Will Euro Style Cars Ever Catch on In Detroit?

Posted by: David Kiley on October 2, 2007

Will European style cars ever fly in Detroit?

I have been pondering this question in the last two weeks as GM seems intent on making a mid-sized notchback car at its Fairfax Kansas plant starting in 2010, as well as a new family of small rear-drive cars. I also recently heard Chrysler CEO Bob Nardelli list the Dodge Magnum as one of Chrysler’s product successes. And then there is Ford, which is going to mesh the styling of the next generation Fusion and Mondeo with a European flair—more Mondeo than Fusion.

A mid or full-size notchback? We saw this movie with the Chevy Malibu Maxx. I know the guy who bought the one Maxx GM sold at retail that wasn’t to an employee or a rental car fleet. Notchbacks do well in Europe, but it’s an answer to a question no one has been asking in the U.S. The Magnum, a Euro sport-wagon, is a bust. Make no mistake. I like the car, but from a non-fleet sales standpoint, it’s been nowhere. DaimlerChrysler CEO Dieter Zetsche thought the U.S. was ripe for a touring wagon.

GM too is planning a derivative of the Opel Zafira for the U.S. GM couldn’t sell its full-size minivans. But it thinks it will be able to sell a smaller Euro-sized minivan in the U.S.? That’s a gamble.

Now, the Ford Mondeo as the next Fusion? That seems like a good idea. The new Mondeo in Europe, I think, would be selling nearly without incentives in the U.S. if it was the Fusion. And by the way, let’s call it the Mondeo on both continents when these new cars debut in a few years.

GM’s small rear-drive cars? I dunno. I did like the Chevy concept of a few years ago that was based on the Pontiac Solstice/Saturn Sky rear drive platform. Are there enough rear-drive enthusiasts to make that niche work?

The key to some of these products will be price. Audi, for example, is choking to death on inventory of the A3, a decidedly European car. But that’s because exchange rates have pushed a loaded version of the car close to $40K. But don’t under-estimate the possibility that U.S. customers may balk at Euro car fashion.

Perhaps the gas crunch in the U.S. will push us closer to looking like the European car fleet. I heard an analyst this morning say we will see $100 per barrel oil in the next 24 months—bank on it—because some of the developing nations that now export oil will be using more and more oil domestically, thereby reducing the supply…while demand goes up. Higher European-style gas prices, could, indeed, mean a more European looking car fleet. But I’ll believe it when it happens.

I also saw Volkswagen’s new clean diesel Jetta, which will go on sale this May. Well over 40 miles per gallon, and a 40% smaller carbon footprint than gasoline. How many more reasons do we need to have more clean diesels in the U.S.? It’s brilliant technology.

Ah, but an awful lot of U.S. consumers simply won’t accept a diesel of any kind. Nor are they likely to be interested in notchbacks and touring wagons. The jury will stay out on small rear drive sedans and coupes until GM proves it’s what the market wants, and not just what its executives think will be cool.

Reader Comments

Allen Schaeffer

October 3, 2007 4:23 PM

Just what is "an awful lot"? -- relative to "an awful lot" of US Consumers won't accept a diesel of any kind."

That's a "glass is half empty" assessment if i've ever heard one. Sounds a lot like lingering ink on the past and not the future.

The consumers that will make this next generation of clean diesels sucessful - like the VW Jetta you called Brillant --were not even born when the 1980's false start on diesel came and went- no one should care about that.

The new auto consumer is super tech saavy -- bluetooth, ipod, Wi-Fi, HD raised on the internet -- not really a student of history, sophisticated about their personal choices, but trending toward decisionmaking in line with being personally responsible -- with how they use energy and make purchase choices. They're more hopeful about the future (the glass is half full).

And when you look at a new clean diesel in that context it could be appealing to an awful lot of gen Y'ers as an alternative to pure gasoline -- alongside hybrids and one they can fill up with renewable diesel it might be an awful lot more appealing than you've said.

Remember when you're driving a diesel -the fuel tank is almost always half full, not half empty, and thats an awful lot of range left!

swise

October 4, 2007 8:46 AM

Hi David,

I wanted to respond to your comments about the Volkswagen clean diesel jetta and the fact that we really don't need any more reasons to make a cultural shift towards clean diesels in the U.S.

I work for a company called GEO2 Technologies, developer of multifunctional filters for next-generation clean diesel solutions, and the GEO2 team couldn't be more in agreement with your thoughts on diesel. The company sees the diesel market as progressing in phases, the last of which (for now) is a diesel-hybrid. Also, along the lines of euro-style cars, diesel filters need to be light-weight to contribute to the overall smaller size/high fuel efficiency of european-style cars.

The team would be happy to exchange ideas about the whole diesel revolution if you're interested.

noz

October 4, 2007 6:22 PM

By world standards, we Americans are little more than a bunch of spoiled little kids. we come by this naturally enough what with our huge country, our abundance of natural resources, and while often badly abused and taken advantage of, our various freedoms. Among things we lack we can place personal discipline at the top of the list. Waste is one of our modes of living, and it is getting worse with time rather than better. I like to use our illogical choice of motor vehicles as a case in point.

Now that fuel costs have become 'rationalized', there is some second thinking going on. And fierce politic(k)ing. Ethanol is a loser. but more to the point, so are the huge and heavy trucks that are so popular now. I drive an '06 HONDA Pilot and love the experience while realizing I should be in an Accord or Civic. And should I live long enough, this will happen.

As to the Jetta diesel and its 'brilliant engineering', per-haps, but put me in the profound doubter column. German arrogance has taken the VW to a very low low, and the reliability of the various models is lousy, to be generous. On the other hand, HONDA has a clean-burning diesel system that is alive and well in Europe and will arrive here in a year or so.

Americans, for the most part, use their vehicles for trans-portation. But judging by the unadulterated bullshit spew-ed monthly by 'enthusiast magazines', they are entertain-ment as well. TIME FOR A REALITY CHECK. More than this, it is time we tried to align ourselves with the majority of humanity and think both beyond our own precious needs, and more in terms of what is required for world survival--both ours and that of the greater population.

It is asking a lot to plead for flabby and insular Americans to look beyond our borders, but should we elect not to do so, the price is very high. there are broad hints of this now, we fail to see them. And this is one of the functions of the left-wing media--like it or not.

JIM THOMAS

October 6, 2007 1:36 AM

Our own American auto industry ripped us of for decades with planned obselence and sky-high repair prices. They, and many of their Japanese counterparts, are still doing the same. I'm not going backwards to a diesel, (American or German), with or without a 60% footprint, or for that matter any American auto. I will wait patiently for a plug-in Prius. That's also my way of making of a statement against the environmental petroleum monsters and mobsters who run them. Diesel, my butt! Jim

Claude

October 11, 2007 1:40 PM

What's so great about a plug-in Prius? The energy is still coming from somewhere-if you are American it's likely coming from Coal and if you're French, it's probably coming from a nuclear reactor. Neither of these are footprint-free and just because you are not paying at the pump doesn't mean you are not paying.

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