It’s Friday once again, which means it’s time for another round of my Five For Friday: Five Thoughts about the Auto Industry for December 23, 2011. Mustang transmission probes, the end of the Chevrolet HHR, the coming spike in used SUV prices, Toyota's new partnership strategy and the Cadillac CTS Touring package - let’s look at my take on the most noteworthy and interesting automotive stories from the past week.
It was an investigation that flew largely under the radar unless you were part of the Mustang community, and now it's over. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has dropped its probe into complaints from owners of the 2011-2012 Ford Mustang regarding shifting issues associated with the muscle car's six-speed manual transmission. 364 official 'shift quality' issues were filed with the NHTSA describing problems ranging from cars that would simply not go into gear to those had difficulty changing ratios once underway.
The NHTSA determined that there was no safety concern associated with the Ford Mustang transmissions in question and therefore felt no need to push things any further. For their part, the Dearborn-based automaker claimed that once the gearbox warmed up to standard operating temperatures the vast majority of reported issues disappeared.
It's not exactly a secret that the Chevrolet HHR wouldn't be making it past the end of 2011, but the looming New Year makes it official: the last of the retro-themed compact people movers has bowed out of the scene, leaving only the Ford Flex to champion the idea that crossovers can feature styling that doesn't ape their truck-based SUV competitors.
The Chevrolet HHR never quite caught the public's imagination quite like the Chrysler PT Cruiser, the vehicle whose soaring sales and panel wagon looks Chevrolet designers sought to mimic. The HHR was never a bad vehicle, and it even sported a turbocharged SS model at one point in its brief half-decade of existence, but compact crossover buyers voted with their dollars and stuck to their Toyota RAV4'S and Honda CR-V's. Although the focus on small cars and SUVs is more intense right now than it was when the Chevrolet van-replacement was originally introduced, it seems unlikely that domestic automakers will take yet another chance on twanging the nostalgic heart strings of vehicle shoppers in the United States with throwback looks for future products.
MSNBC.com published a somewhat alarming yet undeniably logical piece earlier this week regarding the precarious state of the used sport-utility vehicle market. The rising fuel prices and tight credit of 2008 essentially punched a deep hole in the sales figures associated with full-size SUVs. The end result is an impending dip in the availability of recent used sport-utility vehicles. How dramatic is the drop-off? The National Automobile Dealers Association is reporting that monthly SUV lease returns - a prime source of quality used vehicles - are down to less than 10 percent of what they were in 2010.
This dramatic gap between used SUV supply and demand is expected to last throughout at least the next two years. This means that anyone considering selling their three-year old Chevrolet Suburban or Ford Expedition might want to wait until at least the spring to do so - and those looking to buy a big sport-utility vehicle might want make their move as soon as possible to avoid paying far more than the current market rate.
Toyota has made headlines in recent weeks thanks to well-publicized decisions to partner up with prominent automotive brands - namely BMW and Tesla - in order to research, develop and produce diesel engines, electric motors and electric battery packs. The Automotive News has published an analysis of the Toyota situation that points out the dramatic difference between the company's current willingness to embrace inter-industry partnerships as a way to regaining its footing versus its previous philosophy of aloof independence.
It's not just engines, either. Moving beyond recent deals, Toyota's willingness to work with Subaru to plug a very noticeable sports car hole in the brand's lineup is another strong indicator that the Japanese giant has realized that staying above the fray is no longer a valid strategy in an increasingly interconnected market. Akio Toyoda's leadership of the company has proven to be a legitimate difference-maker, and 'business as usual' is no longer the catchphrase at what was once the most ubiquitous and seemingly unstoppable automaker in the world.
Cadillac's play to lure greater numbers of buyers away from its German luxury rivals gained a new strategy this week with the unveiling of the Touring package for the 2012 Cadillac CTS sedan, wagon and coupe. The innocuously-named Touring package is actually a way for Cadillac buyers to add most of the looks - and some of the feel - of the fire-breathing CTS-V supercar to the standard CTS at a much lower price.
The package includes interior and exterior styling cues and features lifted directly from the V as well as a stiffer suspension system and the option of Recaro sport seats and up-sized wheels. Perhaps most importantly, Cadillac has now given the CTS a direct competitor to the BMW M Sport and Audi S Line trims, which each offer a taste of sporty style and handling without asking buyers to pony up for the full, hardcore sport experience.