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Gunnar Heinrich

By on January 9, 2007

maybach_62_s-img_280.jpgWhen Maybach unveiled its tiny, cordoned-off piece of turf at the COBO Center on Sunday, its offerings were pinned against the back wall, stuck behind all the glitz that its corporate parent had to offer. Up front: the new Mercedes S-Class with 4-Matic replete with ice rink and the perkalicious Ocean Drive concept. And only one stand (and a world) away: Honda, whose inexorable rise stands in direct contrast to Maybach’s inevitable decline. The Maybach reps had to feel outpaced, out-planned and outdone. In truth, their golden goose is well and truly cooked.

By on October 13, 2006

cadillac_bls_2005_02_m222.jpgLeave it to the Germans. When it comes to resurrecting, producing and managing foreign niche marques, the Aktiengesellschaft do the job right. While German ownership is not without its faults (think BMW’s troubled relations with MG Rover), their batting average is league leading. Meanwhile, at the bottom of the pile… Not to put too fine a point on it, GM does European automobiles as convincingly as Chinese Premier Jiang Zemin sang O Sole Mio in karaoke; the results are muddled, embarrassing and on view for an international audience.

By on May 19, 2006

Benjamin Braddock (and Alfa Romeo) ran out of gas.According to Alfa Romeo's website, Henry Ford used to doff his hat whenever he saw an Alfa Romeo pass. More credibly, the Italian automaker claims Enzo Ferrari cried like a baby on the day his race cars finally beat Alfas'. Yes but– Alfa Romeo's distinguished portfolio of elegant motor cars and racing heritage may be glorious beyond compare, but that history also includes ignominious defeat. In 1995, after selling just forty-four cars to [long-suffering] American enthusiasts, Alfa withdrew from the US market. And now, once again, the company that gave Dustin Hoffman's graduate his getaway car wants back in.

Emboldened by Maserati's North American comeback, reinvigorated by GM's $2b payoff, corporate parent Fiat believes that the Alfa Romeo brand is finally ready to launch its own US re-invasion. Initially, Alfa plans to sell and service a small range of vehicles through some of its 40 former American dealerships and most of Maserati's current US franchisees (recently liberated from the Fiat's Ferrari dealers). Fiat management refuses to commit to a timetable for the move, which has been postponed three times since 2003. Rumor has it we could see Alfas stateside by late '07. But is there a seat at the table for Alfa? Where does today's Alfa fit in the world's largest automotive marketplace?

By on April 30, 2006

 What's wrong with Ford and GM? In the face of shrinking demand for their core vehicles, The Blue Oval and The General are disgorging an endless stream of new products without rhyme or reason. This is the American market. It's supposed to be an American game. Yet time and again, Detroit's giants have misread the temper of the times, unleashing all-new products that flop, forcing them to scrap expensive models and start again. It's time for all the stopping and starting to stop.

Examples of Detroit's endless game of one-two-three red light are both bountiful and pitiful. For example, whatever happened to the bulbous Taurus? Where is America's favorite family sedan these days? It's been replaced by the Ford 500, a bland, underpowered vehicle whose customers are lined-up none deep. By the same token, the Ford Focus is a terrific little family car that could compete with the new Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris and Nissan Sentra. There's even an improved version in Europe, ready for federalization. But no, Dearborn has hung the Ford Focus out to dry, presumably in anticipation of its eventual unrelated replacement.

By on March 9, 2006

 Picture the scene. We're sitting at the kitchen table in the PAG household (that's Ford's Premier Auto Group). Disgruntled father Ford, stressed with bill payments, pounds the table with clenched fist, stares young, seditious daughter Jaguar square in the face and demands, "Why can't you be more like your sisters?" He points to her snide, adopted siblings; vixen Aston Martin, rugged Land Rover, and pudgy little sister Volvo, who with a mouthful of meatballs chimes in, "Ja, vhy kan't you? Dumhuvud."

No wonder Jaguar CEO Joe Greenwell is feeling unloved: Volvo and Land Rover are both doing solid business. There's a December waiting list for Aston's V8 Vantage. To avoid articles like this one, Ford doesn't break out profits according to individual brands. But according to British regulatory filings, Jaguar lost $1.1b in '03. The British marque's losses for '04 and '05 easily match– if not exceed– that figure, capping a sixteen-year flow of red ink. Jaguar's highly-touted plans to sell 200k cars a year? Gone. Last year, Jaguar built 120k cars. US dealers were flooded with 21k off-lease cars; these three-year-old Jags retained just 40% of their value.

By on March 6, 2006

 Mercedes-Benz makes a lot of cars for customers with serious aspirations. Just out of college, looking for bit of respect? C-Class. Mid-level manager aspiring to the next rung on the corporate ladder? Take an E. Mr. Got it All looking for a set of wheels for the woman who isn't his wife? CLK cabriolet. And a car for the woman who is? The SL. The clear link in all this is badge snobbery. In fact, if class consciousness has a symbol, it's a three-pointed star. So what's one of the brand's current campaigns for their $96k CL500? "Mercedes-Benz: For Everyone." Right.

Post-modern irony aside, it's true. Mercedes-Benz wants to sell a car in every automotive niche. (Not to mention the ones they invent.) Mercedes can get away with it too. If Mercedes produced the equivalent of Europe's proletarian Ford Ka and slapped a MB badge on it, the automotive press would slam it and tens of thousands star struck buyers would go straight out and buy one. Oh wait, they did. Mercifully, US buyers were spared the rolling atrocity known as the A-Class. That said, it may be only a matter of time before the entirely inappropriate B-Class finds its way into trendy loft livers' assigned parking spaces. Badge snobbery über alles.

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