By on February 7, 2018

marchionne, Image: Fiat Chrysler Automobiles

The future is going to be absolutely terrible. Everything is going to be so sterile and automated that humans won’t have anything to do between mealtimes but eagerly anticipate their own death.

At least, that’s the picture being painted by experts. We’re probably further out from autonomous cars, world peace, and robotic butlers than society’s “thinkfluencers” want to admit, but be that as it may, the times are changing and some of this is coming down the pipe.

Automakers are all about the “nextification” of the industry; always promising technological marvels at an accelerated rate. However, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles CEO Sergio Marchionne now claims most visions of the future lack an essential element — any semblance of style.

He probably has a point. While General Motors may be leading the way in terms of autonomous development, its Cruise AV is about as exciting as having athlete’s foot. But we don’t have to wait until all cars become self-driving for them to become dull. As manufacturers continue providing desirable equipment as standard features, style will become the only thing an automaker has left to offer, according to Marchionne.

At last month’s North American International Show, Marchionne said Alfa Romeo wouldn’t truly hit its stride until 2022, and keep going from there. The reason for this, he claimed, comes down to mainstream brands losing their identities. Marchionne says the future will belong to brands with a strong selfhood.

“Generic brands, on the other hand, will have a tough time because then they become indistinguishable, and if they become commoditized, then the price will give you everything that matters,” the CEO said.

Fiat Chrysler probably owns some of the most easily distinguishable brands on the market right now, though not all of them are shining beacons of success. In 2017, Dodge’s domestic sales were the lowest they’ve been since the recession, and the same is true for Chrysler. Meanwhile, Fiat is one of the most recognizable brands currently in North America, and it just suffered the worst sales year since its 2011 reintroduction. Jeep also had a lackluster year, backsliding quite a bit after six years of impressive growth. While Alfa Romeo and Maserati both saw increases in U.S. sales for 2017, neither are what you might call high-volume brands.

Taking all of that into account leaves us wondering if Marchionne is simply expelling hot air to appease investors, or if he actually has a valid point. According to Mike Bernacchi, a marketing professor at the University of Detroit Mercy, his theory holds water — at least on a long enough timeline.

“I certainly hold the position that the idea of a brand and brand names are key,” Bernacchi told the Detroit Free Press in an interview. “Once you lose your identity, you lose a major reason for purchasing.”

“Everybody wants to be ahead, but they better not lose their distinctiveness of the brand,” he continued, noting that the shift to autonomy could risk the individual nature of autos. “If generic ever becomes a [capital] G in the industry, the industry is in trouble.”

Tim Kuniskis, who was recently promoted to head of Alfa Romeo and Maserati, claims standout cars continue to sell against “vanilla A-to-B commoditized sedans.” Kuniskis oversaw the launch of the Dodge Challenger SRT Demon and noted that the Challenger actually increased slightly in 2017. While that’s great for Dodge, which sold 64,537 examples of the auto in the U.S. last year, Honda still moved 322,655 Accords in the same timeframe — a vanilla A-to-B commoditized sedan.

“[Do] you want to buy a midsized sedan that is $28,000 to $30,000 that gets 36 miles per gallon and you’re going lose it in the mall parking lot, or do you want to buy a 300-horsepower V6 … that is $28,000, gets 31 miles per gallon and the difference of 5 miles per gallon, on a 12,000-mile-a-year car, is going to be dollars per month. And you’re going to have the kickass red one with the spoiler and the 20-inch wheels. I’ll take that one,” Kuniskis said.

I’d probably want the more fun car too, just not so gaudy and red — but I’m not the average consumer. I’m the wrong age, the wrong gender, have the wrong income, wrong level of education, and I don’t own my home. I am an outlier.

Style is certainly an important aspect of what makes individual vehicles desirable; Toyota wouldn’t find itself in a massive effort to inject some visual excitement into its models were that not the case. However, I remain unconvinced that the average American isn’t at least as concerned with a getting a good deal on a practical car as they are about hot looks and performance.

Maybe things will totally change if automakers ever figure out how produce homologous self-driving pods. After all, there are regular people who will still spend four figures on a opulent wristwatch when a $50 Swatch does the exact same thing. Still, for now, vanilla remains a lot of car buyers’ favorite flavor.

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34 Comments on “Marchionne & Co.: Style Will Be Essential in the Vanilla Future We’ve All Been Promised...”

  • avatar

    “[Do] you want to buy a midsized sedan that is $28,000 to $30,000 that gets 36 miles per gallon and you’re going lose it in the mall parking lot, or do you want to buy a 300-horsepower V6 … that is $28,000, gets 31 miles per gallon and the difference of 5 miles per gallon, on a 12,000-mile-a-year car, is going to be dollars per month. And you’re going to have the kickass red one with the spoiler and the 20-inch wheels. I’ll take that one,”

    This man child is running brands of more corporate importance than Chrysler and Dodge. There’s little to hope for with FCA.

    • 0 avatar

      “I’d probably want the more fun car too, just not so gaudy and red — but I’m not the average consumer. I’m the wrong age, the wrong gender, have the wrong income, wrong level of education, and I don’t own my home. I am an outlier.”

      Then maybe you should refrain from giving your opinion on cars you’re nowhere close to owning. That would be like me writing blog posts on private business jets.

      • 0 avatar

        No automotive journalist makes enough to afford the cars he reviews. That’s what makes them so easily tempted by the opulent press junkets to write fawning reviews filled with undeserved praise.
        Mr. Posky is not egregious in that regard.

    • 0 avatar

      And if being able to easily find your car in the mall parking lot was the primary utility of the car, then, yes, the red Chally is the way to go. If transporting more than 2 people to a variety of daily destinations, as well as monthly road trips, is the primary utility of the car then the Camcord is probably the way to go.

  • avatar

    “or do you want to buy a 300-horsepower V6”

    So what Alfa Romeo is giving me a 300hp V6, Tim?

  • avatar

    “Automakers are all about the “nextification” of the industry;”

    Fastest way to p!ss off repeat customers. Avoid it Sergio.

    ” As manufacturers continue providing desirable equipment as standard features, style will become the only thing an automaker has left to offer, according to Marchionne.”

    I don’t think this is true, and if it is true it is because the industry failed to innovate. Jack wrote a piece a while back about “brougham” being back, assuming this is the direction of the future Sergio and his peers made it so. Optional equipment becoming standard is also nothing new, are we to believe this has become a sudden chimera?

    If the industry really wants to innovate it needs to concentrate on durable, repairable, transportation with multiple drivetrains or propulsion systems in a given model. The *cheap* approach is broughamization of generic platforms offering easy to add creature comforts (so, no drivetrain options but *fifty shades of gray*) and “style” through cheap sheet metal. In other words, phone it in big time. Fail.

    “Tim Kuniskis, who was recently promoted to head of Alfa Romeo and Maserati, claims standout cars continue to sell against “vanilla A-to-B commoditized sedans.””

    I agree with this basic concept but how is it accomplished? In FCA’s case they took an existing platform, made it a coupe, added what I thought was an exclusive drivetrain, and voila! But say, what can Ford do to compete? Take the Kuga platform and do what with it? Add a different I4? Make it a coupe? What can really be done with it to enable it to stand out completely different vs the existing Escape? The industry is not going to spend additional dollars developing more unique platforms in order to sell “style” to the masses. It will take amortized technology and do the cheapest and easiest things it can and then call it “bespoke” or “exclusive”. FCA did some heavy lifting to create Challenger SRT or Demon or whatever, the industry wants to lift 3lb hand weights with volume platforms.

  • avatar

    If Jeep or Ram sputter for any reason – the whole FCA house of cards will tumble faster than a Hellcat through the quarter mile.

    • 0 avatar
      Bill Wade

      While true, I think car buyers are getting tired of the same old rounded jellybean appliance all the manufacturers seems to be competing on.

      26 mpg in my Hemi 6 speed Challenger on the highway is so much nicer than a generic 4 cylinder bubble sedan that gets 30 or 31. I’ll pay the small difference in fuel costs.

      Hopefully I’m not the last of a dying breed.

      • 0 avatar

        You’re the last of a dying breed! LOL. I think a large majority of folks just want a vehicle that gets them from A-B with some tech inside to connect their phones to. Make it a CUV/SUV, don’t stray too much from the accepted shape and call it done. As I start to look for a replacement commuter car, I find myself going backward in years to find something that I can find in a parking lot (add to that, I really want a manual trans and that adds an extra difficulty factor to the equation). Yes, new cars are phenomenally more capable than ever before, but just lack soul.

      • 0 avatar

        It’s really 26 mpg versus 38 to 40 for the Camry or accord – and that makes a difference for most people.

      • 0 avatar

        I mentioned this before. There are kids still interested in this stuff. While at the dealership getting a free oil change my 16 year old daughter was asked which vehicle she would take, given the choice. Everything from the Merc CLA which she said looked like a Honda, so no. Jag XF, no NO no. NO trucks, NO SUV, just a fast road car. The Challengers are too pudgy for her, the Impala was bland, the 300 looked like an old man car but she liked the 2016 SRT Charger.

        Our son would like a Yellow Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon with a yellow freedom top. Fortunately he is 8 so he has a lot of time to save up.

    • 0 avatar

      Yep. They should consider themselves INCREDIBLY lucky we haven’t had a recession, or gas price increase (or both).

      • 0 avatar

        We’re beginning to see “inflation” rear its ugly head because of full employment.

        Bond traders are nervous and there is tremendous pressure on the stock market that’s causing wild gyrations. A sell opportunity for the profit-takers and at the same time a buy opportunity for all those who had cash on the sidelines for the past eight years.

        Could a recession be ripe for the blossoming right after Nov 2020? There already is a housing market shortage in much of America and new car sales are forecast to decrease.

        So unless President Trump can make trade agreements that will result in more exports from America, it is a certainty that a recession is in the making.

        More demand for US-made cars for Asia, Africa and Europe would be nice but that is unlikely to happen.

        Gasoline and diesel price increase not likely because America actually has started to export these two commodities, as well as LNG and Coal.

        • 0 avatar
          Big Al from Oz

          Um? Inflation isn’t rising because of employment. That’s a Trump’esque view, like how he made the markets rise, and now did he make the bears come? I doubt it, it is Hilliary’s fault.

          Financial markets and the economy is far more complex than the thieves of Mexico or Canada, destroying America. Those rascally Chinese and their washing machines and solar panels! Solyndra?

          What role did QE have? It ended, finito. So, something gives, like interest rates. So, when money costs more what occurs? Maybe a little inflation.

          Business confidence rose, commodities rise. All these contributes to inflation.

          Oh, gas will rise. You’ve been stating gas wouldn’t rise for years now, but it has already.

          As for coal and LNG. LNG yes.

          Exports from Amercia? Who will you sell to? Your customers that Trump constantly berates?

          If you hadn’t realised the world is slowly moving away from the US economically. The US, like Brittania is slowly losing it’s steam and Trump has accelerated its decline.

          It could improve. All Trump needs to be is look at relationships in a collaborative fashion, not beligerant.

          Treating the US as a company, the “only” company will not work well when relationship between trading and allied nations is more like an enterprise.

          Enterprise, once a great American term.

        • 0 avatar

          There is a shortage of affordable housing. Big McMansions are being built at a record pace everywhere in the country. Just because you can afford more, doesn’t mean that you want to.

          • 0 avatar

            Homes are not being made at a record pace.

          • 0 avatar

            deanst, the current housing market is a boon for sellers.

            When we put our “former-rentals” up for sale we pass word-of-mouth along one or two weeks ahead of when the renter will be vacating.

            This results in lots of drive-by lookie loos, mostly realtors, and before the last moving truck has even left we get offers for direct sales.

            Then again, ours is the Great Southwest, the destination of choice for many fleeing the high-tax states of the East.

  • avatar

    I love Kuniskis’ quote about the theoretical red, 31-mpg kick-a** sedan with the big spoiler and 20s for $28,000. Sign me up, bro!

    But here’s the problem – delivering a kick-a** sedan for $28,000 is another problem altogether, and last I checked, FCA failed rather spectacularly at that with its’ last $28,000 sedan, the 200. It had style, but even with the Pentastar – which put it way above the $28,000 mark, by the way – it was far from kick-a**. You can get a plain vanilla Charger for that kind of money, but it ain’t the kick-a** one. Those will set you back around $40,000.

    I can’t be too hard on FCA, though – NO ONE offers a kick-a** sedan for $28,000.

    So, yeah, FCA, let me know when this mythical bunch of kick-a** arrives, and I’ll check it out. Hopefully that happens around the same time we see the mythical Chrysler brand-saving CUV. Rumor has it that vehicle is called the “Vapor.”

    • 0 avatar

      He’s talking style, not performance. I guess the (V-6) Charger does *look* pretty “[email protected]$$” compared to a Focus or Camry, but its style without a lot substance. If you want the substance, too, get ready for the payments to kick your @$$ as much as the car kicks other car’s @$$es.

      There was a time when they wouldn’t be able to keep selling the same warmed over car forever, but now, you can hardly blame them (and Ford, etc) for trying when cars (as in sedans) become less and less wanted by consumers, which is more and more obvious every time the sales charts get updated. Why not put effort into what does sell and does make money? Cuz it damn sure isn’t sedans, not anymore. Good for Honda and Toyota, obviously they thought it was worth putting money into, and for the time being, maybe it is, for them.

    • 0 avatar

      The V6 Avenger was available for $20k or less and was actually a pretty kick *** performer for the money. I liked the new 200 until I drove one. The interior was OK but the console was horrible and almost unusable which is unusual for Mopar. Handsome on the outside though.

  • avatar

    “[Do] you want to buy a midsized sedan that is $28,000 to $30,000 that gets 36 miles per gallon and you’re going lose it in the mall parking lot, or do you want to buy a 300-horsepower V6 … that is $28,000, gets 31 miles per gallon….”

    The decision has already been made for us. Unless someone rips up CAFE 2025, the public will have the option of Prius or plug-in Prius. Fullsize trucks might survive as-is, we’ll see. If you’re rich, you’ll be able to pay the CAFE penalties or you can afford performance gas-electric vehicles, but the rest of humanity is staring at a beige hybrid future.

    The glimmer of hope is variable compression engines. Infiniti will have a 2.0L VCT engine out later this year. If the engine isn’t a total reliability disgrace, we’ll have have ICE’s that make 20%-25% better fuel economy than they currently do. That’s like a BMW 230i making 40mpg-43mpg on the highway. Almost CAFE compliant.

    My point is that style will be difficult to achieve with CAFE applying such strict regulatory pressure, and performance will be difficult to achieve within the regulations. 300hp V6’s will only survive in vehicles that cost a lot more than $28,000.

  • avatar
    Big Al from Oz

    “Loss of identity”. That’s what’s wrong with Cadillac.

    It’s ironic how many state how “This day and age all cars are alike”. I remember as a kid the same was said.

    I think many auto enthusiasts don’t see or realise is the majority really don’t care what their car is overall. To many the most important features might not be 0-60 times or horsepower or as many of my fellow pickup drivers like to think how big is my truck.

    An auto enthusiast concerns go deeper than the average person. There are brands that target people that seek certain attributes from each vehicle. But, to the average Joe or Jane as long as it gets me to work, is reliable, cheap on fuel and has good connectivity and sound system will suffice ….. and colour they want.

    You see many don’t view the “car” as a sign of how successful you are. It’s just an appliance, a pain that costs money and is needed, like a fridge to keep beer cold. Do we spend a ga’zillion dollars on high performance beer fridges? As long as the beer is cold.

  • avatar

    The future is a sea of grey SUVs of many sizes. I despair.

    • 0 avatar

      Much as I hate them, and I really hate them, I would still buy a CUV before I bought a useless mid-size sedan that you can’t get anything into. Having just spent a week Ubering around DC and NYC multiple trips per day, getting into and out of the rear seat of everything from a Malibu, Accord, Camry, Altima, and even a Cadillac XTS SUCKED. Getting in and out of a Suburban was easier, but the seats sucked – sitting on the floor with my knees at chin level seemingly. The back of a couple of CUVs was easy, and of course they have FAR more and more easily accessible cargo room. So if you don’t care about driving dynamics like most, they are simply the obvious choice in today’s market.

      Luckily, there are still a very few alternatives that are nice to drive AND useful.

  • avatar

    I have thought this for a long time, and it confuses me. Compared to pretty much any other feature, good style can be cheap if not basically free. The car has to be designed one way or another; it can’t cost too much to make it look good, even within the constraints of budgets. History is littered with cheap cars that had great designs- OG Twingo, OG Golf, Fiat Coupe, Peugeot 406, 6G Civic/3G Integra, OG Taurus etc. Nowadays design has become so iterative/derivative manufacturers generally either “borrow” someone else’s design (i.e. Ford Astons, Hyundai CLSonata) or just phone it in (all Germans). I can’t remember the last modern design that excited me.

  • avatar

    He’s not wrong. When today’s children grow up they will be able to summon automated electric cars to take them to their destination. We know, at least in urban areas, this may become the norm. It will be safer and they’ll be able to work, communicate, etc. while en route. Without having to pay a driver, the costs for such transport will be very low, in many cases lower than owning your own vehicle. Whoever builds this best automated electric pod will win business, but performance won’t matter to these vehicles.

    Private car owners will still care, and strong brands will live.

    Alfa Romeo needs to run a commercial where it’s red Giulia is driven down a windy road, engine screaming, through a gray world of everyone else commuting in boring gray/black/white/silver automated pods. Take control or something like that. It’s just too easy.

    • 0 avatar

      Not if Uber and those types have their way. They want to pass legislation that only ride share companies get automated transportation so you have to pay Uber to get a ride still. I think it was in Ars Technica where I saw the article.

  • avatar

    The future is absolutely terrible…if you’re driving a FIAT! Fix it again Tony!

  • avatar

    “Marchionne & Co.: Style Will Be Essential in the Vanilla Future We’ve All Been Promised”

    Says sweater clad grandpa, who will be dead long before any such future arrives.

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