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Avoidable Contact #37: Branding got Ford into the Ranger/Panther mess, so why can’t it get them out?

Ninety-nine percent of "automotive journalism" is repeating what you've just been told, particularly if it seems to make a bit of sense, so it's no surprise that several color rags and major websites have run nearly identical features about the sales of Ford's marked-for-death Panther-platform cars and Ranger pickups. In July, the Ranger outsold the Volvo brand in the United States, nearly outsold Lincoln, and moved more units than nearly every other Ford vehicle available. The Crown Victoria, Grand Marquis, and Town Car together are outselling the brand-new Taurus and nearly-new Flex despite having not received a major update since 1998 or thereabouts.

Most of these articles will then go on to wonder why Ford is throwing away nearly 15,000 units a month of paid-off platform sales, particularly when they have no replacement for either the Ranger or the Panthers on the horizon. 180,000 sales a year isn't anything to sneeze about in this market, and surely the profits on these vehicles are extremely substantial. Why not just keep making the Ranger, Crown Vic, Grand Marquis, and Town Car until the volume doesn't justify starting up the assembly plant in the morning?

Twenty or thirty years ago, that's exactly what Ford would have done, and they would have been right to do so. Today, the answer isn't so clear-cut. What's changed? Branding. Follow along as I explain why Ford needs to cut these nameplates loose... but why it might make sense to keep the vehicles themselves in production.

Let me begin with a clear-cut indictment of my friends at Ford: To let the Panther-platform cars and the Ranger go more than a decade without major updates was negligence on an almost-criminal scale. When I look at the money Ford has thrown away in the past ten years, it makes me shudder. The Volvo misadventure alone has cost the company enough money to create brand-new entries in both the full-size RWD and compact-pickup segments from the ground up. It's a disgrace, it's ridiculous, and it's indefensible.

It's also unchangeable history. We can't fire up the time machine and go get four billion dollars back for a new Ranger or a world-beating new Town Car. Nor is the money available now for major revisions on either platform. The Panthers are CAFE nightmares and will only have an even worse impact as the CAFE requirements head upwards. The Ranger, like most compact pickups, sells best in super-cheap, low-profit fleet trim; a billion-dollar refresh would take perhaps five years to recoup.

So there cannot be new Panthers or Rangers. Why not let the old ones keep selling? It's an idea that makes perfect business sense. The tooling is long since paid for with both. The men and women working in the plants need the hours. Perhaps most importantly, the 180,000 or so sales a year represented by these vehicles will go to competitor products and sustain those companies in years to come. Don't you think Toyota, and its dealers, count the days until Ranger production comes to an end? What about Chrysler, whose fleet sales personnel simply cannot wait until the Charger is the only "heavy-duty" cop car out there? Why throw a lifeline to the competition?

The answer is branding. The Ranger and Panther-platform cars are solid, hardworking, dependable vehicles loved by hundreds of thousands of people. They are also scandalously out of date, ancient-looking, and far behind modern standards of interior quality, NVH, and feature count. When people are exposed to these Ford products, it reinforces the incorrect assumption that Fords aren't as snazzy as the Japanese competition. If you're a Manhattan-dweller whose only exposure to vehicles comes through cab rides, what do you suppose your "Ford experience" is compared to the "Toyota experience" you have in a Highlander Hybrid? What are you telling your friends and family?

What about the working man who drives a Ranger on the job? Is he likely to investigate a Taurus for his next family car, or will he assume that all Fords drive like flexy old trucks? If the Ranger is outselling the Taurus and Flex combined, what is that doing to Ford's efforts to "get the word" out to buyers? When those buyers drive past a dealership and see row after row of white-painted time-warp vehicles from the late Nineties, what does that do to their desire to stop and investigate the Ford story?

This wasn't a problem back when one out of every four cars sold in this country carried the Blue Oval. People understood that working Fords might be different from "fancy" Fords. No longer. There are too many brands out there, too many competing vehicles, too little space available in the consumer's mind. It's time for One Ford, and everybody needs to start marching in the right direction. Every new Ford the consumer sees needs to have SYNC, every new Ford needs to have the modern styling language, every new Ford needs to exude freshness and fast-forward thinking. Every Grand Marquis the company sells now could be costing it two Lincoln MKS sales in the future. It's sad, but it's the way things are. Time to give the old cars the chop, regardless of profitability, regardless of value, regardless of virtue.

Or is it? These are all still vehicles which are highly competitive in their class. As my friend Mark said today as we left the junkyard, "The success of the Ranger is a damning indictment of the Colorado and Tacoma". He's right. The Ranger still offers a solid alternative. Same for the Crown Vic. Where else are you going to get a full-frame police car or taxi? The people who use those vehicles don't like the alternatives, and they are letting everybody know it. When the Crown Victoria ceases production, you can bet that a lot of fleet operators will feel abandoned. Even the Town Car fills a niche that nobody else can --- that of long-life airport limo, professional car, city transportation. Imagine you're a professional driver in Manhattan, shuttling stockbrokers across the island and relying on your car's reliability to feed your family. Knowing that the big Lincoln can run for 300,000 miles or more, are you going to be particularly enthusiastic about switching over to a Cadillac DTS with its failure-prone Northstar? How about a Lexus LS, which costs half again as much to buy and far, far more to maintain?

There are still buyers, and where there are buyers there have to be sellers. The Ford and Lincoln brand can't afford to be affiliated with these vehicles, but that doesn't meant there isn't a branding answer. Why not fold these well-loved vehicles into a single, commercially-focused brand? It would be dirt-cheap to swap badges. Finding dealers would be no problem: there are a lot of dealers who would like to add high-volume nameplates to their lineup. To sweeten the pot, Ford could also thrown in the E-Series van, which is just as obsolete, and just as useful, as the others. This would free them up to offer the Euro-market Transit (not the Connect, but the full-size Sprinter lookalike) through the Ford dealers at a higher price.

Everybody wins. The factories keep humming, the fleet buyers are happy, the competitors are still starving. There's only one question left. What do you call the damn things? The "Sterling" nameplate could work, and I'm sure it's for sale since Daimler-Benz is no longer interested in branding vehicles as Sterling. I also like "Liberator", in reference to the B-24 bomber built by Ford during World War II.

There is an even cheaper option, however. Ford owns a decent brand, well-regarded, with plenty of consumer presence and "Q" value, and they are about to find themselves with no use for it. This could work! Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you... the 2012 Mercury Ranger!

Avoidable Contact #36: The culture wars gave Toyota a license to kill.

Are Toyotas really accelerating without warning? It's hard to say, since it's been years since I saw any Toyota besides a Tundra even keep up with the normal flow of traffic. The Camry is the official car of the left-lane hog, the chosen transport of that woman ahead of you who ABS-locks her brakes for a yellow light and then won't enter the intersection for a left on green. By and large, Toyotas are characterless cars purchased by fearful, fretting nebbishes. Twenty years ago, Toyota ads screamed "OH WHAT A FEELING!" but today's Toyota ads are naked appeals to terror of the unknown. Do you clutch your organic-fiber blanket in bed at night and roll around shaking, dreading the day when your car requires service or --- gasp! --- maintenance? Toyota has the car for you. Corolla! It's for cowards! Oh what a feeling!

If the average Toyota buyer is afraid of her own shadow and worries about automotive catastrophe constantly, surely the prospect of UNINTENDED ACCELERATION RIGHT INTO A FLAMING WALL OF DEATH should be enough to keep every Camry in the United States off the road, right? Well, that would certainly be the case, except for one little thing: there is a force that motivates the average Toyota fan or purchase far more than fear, and that force is pure, blinding hatred.

Some of us have seen this movie before. When General Motors introduced the "import-fighting" X-body in late 1979, the car seemed to have it all. The Chevrolet Citation and its platform mates had spectacular packaging; the five-door X-body is approximately the same length and width as the Prius, is significantly shorter, and has greater passenger volume. This, from a car developed in the mid-Seventies. Weight was well under control: the X-bodies all weigh under 2500 pounds and some are as light as 2250. Fuel economy was stellar: adjusted for modern ratings, the four-cylinder X could make 31mpg on the freeway, with a four-speed, direct-drive-fourth-gear transmission. I would even argue that the X was a handsome car, particularly in two-door hatch form.

X-body sales were well over the three-quarter-million mark in 1980. It seemed General Motors had finally found the lever with which to move the compact-car world. Unfortunately, the X-body had a serious safety problem. The rear brakes locked-up under the slightest provocation, causing the cars to loop out of control in normal driving conditions. GM knew it was a problem before the cars entered production but chose to not address the issue, something which later on cost them a lot of money in jury awards and federal fines.

People died in X-car collisions. Quite a few people died in them as a result of the brake defect; we'll never know how many because thirty years ago crash data was often uncollected, particularly in rural areas. After a toe-in-the-water 240,000-car recall, the Feds eventually ordered GM to recall over a million cars to address the issue. A series of lawsuits were resolved in GM's favor by a Reagan-era government. I'm copying the Center for Auto Safety's paragraph on the decision verbatim here for the reader's enlightenment; while I am no fan of governmental interference, I think this was a case where a little more of it might have been warranted.

On April 14, 1987, nearly four years after suit was filed and over a year after trial ended, U.S. District Court Judge Thomas P. Jackson issued his decision, ruling for GM on all counts before the court. No recall would be ordered because the government had failed to define precisely what was wrong with X-car brakes. The thousands of complaints from X-car owners were dismissed as "anecdotal"; the internal memos in which GM's own experts attacked the car's brake performance were merely evidence "that brake engineers have yet to devise the infallible braking system." In his opinion Jackson chided the government for coming "into court with nothing more, essentially, than a reasonable suspicion, without the evidence to prove it."

Once the public found out about the X-car brake problems, the Citation, Phoenix, Omega, and Skylark became unsaleable showroom filler, eventually piling up to the point that GM had to bury them all in the same desert where Atari buried over one million "E.T." game cartridges for the VCS system. Oh, who am I kidding? People still bought the X-cars. The Honda Accord was a better mousetrap, and it didn't kill people by putting them backwards into lampposts, but Honda couldn't dream of selling their little car in the kind of volumes enjoyed by the Chevrolet Citation right up to the bitter end. Why?

The answer is simple. The Accord was "Jap crap" and the Citation was a decent American car, built by good old General Motors. It seems hard to believe today, but thirty years ago people actually gave a damn about their neighbor having a job, and they really gave a damn about purchasing an American-made product. To the average American of the year 1981, today's consumerbots and their blithe willingness to pay thousands of dollars for products made in China by people earning a dollar an hour and killing themselves to avoid going back to work would be all but incomprehensible. Therefore, they bought Citations over Accords, even though they were risking their lives by doing so. Risking your life to guarantee your neighbor a job, even if your "neighbor" was hundreds or thousands of miles away! Hard to believe, eh?

General Motors had a lot of goodwill with people back then, but in the years that followed they cheerfully burned it all to the ground. By the year 2000, the GM badge was synonymous with "crap" for most Americans. Too many bad products, too much corporate indifference, not enough quality. The reasons are too numerous to detail here.

The Citation buyer of 1980 probably didn't think of himself as a "Citation man". He would have described himself as a former Marine, a union laborer, an economics professor, or a dancer for the Chippendales. Again, it's hard to believe, but people in this country used to identify themselves primarily on career, family affiliation, or community standing. The past thirty years have seen many of the concepts regarding "community", family, and career utterly implode in the United States and elsewhere. (The book Bowling Alone was an early discussion of this change.) We're now "product people". The average twentysomething is likely to be more passionate about his membership in E46fanatics.com or NAGTROC than he would be about his status as an American or a "cube monkey", and he will tell you that he is an Apple owner before he tells you that he is a Christian or an agnostic.

This change from community to product affiliation has had some interesting effects on how we view people who purchase products different from our own choices. I'd like to excerpt a few passages from a recent Boston Globe article about the Prius. Some are from the author, others are from the commenters on the online edition. It may not be immediately apparent which is which:

"Prius, the brilliantly engineered hybrid that created a popular car category the dunderheads in Detroit are still trying to match."

"...the fools who invested your tax dollars in a failed auto company called General Motors"

"(GM is)... a company that paid workers (lavishly) not to work, and cranked out gas-guzzling SUVs while the planet was on fire"

"Detroit’s also-ran car companies are fanning the anti-Toyota flames in the media"

"I bought a Prius not only because it's a hybrid car but a car made in Japan... If Toyota decides to make Prius in the US, I think my next car will be either Honda Insight or Nissan Leaf."

Of those five comments, the first four were actually part of the Globe article. Note the venom, the personal anger, but also note that these rather personal and angry comments were published by a paper of record in the United States. The author is a Prius owner, but he doesn't talk about the virtues of the Prius. Rather, he talks about how horrible Toyota's "enemies" are. A quick wallow through Internet commentary by Toyota owners shows that the talking points of Toyota ownership are reducible to just two, summarized below:

  • Toyota owners think the cars are pretty reliable. When Toyotas break, it's probably the fault of the owners.
  • American manufacturers are planet-killing murder corporations headed by thieves and secretly owned by BP. They are also chock-full of fat, lazy, blue-collar people who drink crappy beer, own televisions, believe in Jesus, faint in church, own JetSkis, screw their cousins, shop at Wal-Mart, scratch their genitals in public, divide their leisure time equally between frothing hysteria regarding NASCAR and the WWE, jack their trucks up ten feet off the ground only to have their morbidly obese asses sag them back down to street height, vote for Bush, deny global warming, and wear mesh-backed baseball caps without any sense of irony whatsoever.

Ownership of a Toyota isn't just a choice to buy a relatively cheap and usually reliable automobile; it's a salvo in the Kulturkampf, that great culture war that has come to define American politics and life. Honda and Nissan owners tend to talk about how great their cars are, but Toyota owners tend to talk about how lousy American cars are. They are buying the cars not because of what they are, but because of what they are not.

And thus we see why it simply doesn't matter how many people are killed by unintended acceleration, real or imagined. It doesn't matter how many Tundras rust out, how many Tacomas break in half, how many MR2s ingest their intake manifolds and blow up, or how many $75,000 Lexus sedans either stall for no reason or adjust their steering wheels ninety degrees out of whack during an auto-parking maneuver. Speaking personally, I think the average Toyota is a reliable car, at least as reliable as the equivalent Ford or Honda, but that's irrelevant. Once passion and hatred enter the equation, nothing else matters but those emotions.

For many Toyota buyers, coming back to the domestic fold, or even choosing an alternative Japanese car, would be an admission of personal defeat. The Citation buyer in 1982 wanted to support America; the Camry buyer in 2010 needs to support his own ego, his own choices, his own self-image. I'm willing to bet that many of the episodes of unintended acceleration in Toyotas are never reported, for the same reason that new iPad owners can become rather angry when you question their purchase.

It's all quite laughable, actually. I feel very superior to Toyota owners, primarily because I'm a Porsche owner. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to sacrifice a fatted calf to the ghost of Ferdinand Porsche in hopes that my Boxster doesn't lunch its engine at Monday's track event...

Avoidable Contact #35: Become an English autowriter instantly with these five easy tropes.

The nice folks at autowriters.com published a modified version of Avoidable Contact #31 last week, and as one might suspect it's raised quite the fervor among the Frank Bacons of the world. This is all well and good, but it has occurred to me that, in the course of exposing the mendacity/mediocrity two-punch combo which characterizes our industry, I may have inadvertently crushed some of my readers' dreams of becoming an automotive "journalist". To those readers, I offer my most sincere apologies. Better yet, I offer a solution. Instead of becoming an automotive journalist, why not become an English automotive journalist? Trust me, it's a better gig. Not only will you instantly acquire the kind of cast-iron credibility that American autowriters will never so much as sniff, if you are lucky someone may even bring you back "across the pond" to run an American auto rag! Naturally, you'll need a little help to make this dream become reality. I cannot help you fake the accent, and I cannot teach you to operate a stick-shift with your left hand, but I can show you how to write just like an English journo. It's easy! I've provided five "tropes" below to get you started. According to the nice people at tvtropes.org, a site I am not linking directly because it's so good you will never return to S:S:L, "Tropes are "devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members' minds and expectations." It's almost impossible to find a Brit-rag article that does not use one or more of these, so a solid command of this fab five is essential to your future career. Each trope is carefully described and a kind-of-fictional example is provided for your use. What are you waiting for? Get writing --- and by next week you could be driving an Azure on the Mulsanne! #1: The (Vanden Plas) Princess And The Pea-Sized Upgrade "In our previous road test, we shocked the world by declaring the Ferrari 630GTBX to be very possibly the worst car ever made. Across the moors of Brighton-on-Stokes, the 630GTBX was mind-numbingly dangerous and handled with the devastating indirection of a three-wheeled pastry cart. In this drive, however, we confirmed what we had suspected would be the case: that the addition of a 1mm fiber washer in the left front control arm has completely addressed these uncertainties and turned what was a sow's ear into a true silk purse, flying down B-roads with the furious power of Apollo's sun-chariot and making gods of mortal men. Once the worst car sold in Britain, the 630GTBX-FibroWasher has become the very best." You can blame this one squarely on LJK Setright, who complained that the redesigned nose on the 1995 Jaguar XJ6 completely destroyed its crosswind stability and thus rendered a "perfect motorway car" utterly useless. Setright's ability to "discover" major ramifications of minor changes was such a cast-iron credibility-builder than almost no English autowriter can resist pretending to discover something similar from time to time. The game works like this: drive an early example of a car that everyone expects will be outstanding --- and completely trash it for a flaw so minor that nobody else can find it. This excites readers, generates controversy, and sells magazines. Unfortunately, it also pisses manufacturers right the eff off, so one is required to promptly test a "revised" car and declare it to be spectacular, possessing qualities that only a very perceptive journalist can distinguish. The smaller the change, the better. After all, any American auto-moron can see the difference between a Mustang 4.6 and a Mustang 5.0, but it takes a true Brit to notice what the 5mm optional spacers on a Porsche Boxster S do for handling. A frequent riff on this particular trope is The Smaller The Engine, The Sweeter The Juice, in which a writer drives three different versions of a car and pronounces that "although the 1.3L variant is dangerously slow compared to the 2.0 and 6.9 engines, the character of the engine is so much sweeter-revving that it remains the must-have configuration." #2: For There is in London All That Life Can Afford "Although the Farbiobootay UK69 lapped our test track just slightly behind Lewis Hamilton's McLaren MP24, returned 76 miles per gallon during a thousand-mile test drive, and sells for the same price as a used Renault Twingo, it is slightly too zaftig for width restrictors, is subject to the C-charge, and it fails to catch the eye of Sloane Rangers. No wonder, then, that we gave it a zero-star rating at the back of the magazine." Presumably the United Kingdom is not just London and a few suburbs, but one would never know it from reading the Britmags. Not only do they judge every car sold on its ability to crawl through London traffic, as much as a third of each review is tirelessly given over to a half-baked analysis of how the driver of said car will be perceived by random pedestrians at St. John's Gate. BMWs are for "thrusty buggers", but an Infiniti will apparently cause onlookers to vomit on sight because it's a fake BMW. Range Rovers are "horribly offensive" and Citroen C2s are "irrepressibly po'-mouthed". Furthermore, every woman in London possesses the discriminatory powers of LJK Setright and will withhold sex from any man who is either so poor as to select the standard-equipment "dog-dish" wheels or so offensively thrusty as to purchase the top-spec "deep-dish" performance wheels. The reader who simply wishes to find out how a car will drive around his small town... is irrelevant to our City boys. These are less British magazines and more Londonian ones. #3: The Eleventh Tenth "Faster and faster we went, obliterating the French autoroute at well past 300 km/h before shifting into eighth gear for a WRC-paced assault on the Stelvio Pass. Man and machine hummed in sympathetic fury as road test editor Nigel Paddington four-wheel-drifted the recalcitrant Westfield S-Twelve at an angle of attack so extreme the "Bridgestone" logo was branded into the asphalt like a mark of Cain with the power of Christ himself..." In real life, the United Kingdom is a land of low speeds, constant automated monitoring from traffic cameras, and people towing full-sized campers with diesel Audi A4 wagons at well below the posted limit. Europe ain't much better. But that never stops our fearless autojournos, who know secret roads (literally) beyond the Pale and who are also nearly immune from police prosecution. And while nearly every Britrag has access to some candy-assed airfield test track which wouldn't be fit to hold a 24 Hours of Lemons race over on this side of the pond, they almost always choose to do their handling impressions on winding roads. These balls-out adventures are described with such utterly convincing earnestness that I expected to be utterly amazed by the driving skill of the rather famous English journalists with whom I shared a trackday some years ago. Imagine my surprise to see that their pace wouldn't exactly trouble American HPDE3 drivers. From that day on, I dismissed all tales of triple-digit derring-do in CAR et al as being pure fantasy. #4:The Ashtray's Full, Let's Sell This Lambo "It was a sad day as I waved goodbye to COK4SAL, the 911 C4S Targa I've enjoyed driving around London these past five days. Although I had been on the waiting list for nearly two decades, the crushing effects of depreciation meant that I was required to sell the Porker only a week after taking delivery. Luckily, Brett Soames from Crowne Pagani at Stokesford-on-Trent called to let me know that my new 'Paggers' had arrived. Look for our next long-term report to include all the details of my ownership of this car, which I anticipate could be for as long as a month." Buying a car in the UK is, apparently, utter hell. Every car has a waiting list, "main dealers" apply arbitrary markups, and somehow cars are worth more used than new. Furthermore, most new cars are apparently bought as company cars and then taxed on their CO2 emissions. It's flatly ridiculous, but not quite as ridiculous as the UK rags' habit of taking on 'contributing writers' who are simply over-privileged morons. These pogues buy, sell, trade, crash, and molest their way through an endless series of improbably difficult-to-obtain 'motors'. When they aren't busy having a Carrera GT completely disassembled and repainted a different color (true story, btw) they're backing Murcielagos into lampposts and driving Minis head-first into monstrous potholes. Naturally, the 'long-term tests' which come from these 'punters' consist nearly entirely of complaints about dealer service levels, occasionally interrupted by a breathless description of a lead-follow car-club trackday. #5: Seventy-Six Dubious Cars, One Ridiculous Winner "You have read, in the past one hundred and four pages and eight feature articles, how we tirelessly winnowed the fleet of competitors for our latest comparison. After the eighth round of eliminations, we were left with just the Fiat Panda 100HP and the Nissan GT-R 'K-Spec' YK750 with tuning by Bedford Performance of Bedford-on-Bedford. We promptly sent Lord Feffington and young Fredrick Darwins-Ffinch to the moors of Scotland for a head-to-head drive. As fate would have it, the roads were covered with ice and troubled by intermittent flocks of sheep, and no matter how Lord Feffingon boldly pressed the Nissan to its limits, the impudent Darwins-Ffinch nipped at his heels. Therefore, we have utter confidence in naming the Fiat Panda 100HP the 'Mid-Engined Japanese Enthusiasts' Car Of The Year.'" No Britrag would be complete without an outrageously comprehensive "true driver's car" test. This competition is not just open to every car currently on sale, but to obscure tuner variants of those cars, to say nothing of the magazine staff's personal vehicles, concept cars, and BTCC racers. It's virtually certain that the contest will be won by something absolutely unsuitable for said victory, and that the final decision will hinge on some imaginary-velocity B-road drive under bizarre conditions, in which some car will demonstrate miraculous "road speed" beyond anything one might expect. The test may incorporate racetrack comparos, it may be held in Scotland, it may occur in Spain, it may be a parking-lot gymkhana, but the reader can rest assured that it will be different for each group of cars. Supercars will be tested on the Stelvio Pass, microcars will be tested in downtown London, and the final determination will occur on the Land's End boardwalk. The only thing about which one may be absolutely certain: the resulting articles will be monstrous in size and will be mostly devoted to the logistical difficulties involved with each test. So there you have it. Go forth and write a stonking back-road blast in a Citroen C3 Pluriel, an outrageous Chunnel crossing in a Skoda Superb, or just a long-term report on a diesel wagon you don't expect to have for more than a few weeks. The whole world of English motoring journalism is open to you. And when you find yourself living in a "flat" and dating runway models, don't forget who put you there, okay?

Avoidable Contact #34: When buying a new car, don’t forget the Grand National Problem.

Imagine that you're an alien. Not an undocumented immigrant, mind you, but a genuine, green-tentacle-and-glass-helmet monstrosity of a visitor from beyond the stars. While your fellow aliens examine the defense systems of Earth (not so hot) and the intelligence of the population (somewhat simian), you attempt to reconcile all the written history you can find with the evidence before your massive, bloodshot, singular eye. You are particularly interested in the history and psychology behind the local transportation devices, known as "cars", "whips", "hogs", or "causes for divorce".

Most of what you've learned is pretty common-sense stuff, even for an alien. There's a problem, however, and you have, after some months of study, come to call it "The Grand National Problem". You've used your indistinguishable-from-magic science to read everything in the vast record-keeping halls of General Motors. You know from the documentation that the vast majority of Buick Regals produced during the Eighties were chrome-laden, velour-lined "Custom" and "Limited" models. It's as plain as the order codes on all the old Selectric-typed order forms.

Or is it? All those Customs and Limiteds GM supposedly rolled off the lines at, um, Flint? They're gone. All your spaceship's sensors can detect on the roads, all the ones you see at the half-ass local old-car shows, are examples of a rather minor production variant: the "Grand National". In some years, Grand Nationals accounted for under ten percent of Regal production, but in the twenty-first century virtually every roadworthy example of the baroque Buick sports the blown-six logo and the "Darth Vader" paintjob. The regular Regals have been out of circulation so long, your orbital telescopes cannot even pick them out in junkyards. Something's gone wrong, either with the data or the observations. Was there a G-body genocide? What happened?

Let's rap about resale for a moment. The popular press is constantly admonishing us to choose Toyotas and Hondas because their residual value is so spectacular. I recently read a particularly odious piece on MSN which offered a "smart cost alternative" to outstanding, popular cars like the Focus and Malibu --- no prizes for guessing that these "alternatives" were mostly beige buckets with a tendency to accelerate unexpectedly. In each case, IntelliChoice resale values were the deciding factor in the CamCord/whatever's favor. Although the five-year residual tide is slowly turning in the favor of cars like the Consumer Reports-approved Ford Fusion, it's still true that default-choice Japanese-brand cars are still pulling the most money when it's time to trade in.

Except, of course, when they aren't. If you want to buy and hold a car for a long time, the data doesn't support choosing a Camry. A 2005 Camry may be worth a solid buck, and a 1995 Camry may still pry a few grand out of someone's pocket, but in the long run Japanese cars are worthless, unless they are styled by a German count and closely imitative of a Jaguar E-Type. The vast majority of Japanese cars go straight to the junkyard the moment it would cost real money to fix them. Don't believe me? Search eBay for that titan of Toyota excellence, the 1990 Lexus LS400. There aren't any for sale, because there aren't any on the road.

The car the LS400 was meant to kill, however, can easily be found on eBay. There are plenty of 1990 S-Classes available; ten as of this writing. There's even a 1990 7-Series Bimmer on the 'bay, proving that there really is an ass for every seat. I doubt that a 1990 560SEL is any cheaper to run than the equivalent Lexus, so the disparity must be due to something else.

The clue lies in the imaginary alien's Grand National Problem. The plain-Jane Regals outsold the Grand National, but nobody saves a regular Regal. A normally-aspirated, light-blue Regal has no value beyond providing pleasant transportation. It's the equivalent of a horse in the nineteenth century, and when it gives real trouble it's put out of its misery with the same unsentimental dispatch a farmer would use when packing a trusty but lame old horse into the glue van.

A Grand National, on the other hand... that car has emotional value. Nobody dreams of owning a 1983 Regal Custom (well, I do) but plenty of people would like to show up at the midnight drags in a smooth Buick GN. Some of those people weren't even alive when the car was available in showrooms, but they're all interested. I wrote about "soul" a while ago and concluded that the soul resides in the owner, not the automobile. Soul is another way to say interest, perhaps. If a vehicle is interesting, it is likely to survive that day of cold cost reckoning and receive the irrational repair it requires. Its uninteresting competitor, meanwhile, will be unceremoniously cut down.

The buyer who preserves these cars is not the same person as the new-car buyer, which is why the LS400 was so popular as in showroom-stock trim and so readily consigned to oblivion two decades later. The hardcore old-car buyer is a traditionalist. He will almost always ignore age in favor of condition, miles on the odometer for real wear, equipment for rarity. He likes cars that produce interest.

The Grand National is a very interesting car, so time and time again owners have preserved GNs while regular Regals went to the junkyards. The net result is that, more than twenty-two years after the last rear-wheel-drive Regal rolled off the line at Pontiac, Michigan, (that's right, it wasn't Flint) the relatively uncommon Grand National has become the most common Regal out there. Hell, it might be the most common G-body GM coupe out there. I wouldn't bet against it.

Can we find the Grand National effect elsewhere? You bet we can. The 1982 Camaro Sport Coupe, a clean little car with a vented nose, complete lack of ground effects, and an utterly gutless Iron Duke four-cylinder engine, outsold the Camaro Z28 by a reasonable margin. Try to find one now. I'll wait. While you're at it, see how many Volkswagen GTIs you will find from the early Eighties before you find a base Golf. We can play this game all night. Supra v. Cressida. Fox Mustang v. first-gen Escort. Porsche 911SC v... well, anything from the late Seventies. Vintage Nine Elevens are so durable, and are preserved with such ardor by their fans, that in some cities I see more of them than I see all other cars from that era.

Even on the occasion that one finds a now-rare everyday car from long ago on sale, the market pricing doesn't match that of the "interesting" cars. When those time-capsule Regal Customs come out of some dead fellow's garage, they are almost valueless. The Grand National package wasn't a cheap option in 1987, but it would have been money well spent for anyone who wanted to resell their Buick today.

With all of this in mind, we could come up with some rules to maximize our long-term resale value. Some people really do want to keep their cars twenty or thirty years, and those people would benefit from knowing how to maximize the eBay spiff they'll get when it's time to sell. No doubt MSNBC or Edmunds would do a "Top Ten" list, but I'd prefer to boil it down to a single sentence:

Buy a mechanically durable sporting car from a well-respected manufacturer, in the highest-performance variant you can afford.

Simple as that, and you can go back and look in the past for endless examples. Corvettes fetch far more than Caprice Classics, and 944 Turbos are worth twice as much as naturally-aspirated models. (A 944 Turbo S? Even more so.) One sixteen-valve 190E sells for enough to buy five eight-valvers. Pity the poor fool who didn't pay the relatively minor premium to upgrade his Mustang LX to five-liter power, and smile at the fellow who spent his forty-two grand on a 1995 Lexus GS300 (a $3,000 no-sale on eBay nowadays) instead of a Porsche 968 (fetching an easy twenty grand with a six-speed manual and a clean bill of health.)

Our imaginary aliens, were they to study humanity long enough, might be cheered by the Grand National effect. It suggests that people will still put money and effort down to obtain cars that are worth loving, despite the best efforts of the environmental lobby, the public schools, the coastal elites, and the United States Government to reduce automobile ownership to the status of an embarrassing, expensive inconvenience. I know it cheers me to think of it. The Grand National effect also suggests that the smartest money isn't always the most "sensible". That's good to know as well.

I feel duty-bound, however, to point out something else that our alien friends might notice. There aren't a lot of recent cars being rolled into garages to sleep their way towards a well-loved future. The Camry SE is no Grand National, but more tragically, the Nineties Regal GS was even less of one. Nor does the upcoming Regal GS strike me as a likely survivor. What's worth saving? The sad, swollen, slab-sided sport-utility-vehicles that clog the American arteries won't ever find a home in anyone's heart. The niche brands that inspired men and women to hold on to them couldn't hold on themsleves. The high-end cars that aren't disposable crap also aren't fixable in a home garage. And, not to coin a phrase, in this business lately, the best seem to lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.

Still, at this past week's New York Auto Show I saw a car that just might qualify for Grand-National-style preservation. It's likely to be durable, it's fixable, it's ugly but lovable, it's fast and it looks exciting. It's also an example of a manufacturer listening to its public and fixing problems instead of ignoring them. The pricing's ridiculously optimistic but in this era of fifty-grand six-cylinder Japanese sedans perhaps the concept of value doesn't carry much credence anyway. It's a keeper, and it is called the 2011 Subaru Impreza STi.

Avoidable Contact #33: A modest proposal — cops don’t need to speed.

The nice folks at Jalopnik link to us so often, it's the least I can do to begin this column by suggesting you watch this video over there. For those of you who don't like watching videos, it shows a police car operating at a velocity of ninety-four miles per hour in a marked 40 zone. At around the one-minute mark, we see the police car strike a Mazda containing two teenagers. Both are killed. The police car is not running its lights, was not operating the siren, and was not even responding to an emergency.

Here's the best (or worst) part: the officer who killed the kids, Jason Anderson, was apparently "racing" the officer whose car recorded the video, one Richard Pisani. Pisani is traveling at about 74 mph during one part of the video. In a marked 40. I cannot find any evidence that Office Pisani was in any way disciplined for his conduct. Think about that for a moment.

Perhaps most worryingly, the video shows absolutely no awareness, driving ability, or the vaunted "high-speed police training" on the part of Officer Anderson. It's fairly obvious that the Mazda is going to cross Anderson's path. We're regularly told that by police departments that their officers have "special training", but this is an accident that most solid NASA HPDE drivers could easily avoid. A modest amount of steering to the left would have saved two lives. Instead, Anderson simply drives right into the Mazda, with his car's "black box" recording 100% accelerator pressure up to the crash. He was flat-out to the very end.

The good news is that the technology exists to prevent a tragic event such as this from ever happening again. In fact, the technology has existed for a very, very long time, and it could be easily installed on every police vehicle in the country. Let's discuss.

I live in a little suburb outside Columbus, Ohio. My afternoon commute takes me through an even smaller suburb of perhaps five hundred residents. This suburb rigorously enforces a 40mph limit on the 1.5 miles of state highway passing through its borders, and it has at least two police-liveried Explorers with which to do so. I'm used to having my lime-green Audi S5 lit up with multiple laser shots and frustrated, angry looks from those Explorers as I cruise-control by at 38 miles per hour, not a bit more. I know that if I stray above forty I'll be ticketed. A friend of mine got a $200-ish ticket a while ago for running his Supra by the local yokels at forty-five.

Today, as I was idling through that town, I was nearly struck head-on by one of the aforementioned police Explorers, running flat-out to catch a speeder. I'm no accurate judge of oncoming-vehicle speed (and, for that matter, neither is anyone else I've ever met) but I think it's fair to say this cop was doing at least sixty, maybe seventy, and he was treating the double-yellow separating me from him with a considerable amount of disregard. It didn't take me much mental effort to move over and avoid a collision, but it started me thinking about some basic assumptions regarding speeding and police conduct.

We can start by examining the most basic assumption regarding speeding, namely the idea that there should be such an offense. For better or worse, I'm inclined to think that some sort of speed limit is a reasonable idea. I'd like to buzz down the freeway at a buck-fifty, and I occasionally do buzz down the freeway at a buck-fifty, but I'm not certain that the current states of vehicle repair, tire inflation, driver education, and drug/alcohol/phone/boomin'-system use in this country support the idea of unlimited speed on all roads.

Now we arrive at the first contradiction in modern speeding laws: the fine-based approach. If you break a speed limit by less than thirty miles per hour in most areas, you will be fined and/or receive "points" on your license. If speeding is dangerous, and if people die from speeding, why aren't speeders thrown in jail? Throwing old-school Jarts into a crowd is dangerous, and if you get caught doing it chances are you won't simply be permitted to avoid criminal penalities by mailing a hundred bucks to your local mayor's court. Why do we, as a society, treat speeding differently? Could it be a tacit recognition by the justice system pf the fact that nearly everyone exceeds the artificially low speed limits in the United States?

Of course, if you live in an area where photo radar or some other Orwellian automatic enforcement hasn't yet become popular, you will have to receive your speeding ticket from a police officer. Unless you slow down below the posted limit upon seeing said cop and then patiently wait for him or her to arrive behind you, your pursuer will have to break the speed limit as well.

Think about that. It's not usually necessary to murder people to catch a murderer, nor is it necessary to rape innocent bystanders to punish a rapist. If your car was stolen, you would not expect the policeman taking your report to arrive in a stolen car. And yet we generally accept the idea that a police officer will break the speed limit in order to catch speeders. Even more interestingly, we accept that it will be "necessary" to break the speed limit by considerably more than the original offender did.

Some back-of-the-envelope stuff: If a driver is doing fifty in a forty and passes a stationary cop in a P71 Crown Vic "Police Interceptor", that cop will need at least ten seconds to pull out and accelerate to fifty miles per hour. At that point, he is at least four hundred feet behind the speeder, probably more. If he wants to catch that speeder within three or so minutes and stay within his jurisdiction, he needs to step it up to fifty-five or sixty miles per hour. He's now doing half again the speed limit and possibly represents a greater threat to the public welfare than the original offender.

This wouldn't be a problem if cops didn't crash, but they do. All the time, as a matter of fact. A long time ago, I had a police firearms instructor tell me, "There are two things cops can't do: shoot and drive." He was right. NHTSA states that over 3,000 people have died in police chases during the past decade. In 2001, for example, 365 people were killed, including 140 who were in no way involved with the chase. For more information, check out Victims Of Police Pursuit. Many municipalities are moving to reduce high-speed chases --- or eliminate them altogether.

If we, as a society, are not willing to risk innocent lives to catch bank robbers or fleeing felons, why should we endure a similar risk simply to tax motorists who are often traveling at a speed which is entirely reasonable and appropriate for the conditions? Speed limits could still be enforced through cameras, automated devices, and the old Ohio Highway Patrol standby of having a cop call ahead to another cop up the road who waves the motorist over to receive a ticket. If this increases the cost of speeding enforcement, perhaps it will inspire municipalities, and the citizens of those municipalities, to more closely consider whether their police are best serving the public by serving as roadside tax collectors.

It seems reasonable enough that police shouldn't be allowed to drag-race down the road, endangering the public simply to write tickets. The problem then becomes: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who will watch the watchers? How can police be prevented from endangering the public? In the long run, an OnStar-style system of GPS-based speed management could be used to ensure that police (and, come to think of it, any other person who suckles from the teat of public employment) adhere to the speed limit at all times. This is the only fair system. While I'm sure that we all like the idea of police rushing at triple digit-speeds to save us from a home invasion, that implies that the lives of crime victims are somehow more valuable than the lives being risked by police who operate vehicles at a speed beyond their capacities. If a policeman kills innocent kids through negligent speed, does the fact that he is rushing to respond to a break-in bring those kids back to life?

While we are waiting for a perfect, nationwide-capable GPS speed-enforcement mechanism to arrive, action can still be taken to save thousands of lives every decade. It's this simple: an old-school speed governor can be installed on every cop car. The maximum speed should be set to the limit chosen by that state for two-lane highways. Simple as that. For most states, that limit is fifty-five miles per hour.

As fate would have it, the Connecticut State Senator for Milford recently opined that a broad increase in requirements and penalties for teenaged drivers would be justified "if it saves one life." I don't know if changing the curfew for teen drivers from midnight to eleven p.m. will save any lives, but I'm pretty sure that governing the Milford Police's cruisers to fifty-five would have saved two lives. Those lives have names: Ashlie Krakowski and David Servin.

Avoidable Contact #32: Nobody wants a car to last forever.

It was a sunny day in 1994 when I fired up my 1990 Volkswagen Fox and took my newly acquired "Swedish Mauser" 6.5x55 rifle to the local range. At that point in time, the rifle was around eighty-two years old, having been manufactured at some point in 1912. It worked fine and was accurate to slightly under one inch at one hundred yards --- the so-called "minute of angle" which is a basic standard of accuracy for long guns. Having satisfied myself that this time-worn gun was up to snuff, I went home and played some guitar. In this case, the guitar was my 1982 Electra Phoenix X130, already twelve years old but showing very little wear despite a harrowing four years following me around a college campus.

My mail had been delivered that day by a mailman driving a Grumman LLV, very similar to the one pictured at the top of this column. And although I didn't know it, Porsche was less than three months away from building a particular white 1995 993 Carrera with factory-matched white wheels.

Nearly sixteen years later, my Mauser is doing fine service for another shooter, who reports that it has required no repair or maintenance beyond the basics. It will turn one hundred years old in 2012. My Electra rarely comes out of its case any more, since I have an, ahem, Gibson CS-336 and Heritage H-535 Anniversary to supplant it, but when I do play it there's no evidence that it's now a twenty-eight-year-old guitar. My mail was delivered today by a mail lady in a Grumman LLV which could not have been manufactured any fewer than fourteen years ago. And my 1995 Porsche 993 Carrera slumbers in the cold garage dreaming of spring, shiny and corrosion-free.

The 1990 Fox I drove to the range that long-ago day? Gone, junked, rusted out, driven into the ground. In a story full of what they call "durable goods", the Fox wasn't truly durable at all. It was used and discarded, probably utterly worthless by the time the odometer reached the 150,000 mark. Surely VW understood how to make a consumer product as durable as a wooden Japanese guitar or a ninety-year-old rifle. The industry as a whole understood how to make durable items. My little white 993 still runs. The local mail truck still runs, although we'll discuss later why Grumman's understanding of "durable" differs from Porsche's. The Fox's lack of durability was almost certainly due to a particular decision or series of decisions made somewhere at Volkswagen. Why? What is the advantage of deliberately creating less-than-durable products? Put another way --- why aren't all vehicles "long life vehicles"?

The air-cooled Porsche 911 was a durable good in one sense of the term: a fundamentally sound, expensively engineered vehicle using high-quality components that required specialized maintenance to last nearly forever.

I've been fascinated lately by the story of the US Postal Service and its efforts to obtain and use "long life vehicles". You can read a fair amount of the LLV's history at LLV.com. The original Sixties Jeep stepvans were rather intelligent attempts to marry a World War II-proven mechanical platform with a much more spacious interior.

The resulting packaging is very efficient and well-adapted to any relatively low-speed motoring application where aerodynamic drag isn't an issue. Since postal delivery tends to be one of those low-speed applications, the Postal Service was quite interested in the little vans. There was just one problem: they weren't quite big enough. Enter the LLV.

The Grumman LLV takes the stepvan concept, adds aerospace-style riveted construction, and plops the whole thing on the simplest platform General Motors could muster --- that of the S-10 pickup. The intent was to create a vehicle with a long life. Duh. It's called the "Long Life Vehicle." But what does that mean?

I've identified three basic approaches to creating durable vehicles. The first one we'll call the aircooled-Porsche approach. Aircooled Porsches were built to exacting tolerances from expensive materials. Starting in the mid-Seventies, they were galvanized to prevent corrosion. The basic guts of a 911 should last a million miles. You may have to replace some relays, redye the leather, or rebuild the engine, but the basics of the car are high-quality and durable. If you want to drive your 911 until the odometer turns over, you can do it --- but it will cost you.

Some of the iconic Japanese cars of the Eighties, such as the Civic and Corolla, were built using a different approach. They were what Toyota now calls "fat product" cars --- vehicles built to be just a little better than they really needed to be. The engineering of these cars was very thorough, money was spent where it needed to be spent to ensure mechanical reliability, and as a result you can drive a 1989 Honda Civic a very long time. Eventually, you will fall prey to the relatively low cost of the materials used in said Honda Civic. The body will rust or corrode. The engine will wear out and will not accept another rebuild. A Civic won't last as long as a 911, but it won't cost you nearly as much time or effort to keep it running during its lifetime.

Grumman chose a third way. The Chevrolet S-10 and its 2.5L "Iron Duke" engine were known, even then, to be pretty low-quality items. The advantage in using those low-quality items came in ease and cost of service and parts replacement. It takes less mechanical aptitude to service an LLV than it does to service a Corolla or Porsche. In fact, it's my understanding that the Postal Service sometimes trains its own mechanics, just like the Army does. To be geeky about it, the set of all techniques and knowledge required to maintain an LLV is a subset of the set of all techniques and knowledge required to maintain modern passenger vehicles, and a small subset at that.

The LLV body itself appears to be almost maintenance-free. It's aluminum, riveted like an aircraft body and just as weather-resistant. Most of the LLVs I see continue to look pretty decent. The bumpers are large, strong, utterly repulsive-looking black rubber affairs. The homeowners in my neighborhood rush home early every Thursday to get their trash cans out of the street before the postal workers clock 'em out of the way with their big LLV bumpers. I've personally seen a large steel trash can fly nearly twenty feet after being struck by a speeding LLV, with no visible damage whatsoever to the aforementioned stepvan. Don't try this with your Lamborghini Valentino Balboni LP550-2.

Come to think of it, I've seen all sorts of abuse heaped on LLVs by postal workers, and rarely do the LLVs complain. They catch fire sometimes (apparently some shortcuts were taken in Grumman's wiring, so to speak) and I wouldn't want to crash one into anything more substantial than a steel trash can, but in general these are hard-working, reliable, abuse-resistant vehicles. The Postal Service seems to agree. Nominally speaking, the LLV will eventually be replaced by the larger, more sophisticated Ford CRV in both gasoline and electric variants. In practice, the LLVs are being refurbished and extended at least to the end of this young decade. It's not unlikely that the existing LLV chassis will survive, perhaps with replacement electric or hybrid powertrains, well into the 2030s.

What we have with the Grumman LLV, then, is a vehicle which can last twenty-five years or longer with relatively unskilled maintenance. It uses inexpensive parts. It has plenty of space. With something besides an Iron Duke ahead of the firewall, it would probably even get decent gas mileage. I would ask "Why isn't there a civilian version?" but the quickie answers to that --- crash safety, uggo bumpers, hurricane-force highway wind noise --- are too easy to produce.

Instead, let's ask this question: We have cars on the market that are sold on safety. We have cars on the market which are sold on performance. We have cars on the market which are sold on price, perceived reliability, environmental impact, cupholder count, faux-coupe silhouette, you name it. There's a car out there catering to nearly every possible desire, from the ridiculous to the sublime... except long-term durability. Isn't there anybody out there who wants a long-life vehicle of their own?

It wouldn't have to be a riveted-aluminum box. It could be a sedan, wagon, or sports car. Nor would it have to miserable to operate. There is plenty of well-understood and time-tested convenience equipment out there. Many existing suppliers understand very well what's required to significantly increase the life of their products; somebody would just have to be willing to pay the extra cost.

What would that cost be? I can't believe that it would be double the cost of existing vehicles. If a Honda Civic can be profitably sold at $17,000, a long-life version almost certainly wouldn't cost $34,000. Perhaps there would be a 50% markup. I'm not convinced it would cost any more than the addition of a hybrid powertrain. Let's dream up a long-life Civic real quick: a plain 1.6 SOHC sixteen-valve engine, with high-strength steel and hardened components. Five-speed manual transmission. Simplified electronics, with upgraded connectors and sensors. Steel wheels. Galvanized body. High-strength fabric interior. A simplified dashboard with access panels to reach the components within. Thicker body panels that are bolted, rather than plastic-riveted, to the frame rails. The list goes on. The million-mile Civic could probably be engineered and built without too much difficulty. It's certainly a simpler item than an Acura ZDX.

Unfortunately, I'm not sure it would be any more popular than that rather beaky-looking awkward-mobile. The Element hasn't set any sales records, and that's probably the closest thing on the market to a deliberately simplified, utilitarian production vehicle. It would be hard to explain to new-car buyers why they should pay more for a vehicle that they probably won't keep more than a few years. While the resale value of long-life Civics would be high, Honda might not appreciate having to compete with its own products for thirty years. Why buy a new "LLC" when used ones are, literally, just as good? It's the same problem that haunts companies like Glock and Gibson: when your old stuff doesn't wear out, the new stuff doesn't always fly off the shelves.

It's difficult to imagine that Honda would embrace a Long Life Civic, particularly not when every new Honda bears conspicuous evidence of cost-cutting. Toyota is currently facing a tsunami of trouble based on its decision to save money on gas pedals and electronics, but I wouldn't look for their pendulum to swing back to the 1990 Corolla any time soon. Porsche and Mercedes-Benz have learned the hard way that snazzy features and hard-sell marketing move more iron than evergreen aircooled Carreras or million-mile W123 sedans. There doesn't seem to be any room in the market for a product sold on the basis of reliability.

Except. There's a company that has a bit of a financial advantage at the moment, some momentum, and engineering prowess to spare. They really need the PR boost and public image buffing that could come from deliberately making long-life vehicles, and they know how it was done before. Ladies and gentlemen, I propose... The Grumman/General Motors Long Life Cruze. Enjoy a million miles behind the wheel of your stylish little sedan! Embrace simplicity and try the locally produced Long Life Cruze! Forget the vagaries of fashion by driving a car that already looks like it was styled a decade ago! It only accelerates when you ask it to!

It's a dumb idea, but it's not as stupid as the Chevy Volt Dance.

Avoidable Contact #31: Automotive “journalism” is a joke, and it needs a punchline.

"If Woodward and Bernstein had been automotive journalists, the Watergate story would have been a five-star review of Richard Nixon's personal tape recorder." I'm putting that in quotes, even though I just wrote it, because I think it's quotable.

"I’m increasingly of the opinion that while critical opinion is necessary — especially with a big purchase like a car — manufacturers are wasting time and money by catering to writers with large or focused audiences but little pull in terms of who actually purchases the items." Now that was written by Michael Banovsky, in his recent piece regarding free-ride automotive journalism, and I think it's also quotable, although it lacks that certain 'zing' that my quote has.

The aforementioned Mr. Banovsky has a novel idea: that manufacturers should stop paying for auto journalists to enjoy unbelievably sybaritic new-vehicle launches, $80,000 free loaner cars disguised as "long-term testers", and all of the other little bennies of the biz. Instead, the money (and it's a lot of money, reckoned to be over five million dollars per year in the case of some of the bigger automakers) should be spent reaching out to, and connecting with, the actual customers for their products. In short, auto journalism as we know it needs to die. The denim-jacket fatties and bald old buzzards who shuffle-steer their incompetent way through a driving event, hold down barstools for the evening, and then rewrite the press release during the flight home --- well, they should be taken out back and shot. The color rags should wither and fall from the shelves like autumn leaves, with only the lace-like rotted pages of a MacNeil Products special-advertising section remaining. The functional illiterates who take a free plane ticket to an auto show, have their hands held by PR reps through a scripted sequence of roundtables, and then breathlessly blog about the "awesomeness" of cars they've never driven --- they will become as difficult to find as their talent was. All change, as they say. Everybody goes home.

He's right, and he's right about why. The Internet will eventually connect manufacturers and consumers directly, with very little third-party (lack of) expertise muddling the flow. That's the end of the story. But the road to that happy ending will be longer than the road Dorothy took to Oz, and here's why.

Let's start (cue groan from the readers) with the reason automotive journalism in its traditional form exists It's interesting to note that special-interest car rags have been around nearly as long as the automobile itself. Autocar was founded in 1895, and the inimitable LJK Setright tells us that it was originally a bit of a shill rag, featuring far-from-impartial opinions to benefit its owner, who also held part of Daimler. The idea of the self-published auto magazine is still with us --- nearly every major carmaker publishes an utterly worthless color rag on a quarterly-ish basis, complete with moronic reviews of luxury hotels, expensive watches, and second-tier men's fashion --- but I find it hilarious that the most dignified name in the print trade was corrupt from Day One.

As we've all heard, the automobile is the second-most expensive purchase we will make in our lives, unless we buy a used Porsche 928, in which it will be the most expensive purchase we will ever make. It's no surprise, then, that buyers have been looking for advice since the nineteenth century. In some cases, such as when Patrick Bedard left an engineering career to work for C/D, or when Consumer Reports decided to pay its own money for cars to test (mostly) impartially, the buyer has been well-served by listening to that "expert advice".

Other examples of automotive "expertise" are closer to being laughable than reputable. Consider the "Wheels" section in nearly every major newspaper. The "Wheels" writers are as numerous as Biblical locusts at the new-car launches, and they descend on the buffet table with the same legendary ferocity, but in most cases they are completely unqualified to review automobiles. They aren't engineers like Patrick Bedard, race car drivers like Paul Frere, or even hopelessly passionate and lyrical enthusiasts like Gordon Baxter. They're just the guys who sucked too hard to be permitted to write about something critical, like municipal levies, local flower shows, or country-club golf tournaments. The "media associations" like TAWA and MAMA are filled to bursting with these $40,000-a-year careerists.

I believe that the phenomenon of the all-expenses-paid press event evolved to suit these easily-impressed mooks. As Mr. Banovsky notes in his article, there's an almost hilarious conflict of interest involved here. You take a guy who barely earns enough to feed his family and put him up for two nights in a boutique hotel, pay for all his meals, keep his glass filled with cost-no-object alcohol, and let him drive brand-new cars. He's living like a prince on someone else's dime! Only a fool would do anything on the flight home but rewrite the press release.

And if the proverbial carrot is large, the proverbial stick can be larger still. This Panamera review made Porsche PR people angry enough to call my editors and make some "suggestions for improvement". Since I already own three Porsches and am accustomed to the policy of hateful contempt with which the company views all but its most monied customers, I wasn't really surprised, but I also have the luxury of not relying on autojournalism to pay my rent. I'm now more or less banned from Porsche events. If I needed to make my living writing about cars, I'd be in a world of hurt.

This is the problem in a nutshell. Real journalists go out and find their stories at their own expense, or their employers' expense. Automotive journalists are effectively compensated by the manufacturers on which they report. And if an autojourno decides to take a "principled" approach, refusing to participate in press launches or take loaner cars... that writer will be effectively six months behind the competition. Would you, as a reader, rather read about the 2011 Shelby GT500 in May or November? Will you wait until November to read a review of a dealership-stock car, or will you eagerly gobble-up the May review, which will be paid for in some way by Ford?

The solution proposed by Mr. Banovsky: stop inviting journalists to events. Rather, manufacturers should invite existing customers to attend preview events, and manufacturer-sponsored discussion forums should eventually replace general-interest automotive news sources as the place for consumers to get their information. The dirty business of checking panel gaps and testing slalom speed can be left to Consumer Reports. Anybody stupid enough to read their local "Wheels" section will still probably see a regurgitated press release on the top fold fifty times a year, so no harm done there.

The advantages of this approach are easy to see. The direct interaction between manufacturer and consumer allows the desired messages to pass both ways with minimal interference.

"Hey, customer, We put the 5.0 in the Mustang just like you asked."

"Great! And while you're at it, could you put a Blu-Ray player in the 2012 model?"

"Sure! Come back to www.yourfordmustanginfosource.com for the details on how you'll be able to order it, and while you're here, why not purchase a 'The 5.0 Is Back' T-shirt?"

This doesn't sound like a very impartial way for consumers to receive new-car information, but trust me: Putting a fifty-year-old man who normally drives a used Corolla behind the wheel of a Corvette ZR1 and letting him putter around a racetrack, thirty seconds a lap off the pace, isn't exactly delivering absolute truth either. The feedback received by the manufacturers will also be of much higher quality. If I had a dime for every time I've heard some drunken moron lecturing an engineer about "the real best way" to do something during an after-dinner free-drinks session, I could probably afford a "The 5.0 is Back!" T-shirt. It's been shown time and time again that listening to auto journalists is a losing game, particularly when it comes to introducing high-cost specialist product. Consider that the auto press moaned for years about the lack of a manual-transmission E60 M5 and then crucified the car upon its arrival. Oops! And the Astra. And the GTO. The list goes on. The color rags have no idea what really sells cars, and neither do the bloggers. If bloggers were in charge of product planning, every manufacturer would offer a six-speed turbodiesel wagon of every single model, and the resulting flood of absolutely unsaleable cars would cause California to collapse into the ocean.

Customers, on the other hand, tend to be reliable sources of purchase information. Know why? They've actually purchased the product in the past. They have credibility. Asking some community-college lard-ass who's never bought anything newer than an old Volvo station wagon what you should sell to the general public is a losing strategy. As Packard used to say, ask the man who owns one.

I'm speaking from personal experience here. I've purchased several new VWs, including two freakin' Phaetons. I have probably signed sales orders for $300,000 of new Volkswagens. VW has never asked me anything. Instead, they hold cost-no-object parties for "social media leaders", who tell them to import more diesel wagons and then drive home in twenty-year-old GTIs with ironic stickers covering the tailgate. No wonder the VW brand is in free-fall. Maybe VW should try something different. I don't think it would be a bad idea to interact with the customers.

Automotive journalism has survived due to arbitrage of information. As discussed above. autojournos see the product well before the public does, and are granted no-cost access to it through loaners and long-term fleet cars. They --- we --- have the information and you don't. If the manufacturers took that "gap" in time and access away, the "experts" would simply vanish. Why listen to what Bob Denimjacket has to say in your local paper about the 2016 Chevrolet Impala SSSSSSS if you can attend a customer event on the same day and see for yourself? Sure, there will still be a small market for detailed performance numbers, but in an era where everybody takes a video record of their dragstrip runs and open-track laps, that market will be small indeed.

This is my vision of the future: Joe Customer wakes up on a sunny Sunday. His tablet/smart paper/superphone says to him, "Good morning Joe. You've been happy with your Nissan 160Z and you've been an active Official Z Forum participant. The new Nissan 180Z is coming to a release event in our town this week. Would you like to chat with an expert system about the car's features, schedule your own exposure event, or have a complete simulation of the car loaded into your PS6 for a few laps of the old Fuji circuit?" In a world like that, nobody's reading some smarmy, cliche-ridden drivel review in Motor Trend. The guy from MT won't see the car before you do, and you wouldn't trust him anyway. You might trust nissanZfan1983, a guy you know on the forums who races Z-cars. Maybe he'll meet you at the event, or you will chat about it over Skype, or you'll race each other in a simulator. In any event, you'll make up your own mind.

When you have your own personal Nissan 180Z long-lead event, probably a parking-lot autocross with 100 or so other owners, you might say, "You know, I like the seats in my current 160Z better. Can you do something similar to those?" If the feedback from enough 160Z owners is along the same lines, when the 180Z reaches your dealership, those seats will be an option.

That's the future, and it's outstanding. It probably means more "Wheels" guys will be homeless and holding cardboard signs at freeway exits reading "Will Shill for Grey Goose". I consider this a bonus. But the road to that future is going to be bumpy. The first manufacturer to take Mr. Banovsky's advice and turn away from the free-ride merry-go-round is going to take a pasting. They won't be discussed favorably in print or in major blogs. Rumors will fly. Mean things will be said. Snide comments will be made. It will be widely supposed that they have turned away from conventional press PR because their product is antiquated, or second-rate, or simply not good enough for the (*snicker*) "glaring spotlight of journalism".

In fact, any carmaker who wants to know what it's like to focus on real customers instead of the press can talk to Tony Crook. Mr. Crook is a former Grand Prix driver who ran Bristol Cars for nearly a decade. Bristol doesn't bother with press drives. There are no press loaners. There are no press events. The auto media is not welcome to tour the factory. Bristol prefers to work directly with their existing customers and find out what they want in a car. Their business grows, such as it does, by word of mouth and exposure to the product in the hands of owners. Go read a Bristol non-review in an English magazine to get a sense of what will be said about any manufacturer who hops off the freebie train. It's rarely complimentary.

Still, Bristol is alive and Pontiac is dead. There's a lesson here, if we could only figure it out.

Avoidable Contact #30: Prius is very iPad! Prius is real luxury! HS250h is more like a Sears Tele-Games! You’ll buy anything!

"...is going to buy whatever Apple unveils today, right at 5pm, no matter what it is." --- Seen on Facebook, January 27, 2010 As I write this, it has been fourteen hours since Apple's Steve Jobs revealed the iPad to a crowd of cheering followers, er, customers, this morning. For what it's worth, I'm in no way impressed with the new iProduct. I've been working with Apple systems since I hacked up a "worm race" program for the Apple ][+ back in 1982, and I am writing this column on a 24" iMac, so I'm very far from being anti-Apple --- but this new tablet doesn't do it for me. Not that Mr. Jobs would care. As a company, Apple is very far from being the hacker-friendly maker of expansion-slot-packed beige wedges I knew as a child. One could argue that Apple isn't even really a computer company any more, insofar as they don't devote a lot of attention to making computers. Instead, Apple is a producer of design-centric goods which offer little more utility than their competitors while commanding significantly higher prices. Hmm... I think that means that Apple is a luxury brand. Don't you? After all, "luxury" doesn't necessarily mean Brioni suits, megayachts, or any of the verses from Carly Simon's "You're So Vain". Rather, a luxury is simply something that one does not need, but that one wants, often for no other reason than the social standing or perceived prestige associated with the item. Luxury, in other words, is something that offers a boost in self-image and image within a community. The iPad will be a luxury item. Nobody needs an iPad. The functionality of the iPad doesn't justify the price. There are cheaper, uglier, more drab devices that provide about the same utility for less money. I would suggest that most iPad purchasers will be people who identify with the Apple brand and its cultural associations. If iPads were invisible, or if they looked exactly like Dell laptops, they would collect dust on the brightly lit Apple Store shelves. Instead, they will fly off those shelves and into the hands of people who want to be seen with the "right" product. Regardless of price. Regardless of function. Regardless of utility. Image is the key. And that is why the Toyota Prius is a successful luxury product. It's also why the Honda Insight has cratered in the market, and it's why the Prius spinoff, the hopelessly dumpy HS250h, is utterly doomed. I can see your lips moving. "What? A $23,000 hatchback with a battery pack is a luxury car? Are you kidding?" Now waiiiiiiiit a minute. I didn't say that the Prius was a luxury car. I said it was a luxury product. There's an important distinction between the two. I've written quite a bit about the traditional luxury car and its uncertain fate. I'm a devoted student of velour seats, Landau tops, and crystal hood ornaments. What we're discussing here, however, has nothing to do with Cadillacs or Camargues. Luxury cars are primarily purchased to convey the impression of wealth, and although the Prius has stellar demographics, it's not just a car for the wealthy. Middle-class families buy them. Fixed-income retirees buy them. Feature for feature, a Prius is no more expensive than a Camry. On the other hand, by that same feature-by-feature yardstick, a Prius is much more expensive than a Hyundai Elantra, and that's where the issue of "luxury" comes in. The actual mathematics of the so-called hybrid tax are too involved to get into here, but I think it's fair to say that nobody has yet convincingly argued that Prius ownership is as economically sensible as Elantra ownership, at least not in a world where gas sells for two or three bucks a gallon and replacement battery packs are far from cheap. No, people don't buy the Toyopod for financial reasons. If you asked Prius owners why they made the choice to buy their car, I imagine you would hear a lot about the environment, sustainability, reducing dependence on foreign oil, blah blah blah. That's all crap. I know that's all crap because the Honda Insight is rusting on dealer lots as we speak. That's right. The Insight is nearly as efficient as the Prius, is just as reliable, and sells for less --- but nobody wants one. And if you think the Insight is a marketplace failure, look at the car rusting on the lot next to it, which is probably a Honda Civic Hybrid. If you want to know if the Civic you are examining is a Hybrid, look for the two telltale signs: disc-like polished aluminum wheels, and thick, dusty cobwebs between those polished wheels and the fenders surrounding them. Nobody buys Civic Hybrids. Nobody bought Accord Hybrids, either. They are (or were, as the case may be) good cars, but they are not Priuses. When I think of the current Insight, I think of the many "all-in-one" computers introduced in the wake of the original iMac's roaring success. There was a time when every computer manufacturer on the planet made an all-in-one, from the now-defunct Monorail to Dell. Most of them had far more computing power than the iMac, even if they suffered from the clunky Windows OS of the time. And they all cost far less. But none of them had the sheer magic design or peerless pedigree of the iMac, so they failed. Nobody wants to be seen with an imitation iMac. The iMac is associated with "cool" people --- designers, freelancers, artsy folks who live in San Francisco and bicycle to work. Imitation iMacs are issued to corporate drones in dank cubicles in order to compete the destruction of their worthless souls. Which end user would you rather be? I thought so. Over time, that perceived coolness spread to the rest of Apple's insanely great lineup, and it's now a self-fulfilling stereotype. Hipsters buy Apple products because they are cool, and those products are cool because they are used by hipsters. Simple as that. If you want to know how Apple's core demographic views the people who buy imitation Apple stuff, try pulling a Microsoft Zune out of your pocket in the middle of People's Park. You will be lucky if the gentle, loving souls around you don't kick your flyover-country ass all the way back to Wal-Mart. Cool people don't want uncool people around them. The uncoolness might be catching, and it's a real bummer anyway, man. So if you want to be cool, you'd better be prepared to pay the Cupertino Tax, because the cool people all pay it without hesitation, and the cool people are buying Apple. What comes next will be tough for some of us to accept. Take a deep breath, then read this next sentence. The cool people out there are buying the Prius. No, they aren't "cool" in the Steve McQueen sense of the term. Many of them are actively frightened by everything from trans fats to mild thunderstorms. I've never seen a Prius in a rap video, and I've never seen anybody driving one who looks like they could bench their own salad-starved weight. We all know the stereotypes about hybrid drivers, and these stereotypes are, frankly, usually true. If James Dean were here, he'd flick his cigarette in their lemon-sucking, tobacco-averse faces. Unfortunately for me, and for many of you, this ain't 1955 any more. Kids aren't having fumbling, terrified sex in the back of hopped-up Chevrolets; they're creating shot-by-shot remakes of gonzo porn in their own rooms, surrounded by iMacs, the Internet, and their amicably-separated parents' indulgent approval. Hot, sweaty, bad-ass speed is for old men and white trash. The cool kids don't want cars, and if they have to have a car, they want it to be one that is as un-car-like as possible. Which means buying a Prius, and paying extra for the name and the design. They have no problem paying extra for a name and a design, because most of them have been doing it ever since they got their first iPod. If all you want is an economical, affordable car, Hyundai and Kia have you covered. If you want a greenwash on that, Honda would love to sell you an Insight. Really, they would. Call today. There's a deal. I promise. But if you want the right look... if you want to be associated with the right people... if you want the same sense of ironclad consumer rightness that every iPad owner in North America will have, then you need to buy a Prius. Nothing else will do. If you buy an Insight, you'll have to explain why you didn't buy a Prius. People will ask you if you own a Zune. If you buy a Civic Hybrid, then some self-righteous woman in cat-eye glasses will stop you in the university parking lot and tell you that your sports car is killing the environment. If you buy a plain Corolla and save seven grand, the word will spread that you stole the car from your fresh-off-the-boat Pakistani roommate. Don't bother to "think different" here. Put an iPod and an iPad in your Prius and relax, knowing that you are just as unique as everyone else in your social group. And if your parents tell you that they are considering a Lexus HS250h, for the love of the God in which your yoga teacher professes not to believe, stop them. Tell them about the Sears Tele-Games. You see, back in 1977, the Atari VCS game system came out. They called it the 2600 later, but to begin with it was just the VCS. It was cool and every kid had to have one. Sears wanted in on the action, and they were in the habit of re-branding things, which is why you can still buy a KitchenAid microwave with "Kenmore" on the door. So they took the Atari VCS and relabeled it as the "Sears Tele-Games". Loving parents brought Tele-Games consoles home to incandescently furious kids. "WHAT THE HELL, MOM! THIS IS NOT AN ATARI!" "The man at Sears said it was the same, and it plays Atari games." "DOES IT SAY ATARI ON IT? MOMMMMMMMMMMMM!" The Lexus HS250h is a Prius with a trunk. It costs ten grand more, and although it has a nicer interior than its cousin, the Sears Tele-Games had cool-ass burl walnut trim and it still sucked, so be aware. Worst of all, it doesn't say "Prius" on it, which means you will have to explain to everybody why your parents hate the environment. Don't buy one. Nobody's buying one, which is why Lexus is leasing that model for just about free right now. Toyota is learning the hard way what Honda, Ford, and GM already know. "Hybrid" is a pretty meaningless badge. It's the "Prius" one that counts. Amazingly, Toyota is going to capitalize on this success by drafting in a smaller "Prius" in a year or so. We saw it as the "FT-CH Concept" in Detroit. It's a hell of an idea, and I know it's a hell of an idea, because Apple already had it. It was called the iPod Nano. Look for the little Prius to be as hot as the Nano. And the likely success of the iPad makes me think there's room for a bigger, more expensive Prius in the future. Not as a Lexus, but as a Prius Plus. In the space of a few years, "Prius" has joined Apple on the List Of Perfect Brands. I think you will be able to buy all sorts of Prius-branded cars in the future. But if what I saw today is any indication, don't expect them to come with, er, complete plug-in capability.

Avoidable Contact #29: Lexus killed Saab, but GM let Saab die.

saab900 This past Friday, I was seated in a long-lead briefing for another auto manufacturer when the whispered word was passed down the line of seated journalists: "There's an emergency conference call regarding Saab in ten minutes." Not too long after that: "Saab is dead. There's no deal." All around me, I saw men with their heads cradled in their hands, though I could not tell whether it was from sympathy, misery, or simple world-weariness. From the seat next to me, a sorrowful, poignant comment: "I don't want to live in a world where the ES350 is a best-seller and Saab is dead." What a perceptive statement! For there were more than fifteen long years where people willingly deluded themselves into believing that this world was one where the Camry-by-Lexus could rule the sales roost and, yet, Saab could live. With evidence to the contrary literally surrounding them, Saab's incompetent, careless stewards at General Motors continued to push the lie: Saab is premium, Saab is luxury, Saab can compete with the Japanese and Germans on equal ground. By the time Saab's lifeless body finally thumped against the ground, the story had assumed the mantle of tragedy. And like most tragedies, it began with a misunderstanding.

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As noted earlier in this series, the primary reason for the prestige accorded European cars in this country in the post-Vietnam era was simply their outrageous cost and relative rarity. This bizarre situation --- that of cars selling well simply because they were priced above their true value --- led European manufacturers to focus obsessively on the United States on general and the coastal markets in particular. It also created the myth that virtually all European cars priced above a VW Rabbit were inherently "upscale". (Eventually, that myth would drag even the humble Rabbit up the marketing ladder, but that is a bunny tale for another time.) [ad] Perhaps the upscale-ness (upscality?) of the Mercedes-Benz S-Class was not open to question, but what about cars which served more or less as the Fords or Chevrolets of their home countries, such as Renault, Peugeot, or... Saab? The Saab 99, which carried the Swedish company's fortunes at home and abroad during the Seventies, was hardly a luxury car by any objective measure. A low-power, front-wheel-drive hatchback with better-than-average seats and an impressive cargo capacity, it should have occupied approximately the same space in the market as the Honda Accord or yet-to-arrive Chevrolet Citation. True, Saab ownership may have been considered a mild luxury back home, but the ownership of any car has traditionally been a privilege in cramped, tax-trampled Europe. In the prosperous United States, the 99's all-weather capability combined with its obvious non-American-ness to make it a favorite among university professors, architects, and all those people who are universally represented in mid-Seventies advertising by a pipe-fondling fellow wearing a turtleneck and tweed jacket. The arrival of the "Turbo" model added some measure of performance cachet to the mix, and suddenly Saab was a rather hip car to own. With the introduction of long-nosed, better-equipped 99 variant, known as the "900", Saab's position as a niche product for comparative-literature professors and the occasional Cannonball Run wannabe was more or less assured. Sure, as a company Saab had a product-development timetable that might best be described as "leisurely", but what did that matter when the best carmaker in the world, Mercedes-Benz, only replaced their mainline sedans every nine or ten years? And if comparable Japanese or American cars offered far more in the way of comfort, features, and performance for less money... what Saab customer would ever want to be seen behind the wheel of a Caprice or a Cressida? The truth of the matter was that people bought Saabs --- and Volvos, and Audis, and other European cars --- less for what they were that for what they were not. As the American dollar fell through the floor in the Eighties, Saab pricing soared and the market responded by demanding better-equipped, even more expensive Saabs. This luxury-car game was an unbeatable scam. It let a small Swedish company sell rather prosaic cars to important people for outrageous prices, and it showed absolutely no signs of ever coming to an end. Of course, the end came rather suddenly with the arrival of the second-generation Lexus ES. Based on the 1992 Toyota Camry, arguably the best family sedan in history, the ES300 was flawlessly assembled, impressively equipped, priced in absolutely predatory fashion, and backed by a monstrous armada of pretentious yet effective marketing aimed directly at the heart of America's nouveau riche. The tweed-jacket crowd didn't cotton to the snub-nosed Lexus immediately --- darling, it looks cheap and common --- but as tales of the super-Toyota's relentless reliability circulated through the dusty, crowded Saab service-department waiting rooms, surely more than one assistant dean seriously considered the idea of switching loyalties. Most importantly, the 1992 ES was modern, based as it was on a new-for-1992 car. The 1992 Saab 900 was based on the 1968 Saab 99, and it didn't take too perceptive of an eye to see it. Of course, by then, Saab had already fallen into the orbit of cash-rich General Motors, and GM had new product coming. Kind of. The 1993 Saab 900 was based on a 1988 Opel, said Opel not being a very good car. In Sweden, where nobody expected Saabs to be world-beating luxury superstars, it wasn't such a big deal. In America, the press and the public measured it against competition ranging from the aforementioned ES300 to the spectacular new E36 BMW and found it to be well below par. The new-generation Saab lineup of 900 and 9-5 (also, sadly, based on an old Opel) didn't make the cut from the beginning. A more active corporate custodian would have noticed this and taken swift action. GM, however, apparently felt itself to be in the position of a new boyfriend demanding to be serviced in identical fashion to the old. The 99/900 had lasted twenty-four years and sold well from start to end, therefore the new-gen cars would also have an extended model run regardless of the consequences. The 900 was facelifted into the 9-3 and rotted in the dealerships for a decade before being replaced by another Opel-platform mediocrity. Just for the sake of perspective, it should be noted that the 900/9-3 was sold against three generations of Lexus ES, any and all of which were more reliable, comfortable, and practical than the aging Swede. Even staid old Mercedes-Benz managed to field two new C-Class models during the 900/9-3's extended run. The addition of a rebadged Oldsmobile Bravada as a third model line did nothing to help matters. Give Saab's tweed-clad customer base some credit: many of them remained loyal through years of underwhelming product and unmet promises. By last year, however, Saab buyers were nearly as extinct as the passenger pigeon. Just 21,368 Saabs found American homes in 2008. Lexus sales for 2008 were 23,362. By "2008", I mean December of 2008. And that's how the story ends: with a whimper. It's worth noting that the success of Lexus and Infiniti did not really come at the expense of BMW and Mercedes-Benz, both of which have set US sales records in recent years. It came at the expense of American luxury makers and it came at the expense of the second-tier players like Saab.

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It would be deeply satisfying at this point to rant about how American consumer-sheep are morons who would buy a rebadged Camry over a sleek, Euro-speedy Saab, but let's keep it real. American consumer-sheep aren't so stupid that they don't prefer a rebadged modern Camry over a rebadged old Opel. The current 9-3 is a relative to the Chevrolet Malibu and --- whisper it --- probably isn't as good of a car, overall, as the Malibu. The current 9-5 is a relative to the dismal old Saturn L-Series. In order to continue as a rational human being on this planet, I simply must believe that at some point, the veneer of psuedo-prestige wears thin enough to expose the rotting structure beneath, and Saab reached that point a long time ago. The Saab story includes airplanes, rally drivers, turbochargers, iconoclastic personalities, and more than half a century of fabulous designs. The Lexus story is this: it's a Toyota for people too snobbish or fearful to be seen in a Toyota. Saabs have been wonderful, frisky, characterful companions for a very long time. People cry when their Saabs are towed away for the last time. Nobody's ever cried over a Lexus, except possibly when they received a repair bill for their out-of-warranty second-gen LS400. Saab was real. Lexus is fake. Simple as that. Or is it that simple? Saab has been a fraud and a fake for nearly twenty years, selling second-rate cars on dimly remembered glories. Meanwhile, Lexus has been continually building the cars their customers want, always fresh, nearly always reliable, always sold and serviced with a smile. Saab's better future was perpetually around the corner; meanwhile, the next Lexus was completed on time and plopped, Harvest-Gold-colored, on a calmly rotating showroom turntable. Ask any Saab enthusiast about the brand and they will tell you about the 900 SPG, but ask a Lexus owner about his car and he will tell you he likes it. What is real, and what is no longer relevant? I have a bit of a fantasy, as a former Saab owner and unrepentant fan of the old cars. I dream that Saab comes roaring back under some daring little ownership umbrella, freed to somehow create world-class product on a shoestring and humiliate the Japanese juggernauts on the open road. I close my eyes and hope for a stunning new car that has the spirit of that old 99 Turbo and brings the old virtues to a generation not even alive when the only two turbo cars on the market were the Saab and the Porsche 930. I think of the Saab workers, earning a decent wage and building cars they love, a bulwark against the vomitous tide of look-alike crap from the Pacific Rim, the Asian Tigers, and eventually the open maw of China. I can think about this, and I can smile. And then I open my eyes to see a Hyundai Genesis gliding by, more Lexus than Lexus, more fake than the original fakers, yet honest and real in the same way the Lexus ES is honest and real. That's the future. Luxury was always an illusion. Now it is deliberately so. To imagine that future, if I may paraphrase Orwell, imagine a Chinese-made faux-Ferragamo boot stomping on a human face. Plastic chrome, meaningless names, flowery symbols. This is the future, and in that future, Saab is, inexorably and completely, dead. Ron Carter Saab Gallery by Adam Barrera @ highmileage.org

Avoidable Contact #28: Lincoln and Cadillac, MKT and CTS-V, one last time, to the death.

At the Liquid Sky Resort It seems like yesterday, but it was long ago, as the song says. One day in the spring of 1982, my father pulled into the driveway behind the wheel of a new Lincoln Town Car Signature Series. His new Lincoln Town Car Signature Series, purchased to commemorate his ascension to the post of Executive Vice President in a small food brokerage. Let the record show that my father was thirty-seven years old, as I am now. If he was confused and occasionally frustrated by life, as I am now, he never showed it; if he struggled with doubts and fear, as I occasionally do, it was never apparent. He was a respected businessman and stalwart, if not particularly cheerful, presence at church each Sunday. Still, I take comfort in the fact that his Town Car was painted a particularly outrageous shade of sky blue, referred to as "Wedgwood" in the manual but immediately characterized by my automotively diffident mother as "Polock Blue". Not as outrageous as a bright green Audi S5, perhaps, but neither was this the car of a man who shied away from attention. His choice of a Town Car surprised me. My grandfather --- his father --- was a confirmed Cadillac man who piloted a stainless-roofed Eldorado Biarritz from home to country club and back every day. Surely a Sedan de Ville (French, amusingly, for "town car") would have been a better choice? As always, though, Dad had his finger vaguely on the American pulse. The Town Car was "hot" and the de Ville was "cold", so he chose the former. And how I loved to ride in that blue-velour interior, surrounded by chromed script and plastic wood, serenaded by the "Premium Sound" system complete with door-mounted subwoofers! And though my father would eventually follow that American pulse away from Lincoln, through a series of BMWs, Jags, Lexuses, and Infinitis, I never forgot this: sliding behind the wheel of a big new Lincoln meant that one had "made it". Fast-forward to the present day. I am in full attack mode, bearing down on the tail of an E36 BMW through a series of vicious decreasing-radius turns. He's pushing hard, breaking the tail loose slightly at every exit. I'm holding the gap from braking zone to apex and closing it from there. A pair of utterly silent turbochargers quicken the cultured twin-cam music filtering into an exceptionally quiet cabin. We have all-wheel-drive and make full use of it, clawing the road at full throttle and ripping the scenery back through the windshield. On a wide sweeper, I see the needle swing well past the triple-digit hash mark, the Bimmer's license plate swells to myopic visibility, and the chase is finally over. We're on his tail, will not be shaken. My three passengers relax a bit. They are each reclined in a power-ventilated individual chair, surrounded by figured maple and stitched leather, lit by the sun through a panoramic glass roof and soothed by a studio-quality sound system. We're in a Lincoln. More pertinently, we're in a Lincoln station wagon. 2010 Lincoln MKT Every brand needs a core. From the core, the marketroids derive image and positioning. The core is what the man in the street remembers, what the neighbor notices, the image that floats unbidden across one's mind. In the modern era, deviations from the core are punished without mercy by the ever-sensitive customer. Rolex once made quartz watches; today they are an embarrassing rarity, forgotten in company publicity and mentioned in whispers by a select group of iconoclastic collectors. The core of the Mercedes-Benz product lineup is the S-Class, which is why the $45,000 C350 is referred to as the "Cheap-class" in Mercedes-Benz service departments. The core of the BMW product lineup is the 3-Series, which is why the 7-Series will always play second fiddle to the big Benz. The core Jaguar is the XJ; the core Porsche is the 911. Infiniti struggled for years in the market until ithe G35 arrived to become its true core car. Lexus debuted with the LS400 at the core but that mantle has passed to the ES350. Through the early part of this century, Lincoln and Cadillac were brands without core products, mismanaged and sickly. The DTS sedan, successor to the de Ville and ostensibly Cadillac's core car, was a warmed-over 1995 Aurora blighted by an unreliable engine and an Avis-quality interior. Lincoln was in worse shape: the Town Car was still riding on the same basic platform as my father's 1982 Signature Series and was sold mostly to the livery trade. Each brand had made an attempt to provide a mid-sized rear-driver, but the Lincoln LS and Cadillac Catera had failed to find friends among the import intenders. Instead, the showroom traffic at America's premier luxury brands was primarily focused on a disturbingly cynical pair of rebadged work trucks, the Navigator and Escalade. The coveted title of "best-selling luxury brand in America" had been handed to Lexus, perhaps permanently. As my friend Adam Barrera of highmileage.org says, "Lincoln was a punchline! Cadillac was a punchline!" Salvation came for Cadillac in the form of the 2003 CTS. This awkward-looking, rather cheaply-finished car was very far from perfect, but it ushered in a unique and recognizable "Cadillac style". The cars that followed --- SRX, STS, facelifted DTS, and revamped Escalade --- built on that style. Today, as in 1959, a Cadillac is instantly recognizable on the street. The second-generation CTS provided the icing on the cake, fixing most of the original car's defects while hammering the "Art & Science" look further into the public consciousness. If the old hands at Cadillac were depressed that the core product of the "Standard of the World" was now an Infiniti G35 competitor instead of a prestigious full-sizer, they managed to conceal their horror behind a simple gratitude for continued employment. Their counterparts at Lincoln could count on no such saving grace. The 2006 Cadillac lineup was visually unified and mostly brand-exclusive, but the 2006 Lincoln lineup was nothing short of depressing. There was a Ford Fusion derivative whose name, Zephyr, had been most recently used on a Ford Fairmont derivative --- and that was, really, the best product in the showroom. The Town Car was celebrating its twenty-seventh birthday, and the other two Lincolns were variants of full-sized Ford trucks. Without a true core product, Lincoln dealers were forced to watch sales follow public perception down the rabbit hole. Pundits inside and outside the industry openly discussed the brand's impending demise, and the PR pleas to "just wait a little while" seemed to be mere wishful thinking. Forty-odd years ago, the Lincoln Continental had been the finest luxury car available at any price, but those days seemed to be long gone. It was a brand without a purpose. ctsv1 Cadillac had a purpose, and that purpose was performance. The capstone on this new corporate image was to be the 2009 CTS-V, a Nurburgring-ripping supercharged statement of superiority. The "V" brand would achieve parity with AMG or BMW's M Division, and by extension --- so the theory went --- Cadillac would achieve parity with Mercedes-Benz and BMW. Well, maybe not parity, but enough prestige would be generated to justify the fact that a base CTS costs $38,860 while a base Mercedes C300 sells for $33,600. To combat this bespoke lineup of high-speed rear-drive super-sedans, Lincoln planned... a bunch of FWD platform derivatives. Their CTS fighter, the revamped MKZ, would continue to be a Fusion under the skin, while the MKS sedan and MKT crossover would be related to the Taurus and Flex. The analysts looked at the two companies and took their knives out for Lincoln. It would take more than a few chrome-nosed front-drivers to compete with mighty Cadillac. It's at this point that I would like to ask the reader to indulge me in a bit of time travel. We're going to go back to 1985, if you don't mind. You see, it was in 1985 that General Motors unveiled their all-new lineup of "downsized" front-wheel-drive luxury cars. Born and bred for a world of OPEC-controlled fuel prices, the GM B-body (LeSabre, Delta 88) and C-body (Electra, Ninety-Eight, de Ville, Fleetwood) cars were just the right product at the right time. Ford knew that it needed downsized FWD sedans to compete against GM's new lineup, but it didn't have the development money, so it simply let the full-sized "Panther" RWD Crown Victoria, Grand Marquis, and Town Car continue on without revisions. Everybody sat back and waited for GM to kick the living you-know-what out of the market. caddy1 You know what happened next, or maybe you don't, if you're young enough. Ronald Reagan broke OPEC's back, fuel prices fell overnight, and the downsized GM luxury cars were showroom poison. Two successive "up-sizing" efforts on the original platforms failed to recapture customers who were appalled by the dismal-looking 1985 models. Where did those customers go? Why, to Ford, of course. The big "Panthers" acquired sales momentum so powerful that it took twenty years of neglect to destroy the brand equity in the Town Car and Grand Marquis names. The moral of the story? Sometimes it's better to be lucky. Let's return to the present day. Once again, times have changed in ways that the automakers could not predict. Fuel prices are up again, this time perhaps permanently. Whether you call the current state of the American economy "recession" or "depression", there's no doubting the effect it's had on domestic automakers. GM is bankrupt and taking welfare checks from the government, while Ford is backed into a financial corner that would tax Houdini's powers of escape. Purchasing power is down. Performance is no longer tops on the luxury buyer's agenda. As in 1985, Ford's inability to pay for a clean-sheet luxury lineup may turn to its advantage. I spent last week in San Francisco driving the revised Lincoln lineup. The facelifted MKZ is a genuinely decent car, and the EcoBoost MKS is a nice way to get a Taurus SHO's pace with additional headroom and luxury features, but the Flex-based MKT... ...well, this is a core car. To begin with, it's the first American luxury vehicle in a very long time to offer four absolutely premium seating positions. The middle row of an MKT is simply a spectacular experience, from the wide-opening doors to the multiple-speed seat ventilaton. If the Cadillac CTS-V is a love letter to America's drivers, the MKT is a bouquet of roses delivered to the door of its passengers. The seats recline, legroom is worthy of a long-wheelbase S-class, and the uncanny isolation of the MKT's interior makes it possible to hold a cross-cabin conversation at very high speeds. As in the Flex, there is a freezer/refrigerator between the seats, but unlike the Flex there's also a full-length console with storage areas. Passengers looking for a better experience are best advised to consider the Maybach 62, because short of that humpbacked super-Benzo it's almost impossible to find this level of comfort and convenience. The MKT doesn't have a Maybach's worth of power, but the EcoBoost variant is rapid in the best Hot Rod Lincoln tradition. A flat torque curve assures rapid step-off for part-throttle drivers, while drivers who press the pedal to the floor will be rewarded with a Cosworth-esque wail and a quarter-mile time somewhere in the mid-fourteens. As is the case with the Taurus SHO and MKS Ecoboost, the brakes are worthless; this rig is fast enough to literally set the brakes on fire in fast driving. It could really use a set of big Brembos, such as those supplied on the... Cadillac CTS-V. On a racetrack, the CTS-V would leave the MKT behind. In fact, it would leave most cars behind, a fact no doubt noted by GM product czar Bob Lutz when he challenged "any member of the media" to beat a Lutz-driven CTS-V around a racetrack in any other stock production sedan. This challenge was later modified to exclude "ringers" such as, ahem, your humble author, but the point was made: the CTS-V is very possibly the fastest new sedan money can buy. Does it matter? Cadillac has bet, and bet heavily, on the fact that "luxury" really means "luxury performance" in the BMW tradition. The CTS and STS are not spacious cars, and they are not necessarily comfortable ones, particularly not in the second row. They are meant to be driven. Lincoln, on the other hand, has placed its chips on traditional American luxury virtues: evocative styling, unparalleled comfort, reasonable pricing, high feature count. The worst back seat in the Lincoln lineup --- the one in the MKZ --- is as good as the best one at the Caddy dealer. In a perfect world, both companies would continue to find an audience, but this is no longer a perfect world. This is Recession America, and there may not be enough space at the dinner table for two full-line domestic luxury brands. In this battle of core cars, my decision comes down to a very simple fact. It's possible to find a more entertaining drive than a CTS-V for less money, but the MKT offers a passenger experience that can't be matched by cars costing half again as much. Furthermore, the MKT isn't a terrible drive, particularly in turbo form, while the CTS is rather dismal when pressed into passenger duty. Scratch that. I'm fibbing. Well, I'm not fibbing necessarily, but I'm not being completely honest. I'm picking the MKT because the CTS-V, as wonderful as it may be, is simply an American M5. It's an imitation. It's an attempt to be something that Cadillac never really was. The MKT, by contrast, is a perfect successor to that iconic 1961 Continental. It's the ultimate American luxury car, and the fact that it's technically a Canadian-built truck doesn't matter one bit. In a world where I had followed my father's path --- an alternative universe where I had chosen hard work and respectability over club racing and sleeping 'till noon --- I'd bring a new car home to my kids to celebrate my new job, and it would be a Lincoln. Trust me on this one. When the smoke clears, the last brand standing in domestic luxury will be the one from Dearborn. mkt3