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Detroit’s automakers face coastal conundrum

Image: A man talks on a cell phone as he looks at new cars through a window
A man talks on a cell phone as he looks at new cars through a window at the world's largest auto dealership, Longo Toyota in El Monte, Calif.David McNew / Getty Images file
/ Source: contributor

Danny Martin is precisely the sort of young buyer you once would have expected to fall in love with the Chevrolet Camaro.

A shaggy-haired surfer and valet at an exclusive San Diego restaurant, Martin is the owner of a “tuner car,” a modified version of a Honda Civic he drags in impromptu street races when he gets off work, late at night. But as a patron hands him the keys to a new Camaro SS, the latest incarnation of the classic Chevy muscle car, the 20-year-old is anything but excited about getting behind the wheel.

“I hear it’s pretty nice,” he said, stifling a yawn, “but I’ve got to tell you the truth: Detroit cars just don’t do anything for me.”

The young surfer is certainly not alone. Spend some time cruising the streets of California —indeed, drive just about anywhere along the West Coast — and you’ll likely notice something, or perhaps it’s the lack of something. There's a distinct shortage of cars, trucks and crossovers bearing one of the many Detroit badges.

While the Motor City’s Big Three makers still account for roughly half of all new vehicles sold in the United States, their numbers are heavily skewed to what is often called the heartland of the country, the Midwest and outlying regions. In places like California — the biggest single market in America — Oregon and Washington, and much of the East Coast, Detroit brands are in a decided minority.

Last year, only 40.9 percent of California car buyers even considered a Big Three product, according to research by CNW Marketing. And that figure includes anyone who even put a Chevy, or Jeep or Ford on their shopping list, not those who actually wound up purchasing a Detroit product, said Art Spinella, president of the Oregon-based research firm.

The figures aren’t much different along the rest of the West Coast and much of the East, say industry analysts. If anything, the consideration numbers actually declined a bit last year — from 44.9 percent in 2007 — reflecting growing public concern about the health of the domestic auto industry, especially as General Motors and Chrysler began to reach for a federal bailout.

The bad news for Detroit is that buyers in coastal states, collectively, purchase nearly half of the cars sold in the country each year.

There are a variety of reasons why imports rule along the water’s edge. The Europeans made their first forays into the American market along the Northeast, as did the Japanese some year later. The Asian makers later based their American headquarters in California and aggressively targeted the state’s buyers. But perhaps nothing worked to the advantage of brands like Toyota and Honda more than their rise in the quality charts.

“And now, people have gone through generations of super-reliable Japanese cars,” says Ed Kim of research firm AutoPacific Inc. “All that works against the domestics.”

Recent studies, such as the annual Initial Quality Survey, by the oft-quoted J.D. Power and Associates, reveal that Detroit collectively has made big gains in quality and reliability in recent years. Many domestic brands now equal or even beat the best of the Asians, notably Toyota and Honda.

“Too many Americans think General Motors still builds poor quality, enormous gas guzzlers, so if you want decent cars, you want to turn to the Germans or Japanese,” lamented Bob Lutz, the former GM vice chairman and product development chief who recently decided to delay retirement and take over the marketing efforts of the company as it emerged from a quick trip through bankruptcy court.

“It’s obvious, we haven’t gotten the message out," Lutz said in a recent interview. "The magnitude of the problem is (especially severe) on the two coasts."

The situation has been complicated by the federal bailout of GM and Chrysler, which has even kicked off boycott talk among some groups. On the other hand, it may be working to the advantage of Ford, the only one of the Big Three to reject a federal handout.

Combined with a well-publicized improvement in quality and the launch of a number of new products, Ford is regaining ground among long-jaded coastal buyers, Spinella pointed out. In California, his data showed, the second-largest domestic maker has seen its consideration factor rising from a low of just 10.6 percent in 1994 to 19.7 percent last year. Preliminary research suggests Ford is gaining even more ground this year.

But that still only puts it on a par with much smaller luxury makers like Audi and Acura. Meanwhile, the Japanese giant Toyota is considered by nearly twice as many potential customers as Ford or Chevy on the West Coast.

How to overcome the problem? “If I knew, I’d have already done something,” said Lutz.

There was a time, not that many decades back, when Detroit iron was the first choice of "surfer dudes," like Martin, the valet. But that golden era, captured in song and films like "American Graffiti," is long gone. Could it come back?

There are signs that the situation is improving for Detroit makers. But experts caution that it will take time — and additional improvements in both product design and quality — before the Big Three can make serious inroads in California and the rest of the coastal markets.