Thursday, December 11, 2008

American automakers think we're stupid

Okay, the American economy is in meltdown. After 12 months, the experts finally decided to call it a "recession." Maybe this time next year they will have decided that it's not a recession, it's a depression. Those of us who are out of work must be smarter than those experts, because we already know it.

Credit is hard to get right now, because most of it is tied up in those "toxic securities" -- secret code for "bad mortgages," which the lenders and investors might as well write off and forget about, and start over.

The domestic automobile industry, at least that overweight segment of it known as The Big Three, has been in Washington D.C. twice begging for money to "bail them out," because they're too incompetent to bail themselves out of the mess they created. For years now they've been ignoring the signs of the times, the writing on the wall, the metaphor of your choice for the consumers who abandoned the Big Three in favor of Toyota, Honda and other Japanese (and Korean!) brands.

Detroit ceded the market for medium, small and subcompact sedans to Japan without a fight, choosing instead to concentrate on "luxury" cars, muscle cars, SUVs and manly pickup trucks. When gasoline jumped to $4 per gallon this summer and Americans suddenly stopped buying all those thirsty Detroit products, the Big Three's collective income fell far below their outgo, and they started losing money fast.

What Detroit should have done is instantly change their product mix and convert factories from making trucks and SUVs to making the smaller, leaner cars that Americans wanted. They should have noticed all the Priuses and Civic hybrids on the road and rushed to get their own hybrids into production. But they didn't have any smaller, leaner cars, and they didn't have any domestic hybrid options.

Actually, that's not strictly true. They didn't have any smaller, leaner cars that Americans wanted. What they offered for smaller cars was ugly and poorly put together. What they offered for hybrids got worse gas mileage than the Japanese non-hybrid alternatives, and again, they were poorly put together.

Our senators and representatives in Congress, bless 'em, were persuaded that giving Detroit zero dollars, while it would have been a bold and courageous move, might not be the right thing to do, but they were able to see past the Big Three CEOs' self-serving arguments and pare down their request to something more, um, realistic. I'd still like to see Congress try something bold and courageous for a change. But at least they got it down from over $30 billion to under $15 billion before the proposal got snagged on a tree branch.

In the meantime, while the car companies are crying to the government about all the money they're losing, Dodge aired a TV commercial this evening that makes one slap one's forehead and cry, "What in the world are you thinking?"

This was an advertisement for what Dodge called a "luxury truck": a dual-cab monstrosity with leather seats, built-in WiFi, a backup camera, built-in toolboxes, a really thirsty engine and a suspension that would do the Army proud.

Hey! Dodge! Which Americans are you trying to sell these air haulers to? Haven't you been listening to the majority of the American public? We don't want luxury trucks! We want vehicles that take less gasoline (or diesel), or no gasoline (or diesel) at all! These ain't them!

Dodge wants to push this "luxury truck" for one reason only: because of the profit margin. They make more money per sale on "luxury trucks" than on more sensible vehicles. I guess they don't expect people who need car loans to buy these things, do they? Because, according to the news and the CEOs themselves, car loans are hard to come by right now, so the buyers of these beasts will need cash.

The commercial, naturally, emphasizes the manliness of the truck, and appeals to the buyer's need to feel manly. The commercial goes over the top in an attempt to get the buyer's insecurity (or need to compensate for perceived deficiencies elsewhere) to override his caution and the frugal attitude so vital in this economic climate.

This truck is the reason why the majority of Americans don't want to give the Big Three one red cent of their money. It's symbolic of everything that's wrong with Detroit right now.

The first thing the Car Czar should do, once he's appointed and the Big Three get their bailout money, is fire the sorry idiots at Chrysler who approved the design and construction of the "luxury truck," and the sorry idiots who approved this advertising campaign, and the sorry idiots who signed the contract with the advertising company, and the advertising company itself.

After that, it wouldn't be a bad idea to go after the associated idiots responsible for the Cadillac Escalade, the Ford Excursion and supertrucks, and the Hummer product family.

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