The year 2011 will not go down in history as the happiest year for the auto industry. From March's destructive earthquake and tsunami in Japan, to the year-long Saab saga that's ending sadly, it's been a difficult, sometimes tragic, year for the people who work in the auto industry.
There is something to tuck into the time capsule for future generations, however. Japan is recovering; U.S. car sales are on the rebound, slowly but surely. We've driven some fantastic new machines this year, and the 2012 Detroit Auto Show next month is sure to count a few more great new entries. Does that count as hope? We think it does.
While we look forward to better cars and better car news in 2012, here's a look back at the past twelve months, for the biggest stories of the past year.
Saab fades into history
Some say that the end began in 2000, when GM took full control of the Swedish automaker; others point the blame to the 1980s-era 9000 sedan, or even earlier. Some argue Saab never really had a place in the automotive world that Volvo couldn't fill. Whatever the cause, Saab's long struggle ended this week when it put itself into bankruptcy, after all attempts to find more financing failed. The small miracle of Saab, if there was one, was how long it lasted on parts-bin pieces. The 9000 made platform-sharing reality before it was typical; some of us think the 2011 Saab 9-5 was the best version of that GM-based architecture. But after its 900 Turbo in the 1980s, Saab entirely depended on sharing--something no brand can live with. In the end, Saab couldn't even afford to build momentum, much less a new lineup of cars.
Mitt RomneyEnlarge Photo
Bailouts are the new gay marriage
If you thought the saga of GM and Chrysler in bankruptcy would end with an Italian white knight and an IPO, you're probably an optimist. With the campaign for the 2012 election cycle already well underway, the "bailout" loans are the new gay marriage--a wedge issue with lots of nuanced positions available for the taking. Leading the opposition for the GOP: former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who took the hard-line position in a 2008 New York Times op-ed, "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt". Romney, and to a lesser extent his colleagues from Paul to Gingrich to Bachmann, have come out strongly against the federally backed loans, which took full form under President Obama, but were initiated under the Bush administration. The White House now suggests a loss of as much as $14 billion from the loans, but says it prevented a domestic auto industry implosion. No matter which candidates end up going head to head, it's likely that GM and Chrysler will be on the ballot, too.
Mercedes-Benz teases new crossover at plant presentation in Tuscaloosa, AlabamaEnlarge Photo
Alabama law threatens "Detroit South"
Alabama won the war for transplant automakers, but will it lose the peace on a technicality? Since 1995, the state has used generous tax incentives to attract automakers to build assembly plants inside its borders. The state now counts Mercedes-Benz, Honda, Hyundai and Toyota as corporate citizens. However, the state's tough new immigration laws are having an unfortunate side effect: execs from those companies are being pulled over and asked for identification, even detained. Earlier this year, a Mercedes-Benz executive was arrested and briefly jailed in Tuscaloosa for not having his driver's license in his possession when he was pulled over during a traffic stop. A few weeks later, a Japanese Honda employee was stopped at a traffic checkpoint and was detained, though news reports indicated he produced a passport, a U.S. work permit, and a valid international driver's license. Alabama state officials admit there's a problem with their new statutes, which were written to address a perceived lack of federal oversight of illegal immigration--but with a policing question that's only easily answered by unconstitutional profiling, the legislature has a thorny task ahead of it.