I just picked up a Hyundai Santa Fe from Hertz at DTW. My plane from Atlanta to Detroit was delayed by weather enough to have me picking up the Santa Fe in the dark. Well, Santa Fe did an outstanding job passing the rental car test. You know the one. This is where you pick up your car at the rental place, get in and you can find the ignition easily, adjust the steering wheel, mirrors, seats, climate control and radio without thinking hard about it. Oh yeah, and you can do it in the dark.
Keep it Simple, Stupid… Still Rings True
This is a challenge that many car stylists and designers fail to consider when they are designing their new products. But ease of use is a hugely important thing not only to rental car drivers but to everybody driving a car day-to-day. No-one wants a car that is difficult or confusing to drive and the rental car test helps guarantee ease of use.
Time for Periodic SUV Jihad – New Soft-Roaders Just Now Approaching
Every two to three years, the New York Times leads a jihad against SUVs. Keith Bradsher, a New York Times reporter, after all made a career bashing SUVs while on the quest for a Pulitzer he never got. In Bradsher’s book The High and the Mighty, he took SUVs to task. Albeit, he admitted his real target was truck-based SUVs, not the more efficient SUVs based on cars. To the layman, however, that argument was lost and Bradsher became known as the SUV Killer. The reason we call this the “jihad” against SUVs is that the media piles on without really thinking about the issue when a heavyweight like the New York Times takes a strong position.
[As an aside, during the last jihad, Paul Eisenstein editor of The Car Connection (http://www.thecarconnection.com), determined that only a few of the New York Times reporting staff owned or even drove a car and certainly even fewer had any hands-on experience with owning or driving an SUV].
While the New York Times has shown some restraint this year, SUVs have become an easy target as sales for Suburbans, Expeditions and Grand Cherokees soften in the face of soaring gasoline prices. Resorting to huge incentives to move the metal, SUV profitability has been gutted. The American automakers have been slow to respond to Japanese SUVs based on car platforms that are more fuel efficient than traditional truck-based SUVs. Ford has been competing with the Escape/Mariner and Freestyle, GM with the Chevrolet Equinox. But the wave of competitive American crossovers will come in 2006 and 2007. More on that later.
An article in the Saturday, November 19, 2005 Wall Street Journal projects that Toyota may overtake General Motors as the highest selling carmaker in 2006.
While Toyota (Toyota, Lexus, Scion) may not sell more than GM (Chevrolet, Pontiac, GMC, Buick, Cadillac, Hummer, Saturn, Saab) in the United States, it may sell more worldwide. Toyota is concentrating much of its sales expansion in North America where it is pulling sales from General Motors and Ford. GM is bolstering production capacity in China and South America where it sees room for growth where Toyota is not yet strong.
The Wall Street Journal article is one of many recent media reports confirming the results of VehicleVoice research and forecasts by AutoPacific. VehicleVoice research shows a continuing deterioration in General Motors’ (and Ford and Chrysler traditional brands) market share in the United States under the concentrated onslaught of the Japanese Big Three. AutoPacific’s forecast of United States sales shows Toyota, Honda and Nissan increasing market share by adding new assembly capacity and models.
$1, $2, $3 for a gallon of gasoline. Is this a conspiracy on the part of the oil companies? VehicleVoice internet research shows American drivers pin much of the blame on high profits the major oil companies are getting.
It is not hard for conspiracy theorists to figure out that ever-increasing gas prices are part of a psychological ploy by the oil companies to get Americans accustomed to higher prices at the pump. Think about it. Just a few years ago, Americans were complaining that gasoline was a dollar a gallon. Then Americans complained and wrung their hands as prices rose to $2. Then they gasped as gasoline rose to $3 per gallon.
At each hurdle, gas prices temporarily fell back below the psychological even dollar threshhold. Is this planned to give Americans a sense of relief as they grow accustomed to $2.50 gasoline instead of $3.00? Is there any doubt that once gas prices have bottomed out again in the $2.00 to $2.50 range that they will again begin inching their way back up to $3.00?
Every month VehicleVoice (http://www.vehiclevoice.com) panel members give their reactions to the styling of eight to ten newly introduced cars or trucks and interesting concept vehicles. The Internet panel is shown photos of the vehicles without identification. Their badges are Photoshopped out so only the cogniscenti might really know what the vehlcle really is. At the end of the Beauty Contest the vehicle names and manufacturers are revealed.
Over the months, we have become pretty good at predicting what will juice up the panel members. Usually a really hot sports car will do the trick. The Saturn Sky and Pontiac Solstice were tops for “great styling” ratings in the months they were shown. Some interesting recent results show the Ford Fusion and Lincoln Zephyr being strongly rated for having “great styling”. This is an impressive result for mainstream sedans.
Has anybody noticed that the styling of the new Honda Civic gives the car a look like it is powered by a Hybrid powertrain? A couple of Honda competitors have commented that the Civic sedan has styling cues that shout “Hybrid” much like the wildly popular Toyota Prius. Of course, Civic has a hybrid model available, but the plain-Jane 4-door sedan could be mistaken at-a-glance for a Hybrid.
In an interesting move, the new Civic is bigger on the outside than its predecessor, but smaller on the inside. Extremely aerodynamic styling with a low cowl and sloping hood give the car its Hybrid look, but compromise its interior spaciousness.
The new Civic goes back to its roots in providing a well-styled, distinctive compact car that its buyers can be proud to drive. It may return to the ranks of the “aspirational small car” that was abandoned by its immediate predecessor – an card-carrying blandmobile.
Riding with the spousette the other day, we were cruising in the blindspot of a Chrysler Pacifica. Even though the Pacifica has been on the road for a few years now, and AutoPacific has had a Pacifica in several research projects, it had never really registered with her.
She asked, “What’s that?” I said, “Well, that’s a Chrysler Pacifica.” “Poor thing,” she responded, “It doesn’t know what it wants to be. It looks like a station wagon, a minivan and maybe a little like an SUV.” “Well, Chrysler used to call it a Sports Tourer
, but now they are trying to call it an SUV,” I observed. Showing her ability to cut to the chase, “Nice try, but it doesn’t appear to be anything special.”
These observations are not too much different from reactions to the Pacifica in research clinics, focus groups and individual interviews with consumers. Even Pacifica owners seem confused about what it is. That Chrysler has been able to sell a respectable number of them (many at a deep discount from its initial pricing) is a testament to Chrysler’s marketing and incentive programs.
Over the years, we have found that American consumers really want a product that they can quickly put into a category. Either it is a minivan or not. Either it is an SUV or not. Begs the question of what folks will think the Mercedes-Benz R-Class Grand Sports Tourer
VehicleVoice (http://www.vehiclevoice.com) panelists responded to a survey concerning what people really understand about Hybrid-powered vehicles. The conjecture has been that folks are really pumped about Hybrids because of the Toyota Prius and the outstanding public relations and advertising job being done by Toyota but that they don’t understand what a Hybrid is.
In research projects conducted by VehicleVoice partner AutoPacific, people say that they want a hybrid, but clearly they have not known why. Hybrids are the newest, coolest auto technology and they want it. When forced to do the arithmetic, it finally dawns on them that it will take years for a Hybrid to pay for itself in terms of fuel cost savings (since the Hybrid cost is appreciably more, you have to save a lot on gasoline to make the arithmetic work). Of course, in some places you can now drive a Hybrid in a HOV/carpool lane with only one person in the car.
VehicleVoice Panelists Weigh In With their Opinions on Hybrids
The VehicleVoice survey asked the panelists to compare gasoline engines, diesel engines and Hybrids in eleven categories. Hybrids were perceived to be “best for the environment”, “most technologically advanced”, “gets best fuel economy”, “most expensive to buy” and “has the most positive image”.