CHICAGO - Can you read too much into a billboard?
Tires hissing on the taxi as we made our way down Michigan Avenue on a wet and surprisingly warm Windy City day and neared the 2009 Chicago Auto Show, there it loomed, about 10 stories overhead: LEFT 4 DEAD.
That's a video game. But perhaps, also, a sign of the times, at least for some car companies and certainly particular models in their fleets.
We were heading into the reality of a struggling automotive industry, and it was not pretty. Still hundreds of cars on the floor, but a mostly muted appearance by the folks who run the companies that build them. Eight press conferences would cover the whole shebang.
And when a small commercial van from Turkey — with electric versions coming — is perhaps the most engaging idea at a big auto show, then you know there's a rip in the fabric of the industry.
Not that I did not love the execution and the idea of Ford's 2010 Transit Connect, a boxy little number that will carry 1,600 pounds of cargo in 135 cubic feet of space. Picture the big rigs you see clogging urban streets, or rumbling near a store in a small village, sometimes dropping off loads not that hefty.
Finally, American small businesses, contractors, and those urban streets and rural villages might get some relief. It goes on sale this summer, starting at around $21,500 and is available with all sorts of customization.
That was the Yin. Here's the Yang, as Ford exemplified — in the best display of true auto building — the cross-currents sweeping the industry: They are bringing back the Taurus SHO.
The Taurus, remembered mostly as an oddly flowing family car, got a tweak way back in '80s that turned it into a limited sales hot rod: a 220 hp Yamaha 3.0L V6.
SHO: Super High Output. This one has more: 365 horsepower in a car that Ford claims will get 25 miles per gallon on the highway. It will sell well, in limited numbers, to a cult that applauded this intro as SHO-time, but so, too, will the other Big Beast, the 2010 Ford Harley-Davidson F-150. Again, a fine rig, but not something that will revive the auto industry.
Nor will the concept Corvette, a movie character in the upcoming film "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen." Oh, and there will be other product placements from Chevrolet in the movie: a purple Volt — an electric car that has yet to zap my imagination — a pair of Beat subcompacts, and a yellow Bumblebee Camaro. But does this sell cars? And what happens if the general economic wave that has wracked Detroit does not roll gently back to sea but, instead, becomes a roller that sweeps through that economy?
Kia, a Korean company on the rise, introduced a sensible car, the Forte, adapted for the American market. Coming ashore by fall, it will come in three trim levels (LX, EX and SX) with a choice of two engines: 2.0L four-cylinder with 156 horsepower and a 2.4-liter engine at 173 horsepower. It was the only truly new car introduced at a somber, lightly attended show. And yet, the launch of a new car was not the biggest news from Kia, or from the show. That would be the harsh, straight assessment of the industry offered up by by Hyundai president and CEO John Krafcik.
His key points:
- Automakers have hurt themselves by fighting against safety, fuel economy, and environmental protections, all in contrast to a tsunami-like change in public demand.
- Too many bean counters have gotten too deep into the production of quality automobiles, save a few bucks here, a few bucks there, to increase profit.
- "Any car company can meet a cost target and deliver a terrible vehicle,” he said. Sure, you can cough up an extra $100 per vehicle to produce a car with which consumers would be far more satisfied. "Give us quality, not rebates," he said.
- Can you build a car that is too good, too dependable, too long-lasting? Krafick seemed to think, even as he pushed quality and content, that this might be so.
Why? Because, he said, too many people have perfectly good used cars in their driveways. Why swap them in unless such features as enhanced safety and fuel economy are part of the plan?
This is an industry in incredible flux. Its leaders, particularly here in the states, did not see the future coming, much as newspaper publishers and editors did not see the vibrant form that news would take on the Internet, insisting instead on reserved writing and editing.
And America's Big Three seemed, somehow, to think that the sales of SUVs and big trucks would continue to swell their coffers.
I remember Ron Zarrella, then executive vice president and president of GM North America, saying several years ago that the Koreans can have the small car market. Detroit had bigger plans.
Of course, it's not always fun to be a bearer of bad news, particularly when livelihoods, families, the economy is at stake. And yet there was a bit of tension over the presence of the press at "press days."
Even as some car company execs grumbled to me that maybe the days of the big auto show may need to be trimmed to save money. Who needs Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago, New York, Geneva, Frankfurt, Paris, Tokyo, all in what had become a rolling display of extravagance and boondoggle? How much tension was there?
Let's close by considering what Jerry Cizek, the show's general manager, had to say to the press, which has long been overly courted and entertained: "We're happy to see each of you and deeply appreciate you being here to cover the show. We are fully aware how important you are to the success of our show."
But then came this stinger: "That being said, we're counting the hours until Friday, when we can throw open the doors of the show and welcome our most important audience — the American consumer."
And the industry had best hope those consumers show up in greater proportions and with more enthusiasm than did the press this year.
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