After last month's Detroit auto show it's obvious that the domestic car companies (I still include Chrysler in that term, by the way) are focused once again on producing great cars. As I wrote in this same column two months ago, the product blitz coming out of Detroit is unprecedented (which is a good, because the rate of market share loss and profit loss for the Big Three is also unprecedented).
But in recent weeks I've come to another realization about what it takes to build a great car company in today's highly competitive market. As you might have guessed, it involves more than just product. In fact, truly poor product is so rare today that one would have to work hard to purchase a "bad" vehicle. Odds are that if you're in the market for a new car or truck, you'll probably stumble upon one of the many "good" models out there simply because of the mathematics involved. The real challenge to you, the consumer, is finding the exact vehicle that meets your needs at the best possible price (and because you're reading Edmunds.com, you've already taken the most important step in reaching that goal).
What's left, after moving beyond great product, is perhaps the next most important element in creating a successful car company: timely product.
A modern automaker must have the flexibility to react quickly. The world is moving faster than ever before, which means even the best car in the world won't succeed if it arrives too late. A perfect example is the Ford Thunderbird. The amount of excitement around the vehicle when it was first introduced in January of 1999 had customers lining up at Ford dealers with money in hand. But a combination of delays, and subsequent recalls after the vehicle was finally in showrooms in 2002, conspired to kill both the public's enthusiasm and eventually the car itself (it will cease production in 2005, and it never sold up to expectations). Ford has gone down a similar path with the Escape Hybrid it first showed off at the 2001 Los Angeles Auto Show and promised as a 2003 model with availability in calendar 2002. What could have been the first hybrid-powered SUV, by over two years, will now be going up against the Toyota Highlander and Lexus RX 400h when it finally hits Ford showrooms (we're told) this summer. This is in stark contrast to the Ford GT supercar, a vehicle that will go on sale just over two years after it was first shown as a concept proving that Ford can move quickly when the company properly supports a product goal. To be successful, Ford, Chrysler and GM will need more "GT-like" speed and less "Thunderbird-like" delays.
I'd like to believe this is a lesson well learned, but I've already seen what could be the "next Thunderbird" in the form of the Pontiac Solstice. Like the Thunderbird, the Solstice is a sexy two-seat convertible that promises to be a symbol of where Pontiac, and GM, is going. The combination of a rear-drive, sporty drop top for less than $20,000 seems like a can't-lose proposition. In fact, Mazda has already proven the recipe works, so how can the Solstice fail? How about by taking too long to reach the market? This car was first shown at the Detroit show in 2002 as a concept car and the darling of Bob Lutz. Now, two years later we have been shown a full production model that will go on sale in another 18 months. That makes the Solstice gestation period over three-and-a-half years. Sorry, guys, but that's too long in today's world. In the next 18 months we'll have an all-new Miata, a Mini convertible, a BMW 1 Series and maybe even a Dodge Sling Shot along with whatever else the Japanese and Europeans can throw together by then (they're pretty good at reacting quickly to market shifts). If the Solstice could have hit showrooms in the next six months it would have had almost no competition. Advantage: GM! By fall of 2005, however, the sub-$20,000 market for sporty cars (both convertibles and coupes) will be flooded, transforming what is currently a unique design into just another face in the crowd. I know the Solstice is riding on the all-new Kappa platform, and I further know that (at least by GM standards) the development of this platform has been very rapid. Perhaps that's the most disturbing point of this column: even the rapid development of the Solstice doesn't seem fast enough.
My final example of slow market reaction comes courtesy of Chrysler, the company that invented the minivan. While the first 15 years of the minivan market proved extremely kind to Chrysler, by 1999 the competition had heated up, led by the superb Honda Odyssey that offered a level of refinement, power, feature content, reliability and value Chrysler simply couldn't match. The trump car in Honda's minivan deck was the all-new "magic" third-row seat that disappeared into the floor when not in use and provided extra cargo space when deployed. The automotive press, and the buying public, reacted with suitable awe at the disappearing seat, and Odyssey demand (along with the inevitable dealer price gouging) soared. The following year Mazda repeated the feat with the 2000 MPV (and again received rave reviews from the automotive press and buying public). But when it came time to "refresh" the Chrysler minivans in 2001, this disappearing seat was not on the list of improvements. Chrysler's position? "It makes the interior too loud." Uh-huh. Well nobody was complaining about loud Odyssey or MPV interiors, and by 2001 even GM had managed to retrofit a folding seat design that, while not as elegant as the Honda or Mazda, still created a flat load floor for an easy transformation from "people" to "cargo" mode.
Now, finally, at this year's Detroit show Chrysler has introduced a fold-flat system that makes not only the third-row seat disappear, but the second-row seats as well (without having to physically remove them from the van). Apparently the company solved the "noise" issue, but this feature is six years overdue. Now Ford, Honda, Mazda, Nissan and Toyota all offer disappearing third-row seats, and Nissan's Quest even beat Chrysler to the punch on the fold-flat second-row seat system (though the new Chrysler design is superior by making all seats truly disappear into the floor). The company still owns the minivan market in terms of total sales, but the late arrival of this required feature puts Chrysler in the position of playing "catch up" rather than the position it held for years in the minivan market as the "segment benchmark."
As I said in my earlier column, the American car companies have finally decided to start building great cars again. We've already seen the product on the show floors let's hope it doesn't take too long to reach the showroom floors.