The Latest Auto Extremist
TAKING THE PULSE OF THE CADILLAC THING.
19 Mar 2019 at 1:43pm
By Peter M. DeLorenzo
Detroit. That the automobile business is unlike any other is duly noted. It’s humbling, all-consuming, never-ending and relentlessly grueling. No quarter is asked and none is given, and the business chews people up and spits them out with impunity. The highs are notoriously fleeting, and the lows are gut-wrenching and linger to an excruciating degree. But then again, as Hyman Roth, the mob boss in The Godfather Part II, memorably said, “It’s the business we’ve chosen.”
Cadillac, GM’s luxury division, has occupied my thoughts a lot over the almost two decades of producing Autoextremist.com. I’ve written many, many columns about Cadillac over the years, and the surprising thing for me is that the subject never gets old.
Much of that has to do with the fact that Cadillac has a glorious history and remains one of the greatest brand names in the automobile industry. The stature of the Cadillac name has transcended the car itself and gone on to represent a sign of prestige and quality for many products, with the phrase “The Cadillac of…” still resonating even today, although the automotive landscape has irrevocably changed.
It could be argued that Cadillac never recovered from the onslaught of the German marques – Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz – in the U.S. luxury market. This coincided with the era when American cars in general were perceived as not being cool, and the lure of the German brands was almost too much for consumers to resist. (It didn’t help matters that Cadillac’s product lineup was woefully obsolete at that point.) The German onslaught was followed by the emergence of Toyota’s luxury show horse – Lexus – the brand that redefined the concept of automotive service and won the hearts and minds of many American car buyers. And Cadillac was subsequently left behind, no longer top of mind except for its most ardent brand loyalists.
But despite all of that Cadillac is still present and accounted for, and it still sells a lot of vehicles in the U.S. and in China, the world’s largest automotive market. That the brand remains an enigma is no secret – blessed with so much historical context and burdened with so much potential yet saddled with a promise that always seems to be somewhere down the road. It’s the “It won’t be long now!” syndrome writ large. That’s why Cadillac always seems to be churning, tossed around in the Sea of Indecision headed to the Straits of What Could Be.
The current state of Cadillac is really no different from the last decade – it remains a kaleidoscope of mixed messages and emotions. On the one hand, Cadillac has some excellent new products on the ground and in the pipeline; on the other, the constant hand-wringing over the soul of the company seems to rear its head at the least opportune times.
Take the new badging plan for its vehicles, for instance. Emphasizing torque over engine displacement seems perfectly logical, at least at first. After all, if Cadillac is going to be GM’s lead EV brand, communicating a vehicle’s torque first makes sense. But this just in: The Cadillac EV push is still well down the road, so communicating this now seems to be premature, at best. And the more you get into it, the more convoluted it gets.
I’m not going to get into the various permutations of this badging strategy, because it’s beyond tedious and it quickly falls apart. I appreciate Cadillac’s brain trust wanting to get out front with this strategy, but all it manages to accomplish now is to confuse people. (I realize that talking to yourselves and internal rationalizing is a cottage industry in this town, but, really? This is where they wanted to come out with this?)
And the other thing it does is to remind people that the Cadillac naming strategy for its vehicles is glaringly lacking. I get that traditional Cadillac names mean nothing to a lot of people, particularly in China, but the alphanumeric regimen that Cadillac is clinging to seems tired and forced.
What about the new Cadillac names – Ciel, Elmiraj, Escala – that debuted on some of the industry’s finest concepts of the last decade? They are perfectly “Cadillac authentic” and would go a long way toward eliminating the ongoing nameplate confusion. Cadillac needs to rethink its naming/badging strategy, like yesterday, as in, why can’t the Escalade be the foundation for an all-new naming strategy?
But that’s not the only confusion festering in Cadillac showrooms. To me, Cadillac’s pricing strategy has been fraught with peril and an albatross around the brand’s neck for almost a decade now. It started from a good place, ironically enough. The True Believers in GM Engineering, Design and Product Development were – and are – justifiably proud of the work they’ve been doing on behalf of Cadillac. The “V” cars are sensational and the overall dynamic performance of their vehicle offerings is indeed impressive. So, to the key people guiding the division it was perfectly logical to think that charging “all of the money” for its products made sense.
Except in the real world at the dealer level, that didn’t work at all, because as good as the new Cadillacs were, consumers just mentally weren’t ready yet and couldn’t get there. The fundamental issue was that consumers didn’t perceive that Cadillac was equal to the German machines and couldn’t justify paying for them, no matter how good the fanboy reviews were.
But that external, customer-focused issue was just one dimension to the ongoing Cadillac pricing mess. The other dimension to the problem was the internal difficulties being caused by overly optimistic pricing pushed by Cadillac marketing, evidenced by the train wreck occurring on dealer lots with the ATS bumping right up against the CTS in price. And that problem was magnified exponentially when the highly-touted CT6 sedan made its debut priced right on the nose with a fairly loaded BMW 5 Series. Well, as they say in the south, “that dog just wouldn’t hunt.” And it was disastrous. Loaded CT6 models started showing up on dealer lots priced at $75,000 and above. And needless to say, German car intenders weren’t amused or convinced, and the CT6 was damn near dead in the water in a matter of months.
Has this pricing situation been rectified by the “new” Cadillac? Apparently not. I just took delivery of a Cadillac XT4 AWD Sport to drive for a week (we will have a review up in “On the Table” soon -WG). Now granted, this is an absolutely loaded XT4 that stickers for $57,135 – with a jaw-dropping $14,345 in options. But this just in: the last time I checked you will be able to get the new XT6 AWD Sport for $58,090 (the base for the XT6 is $53,690 for the FWD model). So, a cursory review would suggest that Cadillac is still hamstrung by an untenable pricing strategy. And, as we like to say around here, that’s a giant bowl of Not Good. (I will say this, however, my initial impression of the XT4 is quite positive.)
And finally, the latest news from Cadillac is the new CT5 sedan. Now, for those who think that the passenger car market is dead, think again. There are plenty of people who want to drive cars, which is why Toyota and Honda are not walking away from building them. So, the fact that Cadillac isn’t abandoning building cars is a very good thing in my book. The CT5 shows promise, too, at least on paper, because it is built on an update of GM/Cadillac’s superb RWD/AWD “Alpha” vehicle architecture. The machine will feature a standard 2.0-liter Turbo and an available Twin-Turbo V6, each paired to a 10-speed automatic.
That’s all well and good, but the look of the new CT5 is shaping up to be problematic, to be charitable. Things start off well enough with a front end (below) heavily influenced by the striking Escala concept. And Cadillac PR minions were quick to provide a “go to” shot of that front end (shown below) in all of its Escala-esque glory. If you just went by this angle your propensity to strongly consider one would be high, because it’s beautiful and enticing. But unfortunately for Cadillac – and GM Design – that’s only about an eighth of the car.
The profile of the new CT5 is where the wheels come off. A quick perusal of the shape is derivative, at best. It’s almost as if GM designers decided to channel the Nissan Maxima for inspiration, which is unfortunate and offensive enough, but the detailing on the C-pillar is simply tragic. Why? There is simply nothing “premium” about it, as in, yikes. Andrew Smith, the executive director of global design for Cadillac, was quoted as saying, “Boring sedans are dead. I think awesome sedans are going to be around for a while.” I would wholeheartedly agree with that statement except what does that say about derivative sedans with profiles that don’t even remotely look like a Cadillac, but rather a mainstream rental car? Things apparently have gone downhill in a hurry for GM Design since the days of the CTS Coupe and the ELR, haven’t they?
Looking beyond the front end, from this angle the CT5 looks like a Chevrolet Cruze hatchback. That’s not very good, is it?
The toned-down C-pillar here is more benign, but still, how far has GM Design fallen? And with a design legacy so storied, how can this be happening?
So, in summary, needless to say, Cadillac has its challenges. But the brand has actual worth and genuine value as an acknowledged purveyor of American luxury. The powers that be seem to get sidetracked and lose focus too frequently, and the lack of consistency has seriously injured the brand, but still, with a rich historical legacy that other car companies would kill for, Cadillac has a treasure trove of positives that it can work with going forward. And a few superlatives too.
In short, I believe the Cadillac Thing is slightly more than alive, and on its way to being seriously well, if they don’t suffer any more setbacks.
Dynamically the new Cadillacs are truly excellent, they’re extremely composed and fun to drive. And for me that’s huge and shouldn’t be taken lightly, because so many automakers get it wrong. And when GM Design gets it right, a Cadillac’s “presence” on the road is worth noting and unmistakable. (The new Escalade is going to be certifiably hot, for instance.)
That said, the margin for error in this business has been reduced to a couple of millimeters. Cadillac’s pricing mistakes are capable of killing momentum for the brand before their products are even able to get started in the market. And that’s simply inexcusable.
Speaking of which, GM Design has to grow a set and get back to doing what GM Design used to do best, and that is to set the tone for the entire industry by creating eye-catching and emotionally compelling designs. And in particular, Cadillac should be leading the way.
As for the marketing and advertising, I can't leave today without mentioning Cadillac's advertising work of late. I found the ads on the Oscar broadcast to be weak and barely of interest. And the new CT5 Internet effort is a challenge, as in a challenge to hold my interest. Cadillac's marketing and advertising work has to be every bit as good – if not better – than the products they're promoting. That's certainly not a given these days – especially when you see some of the schlock work being presented by other automotive advertisers – but it's essential for the long-term success of the Cadillac brand. Cadillac marketers only have to ask themselves two questions as far as I'm concerned: 1. Why Cadillac? And 2. Why should I care?
Despite the challenges I’ve laid out, the Cadillac Thing has a better than even chance of survival, because Mark Reuss and Steve Carlisle and the assembled Cadillac troops understand that it’s fundamentally about the product. And that it always has been and always will be about the product.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
11 Mar 2019 at 3:53pm
By Peter M. DeLorenzo
Detroit. In the pantheon of words and phrases that have been grating on me for more than a while, I would like to enter for your consideration the word journey. Now, in a simpler time, the word journey felt a bit wondrous, conjuring images of wide-open spaces, new territories to explore and adventuresome voyages. As it should have.
In 1923, Edward S. Jordan, the founder of the Jordan Motor Company, was desperate to generate business after sales for his Jordan Playboy softened dramatically. With that as background, he created a print ad for his car that changed the automotive advertising landscape forever, and it is still considered to be one of the most influential pieces of ad copy ever written.
The ad – "Somewhere West of Laramie" – was emotionally charged, passionate and filled with compelling imagery, with only a passing mention of the product Jordan was trying to sell. And it has influenced generations of ad makers since. The copy was simply unforgettable, as Jordan captured an emotional resonance never accomplished before in car advertising:
Somewhere West of Laramie there’s a broncho-busting, steer-roping girl who knows what I’m talking about. She can tell what a sassy pony, that’s a cross between greased lightning and the place where it hits, can do with eleven hundred pounds of steel and action when he’s going high, wide and handsome.
The truth is – the Jordan Playboy was built for her.
The ad for the Jordan Playboy, 1923.
Now that is a journey. The lure of the unknown. A place where you’ve never been before but somehow you just know that you’d want to be. A different world. A seductive world. A world removed from day-to-day reality, one marked by freedom and sustenance for the spirit. In 67 riveting words, Edward S. Jordan portrayed the Jordan Playboy as an elixir for the soul.
And that strategy has marked great advertising – automotive and otherwise – ever since. In today’s sanitized and excruciatingly politically correct world, the ability to transform, transport and yes, seduce the consumer still matters and still resonates. And you only have to look as far as Jeep to understand what I’m talking about. Even though the most rigorous terrain encountered by 97 percent of Jeep owners careening around the American landscape might be a city curb they bounce off of at the strip mall, or a pothole they inadvertently drop into, that’s not what Jeep advertising portrays. No, it’s an adventure for the spirit and the idea that only Jeep has the ability to take you to wide-open spaces that you’ve never experienced before.
That imagery has defined Jeep for years, and advertisers have kept the flame alive for decades. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the Jeep products are excellent for the most part, and that in a sea of mundane monthly payments, the Jeep image – which has been burnished in the American conscience since WWII – still shines through.
The Ford Mustang is another car that has thrived on its imagery since its introduction. Again, freedom, wide-open spaces, and the ability to run free is the imagery associated with Mustang. Even non-car people understand what a Mustang is, though they might not necessarily want one. That kind of indelible imagery is worth its weight in gold to a car company.
What about Chevrolet? Having benefited from four of the most iconic advertising campaigns in automotive history – “See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet”; “Baseball, Hot Dogs, Apple Pie and Chevrolet”; “The Heartbeat of America”; and “Like a Rock” (for Chevy Truck), Chevrolet is now saddled with the shockingly mundane “Find New Roads.” It’s like Chevrolet has given up on inspiring people to experience America in a Chevy and abandoned trying to forge an emotional connection. Instead, they’re just giving you a few suggestions and telling you that you can go do it yourself. Gee, thanks.
VW, of course, captured the imagination of the American consumer public with its quintessential “Think Small” ad, along with many others that projected the simplicity and economy of owning a VW. Even though that was lost in the decades that followed, the imagery associated with VW still has a trace of that iconic 60s advertising breathing in the brand.
And finally, there’s Honda, who stumbled upon the original aura for its brand in this country way back in 1961 with its “You meet the nicest people on a Honda” campaign for its Honda 50 motor scooter. That campaign set the table for the brand in the U.S., and when Honda started to build four-wheeled machines, the lingering good feelings from that campaign gave American consumers permission to check out what Honda had to offer. Some of that imagery still shows up now and again for Honda today.
Now, back to the word journey. As I said earlier, it once had a wondrous connotation, conjuring images of wide-open spaces, riveting adventures and the simple but powerful idea of freedom.
Today, like everything else in this graceless age, the trivialization of the word journey is borderline depressing. Everything is “a journey” these days. Going to school is a journey. Exploring a new coffee flavor at Starbucks is a journey. Trying on new clothes is a journey. Stumbling through a career is a journey. Being sick is a journey. Going to a new hair stylist is a journey. And I’m sure you can fill in countless more examples of this that you come across almost daily.
But I don’t buy any of it for one minute. Actually, none of those aforementioned things qualifies as a journey. Rather, they are in fact another one of my least favorite, mind-numbing phrases: part of a process. Ugh.
If I have to single-handedly launch a movement to bring back the authenticity of words I will. And word No. 1 is journey.
From now on it will be strictly limited to describe the lure of the unknown. A place where you’ve never been before but somehow you just know that you’d want to be. A different world. A seductive world. A world removed from day-to-day reality, one marked by freedom and sustenance for the spirit.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
FORD ON THE PRECIPICE OF IRRELEVANCE.
1 Mar 2019 at 2:49pm
By Peter M. DeLorenzo
Detroit. With last week’s column still rocking the denizens of Dearborn, a follow-up is in order. I heard from a few Jim Hackett defenders who suggested that my criticisms were overly harsh and that I was borderline unfair in my assessment of the Ford CEO.
I beg to differ.
I didn’t suggest that Hackett isn’t a smart man, because he is, but his track record speaks for itself. And despite his accomplishments in other businesses, the automobile business is one of the most difficult and relentlessly complicated endeavors on earth, and if you don’t have an engineering background or haven't been immersed in the business for years, it’s damn-near impossible to get up to speed. And Jim Hackett is perpetually not up to speed. Making vague pronouncements about “fitness” and promises that “it won’t be long now,” while lecturing top managers about how they have to get their minds right - and handing out books by theoretical physicists - isn’t cutting it. It ignores the fundamental fact that Ford is in a real state of urgency at this very moment, and as I said last week, Hackett is simply the wrong guy, at the wrong time, at the wrong company.
And about this urgency facing Ford right now? The company is in an ominous downward spiral, fueled by a pitiful strategy – or lack thereof – that focuses on contraction, pulling back from regions, making excuses and generally putting the Ford Motor Company on a path to becoming susceptible to a takeover, despite the family’s stock position. The juggernaut F-150 is a phenomenon and responsible for the majority of the company’s profitability, but as hugely successful as that product is, it’s not enough to power the company forever.
Ford business is down everywhere in the world, in some cases by double digits, and it’s not getting better. What about growth, which is the lifeblood of any company? It’s nowhere to be found in Hackett’s strategy, unless you count the drunken-sailor-like spending on Mobility. Talk about vague. Spending on “mobility” is like betting on the come that’s just not there, and even if it should happen to work out for the company, Ford’s slice of the mobility pie threatens to be miniscule, at best. Needless to say, a “zero growth” strategy does not bode well for the long-term health of the Ford Motor Company.
This has to be unacceptable and worrisome to the board of directors, and with a board meeting coming up next week, the situation may have reached the point of being untenable. And what about those board members? How can they sit back and watch this train wreck unfolding without doing something? Why has it taken so damn long to get worried about the state of the company? It was more than a little apparent, given the warning signs emanating from Wall Street, that the Jim Hackett Show wasn’t exactly garnishing rave reviews early on. And it didn’t get better. One year passed and… crickets. Twenty-three months on now in Hackett’s regime, and absolutely nothing has changed. I would expect the board of directors to recommend substantive changes immediately when they meet. If it doesn’t, I would start worrying about any kind of meaningful future for the Ford Motor Company, the situation is that dire.
As you might imagine, these developments have piled up on Bill Ford Jr.’s plate by the month, and the pressure has to be mounting. He has to share the blame, because he clearly allowed things to deteriorate on his watch, and now it has reached a boiling point. He made a shrewd move in hiring Alan Mulally and it paid off brilliantly, but that is ancient history now. Alan isn’t coming back. Ever since Mulally left, Ford has been in turmoil, with factions facing off and fiefdoms battling it out, which is exactly the way it was before Alan got there.
And judging by what I hear from within Ford, it is worse now than ever before.
Mindful of all of that turmoil, now Bill Ford Jr. has one more ultra-critical issue to deal with, and that is the fact that the Ford Motor Company is completely devoid of a legitimate succession plan. How can that be, you might ask? Well, Bill Ford Jr. is the chairman, and of all the family members it remains up to Bill to be the captain of the Ford ship. Other family members either aren’t up to it, are not capable, not interested or too young. So, Bill is The Guy for the foreseeable future.
But who does he turn to? Let’s say Jim Hackett is asked to leave, or departs for greener pastures, or goes back to the mobility arena, where esoteric think tanks and future navel-gazing are part and parcel of the gig? That’s all well and good and would be a hugely positive move for Bill Ford, but then what?
Upon closer inspection – and the board should pay attention to this – Ford is in a world of hurt with a painfully shallow bench and very few executive assets worth noting. For a major American company, this isn’t just tragic, it’s unconscionable. Let’s take a look at the players.
Kumar Galhotra. Ford’s North American boss presents well, at least initially, but there’s really not much “there” there. Bright and personable, Kumar just doesn’t have the heavy-duty chops to be thrust into a CEO role. The knowledgeable people at Ford understand this implicitly.
Hau Thai-Tang. Hau is brilliant, gifted, well rounded, and Ford’s chief of product development. He has “The Future” written all over him, but he’s too young to be CEO. He needs another seven to ten years, but if I were running a new auto company, I’d poach him… like yesterday.
Jim Farley. As I wrote last May, Farley is the most dangerous executive at Ford. Unfettered by rational thought and untethered by accountability, Ford’s enfant terrible displays a prodigiously short attention span and is burdened by an excruciatingly painful interpersonal awkwardness. To make matters worse, Farley’s belligerent, condescending style of dealing with underlings has made everyone in the company loathe being around him. Farley, not affectionately, is known as "The Two Jims," and interactions with him are a crapshoot, hinging upon whether people encounter the "good" Jim or the "bad" Jim on a particular day. Needless to say, when the "bad" Jim is unleashed, which is basically all the time of late, he leaves a trail of bad feelings and highly questionable decisions in his wake. And, in case you’re wondering, all of those Ford regions underperforming? It’s happening under Farley’s watch.
Farley has long considered himself to be “the smartest guy in the room” at Ford, much to everyone’s endless chagrin, because the reality is that he isn’t. It’s a carefully crafted façade that is hollow to its core. Farley’s bad executive behavior starts with his inability to listen, considering his own counsel to be by far the best source when it comes to decision making. Farley has left such a bitter taste in people’s mouths that if it were possible, a mutiny would be mounted – with pitchforks raised – to get rid of him once and for all.
When Mark Fields was exited from the company, not only did Bill Ford bring in Hackett, he brought Farley back from Europe (much to the disgust of many back in Dearborn), and made Joe Hinrichs and Farley co-No. 2 executives reporting to Hackett. And it proved to be a fateful decision, because at that very moment Farley decided that he was very much going to be The Guy.
As I said previously, an emboldened Farley, unfettered and untethered, turned out – predictably – to be disastrous. With his eyes set firmly on Hackett’s job, the very worst of Farley returned to Ford headquarters, only now his most repugnant qualities were magnified and amplified, with no one seemingly able to rein him in.
Besides his now-signature belligerence and rudeness in full view, Farley started to get way out ahead of his skis, making decisions that were puzzling at best and potentially harmful to the long-term health of the company. Having been gunning for Ford’s advertising agency – the WPP-owned GTB – for years for slights both real and imagined, Farley almost immediately put the massive Ford account up for review. This, after WPP/GTB had been involved with Ford for 73 years. Could the advertising be improved? Certainly. But there was a better way to go about it. Destroying a long, fruitful relationship to assuage Farley’s gargantuan ego was flat-out irresponsible and uncalled for.
And then there was the “we’re going to get out of the car business” decision that turned out to be an unmitigated PR disaster, because it was handled poorly and came off as a knee-jerk pronouncement that hadn’t been thought through. It turns out that the idea was Farley’s (no big surprise), wittingly or unwittingly aided and abetted by then CFO Bob Shanks. And internally it bore the signature of a classic Machiavellian move by Farley as well, because Joe Hinrichs was kept in the dark that it was even going down until the very last minute, which is almost beyond comprehension when you think about it.
Am I picking on Farley? Hardly. I have only scratched the surface in describing this raging egomaniac and his fundamental untrustworthiness, and the sad thing is that there are several other areas he is seeing fit to mess with inside of Ford that will wreak havoc on the company’s future for years. This simply shouldn’t be, of course. One bad actor shouldn’t be causing this much consternation and hand-wringing throughout the enterprise, threatening to jeopardize everything the Ford Motor Company stands for.
This is another thing that falls squarely on Bill Ford’s shoulders. Both he and Jim Hackett knew that Farley was a bad actor at Ford well over a year ago, and yet nothing was done about it. Where is the accountability? Why has this situation been allowed to continue? Those are questions for Bill and the board of directors when they meet next. Jettisoning Farley would give the company an immediate lift and send the very best signal that things will be different from here on out, and I would hope Bill and the board have the guts to do it. If they care about the future of the Ford Motor Company, Farley will be packing his bags and taking his corrosive act elsewhere.
And finally, there’s Joe Hinrichs. Joe has had to put up with a lot at Ford over the last half decade or so. He was passed over for the top job after Mulally left, and he was passed over again when Bill Ford hired Jim Hackett. In the meantime, Hinrichs kept grinding away, making sure that the company could execute the product plan and build the vehicles the company needed to build. Hinrichs isn’t flashy, but that’s okay. He knows the Ford Motor Company inside and out, and he would be the absolute right choice to replace Hackett. And make no mistake, promoting Joe would give Bill Ford more time – easily five solid years – to really calculate the future direction of the Ford Motor Company, and who will lead it.
There is no question in my mind that Ford is on the precipice of irrelevance, and the decisions made in the next few weeks could very well determine the future of the company.
I sincerely hope that the right decisions will be made.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
HE?S A REAL NOWHERE MAN, SITTING IN HIS NOWHERE LAND, MAKING ALL HIS NOWHERE ...
23 Feb 2019 at 3:50pm
By Peter M. DeLorenzo
Detroit. Having a classic lyric from The Beatles work as a headline makes me happy, especially when it’s dead-on accurate concerning this week’s subject: The turmoil roiling the Ford Motor Company at this very moment. And that turmoil begins and ends with CEO Jim Hackett.
Loyalists to Bill Ford Jr. are dismissing the constant hand-wringing about the leadership – or lack thereof – of Jim Hackett as whining by people who just don’t like change. Or even more derogatorily, as people who just don’t get it. This is classic spin emanating from Ford, as if the hoary claim that “you’re just not hip enough to understand” actually carries substance and weight and can be considered a legitimate explanation.
Well, it doesn’t, and it isn’t, and patience is wearing thin on all fronts, both from inside the company and within the financial community. All of these feelings, mostly bad, have been brought to the fore by Phoebe Wall Howard’s devastating piece in the Detroit Free Press, entitled “Anxiety builds for Ford employees. Hackett says that’s fair, but he’s confident.”
In it, the consternation within Ford is writ large. Hackett is an addled professor-type who speaks in quirky catchphrases, or single-spaced two-page memos, or even worse, by handing out books so that the minions can become as educated about things as their CEO.
One salient quote from Howard’s piece says a lot: “Jim is not from this world and does not listen,” a senior-level executive who has worked in and around Ford for decades told the Free Press. "He just does not listen. He’s more on transmit mode. He doesn’t take time to understand where people are coming from. Why things are the way they are. Whether it’s reasons we have plants where they are, reasons we do certain things in manufacturing.”
In case you forgot, Hackett’s claim to fame is that he was the touchy-feely CEO of Steelcase furniture, a Silicon Valley/Mobility devotee, acting Athletic Director for the University of Michigan and a longtime friend of Bill Ford Jr. Seems logical to hand him the reins of the Ford Motor Company, right?
And here’s another quote from the Freep: “Instead of simply making the point that hiring too quickly is bad business, Hackett distributed a book, “Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life, in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies," by theoretical physicist Geoffrey West, who has been called the dean of complexity science. This is the sort of thing that makes earthlings at Ford crazy.”
Can you imagine? Not only are you, as a Ford minion, too unhip to understand things, you’re given a book by the CEO so that you can get your mind right, because clearly your experience having worked in and around Ford and the automobile business for your entire career counts for absolutely nothing. And now, Professor Moonbeam will show you the way to the Light of Enlightenment. Gee, thanks.
No wonder legions of senior Ford executives are bristling under Hackett, whom I am now officially dubbing “Professor Moonbeam.” Hackett insists he is a conductor who has been brought in to push people, but to where is a legitimate question. Is it for the overall “fitness” of the company, his favorite trope? Because if it is, he has failed miserably. In a business that sustains itself on speed and accuracy, Hackett is insisting people have to get their minds right before approaching a problem. But high-level navel-gazing is a fool’s errand in this business, and to the extent that Hackett is insisting on it so that Ford can fly “the right way” is effectively killing the company.
No wonder the financial community is questioning everything about Ford these days. They have been waiting for going on two years now for Hackett to show them something, anything, that would engender confidence in the Ford Motor Company, and they haven’t seen one thing. Oh sure, they’ve heard a lot of “It Won’t Be Long Now!” talk from Hackett, which veers dangerously close to the Unmitigated Bullshit Hall of Fame, but despite all of the “We’ve Got It Goin’ On” platitudes being bandied about by Hackett and the few executives who have been ordered to buy into the bullshit – or else – the essence of the Ford Motor Company remains building and selling F-150 trucks, Explorers, Escapes, Mustangs and the few Lincolns worth a second look.
Meanwhile, the company’s business around the globe is contracting at a furious rate, and the vaunted Ford regions are coming apart, with sales dropping 10 percent in two years. But that doesn’t even begin to cover it. How bad is it for Ford in the world’s largest vehicle market? How does a sales plunge of 44 percent in China over the last two years sound? Just off the top of my head, that’s a giant bowl of Not Good.
The other main concern about Hackett is that his strategic "plan" for the company is simplistic, predictable and weak, almost bordering on being something that a "Master of the Obvious" would bring to the table. Restructuring; exiting underperforming product lines and markets; cutting costs; engineering "intelligent" vehicles with connectivity that consumers will actually desire; creating green and safe mobility for the people and blah-blah-blah. There is absolutely nothing new here. It's exactly what you'd expect someone from outside the industry, one who has very little feel for the business, to come up with. I would be amazed if it took all of fifteen minutes. It's not very good, is it?
Ford's biggest issue in the here and now? Its product cadence borders on the piss-poor. Its inability to execute new products in a timely fashion is glaringly inexcusable. The delayed delivery of the Bronco is just one painful example of this – that it may see showrooms by the end of 2020 (let's face it, that means early 2021 in Ford time) is simply incomprehensible. In fact, it has now achieved status as the worst running joke in the industry. If Jim Hackett had stood up on his first day at Ford and said, "It's about the product, it has always been about the product, and it always will be about the product" I would have given him the benefit of the doubt at least.
But now, that window is closed.
And by the way, some of those aforementioned executives should keep their mouths shut, especially Julie Lodge-Jarrett, the company’s chief talent officer who had the following to say: “We brought in a CEO that could supplement where our strengths were and help us with what we weren’t doing. I do think there is some misunderstanding. You have left-brain engineering talking to creative design thinking and the brain doesn’t work in the same way. He might answer a question different than they’re used to. They might think he doesn’t get it but it might be they who don’t get it.”
Huh? Interesting. As a matter of fact, I have a book to recommend for Ms. Lodge-Jarrett since that seems to be Professor Moonbeam’s preferred way of communicating. It’s entitled, “Hell on Earth: The Universal Laws of Spinning the Unspinnable, Unchecked Regression, Rote Predictability and Struggling to Defend the Indefensible for No Apparent Reason Whatsoever." It’s by my alter ego, Michael Paratore, and it’s a real page-turner.
I have written about Ford two times in the last ten months – “Ford in Free Fall” and “A Tale of Two Fords.” Each time wasn’t exactly complimentary, to put it mildly. And now, things are getting progressively worse for the family-controlled company. And this is really too bad, because it is no small thing that people in this area speak fondly of the Ford Motor Company. In fact, it’s gut-wrenching. People who work there often refer to working “at Ford’s” as if being part of a family. And to a large extent that is true. Bill Ford Jr. has set the tone that his family’s company takes care of its people, and that is certainly commendable in this day and age of instant gratification and fleeting loyalty. It is what makes Ford so special and such a part of the fabric of this region.
But... and there's always a "but."
Bill Ford alighted on the notion that Hackett could be The Guy for the Ford Motor Company 22 months ago. Unfortunately, Hackett has shown only intermittent flashes that he could be The Guy. Hackett by all accounts is a decent, smart and well-meaning guy, but he just doesn’t have the depth and breadth of experience to make a real difference at Ford. And right now, the one thing Ford desperately needs more than anything else is a chief executive who understands this business inside and out and can guide Ford through perilous waters. Ford needs a visible force who can present the company’s mission clearly and succinctly, but more important, one who can execute and implement at an accelerated pace. Wistful meanderings and engaged discussions about theories and conjecture are nice, but they aren't going to save the Ford Motor Company at this juncture. A lot of people looking in from the outside can see that, even though the Fog of War has obscured the vision of too many people at the top of Ford.
I said the following last May: “Bill Ford has a very difficult task facing him. He has to admit publicly (after first admitting it to himself) that Jim Hackett isn’t The Guy.”
Following up on that, Jim Hackett is not only not The Guy, he is the auto industry’s Nowhere Man, a stranger in a strange land wandering around lost in a blissful haze of organism-think while contemplating the pace of life. And it’s going nowhere good.
Hackett is simply the wrong guy, at the wrong time, at the wrong company.
And his fifteen minutes are up.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
THE MOST DANGEROUS COMPLICATION.
19 Feb 2019 at 3:16pm
By Peter M. DeLorenzo
Detroit. I will admit that at times it seems like the auto business operates in a dimension that defies comprehension. Powered by its relentless, cyclical nature, this business careens from crisis to crisis on a roller-coaster ride marked by euphoric highs and devastating lows.
The highs are so seductive that the players involved start believing that the good times will never end. They’re the, “We’re finally going to buy that vacation house up north” or, “It’s time to finally get that Shelby Mustang GT500” kind of highs. Big sales, plus big bonuses equal bigger dreams and big spending because, after all, this is how the people immersed in this business 24/7 get to enjoy the ride. And there’s nothing wrong with that when it comes right down to it.
But predictably – and inevitably – those soaring highs are balanced out by crushing lows. The kind of lows that alter people’s thinking and affect their perspective long after the next upswing has started. Then again, the auto industry as practiced here in the Motor City has lived with this for more than a century, through world wars and economic calamities. Boom times are always followed by busts, and just when people start to believe there’s no hope, somehow a new trend emerges, and a new wave of prosperity starts all over again.
Today, we’re heading for another slowdown, one that can’t be predicted as to its severity but one that threatens the auto industry once again. The sugar high brought on by the public’s insatiable desire for trucks and SUVs is already showing signs of coming to an end. The softening sales can be propped up by massive incentives and long-term financing for only so long, and then the industry engine will go from a gallop to a leisurely trot in an instant.
To its credit, the collective Motor City has actually been trying to get ahead of this imminent slow down by slashing inventories and closing plants in an effort to control the scope of the inevitable bleeding. This was anathema to Detroit not long ago, so even though it may seem illogical now, this is a highly positive step. Except, it’s always something, as this “get out in front of it” plan hasn’t come without its controversies. Example? GM and CEO Mary Barra have been repeatedly pummeled by Unifor – the Canadian trade union – for the plans to shut down its plant in Oshawa, Ontario. And the fight continues.
There are other complications too. The auto manufacturers’ impetuous desire to become Tech/Autonomous companies overnight is having a hugely negative effect. They’re making deals and throwing money at everything that moves with the hopes that something will stick long enough to give them a leg up on the competition. So, even though the whole “getting out front” of the looming slowdown is commendable, they’re already operating at a distinct disadvantage because their “new mobility” efforts are sucking up cash in massive quantities, leaving them on the edge of extinction.
Much of this has to do with the most virulent strain of “not invented here” thinking on the planet. Too many in this business think that they know better, no matter what the subject is, especially when it comes to advanced mobility technology. Unfortunately, this thinking isn’t based on fact or any reservoir of capabilities that these companies may possess. Instead it is based on pure, unadulterated hubris and the unfounded notion that “we can do it better and cheaper.” When in fact the complete opposite is closer to the truth.
But the other complication compounding the situation may be the most dangerous of all, and that’s the looming tariffs thrust upon the industry by a current administration that’s relentlessly clueless as to the way things really work in this business. And make no mistake, the financial havoc and devastation that these idiotic trade policies could unleash are incalculable. This is a giant bowl of Not Good that not only could but will cripple this business for years to come. Everyone in this business – both domestic and import auto executives alike – are holding their collective breath that somehow cooler heads will prevail in Washington so that the imbecilic tariffs will not be put in place. But given the current chaos in the nation’s capital, the fear of the wrong move being made is palpable.
I’ve dubbed the overriding pulse of this industry as the “swirling maelstrom” for a reason, because it has careened in fits and starts marked by a two-steps forward, five-back cadence of mediocrity for as long as I can remember. Prosperity can’t be sustained for very long without the pendulum swinging back with devastating effect. It’s just the way this business rolls.
The business is also populated by executives who cover the spectrum of capability, from the brilliant visionaries to the maliciously clueless, and everything in between, which may have something to do with this perpetually frenzied state. That isn’t even counting the hordes of spineless weasels and recalcitrant twerps who occupy the vast middles of these companies. Far from being the switched-on, engaged people that the company PR machines would have you believe, they’re still blatantly stubborn obstacles camouflaged in new, touchy-feely wrappers.
If it weren’t for the fact that these hordes are, for the most part, balanced out by the actions of the hard-core True Believers at these companies, then where would we be?
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
AFFORDABILITY: THE NEXT FRONTIER.
12 Feb 2019 at 4:53pm
By Peter M. DeLorenzo
Detroit. Since we’re in the midst of a market frenzy that prizes circus wagon-sized pickup trucks and SUVs – and the massive profits that they’re generating – as a manufacturer it’s difficult to retain perspective. And it’s easy to see why.
After all, the average transaction price of a new pickup is around $44,000, and fully loaded luxury pickups regularly go for $70,000+, with full-zoot luxury SUVs pushing well into six figures. Those numbers are staggering, and the profits, as I said, are equally staggering. In fact, they’re addictive to the manufacturers.
The pickup truck/SUV sales juggernaut is powering Ford, GM and FCA to new levels of sustainability, at least in the short term anyway. Or, it can be looked at another way, unfortunately, because without the sheer earnings power derived from pickup trucks and SUVs, there is legitimate concern as to whether these companies would even be functioning today.
But then again, as I said last week, this current frenzy is not going to last. The automobile business is at its core a fashion business, and there will come a time when parade float-rivaling SUVs and pickups will fall out of favor. And when the pendulum swings back, it may not be because of rising fuel prices. Instead, it will probably be because the cost of these machines is rising faster than the market can keep up with.
Just yesterday, The Wall Street Journal reported that the Federal Reserve Bank of New York said that a record seven million Americans are three months behind – or more – on their car loan payments, which is even more than after The Great Recession. It doesn’t take a Futurist to determine that this is a giant bowl of Not Good.
With all the talk of electrification, autonomous vehicles and The New Mobility Future, to me the crucial component of transportation will be fundamental affordability. I realize that this sets off alarms in the halls of automobile companies, because for most auto executives “affordability” translates into being “cheap.” But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about quality machines that are within reach of the average consumer.
It really comes down to this: if the average consumer can’t find transportation that’s desirable, safe and affordable, where does that leave our transportation future? It’s fine to paint a rosy picture of shiny happy electrics and seamless autonomous vehicles careening across the landscape in a blissful stupor, but real people with real mobility needs are being priced out of the market, and it’s happening faster than auto executives even imagined it would.
That’s why I bristle at most of the blue-sky future projections about where we’re going in terms of mobility. This transition is going to be a long and painful one, and the near-term needs of consumers desiring affordable transportation are being squeezed by the gross profits being generated by luxury pickup trucks and SUVs, and the insatiable desire by auto executives to keep the train going.
But as automotive history has shown us, trends come and go. Styles and types of vehicles get hot and grow cold, and the resulting roller-coaster ride is always memorable (and excruciating for some). The companies that can ride the wave and be ready for what’s next, at least within reason, are the ones that will live to fight – and succeed – another day.
As you read this, the smart companies and tuned-in executives in their ranks are worrying about affordability right now. They understand that the super-heated lovefest for giant luxury SUVs and pickup trucks has a sell-by date, and we’re much closer to the end of the run than the beginning. And any economic event that might hasten a slowdown will just add to the hand-wringing. This has to be a sobering predicament for these companies, because the profits being generated right now are gargantuan, and without them it could get ugly quickly.
It will take auto executives with real cojones to step away from the current market euphoria and take a cold, hard look as to where this is all going. This is certainly not an easy thing to do, but it will be absolutely essential going forward.
I have no doubt that when it comes to automobiles and trucks, affordability is The Next Frontier.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
THE MOTOR CITY HAZE.
5 Feb 2019 at 12:41pm
By Peter M. DeLorenzo
Detroit. As is tradition here at AE, we’ve devoted the issue after the Super Bowl to reviewing the various car spots on the game. Not this year. Briefly, the Audi spot was overrated and tedious (as all Audi spots have tended to be of late); the same for Mercedes-Benz as in really, that’s all you got? The Toyota Supra spot was predictable and soporific (it looked ten years old), and the Kia Telluride spot was really good for maybe 45 seconds – too bad it was twice that long. Oh well, I have a few more comments on the ads in this week’s “On The Table.”
As for FCA, it spent all its money on YouTube videos – because being unplugged is so desperately hip right now and Olivier “I’m a genius just ask me” Francois is the King of the Desperately Hip – but if they’re not going to bother to show up on the big stage, I’m not going to bother to write about them. All you need to know about their videos is that there were Jeeps and Ram Trucks galore doing Jeep and Ram Truck things.
This week, however, I’m going to write about the Motor City Haze that’s overwhelming this business and the city as well. If you’re not from around here, it’s not something you’d easily see when you step off the plane at Metro. It isn’t on the various billboards coming into the city, and there’s not a neon sign on the Big Tire on I-94, either.
No, it’s an indefinable aura. A palpable feeling that creeps in throughout the Auto Thing in southeast Michigan. It starts with the lingering reality that this business – as defined here in the Motor City – has been governed by an ugly MO for decades, and it’s called lowest-common-denominator thinking.
Lowest-common-denominator thinking has nothing to do with the resident True Believers; it’s anathema to them, in fact. No, “LCDT” came from a slow but sure grip on the business by the financial types over the decades. It created a go-along to-get-along culture, where good enough was good enough and if you saved a few bucks while doing it you’d look good to the overlords at the higher rungs of the company in question. This was most evident in the interiors of the vehicles coming out of the Motor City, where saving a few bucks showed up in interiors that looked cheap and unfinished when compared to the competition, because this just in: they were. But it was all good, as mediocrity turned into bliss in the Motor City, because cut corners yielded big profits.
That is until serious competitors started to decimate Detroit with value offerings with real quality on the low end, and excellence and distinctiveness on the luxury high end. And the inevitable result was declining market share each and every year, with excuses and weak justifications becoming the raison d’etre for the executives in the Motor City.
But even in the face of burgeoning competition in all segments, lowest-common-denominator thinking combined with the most virulent strain of short-term thinking that this business has ever seen to put the collective “Detroit” at a decided disadvantage at every turn (there’s a third dimension to this, too, but more on that later). Yes, of course, there were pockets of true brilliance practiced here, especially in trucks and in high-performance cars, but the common refrain of “it won’t be long” until Detroit was back in its rightful place at the front of this business became the lingering haze that permeated everything.
You would think that the traumatic bankruptcies and national public shaming of two of what was left of the “not-so-big-three” would have been enough for everyone in these environs to straighten up and get religion, and they sort of did, at least in fits and starts. But it always dissolved into a warped cadence of two steps forward and three back, with every positive story coming out of the Motor City counterbalanced by a cold, hard, unrelenting negative that added up to a giant bowl of Not Good.
And where are we today? The Chinese market remains the golden opportunity, with untold riches and almost limitless potential, except when that market heads into a downturn, and then the “untold riches” thing has to be put on hold. The decision by the Chinese government to go all-in for Battery Electric Vehicles, combined with the ultra-green-tinged European nations embracing BEVs with almost equal fervor, is changing this industry at a furious rate. Make that dictating to the industry at a furious rate.
This is leaving some auto companies – especially in Detroit – at a distinct disadvantage, while others (VW, Toyota) are pushing their considerable financial advantage with a staggering commitment to BEVs whether the general consumer public is ready, or not.
In the midst of all of this is the full-on frenzy to develop autonomous vehicle technology, with otherwise sane executives throwing cash at anything that moves in an effort to get in on the game, driven by an overriding fear of somehow being left behind.
And “Detroit”? It’s doubling down on giant, luxurious $75,000+ trucks and more and more SUVs, because that’s what keeps the whole enterprise in cash flow and that’s what it does best, and it’s what consumers want, at least for now. And then there are the high-performance machines from GM, Ford and FCA, because when they put their minds to it, their True Believers can compete with anyone in the world.
But how long can this continue? The auto companies here are preparing for a downturn. How deep and how long that downturn is remains the question of this day and every day. But the halcyon days of people overspending their bank accounts for the latest wonder truck are coming to an end, and when that happens, watch out.
Which brings me to the third dimension to this lingering Motor City Haze. And that is the sinking feeling that the pall hanging over everything around here has an “End of Days” quality to it. That whatever happens from this day forward the collective “Detroit” will be swallowed up by changing market conditions and deep-pocketed competitors in a world with no interest in history, or legacy brands, or anything else for that matter. And that if the Detroit-based car companies survive, they will do so with a drastically reduced footprint, with all of the associate negatives that entails.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
NOT EVEN A LITTLE BIT.
29 Jan 2019 at 10:37am
By Peter M. DeLorenzo
Detroit. A strange phenomenon seems to have invaded our culture over the last few years. I don’t know if it is part of the zeitgeist of this era or just a strange aberration, but I find it disturbing nonetheless.
I’m sure you’ve noticed it on television or in interviews across the media spectrum, too, from news commentators to sports anchors and everything in-between. It’s the odd use of the phrase “a little bit” when people are speaking, and it comes off as a hedge against coming off as too critical.
I’ll give you an example: Imagine a political commentator pulling back on his or her criticism by saying, “I find it to be a little bit disingenuous that he is conducting himself in that manner.” Or a sports analyst commenting, “That defensive back was burned a little bit on that play.” Or an automobile company CFO suggesting, “We encountered restructuring costs and delays in our product cadence in the last quarter, which contributed to our headwinds a little bit.”
Really? Now, I don’t know if the rampant use of this phrase is a reaction to the oppressive, politically correct haze our society seems to be burdened with right now, but I find it to be offensive and flat-out silly. In fact, pulling punches serves no one.
Yes, there are times when it’s easier to gloss over something or someone’s comments to keep a social interaction from becoming contentious, but if you’re employed to convey opinions or perspectives to an audience or within a corporate discussion, adding the phrase “a little bit” doesn’t make things better, it doesn’t make the person sound smarter and it certainly doesn’t add to the concept of having a productive, authentic discussion.
I don’t pretend to know the origins of the use of this phrase, but unfortunately it has become an epidemic. On the street. On radio and television. And throughout the social media spectrum. I hear it and see it everywhere. How did all of this come about? Where did we go wrong? Those questions could be applied to a lot of what American life is today, so maybe it’s best to leave them for another day.
But in your travels, listen for the phrase “a little bit” and see how much it shows up. Then try to imagine how much better things would be if it wasn’t there. Imagine a political commentator focusing his or her criticism by saying, “I find him to be totally disingenuous in his statements, and his conduct is appalling.” Or a sports analyst commenting, “That defensive back was burned on that play and it cost his team, big time.” Or an automobile company CFO confessing, “We encountered massive restructuring costs and regrettable delays in our product cadence in the last quarter, which contributed to our headwinds.”
Sugarcoating things has become an unfortunate pastime in everyday life, it seems. Especially around here, where the excuses are masked in tedious platitudes and “it won’t be long now” empty pronouncements. As in, “Our roads are a little rough at this time of year.” Translation? The roads around here are brutal, cratered facsimiles of roads that cost Michigan motorists millions of dollars every year in wrecked tires, wheels, suspensions and windshields. It stopped being funny two decades ago.
Or, ”We’re rebuilding for the future and we’re confident that we’re on the right track.” Translation? The last time the Lions won an NFL Championship was 1957. The team has been rebuilding ever since. Nothing ever changes either.
Or, “Our product cadence has lagged in certain instances a little bit but we’re back on track and right where we need to be.” Translation? We haven’t been accurate or on time with our product cadence in a decade. It’s a recurring Shit Show measured out in fits and starts that never gets better. Every time we think we’re back on track we take two steps back. Thus, it was ever so.
How about this? “Our advertising has delivered what we needed it to do and we have the best consumer research numbers in our history.” Translation? We’ve been throwing ideas up against the wall for so long now that we don’t even bother trying to create impactful national advertising. We just do glorified dealer advertising in a national wrapper and call it good. Our dealers don’t seem to care one way or the other (or don’t know the difference, take your pick) and we don’t either. And we save so much money doing it this way we look like heroes internally.
The Final Translation? There’s nothing good about “a little bit.” Not even. It’s a half-assed hedge that glosses over reality and guarantees mediocrity. It’s about shirking responsibility and avoiding accountability. I never thought that in my lifetime that having a point of view would be a scarce commodity, but it in the times we live in that definitely seems to be the case, which makes Autoextremist.com rarer by the hour.
Given the Fog of Mediocrity enveloping our culture, that’s a very good thing from my perspective.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
AUTO SHOW AFTERMATH.
22 Jan 2019 at 9:39am
By Peter M. DeLorenzo
Detroit. That I received considerable flak for my “too negative” column about the Detroit Auto Show last week was to be expected. After all, there is a large and vocal faction here in the Motor City that wants everything about the auto business to be great, with nary a discouraging word to be uttered. Add to that the fact that the ongoing rejuvenation of this city is seemingly off limits to criticism, too, but more on that later. Not surprisingly, this isn’t a cheerleading site, and some people are still getting up to speed on that fact.
And so, what about the Detroit Auto Show? Was anything learned? Were there any worthwhile developments that will live beyond the show?
How do we get there from here? Let’s face it, June 2020, is a long, long, long way away. The date change is welcome, for a number of reasons, but the first year of the “new” show will have a very narrow window of opportunity in order to succeed. Will all the manufacturers automatically return in force? No. Displaying at an auto show these days is dependent on money, of course, but even more important is product cadence. If a manufacturer doesn’t have a product or products in the works within a year from a major show, they tend to say, “what’s the point?” I know that one of the missing German manufacturers is already dropping hints that they won’t be back in 2020, so nothing about the 2020 show will be automatic. But starting with a clean slate has its distinct advantages, and everyone involved in this business in this region is hoping against hope that the show organizers can deliver. Needless to say, the success of the 2020 show will be a giant “we’ll see” of epic proportions.
(As for the ongoing rejuvenation of this city I have written since Day One that the eye candy of new and renovated buildings by Quicken Loans mogul Dan Gilbert, assorted “hot” new restaurants and hotels, and the continued gentrification of the city in its narrowly defined central corridor would be a top-down boon to certain denizens of the city. But I've also said that it would not deal with the fundamental issues of this city’s recurring problems, which need to be addressed from the bottom up. That seemed to be borne out in a recent story in the Detroit Free Press, which mentioned a report that indicated 40 percent of the population of Detroit is living under the poverty line – a sobering statistic of the first order. Most of the readers of this site really don’t want to hear any of this, but I write about it on occasion to give people who don’t reside in the area more of a “big picture” framework of the region that the auto industry dominates.)
Something is wrong at GM Design. There seems to be a burgeoning crisis at GM Design, which is shocking as much as it is surprising. But there’s no mistaking the fact that although GM Design seems to be able to muster a good-looking front end on occasion, there has been a notable decline in the overall execution of its interior designs. I’m sure the denizens of GM Design will scoff at this, but it’s clear to me that GM has become a second-tier automaker when it comes to interior design, and there’s really no excuse for it. GM is just getting hammered by its competitors, both import and domestic. All you have to do is study the Lincoln interiors (vs. Cadillac) and the interiors in the new Ram pickup (vs. Chevrolet Silverado) to see that GM is not even in the game.
Do the bean counter overlords at GM really determine cost that much? That would be more palatable to me than thinking that GM Design has lost its mojo. But then again, the Corvette suffered from poor interior design for decades; it was as if the notion of putting $100.00 more in cost per car to elevate the interior was abhorrent to GM Purchasing. And it showed. Even now, with the Corvette being a fabulous car and its interior finally receiving some attention, it still feels less than great. This is a serious concern, too, because the way GM’s product cadence plays out it may leave its interiors unimproved for two to three years, short of an all-hands-on-deck emergency push to upgrade GM interiors across the board.
But that’s not all. GM Design hasn’t been exactly hitting it out of the park with its exterior designs either. The new Silverado is lacking, to put it charitably, and as I said last week, the overall design language of the XT6 leaves a lot to be desired. The XT6 is unfortunately consistent with the new, contemporary Cadillac design signature, meaning, the front end is somewhat interesting, and then it looks like the designers phoned it in the rest of the way, with nothing worth talking about from the other angles. Uninspired doesn't even begin to cover it. Let's just say that this three-row Cadillac SUV is a major design disappointment and leave it at that.
And there's more. The GMC Terrain starts okay in the front, but by the time you get to the sides and the rear, it looks like a different committee designed each section. The most urgent issue facing GM Design, however, is the Chevrolet Camaro. The design hasn’t worn well, at all. The Dodge Challenger may have retro overtones, but it has real presence on the road. And the Ford Mustang design still resonates as being clean and purposeful. But the Camaro is chunky and ungainly, and when the optional go-fast stuff is added it makes it even more so. That’s just not right. We’re talking the Camaro here, folks. It deserves better, much better.
The point I’m making here is that GM Design used to have a focused consistency that was evident in its work across all of the GM divisions. In fact, the look of its mainstream cars used to be GM Design’s specialty, carrying over the tradition from the Bill Mitchell era. But now there are glaring holes and missteps, and it’s depressing to see, especially with the fantastic history that has been such a part of the enduring legacy of GM Design. Will the new Corvette be great? There’s no doubt, because the day the True Believers at GM Design can’t do a Corvette is the day they should just fold up their tent and go home.
The new Toyota Supra is a nonstarter. Speaking of chunky and ungainly, the new Toyota Supra is another major disappointment. Maybe the hype was too much, and maybe the fact that it was Akio Toyoda’s vanity project and nothing more hurt it, but in the flesh the new Supra was a mishmash of about five different cars with not a single cohesive element worth talking about. At the same time, I can’t deny that the fact Akio went ahead with the car on his whim is commendable. After all, this business is so risk averse now that it has become stultifying. So, kudos to Akio for that. But is it a milestone car? No. Will it sell? Yes, but only in miniscule increments. And maybe that will be enough to keep it around for a few years.
Do the Korean manufacturers finally have their shit together? This seems to be a question that comes up about every four years or so. Hyundai and Kia are hot, and then they’re not. They apparently have all the tools at their disposal, but then they manage to blow it. They go through executives so rapidly that any sense of continuity is lost and then they have to start all over again. I have given up trying to figure the Koreans out, because half the time they don’t even have a clue as to what they’re doing. But this time there is a palpable sense that they have finally acknowledged two absolutely crucial things: 1. Their glaring shortcomings as managers and, 2. They are admitting that they don’t know it all when it comes to product. If you know anything about the Korean automakers, this is nothing short of a revelation. They’re listening to – and have hired – serious and accomplished outside experts in design, engineering and product development, and their new products show it, displaying an executional presence that is unmistakable. You only have to give a close look to the new Kia Telluride to understand what I’m talking about. Will it continue? That’s up to the Koreans. They have a tendency to overthink everything and then the micromanaging starts, and at that point everything goes off the rails. Maybe this time it will be different. Maybe there are enough outsiders in place with the real authority to say, “No, we’re not going to do that.” Yet another giant “we’ll see.”
A lot of the locals here insisted that the Detroit Auto Show was a “good” auto show, but I disagree. It was an “adequate” half of a show that left a lot to be desired. Let’s hope that the 2020 Detroit Auto Show will be worth the wait.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
Editor’s Note: If you would like to see our coverage of the Detroit Auto Show from last week click here. -WG
GM PHONES IT IN, FORD DRAINS THE WELL, AKIO UNVEILS HIS VANITY PROJECT, AND A...
15 Jan 2019 at 12:42pm
By Peter M. DeLorenzo
Detroit. "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity…" Charles Dickens had no idea that the opening of his epic novel A Tale of Two Cities would have such resonance 160 years later, but how else can you explain the 2019 Detroit Auto Show?
We knew going in that this year was going to be different for one very big reason: This was to be the swan song for the traditional Detroit Auto Show held in January. No more battling slush, snow and cold; no more bracing against the howling winds; and no more dread hanging in the air from the visiting journalists tossing around barbs about the bleakness that came with one of the worst weather months around here.
Unexpectedly, we were blessed with a crisp – and cold – bright sunny day for Monday’s opening of the media days, which was a welcome respite from the usual blustery winter weather. But ultimately it didn’t matter, because the next Detroit Auto Show will be held eighteen months from now in June 2020, with promises of a multi-media, multi-venue extravaganza that will be nothing short of the reinvention of the auto show concept.
That’s all well and good, but no one expected what we’d find at Cobo Hall this year. I’ve commented many times before about how the Detroit show was in danger of going back to being a regional auto show like it was 40 years ago, but I was in no way prepared for this. By “this” I mean that for all intents and purposes this was half an auto show. Or, paraphrasing Dr. Evil, this was a “quasi” auto show, “not auto show enough.”
How grim was it? Well, besides the fact that there was a massive water main break right by Cobo Hall, which triggered a “boil water” alert on the eve of the press days, the show itself was a flat-out disaster. There was so much emptiness on the floor due to the fact that the import manufacturers chose to blow off the proceedings entirely (BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, Volvo, Range Rover, I could go on), that a huge number of assorted used exotics and luxury vehicles were assembled to take up a shocking amount of floor space. It wasn’t a good solution either, because it looked like a used car lot on the dark side of the moon. An odd, yet confounding exclamation point to the proceedings.
The local apologists all said that the show was “a little less” this year, and I just laughed. A little less? It was flat-out grim, as if we were previewing a movie you have no intention of seeing. Ever. Even though Ford and GM made all the right noises about their place in The Future, this show did not engender one iota of confidence. In fact, the entire proceedings felt like an afterthought, a snapshot of a fading industry wheezing through its last gasps of respectability, with a future totally dependent on whichever way the prevailing winds blow. The only thing missing were the fog machines, so we could at least trudge through a manufactured mist signifying our discontent.
Alas, whatever the Detroit Auto Show was in its glory days, this show put paid to the notion that its future success is guaranteed. The change on the calendar for the 2020 show will be a huge positive, there is no doubt. But the rest of it? Talk about a giant “we’ll see.”
Oh well, let’s get on with it, shall we? Let’s see how this half-a-show came off.
Really? That’s all you got? Cadillac unveiled its 2020 XT6 crossover and the reaction was underwhelming to say the least. Not as big as the King Kong Escalade, but bigger than the brand's XT5, this all-new three-row crossover shares underpinnings with the Buick Enclave, Chevrolet Traverse and GMC Acadia. Given that, why the hell did it take so long to get it to market, you might ask? Only GM knows for sure, but it remains an unanswered mystery, especially when you take a good, long look at the thing. The overall design language of the XT6 is consistent with the new, contemporary Cadillac design signature, meaning, the front end is somewhat interesting, and then it looks like the designers phoned it in the rest of the way, with nothing worth talking about from the other angles. Uninspired doesn't even begin to cover it. Let's just say that this SUV is a major design disappointment and leave it at that. Power comes from GM's now-obligatory 3.6L DOHC V6 engine with 310HP (231 kW), backed by a nine-speed automatic transmission featuring next-generation Electronic Precision Shift. Active Fuel Management technology enables V-4 operation when V-6 power is not required. But where is the signature Cadillac power that would distinguish this SUV from its GM siblings? Like a twin-turbo V6 with 400HP+? And no Super Cruise availability either? Why not? And the fact that Cadillac is sticking to its nonsensical naming regimen is a huge turnoff to me and borderline absurd, as in, really? That's the best you people can do? Will they sell it? In this SUV/Crossover/Truck-obsessed market we're living in, if they don’t, I will be shocked. But let’s not forget, any outcome is possible with the stumblebums in GM marketing.
The Electric Cadillac Acid Test. But that wasn’t the only news from GM’s luxury division. GM announced that Cadillac will be the tip of its technological spear when it comes to Electric Vehicles. And that’s a big deal, considering that GM is preparing for a (mostly) all-electric future. A rendering was revealed at Cadillac’s Sunday night event of a handsome all-electric SUV that is supposed to appear after the current Cadillac product cycle runs out. Which means sometime in 2023 if things go well. Think about that for a moment because that’s a really long time from now. Cadillac is also touting that it will be releasing a new product every six months until 2021, including a new Escalade – which will be hot – and a new performance sedan. But why do I get the distinct impression that this brand is in trouble? Two reasons: 1. Everything is late. And given the uninspired XT6, there’s no excuse for it. 2. Take a walk through the Lincoln display, and see the time and money spent on the interior designs. There’s a reason why Lincoln is on an upswing and Cadillac is running in place. GM is not even in the same league with its Cadillac interiors, which continue to be Dark Seas of gray and black. Again, there’s simply no excuse for it. Moving. On.
BMW called, it wants its Z4 Coupe back. Akio Toyoda came to do the presenting, and so did Fernando Alonso, which meant that the reintroduction of the Supra after 21 years was a very big deal to Toyota. Why? Because Akio wanted it. The fifth-generation Supra was also the first global Toyota model developed by Toyota GAZOO Racing, the company’s racing arm. And, as vanity project sports cars go, it isn’t bad. The 2020 Supra will cost around $48,000, it will be powered by a twin-scroll turbo six with 335HP and 365 lb-ft of torque and will be teamed with a quick-shifting 8-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters. Toyota projects 0-60 mph acceleration in 4.1 seconds, which makes this the quickest Toyota-branded production vehicle to date. I applaud Toyota for bringing the Supra to market, even if it’s Akio’s folly, meaning the sales will probably be nothing to write home about. But the fact that Akio insisted on building it is commendable. As Curtis Armstrong says to Tom Cruise in Risky Business:
"Sometimes you gotta say 'What the Fuck' and make your move, Joel. Every now and then, saying 'What the Fuck' brings freedom. Freedom brings opportunity. Opportunity makes your future. So, your parents are going out of town? You got the place all to yourself?"
"What the fuck."
Too bad the Supra looks uncannily like the BMW Z4 with its roof up. Ah well, What the Fuck…
This is The End, beautiful friend. Infiniti geared its whole raison d’etre at the Detroit show around its fully electric QX Inspiration concept. When it came time for it to be revealed, technical problems paralyzed it and kept it from appearing at the Infiniti press conference. Oops. It doesn’t happen very often – like never – and Infiniti operatives were dutifully mortified. But then again, it seemed to be in keeping with the overall mood of the show, as the strains of The Doors “The End” played in our heads...
This is the end
This is the end
My only friend, the end
Speaking of uninspired. VW showed its new Passat, which remarkably looks like the old Passat. But that’s okay, I guess. They made detailed improvements rather than reinvent the wheel, and for those interested in a real live car instead of an SUV, it’s a worthy choice. VW also announced it was investing $800 million more in its Chattanooga, Tennessee, facility to prepare to manufacture electric vehicles. The German brand also announced that it was going to become the presenting automotive partner to U.S. Soccer through 2022.
We may have gone back to the well one more time, but it’s our well, damnit. Ford unveiled the 2020 Shelby Mustang GT500, a car that has been rumored and talked about for well over three years now. Dubbed “the most powerful street-legal Ford ever,” it’s the brand’s entry into the 700HP pissing contest between manufacturers. Featuring a 5.2-liter supercharged V8, the GT500 is capable of 0 to 60 mph in 3.5 seconds and sub-eleven-second quarter-mile times. Ford’s True Believers also spent a lot of time on aero, cooling, braking and suspension dynamics to make this the finest high-performance Mustang ever built. Kudos to the them, especially since this is aimed at a niche, of a niche, of a niche, but like Akio, sometimes you gotta say WTF and make your move, right? Where does Ford go with the Mustang after this? Let’s just say that the well is now officially empty. Ford also unveiled a new Explorer Hybrid and an Explorer ST (with 400HP), and showed its new Explorer-based police car. But no one cared. (Read about the Ford/VW Alliance in “On The Table” -WG)
Ford had some classic Mustangs on hand in honor of the new GT500.
Is it our imagination, or is the design language for these electric vehicles already blending together like a drawer of black socks? Look at the front end of the Nissan IMs concept and the future electric SUV for Cadillac from GM. Eerie. At any rate, Nissan says that IMs is the “elevated sports sedan” and has “revolutionary new proportions and stretched interior space” including a “Premier Seat” 2 + 1 + 2 seating architecture, and it will have full autonomous capability. Rumors suggest that this concept foreshadows an all-electric Maxima in about five years. Can’t say that it moved the needle for us. At all.
We call it a grand slam home run. Kia PR Minions call the new Telluride SUV “Big, bold and boxy and made for adventure.” Designed at Kia’s California studio, detailed execution abounds throughout the Telluride and we predict this mid-size SUV is going to make some serious noise in the market.
We call it a grand slam home run, Part II. Even though the Jeep Gladiator was unveiled in L.A. (above), we were reminded that this new pickup truck has "hit" written all over it. The upward trajectory of Jeep doesn't look to be slowing anytime soon.
What else? There were plenty of boy/girl-racer type cars, including the Lexus RC-F Track Edition, the Subaru STI S209 and the Hyundai Elantra N Line. None of them were much to write home about except to the people that just gotta have one of ‘em. Oh, and there was a new Hyundai Veloster N race car too.
The Lexus RC-F Track Edition.
The Subaru STI S209.
The Hyundai Elantra N Line.
The Veloster N TCR.
And so, it begins. China’s GAC Motor showed the Entranze, a crossover concept configured with the now-ubiquitous three rows of seating and with a planned debut in 2020, depending on the outcome of the trade war. The Chinese automaker - a division of China's Guangzhou Automobile Group - is establishing regional headquarters in Irvine, California, and already has a 50,000-square-foot R&D center in Farmington Hills, a suburb of Detroit.
You may wonder, given the somber realities of this "half" of a 2019 Detroit Auto Show, was there an Autoextremist "Best in Show" this year? Why yes, yes, there was. And it had nothing to do with the featured displays that I've discussed previously. In fact, this machine isn't even new, having been unveiled at the 2018 SEMA Show in Las Vegas. The Dodge Super Charger is a concept car that was designed to mark the 50th anniversary of the second-generation Charger, produced from 1968 to 1970. The Super Charger is a resto-mod that combines the design of the original Dodge Charger with modern Mopar high-performance parts. It is wider, with a slightly longer wheelbase than the original machine, but the key detail is that it showcases a new 7.0-liter Hemi V8 crate engine called the "Hellephant" that cranks out 1,000HP and 950 lb-ft of torque, which customers can buy from FCA in 2019. The Super Charger was created specifically to showcase this monster crate engine. It was dubbed Hellephant as a tribute to the original Mopar 426 Hemi engine, which was nicknamed “Elephant” due to its size and power. The Hellephant is also the first 1,000HP crate engine offered by an OEM automaker.
Politically incorrect? Absolutely. Wildly inappropriate given the oncoming, touchy-feely BEV revolution? Certainly. But it's a stunning monument to Bad-Assery that shouldn't be swept aside or put in a dark corner. This just in: ICE-powered vehicles are going to be around for a long, long time to come. Kudos to the True Believers out in Auburn Hills for creating such a magnificent machine.
And that's the High-Octane Truth from the Detroit Auto Show.
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