Ford Continues to Beat Mustang with its Brand Mismanagement Stick

December 27, 2006

Ford leaked its plans for the 2011 Mustang. As with all leaks, the content must be taken with a grain of salt. Oftentimes leaks are nothing more than a means of getting feedback from the world before too much money is spent.

My eyes were drawn to the computer-generated photo rendering of the proposed 2011 pony. Instantly I was impressed with the ultra-modern lines, the cutting-edge angles and the very original appearance. Nothing retro about it! Indeed, the coupe could have just as well been wearing an Acura, Scion or BMW badge.

Maybe Ford finally started taking to heart my constant grumblings about the pitfalls of going retro. Without going into too much detail (I’m saving this for when the official production numbers come out in a couple weeks,) the retro Mustang has proven to be a total failure in increasing the model’s market.

The competition in this segment just keeps getting tougher, so a thoroughly modern, high-tech, youth-oriented Mustang is just what the doctor ordered!

But…and there always seems to be a “but” with Ford larger than one found on the season premier of Biggest Loser, I started to read more of the report, Ford is planning on expanding the Mustang to include a sedan and a wagon! Evidently, Mustang has such high name recognition and brand loyalty that they feel adding a pony-sedan and pony-wagon is the ticket.

Am I the only one who thinks they’re putting “dipshit pills” into the water in Michigan?

Please don’t lump me in with all the Mopar bums who crapped rams horns when the 300-based Charger came out with four doors. That was about reviving a long-dead model with no modern history. It cost D-C little money to make the Charger…and they’ve sold over 100,000 this year.  They made money — so mission accomplished.

This Mustang issue is completely different.

We all need to put on our marketing hats now. Ford points to the Mustang’s high loyalty and great name recognition. That’s fantastic, and I applaud Ford for creating a legend. But here’s the issue: the Mustang’s image and recognition are as pony cars (although most consumers would call them muscle cars, and that’s fine.) The market views the Mustang as a sporty/performance-oriented two-door coupe or convertible.

Creating a four door Mustang doesn’t expand a strong brand, it dilutes one of the only solid images Ford has left!   And a wagon? C’mon is it worth the risk for a market that includes really only the Dodge Magnum’s whopping 39,000 units this year!?!?! (We’ll even be generous and throw-in the Subaru Impreza Wagon’s 17,500 annual units into the available pie, too!)

There’s certainly no questioning why Ford managers want to pursue this option. First, they see the hugely successful performance sedan market . But let’s be crystal clear here – no Mustang, be it a two door or four door, has a snowball’s chance in hell of competing against the BMW 3-series, Infiniti G, Subaru WRX or Mitsubishi Evo.

Secondly, they have no sedan to compete against the Camry, Accord…or even Hyundai.
This is the saddest part, because they were squarely in the lead with the Taurus (in sedan and wagon forms) when they gave up to pursue the huge profit margins of Explorers and Expeditions. Mustang sedan and wagon offerings, however, simply would be seen more  as niche players – oddities of sorts ala an Aston Martin Rapide.

Instead of using gimmicks like retro looks, or relying on a known name like Mustang to try to lure people back to buying Ford sedans and wagons not called cross-overs or SUVs, maybe the company should try doing something really creative: start making midsize (and full size, for that matter) sedans and wagons that are high-quality, look good, deliver wonderful driving dynamics, promise high reliability, are wonderfully optioned, offer competitive pricing, and are backed up by top-tier sales and service operations.

Then they could name them whatever they want and people will buy…and instead of diluting the Mustang brand, it will strengthen it!


The Best and Worst of Car of the Year Stories

December 24, 2006

As the year comes to a close every automotive publication seems to feel the need to bestow some type of “best car” honor. With the mass power outages last week here in the Northwest, I had the opportunity to read through many magazines with stories of similar themes.

After so many years following the car biz…and even more importantly, the automotive publishing biz, I can usually predict which cars will wind up getting the kudos and honors. There always are a few curveballs, though.

The Toyota Camry is not surprising as Motor Trend’s Car of the Year. What is surprising is that the review of the vehicle looks more like a press release directly from Toyota than a review by experienced journalists. Is the car great? Sure, it’s a vehicle that out accelerates a Ferrari 328, but offers seating for five and greater reliability than a Craftsman hammer. It is far ahead of the last generation, which was already the best-selling car in America. The only car that can compete with it on performance, quality, comfort, and value is the Honda Accord — period.

I simply take offense that MT managed to spew niceties — even about the car’s transmission. MT waxed about it’s lightning-fast shifting and great fuel-saving logic as if Toyota’s PR team had their hand in the editor’s back. In reality the unit is a sloppy, harsh, confused piece of garbage that has spawned more lemon law suits than any other in Toyota’s history. (It’s the same tranny that is in my Avalon!) That being said, I don’t disagree that the Camry is a Car of the Year caliber vehicle, because other than the transmission, it’s a great ride. Most journalists will snip that it is boring, but a car designed to be the perfect touring/commuting vehicle just simply isn’t going to be tuned for sport. Nissan did that with the Maxima…and last time I checked, the Camry was outselling it at about five-to-one.

Automobile magazine did a similar kiss-ass move on the Chrysler 300C. After reading the mag’s summary, one would think the 300C is the best sedan ever created by a Big Three automaker. I just wondered how they could test the 300 and say that it is near perfect, and I could get into a 300 and immediately become mindful of its spongy brakes, numb steering and amazing lack of rear seat room (which delivers less functional rear leg room than a Camry in a package larger than an Avalon!)

Car of the Year-esque stories also have a habit of dishing out praise for what I call “better, but not great” phenomenon, which pats automakers on the back for delivering a mediocre product, provided it was a first effort, or it replaces a product so grim that not even a third-tier rental agency would use them.

The Honda Ridgeline received its fair share of kudos from the different publications saying how great it is to have a pickup truck from Honda. The fact that it can’t tow, can’t haul much, is slow, handles just okay, and delivers Civic interior room at twice the price of a Civic seems to be lost on writers. Oh yeah, it’s also uglier than that woman who crawled out of my college roommate’s bedroom after that night we went to a party and did a beer ever minute until people started passing out.

On Autoline Detroit John McElroy was discussing with reporters for C+D and Autoweek the contenders for North American Car of the Year. Both writers thought that among the finalists (which included the Honda Fit, Toyota Camry and Saturn Aura) none deserved the award, but that the Saturn would probably get it…only because writers like to congratulate the hometown guy for hard work. This was right after they both said the Aura was not even close to competing with the Altima, Accord or Camry. Why don’t we call out journalists for voting for it? Sure, they are allowed their opinions, just as I am allowed mine. I simply think that anyone who chooses to award mediocrity in a time when cut-rate products are causing the Big Three to tank should have their media credentials revoked.

For the record, both AD panel members wanted the Fit to win among the finalists. While the Camry is certainly the more important, as well as better car, the Fit reminds the market that the only companies making inexpensive cars cheap, crappy and unappealing are GM, Ford and Chrysler. I wouldn’t say the Fit is something I’d want to drive on a daily basis, but for the person who wants to have a new car in garage of their poorly-built new mega-development tract home, the Fit is the best of the worst.

If it were up to me, I’d give the nod to the Lexus LS460. While derided by the bulk of journalists as “uninspiring” to drive, and often called “a really great Buick,” the Lexus flagship shows how luxury, technology, quality, and performance can all intersect in a premium car. It might not deliver the BMW’s sublime handling, but at a fraction of the cost of a comparably compared BMW or Mercedes, it offers much more bang for the buck…and reliability for that matter! And if the automotive press has forgotten, not everyone wants edgy performance. Heck, even Mercedes didn’t offer any type of inspiring driving dynamics until this latest S550, and it’s still way behind the 7 Series Bimmer. Let’s not forget that those who want a lux-family tourer in this price range while also desiring a sporty ride often have a sedan, as well as a third car with a manual tranny.

Maybe what the motoring press needs to do is stop doing the Car of the Year, Ten Best or Most Wanted. Too many of these winners have gone on to be embarrassing failures. Instead, why don’t we start pointing out the Worst Cars of the Year. This way instead of congratulating manufacturers for good (but not great) jobs done, we can bitch-slap automakers for cars like the Dodge Caliber, Chevy Impala, Saturn Aura, Lincoln MKZ, Toyota Yaris, Hummer H3, and other really abysmal attempts at creating market-leading vehicles.


Classically Tough Trivia Quiz Answers

December 22, 2006

Whoever said “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” never did well on the Classically Tough Trivia Quiz. Success on this fourth annual edition required one to be a phenomenal student of automotive history.

The northwest’s rain, wind and power outages didn’t seem to stop the Sound Classics faithful from doing their best. In the end, though, there wasn’t a single person who could touch Olympia’s Jim Culp. By scoring 26 out of 29 points, Culp, a talented race photographer from prorallypix.com, proved he knows a ton about the cars he shoots.

  1. Like Dodge’s R/T and Chevy’s SS, Lancia used HF as its performance acronym. It stands for “High Fidelity.”
  2. Prior to building Kaisers, Henry Kaiser created Kaiser Shipyard to build vessels at a record pace during WWII. During this period, he also established Kaiser Permanente to treat shipyard workers.
  3. From January 1917 through January 1919, Chevrolet produced a total 2,781 Model D “Eight” V8-powered cars. The valve-in-head engines were installed in D-4 roadsters and D-5 tourers until reliability issues caused management to pull the plug. The next time a Bowtie would have a V8 would be 1955.
  4. Marquette was the baby Buick brand for 1929 and 1930. The 1927-1930 Erskine (named for company president Albert Erskine) was Studebaker’s first lower-priced brand. In 1931, Stude replaced it with the Rockne – the marque lasted until 1933. The brand was named for Knute Rockne, who was killed in a plane crash just twelve days after joining Studebaker. Oakland was actually a more expensive senior model to Pontiac.
  5. The King Midget was the smallest domestically-produced passenger car.
  6. In 1991 71 people ordered RPO B2K— Callaway Twin-Turbo for their Corvette at a cost of $33,000. The option exceeded the price of the base $32,445 coupe.
  7. Since 1906, Morgan has been family-owned. It still produces cars in its Malvern Link facility.
  8. President Lincoln rode to the theater on the eve of his assassination in a Studebaker. Prior to making cars, Studebaker produced high-end carriages.
  9. Ferrari first used an inline-four cylinder in its 1954 750 Monza. The Dino 246GT is the best-known V6-powered Ferrari. Magnum PI’s 308GTS had a V8, while Miami Vice’s iconic white Testarossa used a flat-twelve. V10s have powered Ferrari’s F1 cars for years. Kudos (but no extra points) go to those knowing that Enzo Ferrari’s pre-Ferrari model, the AAC 815, utilized a straight-eight.
  10. Cars from Voisin and Minerva, as well as Daimler’s Double Six used engines with Knight’s sleeve valve design.
  11. Hudson was “the car you step down into.”
  12. Rambler produced 370,865 vehicles in 1961, which ranked third among domestic manufacturers.
  13. The photo showed a 1907 Stanley H-5 Gentleman’s Speedy Roadster. An extra bonus point went to those who recognized the man displaying the car to judges at the Kirkland Concours as Olympia Farmer’s Market fixture Bob “Sully” Sullivan.
  14. Journalist LJK Setright of CAR magazine is credited with inventing the word “supercar” to describe the Lamborghini Miura upon its unveiling.
  15. DKW was an acronym for Dampf-Kraft Wagen…or “steam-powered vehicle.”
  16. Cunningham was an early luxury brand. Later, Briggs Cunningham badged the sports cars he produced with the same name.
  17. In 1955 34,000 out of 51,000 total cars imported to the United States were VWs.
  18. While it is confusing which company can actually claim the first “production” car with a power retractable hardtop, one thing is for certain – it wasn’t Ford’s 1957 Skyliner or Citroen’s 1950 or 1952 show cars. In 1933, Georges Paulin designed a folding hardtop system for coachbuilder Pourtout. It appeared initially on a single1933 Hotchkiss, but by 1934, the system appeared on a number of Portout-built Lancia Belna éclipse, Peugeot 301 éclipse and Peugeot 601 éclipse examples.
  19. In 1924 Andre Dubonnet raced a Hispano-Suiza with body made of tulip wood.
  20. Because emissions standards didn’t apply to trucks, Dodge’s Lil’ Red Express pickup was the fastest accelerating American vehicle in 1978. On the handling side, however, the Lil’ Red Express was less balanced than John Candy on dull ice skates.

Fourth Annual Classically Tough Trivia Quiz

December 13, 2006

It’s December. The Christmas trees are up, the dreidels have already started spinning and the stores are hopping with consumers. Readers of my “Sound Classics” collector car column know it’s time for the fourth annual Classically Tough Trivia Quiz.

And for the first time…Four Wheel Drift readers will have a chance to participate.

Since I’m a sucker for tradition, this year’s quiz continues with difficult questions covering all eras of automotive history. Each one is designed to challenge knowledge, recall and ability to use Google. There are some tricks in there, too!

Don’t fret too much if you can’t get many, because you’d have to be an expert in classics from all eras and countries. Even my father didn’t get them all… and he has assured me many times that he knows everything.

But if you think you have many of the right answers, send them in to trivia@apexstrategy.com before the clock strikes midnight on December 19, 2006. The top point-getter will be immortalized in the Classically Tough Trivia Answers edition.

  1. Which manufacturer applied the acronym HF to the end of the model names of its racing-oriented cars? What does HF stand for?
  2. This automotive manufacturer spent WWII creating 1490 ships for the Navy at yards capable of completing vessels in less than two weeks.
  3. What year did Chevrolet first install eight-cylinder engines in production cars?
  4. LaSalle was a junior Cadillac. What were the lower-price brands for Buick, Studebaker and Pontiac?
  5. It holds the title as the smallest domestically-produced passenger car.
  6. Excluding base body-styles, which “regular production option” was the most expensive in Corvette history?
  7. It is the oldest British car company never to be sold to international ownership.
  8. What was the first automaker to transport a US President?
  9. Ferrari might be famous for its V12-powered vehicles, but they made many cars with other types of engines. Identify engines Ferrari made other than the V12, as well as one model that used each engine.
  10. Stearns-Knight and Willys-Knight both used Charles Knight’s sleeve valve technology. Name two non-American cars that also took advantage of Knight’s sleeve valve design.
  11. Which automotive brand advertised “the car you step down into”?
  12. It was the only year since 1930 that a non-Big Three (GM, Ford, Chrysler Corp.) brand was in the top three of domestic auto production. Name the brand.
  13. Identify the car in the picture.
  14. The word “supercar” was invented to describe this car.
  15. This automotive manufacturer’s name started as an acronym translating as “steam-powered vehicle” and it later used the same acronym translating to “the small wonder” for the motorcycle it produced.
  16. It’s the name shared between two unrelated American auto companies – the first a high-end luxury manufacturer in the 1920s, the latter an expensive line of sports cars built by a rich sportsman in pursuit of winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
  17. In 1955, two-thirds of foreign-made cars imported to the United States were of this brand.
  18. It was the first production car to offer an automatic folding hardtop convertible.
  19. The Nieuport aircraft company built a roadster body of riveted tulip wood on this automaker’s chassis in 1924 for André Dubonnet to race.
  20. What was the fastest American-made production vehicle to 100 mph in 1978?

WA, TX, AK, FL car buyers just got a better deal

December 9, 2006

People living in Washington, Texas, Florida, and Alaska who have purchased new and used cars from dealers in 2006 are dancing. In the closing moments of the Congressional session, the sales tax deduction was renewed.

The aforementioned states are the only in the nation with a state sales tax, but no state income tax. Maybe this explains why I live in Washington and previously resided in Texas. The problem has been that while state income tax can be deducted from federal income tax, with the exception of a few years here and there, the sales tax cannot. 2005 deduction ran out without being renewed…until yesterday.

This is not something that is the sole responsibility of Republicans or Democrats. Representatives from both parties, like Brian Baird (D-WA) and Kevin Brady (R-TX) have been working hard for years to create the tax fairness.

Anyone in these states can get a non-itemized average deduction, but for anyone who bought a car, this means doing an itemized deduction. The deduction applies to any sales tax, but seeing that the average price of a new car is now over $30,000 it’s a big deal to those who pulled the trigger on a new ride this year.

Some of us got really lucky. I tried to buy a Toyota Avalon late in December last year before the deduction ended. The dealer, however, couldn’t locate a Limited model in time. To compensate for the lack of ability to deduct sales tax, the sales manager gave me another few hundred bucks off the price – which was already near-invoice. Now I get to reduce my taxable income by an additional $2,800 on that purchase alone…Well, make that on my wife’s taxable income, because being a writer means that my tax-deductable health insurance costs alone put me dangerously close to the red.

Obviously, it would make sense to talk to your friendly neighborhood accountant before tax season to figure out how all this affects you. For me, I just hope I can find the shoebox with all those receipts for the purchases I made this year…because I’ll just dump it on my wife’s desk and tell her to figure it all out.