An amazing number and variety of new models are coming on the market. The Mini, the Maybach, the Aviator, the G35 and M45, the Ion and the Five Hundred, the Murano and the Beetle Convertible, the Cayenne and the GTO, the CrossTrainer and the Pacifica, the Pilot and H2, the Ascender, the GT40, the RX-8, the Z and the XLR. I could go on for another paragraph, but you get the idea. The new stuff, announced or beginning to roll down the line, staggers the imagination.
But the most interesting, or maybe the dumbest, or maybe the ugliest, or maybe the most important are theElement and the bbX.
These two vehicles are designed to attract the young. Now that is nothing new. Everyone wants to attract the young. Pontiac may yet get that lovely Solstice roadster to attract the young. The Aztek — you remember the Aztek — was designed to attract the young. Just about every vehicle is designed to attract younger buyers. Ever hear any auto maker say the new model is designed for the Celebrex crowd with Medicare cards who make the shuffleboard run down I-75 to Florida every winter? The old folks have money and paid-off houses, sure, but nobody admits to wanting them (us) for customers.
No, the cars today are always designed for the “actives,” the tight abs crowd that rides snowboards.
But here's the thing. Most car makers want their cars for the young to at least be attractive, maybe cute, maybe even graceful. Butand are saying something else.
The Honda Element is coming out by year-end, high and square and I say ugly. It will be built in Ohio and the target is 50,000 units, $16,000 to $21,000, and you can wash the insides with a garden hose.
A few things: First, that's a relatively low-volume target, 50,000, for a low-priced new vehicle even if it uses parts from other Hondas. Does Honda knows something about low-volume production that Detroit doesn't know? Second, how many people really want to hose down the inside of his or her car?
The Toyota bbX is about a year away, even uglier, and the first car in a new line or division with the name Scion (rhymes with Zion).
Point Three: What makes the Japanese think young people, figure 20 to 35, want ugly boxes like the Element and bbX?
The thinking must go like this:
Children revolt against the style of their parents. After World War II everyone had a station wagon and the kids rode in back. The kids grew up and rejected the station wagon. They bought minivans. But the next generation may reject minivans for something else. Another example: The rich of yesterday's Hollywood drove Cadillacs. Their children revolted and they all drive iron offered by Mercedes, Lexus and. But their children may reject those makes for something else. So the children who grew up riding in the rear seats of those graceful Honda Accords and Toyota Camrys will revolt — so let's give them something completely different like the Honda Element and the Toyota bbX.
Of course, these should flop. But what if they don't? Just what if the Japanese are right?
Where is Detroit? Why aren't, and testing some CUBs (cheap ugly boxes)? True, the Aztek was ugly but it wasn't cheap, and the new Saturn Vue doesn't seem that ugly. The Japanese beat Detroit to the crossovers, car-based SUVs such as the small Honda CR-V/Toyota RAV-4 and the larger Lexus RX 300. If Honda and Toyota are right again, it will mean more catch-up. Is there any CUB Design Studio, any focus groups going?
What about that low-volume niche production? Detroit does it for higher-priced cars like the Cadillac CTS or the Corvette. But what about spin-offs of low-priced vehicles? My guess is that spin-offs will proliferate, and Detroit had better learn how to do low-end (low-priced) spin-offs to stay in the game.
All of this variety may be why we are selling all these cars and trucks, so it's not likely to stop.
Now to something completely different. The new Saturn Ion seems to be a lovely car, but who decided that a 137-hp engine would excite the customers? With 160 horses this car might be hot. Saturn: Bore it out or get a turbo. Do something, but give the Ion more punch fast.
In fact, fit in a six, add a station wagon to the Ion line and you can kill that disaster, the Saturn L, which is losing a fortune. You don't want to shut a plant? Sorry, but it's dumb to build cars people don't want just to avoid more drag on the pension fund. That's not the way to run a car business.
Jerry Flint is a columnist for and former senior editor of Forbes magazine.