14 June 2007

Welcome Aboard!

Loyal readers to the site will notice a marked uptick in content the last 3 days- all courtesy of one man, 69Firebird400, hereby shortened to FB so I don't drive myself crazy typing out numbers and letters. Apart from making me seem even more lazy than I actually am in regards to site updates, he's got quite a background writing for AutoSavant and his own blog, Cars & Tech - so be sure to check out his work - only the best for TMR (pretentious shorthand for The Mags Report).

Welcome aboard FB!

We are still looking for talented writers like FB- so feel free to contact me at magforce@gmail.com if you're interested.

Test Driving The 2007 Chevrolet Corvette

Here's the review-

Yup. That's it.

Why is there no review you ask? Very simple. The local Chevrolet/Cadillac dealer in the area doesn't allow for new Corvettes to be test driven. At all. Now in my specific case, this isn't an issue, since I'm not buying such a vehicle. But I bring up a salient point at this time- I wasn't alone, and the person I was with WAS very much in the market for such a car. Also on his shopping list? The Cayman. Possibly the 911. The BMW Z4. The Mercedes SLK350. All sports cars, some of them more expensive than the Corvette, some cheaper.

Thus far, he had driven the Z4 and the SLK, and had an appointment set up with the local Porsche dealer to drive a Cayman (which was going to be moved out of the showroom just so he could drive it). Upon arrival at the Chevy dealer, we were approached by the salesperson, who promptly looked up if he had stock of what was required- a convertible Corvette with a stick. Lo and behold, he had one. And then the fun began:

Sales- So I've got one on the lot- what can I do for you?
Client- Well, I'd like to take it out for a test drive to get a feel for how it compares to the other vehicles I'm cross shopping.
Sales- We don't allow new Corvettes on test drives. But if you'd like, I have a used 2002 Corvette we can take out.
Client- (incredulous laugh)
Sales- No one ever asks for a test drive because they know they want it already.
Client- You're serious? You're actually assuming I will disregard the competition and lay down $70k on the spot today without a test drive because it's a Corvette?
Sales- Well, would YOU like it if your new Corvette had 500km on it when you bought it brand new? Plus, these are very expensive cars!
Client- So wait, you won't even let me test drive it with you in the car with me?
Sales- No.
Client- See you later.


So ended another unsuccessful sales call with a GM minion. The last time I saw a dealer act this way was at the downtown Lambo dealership- but then again, it's a Lambo. But a Chevy dealer???

Note to Bob Lutz- make your cars as great as you want- you still need to fix the sales departments outside of Saturn.

GM-Delphi-UAW Deal Near

The Detroit News reported today that a deal may be near in the long-running GM-Delphi-UAW love triangle. Delphi is currently in Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and has said that it needs to significantly lower its labor costs to remain a viable entity. The UAW has said that if Delphi gets a court order to void the current labor contracts, it will strike Delphi, and without Delphi parts, GM would not be able to continue production (Delphi was spun off from GM in the 1990s and is still GM’s largest parts supplier). Given GM’s precarious financial position, a Delphi strike would be disastrous, which is why GM is willing to help pay any settlement to the UAW to allow Delphi to turn the page and exit bankruptcy protection.

If the “people familiar with the talks” are correct, the general proposal likely to be agreed upon is for GM to provide a cash payment to remaining Delphi workers (20,000 or so already took voluntary packages in the past several months to leave the company). In exchange for this lump sum, the union would agree to lower hourly wages, which Delphi could presumably afford to pay going forward. The hourly rate after reduction would be somewhere between $14-18 per hour (on par with what temporary auto/parts workers earn), and workers would also be given the choice of accepting a buyout, or returning to the GM as employees.

The amount of the lump sum payments to individual employees is not clear, but GM has already reserved $7 billion for a Delphi bailout, so it will likely be a pretty significant sum per employee. Yahoo Finance shows Delphi having 171,400, but the company’s US headcount is not clear (their most recent 10K filing shows 21,300 unionized hourly workers).

12 June 2007

The 10 Best Chrysler Vehicles of the Past 25 Years

The second in a series; click here for the 10 Worst Chryslers of the past 25 Years 30 Years. These are in no particular order.

Chrysler 300/Dodge Charger/Dodge Magnum (2005-present)
The LX cars are probably the best cars that Chrysler has ever built. They're big, stylish, bold, and are available with optional 6.1 liter 425-horsepower Hemi V8s. Plus, they have high-tech features like independent rear suspension (on a chassis derived from the Mercedes-Benz parts bin), five speed automatics, available all wheel drive, and more. The cars are also very popular with tuners; one of my favorite upgrades is the Bentley-style grille, but another common one is Lamborghini-style scissor doors. The platform is apparently very flexible, because a modified version of it will underpin the Dodge Challenger coming out in year or two. Further evidence of its success is the fact that GM and Ford are either producing, or considering producing, large RWD competitors to the Chrysler LX cars (Pontiac G8, Chevy Impala, and Ford Interceptor, for example). The only chink in their armor is an interior that doesn't match the promise of their powertrains, chassis, or exterior style, but Chrysler is aware of the problem and is working on it.

Dodge Caravan/Plymouth Voyager/Chrysler Town & Country (1996-present)
While Chrysler invented the modern minivan in 1984 and spawned an entire segment of copycats, and I give them credit for that, I cannot in good conscience rank the 1984-1995 original minivans among Chrysler's best efforts (severely underpowered, underdeveloped transmissions, sub-par fit and finish). However, the 1996 models ushered in the vans' first complete redesign, which meant a new platform, new shape, and new interior. Even though the 1996 vans look similar to 2007s, there was a pretty major mid cycle enhancement in 2001, and the vans were continually improved each year. These vans have deservedly proven to be a cash cow for Chrysler. The minivans also pass the "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery" test; Honda's and Toyota's vans weren't successful until they finally decided to copy Chrysler's formula.

Chrysler PT Cruiser (2001-present)
Though the PT Cruiser is getting a little long in the tooth, when it was introduced, it looked like nothing else on the road. It drew waiting lists and dealer markups on what was basically a taller version of the Neon chassis. The interior managed to strike an upscale, art deco tone with body-colored accents and nicely-grained plastics. The car's 2006 refresh cheapened the interior to knock it down to the level of other Chryslers, but the car is an icon and has likely exceeded all of its original sales goals. My mom wanted one when they first came out, but my parents never ended up getting one; they wound up with a 2004 SSR eventually instead.

Dodge Intrepid/Eagle Vision/Chrysler Concorde/LHS/New Yorker (1993-2004)
These cars made their debut under much hype at a time that Chrysler was in yet another financial crisis. They received much adoration and praise from customers and the automotive media. They were the first Chrysler vehicles to feature a "cab forward" design, which pushed the wheels to the corners of the car and the base of the windshield forward, partially over the engine. The result was a more aerodynamic, more modern look and increased passenger space. Having the wheels at the corners also improved handling, and the cars had extremely competitive engine offerings for their day. A close friend owned a 1995 Intrepid ES that he bought as a used demo model, and he put nearly a quarter million miles on it. Sure, by the end of its life with him, plenty of things stopped working, but it took a whack into a raised concrete median to finally bend the suspension and motivate him to sell the car. Last I heard, it's still on the road with its new owner.

Dodge Stealth (1991-1996)
The Dodge Stealth wasn't really a Dodge, but rather a rebadged Mitsubishi 3000GT sport coupe. On paper, the car was pretty awesome, especially in the top-level R/T guise: 300 horsepower, twin turbo, 5-speed manual, all wheel drive, four wheel steering, active aerodynamics, and tunable suspension. The Stealth carried Dodge's performance flagship banner admirably until Viper production began. The only downside with the car, other than high insurance premiums for the twin turbo models, was the extreme weight that all of the techno-goodies added to the car. Still, they were really neat cars, if perhaps a little boy racerish in a 1990s Pontiac sort of way.

Dodge Viper (1992-present)
What can be said about the Viper that hasn't already? For a while, it was the most powerful production car sold in the US. It made its debut with 400 horsepower, no air conditioning, no glass side windows, no ABS, and functional side exhaust at a time when the Corvette was just reaching the 300 horsepower mark. The 2008 version, once it finally goes on sale, will produce 600 horsepower! Visually, I prefer the first version, which had a much more aggressive shape than did the toned-down second generation models (which debuted in 2003). Carroll Shelby, though I think he's a huckster in many ways, had a hand in the development of the first Viper, and he truly did make it a spiritual successor to the Cobras of the 1960s.

Jeep Cherokee (1984-1991)
Jeep misses the XJ Cherokee so much that it's now tried three times (unsuccessfully) to replace it. First, the Liberty was supposed to be its replacement; it turned out to be more of a chick car than a credible Cherokee successor. Next, the Commander became a caricature of the Cherokee's styling, except it lacked the short overhangs and clean proportions of the original. Finally, the Patriot has a lot of the Cherokee's boxiness, and looks better than the Commander, but is based on a front-wheel drive car chassis. The XJ Cherokee had a huge following and was the vehicle that started the four door compact SUV craze. Sales grew every year, and the model survived long past its original cancellation date. In fact, they're still built in China.

Chrysler Crossfire (2004-present)
The Chrysler Crossfire was more or less a rebodied version of the R170 (1997-2004) first generation Mercedes-Benz SLK roadster. The interior (including instrument panel) is almost identical between the two cars, but the Crossfire has more silver-appearing parts while the Mercedes went for a wood look. The Crossfire SRT-6 even had a 330 horsepower AMG built engine. The looks weren't bad - certainly better than the Sebring that appears to be inspired by it - and it is a great way to get a Mercedes (more or less) for bargain prices. Unfortunately, they are very slow sellers and this model's days are numbered.

Plymouth/Chrysler Prowler (1997-2002)
The Prowler was a concept car come to life. It kept nearly all of the concept's good looks, except some compromises had to be made for the Prowler to be street legal and meet current safety standards. Although the front bumpers were a little awkward, many owners simply removed them. The car also had many aluminum components in the chassis. The only real problem with the Prowler was its V6 powertrain, which didn't quite line up with the promises its fantastic appearance made. This was addressed somewhat in later years with an upgraded engine, but imagine how awesome this car would have been with a Hemi. Only 11,702 were produced during a five year run.

Dodge Stratus/Chrysler Cirrus/Plymouth Breeze (1995-2006)
The so-called "cloud cars" were Chrysler's midsize sedan offerings, and were the third installment of the cab forward push at Chrysler Corporation (following the larger LH cars and the smaller Neon). Other than meteorological names, the cars also had pleasing designs inside and out - the wheels went to the edge of the fenders, even in lower trim levels, the dashboard had pleasant shapes, and they looked unlike any other car on the road in 1995 (well, the prominent grille did remind me of a 1992 Pontiac Grand Am). The cloud cars' styling later manifested itself in the 1996 minivans, and looked pretty good on those as well.

Coming up in the next installment: one of us will make fun of a different manufacturer, and then a few days later talk about some of the good cars it's made.

11 June 2007

The 10 Worst Chrysler Vehicles of the Past 25 Years 30 Years

The second in a series. These are in no particular order. Click here to view the 10 Best Chrysler vehicles of the past 25 years.

Eagle Premier (1998-1992)/Dodge Monaco (1990-1992)
The Eagle Premier and its rebadged cousin the Dodge Monaco were developed by AMC and Renault prior to AMC's purchase by Chrysler Corporation. It was a full size, FWD sedan styled by Giorgetto Giugiaro. The cars were unusual in that they had a longitudinal engine layout, which was later carried over to their successors, the Chrysler LH cars. The Premier was developed by AMC and Renault, was renamed "Eagle" following the merger, and launched shortly afterward. From all accounts, the cars were well-engineered and somewhat ahead of their time (more so than other contemporary Chrysler products), but they were prone to electrical problems and transmission issues. More importantly, they were sales duds - after selling over 40,000 units in the first two years, sales dropped off precipitously to a third of that, necessitating the rebadge called the Dodge Monaco. Combined, these two models topped out at 24,000 units in their best year together, and they were dropped in 1992. I can't STAND their styling, either; they look like overgrown Renault Alliances. Like they were styled by a T-square only. These AMC relics did, however, eventually lead to the well-received cab-forward Chrysler LH cars of the early 1990s.

Dodge Shadow/Plymouth Sundance (1987-1994)
These were Chrysler's compact cars immediately prior to the Neon. Like so many 1980s Chrysler products, they were a derivative of the K-car platform. They were cheap transportation (though more expensive than the Omni/Horizon that they ostensibly replaced). Chrysler kept churning these things out for years even though they lost money on them, just to help their CAFE numbers (sound familiar?) Toward the end of their life cycle, they were infused with a 3.0 liter Mitsubishi-sourced V6, but the cars were not mourned when the new "cab-forward" Neon hit the streets...

Dodge/Plymouth Neon (1995-1999)
Who can forget the cute "Hi" advertising campaign that introduced the world to the Neon? The car promised more space inside than its competitors thanks to its cab forward architecture. It also had a more powerful engine lineup than nearly all of its contemporaries did, and had a successful early career in SCCA Solo Autocross. Unfortunately, cost cutting led to issues such as frequent head gasket failures (remedied in later first-gen models) and peeling paint in certain colored cars (who hasn't seen a purple Neon with bare metal spots on the hood?) My dad (a used car dealer) has bought a handful of Neons over the years, and probably more than half of them have broken down on their way to the auction to sell. There were also very odd design compromises, such as rear windows that were hand-cranked even if the front windows were power, and frameless windows. The 2000 model introduced the second generation and improved refinement of the model, and is not as worthy of pointing at and laughing.

Plymouth Acclaim/Dodge Spirit/Chrysler LeBaron (1989-1995)
This trio of boxes on wheels was Chrysler Corp's midsize sedan offering of the early 1990s. While the rest of the world was moving to an aero look thanks to the Ford Taurus and Asian competition, Chrysler decided to go with a neo-Volvo look. The cars weren't ugly, but they weren't design leaders, either. Nor were they the engineering benchmarks of their day, as they rode on yet another K-car derivative platform (a full eight years after the first K-cars hit the streets). While the exterior theme was one of tasteful, if bland, rounded boxiness, the instrument panel's theme was just boxiness. My aunt used to work for Chrysler Corporation in the early 1990s, and she once visited us in a rental Dodge Spirit. When we checked out her car, she said that the buzz around the company was that they were intended as an E-class Mercedes competitor. Mmm hmm. At least the cars that replaced them were better. The only car in this group that gets a pass is the Spirit R/T, which had a 224-horsepower, turbocharged/intercooled four banger that kicked ass and took names.

Jeep Commander (2006-present)
The Jeep Commander is a half-assed attempt at a larger Jeep to compete with the (then) successful Hummer H2. Jeep was concerned that many of its competitors offered larger vehicles and would-be Jeep buyers would end up buying a competitive product instead. History is littered with management who tried to run with the cheapest way around a problem, and DCX management decided to rebody a Grand Cherokee, keeping the same wheelbase and optional powertrains, but with a larger, boxier body. The marketing message that buyers were supposed to get was that the Commander captured the style of the much-loved 1984-2001 Jeep Cherokee; the message that they got instead was that it looked like a caricature of that vehicle. Others called it the box that the Grand Cherokee came in. The result was an overstyled joke that was too big to handle itself as nimbly as a Grand Cherokee, and too small inside (particularly in the third row) to be a credible competitor to vehicles like the Pathfinder SE Off Road, Hummer H2, Chevy Tahoe, Ford Expedition, etc. It also suffers from the unimaginative Chrysler interiors of the mid-2000s with plenty of right angles and not enough quality materials. The Commander isn't going to see a second generation.

Dodge Aries/Plymouth Reliant (1981-1989)
Ahh yes, the venerable K-cars. These suckers may have saved Chrysler from bankruptcy in the early 1980s (thanks to their small exteriors, six-passenger interiors, and fuel efficient engines). Their platform eventually spawned nearly every front wheel drive Chrysler, Dodge, and Plymouth developed during the 1980s, including the minivans. That would be fine if it was a well-engineered starting point, but the K platform wasn't state of the art and was the victim of cost cutting. It was also engineered to be lightweight for fuel economy reasons, and in a cheap car, lightweight does not mean exotic materials, it means thinner materials and de-contenting. Like the later Neon, these cars had head gasket problems with the ubiquitous 2.2 liter fours, and Chrysler's attempt at marketing a Japanese engine in them (supplied by Mitsubishi as a 2.6 liter) backfired because those engines blew themselves up. They did sell more than a million units of these cars in a single (long) generation, but it's a safe bet there weren't a million happy owners. Oh, these cream puffs were the Motor Trend Car of the Year in 1981. These cars are also immortalized in song by the Barenaked Ladies in "If I Had a Million Dollars" with the line, "...I'd buy you a K-car, a nice Reliant automobile..." Funny, but repulsive.

Dodge Omni/Plymouth Horizon (1978-1990)
Yes - another MT COTY winner (1978!) These small cars were the first front wheel drive offerings by Chrysler Corporation designed to compete with the successful Volkswagen Rabbit. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right? Because they look eerily similar to a Wabbit, and in fact early models even had VW-sourced engines under their hoods. The cars initially were poor handlers, so much so that Consumer Reports (yeah, I know...) rated it "not acceptable" because of the difficulty in handling the car in an emergency scenario. Toward the end of the car's life, when it was about to be replaced by the larger and more expensive Shadow/Sundance, Chrysler standardized some optional equipment and called them "Omni USA" and "Horizon USA," sales perked up to the extent that they were allowed to soldier on for a few more years. Whether this was a wise long-term decision is questionable. I remember riding in a friend's Horizon in high school. The only thing I liked about it was that I didn't have to ride the bus to go home.

Dodge Aspen/Plymouth Volaré (1976-1980)
These cars were considered compacts at their launch, but times changed so much during their lifespan that they were considered midsize at the end. The lineup consisted of a coupe, sedan, and wagon. My favorite part about these cars is that Lee Iacocca admitted in his self-named autobiography that the cars were rushed to market, and first year customers were basically the last round of quality control. I'll let you see it in his own words (page 169):
But the Aspen and Volaré simply weren't well made. The engines would stall when you stepped on the gas. The brakes would fail. The hoods would fly open. Customers complained, and more than three and a half million cars were brought back to the dealers for free repairs--free to the customer, that is. Chrysler had to foot the bill.

But then even cars that were mechanically sound started rusting. The Volaré's rusted fender program cost us $109 million--in 1980, when we could ill afford it. The fenders had rusted through because somebody wasn't paying enough attention to the process of rustproofing them. We weren't asked to recall them, but we had an obligation to our customers to fix them. Even though we stood behind them, the resale value of these cars plummeted, which hurt Chrysler's image badly.
The results were predictably disastrous; as Iacocca alluded to above, Chrysler was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, with its only hope for survival resting on loan guarantees from the federal government and keeping their fingers crossed for the K-car's success. (Also, as a side note, two pages after his Volaré description, Iacocca talks about the sales banks of the late 1970s and early 1980s that sound strangely similar to the ones they had last year.)

My roommate in college had well-to-do parents, but for some reason, he drove a 1978 Volaré wagon, cream colored, with vinyl seats, slant six, automatic, and AM radio with a separate FM converter. I remember one night during an ice storm, I was all cozy in my dorm room watching TV, and he called me from a pay phone outside a grocery story 15 miles away and wanted me to pick him up because his Volaré stopped running. I had to borrow another friend's car in an ice storm just because his 17 year old Volaré was a POS. I drove it twice that I can remember, and the only thing I remember, aside from a serious lack of horsepower, was that the rear brakes were extremely prone to premature lockup.

Chrysler Sebring (2007-present)
This car is not a bad car - for 1999 - but considering what the competition continues to roll out (Hyundai, Honda, Toyota, FoMoCo, GM, Kia, etc.) - it's an unacceptable effort. Chrysler managers have admitted as much, as evidenced by a leaked memo expressing disappointment in the recent Sebring and Dodge Nitro projects (they might as well include the Jeep Compass in that list as well). The Sebring is a car that sounds pretty good on paper - powerful optional V6, six speed automatic, innovative interior features like heating/cooling cupholders, hard disk music storage, Bluetooth, etc. - all at a reasonable price. But the problem is, those features need to be integrated into an attractive package, which is where the Sebring falls flat on its face. Similar to the Jeep Commander in that it's a caricature of all recent Chrysler division styling cues, it combines the Crossfire's hood, the 300's gun slit windows, and a too-stubby trunk. The result is a chrome plated turd. Even worse, reviewers have called the interior materials "cheap." Perhaps one problem is that Chrysler admitted benchmarking only domestic models (apparently previous generation ones like the Taurus, Impala, and Malibu) that already were not the head of the class. The car's handling has also been described as "geriatric." Time to raise the bar, Chrysler.

Dodge Daytona (1984-1993)
This car is what happens when you try to turn the K-car platform into a sporty car. It had the looks (especially for 1984), but had no balls; the base engine was 93 horsepower and the optional engine in the first year was a more respectable 142 horsepower. The Daytona was restyled twice during its front wheel drive lifespan; its original style was a "tribute" to the 1983 Chevy Camaro. The first restyle added hidden headlamps, and if you really squinted hard, looked almost kind of like its namesake 1969 Dodge Charger Daytona (the one that chewed up its NASCAR competition, looks like a Plymouth Super Bee, but is more rare). The last restyle softened some of the hard angles and eliminated the popup headlamps. There is one exception to my panning of this car - the rare 1992 and 1993 Daytona R/Ts with the Spirit R/T's 224 horsepower turbo/intercooled four. This engine's heads were developed by Lotus, and it's the highest horsepower per liter of any engine Chrysler has ever sold to the public. It was the heart of a lion in a body and chassis straight out of the early 80s.

There were a few honorable mentions, but I'm getting lazy, so they only get listed:
  • Dodge Mirada (1980-1982): Batmobile wannabes
  • Chrysler Cordoba (1975-1983): Chevy Monte Carlo clone, but with "rich Corinthian leather"
  • Chrysler Aspen (2007-present): who exactly asked for these, other than Chrysler dealers?
Did I miss any? Did I wrongly throw any good cars under the bus? Any closet Volaré fans? (Doug, if you're out there, sorry I made fun of your wagon. I know it will be in your museum someday.)

Coming next: The 10 Best Chrysler Vehicles of the Past 25 Years. Stay tuned.

Time to Build Unreliable Cars?

Logic tells you that owning a reliable vehicle that requires nothing more than routine maintenance such as tire rotations, oil changes, and filter replacements should be the equivalent of automotive utopia. Everyone wants a "bulletproof" car, right?

Well, almost everyone. There's a report in today's Automotive News that improved vehicle quality over the past several years has significantly reduced the volume of warranty repairs performed by dealerships. According to GM, their volume of warranty repairs is down 40% since 1998. Ford has seen similar drops. Part of these reductions are from improved quality, but part are from reduced sales (if you sell 40% fewer cars, you'll likely see 40% fewer warranty claims even if the quality remained constant). The oldest data I could find on sales was 1999 - for example, GM sold 2,591,420 vehicles that year, but sold 1,722,871 vehicles in 2006, which is a 33.5% reduction in new vehicle sales over the past seven years.

This reduction in warranty volume has started squeezing some domestic dealers, because fewer repairs per car is not being offset by increased sales per dealership as many import brands have seen. None of the dealers in the article have complained about the fact that cars are better than they were 10 years ago, but that's probably because they didn't want to sound bad in an interview. So I'll say it for them..."please start building crappy cars that fall apart again so that we can make money from the manufacturer for warranty repairs." I recommend an immediate resumption of Quad 4 production. Note to the dealers: keep plenty of head gaskets in stock.

10 June 2007

Is Saturn Really a Success Story?

When GM sends out their press release each month with the prior month’s sales results, they (like other automakers) try to spin the positive and downplay the negative (“our sales were down 12%, but we’re working toward reducing fleet sales,” etc.). For example, here’s the most recent one:
The product renaissance at Saturn continued to accelerate with total sales increasing almost 69 [tee hee] percent compared with a year ago, highlighting the tremendous public acceptance of the new lineup of Saturn vehicles including SKY, AURA and AURA Hybrid, OUTLOOK, VUE and VUE Hybrid. Saturn's ION small car is soon to be replaced with the popular ASTRA. Saturn is the fastest growing brand in the industry this year.
According to Automotive News, Saturn’s sales are up 75.3% in May 2007 compared to May 2006 (must be a different way of counting, versus the press release). Year to date through the first five months of 2007, sales are up 30.5%. Sounds good, right?

Well, before we declare victory too early, let’s look at what makes up those numbers. The lineup in May 2006 was:

  • Ion
  • Sky
  • Relay
  • Vue

The lineup in May 2007 is:

  • Aura
  • Ion
  • Sky
  • Relay
  • Vue
  • Outlook

Granted, the Relay is on its way out the door (don’t let it hit you in the ass on your way out), but its insignificant sales in May 2007 (235 units) is not far from its slightly less-insignificant sales in May 2006 (460 units) as the model is phased out and replaced by the Outlook. Also, Saturn’s website still promotes the Relay, so I consider it a legitimate member of the May 2007 lineup.

So, the number of vehicles in the lineup went from four to six – or an increase of (ahem) 67%, or about the same percentage that Saturn’s sales went up in May 2007. When you look at each model’s individual sales, however, it shows that most of the sales increase is coming from the newly launched models and not from the old stalwarts.

Ion and Relay sales are down (but those two models are on the way out later this year) and Sky sales are way up YTD – but the Sky was barely available in the early part of 2006 as its production ramped up. For the Sky, we’re comparing an established model to its launch period.

The Aura was not sold in May 2006, nor was the Outlook, but after Aura sales began in August 2006, sales (excluding the first two months) have been about 4,500 sales per month, give or take a few hundred. There’s no sign that the Aura will suddenly sell at Camry, or even Malibu volumes.

Vue sales look great YTD and for May, but May was the first month of wide availability of the new model…as of April, the figures told a different story, when Vue sales were down for the month and YTD.

Basically, we’re in the absolute sweetest part of Saturn’s lineup life cycle (the upcoming Astra will only sell about 30,000 units per year maximum, less than the Ion’s worst year, because GM can only afford to lose enough money on the Astra to sell that many with their plan to import cars from Europe in the current weak dollar environment). It won’t get any better from here, folks, without increasing incentive spending, increasing the marketing budget, and continually improving the models they have now. They’re not going to go from six to ten models in May 2008 (in fact, next year at this time, the Ion will be mostly a bad memory and the Relay will have been forgotten by all except for the poor souls who bought them and those of us who use them for punchlines), so the lineup will be five models. The Vue, Outlook, Aura, and Sky will be a year older, and the Aura’s sales have already leveled off months ago. We won’t be seeing near triple-digit sales increases; in fact, I predict that Saturn’s sales will be nearly flat in May 2008, especially as internal competition from the new 2008 Chevy Malibu starts eating Aura sales for breakfast. Outlook sales may continue to improve, but the Astra won’t reach Ion sales volumes.

Still, launching new models and increasing sales is the name of the game, right? Well, Saturn has sold almost 104,000 vehicles through 5/12ths of 2007, in spite of a 75% sales increase this year, but those seven models combined don’t make as many sales as the following individual model cars: Chevy Impala, Honda Accord, Nissan Altima, Toyota Camry, and Toyota Corolla. Even Kia outsold them (with a similar truck-free lineup, though Kia is more focused on higher volume smaller cars)!

So, while Saturn is doing what it should in expanding its lineup, sales increases through lineup expansion can only go so far. Next comes the hard part of building those models’ sales figures without adding more products. It is possible – Saturn’s competitors do it all the time. For now, though, being outsold by the Impala or Kia does not make what I’d call a successful brand, nor the savior of GM. They need to keep plugging away if they want to beat Kia and start throwing victory parties, but otherwise, keep their mouths shut, heads down, and keep working.

75% of Americans Favor 40 mpg by 2010? Really?

Last Wednesday, an organization called the Civil Society institute, which advocates a 40 miles per gallon CAFE standard for US vehicles by 2010, issued a press release that has been picked up by a few news outlets. Here is a link to the press release.

They claim that an overwhelming majority of Americans favor a more radical increase in the CAFE fuel economy standards than even Congress is pushing for, based on a “scientific survey” that they sponsored. I was dubious of these claims, so I dug a little further. Before I even get into the flaws in their specific survey, let’s think about a few things.

The formal report has confidence intervals and all sorts of fancy statistical justifications, but the fact is, the questions are terrible. You can have the best sample of respondents in the world, but if your questions have an inherent bias or flaw, then your survey is flawed. They also don’t say whether the survey companies identified themselves as representing an organization that advocates 40 mpg fuel economy standards by 2010, but the tone of the questions makes it clear to the respondent what response the question wants them to have.

Here is their full report (PDF format), and below are the questions they asked. My commentary is in italics below each question.

1. European and Asian vehicles have higher fuel efficiency than those here in the United States. More than 100 vehicles that get 40 miles per gallon or more are already for sale outside of the United States...versus just two that get over 40 miles per gallon here in the United States. Knowing that, which of the following approaches would you prefer to raising U.S. fuel efficiency standards?

  • Moving NOW to raise the average fuel-efficiency levels to 40 miles per gallon by 2010: 76%
  • Wait until 2018 to raise average fuel efficiency levels tp [sic] 35 miles per gallon: 15%
  • Don't know: 9%

The first question has a few problems. It does not offer the option of "do nothing." I'm sure that more than a handful of people are more than happy with the current standards as they are, or are dissatisfied with CAFE (as I am). Yet, the only choices are "40 mpg by 2010" "wait until 2018, and only to 35 mpg," or "don't know." So again, they're not actually asking people how to increase fuel economy, but asking them which one they prefer. They also misstate their first "fact" to open the question; it should be "Many vehicles sold in Europe and Asia have higher fuel efficiency..." Not all, as they imply. Last I checked, BMW 760iLs, Ferrari 360s, Porsche 911 Turbos did not exceed 40 mpg. Europe and Asia also do not have CAFE, but instead have gas taxes to reduce consumption.

2. I now want you to think about the 2008 elections. In general would you be more or less likely to SUPPORT a candidate for federal office - Congress or the White House - who advocated a 40 mpg fuel efficiency standard as a way to lower global warming and reduce U.S. reliance on Middle Eastern oil?

  • Definitely more likely: 23%
  • Probably more likely: 29%
  • About the same: 28%
  • Probably less likely: 6%
  • Definitely less likely: 9%
  • Don't know: 5%

Next, in the middle question about supporting a candidate in favor of 40 mpg, they mention the positives of the 40 mpg mandate in the question ("lower global warming and reduce U.S. reliance on Middle Eastern oil") but don't mention the downsides (loss of US manufacturing jobs, building cars that people don't really want to buy, etc.) So that question is inherently biased.

3. How likely is it that you will vote in the 2008 Presidential and Congressional elections?

  • Very likely: 78%
  • Somewhat likely: 7%
  • Not very likely: 3%
  • Do not plan to vote: 10%
  • Don't know: 2%

According to this, between 78% and 85% of a "random" sample of the public plans to vote in the 2008 presidential election. Thomas Jefferson would be thrilled, considering that the highest turnout in the past 47 years was in 1960 at 63.1%, and it was 55.3% in the 2004 election. They want us to believe that they have captured the voice of the voter, but it's pretty implausible that voter turnout will suddenly increase by between 41% and 54%. (Link to turnout data.)

Things like this are so frustrating to read. And of course because these people with an obvious agenda put it on the PR newswire, more news outlets desperate for cheap content will pick up on it, not read into it or question it at all, and consider it "fact."

It's a shame, but our society always expects to get something for nothing. A war without casualties. A big, fast car or truck that gets 40 mpg. Lower taxes but no reduction in government services or increase in the deficit. The way the first question was phrased, the question sounds like there’s no cost to the consumer, but there is. Nothing is for free. They'll either get slow cars, small cars, unsafe cars, or expensive cars. I can assure you that they will not be fast, large, safe, and inexpensive at the same time. Since it appears that things such as the likelihood of passing on research and development costs to consumers, automakers, or the government was mentioned at all during the course of the study, and if it wasn’t, what effect doing so would have had on the group’s findings. I’m betting that the findings would be very different.

Also, what people do and what they say are two very different things. Consumers can buy a 40 mpg vehicle today, yet few are buying them. Instead, they get a large 18-25 mpg vehicle and gripe about how much gas it uses. Personally, I have yet to complain about getting 16.5 mpg in my midsize SUV because I knew going into it that I'd get that mileage. We just drive our car when we don't need the space (or navigation system) that the SUV has, and we're fine. Consumers have voted with their wallets, and the types of “city cars” sold in Europe and Asia that exceed 40 miles per gallon are not lighting up the US sales charts. Automobile manufacturers build the cars that people actually buy, not the ones that groups such as CSI want people to buy.