msnbc.com
updated 12/30/2005 3:48:37 PM ET 2005-12-30T20:48:37

With news of massive layoffs at General Motors and shrinking U.S. sales plaguing the nation’s major automobile manufacturers, the American automotive industry is facing one of its most challenging periods in decades.

MSNBC.com’s readers felt compelled to weigh in on the woes now dogging Ford, GM and the Chrysler division of DaimlerChrysler, and those problems are certainly serious.

As gasoline prices have risen, consumer demand has shifted away from Detroit’s gas-guzzling SUVs and toward smaller, more fuel-efficient cars, and the Big Three have not positioned themselves well to capitalize on that demand swing. At the same time, Detroit’s big car makers are facing rising raw-material costs, massive overcapacity and crippling healthcare and pension costs. Indeed, GM recently announced plans to close nine plants and cut some 30,000 jobs to reduce production in the face of a shrinking market share.

Detroit’s losses have become foreign car makers’ gains. Companies such as Toyota, Honda and Nissan, which have been at the vanguard of new consumer demand for cars with fuel-efficient hybrid engines, have seen demand shift their away. Last month, Detroit’s share of the U.S. auto market hit a record low of about 50 percent, according to Don Butler, assistant Director of the Center for Automotive Research at Ohio State University, while Japan’s share rose to about 35 percent and the rest of Asia and Europe claimed about 15 percent, he said.

MSNBC.com readers are quite concerned about the downturn in Detroit's fortunes, a glimpse inside our mailbag shows. Many readers wrote us recently in the wake of GM's cost-cutting announcement, dismayed at the decline in U.S. manufacturing.

The market share swing is “just one example as to how U.S. manufacturing business is in decline,” wrote Samuel Watkins, of Clarksville, Tenn. “First, it was the struggling steel production industry during the late 1980s to the 1990s. Now it’s the auto industry.”

Randall Rowland, of Michigan, blamed poor service for Detroit’s woes. “Repairs always take longer than estimated, and I frequently get my car back with more defects than when I took it in for service,” he said. “My Honda breaks down much less often, is always repaired properly, and [repairs] frequently take less time than estimated. Guess why I now do not buy Big Three autos.”

Jim Curtice of Kailua, Hawaii, said the U.S. automotive industry’s woes can be attributed to worsening U.S. education standards, especially in training for skilled manufacturing jobs: “The American auto industry is dying,” he said. “We can’t compete in production cost, nor do we produce stilled craftsmen. We need more technical schools, and skills learning at a younger age.”

With GM locked in difficult negations with its unions over benefit cuts, readers like Chuck of Tulsa, Okla., said that, in order to compete more effectively, GM and other U.S. car companies should divorce themselves completely from union control.

“How can the employees and unions justify their benefits and salaries for standing in a line and installing a windshield wiper?” he wrote. “I say the motor companies should restructure and the first step is to kick the unions out of the auto industry, and they should pay the employees what their services are worth and that should be what is in line with the rest of the nation. The unions were once a necessity; now they are nothing more than a cash cow sucking the life out of business.”

Jimmie James, of Houston, Texas, echoed the union comments:

“It’s all the union’s fault; unions are for lazy people,” James said. “If the automakers would grow a spine and get rid of the unions, then they could pay an autoworker a more realistic wage — something like $10 to 12 an hour. These folks are getting $30 and more. They simply do not deserve it. In China, the same worker gets $3 an hour. The unions are killing American autos. Get rid of the unions and the problem is solved.”

Quality and reliability
G. Frazier of Sanford, N.C., said American auto workers shouldn’t be blamed for the industry’s woes. “They’re assembling top notch cars by Toyota, Honda and Nissan right here in the U.S.,” he said. “It’s the top management and middle management’s fault — they make the big bucks, and they are responsible.”

Many readers noted their preference for Japanese cars over U.S.-made vehicles, which they said are unreliable, and in some cases downright ugly. “Maybe GM should hire new design engineers -- their cars are ugly, boxy looking. They should be sleek and ergonomically designed,” said P. L. Miller of Richmond, Va.

“We have forgotten how to make quality automobiles and continue to produce lackluster, gas-guzzling cars,” noted Vince Mazzeo, of Phoenix, Ariz.

“My family once owned a 1961 Mercury with the worst quality control you could ever imagine. I now own a 2005 Nissan Sentra with a high-quality build and exceptional performance. My guess is that East Asia will ultimately dominate the automobile market in the years to come and purchase the assets of Ford and GM to establish a permanent U.S. presence.”

Lori Warden of Santa Ana, Calif., who works in the auto industry, said she thinks American made cars are inferior to ones made by Japanese manufacturers like Honda and Toyota. “They become rattle boxes after just a few years owning them,” Warden said. “They need to take a hard look not at their production, but the quality of their production.”

Similarly, J. R.H. of Lansing, Mich., observed that “GM vehicles are costly, poorly constructed [and] don’t last. Mechanically, they’re poor and they can’t hold a candle to Toyota or Honda. A GM car that makes 100,000 miles is celebrated; a Honda or Toyota at 100,000 miles is just breaking in.”

Brad Bridge of San Diego, Calif., notes that he recently bought a Toyota: “But it gives me no joy, since I would have preferred to by American, but American automobiles are junk. With 20 years to catch up on quality, Detroit has barely closed the quality gap by half.”

Geraldine L’Hommedieu, of Christiana, Tenn., echoed Bridge’s sentiments:

“I’ve driven several American engineered cars when I have rented cars on vacation, and I have yet to drive one that comes close to the engineering in a Japanese car,” L’Hommedieu said. “GM has only its supreme ego and management incompetence to blame for its situation, refusing to see what the Japanese did when it comes to designing and engineering cars.”

But Dave Hagberry noted that some observers are too quick to take the view that “all the American cars are junk and all the Japanese cars are the best.” He adds that Japanese-made cars did not arrive on the U.S. market in big numbers until the 1980s, and back then their models, especially the economy models, were not especially well-made.

“For example, the Hondas of the era had little or no corrosion protection, even though it was well known by then that it was necessary in most of the U.S. — that is why very few survive,” he said. “And based on their design, none are thought of as classic.”

Note: Some reader comments edited for length and clarity.

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