The U.S. is no longer the world’s top car market

  DESPITE the bankruptcies, bailouts and plunging sales that quaked the auto industry this year, perhaps nothing sums up the misery better than this: The United States is no longer the world’s top car market.

As 2009 draws to a merciful end, J. D. Power & Associates estimates that the Chinese will end up buying 12.7 million vehicles, compared with Americans’ 10.4 million purchases. How much has the market contracted? Consider that in 2000 United States sales reached an all-time high of 17.4 million.

The slippage came despite an unprecedented effort to assist those who make and sell cars, including the summer cash-for-clunkers program that doled out $2.9 billion in government rebates to spur sales of 690,000 new cars — while taking that many guzzling older models off the streets. Despite that program’s temporary jolt, nearly 1,500 dealerships had shut their doors through October, making this the worst year for dealers since at least the 1950s, according to Automotive News, a trade publication.

The recession in North America, Europe and elsewhere pushed some automakers into the grave and others into consolidation or drastic downsizing. The casual consumer, who may not realize that General Motors killed off Pontiac this year, or that Jaguar and Land Rover now belong to Tata Motors of India, may need a scorecard and a spreadsheet to keep track of the players left in the game.

To that end, here is a rundown on the status of some brands and companies caught up in the shuffles, shakeups and desperate dances of the last couple of years, as automakers tried to keep a lap ahead of the Grim Reaper:

ASTON MARTIN A consortium led by a British motorsports magnate — with the backing of Kuwaiti petrodollars — is still running this manufacturer of luxury sports cars, acquired from Ford in late 2007. Ford had exponentially lifted Aston’s worldwide sales, though the recession has taken its toll on all high-end nameplates. James Bond, at least, is back in a proper Aston, driving the stunning $270,000 DBS in his last two adventures; will Daniel Craig trade up to the even more conspicuous One-77? Aston will build just 77 examples of that $2 million, 220-m.p.h. supercar this year.

CHRYSLER GROUP This aging band of heavy-metal purveyors continued its Flame Out world tour. Ownership has passed from Germany (with Daimler) to Wall Street (Cerberus Capital Management) and now to Italy. Fiat took control of Chrysler the way people buy a Sebring — with no money down and a nearly pharmaceutical grade of optimism.

Sergio Marchionne, Fiat’s sweater-loving turnaround maestro and Chrysler’s new chief executive, took over from Robert L. Nardelli, the former boss at Home Depot. Mr. Marchionne announced a five-year plan: Chrysler will sell some Fiats and Alfa Romeos in the United States; Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep models will combine American styling with Italian engineering; Ram, a name currently affixed to Dodge’s muy-macho pickup — it pulls three times its weight in company sales — will be spun off as a separate brand.

Alfa Romeos may be rebadged as Dodges in America, and Dodges may be sold as Alfas in Europe, with Chryslers offered alongside cars from Fiat’s struggling Lancia brand.

Well, that’s the plan.

FIAT Starving for product, Chrysler’s last, best hope is a Mediterranean salad whipped up by its new owner. Replacements for marketplace bombs like the Chrysler Sebring and Dodge Caliber will use Fiat platforms, engines and technology. The Fiat 500 minicar may arrive late next year, with perhaps the Alfa Romeo MiTo subcompact to follow. Everything has to mesh and be translated to American tastes — quickly — and consumers must be willing to accept Chrysler’s latest cultural exchange program.

FISKER Henrik Fisker, the onetime Aston Martin designer who is now intent on turning out hybrid luxury cars, says the nation is ready for plug-in hybrids. Certainly, Mr. Fisker seems plugged into Washington: he emerged with $529 million in government loans earmarked for green cars.

After delays, Mr. Fisker now promises that his $80,000 Karma luxury sedan, to be built in Finland, will go on sale next fall. But the federal loans are being used to develop lower-cost plug-ins, including a $47,000 sedan called Project Nina. Fisker plans to start building that car at a former G.M. plant in Delaware in 2012.

FORD MOTOR Although Ford’s sales have fallen this year, the decline was at least countered by a rising market share and a brighter public image. As the only Detroit car company that didn’t hold out an XXL Tigers cap to be stuffed with taxpayer money, Ford won applause from free-market advocates — and the right to make and market what it wants, free of pressure from government overseers.

Ford won more praise for its Fusion Hybrid, for its new line of powerful but fuel-efficient EcoBoost engines and for a makeover that girded its Mustang against any takeover attempt by Chevy’s new Camaro.

Reversing a long brand-acquisition spree — Ford has given up its controlling interest in Mazda, though the companies will continue to share technology — the company kept hacking down to its core Ford and Lincoln nameplates. It has kept Mercury around as the madwoman in the attic: alive, yes, but mostly out of sight and inexplicable. GENERAL MOTORS At the “new” taxpayer-owned G.M., executives enjoy even less job security than Notre Dame football coaches.

Three months after President Obama showed Rick Wagoner, the chairman and chief executive, the golden door, Fritz Henderson came in as chief executive, promising big changes. These changes turned out to include his own ouster eight months later. (Mr. Henderson’s sizable group of defenders included his daughter, who stuck up for her dad in an all-cap Facebook tirade against Edward E. Whitacre Jr., the new G.M. chairman who took over as interim chief.)

Then the Buick GMC unit went through three leaders in a month. One of them — Michael Richards, a Ford veteran who had been lured to G.M. by the vice chairman, Robert A. Lutz — left after barely a week on the job.

After months of drawn-out talks, G.M. decided not to sell its European Opel division to a consortium headed by Magna, a Canadian auto parts supplier, and Sberbank of Russia. For American consumers, G.M.’s retention means Opel will continue to supply German-engineered cars and technology that will serve as the basis for Buicks (including a new Regal in 2010) and other models.

Other moves outlined in G.M.’s bankruptcy plan also fell apart. Deals to sell Saturn and Saab fizzled. A Chinese company’s effort to claim Hummer has dragged on for months.

Still, G.M. got some $400 million by giving Shanghai Automotive a larger stake in their Chinese venture and a 50 percent share in G.M.’s Indian operations.

HONDA Although its sales dropped in line with the industry, Honda passed Chrysler to grab fourth place in American sales, trailing G.M., Toyota and Ford. Honda’s big challenge now is to revive the Acura luxury division, which has lost ground to rivals.

HUMMER America’s three-ton Quasimodo — a monster toasted by the masses before gas prices spiked and the mobs turned hostile — was tentatively sold by G.M. to Sichuan Tengzhong Heavy Industrial Machinery, though the Chinese government hasn’t approved the deal. Though Hummer sales have plunged, G.M. said the deal would preserve 3,000 American jobs.

HYUNDAI-KIA South Korean’s automotive juggernaut kept rolling through the global economic downturn. Hyundai’s cars — already recession-ready because they are perceived as offering good value — got a big boost in good will from the Hyundai Assurance plan, a marketing masterstroke that let owners return their cars if they lost their jobs. (There were exceptions in the fine print.)

Hyundai raised its American market share above 4 percent this year, from 3 percent in 2008, as sales rose more than 6 percent. The Kia division did better, with sales up nearly 8 percent.

Through it all, the Hyundai-Kia Automotive Group quietly became the world’s fourth-largest automaker, displacing Ford. The top three are now Toyota, G.M. and Volkswagen.

JAGUAR AND LAND ROVER Ford has finished unloading its trophy import brands that were seen as saviors in the new millennium but turned out to be money-shredders. Ford bundled up Jaguar and Land Rover and sent them packing to a new parent, Tata Motors of India, leading Tories everywhere to raise a bitter glass to their dwindling Empire.

The new owners are primping the pedigreed brands that fell into their laps. For all the criticism of Ford’s stewardship, the company handed off Land Rover and especially Jaguar in their most competitive shape in decades, with modern lineups of high-design, highly desirable cars and S.U.V.’s.

Whether these hothouse brands can earn money on top of respect remains an issue: Jaguar Land Rover promptly hung a $504 million fiscal year loss around Tata’s neck — just the sort of burden that led Ford to cut its losses and cut the Brits loose.

MAHINDRA This Indian manufacturer has promised to sell hard-working, high-mileage diesel compact pickup trucks and S.U.V.’s to Americans. But the promised introduction dates continue to come and go with no trucks in sight. The arrival date has been pushed forward again, to February.

PONTIAC Just after Pontiac popped out its best car in years — the Australian-built G8 sport sedan — G.M. killed the brand whose onetime “We build excitement” pledge was tarnished by decades of poseur sporty cars (like the two-seat Fiero) and rebadged leftovers from other divisions. The brand that spawned the legendary GTO muscle car in the 1960s — not to mention Burt Reynolds’s Trans Am of “Smokey and the Bandit” fame — now rules Craigslist and haunts backwater used-car lots.

PORSCHE See Volkswagen. Also, chutzpah.

SAAB G.M.’s bid to dump Saab, its dying Swedish brand, devolved into farce. An obscure pair of underfinanced sports car makers — Koenigsegg of Sweden and Spyker of the Netherlands — failed to close deals to take over the vastly larger Saab. Koenigsegg and Spyker together produced fewer than 100 cars worldwide this year.

China’s Beijing Automotive did buy Saab’s spare parts and tooling, perhaps to use aging Saab’s aging model lines as a basis for home-market models. But for the rest of the world, Saab — which began in World War II as an aircraft producer for the Royal Swedish Air Force and started exporting its offbeat cars to the United States in the mid-1950s — appears headed to extinction.

SATURN After its celebrated birth and a promising childhood as an import-fighter — followed by years of benign parental neglect — Saturn shut its doors when G.M. failed to find a buyer.

Roger Penske, the billionaire auto magnate and racing-team legend, pulled out of a last-ditch deal to sell G.M.-built Saturns through his vast dealership chain, having failed to seal a deal to eventually import Renaults and sell them as Saturns. Mr. Penske perhaps realized that the only thing harder to sell than American Saturns would be French Saturns.

The September shutdown announcement stunned the 370 Saturn dealers — repeatedly hailed as among the industry’s best.

SMART After making a pint-size splash in 2008, its first year in America, Smart’s sales plunged nearly 40 percent. Smart’s failure to lure customers in a recession — despite its novelty, low price, fuel efficiency and press exposure — suggests that the car has more in common with a shortlived fad than with the brand-building accomplished by Mini.

SUBARU What recession? Buoyed by good timing and well-received new models — including the Legacy, Outback and Forester — Subaru recorded the biggest percentage sales gains in the industry, nearly 14 percent.

SUZUKI One of two companies that often seemed to be on life support in the United States — Mitsubishi is the other — Suzuki could breathe easier after Volkswagen took a 19 percent stake in December. The move is part of VW’s bid to supplant Toyota as the world’s largest automaker by 2018.

TATA The automaking arm of the vast Indian conglomerate says it will bring its celebrated Nano — the world’s cheapest car in more ways than one — to Europe by 2011, and eventually to America as well. There are even plans to make a hybrid version. The Nano, which costs roughly $2,500 in India, surprised some critics by passing European front- and side-impact crash tests last summer.

TESLA Leaving a trail of fired chief executives, the company’s co-founder, Elon Musk, is now guiding the Silicon Valley maker of the electric Tesla Roadster. And Tesla, like its plug-in rival from Southern California, Fisker, benefited from a government loan ($464 million) to be used for its next car, the Model S.

That sport sedan was designed by Franz von Holzhausen, formerly a rising star at Mazda and G.M., and is to be built in a new California factory. In theory, it will be on the road by late 2011. Tesla has pegged the Model S’s price at $50,000 once a federal $7,500 rebate on electric vehicles is factored in.

TOYOTA If misery loves company, Detroit finally learned to love Toyota. The Japanese automaker lost nearly five billion dollars in its fiscal year as worldwide sales plunged. In addition, Toyota mounted its biggest recall ever, of 3.8 million cars for unintended acceleration possibly caused by pedal-snaring floor mats.

At the headquarters in Japan, Katsuaki Watanabe was replaced as president by Akio Toyoda, grandson of the company’s founder, but not before being publicly run through by Shoichiro Toyoda, the company’s 84-year-old honorary chairman. Before a stunned audience of 400 executives, Mr. Toyoda asked Mr. Watanabe, “How many times have you made a mistake?” and said that Toyota’s addiction to big, pricey cars and trucks reminded him of, well, G.M. and Chrysler.

Volkswagen GROUP The doings this year at Volkswagen and Porsche, two companies with ties to the same founding family, may help explain why schadenfreude is a German word. Porsche’s chief executive, Wendelin Wiedeking, nearly engineered a David vs. Goliath takeover of vastly larger VW; his shrewd maneuvering netted him more than $100 million in annual compensation.

Mr. Wiedeking met his match in the 72-year-old VW board chairman, Ferdinand Piëch (who is also the grandson of Porsche’s founder), who refused to surrender his company or his reputation as the auto industry’s top overreacher. (Mr. Piëch had added Bentley and Lamborghini to the VW empire, created the white-elephant $80,000 VW Phaeton luxury sedan and revived Bugatti.)

As the collapsing economy showed that the Porsche takeover was spun from thin air — including $14 billion of debt that nearly sent Porsche into bankruptcy — Mr. Piëch used his backroom skills to scuttle the deal and drive Mr. Wiedeking, his archrival, into an unplanned retirement. Now, VW is absorbing Porsche instead of the reverse.

VOLVO Even solid, safety-conscious Volvo wasn’t safe from 2009’s potholes. Having put the Swedish carmaker on the block, Ford turned to China for a buyer. A deal is said to be nearly final for Geely to buy Volvo for $2 billion; Ford paid $6.5 billion in 1999.

The Volvo sale would remove the last piece of Ford’s Premier Automotive Group, an awkward umbrella for Aston Martin, Jaguar, Land Rover and Volvo (and, briefly, Lincoln Mercury), for which Ford built an elaborate headquarters in Irvine, Calif.

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