Building The Right Car At The Right Time
As you know from my previous post, I recently attended a Nissan LEAF drive in Nashville. This was lots of fun and impressively quiet.
On the drive back from to Atlanta, I encountered a very unusual sight. Somewhere in north Georgia, I was passed by a green Honda Accord Crosstour with an Alaska license plate. This person drove more than 4,000 miles to get to that stretch of highway, crossing through much of Canada, the Upper Midwest and half of the South. And my first though upon seeing it was: Someone bought a Crosstour?!
The Crosstour is an unusual car. It was created to rival the Subaru Outback, which had been running away with the “all-wheel drive wagon” segment since its 1995 debut. The Crosstour would also placate everyone who abandoned the brand after the 1997 model year, when Honda dropped the Accord wagon. (This included a total of 19 people, all of whom lived in the Portland area.)
But in creating the Crosstour, Honda failed to understand what made the rival Subaru Outback so successful. The resulting car wasn’t a brawny SUV alternative, but rather a bizarre cross between the Honda Accord sedan and a flat-brimmed baseball hat, with its size borrowed from a three-bedroom split-level in West Des Moines.
This isn’t the only time Honda delivered us the wrong car at the wrong time. Obviously, there’s the Acura ZDX. But how about every time they come out with an all-new Legend, or RL, or RLX, and we beg Honda to create a rear-wheel drive V8? They decline, arguing things like: we know it hasn’t worked the last four times. But this time … we have super handling all-wheel drive.
Honda isn’t the only brand who has trouble with timing and market demands. One of my favorite examples of this struggle was Audi’s inability to create a luxury SUV. In the late 1990s, there were luxury SUVs from Land Rover, Mercedes and Lexus. BMW came out with the X5 in 2000, the Acura MDX was out in 2001, and Porsche and Volkswagen – Audi’s own sister brands – were players by 2003.
And what did Audi give us? The Allroad Quattro. The only bigger failure than Audi’s understanding of our market was that car’s suspension. It wasn’t until 2007 – a full decade after the M-Class debuted, that Audi finally rolled out the Q7.
Doing It Well
So what brands notoriously build the right cars at the right time?
To me, BMW is one of the best. I know what you’re thinking: there’s no right time for the 5-Series GT, except possibly 6pm on the last day of the quarter at a BMW dealer who’s two units short of its target. And that’s true, though I would submit it’s also the perfect choice for a German state funeral. But beyond the 5-Series GT, BMW seems to have it down.
The X6, for example, led the charge in the highly-competitive Upscale SUVs That Won’t Get Let Over in Traffic segment that’s now populated by a wide range of vehicles, all of which are leased. The 1-Series came out after the Audi A3, but somehow managed to convince us that we all need compact luxury cars. And the X3 was the very first luxury SUV small enough to attract sorority girls, not just their moms.
Generally, Cadillac is pretty good at understanding what the market wants. (Pretend, for a moment, you live in a world where the XTS doesn’t exist.) In the 1990s, you and I would never have bought a Cadillac. Back then, only two types of people were buying them: wives of Cadillac dealers, and parents of General Motors employees. In the business, this is called “The Buick Reatta Strategy.”
But in the heat of the SUV craze, Cadillac created the Escalade, satisfying virtually everyone except for other road users. In 2003, they came out with the CTS, which was actually a decent rear-wheel drive sport sedan. And the next year, the CTS-V borrowed its engine and manual transmission from the Corvette Z06 for the enthusiasts. All were highly successful, especially at convincing Cadillac dealer wives to instead consider Buick.
Cadillac’s had even more hits in the years since. The current SRX is rather popular, though they don’t seem interested in doing a V version no matter how many letters I write begging for it. The ATS is a capable sport sedan. And the XLR was a great example of providing exactly what the brand’s customers wanted. Unfortunately, it was a failure because most of those customers died before Cadillac could bring it to market.
So, TTAC: you have my suggestions. Now it’s your turn. What automakers do you think build the right cars at the right time?
Doug DeMuro operates PlaysWithCars.com. He’s owned an E63 AMG wagon, road-tripped across the US in a Lotus without air conditioning, and posted a six-minute lap time on the Circuit de Monaco in a rented Ford Fiesta. One year after becoming Porsche Cars North America’s youngest manager, he quit to become a writer. His parents are very disappointed.
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