Journalists tend to be cynics by nature, and that certainly seems true of many who cover the auto industry. The comments you’ll hear in a crowd of auto writers talking among themselves are more blunt and acerbic than anything they’ll put into print.
So I wasn’t surprised to hear a few choice remarks coming out of this group at the Detroit International Auto Show last month. Among the targets were automotive spokespeople who tried to make their comments relentlessly upbeat. This sort of tone is understandable given the cruddy year automakers have just lived through. But the happy talk in Detroit was of a degree that struck some auto writers as amusing. GMC marketers, for example, used the word “excited” so frequently in speaking of their hopes for 2010 that one wag suggested starting a drinking game. (“…we are excited” (drink)… “…2010 will be exciting”(drink)…”…and exciting (drink) announcements…”)
Detroit’s near-death experience last year seems to have affected not just marketing speeches. During the press previews, more than the usual number of politicians could be found traipsing through the aisles. They were there purportedly to demonstrate a “commitment to .... preserve our manufacturing base,” as it was put in one political speech. A less-charitable interpretation is that they made the trip to figure out what happened to all the bail-out money thrown at domestic automakers.
Their presence may have been the reason for a lot of booth signage that ran along the lines of, “Made in the U.S.A.,” Designed in California,” and “Assembled in Michigan.” It was a stark change from years past when most auto-show displays tended to focus on the features and benefits of new models. Where old messages mostly boiled down to, “Buy our vehicles,” the updated versions in some displays seemed to be saying, “We didn’t waste your money.”
A lot of fuel-efficient small cars debuted in Detroit, including the first wave of hybrids said to be priced low enough for ordinary consumers. But the heavy influence of government funding had several commentators wondering aloud who these cars were meant to impress, consumers or politicians. On the making-a-good-impression front, it was probably not a coincidence that GMC waited until a few days later, after most of the politicians had left town, to say it might spend $1 billion remodeling its line of full-sized trucks.
There seems to be another problem with fuel-stingy concepts unveiled in Detroit, many of which are subcompacts: They all share a lot of the same styling lines. We may be about to enter a throw-back to the days of the anonymous sedans in the 1980s and 90s, where it is going to be difficult to discern one fuel-efficient brand from another.
Nevertheless, even hardened cynics had to admit that the auto business really does seem to be getting better. Auto engineers we spoke to were guardedly hopeful that the worst was behind them. And you didn’t have to take the word of politicians making speeches on this point. There was far more-convincing evidence: A couple of nontaxpayer-funded automakers found enough money to serve a small continental breakfast during their events this year. That sort of largess would have been unheard of 12 months ago.
— Leland Teschler, Editor