The Latest Auto Extremist
BOOM TIMES FOR SELLING AIR.
15 Oct 2017 at 3:40pm
By Peter M. DeLorenzo
Detroit. As I wrote last week in “Tesla Burns, Wall Street Fiddles,” this industry is living in a fog of delusional thinking made up of one part hubris and two parts arrogance, with a large dollop of the ever-present unmitigated bullshit thrown in for good measure.
A charlatan like Elon Musk, who has been deified as America’s most notorious blue-sky visionary, but who has also been enabled and empowered by Wall Street to fleece investors by repeatedly "selling air" when it comes to Tesla, is now dancing on the vapors of empty promises made about the Model 3, which is shaping up to be the Silicon Valley resident genius’s Waterloo when it comes to the business of making cars. When the ugly reality of the Model 3 hits home, with prototypes being slapped together by hand and promised volumes turning into a grandiose pipe dream, Tesla stock is going to crater faster than the latest product put on the field by this city’s hapless baseball team.
But even though Musk may be America’s Air Salesman-in-Chief, he is not the only one engaging in misguided hyperbole and fanciful notions about the future direction of this industry, because right here in the Motor City allegedly smart executives are bathing in the promised glow of a connected future for the automobile, which, by their reasoned analysis, will lead to a future of untold riches the likes of which this industry has never experienced before.
And it may be the most egregious case of delusional thinking that this business has ever seen.
These serious-minded executives are operating under the assumption that having the automobile of the future be a center of connectivity will lead to a world of endless possibilities and open up a vast, limitless future of unbridled profitability. Which is all well and good and even noble to a degree, but it also exposes a fundamental naïveté about the world that is excruciatingly painful to observe. And it certainly wouldn’t be the first time.
The auto companies plan on mining reams of data collected so that they can “know” you down to the very last detail and proclivity, and then they plan on using that data so that your car can tell you where the nearest Starbucks is, or where the shoes you’re lusting after are, or where the best local French fries are, or even where your favorite movies are playing in town. And they think they’re going to monetize these and countless other scenarios of desirability until the cows come home, gleaning profits from consumers and businesses alike.
Right now certain manufacturers are feverishly building data collection “farms” and corralling the power of that data so that they can be an integral part of a connected movement that will propel them to what’s certain to be (in their minds) a new, utopian reality. Except that the movement has long been established, and we already have and use our smart devices for all of this so tell me, what is the driving difference that the auto companies will provide, again? No matter how hard the car companies try to usurp the power of our omnipresent smart devices and convince people that their cars are not only the new centers of connectivity but that they’re actually better at it than smart phones, it’s just never going to happen. Ever.
Do you think I’m exaggerating the gravity of this development? Well, you would be wrong. Auto executives are pissing away billions upon billions of dollars on the quixotic notion that if they turn the automobile – autonomous or otherwise – into a rolling hotbed of connectivity, that everything will be right with the world again and that they’ll be serious players to be reckoned with in The Game. In fact they are absolutely convinced of it.
The ugly reality? There is not a chance in hell that it’s going to happen. The automobile industry – domestic or otherwise – has never gotten over the fact that there has been a seismic shift to Silicon Valley when it comes to societal cool. Smart, handheld devices have transformed everything about the culture here and around the world, and even though the automobile companies are still an inexorable part of America’s industrial fabric and a center of technology and manufacturing expertise, the once ever-present automojo that dominated our culture isn’t there anymore. And it’s not coming back either.
So what to do? The automobile companies actually do know how to do some things better than The New Masters of the Universe in Silicon Valley. For instance the auto companies know how to mass produce a wide variety of precision, complicated machines for a bewildering kaleidoscope of applications that transfer people safely, efficiently and in comfort to their destinations. In fact, most in Silicon Valley – except for St. Elon, of course – have acknowledged that fact both publicly and behind the scenes, so what’s wrong with the auto companies concentrating on that? What’s wrong with the auto companies continuing their pursuit of building the best machines possible while exploring new avenues of propulsion and efficiency? Sure, future automobiles should be ready to be connected – at the discretion of consumers – but connectivity in and of itself should never be the raison d’etre of these machines.
Not surprisingly, rational thinking and logic are in short supply in the auto biz of late, and “selling air” has progressed from being a perennial cottage industry in marketing to an all-hands-on-deck pursuit at the highest levels of these companies. And the Siren Song of Connectivity has lured normally smart auto executives into a zombie state, which has caused them to lose all touch with reality. These auto execs actually believe that they can be Masters of the Universe again, when in fact that chapter of the storied history of the automobile was closed over 50 years ago.
The idea that connectivity is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for the auto industry is preposterous. It may be boom times for “selling air” – but beyond that there is simply no there there.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
TESLA BURNS. WALL STREET FIDDLES.
9 Oct 2017 at 6:14pm
By Peter M. DeLorenzo
Detroit. Once in a while the swirling maelstrom starts to swallow this industry whole. It’s always a slow, almost imperceptible buildup, but as it gains speed, things – and people – start to lose their focus, and when that happens, watch out.
The Drill goes something like this: As counteracting forces push and pull, this business starts to reel from a cacophony made up of a particularly virulent strain of self-generated white noise, competing interests and entrenched fiefdoms, hidden agendas, a fog of delusional thinking made up of one part hubris and two parts arrogance, and a large dollop of the ever-present unmitigated bullshit thrown in for good measure.
And it’s a lethal cocktail. Why? Because every day unrealistic expectations are set, promises are made that can’t even remotely be kept and the business twists and turns on the latest pronouncements, rumors and conjecture. What is real gets lost in the shuffle, of course, and reacting instead of acting becomes a cottage industry. And it all contributes to the overall industry din as if it’s part and parcel of standard industry procedure because, well, this just in: It is.
I don’t have to go far to expose the usual suspects who are the hard-core contributors to the din. Let’s take Elon Musk, for instance. Please. Yes, he has cemented his role as this country’s resident blue-sky visionary, but shooting off rockets and talking about tunnels that will never be built is one thing; actually being able to build cars profitably is quite another.
When Musk started beating the drum for the Model 3, I said loudly that everything about the car – including the ridiculous production numbers that Musk promised – would not happen. In fact, it would be a complete disaster. Why? Because the company has demonstrated repeatedly that it a.) can’t make money building and selling cars and b.) can’t build automobiles with even a modicum of consistent quality.
And this week, we found out that the Model 3 was a pipe dream. And a handbuilt pipe dream, to make things worse. The hand-wringing in the media about Tesla missing the production targets for the Model 3 by a mile has been humorous to say the least, as if everyone has been living under a rock for a couple of years and is simply shocked. Not only is Tesla unable to produce the Model 3 with any appreciable volume, the cars being built are being assembled by hand because they’re still trying to figure out prototype parts. Remember when Musk stated emphatically that Tesla would sell 500,000 Model 3s by the end of 2018?
There wasn't even a remote possibility that Musk would reach the super-inflated – and overhyped – production targets for the Model 3. And this just in, he never will. That didn’t stop him from shouting it from the rooftops and pounding it into his adoring acolytes in the media and on Wall Street. It was a portrait of sheer fantasy fueled by Musk’s unbridled delusions of grandeur.
Charley Grant, in The Wall Street Journal, wrote last week: "Still, Tesla’s persistent inability to forecast its results should raise concerns. Tesla issued the forecast of 1,500 cars just two months ago and missed it by over 80%. Monday’s announcement marked the third time since January that Tesla has cited production issues as a reason for a missed forecast, yet Tesla is no startup—the company has been in business since 2003."
Raise concerns? That’s one way of putting it. And what about those cheerleaders on Wall Street? You know, the relentless hacks who were single-handedly responsible for the egregious overrun on Tesla stock? They’re now backpedaling faster than an all-pro defensive back, preparing to hide under their desks as the valuation of Tesla – which was criminally unrealistic from the get-go – makes like a giant hubris-filled balloon about to deflate at a furious rate.
But then Wall Street has been wrong about Tesla from the beginning, so I can’t generate any sympathy for those greed merchants now. The run-up in Tesla stock was partially based on Wall Street’s fundamental and unflagging hatred for anything to do with Detroit and this country’s domestic auto industry. These so-called analysts bought everything Elon Musk was spewing hook, line and sinker, figuring Silicon Valley would transform the auto industry and Detroit would finally get its much-deserved comeuppance for oh, I don’t know, building machines that were actually efficient and affordable for a wide spectrum of buyers?
The unrelenting fact about Tesla is that the company has never made dollar one designing, building and selling luxury cars. It’s simply not possible. Tesla lives on energy credits sold to other companies, and it has taken what was once one of the most efficient and high-quality automobile plants in the world (the NUMMI plant formerly owned by Toyota) and turned it into a cesspool of gross inefficiency and poor quality. And there is no way in hell that Tesla can sell a mainstream automobile at the volumes or the price point promised. Tesla will be lucky to build 100,000 Model 3s total by the end of 2019, and trust me, even that will be a stretch. But I can assure you of one thing – the company will not be able to do it profitably. Not even remotely close, in fact.
There is no doubt whatsoever that Musk has contributed to the relentless din in this business. He may be a visionary, but his short attention span doesn’t count for much in an industry based on precision mass production and efficient, disciplined processes. That kind of detailed discipline may bore Musk to death, but by not embracing the task it will mean the death knell for Tesla. Real live automobile companies that know all about mass-producing complicated machines profitably are about to hand Musk’s ass to him. Musk will move on to other pipe dreams, of course, but not before blaming the “recalcitrant” U.S. auto manufacturers, the U.S. government and the “rigged” system for his predicament. When in reality, he’ll only need to take a good long look in his special shape-shifting, ego-enhancing mirror.
As I said last week, Tesla's day in the sun is coming to an end, but it wasn't fun while it lasted.
And what about the complicit denizens of Wall Street? There is simply no excuse for their reprehensible conduct in blowing up the valuation of Tesla beyond all reasonable expectations. And a lot of people are going to get burned because of it, big time. But then again that’s the way the wolves of Wall Street roll. It’s not about the efficacy of the investments or the financial needs of small investors, it’s about their own private little Idaho and don’t you ever forget it.
But guess what? It seems that the home of America’s greed merchants is just getting warmed up. This week, after GM announced that it would offer two new all-electric vehicles based off “learnings” from the Chevrolet Bolt EV in the next eighteen months, and that those vehicles would be the first of at least 20 new all-electric vehicles to be launched by 2023, Wall Street ran up GM’s stock as if it was turning on a “buy now!” light switch.
Wait a minute, that's all it took? A purposely-vague pronouncement that amounted to a giant “we’re working on it”? And all of a sudden it was okay to like GM now that it was talking about a partial fleet of electric cars that was at least six years away? Maybe GM and Ford should announce flying cars by 2030 if they really want to see their respective stocks skyrocket.
It’s clear that Wall Street was completely brainwashed about America’s electric future by Elon Musk, and it’s also clear that they haven’t learned one damn thing on their own about the automobile or the future of transportation. Because if they had, they’d know that all-electric fleets from automakers are a good 20 years away (in fact we may never reach “all-electric” for every conceivable application), and in the meantime they would also understand that the internal combustion engine has a long, long way to go.
A glimpse through the industry kaleidoscope can be flat-out frightening, because what is perceived as real is usually anything but.
But then again, it's not called the swirling maelstrom for nothing.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
SERGIO POLISHES THE GOLDEN CANNOLI AS THE SALE OF FCA IS NIGH.
2 Oct 2017 at 7:59am
By Peter M. DeLorenzo
Detroit. If you’ve been reading this website with some regularity over the last eight years, you know that I have predicted from the very beginning that the endgame for FCA CEO Sergio Marchionne was that he would sell off the “C” part of FCA for one big fat payday for himself and his Fiat family heirs/overlords as soon as he could pull it off.
And we are on the verge of that happening.
It’s hard to remember now, but back in those halcyon days when the U.S. government – completely out of options and afraid that if Chrysler went down it would take the entire automotive industry and its supplier network down with it – “gifted” Chrysler’s assets to Marchionne and his Fiat handlers for a song, people who should have known better considered him to be a savior of some sort. And what qualifies as “a song” you might ask? Not only did Fiat – by any measure a failing automotive enterprise in the twilight of its long, mediocre existence – not have to put any money of any consequence up for over a year after the deal was consummated, its total cash investment in Chrysler amounted to around $6 billion. (To put this in perspective, the Jeep brand alone was conservatively estimated to be worth at least that much at the time.)
From the moment Sergio got here, he was a walking, talking blusterbus, the self-appointed smartest guy in the room – any room. And I watched in horror as he and his minions hand crafted a persona – aided and abetted by certain card-carrying bootlickers in the automotive media – as a linguini-stained White Night based on the false premise that he would be the salvation of the poor wretches at Chrysler and that he would be the champion of the “little people.” And it was all unmitigated bullshit, because the only thing on Marchionne’s mind from Day One was to 1. Prop up Fiat, that perennial loser of an Italian car company (not counting Ferrari), and 2. Generate as much profits from an eventual sale of Chrysler’s assets to keep him and his Fiat handlers in cannoli and espresso for a long, long time.
Oh sure, he was different than the arrogant, hubris-filled posse sent here by Daimler, who managed to turn a $36 billion “merger of equals” into a company on the ropes in eight short years, and he was light years better – and more qualified – than the inept stumblebums at Cerberus led by “Minimum Bob” Nardelli. Marchionne was, after all, the consummate deal maker and an expert at turning other peoples money into untold riches, but make no mistake, there was going to be no silver lining with Sergio and FCA. He was the king of the carpetbagging mercenaries wrapped in a shiny wrapper made up of bombastic promises and blue-sky bullshit and he would be this industry’s cross to bear for going on nine long years.
Needless to say, it has been a long, strange trip.
We had to endure Marchionne’s endless posturing and his thinly veiled put-downs of other executives in the business because they, after all, just weren’t in his league. We watched as Marchionne made embarrassing overtures to GM that were personally insulting to Mary Barra and were rightly dismissed out of hand, because it didn’t take much to surmise that they were Marchionne’s feeble attempts at controlling his destiny, and predictably they failed miserably.
But that was just one in a long list of egregious behaviors that “The Great Sergio” unleashed on this business on his way to becoming the self-proclaimed “G.O.A.T.”
Let’s review, shall we?
In the earliest days, Marchionne led potential dealers down a primrose path promising untold riches – requiring them to spend millions on brick and mortar to build stand-alone Fiat stores – and he exacted those promises by dangling the Golden Cannoli: being able to sell Alfa Romeos and make millions on top of millions. Except that didn’t quite pan out, did it? The Fiat brand is on the ropes, and Fiat dealers were left bitter and furious that they had allowed the Italian Snake Oil Salesman to take them for a ride. And Alfa Romeo? It doesn’t matter how much praise the resident fanboys in the automotive media bestow on Alfa Romeo models, the bottom line is that there is no bottom line of any consequence for Alfa Romeo. It is a niche brand and it has always been a niche brand, and Sergio’s Audi-esque dreams for Alfa were unrealistic, misguided and flat-out ridiculous.
And we had to listen to the monthly din generated as FCA recorded one sales record after another, with Marchionne crowing about it incessantly until it came out that the minions assigned to backing up Sergio’s boasts had been cooking the numbers for years; in effect FCA had been reporting phantom sales numbers to make Sergio look good so he could continue stomping around and chewing the industry scenery, shouting “I told you I was a genius.” Well, he told us, all right.
Desperate to make the “C” in FCA attractive, Marchionne was churning out Jeeps and Ram trucks at a furious rate, delivering the lowest quality numbers in the industry at every turn, every year. But despite that, the ugly reality for Marchionne was that he had assets in Jeep, Ram Truck and the minivan (the outsized marketing posturing for Dodge is inconsequential; it is a fading brand of nostalgic muscle cars and menacing police cars with no future) and not much else.
Thanks to Sergio keeping his mind on the endgame and with his eyes filled up with dollar signs, FCA was woefully behind the industry in advanced technology development by every measure, and Marchionne knew it. And he couldn’t snap his fingers and make it all better overnight, either. So he embarked on a ruthless cost-cutting campaign in order to make FCA look more attractive to a buyer, slashing costs throughout Auburn Hills, especially out of future vehicle programs, which were pushed back, delayed or cancelled altogether.
So now what? Well, it has come down to this: As you read this Sergio’s payday is being furiously negotiated. And the buyer? None other than the Hyundai Motor Group. For Sergio the Great, it couldn’t be a more perfect fit, but let me be blunt here, for Marchionne anyone who has the dough-re-me would constitute the “perfect fit.”
Hyundai has the major league cash it will take to buy out FCA. They will gladly take Jeep, Ram trucks and the minivan (and plant), and discard the rest. And what about those convicted hacks in Washington who will stomp their feet in protest at the very idea that an iconic American brand like Jeep might be sold to the Koreans? This just in: It matters not one iota. FCA is a foreign-owned company and there’s not a damn thing any one of those politicians can do about it, even though many jobs will be lost and many lives in this area will be disrupted.
There is some solace in that Marchionne’s notion of “merging” with an automaker was nothing more than the sugarplum dreams of an unrepentant egomaniac. There was never going to be a merger with anyone, because much to Sergio’s considerable chagrin, he was never going to have the upper hand.
Marchionne has been in a race against time to make some sort of deal before he leaves FCA sometime in 2019, so he can retire among his cronies back in Italy and remind them that he is and will always be “The G.O.A.T.” And that they should never, ever forget it (as they slurp their espressos in sleepy cafes awash in never-ending Italian sunsets and never-ending piles of cash).
But at the bitter end Marchionne was nothing more than a calculated charlatan with a Brobdingnagian ego, and the only thing “great” about him is that he will go down as one of the greatest carpetbagging mercenaries in automotive history.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
WRITE HARD, DIE FREE.
26 Sep 2017 at 9:46am
Editor's Note: Every once in a while, we feel it's important to remind everyone what this site - and The Autoextremist - are all about. To do that, we need to journey back in time, to the beliefs that formed the foundation for this site, and that continue to drive us to this day. The world is a different place than it was that June day in 1999, but in so many ways, when it comes to this business, there’s a mind-numbing sameness about it all that is truly unbelievable. -WG
By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. Eighteen years ago, when I became tired of what the ad biz had become, tired of the sycophants, the ass kissers, the spineless weasels and the other two-bit players who had turned what was once a pretty interesting profession into a vapid wasteland, I knew I had to do something different. I had also grown tired of seeing the auto business – as practiced here in Detroit - sink further into the Abyss of risk-avoidance-driven mediocrity, and watching legions of so-called "executives" make horrendous, piss-poor decisions day after day on behalf of their respective auto companies.
As I watched the carnage unfold around me, I knew that something had to be said by someone who had firsthand knowledge of what was going on - someone who was in the trenches and on the front lines of the ongoing battle - and that someone turned out to be me.
And Autoextremist.com became my forum to say it.
As some of you insiders may know, Autoextremist originally was a concept I had for a new car magazine back in 1986. The print version of Autoextremist was going to target hard-core enthusiasts, while telling it like it is with a distinctive, combative style. It would also be the first enthusiast car publication that wouldn’t accept advertising.
The state of the enthusiast car mags back then was a dismal parade of sameness that left me cold, and I was determined to breathe some life into the genre (and it is different today, how? –WG). But my ad career got in the way, and by the time I looked up it was the late spring of 1999, and I knew that if I didn’t do it then, I’d never do it - so the time was finally right for Autoextremist. The Internet, of course, would replace the print magazine idea, but the essence of my original manifesto written back in 1986 remained unchanged.
And that's how this publication and "The High-Octane Truth" came about, whether people were ready for it or not. A lot has changed about this business over the ensuing years, but as I am continually reminded, then again, a lot hasn’t.
I am certain of one thing, however, and that is my set of fundamental beliefs about this business hasn’t changed. I thought it would be a good time to reiterate what those beliefs are today, where I’m coming from, how I look at things and why I say the things I do.
I believe that the business of designing, building, engineering, marketing and advertising cars and trucks should begin with one simple premise - the Product is King - and everything else has to flow from that fundamental fact. Cars and trucks should be exciting to look at, fun to drive, flat-out desirable and worth owning in all respects. If you (as an individual or a company) forget that fact, you will fail.
I believe people whose cumulative marketing experience basically consists of 1.) An MBA combined with 2.) A stint at the zone level (with the added "benefit" of P&G indoctrination -WG) and 3.) Being part of a rotational executive "rounding" stint through the system, shouldn't automatically be qualified to get near the serious business of marketing and advertising cars, let alone be able to tell an ad agency what's good or not good about an ad campaign that has just been worked on for the last 47 days straight.
I believe that car company executives whose first order of business is to cover their own asses and then shamelessly promote themselves the rest of the time - while bringing absolutely nothing positive to the job at hand - should be encouraged to take that long "break" they keep droning on about in off-the-record moments. Please do us all a favor - and leave now.
I believe that a rampant, "let's not offend anyone" mentality taints every decision made by almost every car executive (yes, there are a few brilliant exceptions) working in the business today. (By the way Lowe’s called, backbones are on special today, Aisle 6.)
I believe that the typical car company executive's reckless and utter disdain for anything the least bit creative or provocative - while at the same time endorsing a process that consistently "dumbs down" the advertising and the product itself with a series of debilitating steps and hand-wringing meetings - directly results in the churning out of an endless stream of cars and trucks that are too often nothing more than monuments to tedium, mediocrity and bad management. Back then I called it "engineering to the lowest common denominator" - and it still stinks.
I believe that politics permeates every decision in the car business down to the very last detail, ensuring that all butts are "covered" and that no one is left "exposed" to any ugly consequences. The business is still populated by people more worried about what their political standing "entitles" them to than about bringing to the table an attitude of "what can I do?" or "how can we make it better?" Accountability? Maybe that can be found in Aisle 6 too.
I believe - and this is etched in stone - that whenever the shit hits the fan and there is the least bit of advertising or marketing or product controversy, a car company will always do the wrong thing, and then turn around and blame the agency or a supplier for their predicament at the drop of a hat. You can take that one to the bank.
I believe that the ad agency side of the business has strayed as far away from being a creative environment as you can get - short of working airport security. In many cases, it has deteriorated into a constant battle between The Wimps and The Twerps, people who are intent on taking over the agency and turning it into a cesspool of "Yes Men" and "Yes Women" who are more concerned with their political futures and the "process" than about working on great advertising and marketing.
I believe that ad agencies have forgotten what their mission is, because they're spending 90% of their time, money, resources and effort on everything else under the sun except actually trying to make great advertising. And I believe that, in most cases, their clients are directly responsible for this revolting development - and that they ultimately get the advertising they deserve because of it.
I believe that runaway complacency on both sides (car companies and their ad agencies), combined with an atmosphere corrupted by an absolutely suffocating fear of taking any kind of risk (or standing behind it once you do), is killing the chance to get great work produced. Don’t think that’s the case? Take a look at the dismal state of car advertising today.
I believe that in too many cases in this business bad people are making bad decisions negatively affecting good people who know better, people who have been shuffled off to the side for political "considerations" (i.e., they have a backbone and a point of view - and they're not afraid to share it).
I believe that instead of a joyful celebration of the indefatigable nature of the American Spirit and the role the automobile has had, continues to have, and always will play, the business has become nothing but a pathetic caricature of itself - complete with bad actors and even worse props.
I believe that the glaring sameness of the so-called “enthusiast” car mags is still there and it’s still highly annoying. And there’s no denying that the days for the hard-copy print mags are severely numbered, and when the shakeout finally comes, it will be ugly.
I believe the state of automotive journalism has never been as weak as it is right now. There are too few writers worth going out of your way to bother with today, and that’s a flat-out disgrace. Automotive journalism (yes, of course there are notable exceptions) has devolved into a thinly disguised pay-to-play-for-access game. And it’s embarrassing.
There are some positives in this business today, thankfully. But there are lingering issues too.
As for the car biz itself, is it still about the Product? Absolutely. More so today than ever before. But if you don’t have the accurate, enticing and properly funded marketing firepower to put behind a new product, then it doesn’t matter how good it is - it will be forgotten 120 days after its launch in this oversaturated automotive market we live in.
As for the execs making key decisions about the marketing and advertising at the car companies nowadays, I still see woefully underqualified individuals being given the reins on major marketing decisions, and it’s still baffling.
Are auto execs any more willing to take a stand these days? It’s intermittent when it happens, but there’s some noticeable movement in the right direction at least. But it’s not nearly enough. And I’m sure a search party will have to be organized to find executives with backbones to shore up the ranks.
As for those “lowest-common-denominator” product decisions, I’m thankfully seeing that mentality fade into the woodwork. Detroit is creating some excellent new products right now, but getting people to care about them is an entirely different story altogether.
I still believe leaving major product and marketing decisions in the hands of a few focus groups is a dangerous practice and a monumental waste of time and money. And it’s still being done. It has been proven time and time again that focus groups are, at best, inconsistent if not inaccurate barometers – and it’s a crime. After all, the only people actually listened to in these focus groups are the ones who agree with the client's preconceived mindset to begin with, which makes the whole process a colossal waste of time and money.
Politics and politically charged decisions still hold sway over these companies to a degree, some less than others, fortunately. As for accountability, it’s still in exceedingly short supply.
As for the whole ad agency vs. client thing, the profitability of the advertising business is being squeezed down to next to nothing, leaving agencies to fight over scraps while clients display the loyalty of your average fair-weather sports fan, In other words, the state of the ad biz when it comes to the auto industry is beyond pathetic. It’s no wonder that ad agencies have forgotten what their basic mission is - which is to deliver the best, most provocative communications on behalf of their clients that they can muster - in this toxic environment. Do clients still get the advertising they deserve because of it? Yes.
As for those aforementioned legions of Wimps and Twerps and “Yes Men” and “Yes Women” they’re all still present and accounted for – on both sides of the ball. I know, because some of the people who were shoveling shit in this town when I was still in the ad biz are still doing it today. And it’s unconscionable.
As for bad people making bad decisions negatively affecting good people who know better in this business, same as it ever was, unfortunately.
And what about that whole “joyful celebration of the indefatigable nature of the American Spirit and the role the automobile has had, continues to have, and always will play...” thing? Well, let’s just say that it’s a work in progress.
That “Detroit” finally got product religion and is saying and doing all of the right things is commendable, but there’s still the lingering fear that this business as practiced here will slip back into bad old habits at any given moment. Those shining beacons of product light and creativity are still threatened by churning storm clouds defined by a “three steps forward, five back” cadence of rampant mediocrity. And that is sobering.
Now well into our nineteenth year of Autoextremist.com, I am proud to say that we still take you "behind the curtain" to give you an up-close look at the Wizards, the Dullards and everyone else in between in this business. I still say what the others are only thinking (or whispering) in deep background, or “off-the-record” conversations, and I will continue to do so. And this publication will continue to "influence the influencers" every single week, even though they're loathe to admit it.
Delivering The Truth, The Whole Truth... and absolutely nothing but The High-Octane Truth has been an exhilarating ride.
Write Hard, Die Free indeed.
And that's the High-Octane Truth for this week.
PRESENT AT THE CREATION? HARDLY.
19 Sep 2017 at 9:59am
By Peter M. DeLorenzo
Detroit. I’ve been writing about the automobile industry on this website since June 1, 1999, and at no time have I felt about this business like I do at this very moment. I’m observing the auto industry feverishly pursuing strategies and areas of expertise in a headlong rush to be out front of what’s next, even though no one has a real clue as to what that might be. Besides the autonomous movement and the ride-sharing nirvana that so-called visionaries in this business insist will be the panacea that we’re all waiting for, there’s also the flat-out sprint by certain players to become experts fluent in the digitized parlance of the day.
What does this all mean? It means that the collective “Detroit” is forcing itself to exit its wheelhouse and operate in a world that they have no fundamental comfort in. It means that car companies are expending tremendous energies and financial resources to become something they’re not and never have been, and that is “experts” in a digital realm that is unwelcoming in its shallowness and smug in its conceit.
And to what end? Where is this going and why, and if you give a damn about this business, should people be concerned? The short answer? Yes. Make that oh hell yes.
A fundamental and historic flaw of this industry – especially as practiced here in this region – is that car companies practically invented the “not-invented-here” dogma. It’s the at-times stunning belief that not only are there no new ideas out there in the world, if for some ridiculous reason a positively newfangled idea rears its ugly head, this industry will study it, copy it and abscond with it – leaving furious and newly-litigious suppliers in its wake as a matter of course – and then announce internally, usually in a backslapping ceremony complete with a gigantic dollop of hubris that, “not only can we do this better, we can do it quicker and cheaper too!”
The reality? Not only can a car company – left to its own ferociously myopic devices – not build the idea in question better and cheaper, it will take twice as long to build it. And that’s on a good day with everything falling into place just so. Usually it takes ten times as long and cost five times as much. Do you find it hard to believe that this still goes on in this business after everything that has transpired over the years? Don’t kid yourselves, because this dogma is not only alive and well, it is as current today as it has ever been. In fact, I sense a new vibrancy that is truly frightening.
When I read all of the gushing reports about car companies becoming IT Empires and masters of their own mined data, which they will in turn use to conquer the world, I just cringe. Why? Because it’s flat-out delusional and borderline comical. Car companies trying to reinvent themselves as IT companies is the fool’s errand of this or any other century. It is the absolute epitome of the “not-invented-here” dogma, only this time it is being unleashed at the most precarious time in this industry’s history, with companies willing to devote untold amounts of time and resources – not to mention monumental boatloads of cash – to a pursuit that is simply beyond their ken. In fact it will never be an area of expertise for any car company.
Nor should it be. The smart automobile companies operating today – and there are a very few – not only don’t want to be IT experts, they’re not interested in subjugating decades of manufacturing expertise in the pursuit of a sideshow that consumes massive amounts of resources, simply because they’re afraid of being left behind. These companies are perfectly comfortable engaging known experts in the digital arena – an arena they’re not interested in dominating by the way, but are interested in using for their best interests – and partnering with them in the pursuit of mutually beneficial goals. Seems rational enough, no? But yet here we are watching nominally smart people frantically trying to reinvent an industry into something it is not and will never be, all because they think they can do it better and in turn become Masters of the Digital Universe.
The reality? Well it is something entirely different. The digital IT world is not interested in welcoming the automobile companies with open arms. The digital swells view the auto companies as backwater entities, something to use and cherry pick when appropriate, and discard the rest when the time is right.
Unfortunately, this is a scenario that will not end well for those players seeking to turn the auto companies into something they’re not. This instead will become a giant game of chasing tails. While well-meaning Detroit executives try to mold their companies into savvy centers of digital expertise, the real players in the IT field will blow right by them, all because the car companies couldn’t bring themselves to embrace the idea of partnering with experts with genuine, accumulated knowledge, the people who could actually help them get where they wanted – and needed – to go.
I will predict right now that the endgame in all of this is bound to get ugly, and anyone who assumes that this will all work out for the best and that these auto companies will be newly reimagined as fluent IT entities is being incredibly naïve.
Misguided and misdirected, these nouveau digital “experts” at the car companies will preside over the dissolution of some long-entrenched, historically important automotive empires, as these companies get sucked into a swirling maelstrom that they will simply be ill-equipped to cope with and get swallowed whole.
Listen to enough of these IT expert blowhards at the car companies long enough and you might think that we’re fortunate to be witnesses at the creation of a brave new automotive world.
We’re present for the destruction of the automotive world as we know it, and it will happen sooner than you think.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
ADRIFT IN A PRIMROSE SEA: THE GOOD AND MOSTLY UGLY FROM THE FRANKFURT SHOW.
13 Sep 2017 at 8:42am
By Peter M. DeLorenzo
Detroit. The news out of the Frankfurt Auto Show – I will dispense with the official name because it’s as ineffective and irrelevant as “NAIAS” is for the Detroit Auto Show – is that the entire auto industry is going flat-out crazy yet again. Yes, this isn’t exactly news, because the auto industry careens around in a permanent state of craziness as a matter of standing operating procedure. But this time the business is going off the deep end to a new level of full crazy never seen before, and it’s all about – yes, you guessed it – Electric Vehicles.
How they’ll be built, how far they’ll run on a charge, how long it’s going to take to charge them, and most important (as you’ll see), what they’ll look like. An interesting sidebar to the EV frenzy is that German car executives warned that a wholesale shift to electric cars brings with it a raft of problems. And it’s not just infrastructure and charging stations – the usual hand-wringing associated with selling EVs – it is the fact that building EVs will require dramatically fewer people, which will severely impact not only the homegrown German economy and its workforce, but the future of the auto industry going forward. (It should be pointed out here that Tesla actually uses more people to build its cars, which makes Tesla, hands down, the industry model of inefficiency. But St. Elon is a genius, and don’t you ever forget it.) So, in spite of the ongoing frenzy, the arrival of the EV era will bring with it some intense challenges, and nothing about this transition will be automatic. There will be blood – and drastic measures – to accommodate this fundamental shift.
Now, back to the look of these EVs. Manufacturers displayed the gamut of EVs in Frankfurt, from real live production-intent vehicles to blue-sky meanderings. But because there is no inherent sexiness in the mechanical ingredients in an EV design, it’s clear that the importance of design has now come to the fore. I said long ago in these pages that Design is the Ultimate Initial Product Differentiator, and this has become even more crucial now that this business is devoting its full energy to EVs. And what I’m seeing coming out of Frankfurt should be a wakeup call to a lot of automakers that insist that they know what they’re doing and have it goin’ on, because clearly they don’t.
Two of the prime offenders are BMW and Mercedes-Benz. It’s no secret that BMW has been phoning it in for years now, especially when it comes to design. The company seems to be adrift in a primrose sea made up of one part self-importance and one part hubris. Throw in a massive dollop of self-congratulatory studio chatter in its design halls and you have a recipe for disaster. And sure enough BMW designers confirmed my assessment by unleashing a dimension of ugliness at the Frankfurt show that is simply stunning to behold.
If the BMW iVision Dynamic is a “vision” of BMW’s electric future (see more images in “On The Table” –WG), then this company is in for a real bad time. This concept is flat-out ugly from the front, but don’t worry, the rest of it really doesn't get much better. (That blue accent color you see in the front? The manufacturers have decided en masse that blue is the new code color of electrification. It was everywhere in Frankfurt, which is funny, but remember when blue used to be the color for diesel? Oh well.)
BMW Design is stinking up the joint right now, there’s just no two ways about it. But it isn’t a surprise, because BMW has been on an enduring quest to be all things to all people for so long that it has completely lost its way, or mind, or both. BMW has now become a logo without much substance attached, because for every genuine “M” car, there are seemingly a dozen SUV models and a smattering of bland sedans that are so mind-numbingly uninspired and so far removed from what BMW once was that it has become a bad joke. And now that we have a preview of the BMW’s electric future, the outlook is grim. What is a BMW again? And why should we care? BMW operatives clearly don’t even have the first clue anymore.
Not to be outdone, Mercedes-Benz weighed in with its latest stab at designing for electrification with something called the EQA. Now remember, this is a company that wowed the business a month ago at Pebble Beach with its fabulous Mercedes-Maybach 6 Cabriolet, which I wrote about in my column “An Eloquent Rebuttal.” That car was stunning in its magnificence and sheer exuberance, and it gave me hope that Mercedes wouldn’t abandon the importance of design going forward. I was sorely mistaken, because the EQA is an abysmal idea executed poorly.
Actually, Mercedes spent more time discussing how the grille changes depending on what drive program you engage, and how its light design evokes “the copper windings of an electric motor and the animation visualizing electrical impulses,” than they did talking about the car itself. That’s because the EQA is devoid of even a shred of inspiration. Mercedes designers didn’t even phone it in with this thing, they just fired off a text and called it good.
The EQA is another example of Mercedes-Benz operating as the biggest Jekyll & Hyde car company on earth. When they have it goin' on, with machines like the Mercedes-Maybach 6 Cabriolet, they do magnificent stuff. But then they turn around and unleash this miserable excuse for a future electric car on the landscape. As Colonel Kurtz once famously said: “The horror. The horror.”
But then again, left to its own devices, Mercedes-Benz’ propensity to do stupid things knows no bounds. They also chose the Frankfurt show to unveil the Mercedes-AMG Project ONE, which had Mercedes PR minions crowing that, for the first time, a "two-seater supersports show car brings the very latest and efficient, fully-fledged Formula 1 hybrid technology from the race track to the road almost par for par to represent the highlight of AMG's 50th anniversary." Not that anyone asked for another supercar that has 1000HP, goes over 217 mph and costs $2.5 million, but Mercedes wanted us all to know that when it deigns to do it we should all bow down and genuflect at the sheer splendor of it all (see images in “On The Table” –WG).
Mercedes insists that the machine "combines outstanding racetrack performance and day-to-day suitable Formula 1 hybrid technology with exemplary efficiency. This is a world first." Except that bringing F1 technology from the track to the street is a nonstarter. As in, what's the point? And to what end? So the biggest swinging dick "enthusiasts" can fulfill their destiny by spending millions on another trophy car that never sees the light of day – or the road – and sits in the garage just long enough before heading to auction? And the Project One is only "a world first" until the next trophy supercar emerges.
The Mercedes-AMG Project ONE is the quintessential example of Mercedes’ unbridled hubris and wrong-headedness run amuck. And make no mistake, when Mercedes goes off the rails, nobody does it better. What a monumental waste of time and money.
Thank goodness there was one manufacturer who showcased genuine, clear-cut vision for a future electric vehicle. The Honda Urban EV Concept was brilliant in its simplicity and design purity, and it demonstrates that Honda is getting back to its essence, just in time for the onset of electrification. The Urban EV Concept is no pipe dream either, because Honda plans on having it in-market in Europe in two years.
It’s nice to see that at least one manufacturer hasn’t lost its way.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
CADILLAC HAS ITS MOJO BACK? THE NUMBERS DON?T ADD UP.
5 Sep 2017 at 2:35pm
By Peter M. DeLorenzo
Detroit. There seems to be a lot of smoke being generated by Cadillac of late. Part of it revolves around its burgeoning success in China, but most of it seems to be a particularly inflated – and grandiose - brand of wishful thinking, akin to an automotive Stuart Smalley routine:
We’re good enough.
We’re smart enough.
And doggone it…
People like us!!!
The latest reason for gloating emanating from Cadillac headquarters seems to be a recent (August 30th) piece by Mike Colias in The Wall Street Journal with the lead headline – “Cadillac, After Years of Struggle, Has Found Its Sweet Spot: China.”
In the mostly glowing piece, Cadillac comes off as the new force to be reckoned with in the Chinese luxury market. In fact, GM’s luxury division now sells more cars in China than here in the U.S., which seems to have energized Cadillac execs to no end. That’s all well and good if you squint hard enough and ignore some glaring details – as Cadillac execs and some of its bullish dealers are wont to do – but when you really look at the numbers, the reality of Cadillac’s success paints an entirely different picture.
Think about it, when ex-Audi guru Johan de Nysschen joined General Motors (his brief post-Audi stint at Infiniti doesn’t count, amounting to a cup of coffee), he laid out a five-year plan that was not only green-lighted by Mary Barra and Dan “I Am” Ammann, it was funded with a major league commitment of $12 billion (that’s with a giant “B”). That’s serious cash-ola in this business, folks, but de Nysschen’s track record in establishing Audi as a top-tier luxury brand in the U.S. market gave him the kind of credibility that GM simply didn’t have in its ranks, so Barra & Co. went all in on The Plan for Cadillac.
And here we are three years into that plan, and what do the numbers indicate? In communicating with my friend and colleague Gary Vasilash, Editor-in-chief, Automotive Design & Production, who is an expert at scouring sales numbers and identifying trends, the numbers for Cadillac indicate that all is not well with GM’s investment. As Gary said, “According to GM, the average transaction price in August for Cadillac increased to $53,300. That’s good. And GMC hit a year-to-date ATP of $43,400. Not as good, but still solid. Yet it is interesting to note that GMC sold 47,718 vehicles in August and Cadillac 15,016.”
And let’s not forget that even though Cadillac is now selling more vehicles in China, the profit margins, due to the joint venture agreements mandated by the ruling Communist party, are significantly reduced, so execs suggesting that Cadillac has it goin’ on because of China deserve a giant asterisk attached to everything they say.
Forget about China for a moment, how is Cadillac doing in this market? The XT5 crossover and the Escalade ESV are doing quite well, but the rest of the lineup? Not so much. Part of that is due to the fact that we are living in a particular kind of SUV/Crossover Hell, where consumers have simply walked away from buying cars for the most part, but part of it is also due to the fact that Cadillac has abandoned all pretense of marketing its historical legacy to anyone in this country, in favor of mining the gold that exists in emerging – and younger – demographic groups. But more on that in a minute.
Another component of that previously mentioned GMC vs. Cadillac comparison? Don’t forget that while Cadillac has its own platforms created and embellished around the “vision” for the future of the brand, GMC massages existing – meaning it shares underpinnings with Chevrolet – GM platforms, which is about as “old school” as it gets. But in this case “old school” isn’t a negative, because it adds up to some serious dough-re-me. Think about this for a minute – not only do the numbers not add up, but also the real profitability being brought into GM’s coffers by Cadillac pales in comparison to what GMC is delivering, especially given the ball-busting investment GM laid on the table for its luxury brand.
Where is all of this going for Cadillac, you might ask? Nowhere good is the short answer.
GMC is operating as the not-so-little engine that could, marketing visually massaged (to differentiate them from the more mundane Chevrolet versions) luxury-oriented vehicles to new heights that push right up against Cadillac in the market. To its credit, GMC is not trying to pretend to be something it is not (although its advertising is still terribly lackluster), but it has found its niche in the market and within the corporation, and it’s delivering big-time profits for the denizens of the Silver Silos.
Cadillac? The turnaround of the brand was always going to take a long time; in fact I estimated three years ago that it would take the better part of a decade and a half. But three years into a five-year plan it’s not looking good. And pointing to the somewhat dubious success in China as vindication of “The Plan” isn’t cutting it.
You can blame the insatiable consumer demand for SUVs and crossovers in this country for Cadillac treading water in this market. And you can blame the fact that Cadillac’s product cadence is woefully lacking in addressing this issue, with the first new crossover not expected until next spring and subsequent product entries lagging behind that. But the fact remains that de Nysschen’s strategy to remake Cadillac in Audi’s image has been an egregious miscalculation.
As I’ve said repeatedly in my columns over the years, in order to succeed, Cadillac must be allowed to be Cadillac. But the current Cadillac brain trust refuses to acknowledge that this is a viable path for the brand. In fact Cadillac execs go out of their way to trample on the legacy of the brand at every opportunity.
How so? Let’s review…
Hanging nonsensical Audi-esque nomenclature on its vehicles in the hopes that the average consumer will warm up to them. This just in: It’s Not. Gonna. Happen. Because no matter how you cut it, “CT6” is evocative of absolutely nothing, while a name like Eldorado conveys the kind of imagery that is unmistakably, Cadillac. Cadillac’s ridiculous naming regimen is not only absurd; it’s inauthentic to the brand to the nth degree. Why do you think that the Escalade is Cadillac’s premier statement for the brand? I’ll answer that for you: First of all, it has true, in-your-face design presence. And secondly, it has a Cadillac-worthy name.
Marketing “air” to people who aren’t listening and who don’t care. Which Cadillac managed to do in convincing fashion by advertising its new Super Cruise technology on the MTV video awards to an imaginary target audience. But then again the marketing directive from on high is to aim at people who have no interest in the brand while dismissing anyone over 50 as being irrelevant and inconsequential. This is all because of a fundamental belief by Cadillac marketers that by 2020 Millennials will be calling all the shots, and to spend one dime or aim one piece of communication on those age-inappropriate unfortunates is simply a waste of time. (That by doing this Cadillac marketers are leaving millions of dollars in profits from sales on the table doesn’t seem to matter, because it’s going to be great in the next decade, just you wait and see.)
Add to this the fact that the Cadillac brain trust has turned its back on two of the industry’s most significant and compelling concept cars of the last decade – the Ciel and the Elmiraj – while trying to foist cramped Audi-sized cars like the ATS and CTS down consumers’ throats in the market in the hopes that they’d “get it.” This has been an abject failure and a nonstarter, which has only been magnified by the SUV/Crossover frenzy. (Yes, I know, the ATS-V and the CTS-V are magnificent machines, but they’re wasted at Cadillac. Instead, they should be part of a new Corvette division, as I’ve said for years.)
But the most depressing part in all of this is that de Nysschen & Co. are squandering the historical legacy of the brand. It’s a legacy that has survived countless product missteps, management faux pas and false starts yet still resonates with consumers like few other brands have throughout history. To this day you still hear people and companies say, “It’s the Cadillac of ____” to bestow a certain gravitas to a product, an instant, collective recognition that transcends all other adjectives.
This just in: There is no need for Cadillac to emulate Audi, not in any way, shape or form. Cadillac’s future success shouldn’t hinge on becoming a faux interpretation of a German luxury brand just to achieve relevance again. As a matter of fact, it’s an insult to what is still considered to be America’s foremost luxury brand, one that still resonates far and wide as The Standard of The World, even though other car companies exceeded its product reach long ago.
Cadillac still has all the tools to become a highly sought after and desired brand. It has the historical legacy, it has a treasure trove of evocative names – and some new ones too – and GM not only has the engineering chops, it has the design talent to craft a visual renaissance befitting of the brand's legacy.
It’s interesting, but in that aforementioned article in the WSJ, Shanghai entrepreneur Zhenyu He, sees Cadillacs as a symbol of American grandeur. “It sets me apart and represents American heritage,” said Mr. Zhenyu, 40 years old, most of whose friends drive BMWs.
I find it sad that you have to go all the way to Shanghai to find people who actually understand what Cadillac is supposed to be all about.
Three years into Cadillac’s latest reimagination it’s clear to me that a legacy is being squandered and an opportunity is being lost.
And unless and until there is a strategic shift in Cadillac management’s thinking, the brand is destined to tread water for years to come.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
END OF SUMMER BLUES.
29 Aug 2017 at 6:06pm
By Peter M. DeLorenzo
Detroit. As the cadence of the calendar grinds the golden glow of summer to its inevitable close, I thought it might be a good idea to take stock of the automobile industry as it stands today.
Thinking out loud about this industry is what I do, but every time I deign to cling to a sense of optimism about this business as I did last week (see “An Eloquent Rebuttal” –WG), I am reminded, in no uncertain terms, that left to its own devices the powers that be who are charged with steering this industry forward inevitably leave much to be desired, to put it mildly. As in, they screw things up, they make repeated mistakes, and fools are exposed on such a routine basis that you have to wonder how this industry has gotten this far.
I would love to report that the industry is poised for a breakthrough, and that it will somehow be a shining beacon of hope for industrial progress and societal change, but the hype simply doesn’t justify that thinking. Why? Because the usual three steps forward and five back dance of mediocrity that defines this business is alive and well, and continues on unabated.
Witness this industry’s headlong rush to autonomy. Despite the blue-sky prognostications it is a burgeoning road to nowhere, populated by scam artists, self-serving hacks and so many companies with their hands out looking for their piece of the action that I’m desperately waiting for someone to step forward in a room full of executives, give the “time out” sign and say something like, “Excuse me, but WTF? Where are we going with this autonomous driving thing? Are we doing this so as not be left behind by Silicon Valley, allegedly, or do we actually have a viable business case for spending millions upon millions like drunken sailors? And please don’t talk to me about potential future profit margins, because it’s a pipe dream.”
Believe me that conversation has never taken place, and those words have never been uttered by executives of any consequence in this business; or if they have, they were forgotten long ago and the people who uttered them no longer work for those companies.
Let’s review, shall we? Remember, we haven’t even traveled through the electrification phase of this business yet, so I find the degree of overpromising going on about our autonomous future to be suspect, at best. Lest you forget, we’re being promised that it’s all going to be so wonderful from here on out because we’re on the precipice of an autonomous future that will transform everyone’s life for the better, and in such remarkable ways that we’re simply incapable of understanding it right now. (As if.)
Here’s a thought: Wouldn’t we be far better off if the collective billions being blown on the autonomy craze were being spent on fixing this country’s woefully dilapidated infrastructure? I know, I know, fixing our bridges, roads and tunnels isn’t sexy enough for anyone, especially the swells in Silicon Valley. I get the fact that actually rolling this country’s sleeves up and attacking a looming national crisis isn’t glamorous. But the point needs to be made that unless and until our infrastructure issues are addressed, autonomous cars careening around on bad roads will be about as desirable as regular cars doing the same. In other words, it will still be a giant bowl of Not Good.
But that hasn’t deterred the car companies desperate to be part of the Autonomy Show. The latest news out of Ford is that the Dearborn-based automaker is investigating the concept of autonomous pizza delivery with Domino’s. And we have Cadillac chasing the burn with its “Super Cruise” hands-free driving system, which will now be standard on its top-line CT6.
In Ford’s case this comes hard on the heels of an announcement last week that it was investigating new and creative ways of getting people qualified to be financed to buy its vehicles. This has been an unfortunate trend in this business, led by the carpetbagging mercenaries out in Auburn Hills, who have put more people with precarious financial situations in their cars and trucks over the last five years than the rest of the industry combined. FCA has single-handedly put the industry in the throes of a subprime loan meltdown again, something that executives in this business insisted would never happen. And I hate to see Ford contemplating going down this road, too (they can couch it in nicer words, but the reality is the same). So while Ford is investigating autonomous pizza delivery with Domino’s, and signing deals with San Francisco-based Argo AI, at the same time it is contemplating opening up its loan qualifications and restrictions so that more people can get financed to buy its cars.
Cue the music for that “dance of mediocrity,” folks, because the song remains the same.
And what can be said about Cadillac that I haven’t already said? GM’s luxury division, oh excuse me, let me clarify – independent luxury car company that just happens to be under the GM umbrella – will now play the lead role in the company’s suite of electronic driving aids, with Super Cruise qualifying as GM’s early volley in the autonomy game.
(In case you missed it, Cadillac marketers chose to intro Super Cruise on the mind-numbingly pathetic MTV video awards, which made less than zero sense. The ratings were down – yet again – and advertising Cadillac’s new Super Cruise technology to an audience that didn’t care and wasn’t watching was not just a bad idea, it was simply ludicrous. As in, you're kidding, right? But I digress.)
When I last discussed Cadillac, Johan de Nysschen was busy remaking Cadillac in Audi’s image. This just in: He still is. Except that it just isn’t working. And pointing to increases in China sales is a fool’s errand, because Cadillac doesn’t make much money there, so while the division desperately waits for new product, absolutely nothing has fundamentally changed. The fact remains that allowing Cadillac to actually be Cadillac is anathema to de Nysschen, which means that the genuine historical legacy of one of the most prestigious brands in the world is deemed to be inconsequential and irrelevant, while Cadillac’s stunning concept cars – the Ciel and the Elmiraj (I’m leaving the Escala out because it is only half-good) – languish in the bowels of GM Design collecting dust.
Yet, dreaming about a day when Cadillac will actually be Cadillac again is clearly not a value-added activity, because it’s simply not going to happen while de Nysschen is hell-bent on squandering Cadillac’s legacy and turning the brand into a faux German car company in search of a clue. Think about it – Cadillac has exactly one machine that has the on-the-road presence deserving of a Cadillac, and that is the Escalade. How can that be? How can a company with the historical importance of Cadillac only have one product offering that actually conveys what the brand should be all about? (As I have stated in the past, the “V” machines are truly excellent, but they should be part of a full lineup under the Corvette moniker, because they’re totally irrelevant for the brand.)
And as much as it galls me to my core, I’ll also have to sit back and watch as the riveting legacy of industry legend Bill Mitchell, which was once such an integral part of GM Design, quietly fades away. In its heyday, GM Design played second fiddle to no other company in the business. Now? With machines having the sheer presence of the Mercedes-Maybach 6 usurping GM Design in one fell swoop; I have to wonder where things are headed. On second thought, I don’t have to wonder at all because make no mistake; this is a complete travesty bordering on tragedy. Too bad no one at GM sees it coming, or is even interested enough to care.
And then there’s Audi, which decided to unleash a new naming regimen for the engines in its cars last week that made it the laughingstock of the industry (see this week’s “On The Table” for all the gory details. –WG). That Audi has achieved a new height of stupidity with this move is not totally unexpected. After all, we’re talking about a card-carrying member of the VW Group here, those famed architects of disaster who came up with the devious plan to cheat on Diesel emissions testing, which just so happens to be the most blatant instance of deception ever foisted upon this business.
As I’ve stated, Audi’s action indicates the kind of delusional self-absorption and ridiculous overthink that only a German automaker could muster. The new engine designations are stunningly nonsensical, except to the Audi engineering bureaucrats who came up with them. And in an automotive world already burdened with too much alphanumeric mumbo jumbo, this is unmitigated bullshit in its most egregious form. But Audi’s three steps forward and five back waltz of mediocrity seems perfectly fitting for the brand somehow, and certainly befitting of the swirling maelstrom that defines this business of late. (And de Nysschen wants Cadillac to emulate Audi again because… why?)
This naming fiasco puts an unneeded exclamation point on the sheer lunacy enveloping this business at this moment in time. Anyone hoping for some meaningful progress in this business, or even a wild-eyed breakthrough, is bound to be disappointed. Instead, the auto industry is marked by its rote fits and starts, a few good moves and notable products punctuated by an incessant current of abject mediocrity that courses through this industry’s veins unimpeded.
Yes, I will say that, thanks to the True Believers, when it’s firing on all cylinders the automobile business can be exhilarating and something that, at times, can benefit everyone, but as long as the charlatans and get-rich-quick schemers are present and accounted for, and as long as the misdirected are led by the misguided, the bar continues to be set excruciatingly low for this industry.
And it’s making me kind of blue.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
AN ELOQUENT REBUTTAL.
19 Aug 2017 at 6:23pm
By Peter M. DeLorenzo
Detroit. That we are on the precipice of massive change in the future of our transportation cannot be disputed. On one side of the equation there are anti-car zealots out there who are convinced that we are headed toward a colorless transportation era, one devoid of distinctive, personal choice and instead replaced by the uniformity of massive car sharing and the numbing disengagement of autonomous riding pods.
But beyond believing that this grim vision of our future will be better for all of us, these zealots are actually excited by the prospect, convinced that this mass conformity will be oddly freeing as we succumb to a model of transportation that is diametrically opposed to everything that has come before.
That I find this attitude of "we know what’s best for you and you will like it…" infuriating should be no real surprise to anyone who visits this website. In fact this notion that we’ll all be shiny, happy and compliant participants willing to forego everything that came before is almost incomprehensible given that this perspective flies in the face of the inherent freedom of mobility that defined this country and powered it through the modern industrial era.
As I said previously in “Our American Wanderlust is Being Buried Alive,” I don’t think most of us are prepared for just how dramatic the transformation will be. Will a nation founded on the tenets of freedom and the option to go, and do, and see what we please all of a sudden succumb to groupthink and mindlessly queue up for nondescript, shared transportation devices based on convenience? Are we all just going to gleefully go along for a ride dictated by availability and most-frequented ‘popular’ travel destinations?
I don’t think so.
Every dimension of the American experience has been shaped by the automobile - the roads we used to explore the vast expanses of the unbridled majesty of this nation (and ourselves along the way); the music that provided much of the soundtrack for those journeys, the roadside attractions and the road food that went with them; the big cities and little towns along the highways and byways; and on, and on, and on.
Talk to anyone who has visited The Henry Ford museum recently and see what he or she has to say. In so many words it will sound like this: The American experience is the automobile, and the automobile is the American experience.
The automobile’s influence on this country’s culture is almost incalculable. But then again it’s even more than that. It’s part of this country’s soul, it’s who we are and it’s where we’ve been and it’s where we’ve always wanted to go.
On the other side of the equation, thankfully, are the True Believers embedded in the car companies who understand the freedom of mobility as defined by the automobile. These men and women also understand that there’s an undeniable emotional connection between people and their machines. Far from mere transportation devices, these machines project a fundamental freedom of movement and unleashing of the spirit, and in fact they are the mechanical conduit of our hopes and dreams.
That’s why even as the ride sharing and autonomy zealots raise their pitchforks in unison to the Dark Skies looming, the True Believers are doing what they do best, which is being true to their beliefs while comfortable in the knowledge that no matter where our future propulsion options take us, there are givens with the automobile and this freedom of mobility business, the most powerful of which is that emotionally compelling design is still - and will continue to be – the Ultimate Initial Product Differentiator. In fact, this design imperative will grow even stronger from here on out.
You only have to look as far as what happened last week in Monterey, California, to understand this. There, in the flesh, with its mesmerizing shape, fluid lines and stunning presence, was the Vision Mercedes-Maybach 6 Cabriolet concept, the very embodiment of emotionally compelling design. Yes, it is a concept (powered by an all-electric drive system with an output of 750HP and a range of more than 200 miles), but still, this machine makes it very clear that the future of the automobile will not be comprised of colorless, faceless blob cars devoid of personality. Rather, the future of the automobile has almost limitless potential to project the freedom of mobility into exciting new dimensions and shapes.
This Vision Mercedes-Maybach 6 Cabriolet concept is proudly unapologetic and steadfastly defiant against the winds of negativity blowing throughout this industry right now, and it stands as an eloquent rebuttal to the anti-everything zealots who are painting a relentlessly dark picture of the future.
Kudos to the True Believers at Mercedes-Benz design for giving it their all, and reminding us that the future of the automobile has the unbridled potential to be more exciting than ever.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
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THE OVERHYPED. THE OVERBLOWN. AND THE OVERRATED.
14 Aug 2017 at 6:29pm
Editor's Note: So, The Autoextremist says he's tired (exhausted is more like it), and there is clearly more to be tired of than ever before in this business. This week, things reach a fever pitch with events leading up to both the Woodward Dream Cruise here in Detroit and the monument to all things automotive that is the Monterey Peninsula in August and its crown jewel, the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance. To that end, this week's Rant continues the ongoing theme of all that is wrong with the car enthusiast craze these days - and there is much to lament. (And don't miss Peter's take on the latest from Acura and Infiniti in "On The Table.") It is impossible not to be cynical about the sorry state of so much that defines the business today. But it is also impossible not to be awestruck by a car that is jaw-droppingly beautiful or outrageous or crazy or just plain cool. Weird, right? No, it's one of those "don't hate the player, hate the game" things. Because no matter how bad things get, there is always one more car we've never seen before, one more car to turn our heads, one more car to make a memory. And that's because we absolutely love, love, love cars. -WG
By Peter M. DeLorenzo
Detroit. Since my column last week (“Tired. Not Tired.”) seemed to have struck a nerve and is still jangling about the Autoverse, I have become even more aggravated with the state of the so-called car "thing" as it exists today. But it’s not just the current sad state of the OEM kaleidoscope that’s frustrating. No, it's clear that the car enthusiast culture - or what's left of it - has been overrun by con artists, spineless weasels, clueless marketing twerps, greed merchants, poseurs and too many (but not all) in the media who display more go-along-to-get-along, "Thank you, sir, may I have another" cheerleading than your average Big Ten home game in the fall.
Where is it all going? Nowhere good, I'm afraid.
Just this past week we were subjected to the site of normally rational (at least for the most part) auto “journalists” foaming at the mouth because FCA operatives staged a media preview of its “Roadkill Nights,” which allowed the carpal-tunnel-challenged to do real live “burnouts” in Dodge Challengers, Chargers and of course the Demon, as if this required a level of skill heretofore unknown to contemporary life.
In case you need to be reminded, “Roadkill Nights” is a creation of FCA that shuts down Woodward Avenue in Pontiac on the Saturday before the “Dream Cruise” so that legal drag racing can take place on a very abbreviated strip of asphalt. People can pay their money and drag race on the track, and a good time is had by all. Except it was an organic “happening” the first year when it was held in the parking lot at the abandoned Pontiac Silverdome, and somewhat novel the second year when it was relocated to Woodward, but it was by the third year – this year – when various forms of motorized “entertainment” were added and FCA leveraged everything they had to market their line of muscle cars, that it was played out.
That the media – both auto and otherwise – was completely enthralled by doing burnouts is beyond me, but they dutifully played into the FCA PR minion’s hands by positively gushing over everything having to do with “Roadkill Nights.” I couldn’t quite understand it, unless of course they signed a release beforehand stating that they must surrender all credibility at the gate before entering. It was that bad.
I’m sure FCA operatives are slapping themselves on the back this week as they celebrate the marketing “coup” they pulled off on behalf of their muscle car lineup, except that it’s only indicative of the woefully warped bubble they’ve created for themselves. Marketing a lineup of muscle cars with extremely narrow appeal to an audience of smoky burnout enthusiasts is nothing more than preaching to a choir that’s getting smaller by the day. But hey, since Sergio is about to sell out to the Chinese lock, stock and barrel (as Peter has predicted for years. See this week’s “On The Table” –WG), maybe the prevailing attitude out in Auburn Hills is that they simply don’t give a damn anymore.
But I digress. I’m going to talk about three things in this business that are overhyped, overblown and overrated. Things that need to be singled-out, dissected… and hammered.
1. Fear and Loathing at “Monterey Car Week.” I’m unhappy to report that right this minute there are shiny happy auto marketing troops out in Pebble Beach patting themselves on the back that they're present and accounted for at Monterey Car Week, even though the research gleaned and goodwill bestowed on prospects amounts to a giant bowl of Not So Much. As for the few brighter lights at the car companies who realize that the million-dollar bills they accrue at Pebble Beach really don't add up to much of anything quantifiable, they're unfortunately offset by the marketers who are whining because they aren't there and who can't wait to get out there next year. So the cycle is likely to continue.
“Monterey Car Week” has become an an excellent indicator that luxury automakers and their marketing troops are completely out of ideas when it comes to marketing their wares, and you only have to look as far as the week of over-the-top events going on right now on the Monterey Peninsula.
The relentless, ever-present din that hangs in the air out there is defined by the drunken spending among the luxury automakers and unremarkably enough, the way they go about it has the stench of sameness attached to it that in the end makes it indistinguishable from one brand to another. It’s the same luxury accoutrements, the same rote regurgitation of “luxury” words and phrases that are mumbled in an interchangeable soundtrack from brand to brand, and the same platitudes and cloying familiarity that blend together in a dismal cadence of vacuousness that goes by like a blur of marketing cotton candy, a fleeting sugar rush of pseudo substance followed by the inevitable crash of emptiness.
Yet automakers drop, collectively, at least a hundred million dollars like clockwork out in Monterey every year. Why? Because, as I’ve stated before, the lingering question hanging over the marketing troops isn’t “Maybe we ought to reevaluate this whole thing” but, “What happens if we’re not there?”
Which isn’t exactly an answer that makes a lick of sense, now does it?
2. The calculated feeding frenzy manufactured by the auto auction houses has decimated the fundamental enthusiasm that used to define car enthusiasts of all stripes. There, I said it. The whole auto auction game has graduated from being merely tedious to a threat to car enthusiasm itself. Speaking of something not making a lick of sense, the fevered business surrounding auto auctions has come to define the car “hobby” for a lot of people, which is a very bad thing. Why? Because it’s not about the cars anymore, or the fleeting moments in time that defined what those machines represented, or the memories they created for the enthusiasts who drove them. No, it’s about flat-out greed, pure and simple.
Whether it’s resurrected cars over-restored to perfection or “survivor” cars brokered “as is” it’s really all the same. It’s a circus of artificial enthusiasm marked by overheated auction hucksters in cahoots with the blatant sycophants at the TV networks who all do their very best to add to the faux cacophony, which is only punctuated by the projected “record” dollar figures that seemingly get attached to every car. (The usurious buyers’ and sellers’ premiums are barely mentioned.)
Car auctions have destroyed the last vestige of rational thought that was once associated with being a car enthusiast. In fact, rational thinking when it comes to the car enthusiast experience was steadily reduced to collateral damage years and years ago by the “greed merchants” at the auction houses. And it really stinks.
As if to emphasize the point, in the last few weeks we have received an unending series of come-ons from the auction houses that tout the latest and greatest cars, all of which are pegged at absurd bid levels, and it frankly leaves me cold. There is no excitement generated by these communiqués, just a gloomy emptiness hanging in the air over machines that once brimmed with passion and creativity, but are now relegated to marks on a ledger, which will count toward a tally that will be used to promote next year's installment of the circus.
This tedious drill went far beyond the "Fools and their money..." adage well over two decades ago. These machines are paraded on stage - souls removed - only to end up in antiseptic, "perfect" garages until they're prepared for another auction down the road. This isn't about the car culture or the sheer passion once associated with these automobiles; no, now it's the living, breathing embodiment of Greed is Good.
3. And last but not least there’s our very own “Dream Cruise,” the annual car happening in August that went from being a spontaneous celebration of the automobile to an event wearing a leaded cloak of marketing sameness as orchestrated by the manufacturers and suppliers. Yeah, it’s really too bad, but the High-Octane Truth about the Dream Cruise is that it simply doesn’t ring true anymore, as unpopular as that notion might be with some around here. The spontaneity that once bubbled up organically in the early years has been replaced by manufacturer displays, manufacturer “drive-bys” (the novelty of 50 cars of the same make driving up and down Woodward Avenue was never, ever, cool - trust me), and a rigid sameness that is as predictable as the local media coverage of the event, which is nothing but a regurgitation of the last decade’s worth (at least) of stories.
The Dream Cruise has been overhyped, overblown and overrated for years, just like Monterey Car Week. I reserve particular ire for some of the card-carrying members of the local media who fall over themselves trying to pump up the volume on the latest edition, when a sameness hangs over the proceedings in a giant haze of "we've seen this all before, right?" Then again, when the local media collectively defines the term journalistic “homers” it should be no surprise at all.
The drill is the same every year. The manufacturers and suppliers mark their territories along Woodward Avenue, which means any anticipation is missing in action, with the whole thing having been reduced to an annual dirge of predictability. Is this really what this business has come to in the "Motor City"? Is this "celebration" of our car culture the best we can do? I certainly hope not, because it has all of the spontaneity of the grim "back to school" ads polluting the airwaves right now.
So, at the end of this discussion a giant question remains. Is the car enthusiast thing a lost cause? Are we really going to slink off and wait for autonomy to put us out of our collective misery once and for all? Not by a long shot, thankfully. But those three aforementioned subjects should force everyone to take stock and remember the following very important points.
You have to love the car business. Well, let me rephrase that. Some of us immersed in this seething cauldron of runaway egos, shortsightedness, intermittent brilliance and, remarkably enough and against all odds, indomitable spirit, love this business. (Then again, when it comes right down to it, it depends on the day.)
We love it for the unbridled creativity demonstrated by its True Believers, who keep stepping up to the plate and swinging for the fences. We love it for the relentless 24/7 churn – and associated weariness - that it entails (even though everyone complains about it, they wouldn’t have it any other way).
We love it for the brief shining moments when an exceptional design or product advancement emerges to remind us all of what turned us on about the business in the first place, even though those moments are fleeting, at best.
But then again and truth be told, we love to loathe it too. It can’t be helped. We despise the carpetbagging mercenaries who seem to rear their ugly heads at the most inopportune moments to wreak havoc on this business. Oh, you know who I’m referring to, that “Murderer’s Row” of malicious connivers, "Minimum Bob” Nardelli, “Captain Queeg” Akerson and Sergio the “G.O.A.T.” just to name a few.
We cringe at the legions of spineless weasels that populate almost every corner of this business, the go-along-to-get-along hordes and dutiful, sniveling minions who project a positive demeanor but who wallow in serial, abject mediocrity at every turn. That part of the business is always depressing and tedious, there’s no doubt.
But yet, we press on. And for good reason too.
Yes, the overhyped, overblown and overrated aspects of this business, which we loathe, aren’t going away any time soon.
But fortunately the fundamental enthusiasm displayed by the True Believers and everyday enthusiasts alike who still like – make that love – everything to do with the automobile isn’t going away any time soon, either.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
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