For a guy who doesn’t drive, I still love cars
“Have you ever thought to write about cars?” The other day I was standing on the sidewalk on 21st Street, in front of the Press Club, when Chris Macias walked by. Chris is a feature writer for The Sacramento Bee, whose current beat, I believe, has something to do with wine and argyle clothing, although he wrote about pop music for a while there.
I guess he knows me well enough to make that comment. My response went something like, oh, yeah, but to write for the big car mags, unless you’re Jamie Kitman or Bob Merlis, you pretty much have to have a degree in engineering.
Then I thought about it. Even though my relationship with the automobile is somewhat torturous, even though I’m currently not driving and get around on a bicycle, even though I know we’re killing the planet by sucking all that oil out of the ground and refining it into gasoline and burning it our cars and trucks and choking the atmosphere with our carbon monoxide and raising the temperature of the planet and melting the glaciers which pretty much ensures we’ll end up living like a bunch of hippies on leaky-ass boats at the mercy of hungry sharks and giant monster squid if we don’t do something soon, I still love cars. So maybe I could write something about them once in a while.
Okay, I figured I’d start with the American automobile industry, which has gotten slammed pretty hard by the economic downturn. It must suck on a macro sense, because on this micro sense I currently don’t have a job, which as made things like insurance and car payments difficult if not downright impossible, thus giving me the Hobson’s choice, or hobo’s choice, of riding a bicycle or walking. So if other people are in my predicament, it must be harder to sell cars and sustain a healthy auto industry.
Y’know, I could be a grumbling two-wheeled hater, but I dig the automobile and car culture. Not so big on racing; the Euroweenie stuff like Le Mans seems to embody the old joke question, what’s the difference between a porcupine and a Porsche? (With a porcupine, the pricks are on the outside.) And NASCAR, well, let’s just say that I love comedy, but certain forms of comedy can get played out pretty quickly although Talladega Nights is pretty goddamn funny, especially after Sasha Baron Cohen’s character shows up.
I guess for my first entry on cars in this blog, I’ll go over where I understand the car industry is in this country. We’ll start with the healthiest company of the former Big Three and kinda move downhill from there. After that I’d planned to go into how Volkswagen plans to rule the world or at least become the world’s biggest carmaker and then how Toyota is all butthurt that it’s lost its juju a bit and then kinda segue into Honda and Mitsubishi and then Renault which controls Nissan (which is pretty funny whenever you see some wingnut driving a Nissan product and there’s some buttholic teabag party bumper sticker on the back and you just know the driver has no idea he’s behind the wheel of a Frog-made vehicle) and Peugeot-Citroën which doesn’t, and then of course go into Daimler (Mercedes, jawohl, formerly Chrysler) and BMW and some others. But I don’t have the bandwidth right now, so that’ll have to wait. Besides, this is the eve of the North American International Automobile Show in Detroit, so maybe it’s best to keep the focus on the historic American manufacturers. At least we can talk about Fiat, the Italian company that now controls Chrysler.
This is all pretty much off the top of my head, so grab a cup of coffee or whatever you like to put in your cup, as ’70s waterbed icon Tom LaBrie used to say, kick back, and dig:
Ford: My mama used to tell me the first word I spelled with my blocks was “F-O-R-D,” but as I grew up I was more attracted to the renegade Mopar vibe than the classic dichotomy of “Are you a Chevy or a Ford man?” which was like when people always asked “Beatles or Stones?” and my answer was “Kinks.” Nevertheless, as we enter the second decade of the 21st century, Ford is the only American car company that wasn’t such a goddamn dog’s breakfast it had to get bailed out by the U.S. government. Part of that came from the Ford family hiring Alan Mulally away from Boeing to run the car company; Mulally saw what was coming, put loads of money in the bank, and sold off a bunch of brands: Aston Martin to a consortium of Kuwaiti and English investors, Jaguar and Land Rover to up-and-coming Indian manufacturer Tata, and now Volvo to Chinese automaker Geely; Ford also sold off most of its stake in Japanese carmaker Mazda. Which is interesting, because most of the car platforms Ford has used for models from its core brands Ford, Mercury and Lincoln are either Mazda (small cars) or Volvo (larger cars).
Ford‘s strength, however, is its European division, which develops products like the forthcoming Fiesta small car and the Turkish-built Transit Connect small commercial van (already selling here; just saw one drive by), so the input (or reduced participation of) of Volvo and Mazda may be missed. Mulally figured that the smart thing would be to make Ford’s product offering consistent across the board, which basically means selling the same popular cars here that they sell overseas. This will mean that cars like the Volvo-derived Taurus (a beautifully done but overpriced sedan of which I’ve only seen one on the street to date, and that was a rental at a hotel), Mazda6-derived Fusion (which offers a nice hybrid version) and Mazda3-derived Focus will be replaced by whatever Ford is selling in Europe when those products are refreshed. Ford’s other strength is its truck division, because the F-150 is always competitive with whatever the other light truck makers — GM (Chevrolet, GMC), Chrysler (Ram), Toyota and Renault-Nissan (Nissan) — are selling here (and the SVT Raptor option looks like a pretty ripping, albeit kinda douchey, guytoy), and its cop-car franchise, which pretty much owns the U.S. market with the Crown Victoria, a model that also used to have a pretty nice following among indie-rock types in New York and New Jersey.
Mullally reduced Ford to three brands sold through two dealerships in the U.S.: Ford, the closest analog of which is Toyota, with a complete product range, and Lincoln/Mercury. Lincoln, as the luxury division, or Lexus analog, makes sense, but Mercury‘s lineup looks like Ford models with nicer trim levels that give Lincoln dealers something less pricey to sell. Mercury’s waterfall grille is blandsville okay, but its logo is kinda meh, and when was the last time you heard anyone talk about getting tumescent over a Mercury? I mean, James Dean’s character drove a ’49 Mercury in Rebel Without a Cause, and blues singer K.C. Douglas wrote a great blues tune titled “Mercury Boogie,” later covered — and retitled — “Mercury Blues” by the Steve Miller Band, and David Lindley and a bunch of others (and then covered by my pals Jeffrey Clark and Grant-Lee Phillips on their old band Shiva Burlesque’s second album, Mercury Blues, but that’s another story), and then FoMoCo bought the rights to the song and let suburb’n’western singer Alan Jackson record it as “Crazy ’bout a Ford Truck.” Which should give you an idea of Ford’s commitment to the Mercury brand; as they are wont to say in France: “That’s fucked up.” Um, you have a marque with James Dean and a fucking classic blues tune to draw from, and you can’t figure out how to develop some hot product to capitalize on that mojo? Remind me again why I’m unemployed, while there are people, nay, idiots who get paid biggum bucks to fuck things up like that no-brainer?
Lincoln as a brand is kind of an also-ran to GM’s Cadillac, perhaps the brightest marque in the General’s reduced arsenal. The new split grille design is nicely polarizing, and time will tell if Lincoln can compete with Caddy. The key to luxury-marque success in America seems to lie in cultivating products and imagery that appeal to an audience steeped in hip-hop, R&B and other artforms that accelerate the bling factor (like Lincoln did with its most recent Navigator SUV), while offering product that performs competitively when compared to the luxury cars built by European and Asian manufacturers. It’s weird that Lincoln is named after a very famous Republican president, at a time when part of the car-buying public might be turned off to that marketing hook, and more button-down Republicans are opting for BMW or Lexus over Lincoln; that said, one suspects that a luxury-car division named “Reagan” or “Nixon” or “Hoover” or “Coolidge” — or, god forbid, “Bush” or “Cheney,” but not “McKinley,” which already is an upscale trim option at General Motors’ GMC division — would be a non-starter, or at least those would go over like a massively brapping Carl’s Jr. fart in the boardroom. I could be wrong. And driving a Nixon might be a cool act of subversion for certain iconoclastic types. Like, uh, yours truly. I’d drive a Nixon, especially if they had the cojones to name the topnotch model the “Dictator Coupe d’Etat.” If Ford really wants Lincoln to emulate Toyota’s Lexus division, though, the secret is in the dealership experience. Up the ante with cocktails, nude massages and live cool-jazz combos (just trying to make work for my musician pals), and you’d have a real winner.
General Motors: Okay, let’s talk about the General. What can you say about a company that went from owning, what, 60 percent of the U.S. market half a century ago to getting its ass taken over by the government? Yep. Sad. Pathetic. And what Chairman Obama, or one of his Kremlin apparatchiks — or, uh, czars — told ’em in Detroit was you’ve got too many brands, which is Urdu for you guys have staggered around for so long like a gaggle of 13-year-old paint-sniffing morons, and you already fucked up by killing off the coolest brand you had, Oldsmobile, that we’re gonna put your ass on a short leash. So, GM got winnowed down to three divisions: Chevrolet, Cadillac and Buick/GMC, which were surgically split from the remaining “bad GM” — Saturn, Hummer, Saab, Pontiac and Opel/Vauxhall. So, as a result, a first order of business was that The General tried to sell Saturn to racing driver turned carbiz magnate Roger Penske, who was planning on using the marque to sell whatever off-brands he could find on the international market in the U.S., starting with Ssangyong, the Korean division of Renault-Nissan, but it was a no-go and Saturn got sent to Uranus.
Then, Hummer, the brilliant idea of offering monster SUVs based on AM General’s HMMMV military cruiser (the Hummer H1), then fattening the line with boxy, more expensive versions of the Chevy Suburban/GMC Yukon/Cadillac Escalade (the H2) and Chevy TrailBlazer/GMC Envoy/Oldsmobile Bravada/Buick Rainier/Saab 9.7x (the H3), so that armchair generals and patriots, made woodrowescent from watching way too much Fox News military cheerleading, could support the war effort by tooling around in faux-martial hoopties, running bicyclists like me off the road, proved to be an Edsel move once George W. Bush and Dick Cheney and Arnold Schwarzenegger — the original mover behind the brand — lost their luster once the war in Iraq turned out to be substantially less of a cakewalk than was originally projected by administration dopesmokers; Hummer currently is in the process of being sold to Sichuan Tengzhong, a Chinese heavy-equipment manufacturer. Go figure that one out, Hannity.
The General’s Swedish yuppie car division, Saab, or Svenska Aeroplan AktieBolaget, looks like it’s either going to that auto graveyard in the sky, or it will be picked up by Spyker Cars, a tiny Dutch premium carbuilder owned by Russian and Saudi investors. And Pontiac, well, not even Oprah Winfrey could save that one; too many years of ugly cars with way too much ribbed plastic cladding on the sides, culminating with the Aztek, which looked like what might happen if a Volkswagen “Thing” could mate doggy-style with an old bathtub Nash Ambassador and then reproduce. Too bad, because John DeLorean-era Pontiacs from the 1960s (think “wide track”) were hot-shit wheels, and the G8 GXP, Pontiac’s version of the Holden Commodore, an Australian V8-powered rear-wheel-drive sedan, was the best thing GM has offered in years — even cooler than the new Camaro or some of Cadillac’s latest cars, which are fairly fine. I saw one on the street a few weeks ago, and immediately wished I’d been wearing looser-fitting trousers. Requiat en pace, Pontiac.
GM tried to unload Opel, the German division that sells Opels in Europe and Vauxhalls in England, to Magna, a Canadian-Austrian company that manufactures cars under license and sells auto parts — I think Magna builds the Audi TT in Hungary for Volkswagen — but Magna had big plans for Opel in Russia, where one of its key investors resides. And then Ed Whitacre, the autocratic Southwestern Bell executive who reassembled AT&T from Baby Bell components (SBC, BellSouth, Pacific Bell, etc.), who got tapped by
GoldmanSachs the government to run the new GM, woke up and figured out that the real heavy lifting on product development at GM these days was being done by, ahem, Opel: The Saturn Aura, Astra and Vue, Pontiac G6, Chevrolet Malibu, Buick LaCrosse and Regal? All rebadged or reconfigured Opel products. So Whitacre smartly put the kibosh on that idea, and Opel will stay for now. No one talks about Holden, GM’s Australian division, which makes some pretty kickass cars. Which is good, because GM would be stupid to unload that, too.
(It should be pointed out that GM is a near-complete fuckup when it comes to buying or investing in foreign carmakers. It had a dalliance with Fiat before Fiat got revived recently and picked up Chrysler, and also had messed up some other carmakers, like Isuzu — remember that make? — which GM pretty much totaled and left by the side of the road, hasta la bye-bye Joe Isuzu. GM also owned a good-sized stake in Subaru, which it strong-armed into building a mini-version of its ugly-ass Chevy Avalanche-Cadillac Escalade pickup called the Subaru Baja, and then it — GM — unloaded its Subaru stake, which was promptly bought by Toyota. Way to go, General! More recently, GM got rid of its stake in Suzuki, which immediately got picked up by Volkswagen, which was prowling around the Yellow Sea in a UBoat looking for an Asian carmaker. If GM laters its stake in Korean affiliate Daewoo and Hyundai/Kia picks it up, well, don’t be surprised, because there’s a history there.)
GM’s big worldwide brand, under the new “good GM” regime, is now Chevrolet, which it will use pretty much globally outside of Germany, England, Australia and, well, China; more on that a few grafs down. From the microcars built by Daewoo, which makes the tiny Aveo and has a few other Fit-Yaris-Versa killers in the pipeline, to the much-larger Impala and Opel-sourced Malibu, along with the Cruze, GM’s entry in the Civic-Corolla sweepstakes, Chevy is back in the car business big time. The front ends of those cars all look similar, with a grill opening shaped like the old Chevy escutcheon from the mid-1950s bisected by a horizontal crossbar upon which a gold Chevy bowtie is mounted. Unfortunately, to these eyes, the effect is butt-ugly, and when you put butt-ugly on the front of the car, people get confused as to whether you’re coming or going; remember Studebaker already. But the cars themselves are huge improvements over the iron that preceded the arrival of septuagenarian product czar Bob Lutz at GM a few years ago. Lutz is the “car guy” credited with turning Chrysler around in the 1990s, before Daimler (né Daimler-Benz) bought the company, ran Lutz out and ran Chrysler into the ground. Lutz was partially responsible for bringing the G8 to Pontiac, and there was talk that it would get a different front end and be sold as a Chevy Caprice. It was merely talk. Too bad. (Side note: Is there anything currently in the Chevy lineup that can be dropped and chopped by lowriders? Because Señor Whitacre might want to put that in his pipe, spark it and ponder its significance. Just sayin’.)
Nevertheless, Chevy doesn’t have to worry too much, because it has the Volt. Even with a theme song stupider than a Mentos jingle penned by the people who wrote Elvis’ lamest hits for his movies, even with people doing bad dancing and calisthenics routines around it, the Volt sedan is like an iPod, iPhone and MacBook Pro rolled into one, with four wheels on it. Seriously, if GM fucks this one up it deserves to be euthanized, or at least placed under the aegis of Mahindra & Mahindra, an Indian manufacturer of goofy-ass trucks. I wouldn’t say “Bye-bye Prius,” but the Volt is a lot better looking, its gasoline four-banger is only there to charge the battery, and your Fishsticks Paltrow contingent of Hollywood trail-mix munchers will be migrating there tout suite.
Chevy makes trucks, too, and SUVs. If they made cool pickups like the Apache from the mid-1950s, or even the rounded ones circa 1950 or so, I might be writing more about them. Forgive me for not giving a shit, although the new Equinox small crossover is an improvement over its predecessor.
I do give a shit about Cadillac, though. For a while, that marque’s sharp-edged origami styling cues bothered me, but I’ve warmed to them considerably. To these eyes, they’re some of the freshest looking designs on the road, if a bit ostentatious, and aside from the played-out Escalade SUVs and trucks, Cadillac’s alphabet-soup models (a naming convention now emulated by Lincoln) are giving American luxohoopt fans an alternative to German or Japanese (or now Korean, e.g. Hyundai/Kia, which is underselling everyone with Bimmer-killers like the Genesis) cars. The new CTS-V coupe? Wood, motherfucker. I want one, and if I wasn’t broke and unemployed and so far in debt I’ll be lucky to get my hands on a shopping cart for a while, I’d be getting my guido on behind the wheel of one. You think Cadillac ain’t cool? When überdouche DJ Pauly from MTV’s Jersey Shore pulls his shirt up, he doesn’t have “Lincoln” or “BMW” or “Hyundai” tattooed in script down his right side. And Caddy will be even cooler if it gets a version of the Volt, the car-show version of which was called the Converj, but I’m guessing will get a production name like “VTS” instead.
A new GM comprised only of Chevrolet and Cadillac would make perfect sense, but The General started selling a lot of cars in China, where I’m guessing those marques were difficult to pronounce, or else they phonetically sound out as kanji that translates as “drop the razor, gramps” or “Tila Tequila is licking your daughter silly.” So Buick became a big-selling brand there, and when our Chinese overlords were asked to give us another few years before they put the screws to us, the word came from Beijing: Buick stays.
The problem here was that, since the late 1970s, all Buick models here have been designed by the Batesville Casket Company, and the people buying Buicks were so damned old that they were confused as to whether they were shopping for a new car or their own funeral. With an average age of 86 and not getting any younger, the target Buick buyer made a good argument for embalming the brand and parking it in Forest Lawn for good. But thanks to Bob Lutz and the Chinese, Buick picked up what’s arguably the best-looking GM cars in its refreshed lineup — courtesy of Opel, which almost got sold off. The new Regal, a rebadged Opel/Vauxhall Insignia, gets a lot of power from a four-banger, and the redesigned LaCrosse is pretty sweet-looking, too. The Enclave crossover, which Chevy (Traverse) and GMC (Acadia) also sell, and now-defunct Saturn (Outlook) was selling, does well for Buick, but, well, forgive me for not being excited about another station wagon on steroids: Mommy, can we drive the entire girls’ soccer team over to Chuck E. Cheese in one? And I may be the only one bummed by Buick dropping Tiger Woods as a spokesman, which it did before his recent tabloid bonanza. Can you imagine writing scripts for Buick ads featuring post-skank parade Woods? Sounds like fun to me. (A cop TV “buddy” show starring Tiger Woods and Jon Gosselin, with Tila Tequila as the chief of police, might be a pretty entertaining idea, too, but again, I digress.)
Speaking of lack of excitement, what’s the reasoning behind keeping GMC? Bundled with Buick as its analogue truck brand, Jimmy is just a rebadged version of Chevy Truck. “We Are Professional Grade”? Who got all squinkadelic on Rush Limbaugh drugs and came up with that brilliant tagline? And what the hell is the GMC version of Chevy’s redesigned Equinox — a make-work gig for unemployed Pontiac designers from the 1990s? The Terrain, as it’s called, is Aztek ugly.
That said, GM now has some really good products. It’s a far cry from the 1980s and 1990s, when upper management decided that the best way to sell cars was to hire “brand managers” for each model, who would come up with snappy taglines to sell cars that had three or four or five identical save for front-ends and badges versions for sale at other GM divisions.
Which brings us to ….
Chrysler: At one time, I was a Mopar man. Fuckin’ Dodge, man. Plymouth. 426 Hemis, 413 Wedges, shit howdy. Little Red Wagon. Richard Petty. My late father used to preach the superiority of the Dodge Dart with the unkillable Slant Six engine, not to mention the superiority of the torsion-bar suspension, but he drove an El Camino. Go figure.
So how did this American religion disguised as a car company wind up in the clutches of the Italians?
Well, after almost going out of business a hundred times, with the most well-known example being in the late 1970s whe Lee Iacocca took over and parlayed one platform (the K Car) into a buttload of cars (Dodge Aries, Plymouth Reliant, Chrysler, uh, I forget, plus the Plymouth Voyager and Dodge Caravan and Chrysler Town & Country minivans), Chrysler struck gold in the 1990s with the LH or “last hope” sedans — Chrysler Concorde and New Yorker, Dodge Intrepid, Eagle Vision. There were also a set of “cloud” cars, too: Chrysler Cirrus, Dodge Stratus, Plymouth Breeze. And Dodge and Plymouth shared the Neon. Somewhere along the line, Eagle got killed as a brand; Eagle was what was left over when Chrysler acquired American Motors, aka Nash-Hudson, later Rambler, after the Frogs, aka Renault, had messed it up in the 1980s; why they tried to call it “Eagle” instead of “Rambler,” which was a far cooler name, is a mystery, but Eagles were cars for Jeep dealers to sell. Anyway, Eagle went down, even though I’d sent whoever was the CEO at Mopar a letter when I was half in the bag one time explaining why Chrysler should kick Ford’s ass in the cop-car department by bringing back a rear-wheel-drive Dodge Polara, and then making a totally jacked-up four-wheel-drive version of the Polara called the Eagle Enforcer. You don’t think cops would get boners over that shit? Fuck yeah, they would. Anyway, I never heard back from them, but what the hey. Then they killed Plymouth, or I think that by this time the Germans were running the show and they were upset about the Mayflower or something. Before that, Dodge had dropped a truck V-10 engine into a beast of a car called the Viper, which they still haven’t killed off. Then, let’s see, the Germans left the roofie’d and raped carcass of Chrysler by the side of the road, where it was reanimated by Cerberus, a gaggle of Bush-Cheney banksters whose
racket company was named after the three-headed dog that guards the entrance to either hell or Dick Cheney’s underground lair.
Then, basically, Sergio Marchionne, the guy who turned Fiat from a joke into what’s arguably the up-and-coming kickass car company in Europe in less than 10 years, knew a good opportunity, which cost his company zip, because the U.S. gummint would have let Fisher-Price take over Chrysler at that point, and Fiat had more experience in cars other than plastic toddler models. Fiat’s been out of the U.S. market for a while now; a few years ago, GM was toying with buying Fiat, and had drafted plans to sell Alfa-Romeos (that’s a Fiat product, as is Maserati, Ferrari and Lancia, along with Fiat’s performance brand, Abarth) at Cadillac dealerships, but the wheels came off that juggernaut before it happened. So now Fiat has a chance to re-enter the US market with an established dealership network. Dunno about you, but if they can get their reliability thing under control, I think a combined Fiat-Mopar combo, with superior Italian design, could be pretty damned exciting.
Chrysler’s halo car is still the 300, which I think still looks pretty swell; that one was a product of the Mopar-Mercedes clusterfuck, but it turned out pretty cool. A redesign reportedly is due for the next model year. The rest of the Chrysler-brand lineup? Not so good. Rumor has Chrysler refreshing its lineup with rebadged Lancia designs, which would be an improvement over the godawful Sebring. Maybe the Fiat Nuevo-500 can find an expression as a Chrysler. Hell, build a scaled-down Airflow to replace the PT Cruizer, and put a high-revving Fiat four-banger under the hood, and you might have some kind of movement.
As for Dodge, now it’s just a car division. The Challenger is, to me, the best of the three retro muscle cars; yeah, Ford’s Mustang and Chevy’s Camaro are nicely tooled, but I prefer the Challenger. Too bad there’s no ‘Cuda option, which would have been even cooler. The Charger should be rebadged the Polara when that Chrysler 300 analog is refreshed. Other than that, what? Kill the ugly Caliber and replace it with a Fiat product, and same goes for the Avenger, Dodge’s version of the Sebring. Next, get rid of the played-out crosshair grille, and come up with a new logo (don’t opt for the old Dodge Brothers Star of David, which might not fly in certain parts of the country where Glenn Beck is taken real seriously), because the goat-head got hijacked. (Clue for the Italians, gratis pour moi: There was a time when Chevy’s ad slogan was “The Heartbeat of America,” and the acknowledged subtext was that Dodge was the hard-on of America. Know this; make future decisions accordingly.)
Which is to say that “Ram” is now a separate brand. No more Dodge Trucks. I wonder if the executive who floated this idea just got back from vacationing on San Francisco’s Folsom Street, and bonus points if he wore full-body leathers with exposed butt cheeks to the board meeting where this brilliant idea got approved. Of course, it makes sense to peel off your truck brand in case Sichuan Tengzhong comes shopping for another marque. Ram Trucks? Um, yeah. The trucks themselves are pretty nice, so keep the Italian fashion consultants away from the ads, perhaps.
Which leaves Jeep, another brand that could get sold off. Yeah, the new Cherokee is a nice design. The Wrangler is the iconic model, though. The rest is kind of useless, no? And those new commercials will go a long way in killing Jeep, or driving the price down far enough for some renegade Libyan manufacturer to pick it up on the cheap.
Advice for the new Chrysler: Just bring Alfa cars here. Lots of them, and Fiats, not to mention certain Iveco (Fiat’s big truck brand) and Fiat Commercial models to replace Daimler’s Sprinter van, which Dodge and Freightliner were selling. Bring more diesels, too. And Fiat goofy vans and everything. Just bring all that shit over here.
So that’s my long-ass rant-cum-ramble on the car biz. Links to follow when I feel like it. It’s Saturday night, it’s cold here, and I’m feeling kinda crummy. Sorry. —Jackson Griffith
Note: I’m updating links on this when I get around to it. Partially done now. More later, eh?