No. 832,
February 3, 2016

About The Autoextremist

What do you do when when you've been immersed in all things automotive since before you took your first steps? When you're the scion of an automotive family in an automotive town in its very own automotive universe? When you've forgotten more about cars and motorsports and everything and everyone involved in the business than most people will ever know? When cars aren't just in your blood, but also in your bones and your brain and the very air you breathe? If you're Peter M. De Lorenzo, you ramp it up a bit further. National commentator, industry consultant and author (as well as former superstar ad man), De Lorenzo's daily (and nightly) focus for the past 15 years has been Autoextremist.com, a weekly Internet magazine devoted to news, commentary and analysis of the auto industry and the business of motorsports. Translation: De Lorenzo likes to tell the truth about what's really going on behind the scenes in the car business. And sometimes, things get ugly. Real ugly. But he is as passionate with his praise as he is with his critiques, and Autoextremist has become a weekly "must read" for leading professionals in all industries. De Lorenzo is considered to be one of the most influential voices commenting on the business today. It's the very definition of a high-octane life. And it's what fuels De Lorenzo to keep the pedal down - hard. He won't stop because he can't stop. A bit tired, perhaps? No way. De Lorenzo is one of the most untired people we know.

De Lorenzo's latest book is Witch Hunt (Octane Press  witchhuntbook.com). It is available on Amazon in both hardcover and Kindle formats, as well as on iBookstore. De Lorenzo is also the author of The United States of Toyota.

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Wednesday
Dec082010

THE AUTOEXTREMIST

December 15, 2010

 

HAPPY HOLIDAYS!

Enjoy our year-end issue, and we'll see you back here on January 5, 2011!

 

Pinheads, WallSqueaks and Bad Lieutenants: The 2010 Autoextremist Year in Review.

By Peter M. De Lorenzo 

Detroit. Well, well, well, another year has absolutely flown by and it’s hard to put into words just what a rocket ride it has been. Saying it has been another “tumultuous” year in the auto business is not only redundant, it’s meaningless. The business has been transformed from one of order, cadence and at times mind-numbing predictability to a chaotic, everything-all-the-time-what-have-you-done-for-me-lately, day-in, day-out slog that seemingly adheres to no normal limits or traditional parameters.

As a company you’re not only as good as your last product “hit” in this business, the time you have to make a market impact with that product is rapidly shrinking. In the “old” days an auto manufacturer had two, maybe even three model years to seed a new product in the market. Then as global competition began to heat-up that notion was relegated to the scrap heap as manufacturers discovered that a eighteen-month window was all you could expect to have in order to capture the consumer buying public’s attention with a new product.

Then, even though some manufacturers loathed admitting it, for all intents and purposes that “window” was reduced to a year. The auto companies who were truthful with themselves - and about the market - knew that they basically had a year to reach consumers with a new product, or they were toast.

Now? It’s six months, tops. That means a manufacturer pretty much knows in that short burst of time whether or not all of the strategic research, design, engineering, product development and marketing plans have hit their mark, or were left languishing in a pile of irrelevance by the side of the road, while competitors with newer-hotter-better stuff blasted by.

The problem with this whole shrinking time window thing is that manufacturers still have billions of dollars in costs on the line, and no matter how globally amortized the product architecture is, one false move or discordant product note and a company could become seriously damaged or even derailed if the “miss” is egregious enough.

The net-net of this chaotic kaleidoscope of billion-dollar bets and do or die product wrangling? It never stops.

There’s no question that this industry is not for the faint of heart, especially after witnessing two of what used to be quaintly known as the Big Three (GM and Chrysler) rising from the ashes of excruciatingly painful bankruptcies. And watching the emergence of Ford who, after being pushed to the absolute brink of disaster, re-invented itself to became a global force to be reckoned with again. Add to that the stunning downward spiral of Toyota and the lackluster performance of Honda, combined with the incredible upward trajectory of Hyundai-Kia, and well, as we like to say around here, you just can’t make this shit up.

For me, by far the most significant development this year has been the move toward some degree of electrification – with the Ultra Green Zealots and their political cohorts in Washington and Sacramento attempting to jam a New World Automotive Order down the industry’s – and the public’s - throats, even though no one is really sure how these new vehicles will be charged en masse, and even more crucial, how they’d survive in the real world with no government subsidies. Let’s just say that the electrification movement is far afield from the realities of the situation, and except for limited applications and in limited regions of the country, the headlong rush to electrification isn’t going to make a lick of sense for most of the country, and for many years to come too.

I could go on, but I’ll save more of my comments for the end of this column.

And remember, this issue is really three issues in one. Now I know some of you hard-core Autoextremists out there take particular pride in sitting down and wading through this column in one sitting, but it’s okay to digest it in bits too.

Either way, I hope you enjoy our 2010 Year in Review.

So let’s get started by dialing the AE Way Back Machine to last January, a week before the 2010 Detroit Auto Show opened...

“And make no mistake - the national media will be all over the Green aspect of the Detroit show, especially when Nancy Pelosi tours the show on her bike. Okay, so maybe the Madame Speaker won’t be touring the show on her bike, but you can bet the headlines will be heavily green-tinged surrounding her visit, even though most of the products on display will not make a damn bit of difference to the bottom lines of any of these companies anytime soon (except in the severely negative direction, of course).

As much as our newly-minted auto “experts” in California and Washington want to believe that the kind of game-changing seismic shift in our nation’s transportation fleet is only a finger-snap away due to electrification and the populace’s mass adoption of glorified rickshaws, etc., the reality is that we’re still going to be driving predominantly piston-powered vehicles for decades to come, no matter what the P.T. Barnums, er, I mean Fiskers and Teslas of the world would have you believe.

On that note I’ll stop right here. As bad as 2009 was I do believe there’s a pinpoint of fiberoptic light at the end of the tunnel for this industry and its future. Brilliant, adventuresome designs, new technologies and an economy that’s lurching back to life are all signs that 2010 will be a better year for everyone concerned. And hopefully next week’s show will add to my burgeoning sense of optimism.” (Welcome to Detroit Auto Show 2010: Blue-sky pipe dreams with a side of whimsy, and Nancy Pelosi, too, oh my!”  1/6/10)

“Shhhhhhhh. There was an auto show down at Cobo Hall this week - at least I think there was. Although this one was quiet. Real quiet.  So quiet in fact that it was as if the organizers pumped something “soothing” through the ventilation system, which caused everyone to walk around in a zombie-like state of semi-agreeable bliss.

I was hoping to be wowed, or outraged at least – well, there was a little bit of that – but the net-net of the 2010 Detroit Auto Show was that the whole thing left me with an overwhelming sense of being asleep at the wheel (except that in my nightmare Nancy Pelosi was riding shotgun and yelling at me to wake up, and slow down).” (Asleep at the Wheel: Welcome to the 2010 North American International Library Convention, er, Auto Show…” 1/13/10)

“Darn tootin’ we’re back, at least Big Ed says we are. The car company formerly known as GM was hell-bent on letting everyone know – from Nancy and her minions to the assembled hordes in the media – that they were back, with renewed energy, renewed focus, renewed products like the Buick Regal GS, Chevrolet Aveo RS, GMC Granite, Cadillac CTS and CTS-V Coupes and the XTS Platinum sedan, and a revitalized spirit. And except for something called the Acadia Denali - which was nothing more than an Acadia crossover with Denali design cues and a complete yawner - for the most part, they succeeded.”
(1/13/10)

“Those specks fading in Ford’s rearview mirror? It just might be you. To say that Ford had a big Detroit Auto Show is the understatement of this New Year. Kicking off the show with the North American Car (Ford Fusion Hybrid) and Truck (Ford Transit Connect) of the Year, Ford then proceeded to make news with its production cars that will be rolling out over the next year. The 2011 Mustang has two exciting new engine choices,  the excellent Fiesta finally hits this market for real this summer, the freshened Lincoln MKX crossover turned up the wick even further and the all new global Focus – due here fifteen months from now - made its formal debut to the world’s automotive media. Even better news for Ford to me was the fact that the mood of the Ford executives at the show was upbeat but without any trace of smugness or complacency. Alan Mulally has his troops focused on the job at hand, and as long as they stay that way - and realize that they still have a long, long way to go - Ford is going to be a formidable competitor for years to come.” (1/13/10)

“Uh, except there’s that one “speck” that’s not fading, now that you mention it. Speaking of production car heroics, the Hyundai display was fraught with scary stuff if you were a competitor. The new Sonata is really good, and the new premium luxury Equus sedan is more than for real, it’s clearly a signal that this Korean manufacturer is in relentless pursuit of greatness (well, except for that hokey hood ornament, however). But just in case you’re thinkin’ Hyundai is all that with no residual traces of bumbling stupidity leftover from the “dark” years, they went ahead and unveiled something called the Blue-Will Plug-in Hybrid Concept, a design train wreck of such monumental proportions that it suggests that Hyundai is perfectly capable of coming unglued at a moment’s notice. The fact that Hyundai willingly unloaded this atrocity in Detroit gives one pause, to say the least. So we’ll continue to file Hyundai under the ‘coming brand’ category, certainly breathing down the necks of Toyota, Honda, Ford and VW, but a work in progress nonetheless.” (1/13/10)

“It used to be a pretty cool car company, but then things got weird, Part I. Speaking of Honda, they finally took the wraps off their production CR-Z Hybrid sports coupe to the sound of one hand clapping. Although quite interesting from the middle of the roof back, it was as if the Honda designers put the front end through a vanilla neutralizer to meet crash standards and utterly destroyed the face of the original concept - which was pretty damn good by the way - to the point that the thing was unrecognizable. I’ve got one simple question for Honda: Why? Or better yet, WTF? Then you stroll around the Honda and Acura stands and see the absolute horror show of egregious design miscues, missteps and flat-out mistakes (Crosstour, ZDX), there’s no need to ask “why?” anymore. The people involved need to be run out of town on a rail and then Honda needs to start over. It’s that simple. Memo to Honda: Shiny Happy Smiley efficiency isn’t nearly enough. You better get your shit together, or it’s going to be Toyota, Ford, Hyundai and VW leading the charge over the next decade, and you’re going to end up being an also-ran, and an after thought.” (1/13/10)

“The short story on Chrysler at the Detroit Auto Show? Three Words: A frickin’ disaster. About six weeks ago the George P. Johnson Company – a veteran industry display company, er “experience marketing” company – got the call from the folks in Auburn Hills and the message was “help.” Chrysler had nothing planned of any consequence for Cobo Hall and they needed to do something, like quick. So what they came up with for Chrysler on short notice allowed the car company to be present and accounted for in Detroit, and that’s about it. Chrysler showed some embarrassing new option packages on a couple of Jeep models and crossovers (ahem, the Dodge Nitro “Detonator”???) and even threw some Chrysler design cues on a Lancia hatchback as if to say “this is kinda-sorta what we’re thinkin’ if you get our drift.” But other than that - and a huge Ram HD truck display - there was absolutely zero to it. Oh, they managed to squeeze a Ferrari, a couple of Fiat 500s and a Maserati into the display too, but really, why bother?” (1/13/10)

“It used to be a pretty cool car company, but then things got weird, Part II. Not to be outdone in the schlock department, BMW brought the 5 Series GT to Cobo Hall, and it was even worse in person than I expected. How BMW managed to arrive at the notion that a 5,000-lb. ‘luxury’ hatchback was a good idea has been well-documented, but it’s still beyond me. When you operate under the guiding principle of “we know what’s best for people and they will not only get used to it but they will like it” it’s easy to see how these guys run amuck. Combine that with the fact that they are absolutely incapable of walking away from a niche – both real and imagined – if they think they can make a couple of bucks on it and you end up with an outrage called the 5 Series GT. That this unmitigated design disaster will contribute immeasurably to the overall degradation of the original essence of BMW matters not one iota to the powers that be at BMW, because their arrogance is blindingly all-encompassing, and they truly believe that their actions will have no undue consequences other than to add more glory and more kudos and more money to the corporate coffers at the end of the day. How bad is the 5 Series GT? It’s so bad that it starts to make the X6 look acceptable. Oh the horror, the horror…” (1/13/10)

 “Having had time to reflect on what went on at Cobo Hall last week, it’s clear to me that some brands are in more trouble than even they might think. It was stunning to me that three brands in particular, Honda, Toyota and BMW, are reeling, so much so that their swoon - and the ascendance of certain rivals - could dramatically alter the North American automotive market permanently…

In Toyota’s case, their relentless obsession to be the biggest, baddest car company on the planet has cost them dearly. Too many plants were built, which led to the company having too much capacity on hand, and in the process of doing that they took their collective eyes off of the ball, which led to an undeniable slip in quality, heretofore their Holy Grail, and the principle raison d’etre for the company. And remember, all of this was undertaken in the quest to unseat General Motors as the world’s biggest automaker. Sounds wildly misguided and painfully irrelevant right about now, doesn’t it?

And what about Honda? Here is a company that was founded on risk-taking and pushing the envelope by a gifted engineer who believed in the enduring strengths of solid, reliable and good performing engines. It wasn’t the Honda Quality Company, or the Honda Transportation Company, it was the Honda Motor Company, a bold, competitive enterprise that reveled in innovation and proved its competence and technical acumen on racetracks the world over.

But that wasn’t the car company on display at Cobo Hall last week. No, the Honda I witnessed at the Detroit Auto Show was barely recognizable, a lurid mash-up of reduced expectations, abominable design, paunchy, overweight and miserable excuses for “new” (the horrendous Honda Crosstour and Acura ZDX being egregious examples No. 1 & 2), the stunningly bad (the entire Acura lineup is a living and breathing class on how not to design cars), and a flat-out blown opportunity, the frighteningly mediocre and wildly underwhelming Honda CR-Z…

And then there’s BMW. Speaking of driving it off into a ditch, BMW is now two car companies diametrically opposed to each other. There’s the “old” BMW that graces us with the quintessential all-around enthusiast machine - the magnificent 3 Series - and, at least some of their “M” machines (only a few of which can be considered desirable), and then there’s the rest of the company, or, as I like to call it, “BMW Heavy” which specializes in overdone, overwrought land cruisers (X6, 5GT and other assorted crossover-SUVs) that are about as far away as you can get from the concept of the Ultimate Driving Machine.

Walking around the BMW display at Cobo was a little frightening, no, make that a lot frightening. All the accoutrements were there, the sleek display with cool graphics - the overall look and feel of a BMW display that you’d expect to see at an auto show - but it was as if a cruel plot had been unleashed overnight and the BMW vehicles – at least the vehicles you’d expect from BMW – were nowhere to be found, instead replaced by a posse of lumbering behemoths that could exist quite nicely as the ‘Official Vehicles of America’s Biggest Loser.’” (“Three Troubled Brands: Shocks Linger in the Aftermath of the Detroit Auto Show.” 1/20/10)

“The Toyota implosion marks a definitive shift in the American automotive landscape. After dominating the hearts and minds of the American consumer public for the better part of three decades, we are now witnessing the end of Toyota’s reign over this market. With Toyota unable to avoid the kind of national and now international scrutiny - and notoriety - that has humbled lesser companies, we will see Toyota eventually fall back from the top tier in this market, eclipsed by a host of savvy competitors led by a dramatically rejuvenated Ford and an increasingly aggressive Hyundai.

It took 35 years of intense focus for Toyota to get to the top of the industry in this market and around the world, but in just one week Toyota’s masterfully calculated image and hallowed reputation is now in tatters, decimated by a swirling maelstrom of its own hubris and unbridled greed.

It has been a devastatingly painful lesson for Toyota.

And it will be a worthwhile case study for the rest of this industry too - as in how even the best can get caught up in their own delusions and lose focus - for decades to come.” (”The Toyota implosion…what it really means.”  2/3/10)

“I really wasn’t going to write about Toyota again this week, figuring that I had said all that needed to be said last week about the situation, but then again it’s obvious that the story of Toyota’s quality implosion and subsequent image freefall isn’t going away anytime soon… The blatant obfuscation of the seriousness and scope of the problem by Toyota’s Japan-based leadership only served to exacerbate the issues involved, which in turn prevented their American counterparts from getting out in front of the story, which in turn caused countless hand-wringing and negative stories in the media, which in turn exposed customers to a side of Toyota heretofore never imagined, which in turn caused a carefully cultivated image built up over the better part of three decades to blow up literally overnight.

And now every move Toyota makes, the new TV advertising, the public mea culpas, President Akio Toyoda’s announced visit to the U.S. in order to take the pulse of its employees, dealers and customers - to ‘genchi-genbutsu,’ which is Japanese for ‘go and see’ and is part of ‘The Toyota Way’ business philosophy - seems forced, disingenuous and very, very late.

On this frigid February day in 2010 I can actually begin to see the media rhetoric shift away from the Toyota=Good, Detroit=Bad mantra that has dominated this market for years.

Now it’s Toyota=Incompetent, Toyota=Untrustworthy, Toyota=Unsafe, or worse, Toyota=Just Plain Bad.

And here Toyota was this close to having American consumers actually believing that it was as American as Baseball, Hot Dogs and Apple Pie.

Not so much. Not anymore.” (”Baseball, Hot Dogs, Apple Pie and Toyota? Not anymore.” 2/10/10) 

“Besides the fact that this is BMW we’re talking about here, the problem with the ‘Joy’ campaign isn’t the use of the word itself - no, it’s the fact that this commercial could have been done by any other brand. It could be a Kia spot. Or Hyundai. Or Volvo. Or Chevrolet. Or even Honda. With this spot BMW is going all shiny-happy on us and abdicating its throne. You don’t just walk away from one of the most memorable and accurately descriptive advertising themes in automotive history “for a while” as BMW says, and expect to blissfully escape any lasting repercussions or long-term effects.

It just doesn’t work that way.

Ask Mercedes-Benz. They walked away from ‘Engineered like no other car in the World’ - literally and spiritually - years and years ago, and they’ve been desperate to reclaim its power and imagery ever since. And short of adopting that theme again and living up to it in every respect, guess what? They’ll never get it back.

BMW insists this is just an expansion of their brand positioning to accommodate what people already know, that BMWs are a “joy” to drive.

I vehemently disagree. It’s not brand positioning, it’s bland positioning.

By selling something acceptably agreeable for all, it’s all but guaranteed that BMW will fail to elicit passion from anyone.

Which makes it official: The poseurs and in-house cynics are out to destroy BMW from within.

And with this new ‘Joy’ campaign, they’re off to an excellent head start.” (”It’s official: The poseurs and in-house cynics are out to destroy BMW from within.” 2/17/10) 

Editor's Note: With the announcement last March that GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz was retiring May 1, we re-ran the column Peter wrote in February 2009, when Lutz first announced his retirement. Below is an excerpt. – WG

“Sadly, without Lutz this business will continue to be overrun by politically correct bean counters and slick corporate willies who have little or no feel for the product, no sense of automotive history, and even worse, no sense of humor. A giant bowl of Not Good in my book.

Bob Lutz’s accomplishments in this business are legendary, and even though there’s no need (or enough space) for me to recount all of them here, suffice to say he’s had one of the most glittering careers this industry has ever known.

In terms of his relentless vitality, his legendary wit, his unquestioned knowledge of the business, his passion for the product, his uncanny ‘gut’ and his unerring feel for what the essence of the product is all about; Bob Lutz is simply second to none.

Having spent enough quality time with Bob over the years I can safely say that he is, in my estimation, the greatest product guru of the last 35 years and he will leave the stage as one of this industry’s all-time greats.” (The End of an Era: The Ultimate Car Guy Takes His Leave.” 3/3/10)

“Automotive advertising themes run the gamut from the sublime to the ridiculous, and everything in between. Some car companies not only get it – understanding who they are and where they want to go – while conducting themselves accordingly, but they also deliver what they’re promising and do so consistently over time. Others not only lose focus, but they lose sight of who they are and wander around in the desert searching for a way back. And others simply go through the motions, flailing about while trying to discover their raison d’etre, and failing miserably at it…

As a matter of fact, in juxtaposition these two German car companies are shocking in their divergent paths.

On the one hand we have BMW. Repeatedly succumbing to the siren song of volume while chasing every niche imaginable, this company has not only lost its way, it has lost touch with its soul. Instead of reinvesting heavily in the idea behind and the belief in the machine – which is, after all, what made BMW great in the first place – BMW is smugly wrapping the word “Joy” around its image, because it lacks the fortitude and sheer force of will to say “enough” and firmly and decisively return to its roots.

And on the other we have Audi. Relentlessly focused and confident in its mission, it is building great cars – beautiful machines that bristle with passion and engineering ingenuity – finished off with precision and executed flawlessly down to the last detail.

Through its fundamental belief in how and why it’s done – its “Truth in Engineering” – Audi is now creating some of the most desirable automobiles in the world. The kinds of machines that people desire and crave, and the kinds of machines that set the pace for the entire industry.

It’s funny how it all works, isn’t it? Car companies that understand who they are and know exactly where they want to go – while staying true to their mission and never allowing themselves to lose focus – are the ones who are on an upward trajectory, attracting new customers by the day.

While the ones who are chasing rainbows - and niches they don’t belong in - are destined for a long, hot walk in the desert, lost in a swirling maelstrom of mediocrity.” (“’Truth’ vs. ‘Joy.’ A tale of two car companies.” 3/17/10)

“The resuscitation of Cadillac taught GM an important lesson too – one that they were ultimately unable to act upon on the scale needed to save the company from pirouetting into bankruptcy unfortunately – but a valid one nonetheless. And that is by focusing their energy, resources and talent on the product, GM discovered that they actually could rebuild and redirect an existing division’s image - something that a lot of analysts insisted couldn’t be done…

Which leads me to my final point.

Cadillac is either going to be America’s show piece, luxury division, or it isn’t. Steps are being taken internally right now by Cadillac to ‘distance’ itself from the GM umbrella, and at this point that is a very good thing because it matters not one iota whether or not consumers out there in the real world associate Cadillac with GM. As a matter of fact, it’s a distinct advantage to Cadillac if they don’t.

GM can be the behind-the-curtain presence (way behind, I might add), but if Cadillac aims to be America’s premier luxury car brand capable of duking it out with those aforementioned best-in-class competitors of note, then they will have to have the resources, the will and the product to get it done.

I’m fairly certain that they’ll have the product - it’s the resources and will part that I’m most concerned about.” (”Cadillac will need more than “art and science” to get where it needs to go.” 3/24/10)

“Volvo, which dined on its ‘safest car in the world’ reputation for years - and then subsequently lost its unique positioning in the market when every automobile maker in the world loaded up their vehicles with every safety device known to man - has been floundering somewhere between near-luxury and semi-luxury for quite some time now, and it hasn’t worked all that well… Oh, Volvo tried, but as much as it did it was just never going to be considered a real luxury brand. After all, without its safety moniker, what did Volvo stand for? Design? Uh, how about no? Engineering? As compared to whom? Mercedes-Benz? BMW? Porsche? Audi? Hardly.  

No, Volvo has perennially operated in a Twilight Zone of the “in-between.” A kinda-sorta netherworld of not beautiful enough, not fast enough, not luxurious enough, and just plain not good enough to be considered one of the elite manufacturers in the world.” (”Unleash the dragon, er, tiger!” 3/31/10)

“As we crash headlong into this new automotive century, it’s pretty clear where all of this is going. Since the Asian theater of operations is now the dominant market for the industry - and will remain so easily for the next 50 years - the global automotive conglomerates with the most design talent, the most technical depth, the most engineering resources, the most marketing reach and the most economies of scale will be the ultimate winners.

But it’s not enough to have those aforementioned qualities and ingredients if you want to be an elite automotive force in this industry, because the minimum price of admission for the industry’s elite is ratcheting up by the day. No, it’s how these companies go about their business that will separate the merely elite from the truly exceptional…

Over the last decade I have watched as this business has careened from companies operating at a comfortable level of ‘good enough’ mediocrity to companies striving for excellence in all disciplines as the minimum price of entry to now one requiring companies to be exceptional in all phases of the game as the minimal cost of doing business to achieve global dominance.

I used to say that the next year to eighteen months would be the most pivotal time in automotive history. That sounds so quaint now. It’s also totally irrelevant.

Because at this juncture literally every single moment in this business is pivotal.

Companies choosing to operate at the exceptional level understand this. The rest will forever be scrambling to catch up.” (“The exceptional will rule.”  4/14/10)

“Finally coming to terms with what it takes to succeed in this business is one thing, but now the real hard part begins for Hyundai. This company has to decide who it is and what it wants to be in the global automotive scene, because being the cut-rate value (aka the “deal”) in this or any other market will only carry them so far. For instance, it isn’t going to be enough that the new Equus premium luxury sedan heading for U.S. dealers this summer is ‘a Lexus for $20,000 less.’ That’s not a product positioning - it’s a commodity play. And Hyundai’s dreams of global automotive domination will have to encompass far more than that in order to get where they want to go.

No, Hyundai has to put a stake in the ground and let the world know what it stands for. Are they going to out-BMW BMW? Is that how far they’re going to take their new-found infatuation with vehicle dynamics? Or are they going to go for the anesthetized school of automotive dynamics, a la Lexus? Are they going to try to out-Audi Audi with a seductive combination of engineering and breathtakingly gorgeous design? Will they go the safety with luxury route? How about the environmental leader persona? Or how about taking to the racetracks of the world in order to prove their engineering and technical mettle in hopes of setting the tone and creating a new image for the entire company? Or will they just throw up their hands and just continue to hammer home their warranty and push the whole durability/reliability/quality premise for a lack of a better idea?

That’s a boatload of choices, and I’m not sure that Hyundai or its management team has the first clue as to what will work, or what would be best suited to their capabilities, or what they really want to be when they grow up into a serious global automotive powerhouse.” (“On the verge of greatness, or just on the verge?” 4/21/10)

“Brands and ad agencies alike were jettisoned during GM’s long, slow march through bankruptcy, and now it’s Campbell-Ewald’s turn to walk the plank. Not that C-E wasn’t culpable in all of this, because they most definitely were. Saddled with old-school management that made careers out of going along to get along and who often couldn’t be bothered to get off their asses or get out of their own way – unless it was to collect their fat paychecks, of course – C-E was an ad agency in desperate need of a top-down house cleaning.

But it would never come to pass because C-E was part of the Interpublic Group, one of the most, no, make that the most flat-out incompetent advertising holding company in the world, led by a rumbling, bumbling, stumbling band of so-called “executives” in New York whose only claim to fame was their relentless, serial incompetence, their stupefying bonuses and their steadfast refusal to deal with reality at any time or on any level. IPG management’s astounding lack of vision and unrivaled inability to read the tea leaves of where this business was going combined with a shocking level of tone-deafness that prevented them from hearing anything but the dulcet tones of their own sycophantic, back-slapping cronyism - which was in full song on a daily basis – prevented them from making the necessary sweeping changes needed to C-E’s upper management.

And thus the end for C-E and Chevrolet.

The sad thing is that it’s another body blow to the local ad community - which was on life support as it is – and a lot of good and talented people are going to be out of work by the end of the year.

But so it goes in the ad biz circa 2010: The bumbling fools at the top get paid and never get burned, while the people who actually do the day-in, day-out heavy lifting and make the agency run get screwed royally.” (”Campbell-Ewald is forced to walk the plank as the train wreck called GM marketing continues.” 4/28/10)

“Chevrolet was never just another car company for General Motors; it was instead the single most dominant and profitable brand in GM’s meticulously crafted empire and the single most dominant brand in the American automobile industry. Which, when you think about it was really saying something because after all, this was an era when our domestic automobile industry controlled upwards of 90 percent of the market, and GM alone commandeered half of that.

In GM’s heyday – roughly the late 50s to the late 70s – when the company basically set the tone for the entire industry dictating (except for a few instances) the tempo and cadence of the business in terms of design, engineering, segmentation, marketing, advertising - even right down to the color palette seen on America’s vehicles - Chevrolet was the straw that stirred the drink, and it just flat dominated the American market.

So when Campbell-Ewald was firing on all cylinders and delivered memorable ad campaigns that fortified Chevrolet’s leadership position, the result was at times magic, with a few of those campaigns becoming part of the zeitgeist of the moment, mirroring the pulse of this nation perfectly.” (”In search of Chevrolet’s soul.”  5/5/10)

“Memo to Cadillac Marketers: Go back and read ‘The Penalty of Leadership.’ Soak-up its subtleties and its power and then remember that beating people over the head with ‘stuff’ isn’t necessarily the way to gain consideration, favorable or otherwise. Then, reacquaint yourselves with ‘The Standard of the World’ and have that classic Cadillac phrase burnished into gleaming pieces of aluminum and hung on the walls in your central war room in the RenCen, in the Cadillac studio at the Design Staff, and in every other location where people are engaged in making Cadillac great again.

But remember that hanging the signs and having cute cards made with this newly reinvigorated mantra isn’t enough. Not even close, in fact.

You must believe in it, work toward it and accept nothing less than the best that you can bring to the table each and every single day in order for it to work.

And if you do that and never waver from the mission for even an instant - and work tirelessly toward delivering on that premise – ‘The Standard of the World’ just may become Cadillac’s reputation once again.” (”Brilliance seems to be in short supply at Cadillac.”  5/12/10)

“You only have to think about the favorable impressions you might have for a product - any product - to know that a piece of communication aimed at you has somehow broken through to leave an impression worth noting, whether you choose to believe it or not. So, to suggest that a particular car advertising campaign - good or bad - is meaningless, is simply ludicrous, or worse, displays a level of close-mindedness that you might consider having looked at, just in case you find yourself railing against the machine on an imaginary sidewalk in the near future. I'm just sayin' is all...

Now, did I say that a great car campaign can overcome an uncompetitive product? Absolutely not. There is no ad campaign in the world that can do that. But have I seen an outstanding advertising campaign pull a mediocre car up by the lapels and damn near turn the industry on its ear? Yes. When Hal Riney tackled the launch of the Saturn he created an aura for a brand that pretty much glossed over and transcended the fact that the first Saturn was a mediocre car, at best. (As a matter of fact the dulcet tones of a Briggs & Stratton lawn mower engine could have given the Saturn powerplant a run for its money on the noise-vibration-harshness meter back then.) The aura that Riney's brilliant ad campaign created basically allowed Saturn to survive long past its sell-by date, to the point that most early Saturn owners didn't have a clue that Saturn was part of General Motors. So don't tell me that advertising doesn't matter, because for car companies it can be absolutely crucial in establishing an impression for consumers.

But the latest work for the Dodge minivan is so horrifically bad and beyond category horrendous that I absolutely refuse to describe the ads, seeing as Chrysler's self-absorbed marketing leader (he's a frickin' genius, just ask him) - Olivier Francois - would then get the satisfaction of trotting out the predictable bullshit line that ‘if they're talking about it then it must must be good advertising.’ Not a fucking chance, pal. As a matter of fact I can't even remember the last time I was subjected to such egregiously bad advertising. Wieden & Kennedy has not only gone completely off the reservation with this miserable excuse for cogent ad work, they have managed to insult everybody's intelligence in one fell swoop too. And Chrysler marketing brainiacs actually allowed themselves to be talked into this unmitigated bullshit? Unbelievable.

And here's a clue going forward for Sergio (Marchionne), Olivier (Francois) & Friends: Self-absorption is standard operating procedure in this business. We get that. But self-absorption combined with furiously out-of-control egos is a sure-fire path to self destruction. And guess what? That fiber optic pinpoint of light at the end of the long, dark tunnel that you think might be the beam of optimism that you've been waiting for all these months and a signal that Fiat-Chrysler's precarious fortunes are finally on the upswing?

Wrong.

It's a 100-car freight train headed straight for Auburn Hills, and it's about to crush you like a grape if you keep making boneheaded advertising like the Dodge minivan spots. Talk about a train wreck...” (”Why advertising still matters, and why Dodge marketers well and truly suck at it.” 5/19/10)

Editor’s Note: The following piece was one of Peter’s most requested columns this past year, so we’re re-running it in its entirety. - WG

“If you were asked to give a commencement address, what would you say? It’s easy to dismiss or even make fun of what people say in commencement addresses, it’s quite another when you’re asked. Everything changes in an instant. You’re facing a crowd of students, parents and educators, all wondering absolutely the same thing: Is this person worth my time and attention? Will any of what this person has to say really matter?

What do you say to the parents who in a lot of cases have scrimped and saved and struggled to see their child get through college? What can possibly be said to them about the sacrifices and the sheer will it took to arrive upon this very day, a day that seemed so far off in their young lives but now was staring them in the face, right along with their own mortality?

And how about the graduates? What do you say to these young people brimming with hopes and dreams and possibilities, but facing a world of rampant uncertainty?

There is a lot to say and a lot to talk about, but if you had to make it count, how would you do it?

First of all I would say, ‘thank you’ to the parents. Thank you for having the courage and the conviction to see this through. And by ‘this’ I mean parenting and all that it entails. Thank you for the long, difficult days and the endless frustrations that you met along the way with perseverance, dedication, and the unwavering and remarkably uplifting belief that it would all be worth it and that it would all make a difference one day.

Well that day is here and it is worth it and you have made a difference.

The graduates here before you today are living, breathing examples of your relentless drive and your unwillingness to accept the status quo for them, or for the greater world we live in. Your all-consuming belief that your sacrifices will result in not only giving your children a better opportunity, but making the world at large a better place is to be commended, because it is absolutely true. 

And at least at this very moment in time, please know this: Every step along the way on this difficult journey was worth every sleepless night, every sacrifice and every time you gave of yourself when it seemed that you had nothing left to give. It all mattered.

And maybe just to say ‘thank you’ at this juncture doesn’t begin to cover it, but know that it’s heartfelt and said with the utmost gratitude.

And to the graduates, what could possibly be said at this point that might resonate with you? After all, you have been warned, schooled, admonished and coached every which way from Sunday on what you should expect out of life and the challenges you will soon be facing.

And I’m sure a lot of it went in one ear and out the other too. After all, what’s a little knowledge without a little – or maybe a lot - of skepticism to go with it? I mean, what could we possibly know that you haven’t already figured out for yourselves, right?

Well, maybe we don’t know all that much, at least from your perspective. You’ve seen the mistakes and the flaws and the failures and the frustrations that we adults have either lived with or been responsible for, and you’re absolutely convinced that you won’t make the same ones and that you will do better. Much better.

And I hope with all of my heart that is absolutely true.

But a funny thing happens along the way with this thing we call ‘life.’

It’s exhilarating, frustrating, depressing, magical, nonsensical, shocking, ludicrous, fantastic, joyful, happy and sad all at once. And sometimes even on the same day.

There is nothing I can possibly say to prepare you for the journey you’re about to embark on because whatever you think it is, believe me it’s so much more than you can even imagine that my words can’t remotely do it justice.

I will deign to say this, however. That ‘truism’ that life goes by fast so make the most of it each and every day? It’s absolutely true. But let me add to that the following: If you let life steer you – whether by your inaction, callousness, flat-out laziness or complacency – to a place that leaves you woefully unhappy and frustrated, then I can assure you life can be and will be an unending slog full of relentless predictability and utter somberness.

And at that point the ‘life’ you dreamed about will barely be recognizable and seem so impossibly remote that the sadness you feel will permeate every inch of your being, right through to your soul.

That’s not life, that’s a sentence. And please, whatever you do from this day forward, do not allow yourself to chart a course for that kind of crushing disappointment. I can safely say that it’s not worth it, especially when you’re capable of so much, much more. Don’t succumb to that kind of negativity, and don’t allow yourself to become a slave to the notion that ‘I can’t do anything about it, so why bother?’

And please do your best to purge that catchall phrase for mediocrity, detachment and indecision that has become one of my least favorite words in the English language. Which word am I talking about?

‘Whatever.’

To me it’s a piece of slang that should be purged from our lexicon immediately, because trust me - there is absolutely nothing about life that qualifies as a ‘whatever.’

If you engage in life to the fullest of your capabilities, and do it with dignity, conviction and while exuding a passion for it that’s palpable to everyone around you, believe me there will be nothing ‘whatever’ about it.

And let me expand on that word ‘passion’ for a moment. If you take anything away from my words today I want it to be passion, because without passion in your life you will be a zombie of unhappiness, perfectly comfortable with going through the motions and going with the flow, but having nothing to add when the bell sounds, or when it really counts.

Let me tell you a little story about passion.

Eleven years ago today I walked away from an advertising career that had lasted for over two decades. My ad career was punctuated by fleeting moments of absolute exhilaration, creativity, excitement and fun, but gradually the very life was sucked right out of the business as I saw a triumphantly exuberant endeavor become overrun by mediocrity and rampant negativity, and the profession that I once loved had became a sentence of pure drudgery.

I knew I had to do it because at that point in my life I refused to believe that I had gone as far as I could possibly go, that it was, in effect, ‘over’ for me in this thing called life.

So I walked. And I decided right then and there to dedicate myself to an endeavor that I believed in and that I was extremely passionate about, and even though I didn’t know where my new journey was going to take me, I jumped in with both feet and never looked back.

And I have enjoyed every single moment of it ever since. Not that it hasn’t been difficult or challenging or just plain hard at times, but believe me, it has been worth every single minute.

So, in closing, I want you to find your passion. Be courageous about your convictions, believe in yourself and your abilities and then go out and find something that grabs you and won’t let go.

Then be good at it - no, go ahead and dare to be great at it - and make that passion become your signature.

What, no mention of ‘smelling the roses’ and enjoying life along the way?

Become known as someone who brings an unwavering passion to what you do every single day, and I will guarantee you that your life will be bursting with bouquets of roses cloaked in exhilaration, satisfaction and unending joy.

I hope this day is the beginning of an incredible journey for all of you.

But please remember that this isn’t a drill, and life isn’t something that you’ll be able to ‘phone in’ while you’re sitting at a computer.

Everything you believe in and everything that got you to this point and everything you do from this day forward - and how you conduct yourself personally and professionally - is going to matter.

It all matters.” (“It all matters.” 6/2/10)

Editor’s Note: This issue marked the 11th Anniversary of Autoextremist.com - a weekly Internet publication devoted to the business and the passion of the automobile - which we started on June 1st, 1999. It has been an unbelievably wild ride - beyond anything we could have imagined when we first started out. We talked about pulling the plug countless times but somehow never could.  This is what we do and who we are, and there's just no turning back. To those of you who have followed us on this journey - a million thanks. And may your passion for the automobile continue to burn bright. –WG

“After all, where do you begin? Is Lincoln going to be going after the German luxury-performance dynamic - like Cadillac has tried to do - albeit with a boldly American design presence? Or is it going to wimp-out and align itself with the ‘blissfully unconscious’ school of luxury that Lexus has called its own for going on decades now? Or what about taking aim at Audi’s hard-won positioning as the sophisticated, technology-laden, thinking person’s ideal of advanced German luxury-performance?

What would I do with Lincoln? Well, first of all, I wouldn’t do any of the above. It’s fine to be soberly aware of your competitors and their strengths, weaknesses and capabilities, but it’s quite another to get lost in “chasing” another competitor’s persona. That’s nothing but a dead-end road filled with abject disappointment.

No, Lincoln has to carve out a new identity all its own, not only keeping in mind that its name has been part of the American fabric for decades, but also being very aware that for many its current image and reputation are nonexistent, or at best wrapped-up in the black sedans of the livery trade.”  (“Resurrecting Lincoln.” 6/9/10)

“It’s hard to believe that at this juncture, with everything that has transpired in the global economy and with the near-death experience of the domestic automobile industry still raw in everyone’s mind, the UAW leadership is still clinging to hoary notions of entitlement and squawking about getting their ‘fair’ share.

And even more outrageous to contemplate, that the UAW actually believes that they - and their ‘cause’ - still have relevance in this age of brutal global competition, where leaders of newly invigorated countries manipulate everything in their path to extract an economic advantage over the rest of the world, while at the same time doing everything in their power to court automakers and convince them to do business there.

The bottom line in all of this is that time ran out on the UAW a long time ago.

Enabled by a domestic auto industry that kept acquiescing to escalating union demands out of fear of what would happen if they didn’t, the UAW and ‘Detroit’ wandered down the primrose path to oblivion together, smugly ensconced in their pathetic self-righteousness and maniacal short-term thinking while staunchly convinced that The End would never come and that the good times would last forever.

Well guess what? The End did come and with a ferociousness and finality that even the most jaded among us couldn’t have predicted.

Everything that worked, everything that used to be accepted as standard operating procedure in this industry is now gone, never to return. This industry has undergone a fundamental transformation requiring a scope of change only witnessed once before, and that was during World War II.

It’s just too bad that no one over at the ‘Solidarity House’ got the memo.

Out of touch, out of time, and totally irrelevant, the UAW is an entity whose time has most assuredly passed.” (”Still clueless after all these years.” 6/16/10)

“It’s interesting, but early on in my ad career I posted the exact phrase on my office wall after reading about Gottlieb Daimler, and I took it with me to each new job from then on. To me it meant making a commitment to being and doing The Best. To be uncompromising and unwavering in the pursuit of excellence, no matter the sacrifices needed or the effort required. It served me well and it still resonates with me to this day.

‘The Best or nothing’ says it all.

If Mercedes-Benz commits to its founder’s mantra with everything they have, they have a real shot at gaining their mojo back. But in order to do so they’ll have to keep the weasels and the naysayers in check. That means the hordes entrenched deep in the Mercedes-Benz bureaucracy – the ones only concerned with maintaining the status quo - will have to be neutered or eliminated altogether.

And then they’ll have to unleash the True Believers so that they can design, engineer and build the very best machines they possibly can, in order to do Gottlieb’s mantra justice.

If not, ‘The Best or nothing’ will remain a catchy new marketing theme, and nothing more.” (”Das Beste oder nichts.” 6/23/10)

“’You're traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind; a journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That's the signpost up ahead — your next stop, the Twilight Zone.’ - Rod Serling

Little did I know that one of the most creative television shows from the late 50s-early 60s - The Twilight Zone, by creator Rod Serling – would seem so eerily appropriate in these “Dog Days” of summer. But there’s certainly enough craziness and weirdness – and cessation of rational thinking - to go around right now to make even the most seasoned observers in this business stop and ask, WTF?

Let’s start with the whole Tesla Motors charade. As in are you kidding me? Really? The frenzy going on out there right now for the Tesla IPO is simply stupefying. Are people really that gullible, naïve, flat-out stupid, etc., etc., enough to talk themselves into going ‘all-in’ on a glorified kit car company that has managed to cobble together 1,000 wildly overpriced $100,000 sports cars for sale in the entire history of the company? And that has managed to lose $246 million over the last three years while doing it? And now they want to raise money in an IPO to allegedly – and I mean that in the strongest possible terms – build a new ‘Model S’ that will supposedly be ‘affordable’ at $50,000 and will instantly transform the auto industry overnight?

Remember the old adage that there’s a sucker born every minute? Memo to all of you out there screwing yourselves into the pavement while chomping at the bit to get a piece of the action: Welcome to the Club.

A Club, by the way, that was unfortunately endorsed by the rumbling, bumbling, stumbling idiots in our Federal government at the Department of Energy who ponied-up a staggering $465 million loan to Tesla so they could build a Shiny Happy Green factory that would build Shiny Happy Green Smiley cars someday that will more likely than not never see the light of day, at least not in the volumes that anyone is dreaming about anyway. 

As a matter of fact I will predict right now that this will be the current administration’s equivalent to the Northern Ireland/John Z. DeLorean fiasco that ended so badly. Don’t think so? Tell me what’s different? A bright, egomaniacal P.T. Barnum-like character with a vision and a plan - oh, let’s call it for what it really is - an idea that’s wrapped in a frickin’ wing and a prayer - but with not enough cash to see it all the way through and who manages to talk a government entity into partially bankrolling it.  Sound familiar?

…Oh, and one more thing, let’s not forget the other giant electric pipe dream that is lurching toward trouble as you read this. It seems that Henrik Fisker (speaking of P.T. Barnum) is having some major financial problems with getting his much-vaunted $88,000 Fisker Karma plug-in luxury GT car off the ground. Production was supposed to start this year but now it has been pushed back until next year at the earliest. Wait a minute - didn’t Fisker get over a half a billion dollar loan from the government too? Yup, he sure did.

The automobile business looks so easy to the countless ‘experts’ out there who just know if given the opportunity they’d do it better than an industry that has been up and running for going on 125 years.

Well, folks, it just doesn’t work that way, especially with new technology that requires massive research and development, and massive amounts of investment cash on top of that.

I’m all for the kind of creativity, innovation, vision and the pioneering entrepreneurial spirit that forged this industry from its beginnings. We will need all of that and more to solve this nation’s – and the world’s – energy needs going forward. But the history of the transportation business is littered with people who had a good idea and nothing else, whose runaway ego drove themselves – and their investors - to financial ruin.

I submit Exhibit A - Tesla Motors - and Exhibit B - Fisker Automotive - as the latest examples of entities with too much ego-infused hype, too much runaway hubris and too much blind faith in their abilities – and in OPM (other people’s money) – to let a nagging little thing like reality creep into the equation.

So to paraphrase the brilliant Mr. Serling…

There is a fifth dimension, beyond that which is known only to electric automotive dreamers. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, between common sense and abject stupidity, and it lies between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge – albeit limited – of the auto business. This is the dimension filled with rampant delusion. It is an area that we call The Notgonnahappen Zone.”  (”Caution: You’re entering the Notgonnahappen.com Zone.” 6/30/10)

“What could Bob King do to become even more irrelevant, if that’s possible? As hard as it is to believe, King is now throwing in his lot with - speaking of grandstanding histrionics - one Rev. Jesse Jackson. You know Jackson as the guy who seems to show up - Zelig-like - whenever there’s a whiff of controversy in need of his ‘talents.’ What you probably don’t know is that this guy has made a career out of shaking down corporate America in the guise of ‘justice’ and ‘equality’ – with the unspoken threat of playing the race card to the media if he isn’t able to extract the amount of the ‘donation’ he wants.

These two blowhards are taking their respective organizations – the UAW and the Rainbow PUSH Coalition – and forming a coalition along with other various unions and organizations to fight for urban revitalization, fair trade and jobs. They’re even organizing a march in Detroit on August 28 to kick-off the campaign for ‘jobs, justice, and peace.’

Perfect, isn’t it?

In the midst of crawling out of the rubble of two bankruptcies - and trying to make Detroit’s products desirable again - while dealing with the perpetual din of negativity in national media stories about this industry and this city, here comes Bob King doing a pitch-perfect impression of a UAW leader from 1970, with Jesse Jackson trundling along for the ride in case there’s need for hysteria and custom-delivered, agitating sound bites.

How is this helpful? How - after all that has transpired in this industry over the last 24 months - can projecting to the rest of the country that this miserable excuse for a ‘union’ is still involved in the Detroit Three’s fortunes going to get people to view Detroit – and its cars and trucks – in a different light?

I’ll answer that one for you: It won’t.” (”The Shit Disturber Cometh.” 7/14/10)

“So when you look at the new Explorer, look beyond the inherent goodness of - by all indications - an exceptional product and take a moment to realize what the vehicle means to Ford and the rest of the country. The 2011 Explorer is the embodiment of the Ford Motor Company’s new-found conviction and belief in their mission. Led by Alan Mulally - the savviest CEO to hit the automobile business in decades - the Explorer represents a rejuvenated car company bristling with talent and expertise, one willing to take all of the risks necessary for the sake of delivering great product, which is, after all, the very lifeblood of this business, and the reason Ford’s upward trajectory knows no end.

For the rest of the country it means that as long as there are car companies out there willing to be responsive to the consumer – and to the customer’s needs and wants – instead of giving in to the hysterical bleating from the political factions and their heavily-warped agendas that would have us sentenced to become Rickshaw Nation overnight, then there will be vehicles out there that will fit your needs – even if they have the ‘Three Letters of Doom’ attached to them - and we’ll be just fine.” (“Ford rises above the ‘Three Letters of Doom’ with the 2011 Explorer.” 7/28/10)

“You know that when such automotive ‘experts’ as Rush Limbaugh start weighing-in on the Chevrolet Volt – complete with his misinformed and wildly off-base knee-jerk-isms in full bloom - the electric car hysteria in this country has reached critical mass. That Limbaugh has no idea as to what the Volt represents or the first clue as to how it operates is not a surprise, but it’s clear that he’s not alone, and that GM marketers have their work cut out for them.

It’s important to remember that both sides of the political spectrum have clearcut agendas when talking about the Volt. On the conservative Right, it’s the anti-bailout, anti-‘subsidized’ GM (and Detroit), and anti-anything Obama fervor that encapsulates the frenzy. To this faction the Volt is nothing short of e-v-i-l and represents everything wrong and bad about the current administration and the direction of the country itself.

While on the Left, we have that mind-numbing, ‘we know what’s best for you and you will like it’ smugness that envisions the sheer joy that will result after American consumers are forced to embrace mass electrification overnight, even though for more than 85 percent of the country it makes zero sense. And yet this group will be delirious over the fact that after an entire nation is brought literally to its knees by woefully misguided policies based upon theoretical, ‘best case’ scenarios rather than functional, real-world realities, a Shiny Happy Green Nirvana will result overnight and it will be Good.

Given the ‘noise’ generated by both of these factions, it will be a miracle if the American consumer public can ferret through the cacophony and discover what the Volt is – and what it could mean and how it could perform – for their day-to-day driving regimen.” (“High-voltage Hysteria.” 8/4/10)

“But when it comes to marketing – and shoving the equivalent of 50 lbs. of new product into the equivalent of a 25-lb. bag – and trying to sort it all out on the fly, with a weakened dealer body and a consumer public that will need more than a few good reasons to show up on your dealers’ doorsteps, it gets more than a little complicated. And it takes time, too. Not Sergio ‘finger-snap’ time, but a plodding, grind it out, move the ball forward kind of slog that takes years to come to fruition. Not months, but years. And there are no shortcuts, at least none that will achieve the kind of consistent, sustainable let alone instantaneous results that Marchionne so desperately needs.

And yet here’s Marchionne insisting that with his brilliant guidance – as translated through his marketing acolytes - four distinct brand personas will emerge unscathed from the wreckage of past Chrysler train wrecks, an infusion of new models will be integrated seamlessly into the American consumer consciousness with nary a hiccup or even a whiff of confusion, and the depleted Chrysler dealers will sort it all out and be wildly successful. All by 2013.

I’m all for some glass half-full optimism now and then, but this is flat-out ridiculous.

Memo to the wildly optimistic Chrysler dealers out there: I say good luck, but don’t be surprised if the Marchionne ‘vision’ leaves a lot to be desired in three years' time. And maybe it’s best that you learn to live with disappointment now, so the shock won’t be as bad.

And to the smart, more skeptical Chrysler dealers out there who are making a cottage industry out of hedging their bets, I say be smarter and even more skeptical, and you won’t be disappointed in the least.” (“Sergio’s ‘chaos theory’ coming to a Chrysler showroom near you.”  8/11/10)

“The only man on the planet convinced that VW can carry off a super-luxury moniker with aplomb is Ferdinand Piech, and of course, his appointed sycophants of the week. (I say ‘of the week’ because if you disagree with Piech in private, you’re toast. And if you do it in public you’re fired. So that pretty much leaves a passel of ‘yes people’ at his beck and call pre-programmed to nod their approval, but I digress.) Everyone else in the industry can buy VW being a premium brand to a degree certainly, but a super-luxury player? No.

But that has never stopped Piech and his legions of minions. They’re the only ones who failed to see the flaw in the logic of constantly pushing VW up against Audi in this market and around the world. After spending billions upon billions of dollars trying to elevate the Audi brand and solidifying its reputation around the world, why would you possibly want to throw a grenade in the mix by pushing a super-luxury VW that plays in exactly the same marketing space as top rung Audi models? Why, indeed.

But then again, don’t underestimate the considerable hubris that Piech brings to bear on anything to do with VW or ‘his’ VW Group every day. His Empire is vast and his reach is long, and if he feels like tinkering with a super-luxury VW to his heart’s content just to prove a point that he can – even if it is to the detriment of Audi – then he will tinker away, rational, more balanced perspectives need not apply and flat-out common sense be damned. It’s Piech’s world and we’re all lucky to be guests in it after all.” (“The Ultimate Answer to the Question that Absolutely No One is Asking.” 8/25/10)

“Let me start by asking a couple of key questions: Are there people out there who actually believe in their hearts that they know what’s best for the rest of us? Or do they just get off on telling us not only what to do, but how it’s going to be when we’re doing what we’re told, too? How does all of the above sound?

The latest sign that The End is near as far as the automobile - or at least the freedom associated with the automobile - is concerned? The government wants to change the now ubiquitous EPA mileage stickers on our cars and trucks so that they’ll be even more nanny/nag-like, assigning an actual “letter” grade to our cars and trucks that will rate fuel economy and emissions performance.

In other words, if your vehicle isn’t a Shiny Happy Prius or one of the zippy new electrically-enhanced modes of transportation, your vehicle will be assigned an average-to-poor grade. In other words, our government regulators plan on shaming us into buying a better grade of transportation – at least in their minds anyway – then we’d normally opt for.

Because we are, after all, too stupid to figure it out for ourselves.

Just off the top of my head, this is a Cowboys Stadium-sized bowl of Not Good…

Next thing you know, they'll be requiring the manufacturers to actually add the grade as a decal on the vehicle somewhere, which will be followed by decal grades on our garage doors - like scarlet letters for all the world to see.

Between now and then, however, I predict yet another giant disconnect between the bureaucratic regulators and the rest of the American driving public, as the Shiny Happy “A”-graded vehicles are left collecting dust in showrooms all across the country as the “C,” “D” and “F” vehicles fly off of the lots.

As the Wicked Witch of the West once famously said, ‘Oh what a world! What a world!’” (”By the people, for the people…oh, never mind. 9/1/10) 

“VW made a name for itself around here – and this continued long after the Beetle heyday too – as the brand for enthusiast consumers who wanted to get a little piece of the European driving experience for themselves at a somewhat affordable price point. The fact that VW seemed to march to a different drummer at times and went their own way - away from its U.S. and Asian counterparts in the market - more often than not helped their cause. After all, that quirky iconoclasm worked for the brand in the U.S. almost from the day the first Beetle arrived here.

But the picture of the ‘new’ VW market strategy that’s emerging here has ‘train wreck’ written all over it. Chasing volume while squandering brand image along the way has always worked out to be a giant bowl of Not Good. This industry is littered with examples of once bullet-proof brands doing exactly that to an inevitable bad end. (And Mercedes-Benz is only the latest example of it.)

Aim your products at the lowest common denominator, ‘I just need transportation’ part of the market long enough and as a manufacturer you will become that lowest common denominator in no time.

VW is making a cynical play in this market to increase volume by counting on the fact that consumers not only won’t care whether or not they’re churning out bland-tastic forgettable mobiles, but even worse, that they won’t know the difference.

Big, big mistake.

As I’ve said many times before, mediocrity in the auto business isn’t bliss, it’s just mediocrity. And attempting to be all things to all people is even worse. Throw in classic, old-school Germanic ‘we know what’s best for you and you will like it’ auto arrogance into the mix while creating cheap-ass, dumbed-down VWs, and it’s a recipe for flat-out disaster.” (”VW’s recipe for disaster.” 9/15/10)

“Winterkorn plans on expanding the Porsche lineup in the not-too-distant future to sell 150,000 vehicles annually - double the sales they have now – and I just have to ask, at what point do they go too far with Porsche? At what point do they create a vehicle that has no business wearing a Porsche crest, or even worse, at what point do they lose touch with all sense of reality in the quest for generating more profitability - while humoring VW CEO Ferdinand Piech and his obsession with becoming the world’s largest automaker - and make Porsche begin to blend into the woodwork saddled with the moniker of ‘just another car company.’ You play in mundane segments for too long and that’s exactly what will happen.

After all, if a version of the Audi Q5 works for Porsche, why not a smaller, cheaper version of the Panamera based on the new VW sedan coming out of the new plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee? See where this could lead? You get enough people on the more-profitability-through-increased-volume bandwagon and before you know it all semblance of reality will cease to exist and Porsche will be commoditized like the Golf, or even worse, a Camry.

My sense is that day is coming a lot sooner than everyone thinks.” (“When will they ever learn?” 9/29/10)

“But alas in the new automotive world order – where the somewhat rational tempo and cadence of the business is being disrupted on a daily basis and the ‘new normal’ is fraught with chaos and hand-wringing – we’re seeing car companies losing their collective minds while chasing niches and segments that they have no business pursuing. And there’s no more graphic evidence of that than BMW, with its mind-bogglingly horrific decision to bring out a new family of front-wheel-drive cars based on its Mini architecture, a series of vehicles smaller than the 1-series.

Let me re-state that: That automotive paragon of high-performance, rear-wheel-drive virtue, that tribute to The Way It Should Be in terms of uncompromised engineering, that shining beacon of classic Germanic automotive excellence, has just proceeded to throw it all away and blow itself up real good.

To say that BMW management has totally lost sight of its raison d’etre and is about to embark on a journey that will forever change its persona in the market is the understatement of this or any other year.

What? Having the Mini wasn’t enough for BMW to lord over? Now they want to somehow convince the multitudes the previous 40 years never happened? If I were to imagine an email from a smug BMW corporate officer it would go something like this:

‘Oh, we weren’t all that serious about this Ultimate Driving Machine business, you Americans are way too attached to that and need to get over it. We’re about Joy and having a BMW in every frickin’ garage because after all we still have pictures of Gordon Gekko on our boardroom walls. Greed is good, Baby, and we couldn’t care less about brand image. That’s something for you wankers and hand-wringers in the American automotive press to worry about. People will buy them in droves. Count on it.’

Really?

And here I thought Porsche and their VW overseers were the ultimate architects of automotive greed. Porsche makes no bones about the fact that they’re into making money. Everything from their legendary – and usurious – option lists to the fact that if they can make a buck they will leave no stone unturned to do so is a philosophy that’s right up front for all to see. And they believe that as long as they appease the faithful by building cars for the hard-core Porsche purists, then they’re free to build whatever the hell they want to build. Not ideal, by any means – especially when SUVs are part of the equation – but it is nonetheless hard to get too torqued-up about it when they release cars like the hot new 911 GTS or 911 GT2 RS Turbo.

BMW on the other hand has nothin’. Their vaunted ‘M’ cars are too damn heavy and ponderous and well, just too far a field from where ultimate BMWs should be to qualify as such. And the new 5-series is a hulk of a car so far removed from the elegantly wonderful 5-series that debuted in this country back in the mid-70s that it’s embarrassing. The gradual bloating of BMWs – no matter what the size – is not progress, it’s a sign of a company so cynical in the way it goes about its business that they’ve forgotten what the original premise of the whole damn thing was altogether. If it weren’t for the 3-series, the company would be the equivalent of a Germanic Toyota.” (”The Ultimate Sellout Machine: BMW commits brand suicide.” 10/6/10)

“And, as Alan Mulally says: ‘…an unrelenting focus on improving the competitiveness of all our operations.’ That last point says it all about Mulally’s operating style and his vision for the Ford Motor Company since the day he walked through the front doors four years ago. His unwavering focus on ‘One Ford’ has streamlined the company, focused its resources, energized the talent and is now yielding tremendously impressive results.

But it’s more than that too. It’s focused consistency – one of my fundamental industry axioms for success that I’ve hammered away at since I started this publication – executed at a level not seen since the heyday of the ‘old’ General Motors, when that company dominated the industry. Good enough is not good enough for Mulally & Co., and whatever hoary residue was left from the old broken down and limping Ford of the bad old days has been permanently expunged.

This is a new, ultra-competitive company hell-bent on building the most desirable cars and trucks in the world while understanding that the work is never done, that complacency is always the Bad Dude hiding in the corner ready to wreak havoc on all of the accumulated achievements and accolades at a moment’s notice, and that keeping focused on the tasks at hand must take precedence over absolutely everything else.” (“More.” 10/27/10)

“Takanobu Ito, Honda Motor’s CEO, has weighed-in with his take on what will solve Acura’s problems here in the U.S. In an interview conducted recently by Hans Griemel (through an interpreter) for Automotive News, Mr. Ito actually said the following:

‘We are having a lot of discussions about Acura and which way it should be going. And what we confirmed is that the brand direction should be smart premium, not top tier… We agreed that smart premium is what we should be targeting with Acura, not the upper-segment vehicles such as Lexus or Mercedes-Benz. We must apply advanced technologies which make our vehicle more fun to drive, achieve a more comfortable drive and high environmental performance. ‘

Really, Mr. Ito? That’s all you got?

No talk about ‘being the best we can be,’ no thought of re-establishing Acura’s credibility in this market after the ZDX debacle, no plan to design, engineer and build vehicles that represent the ‘tip of Honda’s technological spear.’ No, instead, Honda’s chief says that they’re going to be smart premium, not top tier.

First of all, this whole business of aspiring to be pretty good? Not. So. Much.

Do you know how many car companies could plug their names next to that statement about ‘smart premium, not top tier?’ Oh, only enough to represent about 85 percent of the market. That’s not a brand strategy, Mr. ito, that’s a placeholder in a deck that you guys never manage to finish.” (“That’s all you got, Mr. Ito?” 11/10/10)

“Ironically enough, the product is the one area I’m not as concerned about when it comes to the ‘new’ GM. This business is, was and always will be about the product first and foremost, and GM is definitely firing on all cylinders in that department. As a matter of fact GM is on a new product roll, and each new vehicle execution they deliver to the streets and byways of America seems to be dramatically better than what came before, and not by just a little bit.

But after stating that fact I’ll paraphrase the great Vince Lombardi’s famous quote about winning as translated for the freshly-minted, IPO-flush GM: Image isn’t everything, it’s the only thing. And GM’s image is definitely a work in progress, at best.

Before any high-fiving can go on down in the hallways of the RenCen, GM must figure out a way to re-invent its image. Removing itself from the taint of bankruptcy by paying off most of the money, yes, that would go a long way toward improving GM’s image balance sheet. But it’s going to take more than that, and it’s going to take more than multiple variations on the Volt theme too.

GM has to figure out a way to connect with the hearts and minds of the American consumer, and it’s going to take image-wrangling of the highest order – and over many years to come – in order to get it done.” (“GM’s image will be a work in progress long after the IPO frenzy.” 11/17/10)

“The government mandating of fuel economy in lieu of a properly considered national energy policy is a complete joke. We simply can’t get there from here, and I don’t care what the next CAFE standards are demanding. Without an energy policy that places a minimum price on a gallon of gasoline, and slowly but surely ramps that price up to the point that consumers will make more rational decisions – on their own – based on what’s best suited for them according to their individual transportation needs, we will perpetually be the country out of sync with the global energy reality.

The perfect living, breathing example of how wrong-headed CAFE is and continues to be? Four months of $4.00 per gallon gasoline in 2008 had more of an impact on consumer perception of the whole energy efficiency debate - and their role in it - than 25 years of CAFE ever did. Faced with a high price for fuel, consumers were forced to make choices based on their own personal transportation needs for basically only the second time in post World War American history.

So instead of understanding that lesson – and what a sustained higher price of gasoline could do for the overall efficiency of our nation’s fleet – what do our green-tinged political crusaders do? They go back to the well once more and concoct a new set of CAFE standards. It would be a crime if it weren’t already beyond pathetic.” (“In search of a lightning bolt of rational thought.” 12/1/10)

Editor’s Note: Another of Peter’s most popular efforts in 2010 was when he did his whole “Rant” column in 140 character Tweets, which went viral shortly afterwards in Twitter nation. It follows below in its entirety. - WG

“Now that the short-attention-span generation has taken over the world and The Internet has distilled our daily lives down to a series of talking cat videos, vacuous celebutards emoting for the cameras and maniacal conspiracy theorists, we are reduced to a day-in, day-out slog made of blips, burps, bites and an occasional cogent thought every, oh, couple hours or so. And for some, that’s plenty. They usually can’t be pried away from their video games for any more time than that.

The rest of us? We’ll just have to suck it up and keep fumbling through our oh-so-outré printed newspapers and magazines, and digesting long-form TV news programs and on-line journals in a futile attempt at sifting through the rapidly deteriorating concept of what used to pass for rational public discourse, trying to make sense of it all. Or as Jerry McGuire once famously said, ‘I am out here for you. You don't know what it's like to be me out here for you. It is an up-at-dawn, pride-swallowing siege that I will never fully tell you about, ok?’

So here’s to the minions, the gamers, the coddled and the entitled, the I-don-t-give-a-shit-just-ask-me hordes who want the world broken up in 140 character bits because anything more is just too tedious to contemplate. This column - the current state of the auto biz in digestible 140 character morsels - is for you.

Enjoy it. Or just count to one-one thousand and it won’t matter anyway.

GM Marketing: Joel Ewanick gets the band back together. Improved, intelligent - with a dollop of tenacity - but still a long, long way to go.

GM Marketing, Part II: Ad agencies Goodby (Chevy) and Fallon (Cadillac) grade ‘C’ and ‘C,’ respectively. Better, but not nearly good enough.

Chrysler: Perpetual Marchionne-driven ‘just you wait and see’ state. We’re still waiting, they’re still dreaming. And the ‘new’ 200? Oh. My.

Honda. Lost in the bland-tastic wilderness still searching for its mojo. When the Odyssey is their best product you know they’re in trouble.

Toyota: Arrogance still intact they’ve now allegedly rediscovered their Hot Rod Hearts. Jalapeño sauce on white bread doesn’t = credibility.

Mitsubishi: Missing in action for so long it just doesn’t matter anymore. Irrelevant, invisible and in need of a quick one-way ticket home.

BMW: Being all-things-to-all-people just wasn’t enough. Now the Niche Market Kings are hot for a lineup of FWD cars based on the Mini. Ugh.

Corvette: Achieved global respectability but long overdue for a makeover. The C7 can’t come soon enough but it’s unlikely to go far enough.

Ford: Mulally-led upward trajectory still going according to Plan. ‘A’ management + ‘A’ products + ‘A’ marketing = continued market success.

Porsche: In spite of 4-door sedans and a burgeoning truck lineup, still enough sports car juice to stay cool with the hard-core faithful.

Mercedes-Benz: They still believe they’re the only automaker worth mentioning. The reality? It’s just another car company chasing a niche.

Audi: Confident, strong and sure of every move they make, these automotive Masters of the Universe show no signs of fatigue – or letting up.

VW Group: On a Dr. Piech-led, double-timed death march toward total world domination - or oblivion - depending on which way you look at it.

VW of America: Germanic automotive sweetness to soulless robot cars by 2018. Worst case of Toyota envy we’ve ever seen and a crying shame.

Mazda: When good, very good, excellent even, but a lack of consistent messaging beyond zoom-zoom has killed them. A new ad agency will help.

Acura: A rudderless mass of confusion with the most horrific design language in ‘the biz.’ A car company with no raison d’etre whatsoever.

Infiniti: In a desperate race to reinvent itself yet again, this brand needs a transformational idea. By the looks of it, they got nothin’.

Lexus: The Pursuit of Perfect vanilla has its limitations. A foray into performance can’t change the fact that it’s rolling White Bread.

Subaru: Shiny happy followers, continues its inexorable climb. How far? No one really knows. The link-up with Toyota? The jury’s still out.

Nissan:Two steps forward, five back and an endless struggle for respect. New marketing direction is innovation. Really? That’s all you got?

Rolls-Royce: Until further notice, the very definition of ‘f--- you money’ and the answer to the question that some people are still asking.

Kia: Straining to be something other than Hyundai’s little brother and now carving out a growing piece of the pie for itself. One to watch.

Range Rover: As long as people have money to burn on stuff they don’t really need, there will always be an overwrought vehicle for them.

Volvo: Backed with plenty of Chinese money and gaudy visions of grandeur, a brand still in search of an identity, naughty, or otherwise.

Electric Cars: A niche wrapped in an enigma in search of decent batteries and a sustainable infrastructure. Other than that, it’s all good.

Electric Car Zealots: A movement based upon a pipe dream and fueled by a fundamental refusal to accept reality, even when the truth hurts.

Jaguar: Some signs of life although the new XJ looks like a parade float, btw. Let’s face it - the C-X75 is the only Jag worth talking about.

Hyundai: Aggressive and irrepressible. Pure unbridled automotive ambition, Korean style. Caution, however, there will be bumps in the road.

Aston Martin: What’s not to like? But just how many variations on the same theme can they regurgitate? And no, the Cygnet doesn’t count.

Bentley: Part of Piech’s luxury stable, Bentley has exceeded all expectations. The refined Continental GT is simply gorgeous. More please.

Lamborghini: Another shining star in Piech’s luxury stable, but no matter how hard Lambo tries, it’s the perennial No. 2 Italian sports car.

Ferrari: High-Octane Truth & Beauty. When this red hot Italian sports car maker is ‘on’ - as in the 458 Italia - it’s Dead. Solid. Perfect.

So there you have it, kids. The current state of the auto biz in 140 character bursts, if you’re into the whole brevity thing that is.” (“Tweet this: The current state of the auto biz in 140 character bursts, or less.” 10/20/10)

 

And that takes us pretty close to the end, but I’m not finished just yet…

We drove a wide array of interesting cars this year, but the most impressive machine by far was the 2010 Audi R8 quattro Coupe super sports car. Here’s what I said after  driving one last March: The R8 isn’t just any car for Audi - no, it’s the tip of the company’s technological spear in the marketplace and the most thoroughly-gifted of all Audis in terms of its relationship to its Le Mans-winning racing machines. The mid-engine 2-seater was stunning in its Phantom Black Pearl effect exterior. At once beautiful and purposeful, the design of the R8 is best experienced while coming at you on the road. It’s then that you become mesmerized by its unmistakable presence, and it’s with this machine that the distinctive Audi design language is most dramatically expressed.

But any thoughts of its elegantly drawn exterior are immediately eclipsed when you fire up its 4.2-liter, direct-injected, 420HP V8, because when you do that, it changes everything. All of a sudden it’s not about the numbers, or the image statement it’s making for the company. Instead you’ve woken a beast that’s now rattling the bars of its cage with its raucous V8 barking and taunting you to let it run. The gated shift lever – as mechanically perfect and elegant looking as any early Ferrari racing car – snicks easily into gear, and when you deign to put your foot in it, it’s as if your whole enthusiast world comes back into sharply defined focus right now.

If you’ve been lulled into thinking that 4- and 6-cylinders are perfectly acceptable in the course of demonstrating responsible enthusiast behavior – and for many of us, that’s true – you owe it to yourself to sit your ass down in one of these. There is nothing, I repeat nothing like the sound of an unruly V8 attached to your right foot threatening all kinds of bad behavior. And when one is placed in such a finely-executed piece as the Audi R8, it makes it all that much more impressive and satisfying.

Yes, the Audi R8 is an expensive car, but take precision German engineering, add a badass All-American-sounding V8 in the back, finish it all off with exquisite design detailing inside and out, and you have one of the most intoxicating combinations of beauty, power and high-performance available today.

As much as I like the ZR1 Corvette – and it is a great car – I would strongly suggest that every last person involved in the next-gen C7 Corvette program study the R8 thoroughly, because ladies and gentlemen, this is simply how it is done.

Audi is relentlessly focused and confident in its mission, it is building great cars – beautiful machines that bristle with passion and engineering ingenuity – finished off with precision and executed flawlessly down to the last detail. And the R8 is every bit that, and truly a magnificent machine by any measure, which is why it – and no, not the Volt – is our 2010 Autoextremist Car of the Year.

Honorable mention goes to two cars. First is the Bentley Continental Supersports, which, at $287,385.00, is the fastest, most powerful Bentley ever" as the Crewe crew calls it. The Continental Supersports isn’t about political correctness. It isn’t about registering your carbon butt-print (although it’s a flex-fuel capable vehicle). It isn’t about participating in a hand-wringing discussion about what the real market penetration of electric cars will be. It isn’t about I-better-keep-a-low-profile-because-I-don’t-want-anyone-to-know-that-I-had-a-pretty-good-year. It isn’t for the apologetic - or the burgeoning Legions of the Meek for that matter - those unfortunate group-hugging, entitlement-embracing, woodwork-dwelling fans of mediocrity among us. No, the Bentley Continental Supersports is about pure, unbridled, hammer-the-landscape, OMG speed.

With its Twin-Turbocharged W12-cylinder delivering 621HP and a mind-boggling 590 lb-ft of torque, the Bentley Continental Supersports is more than a mere torque monster – after all there are plenty of those out there – rather, it’s an exuberant homage to thrust, a fleeting notion from an industrial age that’s rapidly fading in our rearview mirrors (and depressingly so, too, I might add). What makes the highest-performing Bentley so amazing is that for all of its mass (it weighs well over 5,000 pounds) it pushes you back in your seat like you’ve just been launched from a catapult in your Tomcat fighter, and as your speed effortlessly pushes into the triple-digits - and the sensational W12 transitions from its guttural, nasty, urban-brute persona into a shrieking, Mulsanne Straight-worthy wail – it is right about then that you realize that this is one of the all-time great enthusiast machines ever built. (Oh, and by the way, you’ll need every inch of those massive carbon ceramic brake rotors that are as big as large pizzas and which almost fill up the 20” 10-spoke alloys. Boy, will you ever.)

Our (very) brief time with the Beluga/Beluga (with Red interior accents) Continental Supersports (that’s Black/Black in Bentley speak) was vividly reassuring. It was an emphatic reminder to us that if there’s enough unfettered passion and a desire to create the very best - and the means and the will to execute against that vision down to the very last detail – then great machines will still be built. Exuberant, memorable, dramatically visceral machines that capture our hearts and speak to our souls.

If you crave one and have the requisite credentials to acquire one, by all means go for it. When the rest of us are being forced into pre-programmed clown cars that are deemed “acceptable” for the increasingly dim, government-orchestrated masses, I want to know that there’s at least One Last True Believer out there flogging one of these magnificent beasts for all its worth - flat-out into the inky dusk - leaving abject mediocrity and the sniveling apologists in the dust.

The second honorable mention goes to the 2011 Shelby GT500 Coupe. Our Race Red tester - with double narrow white stripes and white stripes on the black leather seats) was simply magnificent in every respect. A beast that exudes bad-ass attitude the moment you turn the key - its supercharged engine sounds like a combination of a '70 factory Bud Moore-prepared Trans-Am Mustang and a current Roush Yates NASCAR V8 - it didn't take long for the GT500 to become one of my favorite production cars of all time. Gripping its massive white "cue ball" shifter and working the perfect Tremec gearbox - and I do mean perfect - and then giving the boot to that raucous V8 - can you say tip-in? - clears your head, cures what ails you, and sends you down the road like a rifle shot, demanding you pay attention RIGHT NOW. The GT500 is everything a serious, muscle-toned, high-performance car should be and everything a hard core enthusiast could ever want in a car, period. Power, looks, handling, brakes - check - it's all there, present and accounted for in one of the most seductive combinations of visceral appeal and gut-wrenching performance that money can buy. Yeah, sophistication is good and we can all tick off the cars that qualify as such in today's current automotive environment - the German V8-powered high-performance cars come to mind - but given a choice, there is something so refreshing and liberating about a bad-ass malcontent of a car that basically dares you to give it a go - if you think you're up to it - that there's just nothing quite like it. And it never gets old, either. Yeah, you can spend more. A lot more. But I'd be hard-pressed to bother, because the GT500 is that good. If you believe that the era for these kinds of cars roaming the streets and byways of America unfettered and free is truly coming to a close - and it just might be - then here's your chance. And by the way, if you're looking for an objective recommendation from me, don't bother. Because if you have 55 grand burning a hole in your pocket and you come to me for advice I'd tell you to go make friends with your local Ford dealer, because as it once was famously said, This kind of certainty comes but once in a lifetime. My kudos to Ford for having the cojones to build this magnificent beast of a machine and offering no apologies to the hand-wringers for doing so. The Shelby GT500 is a living, breathing testament to a committed gang of enthusiasts at America's hottest car company. Take a bow, folks, you deserve it. 

Some other quick-hits?

Best car for a New World of Reduced Expectations: The VW Golf TDI with dual-clutch automatic gearbox. Shockingly good in how it goes about its business in day-to-day driving.

Best car for an enthusiast who doesn’t want to run errands in the Porsche: The VW GTI. Actually, that short changes the GTI too much. For my money the GTI is the most seductive combination of performance, fun-to-drive, value and overall operating efficiency in the market. Throw in its daily usability and versatility and it just may be the best all-around enthusiast vehicle available today. Period. Ford has its work cut out for it in making its high-performance Focus ST as good if not better.

Best design statement you can actually drive: The sensational Cadillac CTS Coupe. Combine the overall excellent driving dynamics and feel of the CTS with the breathtaking shape of the Coupe, and you have one irresistible package in my book. Make it a “V” and it’s off the hook. The signature "design statement" that bristles with a very distinct point of view may not be everyone's cup of tea when it comes to automobiles, but thankfully - when it works as well as it does for the Cadillac CTS Coupe - it becomes performance art of the most compelling kind.

Best bad ass truck: The Ford F-150 SVT Raptor. Again, not for everyone, but an intoxicating machine with incredible presence nonetheless.

Best mainstream American cars in a long, long, time: The Buick LaCrosse, Chevrolet Cruze and Ford Fiesta. No excuses, no “almost as good as” disclaimers, damn good cars each and every one.

Best all-around sports car: After having had the pleasure of driving one for an extended period, the Porsche Cayman is everything a sports car should be. Quick, agile and fun to drive, the Cayman exudes the kind of balanced, all-around performance that is often pursued, but so rarely achieved. Simply a wonderful machine.

Best political and technical statement: The Chevrolet Volt is a technological Tour de Force for this or any other century and a glittering reaffirmation that there is such a thing as American ingenuity, that we haven’t completely devolved into a parasitic consumer society that can’t build anything of consequence anymore, and that we can and will fight our way out of this morass of mediocrity that has plagued this industry – and this country I might add – for far too long.

And last but not least, Our Least Favorite Car of the Year: The Nissan Maxima 3.5 SV. On paper this car should be a formidable machine. Equipped with every performance and technology option you could possibly cram into a four-door sedan - or as Nissan refers to it, "the 4-Door Sports car" - and perfectly competent and capable in the mind-numbing urban crawl, this big Nissan still left me cold. First of all, no "4-Door Sports Car" would saddle one of the great engines in the auto industry - Nissan's brilliant 3.5-liter, 290HP, DOHC V6 - with front-wheel-drive and the dreaded CVT transmission. As Chris Rock would say, that ain't right. As a matter of fact, the loaded Maxima's powertrain was just infuriating to drive, to the point that exploring any pretense of performance driving in the thing was a complete turn-off. Every time you wanted to hammer that potent V6 you were left holding the bag waiting for the hamsters in the gearbox room to get it together to hook the thing up. Yes, it was that bad. A CVT transmission and front-wheel-drive in a Nissan Cube? Perfectly acceptable. But a CVT and front-wheel-drive in what is supposed to be Nissan's top-of-the-line performance sedan (allegedly)? It's flat-out criminal. I so disliked driving this car that Nissan should be forced to walk the plank for perpetuating this hoary "4-Door Sports Car" myth on the enthusiast driving public, because the Nissan Maxima 3.5 SV is a complete fraud of a vehicle when expressed in those terms. I urge Nissan to do a total re-think when it comes to the idea of offering a "4-Door Sports Car", because they're clearly operating in an arena they have no business playing in. Or perhaps they should just leave the idea of a performance sedan to their Infiniti division and call it a day, because there are too many outstanding four-door performance sedans out there in the market today. And this clearly isn't one of them.

 

And now, a few final words.

As I commented recently, the resurgence of the domestic car companies – GM in particular – is a great story. But I remain fearful that at any moment GM could veer off the road and get lost in its own short-sightedness again. But as long as the True Believers wield the most influence, I’m confident that GM’s product renaissance will allow it to survive and eventually thrive.

Chrysler remains a much different story. Re-vamping existing Chrysler/Dodge products and making them better is one thing, actually blending Fiats and Chryslers into a desirable product portfolio going forward is quite another. As much as Sergio & Co. protests that they have their proverbial shit together, the jury is still out.

As for Ford, as long as Alan Mulally - who, by the way is our Autoextremist Auto Executive of the Year - keeps the organization disciplined and focused on the product, I don’t see Ford losing one bit of momentum. As a matter of fact, Ford - as an organization - is getting stronger, which should keep its competitors – foreign and domestic – awake late at night.

That Detroit has changed fundamentally and forever is true, and as I’ve said repeatedly the selling of the ‘new’ Detroit – and its ultra-competitive new vehicles – is the toughest marketing job of this or any other era. And with the ever-boiling global market we live in now - which is a cacophony of fractional discord, blatantly malicious governments in the business of business, and brutal, take-no-prisoners competition - Detroit’s success is not only essential to this town and this region, it’s essential to the nation.

Not a popular assessment in this era of rampant national naiveté and crushing lack of awareness as to what this global competition thing really means for this nation going forward, to be sure, but our national epidemic of self-absorption and vacuousness can’t be viewed as an excuse, only as a humiliatingly annoying embarrassment at this juncture.

In summary, that this business continues to be a seething cauldron of brilliance punctuated by flat-out incompetence is undeniable. With a portion of the global players actually reveling in a focused commitment to greatness and the rest engaged in a two-steps forward, five-back dance of mediocrity, it’s no wonder that on this Wednesday in December I find myself asking: Is this the best we can do?

And my answer to that question is that this industry can always do better.

The key point being that in order to succeed in the automotive business of today the focus must first and foremost always be on the product, just as it was 55 years ago. That means designing, engineering and building exceptional machines that bristle with quality, deliver a level of performance with overall efficiency that’s consistent with today’s market-driven environment, and most important, machines that register on an emotional level with customers and connect with people in a way that make them too compelling to be ignored.

And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week, 4,212 days – give or take a day after our first issue – later.

We - WordGirl, Dr. Bud and I - wish you and yours the best for this holiday season and a Happy and Healthy 2011.

I’ll see you back here on January 5th.

 

 

 

See another live episode of "Autoline After Hours" with hosts John McElroy, from Autoline Detroit, and Peter De Lorenzo, The Autoextremist, and guests this Thursday evening, at 7:00PM EDT at www.autolinedetroit.tv.

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