Thursday, January 15, 2004

What ails ya? -- So, Ford wants a national health-care policy that will help relieve it of its burden of providing medical insurance to its workers and retirees. (According to the article, only 1/3 of the cost covers current employees.)

According to Ford's vice chairman Allan Gilmour, it's a competitive problem. Ford's substantial health-care burden adds about $700 to the cost of every car it sells.

Downshift is a good liberal and recognizes that the health-care "tax" on every Ford is the positive consequence of strong unions negotiating for quality health benefits. Downshift further recognizes, like Ford, that the private sector is not capable of providing quality health care at a cost the nation can afford and that Ford (and the other automakers) compete against companies in countries where the government shoulders the healthcare load. (To the extent that the foreign automakers build cars here, much of the pre-assembly is still outside the US, the unions are not as strong in the newer American factories, and that companies like Toyota or Honda have not been building long enough in the US to have a substantial retiree population to support.) So, we're generally sympathetic.

Only generally because it strikes us as particularly hypocritical to recognize the failure of the free market with regard to health care and so vehemently resist government regulation that would improve auto and truck fuel economy and safety.

Time for a little linkage. Democrats should rush to help Ford (and other American companies) on the healthcare front, but only in exchange for higher (and better) CAFE numbers, a national gas tax, more stringent safety measures (particularly on the SUV compatibility front), or some substantial mix of the above.

Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Lutz Reads Downshift -- He must. Check out the Chevy Nomad concept, then our 8/10/03 post.

Okay, they must have had it cooking longer than four months ago, and we clearly don't recommend any retro-styling, so it's tough to take too much credit. (Though, the Nomad may be fresh enough to avoid the Downshift Retro Roadblock.)

It is a good-looking car. Who would ever imagine that the Nomad nameplate would end up as a Mini competitor?
VW Bug-gy -- When we first saw it, Downshift and some colleagues could only laugh at the audacity of the VW Concept T. Bold, muscular, modern. More pics here with superbly overheated PR prose to boot.

But, the glow hasn't even lasted a week.

After a few looks, it's not much of a stretch from its inspiration, the Bug-powered Meyer Manx. Sure, the new VW family face (from the Toureag) is neatly integrated with the nifty cut-away headlights. But, there's not much more there.

We're all for practically useless concept cars -- the Tokyo show always has a few good weirdos -- but VW needs to demonstrate a little more product focus. Especially in the US. Let's see VW's wildest ideas in categories they might actually build in. The Concept R was a good start. (Where's the new Thing?)

VW is not in a great position for growth. Universally considered a bargain brand, its cars -- though roundly lauded for build, driving character, and interior fitments -- sell at a premium in every class. It's got to be tough to sell into that disconnect.

Their answer is to go the time-honored Acura/Infiniti/Lexus route and create a line of premium cars. But, uh, they've already got a premium brand. It's called Audi. So, they're selling $96,400 Phaetons with the same hood ornament that graced millions of Bugs, Westmoreland-made Rabbits, etc.

There are no marketing whiz-kids at Downshift Central, but this brand-confusion has disaster written all over it.
Subie-do -- If there are any doubts that the regulatory landscape distorts the market for cars v. light-trucks, let Subaru's latest gambit put them to rest.

Subaru's going to jack the Outback sedan and wagon's height from 7.3" to 8.7" so that they will qualify as light trucks. As light trucks, Outback sales will not count against Subaru's obligation to have its car fleet average 27.5 mpg. Instead, Subaru's light truck fleet will have to average 21.2 mpg.

There's absolutely no market demand for a higher Outback. We're willing to bet the Downshift family hand-me-down Camry that no person in history has ever said, "You know, I'd really go for one of those Outback sedans, only its ground clearance is about an inch shy of what I find minimally acceptable."

The outcome is not so bad in this case. What it means is that Subaru will be able to put some more power across their whole, generally miserly line. This is not like DaimlerChrysler calling a PT Cruiser a truck so that it's woefully inefficient truck fleet can manage to make it's number.