Even now, after all U.S. auto makers have been through in the past year, I do not think Detroit realizes how badly its products have been rejected in the U.S. marketplace – especially on the coasts.
I recently spent 10 days in Cape Cod on vacation and made a point of counting the foreign and Detroit nameplates in the parking lots and at the beaches and lobster shacks. Overall, the ratio was seven foreign marques for every 10 vehicles. Counting only cars and cross/utility vehicles, it was nine foreign for every one domestic brand.
The Detroit vehicles I saw usually werepickups or Jeeps. They love Jeeps on Cape Cod. I also saw a couple Fusions.
But the vast majority were nameplates such as, Subaru and Volvo. , and Mercedes also were well represented.
Most of the owners were middle-class families on vacation. Their gear was packed on the roof, with bicycles hooked on the back.
What surprised me was how many CUVs and minivans were foreign brands, even though Detroit largely invented these product categories.
When I asked the folks in Cape Cod why they drove an Asian or European brand, the most common answer was quality. They say a Detroit car or truck let them down, and their dealer made the situation worse. But the good old, , whatever, never failed them.
Despite independent research showing, and products have made huge strides, these consumers are not going to give Detroit another chance. They are happy with their current brands, and they have absolutely no reason to change.
And don’t wave the American flag at them, either. Most car buyers on the coasts just don’t care where their vehicles are manufactured, especially when many “foreign” brands are built in the U.S.
In fact, many folks I spoke with seem to have a special grudge against the United Auto Workers. They would rather not have a car built with union labor. They are upset that 5- and 6-figure buyouts and generous medical benefits – better than what they have – are being paid with taxpayer money at GM and Chrysler.
The national sales figures hide some of the foreign dominance but it’s there. At GM, July’s car sales were 16% of the total car market (excluding light trucks), but a fourth of those GM sales were from brands it is killing or selling off: Pontiac, Saturn and Saab.
Chrysler’s car-only sales were just 4.5% of the total. Ford built only 11.6% of the cars sold. That means nationally, including Michigan, two of three cars bought in July were foreign brands.
None of this is to say to Detroit, “Give up, you are licked forever.”
It’s to say, realize there is a generation of customers you are never going to win back and set your sights on a new generation of buyers who don’t have deep-seated prejudices based on bad experiences from 10, 20 or even 30 years ago.
And Detroit auto makers must realize that as proud as they are of matching the quality of top foreign brands in a growing number of surveys and studies, cars and trucks that merely match the competition won’t do.
The horse coming from behind in the race has to run faster than the others.
Jerry Flint is a columnist for, and former senior editor of, Forbes magazine.