Ford And GM Cut Production In Response To Slow Sales
Scott Olson  /  Getty Images file
Chevrolet cars sit on a dealership lot, but many Americans are buying Japanese or European cars these days.
By Roland Jones Business news editor
msnbc.com
updated 2/13/2006 11:42:56 AM ET 2006-02-13T16:42:56

Once upon a time, American-made cars embodied a vigorous national confidence. They were enormous chunks of muscular metal and chrome with jukebox-like dashboards and dangerously-sharp tailfins. Bold and flashy, they commanded respect on the highway.

These days, forget about respect. American cars are singled out for their lack of exciting designs, poor quality and meager fuel efficiency. Many American consumers began to choose Toyotas over Chryslers years ago.

And so with the American automotive industry facing one of its most challenging periods in decades, its supremacy under threat from a handful of Asian manufacturers and its biggest players — General Motors and Ford — bleeding cash and in the midst of massive and agonizing reorganizations, we asked MSNBC.com readers for their thoughts on how the nation’s big automobile makers can fix their problems. They certainly had their views.

The reader comments focused on the poor design and quality many see in modern American-made cars. There was also bitter disillusionment with the American automotive industry, one of the nation’s largest, its management structure and out-of-date union deals. And many readers also spoke of their newfound preference for Asian-made cars.

Paul of Hattiesburg, Miss., spoke for many when he asked, “Why can’t America build a car of equal quality to Honda or Toyota?” Like many others who wrote to MSNBC.com, Paul said he’d happily buy an American-made automobile if he could get the same quality and reliability that he finds in an automobile from Honda or Toyota.

“As much as I would prefer to ‘buy American,’ I am not going to subsidize the huge pensions and inflated salaries that the United Auto Workers union (UAW) has extorted from Detroit by buying a sub-standard automobile,” Paul said. “The UAW and their kind are going to be the undoing of the American car manufacturing industry as we currently know it. What rises from the ashes may be an automobile manufacturer that will stand up to the UAW and build cars that actually give people their money’s worth.”

The American automotive industry needs an “extreme makeover,” according to Lew Hages of Rockville, Md. “Its brands, names and images are old-fashioned, weighed down by perceptions of poor quality and styling that is second-rate at best,” he says. “I don’t know why GM and Ford can’t simply copy the designs of companies like Toyota, Nissan, Lexus and even Audi. Isn’t that how the Japanese car companies began their huge battle on the formerly golden Big Three?”

A reluctance to change with the times has put the American automotive industry in the position it is in today, according to Robert Adams of Meridian, Idaho.

“They refused to accept change,” said Adams. “While automotive industries in other countries were building smaller, safer, more fuel-efficient and reliable vehicles, the American automotive industry looked the other way and continued to shove oversized, gas-guzzling vehicles down the throats of consumers.”

“I always used to buy American until 1995 — that’s when I purchased a Nissan, and I am still driving it over 200,000 miles later. I’m very satisfied with its performance, and I have since purchased another Nissan and have convinced my sons to purchase Toyotas, Mazdas and Nissans. All the American-made automobiles I have ever purchased — from Chevrolet, Ford and Dodge — all seemed to start falling apart at about 60,000 miles,” he said.

Indeed, the thought of buying a vehicle from General Motors, Chrysler or Ford went out with Betamax VCRs, quipped Gus Stefanow of Enon, Ohio. “So many have had nightmares with poor quality, or bad dealer experiences … they will never go back,” he said, adding that “many people I know have come to trust Honda, Toyota and Nissan.”

“Reliability, safety and attractiveness” was a common cry to arms from many readers.

“Detroit’s ‘Big Three’ could fix most, if not all, of their problems simply by building better vehicles,” said Joseph Ricca of Clifton Park, N.Y.

“GM continues to build extremely reliable power trains, but their overall build quality is still lacking on all but their most expensive models, and for every attractive vehicle they build (the Impala and Corvette) they churn out three ugly vehicles (the Hummer, Aztek and the HHR),” he added. “Meanwhile, Chrysler has improved the looks of their vehicles substantially, but they can’t build a reliable power train to save their lives. And Ford hasn’t built a decent car in over 10 years. Detroit needs to get its collective head out of its oversized SUVs and take some notes from the Japanese and German brands. Maybe then they’ll figure out how to build vehicles that are reliable, safe, and attractive.”

Frank White of Brighton, Colo., a retail automobile salesman for 20 years, is convinced that “it is product and quality that is killing U.S. brands, especially GM. The engineers and designers do a good job. The bean counters then see how cheap they can make a car.”

New vehicles “shouldn’t have seat belts that don’t retract, noisy heater fans, rattling ash trays and cup holders, road noise from the trunk, thin paint spots and poorly-fitting panels,” said White. “Have the guts to build a great product — by the standards of the customer, and not the automobile management — and the North American consumer will buy domestic cars again.”

Many readers, like Frank Rey from Lockport, N.Y., wrote to express their frustration with the management of American companies in the automotive business.

“I’m a retired auto worker from a Delphi plant,” he said, referring to GM’s former parts unit Delphi, which declared bankruptcy last October. “I’ve seen first-hand the ineptitude and mismanagement at just one plant, and I must assume that what I’ve seen locally is pervasive throughout Delphi, and also at GM.”

“I know that Delphi — and GM — have no loyalty to their workers or their customers as they continue to search for the cheapest labor and continue to cheapen their automobiles,” Rey said. “By contrast, the Japanese do value their employees, and they do build quality into their vehicles. This translates into the continued demise of what has been called the American auto industry, and rightfully so. The arrogance of the American auto industry’s top executives excludes them from acknowledging any accountability. Customers understand this and they will increasingly go elsewhere with their business.”

One of the critical problems facing the management at American automotive companies is the cost of paying for pensions for current and former workers, and also for healthcare coverage. To put the costs into perspective, when a new car hits the market it costs a car company on average about $1,000 to provide healthcare for the employees who made it, according to data from accounting firm Ernst & Young.

Aaron Blankenship of Durham, N.C., thinks that, for the American automotive industry to remain competitive, the United States must consider nationalizing healthcare. “We simply cannot compete with the outside world by paying these spiraling costs; it’s crippling us as a nation,” he said. The greed of insurance companies needs to be reduced, he added.

“When my family of three costs me and my employer $900 a month for a low plan of coverage, it’s easy to see why we cannot stay competitive with other nations,” he said.

Readers also took aim at the automotive unions, asking why car companies must continue to pay workers large salaries for screwing on lug nuts, plus pensions and medical benefits.

“I grew up in a union family and believe that unions have their place, but I also believe unions are killing GM and Ford and have already killed Chrysler,” said Carl Cucuzza of Dacula, Ga. “Asian and European companies are profitably building cars in the United States, but they are doing it in non-union, highly automated, top quality plants. Until the unions realize this and make significant and lasting concessions, GM and Ford are doomed to operating at a cost disadvantage, reducing both profitability and the opportunity to pour more funds into development of the next generation of vehicles and manufacturing processes.”

Some, like Charles Adams of Vienna, Va., said they still think American automobile manufactures are in a position to create the future of the automobile industry.

“They should be on the forefront of such innovations as alternative fuel vehicles, such as hydrogen fuel cells, by creating a cooperative effort with the oil companies to transform the infrastructure of the country’s roadways to support fuel cell refilling stations at gas stations,” he said. “In other words, take the initiative to implement technologies we know we need before we loose the edge to the Toyotas of the world. Prove to the world ‘made in America’ still means the best you can get and not compromised for the bottom line.”

But the final word goes to George Martin, of Columbia, S.C., who offers some sage advice to executives at Ford and GM: “Looks to me like they should send somebody out to the Detroit Toyota dealership, buy a car and bring it back to the office. Both companies should take the car apart, study it carefully and endeavor to build a Ford or GM car that is somewhere near as reliable, dependable and reflects the car’s quality and craftsmanship. If they’d do that, I’d trade my new Camry in the next day,” he said.

Note: Some reader comments edited for length and clarity.

Video: Catching Toyota

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