Deep thoughts about Detroit, Camaros, Tundras, and GM’s Deep Hole

There has been the usual amount of hoopla over the unveilings at the Detroit Auto Show. Probably the most telling aspect, however, came from an unlikely source – my neighbor.

Kevin is your typical red-blooded Northwest guy. He works for Boeing, watches NASCAR and attends church regularly. He once owned a Fiero and married a woman who drove a Panther Pink Dodge Challenger in high school. He flies the flag high on a pole in front of his house. He’s the prototypical nice guy…and a dream neighbor.

We chat about cars frequently, but yesterday he hit me with something particularly deep. Evidently, he had been listening to a televised interview with GM CEO Rick Wagoner conducted at the show, and that it was apparent that a core strategy of GM’s comeback hinged on the cars unveiled there. The car taking the center-stage spotlight? The Chevy Camaro.

Kevin says: “he thinks the Camaro will save the company!”

Kev is right on so many levels. I do honestly believe that the people at GM think the 2009 Camaro is key to the turnaround. Like Kevin, I also believe the leadership at GM is on crack.

It’s evident that the executives at GM and Ford still live in a world where they believe if they can create image cars, people will come to the dealers just to see these halos, but will be convinced while they’re there to buy the sedan. This was true in the 1950s when this strategy hatched, but it has ceased to be the case for many years. When was the last time you went to a dealer and actually saw a Ford GT, Corvette Z06 or Viper actually sitting on the floor, anyway?

Here’s a newsflash – people are going for the best vehicles in the core segments: sedans, minivans…and increasingly – wagons.

GM has spent so much lately on the Camaro. While we can all agree that the Camaro is a necessity for competing for the pony car dollars, the executives need to understand that the Mustang is only selling about 170,000 units without any competition from Chevy or Pontiac with the F-bodies.

It’s been a very long time since Chevy sold more than 50.000 Camaros in a year. (Actually it was 1997 at 55,973 units.) The model was killed because it was pushing around 45,000 annually…and this was assisted by a large number of fleet sales of V6 rental cars. The Camaro’s F-body platform-mate, the Firebird, was good for another 30,000 units.

Historically speaking, in any given year the Camaro sales were half of the Mustang’s. So this makes sense that it’s possible that given no Firebird option, the Camaro could sell around 80,000 units in its first full year. I’ll be nice and say that it could maintain 80,000 for two years, then fade to 60,000 past the third year.

Essentially, GM won’t make squat off the model.

While GM has spent all of the time talking-up the Camaro convertible concept and the model’s production plans to media covering the Detroit Auto Show, the company was also unveiling the new Malibu — its foray into the most important segment in the US, the midsize sedan market.

As best as anyone can tell, the Malibu is better than its predecessor. While I haven’t seen it in person, nor has anyone driven it yet, it looks to again fit the description: “a really great rental car.” Maybe it’s not fair, but the Malibu’s improvements simply move it to where the Camry and Accord were four years ago. The Camry is much better, and the much anticipated new Accord sedan will simply blow its doors off in every conceivable way.

So GM continues to spend money going for that miniscule pony car segment, while 750,000 people each year are forced to buy Camrys and Accords, because the Malibu just isn’t good enough.

Oh, and if that isn’t bad enough, GM is officially walking away from the minivan market, putting all of its eggs into the crossover market with the GMC Arcadia (and its Saturn and Buick counterparts.) Maybe someone should explain that crossovers are a new, yet very short-term market created by people who don’t want SUVs anymore, but will likely buy a sedan or minivan for their next car. I call crossovers “halfway houses.”

Alas, Rick and the boys at GM will continue to push cars like the Camaro, the Caddy XLR, the Chevy SSR and other small market image vehicles. Ford will hang its hat on the Mustang and keep posters of the now out-of-production GT on its dealers’ walls while they wonder why the Taurus outsold the Fusion last year.

Don’t get me wrong – nobody is suggesting that Chevy not build the Camaro. The issues are a) Chevy is late to the game (the first Mustang hit mid-1964, and the Camaro came in late ’66,) and b) they focus on this small segment to the detriment of more important ones. If they built the best sedans and minivans, they’d have the money to be the first to market with all the greatest small-market and niche products.

And this is exactly how Toyota continues on its path to being the number one automaker in the world. How many sports and pony cars does Toyota currently sell in America? Zero. That’s right…the Celica and MR Spider both were cut several years ago, and it has been nearly a decade since the last Supra.

Meanwhile, my neighbor Kevin – the same guy who dreams of owning a 1970 Pontiac GTO Judge, will likely buy the new Toyota Tundra to replace his trusty Corolla. The Tundra might not have the looks of the Camaro, but it most definitely will be a hell of a great truck: reliable, powerful, comfortable…and unlike the Camaro, it will be built in America.


3 Responses to Deep thoughts about Detroit, Camaros, Tundras, and GM’s Deep Hole

  1. notoboy says:

    I wish you could send this article to both GM and Ford execs so MAYBE they’d pay some attention to what really matters: quality products for 90% of the US population that are made in the USA!

    Please try to publish this article in a big magazine so it gets more visibility!

  2. Richard Owen says:

    Your right, the Camaro isn’t a huge segment, but judging from what you write, it’s obvious you didn’t attend the NAIAS.

    GM revealed the Camaro Convertible at the GM Style event the night before. During the Detroit show, the car just sat on a simple display, while all big conferences focused on the Malibu, CTS and Volt.

    “GM has spent so much lately on the Camaro” oh yeah, how much? I don’t think the cost of making a drop top version of an existing design will break any bank accounts.

    Maybe you should visit these shows before you decide to start writing about them. Did you go to Barrett-Jackson? What’s wrong with the Malibu again? Why is the Tundra “a hell of a great truck”?

  3. Richard,

    GM has spent considerable time and money in PR trying to get journalists excited about the Camaro. It was Wagoner’s comment about the company feeling that Camaro is key to GM’s comeback that sparked the debate here. It seems you didn’t hear this comment at the show, and read over the discussion of this in the article.

    The engineering costs alone are substantial (they always are!) Please keep in mind that the discussion was about the “Camaro” not just the Camaro Convertible, so it is the total cost of engineering, tooling, production, marketing and sales of the entire model line that was addressed.

    Certainly the CTS and Volt were spotlighted vehicles (with the Volt taking center-stage for most of the event.) The Malibu was less of a big deal, as the GM and Chevy teams spent most of their time speaking about the Volt and Camaro (not specifically the convertible, which was the model unveiled.) This is supported by the media coverage from the event.

    Perhaps you should read the section regarding the Malibu again. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the vehicle from what we can all gather. The comment was that the consensus report on the car that it is a really good vehicle, equal to the last generation Camry and current Accord, which is about to be replaced. That’s saying quite a lot, since the last gen Malibu was not so good. I had several hundred miles in the old Malibu and found it to be way behind the class leaders in style, performance, handling, NVH, ergonomics, and quality. So the Malibu has come a long way, it seems, but not nearly enough to outpace the Accord and Camry. That makes it a good car, but doesn’t really mean it’s a success, since it really needs to be -better- to steal sales away from Honda and Toyota.

    Since the article wasn’t supposed to be a review of the Tundra, there wasn’t any detail. If there’s any question about the Tundra’s reception, pick up any magazine review of the all-new full-size Tundra. I think Toyota missed the boat by releasing it two months late, otherwise it would have beat the Chevy for Truck of the Year…and I personally think it is a wee-bit ugly, but in terms of the total package, it’s a hell of a truck…and here’s why: class-leading towing, the best brakes, outstanding engine selection, good fuel economy, exceptional NVH, wide-selection of options, fantastic comfort/ergonomics, good interior materials…and something that is absolutely critical — the perception of better quality than Ford or Chevy/GMC. (Obviously, it’s a new model, so we’ll have to wait and see if it lives up to Toyota’s quality reputation.) Price-wise, it’s only a little over a grand more than Chevy or Ford trucks, but offers more standard features.

    Thanks for taking the time to read The Four Wheel Drift and choosing to comment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: