2005 Detroit Auto Show: Making Sense

January 16, 2005

2005 Detroit Auto Show Index by TCC Team (1/8/2005)

The turnstiles at Detroit’s Cobo Center are spinning like tops. Over the coming days, at least 700,000 people will head for the riverfront convention center to get a look at all the new cars, trucks, concepts and crossover vehicles comprising this year’s North American International Auto Show.

In all, 65 all new production and prototype vehicles made their debut during the show’s three-day media preview. There are plenty of interesting vehicles on display, yet an informal poll of those who attended “press days” suggests that unlike past year’s, no single product dominates. That underscores some dynamic changes taking place in the global auto industry.

In the immediate post-war period, there were less than 50 different models on display — excluding concept vehicles — at what was then simply known as the Detroit Auto Show. This year, there are more than 250, according to a study by the California consulting firm, AutoPacific. Add in all the variations — the stripped-down LXs and well-equipped DXs — and the number of variants surges close to 1000.

Industry analysts often like to talk about “mass customization,” the idea of building products uniquely customized to the tastes and needs of each individual motorist. We’ve not quite reached that point yet, but we’ve long passed the days when buyers had to settle for a one-size-fits-all sedan or coupe.

Choice strains the automakers

Theoretically, that’s great news for consumers. Choice, after all, is one of the hallmarks of our capitalistic society. Though some observers have begun wondering if there’s such a thing as too much choice. One only has to look at the computer market to understand what that means. There are endless brands and models to choose from, and few folks ever walk away with a new PC truly confident they got the best deal — and the most reliable product — possible.

But it’s the manufacturers who are truly being strained by the fragmentation of the automotive market. Consider the situation at Ford. There was a time, not all that long ago, where it could expect to fill nearly two assembly plants with its midsize Taurus sedan, making up the difference with the sibling Mercury Sable. The Taurus will soon slip quietly into history, replaced by three separate Ford-brand models, including the Five Hundred sedan, the Freestyle crossover, and the new Fusion sedan, which is making its debut at the Detroit show this month.

All told, the three models are likely to add up to less volume than Taurus alone. Under the old economic rules, that simply wouldn’t have happened. Ford has to design, engineer and produce more products that will sell in significantly lower numbers. And the same is true for its competitors. There are still a few vehicles like the Ford F-Series and Toyota Camry, which manufacturers turn out like appliances, but the typical model on display in Detroit this January will average barely 60,000 units, according to AutoPacific.

The winners industry officials agree, will be those who can hammer down costs and churn out a procession of products that best catch hold in newly-emerging product niches.

Since 2000, DaimlerChrysler’s U.S. arm has bumped up by 50 percent the number of products it plans to bring to market, points out Chrysler Group CEO Dieter Zetsche. The challenge, he stresses, has been to find a way to get more product for less money. One way is to develop fewer but more flexible “architectures,” onto which the company can mount distinctly different “top hats.” That’s bodies to the layman. And the Chrysler 300, Dodge Magnum, and Dodge Charger are three good examples, together sharing the LX platform.

“This creates tremendous efficiencies,” says Zetsche, noting that despite Chrysler’s increased product count, it has cut planned capital spending from the original $42 billion set in 2000 to just $29 billion today.

Quality still rules – and so do buyers

Simply having more product isn’t the answer, of course. There’s plenty of it out there, as the Detroit show makes clear. Nor is quality the differentiator it once was. Even the worst performers on the latest J.D. Power Initial Quality Survey match the quality of what industry leaders, such as Toyota, delivered in the mid-1980s.

Consumers have come to expect more for less. According to the latest Automotive Affordability Index by Detroit’s Comerica Bank, buyers are paying less for their vehicles than just about any time in a quarter century. General Motors reports it was able to push up prices by a fraction of a percent last year, but on the whole, prices have been falling an average of nearly one percent annually over the last decade, and few expect that trend to turn anytime soon.

Add in incentives that have reached truly staggering proportions. One Chevrolet dealer, struggling to unload a lot full of Silverado pickups, went so far as to tell potential customers they could “buy a truck, get a car,” a free Chevy Aveo minicar.

Prices are down, even as content is steadily increasing. Where air conditioning and power windows were the exception in 1980, when Comerica began its survey, they’re the norm now, as are anti-lock brakes, CD audio systems and keyless remotes.

Perhaps no one is feeling the pressure like Detroit, where incentives have hit their highest levels — and where manufacturers are feeling the added strain of “legacy costs.” General Motors, which now has about two retirees for every active employee, is spending as much as $2000 for every vehicle to cover health care costs for active and retired workers.

The opening day of the Detroit show saw headlines suggesting GM would be making massive layoffs in the weeks to come. The automaker denied the story, though it did confirm plans to trim about 8000 U.S. jobs through attrition this year. And it later conceded to industry analysts that its profits would likely hit a speed bump in 2005.

The situation is only a bit better for the rest of the so-called Big Three. Together, Detroit automakers saw their market share fall to a record-low 60 percent last year, while Japanese makers topped 30 percent for the first time. Meanwhile resurgent Korean brands have largely come to dominate the bottom end of the market and are slowly moving into more upscale segments.

But the Detroit show began on a much-needed good note for Detroit, Ford’s Escape Hybrid being named the North American Truck of the Year by a panel of 48 journalists. The Chrysler 300 took honors as the Car of the Year.

It underscores the competition that will continue to shape and reshape the U.S. market in years to come.

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