The Blog

More on American Car Design…

I recently got a comment from a reader, who took issue with some of my past comments on why it seems that American car manufacturers seem to design “less than attractive” cars. His points were that so have the Japanese & European manufacturers…and with attitudes like mine, no wonder the American automotive industry is in such crisis.

I applaud his brand loyalty. There are plenty of things I’m also loyal to – and I wish one of them was cars from the American car industry. But, his logic is flawed, in my opinion. Based on his note, the problem isn’t that we’ve built ugly cars, it’s that people just need to buy American. To a degree, he’s right – if we’d bought more American cars, we wouldn’t see GM shedding brands and declaring bankruptcy, nor would we see Fiat now a large owner of Chrysler.

But, let’s take my opinions out of the equation for a moment. Reality – the American buyer votes with his bank account…and there are a multitude of reasons why he/she hasn’t voted American nearly as much recently as, say, back in the 1960’s.

So, let’s take a look at “1969 vs. 2009”.

  1. Market Penetration. In 1969 – there wasn’t Datsun / Nissan, or Honda, or Toyota, or Subaru, or Mazda, or Kia, or Hyundai….and the list goes on. What the American automotive machine was competing against was either poorly made cheap British & Italian cars, or the VW Beetle. And, American build quality was world-leading. But, the cars were simple. Frame, body, engine, carburetor, wheels, suspension, brakes. Performance was measured by adding a bigger engine, and maybe cutting down on the overall mass of the car – which is how the muscle car grew in popularity initially. Competition between GM, Ford & Chrysler kept the lines moving. And, yet, when it came to performance cars, American cars were a good value. Now, 2009. American cars have to compete not only with their much improved counterparts “across the pond”, they also have had to compete with a whole new group from Asia, which even if everything else was even, would still contribute to a loss of market share over the last 40 years.
  2. Value for the Money. In 1969, as I mentioned above, you could build a car for a pretty inexpensive amount of money. Safety requirements, emissions requirements, reliability expectations were all much lower. So, there was not only room to pay the labor costs associated with the car, but still make a good sized profit. Now, in 2009, labor costs, along with the costs of meeting safety and emissions requirements, have caused the cost to build a car to explode. Unions still expect their workers to get paid the wages they’ve negotiated, retired workers still need their pensions, and shareholders still want their ROI. So, the accountants have gotten involved – and even though the overall reliability of American cars has drastically improved over the last 20 years, they still feel “cheap” inside. Hard plastic, cheap materials, and lost options abound on the lower-tiered cars in order to hit their price points. Yet, with lower labor costs, no union pensions, and a different shareholder perspective, have allowed European and Asian manufacturers to create cars that “feel” more expensive in comparison.
  3. Management Myopia. 1969 had the “Big Three” competing with themselves for the most part. When the rush of inexpensive, and eventually reliable, Asian cars rolled in during the 70’s gas crisis, it seems that one of two things happened. Either management ignored the threat, or with our American desire for “instant gratification”, the Big 3 shareholders handcuffed management’s need to change the companies and their resulting corporate cultures to chase after the “immediate ROI”. I suspect it was a bit of both. Case in point – GM was the early innovator in the late 1990’s with battery / hybrid technology with the EV1. Yet, they killed the car because they felt the need to chase Ford & Chrysler for SUV market share – and transferred those development dollars to Hummer. Now, Hummer is being sold to a Chinese company, and Toyota currently leads the way.

To be fair, not all American cars suck. The new Chevy Malibu – very attractive, and back to providing good value for the money. Same with most of the Cadillac line. Dodge still builds some of the best trucks, not to mention most attractive. But, of the three, Ford in my mind still leads the way. The Mustang – just about perfect. The truck lines – spectacular. And, unlike the other two, Ford does know how to build small cars – the Focus has always felt more expensive than it was, and the upcoming Fiesta is a world leader.

It’s not that I want the American car industry to fail –far from that. I want to see them truly regain the position that they’ve lost over the last 40 years. But, to “Buy American” just because it’s American – doesn’t keep us competitive. It doesn’t force us to do our best. Competition is good. It’s even better when – finally – it seems that the Big 3 have woken up, and realized that they aren’t competing anymore with each other – they are now on a world stage, and have to cut back, build attractive cars that provide safety, reliability, value – and are just as attractive from a design perspective as anything from Europe or Asia.

Here’s hoping they do it!

Chrysler – When Design does – and doesn’t – sell…

News today that Chrysler has declared bankruptcy. Wow – really, it’s only 30 years to late. In reality, Chrysler was dead back in 1979 when they took government loans to stave off bankruptcy.

I remember that time pretty vividly. Within a year, Chrysler was on their way to “recovery” thanks to Lee Iacocca, and the infamous “K” car. And, the Dodge Aries K was the first car I ever drove – back in 1980 in a drivers-ed class. The second car I drove during that same driving class was a Toyota Corolla – and the quality difference at that point made me understand why the Japanese car industry was overtaking the world.

Toyota, Mazda, Datsun (now Nissan), Honda and Subaru, 30 years ago – built cars that were cheap. Sure…maybe the interior plastics didn’t mix well with sunshine over time. But they ran. And ran. Didn’t break. Never left you stranded.

At the same time, it seems the “Big 3” were still trying to believe they were on top of the world like they were 10-15 years earlier. Yet, both the style of cars they built, along with the quality of the product the offered….well, just plain sucked!

The Japanese – they listened. They paid attention to what the customer was asking for. Quality, reliability, value – and style. About the time Chrysler was getting lucky with the whole “minivan” concept (which I believe is what truly rescued them back in the 80’s) – Japanese cars went from being “cheap, reliable, and funky” to “good value, reliable, and attractive”. Just like Korean manufacturers like Hyundai is currently doing.

Ford, and to some degree, General Motors, have finally started to figure all of this out. The Ford Fusion – I drove one as a rental car a few months back – yes, it’s built on the same platform (as well as, I think, the same assembly line) as the Mazda 6. And, I thought it was finally something that would make me look at choices other than a Camry or Accord. The Chevy Malibu – same thing. But the Chrysler Sebring I drove last year – what a piece of crap!

For $20K – you get something that can’t merge in traffic, makes you think you could disassemble the interior with a dull screwdriver, and had a funky smell of plastic release agent that made me think that on a long distance drive, would be more effective at getting one high that peyote! Not to mention it’s industrial ugly.

Even the Chrysler 300 – with it’s “gangster” look – aggressive, yes, but one design straight “from the hood” doesn’t cut it. The only “affordable” car that they now build that is even slightly attractive is the Challenger – a car that steals all its design cues from the 1960’s muscle-car hey-day.

I remember back about 15+ years ago when Chrysler came out with it’s “cab-forward” look  – where they seemed to think they could lead with “style” – like this would cover the other, important things people look for in a purchase they’ll pay for now for 4-6 years – things like reliability, resale value, and “lasting style”. For a time – I had hope they would do it. Now, the market has spoken – and with sales down over 40% from last year, the lines they’ve brought out the last 2-3 years just don’t resonate with people.

Here’s the thing. Style gets them into the showroom – the first time. The rest of the car keeps them coming back. Example – Porsche. BMW. Ferrari. Jaguar.  All these companies build cars that go “beyond” style. Performance and resale value keep owners in these cars, and to a large degree, they don’t rest on their past successes – they keep the brands growing. New designs that break with the past (to varying degrees) – yet still keep customers excited. On the lower end of the price-scale – look at BMW with the Mini, Volkswagen, and any of the Japanese manufacturers. Even when sales are down, they retain their customer base. If style itself isn’t the selling point (i.e. the Toyota Prius looks like a freakin’ toaster) – it’s multiple other selling points.

I hope Chrysler can get their act together. With the concessions that both the unions and lendors are giving them, combined with Fiat’s eventual control of the company – there is a glimmer of hope for them. My fear is – if you can’t make a company work when you’re owned by Mercedes when the economy was good, how are you going to do it when the economy sucks and you’re owned by Fiat?

However they do it – they had better make their cars go beyond “style”. Give us substance as well.

Why the economic downturn can drive good design

We’ve just come out of a time where, let’s face it – the conspicuous consumption of the last 10 years dwarfs what we saw during the 80’s. We’ve had reality shows that show young girls being chauffered in Lamborghini’s to “sweet 16 parties” that cost the same amount of money that AIG employees got (or now, might just get taxed out of) for bonuses.

And, things moved on at such a swift pace, that as long as it was “pretty” – people would buy it. 15 years ago, who ever heard of the term, “Do you speak Prada?”. Now, with budgets scaled back, and people actually taking the time to think about what they are buying – now is actually a great time for products that are built on the concept of “form follows function”.

I’ll use Chrysler vs. Ford as one example. Both companies have, over the last 15 years, built vehicles that are attractive. But design goes beyond “pretty”. Design isn’t just how it looks – it’s how it works. Good design means you don’t have to think about how to use it – you just use it. In the most recent surveys done by Consumer Reports, had both GM and Chrysler at the bottom of the list in reliability, with Ford fourth from the bottom. (USAToday – 27 Feb 09). And, yet, both design cars such as the Dodge Viper, the Chrysler 300M, the Ford Mustang, and even the now discontinued Ford GT – that are quite attractive.

Another example is Apple products compared to…well, just about any competing product. During the downturn, Apple has introduced the new “unibody” Mac’s, the iPhone, new iPods, and now the Shuffle. Sales may have dropped a little, but to hear that Lenovo (which makes great systems, by the way) has had to lay of people at their factories in China – seems to be showing that the combination of good visual design, good ergonomic design, and good mechanical design – are what are becoming key to sales.

Basically, it’s coming down to this – if people are going to spend, they want it to last, and they want to be proud of it. Architect Sarah Susanka has been a proponent for years of smaller spaces, with money spent on the details. Over the last “boom” – the goal seemed to be to buy bigger homes – yet, not necessarily better homes. Last year, for the first time in 10 years – the average square footage of new single-family homes actually fell from 2,629 in the second quarter, to 2,343 in the fourth quarter, according to US Census Data.

We’re seeing a return to common sense. We want more out of less. We want to feel connected to what we have spent our money on. Those who produce designs that help create a long-term emotional bond to the brand, to the product, and to the company that produced them, will be the winners once we rebound out of this downturn.

The Future of Motoring?

I realize that the Toyota Prius is the current “in” car – you can save the planet while driving a truly boring car – and now Honda has something that I think is not only far beyond the Prius in terms of “hybrid techonology” – it doesn’t look like a toaster on wheels!

When does the sports car version come out?

GM and the upcoming bailout…

With the upcoming bailout of the “Big 3” Automakers, it’s got me thinking again about “bad design. Of the three, Ford is actually in the best position financially. GM…is in the worst. GM is also thinking of shedding a few of it’s lines, including Saturn, Buick, and Pontiac.

The funny thing is, with the exception of the Corvette, the upcoming Camaro, and the (of all things) – new Malibu, nearly all of Chevrolet’s products are, well, bland. Yet, the new Pontiac G8 (really a Holden designed in Australia) and the Solstice, the nearly all of the Saturn lines, and the newest Buick products – are actually attractive! With car sales down 37% or more over last year, it seems insane that GM would get rid of the lines that might actually have products worth buying, and keep the lines that, well, pretty much suck. Furthermore, they keep talking about the Chevy Volt – the car that will “save the company” when it comes out in 2010.

Speaking of the Volt, I’ve read complaints that the car is “boring” – not very exciting to look at. Now, it does look a bit less like a toaster than the Toyota Prius does, but here’s a chance for GM to show the world that a breakthrough automobile, that can go 40 miles on it’s batteries before kicking in a small gasoline engine for recharging them, can also be beautiful. Yet, they responded to the criticism by saying that people would buy the car not based on looks, but based on it’s technology.

I believe that this is additional proof that the movie “Idiocracy” was really a documentary!

Oh…and they’ve also announced that they expect that they won’t make a profit on the Volt, due to the enormous R&D costs they’ve incurred during it’s development.

And we wonder why GM is in trouble?