- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 30, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

COMMENTARY:

The news for General Motors was fabulous. And for Ford it was just an eyelash short of that.

It was a perfect start to the week of Nov. 17: A General Motors family sedan, the Insignia, was named the 2009 Car of the Year. Not here, but in Europe, where a jury of automotive writers gave GM its first European victory in 22 years. The Insignia wears an Opel badge in most of Europe, and is called a Vauxhall in Britain. It beat Ford’s new Fiesta by just 1 point - and the two U.S. automakers finished 100 points ahead of the pack - Volkswagen’s Golf, Alfa Romeo, et al.

“The cabin’s a pretty classy place to be,” noted Britain’s Car Magazine - talking not about the usual Audi, BMW or Mercedes, but GM’s Insignia. In true Brit-wit fashion, the review segued into a bit of auto erotica, blending attributes of two islands: “The power plant is something of a gem. It’s as smooth as the left buttock of an Hawaiian tropic girl at a Le Mans pit-lane walkabout and delivers plenty of oomph with a 7.1 second 0-62 mph time and a top speed limited to 155 mph.”

While you may be thinking finally Detroit has a car for you, Big Auto’s execs did have one more thing more they needed to tell you about their prize-winning Opel Insignia and runner-up Ford Fiesta: Sorry, but you can’t buy them here. Only in Europe.

It is yet another example of the corporate underthink that has made America’s Big Three auto makers the small fry they are today. Just a day after their good news, the top brass of GM, Ford and Chrysler found themselves stunned to be victims of Capitol punishment. All they had done was come to Congress to beg for a bailout.

But Senate and House quibblers started whining that America’s car industry CEOs had flown from Detroit to Washington in three corporate jets. But surely you can’t expect pooh-bahs of their exalted stature to jet-pool - just because they would be beseeching a nation of carpoolers (with tin cups in hand -or were they platinum cups?) that they were impoverished.

They mainly wanted you to know they are not the same old Big Three that used to make those terrible decisions so very long ago. They are not those golden goofs who used to insist you really don’t want cars that are hybrid or otherwise fuel efficient, or save lives with seat belts, or (later) airbags, and you surely don’t care about luxury, fit and finish. You just want truculent trucks that pretend to be cars.

Rick Wagoner, GM’s Dickensian-named car exec, told a Senate hearing: “What exposes us to failure now is not our product lineup, or our business plan, or our long-term strategy.” The real villain is (you guessed it) the global financial crisis.

Mr. Wagoner had just bragged that GM’s 2009 fleet includes nine hybrid vehicles. What he didn’t say is that most of GM’s hybrids are absurdly mild or still guzzlers. Consider the Chevrolet Malibu. It is deservedly honored for quality superior to Honda’s Accord and Toyota’s Camry. But Team Wagoner produced a Malibu hybrid so mild it is a veritable consumer con - a paltry 2 miles per gallon saving over a non-hybrid Malibu. That’s vastly inferior to the Camry hybrid’s efficiency.

Detroit’s Big Three did produce one miracle - they united the capital’s Republicans and Democrats behind the principle that Detroit cannot be trusted with Washington’s bailout money. “I was surprised that they did not have a better thought-out proposal when they arrived in Congress,” said an unamused President-elect Barack Obama.

Big Auto’s jet-setters have just days to produce a genuine blueprint with firm commitments and controls. If they fail us one more time, we may see the sad spectacle of America’s once-proud and patriotic car industry being forever outsourced.

Martin Schram is a columnist for Scripps Howard News Service.

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