I know it's a bit of a "straw man" situation, but I guess I can't help writing about the new Consumer Reports "Buy American" study.
The part of the survey attracting the most attention is the finding that "80 percent of respondents who are in the market to buy a new car are likely to consider a model from a domestic brand." Meanwhile, just 47 percent of the new-car customers would consider an Asian brand, while only 46 percent would consider a European brand.
The Consumer Reports people were also nice enough to break out a few specific factoids. Compared to the same time last year, consideration for Fords among new-car intenders was up 17 percent; for General Motors products, it was up 6 percent; and unsurprisingly, survey respondents were actually 25 percent less likely to consider Chrysler vehicles.
Now, given the overall weakness of the word "consider" '” yesterday I "considered" cleaning out the shed, only there was something good on TV '” I'm going to say the first bit of the survey is actually informative. There was a time when the domestic OEMs couldn't even get consumers this far into ye olde purchase funnel.
But when you analyze why people don't consider the Detroit automakers, things get murkier. People who wouldn't consider a Ford claimed the company's products were unappealing and they were worried about vehicle quality. For GM, the first two reasons had to do with the economic situation of the company; the third had to do with vehicle appeal. At Chrysler, the un-consideration factors were unappealing vehicles, worries about the economic health of the company and worries about quality.
There's not much I can say about the economic worries. Or the misplaced concern over Ford quality, which, in other recent surveys, continues to be ranked on par if not higher than that of Toyota. But what about vehicle appeal? On one hand, this is another pretty slippery word choice. I mean, are the survey respondents saying they think GM, Ford and Chrysler only make big gas hogs that don't appeal to their newfound sense of environmental responsibility? Or do they just not like the lines on the new Mustang?
On the other hand, well, naturally I have some ideas. Let's start with the Ford Transit Connect, currently aimed primarily at small business owners looking for a fuel-efficient small-ish delivery-type vehicle. This is a truck that's just crying out for a three-row option that would allow it to be used by families as a minivan substitute. Yes, I know Ford has the Flex for that role, but I'm thinking a fair number of people would be willing to trade some Flex style and comfort for the Transit Connect's much better fuel economy. The Flex mpg numbers are 17/20/24 for city/combined/highway mileage; the Transit Connect goes 22/23/25.
For Chrysler, I say it's time to pump up the Dodge Caliber. The current one has the semi-truckish style that continues to attract American customers '” witness the fact that Chrysler pretty much sold out of Calibers during Cash for Clunkers. And for 2010, Chrysler is significantly updating the Caliber interior and debuting a new, common-rail diesel model that tops 40 mpg. The problem is, the diesel will be limited to "international markets." Selling that Caliber in the U.S. would instantly give Chrysler a halo model for the high-mpg segment, providing the company with a true competitor/alternative to vehicles like the Honda Fit, Ford Focus, Chevrolet Aveo, etc.
When it comes to General Motors, I'm going the same way as with Chrysler. As long as the General has committed itself to GMC, why not give that division a compact crossover that can get 30+ mpg while still retaining a rugged, truck-like appearance. Something like a more macho GMC version of the Chevrolet HHR, with truly different sheet metal. Perhaps GMC could even convert the HHR's second row of seats and cargo hold into a small pickup bed? Knowing the folks at GM, that could also pave the way for the return of the El Camino.
The tide has turned in the U.S. market, and it's apparent (to me anyway) that American buyers are more interested in truck-ish style than truck-ish substance. The former big three can certainly deliver that.