The type of vehicles America makes best are, unfortunately, not the type of vehicles that people really want anymore. Nobody builds better trucks than the Americans do. Not even the Japanese build as good a truck as the Ford F-150 or the Chevy Silverado. It’s the same with performance cars. The Corvette Z06 has 505 horsepower, comes with a big warranty, and can hit 200 miles per hour. It weighs almost exactly the same as a half-million-dollar Porsche Carrera GT and gets higher mileage—26 miles per gallon.
Where we seem to lose it is in the low-bucks econocar. I used to be able to identify any American car from 25 yards. Now they all have this jellybean look. It’s a mystery to me, because the one thing we used to do better than anybody else was build cheap, extremely high-quality cars. We did it for decades, all the way back to the beginning of the industry. There was no better car for the money than the Model T. It was a basic car, but it used the finest materials available. There are still almost a million of them out there.
When you get into a high-priced, well-made American car today and the key is in the ignition, you hear a melodic bong, bong. But when you get in a cheap American car, like a rental, and the key is left in, it goes plink, plink, plink. It’s just horrible. Every time you use the turn signal, it’s like breaking a chicken leg. In order to make the more expensive car more appealing, U.S. companies feel as though they have to dumb down the cheaper car.
I believe that, all things being equal, Americans will buy American. It just has to be as good as the competition; it doesn’t have to be better. The classic example is Harley-Davidson. Throughout the ’70s, the motorcycle maker had huge quality-control problems. Then Harley-Davidson said, “Look, let’s take our time. Let’s build fewer bikes. Let’s build them properly, so they don’t leak oil and they’ll run forever.” Harley-Davidson won back the market share it had lost, and it continues to dominate today. Even though the bikes might not be technically superior, they’re bulletproof and they’re American. People will buy American if given the chance.
The automakers are starting to think like Harley and understand that when you get into an automobile, everything should be appealing to you. If you see stitching that’s out of line on the dashboard, you’re going to get madder and madder every time you see it. That’s one place where the American car companies dropped the ball. Thankfully, in the past couple of years, they have gotten better. If you look at the new line of G.M. cars, they are almost as good as what the Europeans are doing, especially when you compare interiors. Cadillac has a line of small four-door sedans that are, if not quite the rival of Audi or Mercedes, pretty darn close for quite a bit less money.
The problem with what’s happened over the past few decades is that you have a whole generation of kids who have no brand loyalty. They’ve grown up on Honda, Hyundai, Kia and Toyota. To lure them to the American brand, you’ve got to give them something exciting, something bold, something different. America does technology well, and I think this is how the companies will bring those buyers back. I think cars like the Chevy Volt, which is entirely battery-powered, or hydrogen cars from Chrysler, Ford, and G.M. will take off.
Looking into my crystal ball, I predict that Toyota will probably become the dominant force, and the other companies will have to become leaner to survive. They’ll start reining in some of the more unprofitable models. The overhead at most of the U.S. firms is crazy, and they’ll have to figure out a way to fix that. They’ll ultimately survive, but I think that they’ll need to change how they do business. And in the future, you’ll see smaller companies doing more boutique manufacturing, as BMW has with the Mini.
One last thing: No matter what happens, do not expect all American cars to go Eurosize. American buttocks are not getting any smaller.