Automobile News Chum

A number of car stories caught my attention as I was reading the papers this week:

  • From the “Brand Up, Brand Down” Department: A number of articles related to car brands. On the luxury side, Hyundai, off all manufacturers, is getting a very positive reception. Their new luxury car, the Equus, has been getting very positive reaction, especially for its technology. In fact, Hyundai has been doing what their Japanese bretheren did in the 1970s: turning around a reputation for cheap cars into a reputation as a high quality manufacturer with much more stylist designs. I remember a good friend, who works for Toyota, once telling us that their big fear was Hyundai: once they figured things out, they would clean Toyota’s clock. That’s happening, folks.

    Other luxury car brands, however, are suffering. In particular, buyers are turning away from Lincoln as a luxury car brand, and as a result, Lincoln dealers are closing. It is postulated that much of this is a side effect of the “bailout” advertising: in other words, people are realizing that Lincoln and Cadillac are part of the lower-scale Ford and GM respectively, and this is hurting their luxury reputation. Both Lexus and Infiniti have done good jobs of distancing themselves from their parent brands. Of course, this ties in to the previous paragraph: Equus is marketed as a Hyundai: will this hurt or help them?

  • From the “Company Up, Company Down” Department: Just as Hyundai is going up in quality, so are the Detroit automakers, and sales are showing it. Detroit is on a roll: improving quality, improving styles. They have realized that the nameplate alone doesn’t sell cars: it’s the product (for example, read this review of the Buick Regal). According to the linked article, customers are increasingly interested in Ford and GM products, with a spillover effect on Chrysler. The technology and quality innovations are paying off, and the bailoff permitted these companies to jettison the unprofitable portions of the past. In fact, customers are spurning the Japanese brands for American brands.

    We’re seeing a radical reshuffling of the car market here: Detroit is moving up, led by styling and quality. South Korea is also moving up, led by the same. The Japanese market leaders (Honda, Toyota) are falling, having gotten too confident in their success, having increasing quality problems and staid designs (which, I’ll note, is what created problems for Detroit in the 1980s and 1990s). The second-tier Japanese manufactures have improving designs (witness some of the Nissan designs of late (Juke, Leaf) and the growing success of Subaru), but the quality reputation for those manufacturers isn’t fully there yet.

  • From the “Speed Up, Speed Down” Department: There was always the belief that speeding tickets correlate to the color of your car, but of course that is an urban legend. However, another characteristic of the car you drive may be a factor: its make and model. A recent study has shown that drivers of stylish “spirited”-looking vehicles and the outsized Hummer H2/H3 were the most likely to be cited by law enforcement officials. Drivers of the Mercedes-Benz SL Class roadster were 4.04 times as likely to get a ticket as the average for drivers of all vehicles. Camry-Solara drivers were second at 3.49 times as likely to be cited, followed by Scion TC drivers at 3.43 times. Hummers came in fourth at 2.92 times as likely to get a ticket, and the Scion xB was fifth at 2.70 times. Want to avoid the cops? The Buick Rainier SUV was the least likely vehicle to get a ticket at .23 times the rate of the average auto. It also had the oldest drivers, with an average age of 61. The Mazda Tribute and the Chevrolet C/K pickup truck were tied for second, followed by the Kia Spectra sedan and the Buick LaCrosse sedan.
  • From the “Size Up, Size Down” Department: Lastly, the NY Times has an interesting look at microcars. Popular in Europe, especially in the 1960s, these tiny cars were never a hit in the US (although echoes of them are in the Smart ForTwo and the Mini). The article highlights cars such as the Messerschmitt KR-175, which was less than 10 feet long, weighed 396 pounds, and had just 3 wheels.