Thursday, November 20, 2008

Down on the street-Albuquerque

Recently we travelled to Albuquerque to see the Balloon Fiesta and Angela's daughter Julia. The fiesta was a bust due to wind but what should I spy on the way out at 6 in the morning but one of my favorite European cars! I managed to fumble a couple of shots from the cell phone.

This is the old model Ford Ka which held up admirably and unchanged over it's 12 year run in Europe. Ford never considered bringing them to the States; no buyers they said.

Which undoubtedly was true. It is rather small. It's only virtues may be that it is useful, fun to drive, pleasing to look at and gets about 45mpg. The point is that Ford and GM have been developing good cars for the 21st century in Europe but have always presented only token efforts in the United States. Nothing says "Buy a Toyota" like the stateside Ford Focus. Ford conceded every market segment but the SUV and Truck market to the Japanese long ago. That made them a lot of money for a long time. $4 a gallon gas cut the heart out of their US business model. Citizens of the US just don't think of Ford or GM as CARmakers.

Here's the new Ka, which is Fiat based and also a little small for most tastes; though I did see a new Smart car on my block this week and it seems much less useful, more expensive and gets the same gas mileage.

Here's the Smart. What do you think?

More promising is the new Ford Fiesta which is closer to what Americans might consider a real car. It gives up a little fuel economy for a lot more space and better quality interiors. The question is whether Ford can convince US buyer that it is serious about cars now; and sell them in enough numbers, fast enough, and against well known Japanese competitors, to stay in business.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Small is ........ well not quite beautiful enough

The other day a customer came in who had been looking for a 4 wheel drive car. We had given them the standard list of bullet proof alternatives; Honda CRV, Toyota RAV 4 etc. They had driven the RAV 4 and it left them a bit cold. "It felt like a toy car." was the visceral response. There is a lot in that etc. that needs to be addressed.

Japanese manufacturers have done a lot of things right for a long time. We now have cars that last a long time, are very safe, require almost no maintenance for 100,000 miles and are very likely to go as far as you can drive them in 20 years. But when it comes to making a quality small car or even a comfortable big one they have pretty much missed the boat.

Another friend stopped by the same day with the news that he was feeling pretty much crippled after a 500 mile journey in his new Accord V6. He also has a company car, a two year old Volkswagen Passat. This is a car I wouldn't own outside of the warranty period for love or money. It has already spent many days at the dealership correcting problems with the automatic transmission and has less than 20,000 miles on the odometer. Yet the difference in driver comfort is undeniable. Honda's similarly priced product is distinctly inferior. And this is in their $30,000 dollar car.

Things get even worse when you look in the Civic/Corolla range. Quality shines in the European cars in this class. The BMW 1 and 3 series and especially the Audi A3 are examples of how to build a quality small car. With tongue only slightly in cheek I have suggested a Civic "Comfort" range that would have an interior subcontracted to Renault or Peugeot who know how to build comfortable seats in even their $15,000 cars.

But the Japanese have taken a bad turn on the way to the American market. Having bought into the domestic "small means cheap" mentality they are now stuck with an inventory of V6 powered large SUVs and family sedans that seem out of place in the current market. Civics are outselling Accords for the first time since the Accord was introduced some 32 years ago.

So my personal wish? How about a Civic based Audi A3 copycat in the Acura range. A four wheel drive wagon of compact dimensions built as a premium car from the ground up. Lots of sound deadening material. Quality plastics and attention to detail. Priced around $28,000. And while I'm dreaming, have Citroen design the seats.