Motor city sadness

Feb. 23, 2006
Negativity was in the air during last month's North American International Auto Show.

— Lee Teschler, Editor

Industry analysts had raised the possibility of Ford and GM heading into bankruptcy. Meanwhile, major shareholders in those companies made public pronouncements about who was to blame for the financial mess.

Unfortunately the show didn't give Detroit boosters much to cheer about. The Big Three certainly debuted their share of interesting new models and ideas. But so did their foreign competitors. Several of these introductions led auto writers in attendance to wonder aloud how U.S. automakers could compete.

The new Lexus LS460 is a case in point. This luxury car can, among other things, park itself with almost no help from the driver. And it carries the world's first eight-speed automatic transmission. Automotive journalists were both dazzled by the technology and deflated by what it meant for domestic luxury brands. One summed up what were probably feelings shared by many: "These guys could take a five-year nap and still be ahead," he shrugged.

Hyundai's debut of its new Santa Fe SUV was another slam. Company officials proudly spoke of benchmarking world-class vehicles that included the Lexus RX, Acura MDX, and Volvo XC90. The implication was that they needn't pay attention to anything made in Detroit. This had another journalist shaking his head.

"I just finished test driving a Sonata," he explained. "I thought the interior was impressive and the ride was pretty good. Then I took out a Chevy. By comparison its interior was barely adequate and the ride was nothing to write home about," he lamented.

"There are smart people working at Ford and GM. How come they can't figure out how to do things right?" he mused.

It was high irony in light of Hyundai's history. The Korean carmaker only started exporting to the U.S. in the mid-1980s. Early Hyundai models had more than their fair share of quality problems. I can remember journalists back then joking that you could practically see parts falling off as a Hyundai went down the road. Industry observers didn't take the cars seriously and few expected the Koreans to make a dent in the U.S.

But it wasn't just journalists who misjudged foreign competition. In Detroit, Acura opened a press conference by playing a now-famous clip from NBC TV's "Today Show" that aired in1986. It showed the thenpresident of Volvo North America saying, "With all due respect to the tremendous quality of low-priced Japanese automobiles, I don't think they will ever be able to penetrate the U.S. luxury market."

It was a little like hauling out the pregame boasts of a home team that had just taken a sound thumping.

The Chinese also used the Detroit Show to debut the Geely, their first-ever export to the U.S. market. They say when the Geely goes on sale, it will have not just acceptable quality but superior quality.

Maybe U.S. auto observers have at least learned humility. No word yet of anyone booking time on TV shows to pooh-pooh the Chinese car's chances here.

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