Flint: Does Detroit Hate America?

March 18, 2006

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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.

<[email protected]@[email protected]@>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 GMC Canyon, 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.

Aura of success?

<[email protected]@[email protected]@>Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Opel designs will sell here. The coming Saturn Aura, which is an Opel design, looks good. It could be successful.

But I still say this is a huge market. There’s no reason that we shouldn’t be able to design and build cars for our market profitably, building what our people like, instead of taking a second-best compromise — meaning, the best car we could make out of a car really designed for the European tastes.

Ironically, the one company that seems to think there is something positive in American design is Chrysler, which has German ownership. The Chrysler 300, the Dodge Magnum and Charger don’t borrow styling from Europe. The smaller models, the PT Cruiser and the new Dodge Caliber, are distinctive, too.

What about Toyota and its global success? Remember that the best-selling Camry sold in America is not the same car they sell in Europe.

What sounds better? Having Detroit design and engineer cars for the American buyer or adapting European designs for America? And how much money can be saved if the vehicles have to be built here anyway? The factory and the tooling are the major costs. No savings there.

Frankly, German GM, meaning Opel, has been flopping anyway and is just now trying to turn around. What makes anyone at GM think they can build a better car than we can?

I recall the then-chairman of Ford, standing with me as we looked at the new Contour. He said. “If this doesn’t work we’ll never try it again.” It didn’t work but they haven’t stopped trying to shove Euro designs down our throats.

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