To use an overused phrase, today's cars and trucks are the best vehicles ever offered to the buying public. Sure, you've probably heard the one about how a modern car's computer system is more advanced than the computer used to put man on the moon in 1969. Well, it's true, and the benefits can be seen in several areas.
First, today's cars and trucks offer a level of occupant protection that would have been the stuff of science fiction novels just a few years ago. Beyond front airbags, which became mandatory about 10 years ago, the average-priced vehicle now includes torso-protecting side-impact airbags and head-protecting side curtain airbags, not to mention traction and stability control, antilock brakes and carefully constructed crush zones. If you go up the price scale a bit, you can have such safety nets as Mercedes' PRE-SAFE system that will actually prepare the vehicle for an impact in the last split second before a crash occurs. Ford and Volvo have begun outfitting their SUVs with anti-rollover technology, and GM (and Toyota) offers OnStar to automatically send help when the inevitable finally does happen.
Second, the combination of vehicle performance, emissions control and fuel mileage offered by today's products is truly amazing. Whether you're talking direct injection, cylinder deactivation or hybrid drivetrains, the amount of horsepower created by modern vehicles, all while getting 35-60 mpg and emitting pollutant levels that would have been hard to measure 10 years ago, is astonishing. The most exciting part is that while horsepower and emission control have taken off over the past 20 years, we are just now scratching the surface of how to get better fuel mileage. Although various technologies are available on various vehicles, I'm still waiting for the turbodiesel hybrid with direct injection and cylinder deactivation that gets 45 mpg while going from zero to 60 mph in under 6 seconds. I have a feeling I won't be waiting too long.
Finally, there's the comfort/luxury side of today's market — a market where finding a new car without air conditioning is nearly impossible, as is finding one without cruise control, a CD player and power windows. Not so long ago these features were considered "luxury" items. Now carmakers don't even bother trying to sell a product without them. Even navigation systems and in-car DVD entertainment centers are becoming commonplace among average-priced models. Luxury brands like Mercedes and Infiniti have tried to maintain their luxury status with features like "smart" cruise control and rear-mounted cameras, but with both items now available on a Toyota Sienna, it's hard to think of these as "high-end"-only technologies.
So what's the point, beyond the obvious "today's cars are all so great" narrative? Actually, that is entirely the point. Where once upon a time carmakers could distinguish themselves by claiming to offer industry-leading safety or performance or luxury, now they're all basically offering all of these, with only minor variances in degree between companies. Sure, Volvo's XC90 has the structural integrity of a small aircraft carrier, the all-new BMW M5 manages 507 horsepower while meeting California's emission regulations and the Maybach 62 offers fully reclining rear seats with a champagne chiller in between them. But these are the extremes, and even a Honda Accord can now be had with head airbags; a 255-hp, 37-mpg hybrid drivetrain; and DVD navigation. Don't tell me that car doesn't offer enough safety, performance and luxury for 95-plus percent of America's drivers.
So what does this mean for automakers who once upon a time billed themselves as the end all, be all of (insert positive characteristic here)? Volvo no longer has a lock on safety, Ferrari isn't the only company offering world-class performance and Lexus doesn't have a patent on home-theater-quality car audio or voice recognition. Bottom line, it's constantly getting more difficult for an automaker, even a very good automaker, to stand out from all of the other very good automakers.
But even in today's competitive marketplace, I believe there are not just one, but two areas where the smart automaker can — and must — focus.
The first is the domain of design. In case you haven't noticed, automakers are trying harder than ever to stand out with bold design. Sometimes the effort pays off (Audi TT, Chrysler 300), sometimes it doesn't (any BMW produced under Chris Bangle's direction). Because design, and the reaction it inspires, is such a personal realm, there's no easy way to get this one right. Each company has to be willing to try a new direction, even as the costs (both literal and figurative) of a failed design increase. It's a tough position to be in — the same pressures that are forcing today's carmakers to take chances with design (a desire to rise above the ordinary in an increasingly noisy marketplace) are simultaneously making failure a pricey proposition because so many excellent alternatives exist. The company that wins here will be the one that balances these forces while also possessing a truly talented design team. Just as directors have gained increasing influence with moviegoers over the past two decades, I see designers playing a larger role in the minds of car shoppers — though they must be alive to do this (please, GM, no more Harley Earl-like campaigns).
The second area isn't nearly as nebulous, though getting it right could prove even more difficult than consistently creating good design. This area is dealer sales and service, and in a world where the product has moved much closer together, the people and service surrounding the product have become that much more important. But what troubles me most is the utter lack of quality customer service I've witnessed in just the past few months. With a rotating fleet of 10-plus long-term cars in our possession, my editorial team is constantly making trips to various local dealerships for scheduled maintenance. And because we purchase the majority of our long-term cars, usually without revealing our Edmunds.com background during the negotiation process, we also deal with car salesmen on a regular basis.
I won't go into the specific examples of what we've encountered during recent dealership visits, but if you to want to read more please check out this story. However, I will mention that some of the most exciting new product hitting the market today is being backed up by some of the most underhanded and downright dishonest dealership people I've yet encountered in the auto industry, despite NADA's claims that the "old days" of crooked sales and service people are a thing of the past.
I've got one (painfully obvious) tip for all you automotive executives out there: It doesn't matter how well you design and build a car if the people representing your company are first-rate imbeciles. With so many great vehicles on the market, the alternatives are vast and wide for today's automotive buyer. Don't give them a reason to go somewhere else. And one more tip for you dealership people: if you want good scores on your sales and service feedback forms, try offering (and I'm going to get a little crazy here) GOOD CUSTOMER SERVICE. Utilizing bribes and pressure may seem like the way to go, but just give the good service idea a try. You might be surprised.
Heck, it might even end up being a point of differentiation (along with good design) between you and the other car companies out there.