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GM, Honda, VW Work Through Missteps

Charles Krome
by Charles Krome
October 30, 2009

Well, let's get the worst bit out of the way first: General Motors is pushing back the launch of its highly anticipated new small car, the 2011 Chevrolet Cruze (pictured left), three full months. Production of this key vehicle is now slated to start some time in the third quarter of next year.

GM is spinning the news furiously, claiming the delay will ensure a smooth launch, but it's still very disappointing. The Cruze is at least as important to GM as the Chevrolet Volt, as the Cruze will be the high-volume replacement for the Chevrolet Cobalt and is being counted on for some serious sales numbers.

Now, it's true that the delay will help with an ongoing problem of the General's. The company has a bad habit of launching new products without actually having enough inventory on hand to support their sales. And there's nothing more frustrating '” for buyers and dealers alike '” than not being able to close a sale because, for example, the buyer wanted a manual transmission and only automatics are currently on the lot.

With the Cruze debut being pushed back, GM is claiming it will have plenty of available inventory, in a myriad of different trim levels and option packages, right from the start. And I suppose that if the Cruze lives up to its expectations, no one will remember that production was delayed a few months.

But for now, there's no getting around the fact that General Motors has missed the launch date on one of its first post-bankruptcy products.

There's also no getting around the fact that two of Honda's most recent introductions, the Honda Crosstour and the Acura ZDX, haven't exactly been setting the world on fire. I'm sure the company hoped they would hit the sweet spot in between crossovers and station wagons, but customers are already souring on their ungainly exteriors.

Which explains why the Japanese automaker has quickly decided to introduce an American version of its well-regarded European Honda Accord Touring model '” essentially a Honda Accord station wagon. Of course, given the way the auto industry works, it will be rebadged as an Acura TSX sport wagon. That begs the question of whether an actual Accord station wagon will be sold here in the near future, a question that should be answered with a resounding "yes."

I mean, I understand that Acura, much like GM with its Cadillac CTS Sport Wagon, is trying to fit into the "premium European-ish sporty station wagon" niche '” think BMW 5 Series here. But something a bit more family-oriented would certainly attract some of the mainstream consumers who are now looking to get out of big SUVs but still need extra cargo or people room.

The problem, though, is that Honda may not be able to differentiate a Honda Accord wagon and an Acura TSX wagon sufficiently, and end up on the bad side of the badge-engineering line.

Kind of the way Volkswagen seems to have stumbled with the Routan. VW's deal to rebadge Chrysler Town & Country minivans turned into a mere 901 sales in September, while the Chrysler, for comparison, tallied 3,611 '” and that figure was down a whopping 61 percent year-over-year. The Honda Odyssey sold 5,735 units (down 49 percent) and the Toyota Sienna saw 6,442 sales (down 36 percent) last month.

The Routan situation is especially notable for it being the culmination of ye olde perfect storm of mistakes and economic difficulties. Here's the short story: Volkswagen's 1950 Type 2, or Transporter, has to be considered the progenitor of the modern van (and minivan). The thing is, even during its most iconic iteration '” as the VW Microbus '” the vehicle continued to be built off of a Volkswagen commercial platform.

By the time the early 2000s had rolled around, American minivans, whose ride and handling was much more car-like, dominated the segment. The Transporter of the time, called the VW Eurovan in the U.S., just couldn't compete here, so the company decided it would bring back a modern version of the Microbus proper. This would be a funky vehicle that would leverage all the excitement of the equally retro New Beetle, also developed during that time.

A concept vehicle was duly developed, and was a big hit at the auto shows, but VW's financial difficulties forced both the cancellation of the project and any efforts to make the then-current Transporter more U.S.-friendly. The result? No VW van for the U.S. until the Routan, which carries a distinct odor of "too little, too late."

What's particularly vexing is that, with today's Transporter offering only diesel engines, the return of the Eurovan to America would seem to fit in perfectly with the company's efforts to promote diesel technology.

A diesel minivan specifically dialed in for high mpg numbers would really give the company a breakthrough product in a segment that still represents a significant chunk of the overall industry. The biggest difficulty might be coming up with a name that resonates with U.S. buyers as strongly as "Routan." Or "Tiguan." Or "Touareg." Or, well, you get the picture.

(Krome on Cars reader Chris A. gets an official shout out for sending me down the VW minivan trail.)


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