2004 Detroit Show, Part VIII

January 6, 2004

2004 Detroit Auto Show Coverage (1/4/2004)

 

Kappa Architecture Sure to Spawn More

In a show with plenty of strong offerings, few vehicles have scored such solid reviews as the Chevrolet Nomad concept. And that’s generating increasingly open interest among the General Motors executives who would have to give the go-ahead to put the tiny two-seater into production. “We’re listening,” said a high-level executive, who noted that media and public support helped convince the automaker to build the sporty Solstice after its original debut in concept form at the 2002 Detroit show. What’s clear is that there will be a number of future products based on the automaker’s new Kappa platform, which is used for both the Nomad and Solstice, as well as the Saturn Curve concept vehicle. But while Kappa was envisioned as a global small-car “architecture,” it could have some problems making the trip across the Atlantic. European regulators have enacted new standards designed to reduce injuries when a pedestrian is struck by a car. That would require adding about 40 mm (nearly two inches) of crush space under the hood, a massive amount for a vehicle the size of the Solstice. “Ultimately, I’m convinced we’ll do a Kappa for Europe,” GM “car czar” Bob Lutz tells TCC, but it’s going to require either a different design or the introduction of new technology designed to help improve pedestrian protection. These could include breakaway hood hinges, or even the outside-mounted airbags several suppliers are working on.

 

Big Successes in Small Packages

2004 Chevrolet Nomad concept

2004 Chevrolet Nomad concept

“If we’d listened to the market research, we’d have never done the MINI,” says the British brand’s boss in the U.S., Jack Pitney. They didn’t, and it proved a good thing considering the MINI Cooper was one of the hits of 2003. Now, other automakers are wondering whether they also need to be thinking small in a big way. The Chevy Nomad was just one of several downsized concept and production vehicles debuting in Detroit. Nissan introduced a Micra show car, while Toyota’s youth-oriented Scion division said its third model will be the tC, a hatchback touring coupe based on the European-market Toyota Avensis.

2004 Mazda MX Micro Sport

2004 Mazda MX Micro Sport

Over at Mazda, meanwhile, “There’s a good possibility” the MX Micro Sport show car could presage a production minicar, acknowledged Jim O’Sullivan, CEO of the automaker’s U.S. operations. There are already plans to produce a version of the Micro Sport for other markets around the world later this year. “All our research says there’s a societal shift,” adds MINI’s Pitney, suggesting a small but growing number of buyers that see minicars as the “anti-SUV” statement. How big a market might that group make up? If manufacturers can figure the right questions to use in their research, they’d probably be more ready to bring products likes the Nomad and Micro Sport to market.

 

Is the Car Resurgence Real?

2005 Pontiac G6

2005 Pontiac G6

Call it “the year of the car.” Well, Ford execs will, at least, while their counterparts at General Motors agree that it’s time for Detroit to start putting more emphasis on the passenger car side of the equation. But exactly what does that mean in the marketplace? Industry analysts and insiders offer various explanations why the Big Three are bringing so many products like the Ford Five Hundred and Pontiac G6 to market at this particular moment. With the Japanese taking aim at the large and profitable truck market, Detroit is losing its last protected sanctuary, suggests Dr. David Cole, of the Center for Automotive Research. Whatever the reason, will it actually help halt the steady, decade-long light-truck boom? In 2002, minivans, pickups, and SUVs collectively outsold sedans, coupes, and wagons for the first time, and that trend continued in 2003. But Ford design chief J Mays argued that the market might stabilize with the launch of so many new passenger cars, such as the Five Hundred, offering all-wheel drive, “command seating” and other SUV-like attributes. “We think you’re going to see people slowly move back from trucks to cars,” says Mays, though GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz is less certain. He predicts the “glacial” pace of the shift from cars to trucks is more likely to continue, though models like GM’s G6 could slow the defection.

 

Bill’s Not Going Anywhere

Bill Ford 2004

Bill Ford 2004

Ford Motor Co. Chairman Bill Ford isn’t updating his resume anytime soon, he says. There were some rough and unhappy times during his first year on the job, which Ford compares to a “highwire act without a net.” But “I’m actually enjoying the heck out of it at this time,” he insists, adding that “seeing this battleship turn around is giving me enormous satisfaction.” There’s been some speculation in the Detroit automotive community about just how long the young family heir might want to maintain the grueling pace managing a company in turnaround. But if anyone expected him to hand over the reins to an outsider, Ford asserts “I’ve got a job and I’m going to see it through.”

 

Cowger, Wagoner Upbeat on GM Gains

The New Year is getting off to a good start, or so says Gary Cowger, president of General Motors’ North American automotive operations. He reckons that “the combination of new products and the improving economy bodes well.” That should help GM endure the withering rebate wars. “Incentives will stay,” said Cowger, “but I do not see an incremental rise,” unlike 2003, when givebacks surged to record levels. Cowger even draws comfort from the latest market share figures despite their showing the Big Three again losing ground to their import rivals. “In November and December, we had 30 percent plus” share, well over the automaker’s stretch goal of 29 percent for the year as a whole. GM’s new product will account for about 24 percent of the vehicles it sells in North America, and that should draw in more customers, according to the executive. The big challenge will be winning back passenger car customers ceded to the Japanese over the last two decades. GM is trying to win them back by demonstrating the merits of its new products through its 24-hour test-drive program. And to Cowger, it is proving a solid success. “We’ve done 500,000 test drives,” he tells TCC, “and they have resulted in 170,000 sales.”


GM officials are upbeat about more than just the U.S. market. Despite the economic uncertainties that gripped many of the world’s major nations, booming demand in China helped propel global car sales in 2003 to a record 58.5 million, according to General Motors Chairman Rick Wagoner. And the CEO told TheCarConnection, “It could be closer to 60 million” in 2004, “with growth in every region.”

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