The automotive industry benefits from being managed as a fashion and entertainment business. The focus should also recognize people's emotional needs and make sure the product echoes the life that people wish to live.
People have asked me how I felt about Korean automakers so often, I've had my answer rehearsed.
My belief is a twist of Warren Buffett's take on investment warfare. Buffett's famous words, "Be fearful when others are greedy," can be applied to cars. When everyone and their grandmothers are out to buy a particular car, it's time to start shopping elsewhere.
The Big 3 were once titanic in proportion. Toyota is currently the largest automaker on Earth. But two things happened in the past years that's never happened before. GM and Chrysler filed for bankruptcy while Toyota suffered what is perhaps the greatest, certainly the most publicized, recall fiasco in history.
Some assume that Hyundai and Kia only recently became so prominent because they took advantage of the missteps that other brands had to recover from. This may be true to an extent, but really, it's more than that.
From my observation, when an automaker gets too big and their cars get too popular, they become so self conscious about their product that they succumb to paralysis. Improvements on the 2012 Toyota Camry are only measured improvements. Its progress is meant to move incrementally and maybe even scheduled just to keep their established pool of customers satisfied. By doing so, the car loses its soul, and its existence becomes a science. Toyota proved further that as volume grows, quality suffers.
Smaller companies, on the other hand, strive for respect. They're trying to build a reputation and they want people to take notice. They are brave, have less to lose, and when given respectable capital, are willing to take chances. That attitude definitely shows from South Korea's new line-up. Practically every vehicle unveiled was radical enough to be catapulted right to the pointy tip of its class.
But then, I realized that there's always an exception to the rule. One of the cars generating the most buzz during the Frankfurt Auto Show this past week is Porsche's brand new 911. As many of us know, the latest 911 is an entirely new platform, yet only the third generation since the original 911 48 years ago. Seriously. Three redesigns in 48 years. How's that for measured, incremental improvements? Does this mean that the 911 is soulless and that its existence is comparable to that of a Camry?
What about Lexus? They're constantly pushing and "pursuing perfection," trying to prove themselves against the Bavarian staple. But for what? The average age of a Lexus owner is estimated at 56 years old and the only slight fizzing sensation they'll ever feel is Alka-Seltzer.
I was confused. I had to abandon my theory.
Thankfully, blind luck brought me to one of John McElroy's old Autoline After Hours episodes and there I found it. It was a beautiful, and magnificently simple answer.
The automotive industry benefits from being managed as a fashion and entertainment business. The focus should also recognize people's emotional needs and making sure that the product echoes the life that people wish to live. Quality, crash standards and fuel economy are important too but those parameters can be dealt with later. Those are issues that can be solved with a systematic approach, then dialed in with adequate engineering.
Ford gets it.