[January 27, 2009] Domestic manufacturers have been getting -- and continue to get -- a bad "rap" from just about everyone. But, though it's not totally unearned, its justification is slowly and surely waning.
Granted, Detroit has produced some real “crap” in the past. And it did so while a few (mostly long-standing Japanese) imports steadily gained good reputations, a strong customer base and ever-increasing market share by producing arguably better products, certainly ones more fuel-efficient too. No one’s been more aware of this migration toward imports than Detroit, and Detroit’s been moving for years to reverse – or, at least, to stem – the trend. Whether or not Detroit succeeds will take time. Economy willing, it will take a few more years at least – after we’ve been able to see that the quality and resale value hold as well as some of the better imports – but every indication is that they’re well on their way, and we’ll be able to take great pride in an industry that was once the envy of the world.
All Imports Are Not Created Equal
All too often all imports are lumped into one non-domestic category: “Imports have better quality and higher resale value than domestics” is a commonly heard sentiment, but it’s inaccurate, incomplete and misleading. Only a handful of import products are superior to domestics, and most of those are from Japan. Many European brands are no better in terms of quality or resale value than domestic ones; they just have “panache” and the perception – since they’re “imports” – that they’re superior. Many of the newer (non-Japanese) Asian imports got off to a rough (“crappy”) start, and may very well be improving, but they too have just as much to prove as the domestics.
Corrections Take Time + Moving Targets
No one would disagree that the domestics dropped the ball, arguably as far back as the seventies. Though they tried to pick the ball up a few times, domestic fumbles continued through the nineties. Unfortunately, the auto industry – both here and abroad – cannot move as quickly as anyone would like. It takes years – not to mention huge amounts of money and educated talent – to develop new models. Even mild changes can take a year or two; complete redesigns take three to five years, or more. With that sort of lead time, it’s not always easy for any manufacturer to be fully prepared for the market conditions that exist at some point in the future.
To make matters even more difficult for manufacturers, in terms of predicting the future of the vehicle market, we Americans are rather fickle when it comes to our vehicles and gas prices. When gas is cheap, we want gas-guzzlers. If gas is expensive, we want fuel-sippers. Last summer’s spike in prices to over $4 a gallon turned the whole market upside down. Fuel-sippers flew out dealership doors while gas-guzzlers gathered dust. Now that gas prices have stabilized – at unusually low prices – sales of gas-guzzlers have rebounded, albeit at downturn-adjusted levels. Very few people are concerned about gas mileage today, and probably won’t be until gas prices climb again. Even the efficiency-minded imports have been hurt by this factor, as they also produce their own heavier, thirstier vehicles, vying for those dollars you’d otherwise spend “domestically.”
It’s unfortunate that the domestic brands are now also caught up in the world-wide economic slump. Too many are too quick to blame only the domestics (while all but one or two of the fifty-plus brands sold here is suffering sales drops of similar levels, which is approximately one-third of normal), ignoring the fact that all sales are down, not just “ours.” Sadly, too much negative attention is being focused on the domestic auto industry at a time – had the economy not soured world-wide – when Detroit’s good news – vastly improved product – might otherwise have been making headlines.
Though not yet fully proven – it takes a few years to determine whether or not your car’s going to fall apart, or if its value is going to plummet – every indication is that the quality of domestic vehicles is improving, in “baby steps,” at minimum, if not by leaps and bounds. Quite frankly, they simply had no choice: they’ve watched market share drop for decades, and competing on a comparable, if not superior, basis was the only way to survive. Designs are improving, as are technological innovations. Fuel-efficiency is also on the rise, and models coming out this year – models on which work began many years ago – will post mileage figures even higher than the public might ever have expected (and, in some cases, besting those “unbeatable” imports!).
American Pride Is (On Its Way) Back!
There are countless impressive and promising products coming out of Detroit these days, and even more on the horizon. In addition to better economic times ahead, we also appear to be headed toward a time when we can once again be perfectly proud of our home-grown manufacturers, just as we were until the sixties!