Thursday, April 05, 2007

North American Auto: Reason for Optimism (3)

One hears repeatedly that the problem with General Motors, Ford, and Daimler-Chrysler is their unimaginative product portfolios. This assessment tends to come from two camps: SUV-haters and car aficionados.

The first group loathes the fact that gas-guzzlers are made in this sensitive environmental age (it's five below and snowing here in London today) and hold up Asian cars as the ideal in fuel efficiency. They ignore that (a) there are plenty of fuel-efficient domestic cars, and (b) light trucks and SUVs are selling like hotcakes.

"Car guys" assert that domestic cars are boring. I don't get exactly how a Camry is more exciting than an Impala or how a Lexus is sexier than a Cadillac CTS, but these guys probably find Asian cars boring as well. They'd prefer to spend a fortune on European performance cars, putting them outside the target for domestics to begin with.

That said, some companies are better at design than others. Ford has been hit-and-miss lately and Japanese designers have long been criticized for their conservative models. On this competitive dimension, General Motors has an ace in the hole: Bob Lutz. The GM Vice Chairman is the king of product development, staking claim to the Ford Explorer, the Dodge Viper, the Plymouth Prowler, and BMW 2002. Coming out of the winter car shows, GM won praise for its enhanced styles and interior fittings, a sign that its $8.7 billion investment in product improvement is paying off.

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