GM has held this position since 1931, but now Toyota will be #1 for some considerable time to come.
Why? Toyota produces cars that folks want. A few years ago, they produced dull as dishwater boring cars, or even outright ugly cars (think the Echo sedan – FUGLY! I’m an ex-Echo *hatch* owner and even I think the sedan version is awful), but they were exactly what folks want from cars – utterly reliable, frugal enough, and safe.
GM was “safe” as long as it produced cars roughly equivalent. Dull. Increasingly reliable. But not particularly frugal. And they lost sight of the ball. They worried more about Toyota than their customers. They forgot about their own history and their golden years – the 1950’s.
Toyota got a clue a few years ago, and started injecting all of its models with design, something GM pioneered with its Art and Color (=Design) area. So although Toyota’s current design philosophy (L-Finesse) probably offends the 55+ sedan owner who buys a car once every 20 years, they actually don’t matter. They don’t buy enough cars, and they literally die off. Why target this market at all?
The car magazines here are bemoaning this change left, right and center, trying to figure out who is to “blame”. Well, the consumer is to blame. They stopped taking the car magazines’ advice when the magazines stopped advocating for the average consumer. Not everyone can afford 911’s or a Nobel M12, no matter how driver focussed these cars have become. They are simply impractical.
Look on the roads – you’ll find SUVs, MPVs and sedans, and in more European style markets, hatches, larger hatches masquerading as MPVs, and the occasional “executive” car like the BMW 3 series, which form the remnants of the sedan market (sedans are almost dead over there as they are so impractical and inflexible. I’ve worked out most of the SUVs sold here are basically super dooper hatches – they are the same shape, just much larger on the outside. Most of the SUVs here have such rustic and soft suspension, two wheel drive, compromised tyres that they are not any better at offroading than our Golf.)
What you don’t find in people’s driveways are 911’s, Ariel Atoms or Nobel M12’s. The Emperors have no clothes – they have abandoned the consumer, so the consumer goes and makes choices that best reflect their upwardly mobile aspirations, budget and safety. Thus they have bought Toyota’s and Lexus’s. And they bought lots of them. The Australian car mags, which are actually some of the best I’ve read (I read Car, Automobile, Wheels, Motor, Motor Trends, Car and Driver, and Top Gear), diss Toyota continuously. They rarely review Toyota, and when they do, they hate it. Yet, Toyota has been #1 in Australia for many years. The buying public have better collective wisdom than the onomastic wannabe race boys at the mags. No surprise there.
Car magazines need to pull their finger out of their collective rectums and figure out who buys cars, and write at least a few non-token stories about them. If they want to make changes in cars they hate, they have to review them properly against the likely use. There’s no point in saying things like “The Mercedes Sprinter FedEx truck sucked on the track and had a terrible 0-60 time”, or “This MPV could not sustain more than 0.6 g and took out a bunch of cones at 110 mph”. That’s not how those cars will be used. Don’t review them as if the world is a racetrack. It’s not. Hire a soccer mom who knows a thing or two about cars, and train her what makes a good car and what makes a good car story. Get her to review the family cars as if she was looking to buy one. Road test them with kids and stuff. Hire a skivvy wearing Apple owner to review “Prestige” Euro cars and wannabes like Volvos and Saabs. Teach them what dynamics are and how to not get sucked in by appearances, maybe by letting them have long term loaners. Give an Audi A3 or New Beetle convertible to someone for six months and they will quickly learn good looks does not maketh a reliable car. Don’t let wannabe race car drivers anywhere near family cars and hatches. Make the dark age petrol heads realize that cubic capacity is not everything by only allowing them to take home a MX5 when they’re not reviewing another car. Only allow one single BMW in the long term carpark per year, and give it to the production staff to review. And everyone should have to take the “econobox” cheapy for a week or so to how the rest of us live.
So what happened in the USA with Toyota? Well, design happened. The new Camry is not a bad looker for a sedan. Certainly a lot better looking than the predecessor Avalon / Camry / E300. The Prius is good looking no matter which way you look at it. The new Echo hatch is pretty good (sedan still fugly). The RAV4 definitely talks to its market even if I don’t like it. Lexus IS looks better than the 3 series and is better value. The trucks they sell here are polarizing – not slab sided, but beefy, which suits the “built like a brick shithouse” crowd who buys them (again trucks are not my thing). So by incorporating best of breed reliability, pretty good fuel economy (compared to their competitors), and now design, Toyota will be #1 for some time to come.
I’ve had the misfortune to hire a few Chevy Malibu’s recently. They suck. I had one with 270 miles on the clock and it still had the new car smell. It had a gargantuan turning circle – like a first generation front drive, and then wandered around the road a bit under torque steer, and even minor inputs. It drank like a thirsty pig and wasn’t particularly fast. I had the hatch as I like hatches, but GM missed the point of hatches – lots of room. The Malibu hatch is a fast back. All the disadvantages of a sedan – limited cargo space, plus incredibly hot if left in the sun. GM is not going to win the war with this car. They need to scrap it and pick up their Euro cars and Americanize them. Which means make a sedan version which is not fugly. And that’s hard. May be it is time to wean Americans off sedans. Nah, not going to happen whilst those 55+ folks are considered and the lowest common denominator focus groups exist.
For the next 10 or so years, GM has lost the crown to Toyota. At least. Unless they start calling their design group “Art and Design” again and let the designers release cars which have NOT been through millions of consumer focus groups, but allow the designers to have their way, GM will continue to release cars few want.
If the lowest common denominator wins, everyone loses. There’s enough brands, designs and cars to suit every taste. There’s no reason to say “well, the Mini only sold 700,000 thus was a failure”. The Mini stands out like dog’s balls. And that’s fantastic. Would I have one? Yes. Would Tanya’s parents? Unlikely, but not all the cars need to be a Mini.
GM also has to stop producing fuel hungry crappy cars like the Malibu and pretty much the rest of their range. Toyota has not ever bothered to make a fuel hungry car and called it a “feature”. Although we think fuel supplies are expensive now, this will probably be nothing compared to 20 or 30 year’s time. Not thinking ahead to those times will kill GM. There should be a concerted effort to move to cars which move with adequate pace but use a lot less fuel. Not even a V8 owning monster truck driver likes paying ze big bucks to the oil companies. It’s time GM started to wean their cars off the juice, whilst not overly reducing performance, or even enhancing it.
Car Magazines will continue to sell dreams, but they have to fix their game too. They are responsible for ignoring the consumer and letting them buy any old crap through the absence of any real information on the majority of models on the market today. Luckily, despite this, consumers ended up buying well. Typically not dynamically enjoyable cars – but how would the consumer know? The magazines and web sites never told them as they’re too precious to dilute their “hard” wannabe race driver image sullied by reviewing a normal car. Now, imagine if Toyota made a car which was reliable, cheap to buy and run, safe, good looking AND dynamically capable? No other car maker would be able to compete. That is the car journalists’ collective fault and they will continue to suck whilst they forget their first and foremost duty – to their customers. No other media form is as narrow minded as a BMW-loving wannabe race driver.
A car should be something *worth* owning. A car is either the most expensive or second most expensive thing most folks have, and it should reflect them and honor their choice. This is why buying a soulless car is soul destroying – you’d never buy a house which is not you. You’d never wear clothes that don’t suit you. Why do folks feel they have no real reason to buy a car which reflects them? As Barney would say “SUIT UP!” If you’re going to do this thing, do it right. Don’t buy that slab sided monstrosity. Buy the Hugo Boss of cars, tailored for you.