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Flint: Does Detroit Hate America?



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The current Detroit enthusiasm for global engineering and design is amazing considering how often it fails to score with American buyers.

 

My impression is that Americans just don’t think much of European design. You might say Mercedes and BMW are successful. They are: But their 530,000 combined sales for cars and trucks, out of a market of almost 17 million, is a limited success.

Care to look at the failures? Start with Volkswagen and its Golf, popular in Europe but a flop here.

Go to Ford. The Contour and Mystique were American versions of the European Mondeo. They failed. There is the Ford Focus, a European-designed small car that started moderately well in the U.S. but is seriously slumping.

Go to GM. Remember the Cadillac Catera, an Opel with Cadillac badges, imported here? A flop. How about the Saturn LS, a European platform with a plastic skin, a flop and now gone like Cateras and Contour/Mystique. The Saturn Ion was another of those Euro platforms used here. The most successful of the Global/European platform cars sold here is the Chevy Malibu, the fleet special, which even GM executives say is a design bore.

But this doesn’t stop executives from thinking the answer to their problems, particularly at GM, is at the global approach. Whenever you bring up the failures, they just brush them aside or say they weren’t done well enough. The idea that Americans really don’t care for the European approach is beyond their radar.

Complaint list

Here are just a few of my complaints with this mindset. There’s no global exchange here. What GM and Ford want to build are European cars with Euro platforms and European engineering. They just want American badges on them. The design freedom for the American versions is quite limited because they can only work off the Euro platforms.

If this continues, it won’t be long before Americans at GM and Ford won’t be able to design and engineer a car. They’ll just do pickups. Look at General Motors: GM forgot how to do a rear-drive car and had to borrow from GM Australia. No American car platforms get transferred for European production. It’s a one-way street. Yet the American market, and GM and Ford’s share in it, are much larger than the European vehicle market or the GM/Ford shares.

You even see some of this thinking with trucks. When GM wanted a small pickup, the Chevy Colorado and GMCCanyon, they started with a truck they build in Thailand. That’s the global approach. It’s supposed to save money. Of course, they couldn’t get a V-6 in that pickup, but who needs a V-6? Toyota decided to do a thoroughly American new small pickup truck, the Tacoma. They figured what appeals in Texas might be more important that what sells in Thailand.
Right now that Tacoma is outselling the combined GM models 2 to 1.

Now I have said the models never go the other way. So far that has been true. GM adapted its minivan designs so that the American-built models could be shipped to Europe. But the Europeans at GM never really wanted them and the exports stopped. GM made a big fuss about the European potential of its Cadillac Seville a few years back, but the GM Europeans never really wanted to sell them. It has occurred to me that the GM people in Europe want to design and build their own vehicles, not sell U.S.-made cars.

Now they will have another chance to take an American car. The GM Pontiac Solstice plant will build a version, called the Opel GT, for GM in Europe. It will be interesting to see if the GM Germans actually try to sell it, or if they bury them as they have those American-made vehicles in the past.


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