Just about every car manufacturer has had its “car of shame” at one point or another. Some have excelled so much in this department that those pathetic efforts seem almost intentional. The names are easily recognizeable and are usually followed by a full-body cringe: AMC Gremlin, Renault Fuego, Chevy Citation, Oldsmobile Achieva, Volkswagen Fox, Geo Metro, Nissan Pulsar, Cadillac Cimarron, Pontiac Aztek, Ford Festiva, Chrysler PT Cruiser. The list goes on. To our everlasting chagrin, many of the cars we’d rather not have driven have come from right here in America.
But things have been improving. Improving a lot, in fact. American cars today are better built and better designed at just about every level, and they’re even competitive with once out-of-reach European performance cars.
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Just last week Mary Barra, GM Executive VIP of Global Product Development, stated that she gives one directive to her employees: “No more crappy cars.” It’s a bold command that seems like a no-brainer, but given America’s history of less-than-stellar American cars, it was probably high time somebody said something. In fact, somebody did say something several years ago. It was the famous auto executive Bob Lutz, who said, “Why must our cars look like angry kitchen appliances?” in reference to the Pontiac Aztek, a car that invited thoughts of a chase scene with villagers, torches and pitchforks.
Yet today America is building not just better cars, but better cars in nearly all segments. The Corvette C7 can go toe-to-toe with the Porsche 911 at thousands less. The new Cadillac CTS is a phenomenal automobile and can easily compete with the Germans in terms of design, amenities and performance. The current Jeep Grand Cherokee is an SUV with some of the best off-road capability and exterior design in the segment. The beautifully designed Lincoln MKZ is one of the handsomest sedans on the market with a distinctly American flavor. The Chevy Cruze gets rave reviews and is a huge success for Chevy, while the Dodge Dart marks a new chapter in compact sedans for the Detroit automaker. Even smaller cars are much improved: the Ford Fiesta and the Chevy Sonic are eons ahead of their predecessors. Across the board, we’re no longer in the “also-ran” category when it comes to comparisons. In J.D. Power’s 2013 awards for Initial Quality, American cars took 10 out of the 26 automotive categories. That’s almost 40% of the top honors. We’re holding our own, and we should be proud of it.
It was a car that invited thoughts of a chase scene with villagers, torches and pitchforks.
But there’s still a long way to go. Take the Chrysler 200 sedan ($21,195), for instance. There’s no doubt that the car’s quality is decent. Interior materials are definitely improved over the horrendous Dodge Avenger, which the 200 is based on. But the car in base LX form lacks power (a 176-hp, 166 lb-ft 4-cylinder engine to move 3,400 pounds of mass is so ’90s) and style (it’s the automotive equivalent of a manila folder). The Hyundai Sonata ($21,350) has power (192-hp, 181 lb-ft direct injection 2.4L 4-cylinder and 3,100 pounds of weight) and some of the best turn-your-head styling in the segment. You’d buy the Chrysler if you happened to invoke the friends & family discount. On nearly all other points you’d have to go with the Sonata, a car that seems about 10 years more advanced than the poor Chyrsler, and that’s where the comparison can and should end.
American automakers also lack a true world flagship. We tend to be more concerned about fleet sales for law enforcement and livery (okay, the sales numbers are huge) rather than establishing flagships that will stand up to the Europeans. No one who’d consider a new S-Class would bat an eye at the new Lincoln Town Car (a re-badged, pregnant crossover), a Ford Taurus or even a Cadillac XTS. We need to be game players in more segments, and that means turning concepts like the Cadillac Sixteen into realities. That’s no easy feat, but it can and should be done. Damn the bean counters.
America’s new crop of cars is head and shoulders above the ones they replace, but there’s room to improve and expand. In ten years, I fully expect America to have taken great strides in the quest to produce more great cars. Our top executives should be pushing their employees for excellence rather than simply agreeing not to make any more lousy cars.