, where’s the long term commitment to the only thing that can sustain their business: product excellence? The same place it’s always been: nowhere.

Check out Ford’s new Lincoln MKS. It’s yet another travesty-on-wheels: a tarted-up something else rather than a glorious original, a car that embodies the values of a once proud brand, sold at the proper price point. GM’s effort to leverage its global assets to reinvigorate its U.S. brands is equally pathetic. They import cars from here and there without any coherent idea of who should get what and why—as witnessed by their continued insistence on badge engineering everything with even a glimmer of sales success.

"The wild card in Detroit's collective turnaround has never been what it can control," Howes notes. "It's been what it mostly can't, which is everyone else." You can almost hear Warren Zevon belting-out “Poor Poor Pitful Me”— only without the irony. All of us have had to deal with factors beyond our control. But Detroit had control over the decisions that got them to where they are today: a leaf blowing in an economic whirlwind. Or you could say, the stronger your hand, the less trouble a wild card will cause.

Blaming Detroit's current plight on forces beyond their control is like saying it was bad luck that a mountain climber without a map got lost. When times are tough, the weak are the first to go. I feel sorry for all the people caught-up in Detroit’s decline— from Howes’ “poor slobs who hold mortgages” to the downtrodden creatives who know what could have been. But it’s not like survival of the fittest is a new rule. Or that no one in the industry understood that the “fittest” automaker is the one selling the best cars at the best price.

Detroit’s weak because its brand and products are weak. Blaming external factors for this predicament is a loser’s game. One that Detroit’s knows all too well, and shows no sign of abandoning.

You can read Daniel Howes' original column here.

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  • KBW KBW on Nov 28, 2007
    Secondly, the Cobalt was timed at 8.4 secs with an auto in C&D when it was new. That is pretty quick for an auto and faster than any time I have seen for an auto civic or corolla. I know the civic auto is about 9 secs. Furthermore the 5-60 times are more indicative of real world situations and the gap between the corolla and larger engined cars will only grow when considering that stat. Testing procedures used by magazines help small engined, torque deprived cars post more respectable numbers. Are you saying the majority of buyers in this segment care about a .5 second difference in 0-60 time? I think they made the right trade off here. If people don't like the power they would migrate to other choices.
  • Johnson Johnson on Nov 28, 2007
    sj1204, what you've posted is NOT what the industry is saying, it's only what a select few news sources are saying. Again, most of the news sources praising the Malibu have not specifically mentioned exactly WHY the new Malibu is so good. Most have simply mentioned that it's competitive and that it's a big improvement over previous GM offerings. sj1204: If they all started making 1.8L engines they would likely get mileage closer to that of the corolla. That's debatable. And the Astra has a 1.8L, but is still pales in comparison to the Corolla's 1.8L fuel efficiency. Fact is, if other automakers *could have*, they would have ... but, they didn't. Honda's 1.8L makes more HP but has a less usable torque curve than the new 1.8L Toyota engine. Also Honda is one of the best in the world when it comes to 4 cylinder engines, yet Honda's 1.8L does not beat Toyota's 1.8L in fuel efficiency. Sorry, but if Honda's 1.8L doesn't beat Toyota's 1.8L in fuel economy, then any 1.8L that other automakers would have come up with likely would have fallen short as well. sj1204: If you are about other things the Malibu is a decent choice. Well, let's see. If you're about safety, then the new Malibu is not the best choice as both the Camry and Accord provide better satefy features. If you're all about having a large and comfortable rear seat area, then the new Malibu is also not for you as the Camry has the best rear seat area in the class. If you want a great 4 cylinder powertrain, the Malibu is not for you as the Accord has a class-leading 4 cylinder offering in this class. If want a V6 powertrain, the Malibu is not the best choice because the Camry V6 offers more power and better fuel economy, and while the Accord V6 might not be faster than a Malibu V6, it *still* gets better fuel economy so the Malibu falls short either way. You posted an article from Detroit News, one that bashes the Camry and praises the Malibu. This is only one source, and a quite a biased one at that. It called the interior of the Malibu better overall than both the Camry and Accord. One can argue that the Malibu has a better interior than the Camry, but not the Accord. The Accord at the moment has a best-in-class interior. geeber: Well, Car & Driver just named both the Malibu and the CTS to its annual “10 Best List.” The Accord is also on the list. Meanwhile, not a Toyota in sight… Is there an explanation of exactly WHY the CTS and Malibu made the list? Historically, the C&D "ten best" list has been a vague, ambigious list that has mostly been just the opinion of C&D. They rarely go into detail about why each car in the list was chosen. sj1204: I dont know why other automakers chose not to offer engines as small as Toyota, you would have to take that up with them. It seems to me cars like the 3 are doing OK in spite of not getting 40mpg so its obvious not everyone wants the same thing in a small car. I'll tell you why: it's because most automakers simply CAN'T make a 1.8L that equals Toyota's engine in fuel economy. If they WERE able to, they already WOULD HAVE built one. Because most other automakers cannot compete with Toyota (or Honda) on fuel economy, they choose to focus more on performance instead to somehow differentiate their small car offerings from Toyota/Honda. The problem is most people in the small car segment are not looking for performance. And again you're wrong. The Astra features a 1.8L, not just the Civic. How about we look at the GM 1.6L in the Aveo? That's even smaller than Toyota's 1.8L so in theory it should be more economical, but it's not. The 3 is doing OK because it offers some great style, in combination with a fun ride, good features, decent reliability and a decent price. None of the competition including the Focus, Cobalt, Elantra, Astra offer the same sort of combination the 3 does. Despite that, the 3 sales are only a fraction of what the Corolla and Civic sales are, as well as only a fraction of what Cobalt sales are at. No, not EVERYONE wants the same thing in a small car, but the vast majority of people in the small car segment DO want a reliable, economical, fuel efficient, dependable car with minimum maintenance. The Corolla and Civic are still the best choice for the vast majority. With fuel prices continuing to climb, fuel economy will become even more important to consumers, especially those in the small car segment.
  • 3-On-The-Tree Alan, I was an Apache pilot and after my second back surgery I was medically boarded off of flying status due to vibrations, climbing on and off aircraft, so I was given the choice of getting out or re-branching so I switched to Military Intel. Yes your right if you can’t perform your out doesn’t matter if your at 17 years. Dad always said your just a number, he was a retired command master chief 25 years.
  • ToolGuy "Note that those vehicles are in direct competition with models Rivian sells"• I predict that we are about to hear why this statement may not be exactly true
  • ToolGuy From the relevant Haynes Repair Manual:"Caution: The 4.6L models require a special tool to extract the water pump from the coolant crossover housing. This special tool is expensive and the removal procedure is difficult. Have the water pump replaced by a dealer service department or other qualified automotive repair facility if the tool is not available."One version of the tool is Lisle 14440; I paid $10.82 (less 5% discount, plus shipping).You can see why I never attempt my own maintenance or repairs. 😉
  • Dave M. IMO this was the last of the solidly built MBs. Yes, they had the environmentally friendly disintegrating wiring harness, but besides that the mechanicals are pretty solid. I just bought my "forever" car (last new daily driver that'll ease me into retirement), but a 2015-16 E Class sedan is on my bucket list for future purchase. Beautiful design....
  • Rochester After years of self-driving being in the news, I still don't understand the psychology behind it. Not only don't I want this, but I find the idea absurd.