Sunday, February 10, 2013

Editorial: Tumultuous Love Affair with the American Car

A matter of years ago, the US automotive industry was on the brink of implosion - sales to consumers had shrunk to dangerous levels, GM shuttered many of its historic brands in an effort to consolidate, and the foreign automakers were fast on the rise; eating everyone's lunch along the way. But earlier this year the revival of the US automakers became evident with the triumphant introduction of the seventh generation Corvette at Cobol Hall during the Detroit Auto Show. America's love affair with the American car has been burning bright again and Detroit has been making every effort to put the dark years behind it.

2014 Corvette Stingray (Photo courtesy of Chevrolet.com)
And yet, while there have been some tremendous efforts in recent years (the Ford Mustang and recently updated Chrysler 300 come to mind), I still feel like there is a lack of substance beneath the veneer of recovery. Due to my day job, I travel a fair amount and that means spending a fair amount of time behind the wheel of various rental in a variety of different locations throughout the US. This means that, along with my regular testing of cars for this blog, I get to sit in and drive a lot of cars, some of which I spend a fair amount of time with. As is typical, a lot of the cars end up being from US automakers who still make large fleet sales a sizable part of their sales numbers.

On paper, many of these cars appear competitive, offering attractive designs, loads of standard equipment, and reasonable pricing. In terms of innovation, most of these cars are a stutter step behind their foreign competitors as far being on the cutting edge, but there are areas where these cars are doing a fine job pushing the envelope. Point for point, they feel like they should be on par with their foreign counterparts, but as I spend time with them, I find that it does not take a deep scratch to expose what is really beneath the surface.

Take the Cadillac ATS, the most recent effort out of Detroit to take on the perennial sport-sedan favorite BMW 3-Series. While the latest 3-series is no longer the ultimate driving machine that the earlier generation cars were, improvements in technology and engineering still make it a formidable competitor for American pocketbooks. The ATS, on paper, offers a product that goes toe-to-toe with the 3-series in just about every measure, even coming within millimeters of the 3-series in virtually all exterior dimensions. Yet, the moment I stepped up to the ATS and examined it up close, the gap between the quality of the two cars became immediately apparent.

2013 Cadillac ATS (Photo courtesy of Cadillac.com)
Starting on the outside of the ATS, simple things like trim-pieces look downright cheap up close and the little details such as sharpness of execution of door sill plates or the assembly of the trim in the trunk seem noticeably of poorer quality. Moving to the driver's seat, while the immediate visual impression is that everything appears of quality, running my hands over the materials reveals a very different impression, with harsh grain patters, hard plastics, and the general tactile feedback not meeting the expectations set by the visual inspection. Move from the front seats to the back, however, and even the visual sense of quality begins to disappear as materials noticeably cheapen and things increasingly feel like afterthoughts.

Fire up the engine and two things immediately catch my attention: 1) the noise that the engine makes upon start-up was not given much consideration because it just sounds pedestrian and 2) the gauge cluster feels cheap somehow, despite the full-color LCD in the middle of it. Get on the road and the driving impression begins to reinforce the impressions left by the rest of car - the suspension is firm and provides fantastic grip, but gets unsettled easily; the steering is responsive without being communicative. Cadillac checked every single box it needed to check to make this car competitive on paper with the 3-series, and yet, the sum of the parts feels like it is just adding up a little short.

This is my overwhelming sense when driving cars from American manufacturers these days is that, on paper, they make wonderfully competitive cars that check all of the right boxes individually, but on whole, the cars lack a cohesiveness that German and Japanese automakers have managed to engineer into their cars with an attention to detail that still eludes US automakers. Every time I drive an American car, I feel like each individual component was assigned to an engineering team to complete, but nobody thought to take a step back and look at the car as a whole to make sure every component played well with every other one.

2012 Chrysler 300 (Photo courtesy of Motortrend.com)
One possible exception to this is the recently re-engineered Chrysler 300 sedan I spent a weekend with last year. Somehow, especially when compared with the previous rendition, everything felt like it clicked. It felt like there was a grand vision for how everything should feel and that every component contributed to that vision. Things did not feel like they were individually created to a spec, but rather the whole car was designed with a singular goal in mind. It made the car feel like it was more than just a collection of parts and my experience with it was therefore immensely improved as a result.

In the end, I am pleased that US automakers are at least trending in the right direction again. Ford, GM, and Chrysler have all made tremendous strides in the right direction and are finally putting out cars that, on paper, are able to match the capabilities of their foreign competitors. The next step that will allow them to truly match their competition would be to capture that essence of cohesiveness that is still sorely lacking in so many of their efforts. To do that, perhaps they need to start re-thinking how their cars are engineered or perhaps consider a shake-up of how the product requirements are identified when they are planning their new cars.

I genuinely want to like American cars. In fact, my father would love to go back to owning a big American sedan and my father-in-law would love to make his next car entirely made and assembled in these United States. The car that is closest to meeting my criteria is unfortunately too large for my tastes and not nearly sporty enough. Nothing else I have driven to date from a US automaker offers quite the right blend of qualities to capture my interest. Maybe I am just not in their target demographic or maybe I am just being too exacting, but whatever the case, a consumer like me is one that US automakers should seriously consider when they design their next generation of cars.

Perhaps building to that next level of exacting standards is precisely what US automakers need to do to get their cars to finally add up to more than the sum of their parts.