Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Auto Industry Angst

There's more than enough worry to go around these days in Detroit and other parts of the nation where the U.S. auto industry plays a big role in the economy. They are worried about their livelihoods, and who can blame them? Unfortunately, there's little the government can do, short of further bankrupting the nation's economy, to keep the industry going.

If GM and Chrysler folded tomorrow, I'm not at all sure it would ever have a profound impact on my life. I do not own any of their cars, and the U.S. auto industry has no sizable stake in the local economy. Yes, there are many local car dealerships that sell American cars, and some of them would no doubt close, but some would start seling Toyotas or Nissans or Mazdas, and they'd get by. If there were no American cars, that wouldn't stop anyone from driving or needing to buy new cars.

I have owned plenty of American cars in my life - My very first was a Ford Maverick. I then owned four different Chevys before I got married into a "Chrysler family", so I've owned a few of them as well. You never know what the future will hold, but as of now, I could never imagine owning a "Big Three" car again.

All of the cliches you've ever heard about American cars held true for me. Every one of them became financial black holes after three or four years of driving - Planned obsolescence designed to get me to return to the showroom to buy yet another car. That all ended for me in 1997, when I traded in my wife's Plymouth Sundance for my beloved Honda Civic, which is still running 12 years later, and which will stay in the family until it falls apart (i.e. - not any time soon).

We did buy a Chrysler Town and Country minivan in 2001, and I will say this: When it comes to comfort and roominess, Chrysler owns the market on minivans. It was a great ride... for about four years. The last two years were a never-ending parade of increasingly expensive trips to the repair shop. Two years ago, my wife started looking at new minivans, and tentatively settled on the Toyota Sienna. When she sought the advice of the mechanics who had been servicing our Chrysler, they told her (jokingly) to buy American - because they needed the business! We bought the Toyota and have had no problems at all.

I guess what I'm saying here is that the Big Three automakers have, for now and for years to come, lost me as a potential customer, because every consumer group out there will tell you that there are better, less-expensive cars out there being built by foreign-owned companies. And, at least for Japanese cars, most of them are built in America, to boot.

And I'm not alone. Go ahead and google "Best selling cars in U.S.". You'll find many lists, but invariably, you'll find that 6 or 7 of the top 10 will be Japanese, and that the only U.S. models on the lists will be pickup trucks.

The government can throw all the money it wants to at GM and Chrysler, but the fact remains that they won't survive if they don't start building better cars. And it's hard to imagine either company lasting long enough to rebuild their reputations, because that will surely take YEARS to accomplish.

We can't keep the US auto industry alive simply because the US has a long history of building cars. That's not a good enough reason. If it was, I'd still have a job, because, along that line of reasoning, people would still be listening to AM radio, too.

Nope. We need Detroit to give us better cars. If Ford can do that as the only U.S. automaker, then it won't be the only U.S. automaker for long. Somebody else will jump in to challenge Ford, and the competition will create better, more affordable vehicles.

THAT's the American way.

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