Daily Editorial: U.S. autos need a comeback
It’s easy to pick on the American auto industry, and not without good cause. The domestic brands are struggling today, but, as was the case a generation ago, those predicting the demise of the American auto industry are looking selectively at parts of a very big picture.
There’s certainly more cause for optimism now than, say 30 years ago, when the Big Three of Ford, General Motors and Chrysler were all caught with product lines wholly unsuited to a changing market. It took a combination of once-again-cheap gas, and, yes, better products to pull the industry out of that hole. Today, it’s going to take both better products and better financial management to bring the American auto industry back to robust health. But American vehicles now are, in many cases, already very good.
Honda and Toyota make excellent cars, and dominate the compact and crucial family-sedan categories. But the domestics own the sales titles in virtually every other vehicle category.
And this supposedly on-the-ropes industry still sells virtually half the vehicles sold in this country, despite the presence in the United States market of ever-more brands from all over the world.
The American auto industry has a lot of work to do on products ” particularly better small cars and mid-sized, mid-priced sedans ” but a recent J.D. Power quality survey of owners of 2004 models put three American makes ” Cadillac, Buick and Mercury ” in the top five, along with Lexus and Honda. Stodgy old Buick actually tied with Lexus for the top spot.
Perhaps more important that product, though, will be the American auto industry’s ability to wring more profit from vehicles. Saddled as it is with labor contracts conceived in a different time, it’s going to be hard for automakers to both create innovative vehicles and take care of workers in the manner to which they’ve become accustomed.
” Scott N. Miller for the Editorial Board
Robert L. Nardelli is the name of the latest CEO to try to turn the sinking ship of an American car manufacturer into something that floats. As he takes the reins at Chrysler, he’ll no doubt be looking for ways for his company to make vehicles appealing to buyers who’ve turned in droves to better-made vehicles produced by Japanese companies like Honda and Toyota.
As the embattled former head of Home Depot, Mr. Nardelli is candid about his lack of experience in the auto industry, which clears the way for us to make a few suggestions to him. After all, given a good choice between a domestic vehicle and an import, most Americans would choose American. Problem is, we also need reliable transportation, something that gets good gas mileage, won’t break down too often and doesn’t look too cheesy. And, while some folks still need them for various reasons, many of us are over the SUV and the pathetic fuel economy that comes with it.
Chances are good that the last time you drove an American car was when you were forced to do so at the rental-car place. When driving a late-model Ford, Chrysler or GM product, it’s hard not to get the feeling that they’ve given up on making good, basic cars. And while there are some exceptions ” the new Mustang, Charger and 300 come to mind ” most people with an eye for a good value wouldn’t give a domestic car dealership a second look unless they’re in the market for a truck.
And even then, Toyota is catching up with its larger pickups.
There’s no reason what remains of the “Big Three” can’t do better. Make them better looking, more fuel efficient and durable and we’ll buy them.
It’ll be interesting test of leadership to see if Nardelli, for one, can pull it off.
“Alex Miller for the Editorial Board
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