Monday, January 13, 2014

Politics and Cars from Same ol' Detroit?

 
Is this a mixed bag, or simply more of the same?

We're talking about the news coming out of Detroit recently.  Like, within the past week.  There's some good with some bad, which on the one hand, is at least better than the all-bad news through which the Motor City has been stumbling.  But on the other hand, might all of this news be simply par-for-the-course for the much-handicapped municipality?

First came word last week that a newly-installed city council member was stopped by police after driving dangerously while leaving one of Motown's infamous bars, in one of its grittiest neighborhoods.  The council member, a 61-year-old black man who is a Baptist minister, as well as a lawyer of dubious repute, had an empty bottle of rum in his old Buick, plus a passenger who reeked of marijuana.  The officers who pulled him over are white, and were thus well aware of the political weight of the situation.  They summoned a supervisor to make the call on handling their collar, eventually letting him go with only a citation for not using his turn signal.

Then today came the opening of this year's car show at Cobo Center, providing the world an opportunity to remember something else for which Detroit is famous.  Actually, city leaders are hoping that all of their recent municipal bankruptcy news - not to mention the bankruptcy news from two of the Big Three automakers - gets forgotten among all of the glitz and glamor by which new cars can bedazzle us.

The North American International Auto Show always kicks off with Press Review Day, when automakers make their biggest pitches on their greatest gambles - or surest bets -  for maximum media exposure.  Last year, Chevrolet's new Corvette stole the show, and this year, so far, it's been the revamped Chrysler 200 sedans and an all-aluminum Ford pickup truck.

For Chrysler, which has been losing the midsized sedan race for years, its 2015 entrants in this hyper-competitive category may still not be good enough to win, place, or show, but at least judging by appearances, they're light years beyond what they're replacing.  No longer an American company, Chrysler hasn't been able to bank on nostalgia or patriotism with its American customers for several years now, and the Italians - now in control at the legendary automaker - are exploiting their European heritage in style and design in their attempts to make up for it.

Yet, is that enough for Chrysler?  Ironically, at least, design has rarely been the brand's Achilles heel.  A lot of their products have looked very good over the years, winning accolades for both appearance and originality, from their reinvention of the minivan as a mass-market best-seller, to the iconic PT Cruiser.  Instead, where they've suffered most has been in their engineering and manufacturing - two key factors in any vehicle's viability, reliability, and ability to attract repeat customers.  It doesn't help that no Italian manufacturer has been able to claim any better record at engineering and manufacturing than Chrysler.

Since it's hard to tell whether engineering or manufacturing is to blame when a vehicle under-performs, today's window-dressing in Cobo Center by Chrysler's executives may remain just that after these new cars roll out of dealer showrooms later this year.

And, speaking of engineering and manufacturing:  aluminum sheetmetal for a truck?  On a burly Ford F-150, no less?  The news made headlines here in Texas this morning, not because we Texans are infatuated with Detroit's auto show, but because more F-150's are sold here than any other state in the country.  We are Ford's most important pickup truck market, which in any state, has historically been all about power, strength, and durability.  How will traditional pickup truck buyers react to their favorite vehicle being made out of the same material as carbonated beverage containers?

Ford says they're switching to the more-expensive aluminum yet preventing the added expense from affecting sticker prices.  So hopefully, customers will somehow sense that they're getting a bargain.  Ford's also hoping that customers will like the fuel savings they should experience with a lighter-weight vehicle.  But have pickup truck buyers ever really cared much about saving fuel?  They buy trucks because they've got work to do, boats to haul, and rocky trails to climb.  After years of the "Built Ford Tough" advertising campaign, in which F-150's get pulverized by all sorts of material being dumped into their cargo beds and still driving away all sleek and shiny, can customers merely shrug their shoulders at the lost of steel body panels?

Indeed, Ford's aluminum sheet metal - even the "military-strength" about which Ford is boasting - will face some of the most change-averse vehicle buyers in the world.  However, facing rigorous new federal fuel economy standards all American automakers have agreed to target, Ford apparently figures there will be no good time to introduce such a significant change to their best-selling vehicle.  With as many trucks as they sell, Ford simply cannot afford not to lighten the weight - and thereby increase the fuel efficiency - of their signature pickups.

But then there's this:  The Los Angeles Times is reporting that Ford had secretly delivered trucks in the current model year - made discretely with aluminum sheetmetal - to unsuspecting corporate buyers in an effort to quietly test their durability.  And according to Ford, they got away with it.  The aluminum performed as well as steel.  Whether this revelation that Ford intentionally deceived some customers regarding the composition of vehicles they were buying will backfire on Ford, of course, remains to be seen.

Ford, after all, has a particularly sordid history of hiding facts from its customers.  Remember their explosive Pinto, for example?  Ford's accountants figured it was cheaper to pay death benefits to victims' families, instead of paying to retrofit all of the cars they'd sold with equipment that would prevent fires in the event of a rear-impact collision.

Sigh...

Back in Detroit's inner city, voters have been fuming at the news that one of their newly-elected council members has already become embroiled in a moral controversy, and the new council wasn't even a month into its term.  At least one investigation has already begun regarding whether the police supervisor improperly over-ruled the cops who initially pulled over the council member.  Did the politician receive preferential treatment?  Actually, he says he didn't, claiming instead that he was racially profiled for "driving while black."

Sigh...

So, we've got yet another popularly-elected official in Motown claiming race-bating after he was involved in a caper with alcohol and pot.  We've got Chrysler trotting out new cars that have attracted the cameras of news photogs from across the globe, but are made by two organizations with lousy track records when it comes to assembling reliable vehicles.  Then there's Ford, trying to tell customers they need a certain type of vehicle made with a certain material they've already tested on unsuspecting buyers.

You tell me:  is this a mixed bag of news coming out of Detroit, or simply more of the same?


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