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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.

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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.
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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!

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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?

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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.

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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” 6.5×55 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”?

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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.

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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.
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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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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.

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