Well, it turns out my time in the Smooth Wagon'”aka the 2011 Buick Enclave'”wasn't quite as smooth as I thought it would be. As readers may recall, Buick was kind enough to supply me with a pre-fueled Enclave CXL with all-wheel-drive for a week, and as someone who spends a fair amount of time toting around the kids, I was looking forward to using what I positioned as a modern-day full-size premium station wagon to do the toting. But while the Enclave was no doubt an excellent people hauler, it fell down in terms of luxe appointments. And this, in turn, exposed a growing problem for mainstream automakers that hasn't gotten much attention in the media.
Enclave on the Starting Line
Here's the situation in a nutshell: You can get a Ford Fiesta with pushbutton start for $18,590, and that includes the vehicle's destination charge. The Enclave I was driving was optioned up all the way to $49,755 but you had to make the grueling effort to insert an actual key into the ignition and then'”gasp!'”even turn it for yourself. Why is this little feature missing from the most expensive vehicle in Buick's lineup but available on Ford's new subcompact'”along with less pricey Enclave siblings like the Buick LaCrosse and Buick Regal?
The answer lies in the ebb and flow of each automaker's individual product-development cycles. When the Enclave debuted, it set a new standard for Buick design and quality that almost made the old Tiger Woods/Buick partnership believable. Unfortunately, however, this was back in 2007'”when Tiger was best known for his golf'”and the industry has jumped ahead light years since then. The pace of change has been particularly fast in the post-meltdown era, too, with technological advances coming as fast and furious as a Vin Diesel movie.
They're Doing it Wrong
Where this will soon become a bigger problem is in the various full-scale telematics systems popularized by Ford SYNC. GM's recent launch of the Chevrolet MyLink setup is just the latest in a growing line that includes Hyundai's UVO and Toyota's Entune, and you can be sure that every automaker will have something like this in the next few years.
But as pointed out by the inimitable Miss Motor Mouth during a recent airing of Open Line (every Monday at 8:00!), once you buy a vehicle with one of these systems, you're essentially stuck with it. Updating to newer technology is no small matter of swapping out black boxes, although it should be. Then, when new tech does become available, the automakers don't just add it to all their vehicles from the new model year in one fell swoop, although they should.
As a result, to give a non-GM example, today's 2011 Lincoln MKZ Hybrid has the previous-generation SYNC system while the 2011 Ford Edge showcases the vastly updated and improved version. And what does it say to consumers when a vehicle from your luxury division is out-teched by one of your mainstream models? Or, to fall back on the Enclave, how do you sell a $50,000 crossover that doesn't have the same level of content as a sedan from the very same division that costs $12,000 less?
The problem isn't limited to U.S. brands, either. Cars like the Toyota Yaris are still puttering along with four-speed automatics, while segment rivals like the Fiesta, for one, go two cogs further.
Keep on Truckin'
Now, I know adding significant upgrades to a vehicle outside of its regular redesign/refresh schedule can be an expensive proposition. But at some point, especially with the more digitally oriented technologies, not pushing through updates can start costing you sales. Further, I've noticed that in the world of HD pickups, running changes to boost torque and increase tow ratings has become a matter of course.
Part of that has to do with merely reprogramming computer chips, but part of it also has to do with building in the flexibility to make those changes. Which is something that more automakers may want to'”and eventually have to'”try on the mainstream side of the business.