Musings on the US automotive landscape.
I am writing this on our flight home from Chicago after spending ten most enjoyable days exploring the city and surrounding areas. Chicago is one of the great American cities and, with so much to see and experience, it is well worth a visit. Over the past thirty-something years, I have had the opportunity to travel to the US many times for both business and pleasure. One of my abiding fascinations is the country’s automotive landscape and how it has evolved over these decades.
When I first arrived on those shores in the late 1980s, the US car market was still dramatically different to its European equivalent, thrillingly so for a car-obsessive like me. Despite the downsizing precipitated by the 1973 fuel crisis, there were still plenty of US-manufactured ‘land yachts’ traversing the streets of the big cities and the country’s broad highways. American cars retained their highly distinctive style amongst a plethora of different marques, each with its own signature design features.
European prestige cars were valued by US buyers for the perceived quality of their engineering and sophisticated style. However, apart from Volkswagen, the mainstream manufacturers’ presence was tenuous and faltering, mainly because the cars were often too fragile for the extremes of the American climate. Japanese cars were already making a significant impact, but they tended to be most common at the smaller ‘sub-compact’ end of the market.
Gradually, the Japanese advance made ever deeper inroads into the US market, helped by the step-change in quality, reliability and levels of customer service brought to the automotive business by Lexus, Acura and Infiniti, which then trickled down to the Japanese trio’s mainstream brands.
The ‘Big Three’ US automakers were slow to recognise and react to this paradigm shift. They seemed to lack any coherent response when the Honda Accord displaced the Ford Escort in 1989 to become the best-selling car in the US, something that would have seemed inconceivable at the start of that decade, when the Oldsmobile Cutlass was the biggest seller for four consecutive years. Ford briefly reasserted itself with the Taurus from 1992 to 1996, but Toyota seized the crown in 1997 with the Camry and has held that position for almost(1) every year since(2).
The US domestic automakers’ ultimate response has been a wholesale capitulation, switching their focus instead to pick-ups, SUVs and crossovers. Today, Chevrolet offers only one sedan, the Malibu, a somewhat anonymous looking car that, with different badges, could easily pass as a Camry. US sales of the Malibu were just 39,376(3) in 2021. Chrysler persists with the 300, which is over a decade old in its current iteration, itself a heavy facelift of the 2005 original. US sales of the 300 were just 16,662 in 2021. Ford gave up entirely on sedans when it terminated production of the Fusion(4) in 2020.
The retreat has been rationalised by claiming that there’s almost no market for traditional sedans in the US anymore. Tell that to Toyota and Honda, who found buyers for 313,795 Camrys and 202,676 Accords respectively in 2021. Given that the largest number of Camrys ever sold in the US in a single year was 473,108 in 2007, achieving two-thirds of that high-water mark in 2021 seems pretty impressive in a supposedly dying market. In any event, reports of the imminent demise of the sedan appear to be somewhat premature, judging from the numbers of Japanese (and Korean) models that seemed to be everywhere I looked.
Our visit to the Robie House in suburban south Chicago, one of acclaimed architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s early ‘Prairie-style’ domestic dwellings, provided me with the opportunity to peruse two of Chrysler’s FCA-era products that were parked in the street outside while we were awaiting the start of our guided tour of the house. For me, they represent polar opposites on a scale of authenticity. To say that Chrysler suffered decades of uncertainty and turmoil, both as an independent company and under less than inspired foreign ownership, is hardly overstating the case and its product range suffered accordingly.
The first of this duo was a Dodge Charger sedan, resplendent in its flame-red paintwork but, judging by the modest alloy wheel size and deep tyre walls, it was a relatively low-specification example. I was really rather taken with it. The Charger looks properly ‘American’ with its deep flanks, broad flat bonnet and shallow DLO. It is easy to trace a visual lineage back to the 1969 model driven by Bo and Luke Duke in the 1970s US comedy series, ‘The Dukes of Hazzard’. I have no idea whether the Charger is any good or not, but I’m sure it would be an amiable companion on a US road trip. I would happily hire one (or its Challenger coupé equivalent) on the basis of its looks alone.
The second car in my sights was a Jeep Renegade, no less striking in its lime-green paintwork. The Renegade has never appealed to me, however. It is too small to be a ‘proper’ Jeep and it is overloaded with Jeep styling cues. The seven-slot grille is fine, but the squared-off wheel arches, awkwardly pinched centre section and ‘jerry-can’ tail light motif are just trying too hard. Still, what do I know? Renegades were everywhere I looked in Chicago, while the Charger was a rare sighting. That said, US sales in 2021 tell a different story: 47,137 Renegades found buyers vs 78,389 Chargers. The latter is double the number of insipid Camry-clone Chevrolet Malibus sold in the same year, so it appears that I’m not the only one to appreciate the Charger’s authentic all-American style.
If you are a foreign automaker trying to build cars to suit American tastes, this can prove to be less straightforward than it might seem at first glance. DTW has previously written about the 2011 Volkswagen NMS (New Midsize Sedan), a larger but subtly de-contented US (and Chinese) market Passat designed to compete with both American domestic and Japanese offerings. The NMS never met the ambitious US sales targets set for it and withered away, with just 24,396 finding buyers in 2021 before it was discontinued.
Undeterred, Volkswagen tried again with the 2017 Atlas, a larger but rather less sophisticated take on the European-market Touareg. The Atlas, a mid-sized (by US standards) SUV, is big, brash and butch looking with its heavily chromed front grille, squared-off wheel arches and deep swage line along the flanks, but it smacks of inauthenticity, given Volkswagen’s lack of heritage in this type of vehicle.
Since 2020, there has also been a ‘Cross Sport’ variant of the Atlas, with a marginally lower roof-line and faster rake to the tail. It is also 70mm shorter and loses the standard Atlas’s third row of seats. It really is the proverbial elephant in a tutu: whatever sense the Atlas might make in standard form is negated by attempting to make it ‘sporty’. At least Volkswagen doesn’t insult potential buyers’ intelligence by trying to charge more for less: the entry price of the standard Atlas is a few hundred dollars over US $34k, while the Cross Sport a similar amount under. US Atlas sales in 2021 were 72,384 units for the regular model and 44,304 units for the Cross Sport; respectable, but hardly game-changing numbers for Volkswagen.
And so to the most unlikely highlight of my recent US automotive sightings, the Kia Telluride. For roughly the same US $34k entry price as the Atlas, Kia will sell you a similarly sized (80mm shorter in wheelbase, but just 40mm shorter overall) SUV that doesn’t try to pretend to be anything it’s not, and is very much the better for it. The Telluride(5), styled by Park Byung-Kyu under former Audi design head Peter Schreyer, is a coolly handsome and assured design with more than a hint of the Volvo XC90 about it. I saw quite a number of them in a variety of colours on the streets of Chicago and was enamoured, both by the styling and what appeared to be impeccable build quality. US sales of the Telluride in 2021 were 93,705 units, a hugely impressive result after a standing start in 2019(6). Volkswagen can keep its faux-Americana: my money would go on the fine Kia.
Finally, two vehicles ostensibly similar in purpose but radically different in conception and execution. The first was a RAM 3500 Heavy Duty pick-up, a full-fat version with twin rear wheels under bulging wheel arches, resplendent in fire-engine red with acres of chrome ladled on the front end. The RAM was parked on the side of a street in downtown Chicago. It was by no means new but was pristine with an unmarked load-bay liner, suggesting that it had never seen serious use for its ostensible purpose. It was at the same time ridiculous and hugely appealing to the small child in me.
The counterpoint to the RAM was a fleeting glance of an unfamiliar shape in a moody non-metallic grey-green colour with a distinctive front light signature, spotted as we travelled out to the airport this afternoon. It was a Rivian R1T, an EV pick-up, and supposedly the future template for all commercial vehicles. Time will tell.
(1) The Camry ceded the top spot to the Honda Accord in 2001, a model changeover year for the Toyota which interrupted sales.
(2) While the Camry was the best selling sedan in 2021, it was only sixth in overall sales. The top three were pick-up trucks from Ford, RAM, and Chevrolet, followed by the Toyota Rav-4 and Honda CR-V crossovers.
(3) All sales data from www.carsalesbase.com.
(4) Sold in Europe as the Mondeo until April 2022.
(5) Telluride is a former silver mining town in the state of Colorado which received unwanted notoriety in 1889 when Robert LeRoy Parker, better known as Butch Cassidy, robbed the town’s San Miguel Valley Bank of almost US $25k. This was the start of a highly successful criminal career, albeit one foreshortened by Cassidy’s apparent suicide alongside his partner in crime, Harry Alonzo Longabaugh, better known as The Sundance Kid, to escape capture in November 1908.
(6) The Telluride’s predecessor, the Borrego / Mohave, was launched in the US in 2009, but discontinued after a year because of weak sales.
55 thoughts on “Keeping it Real”
The Rivian is notable in that it employs four motors, one per wheel, so it is capable of true torque vectoring (not an ABS induced method), which combined with it’s lack of low hanging mechanical bits gives it an unparalleled technical advantage over other off-road vehicles, and for that matter at least for the moment: with the exception of Rimac, all vehicles.
There are plenty of ICE powered vehicles which feature a “lack of low hanging bits”. Suggest you attend the next Baja and see for yourself. Sure, many of the competitors are wildly modified and many are built from the ground up as racers. There are also classes which are restrictive- required to be very close to stock. The EV does not offer an unparalleled technical advantage over any of these vehicles.
It’ll be interesting to see some EVs turn up (and it is likely they eventually will). How well will they do? Can they find an advantage?
JT, on a related note, I was saddened to learn that Local Motors is defunct. Their Rally Fighter was the only street legal purpose built Baja racer that I know of*, it went out of production in 2016, I have never seen one in person.
*I do admire the Ford Raptor, but it’s an extravagant and hardly frugal choice for personal transportation, whereas a used Rally Fighter (cheaper at the moment than a new SVT Raptor) seems more like an investment that will likely appreciate, on the order of fine art.
The Glickenhaus Boot is another Baja racer for the road. The name is a callback to the iconic Steve Mcqueen 1968 Boot Baja race car.
Lovely automotive snapshot of your holiday, Daniel, thank you for sharing the pictures and your opinions.
From the facts and figures you provide, it’s almost like Ford, GM et al have completely forgotten how to build a saloon/sedan as the Japanese and Korean versions March onwards without resistance. The Camry hardly shouts sporting prowess nor festooned with outrageous strakes but it certainly appears many an American buyer (lease-r) want such conservatism in sedan form. I prefer the Camry over the odd looking Rivian but our American friends have taken the pick up to heart so this may rival Camry and the Korean wares.
Then again, the Telluride does contain an appealing gesture. And interesting to see in the footnote how Kia required a second bite on the cherry . Perhaps the name Borrego/ Mohave had something to do with it?
Hi Andrew. I believe it was sold as Mojave in the US, which should have been fine, but it dated from time when Kia’s reputation was nothing as strong as it is now, hence its poor sales in that class. The Telluride really looks great in the metal and is so much more classy and better looking than its (more expensive) competitors from the German premium trio.
Borrego was the nameplate in the US. As Daniel writes, it entered the market at a time when Americans, or anyone else for that matter, weren’t willing to part with that much dosh for an SUV from the makers of the dire Sephia. It didn’t help that the Kia hadn’t yet mastered styling for an international audience. The Borrego looked quite unfortunate, especially relative to assured Telluride.
Actually it was sold as the Borrego in North America. While it was discontinued in the US after a single model year, it (somewhat curiously) continued to be offered in Canada through 2011.
The Borrego was simply the result of right car, wrong time. It was a big, BOF V8 SUV such as the likes of the 3rd-4th gen Ford Explorers or Toyota 4Runner and would have probably seen decent success as an off-roader or tow vehicle had it not been released quite literally as the 2008 Recession hit. I am very curious as to why they don’t bring it back to the U.S. given that the ‘overlanding’ scene is now a huge craze and 4Runners sell like crazy despite being an ancient design. It still sells in South Korea as their flagship Kia SUV because the Telluride is only made in Georgia and H/K’s labor agreement in South Korea prohibits their import of non-domestically assembled cars.
I always preceived the Renegade as a family MPV with the Jeep design elements only to cheer up the children and to convince the head of the family about the purchase. So to say it’s the Thomas the Tank Engine of the automotive landscape.
.”..it’s the Thomas the Tank Engine of the automotive landscape.”
Brilliant! Why didn’t I think of that?
Your description of the US car industry sounds pretty much like the British motorcycle industry of the Sixties.
They left market segment after market segment to the Japanese manufacturers and when those attacked their last bastion the British industry simply collapsed.
The Japanese managed this simply by making better products – more modern, better built, more reliable and nobody cared that the bikes were bland and soulless.
Last month in Portugal I rented a car, and they gave me the choice between a Megane and a Renegade. I wanted the Renault, but my wife opted for the Renegade because it was a Jeep! Well, you know the outcome already. When I saw the car standing on the parking lot, my first thought was: Oh my God, am I supposed to drive this thing? I always considered the Renegade as a fake car, but after a few hours driving I actually liked it. OK, the design is funny and it is not a real Jeep (many parts shared with the Fiat 500 SUV if I am informed right), but is’t really fun to drive. It looks much bigger as it is though, so on many occasions I drove much too carefully along the narrow mountain roads. What surprises me is that even in the US the car comes with a 1.3 liter engine, and Americans apparently buy this.
I well remember the Japanese bikes turning up. They were not bland and soulless. How could any of the Kawasaki H-1 & H-2 triples (a.k.a. “widow-maker”) or the KZ1300 ever be considered bland or soulless? What about the Honda CB750, the CBX or even the CX and its variants? What about Suzuki’s awesome RG500 Gamma*? No. Certainly not soulless. Certainly not bland. Not that at all. Start with “exciting” and proceed from there.
*that one was and remains a favourite. Gammas go even better with a Yoshimura 680 kit. I learned a lot about chassis set-up and tyre selection from the Gamma.
Before my time, but wasn’t there a term “UJM”? Aka universal Japanese motorcycle?
Interesting observations. Sounds like you had an enjoyable visit.
The Charger and the Challenger are good to drive. Careful selection of the correct model and best options is key. You do get a lot for your money. I don’t see what the problem is with the platform and styling dating back a ways. So what? If they work well, have the performance and are nice to drive, that’ll do it. If they are easy to work on*, that’s a major bonus. Get one while you can**.
**hemi is the great engine (more enjoyable and characterful than the V-6); any of the supercharged versions are well worth the effort to track down- score one of those and you’ll not be unhappy!
Hi J.T. Shame I’m on the wrong side of the Atlantic to make one a practical(ish) proposition, otherwise I’d probably go for a Challenger as a left-field choice compared to the Camaro or Mustang:
Great piece, Daniel! I loved Chicago when I spent a week there a couple of years ago. A friend and I rented some pushbikes and spent a wonderful day exploring that fascinating city to the full (well, until my left knee decided to start playing silly b*ggers).
Your observations on the US automotive landscape are very interesting, and evoke some memories. What strikes me about it based on my experience, is how regionally varied it is. Some years ago we did a family road trip across the USA over 3 weeks, from Miami to LA, via the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley and Death Valley. It was fascinating to observe the automotive fauna change as we crossed the continent.
Miami was full of German metal. High-end BMWs, Mercedes and Porsches everywhere, many of them “tuned”. Lowered, with ugly chromed alloys and garish paintwork. They lived alongside the omnipresent Camrys and Preludes you mentioned. As we travelled further inland towards Colorado and Utah, the saloon cars all but disappeared. We were entering… Truck Country, For Real Men Who Aren’t Compensating At All. Huge, monstrous, absurd vehicles, most of whom were sparkling clean and blindingly over-chromed. (What is it with Americans and chrome, by the way?) Clearly these utility vehicles did little serious work. The trucks and fullsize Obama-spec black monster SUVs persisted all the way across the centre of the continent – apart from Vegas, where weirdly we saw a surprising amount of old-school American barges, Lincolns and Caddys – until we arrived in LA, where the smaller high-end saloon cars reappeared. Many, many, many Teslas, as well as the same kinds of German metal we’d seen in Miami. And again the omnipresent Camry/Prelude wallpaper.
One conclusion that was easy to draw was that the serious money in the US lives on the coasts. The expensive cars in Miami and LA disappeared completely in favour of much cheaper US trucks and SUVs once we were far enough inland.
The US is a divided country in so many ways, and their choice of vehicles seems to highlight it.
Hi Ric. Having covered much of the same ground, your acute observations are very similar to my own, although our explorations have largely been confined to the Atlantic and Pacific coastal states. Chicago is as far inland as we have ventured to date.
Daniel, I returned from Chicago yesterday and, not being a DTW exec, came economy – ie. change planes in Iceland ! Saves a huge pile of money, but Reykjavik Airport is a hoot !
After an absence of 5+ years I too was struck by how few big vehicles are left, and how familiar most of the SUVs are.
The only Rivian I saw was on the highway back to O’Hare, and I only saw it because it was pointed-out to me as something new and electric.
Sitting in my daughters’ back garden looking at the long slender overhead cable that brings electricity into the house ( normal in Chicago ) I wondered how they will get by when her husband gets a Tesla. I hears stories of apartment buildings where it was suggested that there should be a charging point for each unit – and the electrical contractor pointed out that the supply to the building would only support one or two….
Hi Mervyn. What a coincidence: we both spotted a Rivian on the same highway! Perhaps it was the same one, given that they cannot be that plentiful yet?
By the way, thanks for reminding me to put in my T&E expenses claim for our esteemed editor to sign…😁
A thicker copper wire is so easy. Granted, the underlying problems are much deeper and more complex, but we should not underestimate the urgency with which we need to move forward.
A charging point doesn’t require any more power than an air conditioner, water heater, clothes drier, or stove, any and all of which are ubiquitous in the US.
Good morning, Daniel. I haven’t been in the States since 2019, so good to have an update on the automotive landscape. Not much has changed in those couple of years. I have a huge soft spot for the traditional body on frame American saloon. They’re all gone now. Pickup trucks are still everywhere.
Good morning Freerk. Agreed about body-on-frame sedans. I’ll have a 2004 Mercury Marauder please!
I’ve visited the US of A in the Eighties and Nineties but only for business and never for leisure. I did a couple of dozen trips but none after 9/11 and I have no intention to do another one as I actually never enjoyed being there.
As far as I remember San Francisco and Bay area then were the regions with car populations most similar to what we knew from home with the odd RAM or stretch limo thrown in. I remember a veterans’ convention held in the hotel I was staying in at Lake Merritt (Oakland, CA) where the longest stretched Lincoln Town Car I’ve ever seen parked in front of the hotel. I forgot how many additional segments the car had but it was so absurdly long that it couldn’t do a U-turn in front of the hotel and had to use the next street crossing for this.
Once we got a Lincoln for the drive from SFO airport to Alameda when the driver made me look for helicops through the sunroof while he gave the car some stick. The engine expired in a cloud of steam and the breakdown truck driver asked us ‘your’re from Germany, aren’t you?’ when he handed us the keys to the Toyota Tercel that replaced the Lincoln.
One of the most scary drives of my life was in a Chevrolet Caprice following the Apache Trail past Tortilla Flats (near Phoenix AZ). On that dusty road the car was swaying terribly and the dim sealed beam lights didn’t show too much of the road in front in really dark night.
Hi Dave. Your recollection reminds me of our first US West Coast road trip in 1990. We had rented a smallish Buick sedan of some sort and I was driving down a dead-stright road in the centre of Death Valley at around 65mph, 10mph over the speed limit. A cop pulled me over and gave me a polite ticking off but, happily, no ticket.
He warned me that American cars don’t handle the way European ones do and told me that single-car accidents in rental cars were quite common, where drivers from abroad come to a bend at too high a speed and simply drive straight into the ditch! I happily accepted his warning and we parted on good terms.
And this is the Buick we had rented, a Skylark:
The interior was extraordinary: raspberry-coloured velour upholstery everywhere, even the headlining, fake wood veneer, a strip-speedometer, column auto shifter, and the softest suspension ever. My friendly cop was right: it really didn’t like going round corners!
Imagine going there with such a barge
via this road
Thank you Daniel for this wonderful article.
I feel very at home with the authors of DTW, and also with the commentators.
Who, please, goes to a foreign/other country and brings home the local vehicle population as a travel souvenir? Well us, here in our cosy car corner of course!
(This reminds me of a scene, we were still living in Munich, met a friend of my wife in the street, small talk, blah blah blah, during which a convertible – interesting to me – drove by and I looked at it. When my wife’s friend said “Wow, is Fred looking at other women?”, my wife said “He was looking at the car, he couldn’t even tell if it was a woman or a man behind the wheel. BTW, the woman was wearing an impossible shirt”.)
My last car experiences in the US and A are from the late 80s / early 90s, so it feels like about 300 years ago.
In LA at that time, National Car Rental offered the possibility to rent convertibles from the 50s: 57 Ford Fairlaine, 56 Chevrolet Bell Air, 51 Pontiac and others. For a nerd like me, it was practically paradise on earth/road. (It wasn’t cheap, but I’ll take the “Chandler Tour” with a 51 Pontiac to my grave, priceless).
One evening we were coming out of Universal City from the movies. I had “of course” taken the wrong exit. We came to a big intersection, I still said “we have to turn left there”, which you weren’t allowed to do at that intersection. I “of course” turned left anyway. 1.5 seconds later a cop came up behind us and asked us to stop. The usual procedure (as you know it from films), “vehicle documents, driving licence”. He looked at my (German) driving licence, explained to me that I had made a prohibited left turn, gave me back the papers with the words “Sir, we don’t do that here.” and said goodbye to us without a warning fine.
Back then, about 300 years ago, the Chrysler mini-van and Jeep Cherokee were just taking off. Our boss bought an XJ with those “Limited” gold stripes stuck on it and asked me, “can you get those off?” so I stood on Sunset Blvd in front of the Chateau with a hair dryer in my hand and removed all the “Limited” from that vehicle.
Others would have gone to one of the museums during that time. Or would have been looking at other historical things. Once an automotive idiot, always an automotive idiot. Well, you have to prioritise….
Dave, we used to travel on roads like that in the (rentable) RVs that were common at the time. I still associate these kind of roads with the statement of one of my co-pilots “look, there’s a wheel overtaking us”. It was the rear wheel of our RV motorhome…
That particular Caprice was somewhat interesting. At up to 55 mph it was silent, a bit spongy but unobtrusive. All of a sudden above 70 mph the engine ran extremely rough and the car gave the impression that it would disintegrate at any moment. In particular there was an amount of wind noise I would not have thought was possible in a modern saloon at that speed.
Single car accidents of the most absurd types on wide and perfectly straight roads were a lasting memory of driving on US highways.
Walking about 500 metres from hotel in Phoenix AZ to the nearest Sears shop because an accompanying Frenchman wanted to buy a Palm handheld there. Police car stops next to us. “From which planet are you?””The same as you, officer””No””Why not?””You’re walking!”
Hi Fred and Dave. Thanks for sharing your U.S. reminiscences. On the subject of cities where nobody walks, Los Angeles is exactly like that. In the smarter areas, there are endless sidewalks that are never troubled by a footstep. In fact, if you do go for a walk, as we did occasionally, you’re regarded with some suspicion by residents and passing patrol cars.
In similar vein, Barack Obama’s home in Chicago is not far from the Frank Lloyd-Wright’s Robie House, so we thought we would walk by it. We paused to take some photos and, while we did so, a black Chevy Suburban SUV with very dark tinted windows emerged from behind the house and sat on the drive, presumably CIA agents watching what we were up to. Being a bit mischievous, we sat on the wall is the Synagogue opposite, waiting to see what might happen. The CIA guys eventually got bored and drove off!
You’re right, Dave. My dad and one of his friends were stopped by the police one time for suspicious behavior. It was in LA, I think. All they did was walking from the hotel to a restaurant nearby. No such issues in NYC where you can walk all day long. I’m not sure, but I think it’s Ok to walk in San Francisco too.
National sales figures don’t really give the full picture. You’ll find the bulk of import sales along the coasts. In “flyover country”(such an ugly term), US marques rule the roost. Growing up in California, it seemed unbelievable that the Taurus and Chevrolet Lumina competed for the sales crown with the Accord and Camry as one rarely saw one that wasn’t a rental. Visiting relatives in Oklahoma the reverse was true.
Some would argue that midwesterner’s preference for American iron reflects a bias bordering on racism against East Asians. But I think it is actually the reverse: coastal Americans(and I’m one of them) seem to harbor the bias, reflexively believing that domestic offerings are inferior, in everything from cars to refrigerators to television shows. An example of that was the public perception that the Japanese badged products of CA’s joint GM/Toyota plant were of superior quality than those sold as Chevys and Pontiacs.
The reason is much simpler: dealers. There are thousands of very small automotive dealers in the mid-west, and they tend to sell cars from the big three. Actually, they sell pickups from the big three, and the occasional car.
This brings-up the notion of ‘dependability’, as opposed to ‘reliability.’ European cars weren’t unreliable in the 1970s, as the article states. They were undependable. American cars broke-down just as often, but the nearest dealer wasn’t 300 miles away.
>> coastal Americans (and I’m one of them) seem to harbor the bias, reflexively believing that domestic offerings are inferior, in everything from cars to refrigerators to television shows.
As a coastal American turned Midwestern American, I will state that the Midwestern preference for American vehicles reflected our reality — long distances to cover, weather extremes, and economic inducements to buy American.
I’ve driven 80s and 90s era Volkswagens and Renaults that were not comfortable to drive in — or outright could not cope with — +40 C or -30 C temperatures (not common here but they occur often enough in some locales). I’ve debated the wisdom of driving an older car that did not have a dealer or parts available for hundreds of miles, never mind acquaintance among mechanics who might have needed to assist me in the case of breakdown. And a people group that makes its living largely from its own farm and manufacturing labor has a predilection to reward other peoples’ labor: more than one traveling sales rep friend of mine here was handed a voucher to buy any car he liked for company use “as long as it’s American” (at least in brand if not manufacture; the Ohio-built Honda Accord need not apply here). Then there’s the resale value of a car that has a marginal fit in its local environment.
That is, of course, changing as farmers enjoy success with Kubota and Mahindra tractors and with the creeping influence of the owners of New Holland and AGCO-Allis, and as American manufacturing dries up for products like home appliances and TVs, leaving few real domestic offerings. But a product has to be suitable to its market and European and Japanese cars were not as suitable as American cars for Midwestern use for many more years than on the coasts.
>> the Japanese badged products of CA’s joint GM/Toyota plant were of superior quality than those sold as Chevys and Pontiacs
My brother got a great deal on a mid-80s Chevy Nova because it had bowties on it instead of Toyota logos; a choice made on the assembly line. But he had it serviced at a Toyota dealer because the (!) Chevrolet dealer in town was a confederation of dunces.
Two years ago, I lived for one week (and some 3,000 kilometres) with a rented Jeep Renegade with the old Tritec 1.8-litre engine available for the Brazilian market. I wasn’t surprised at first but it proved to be a good highway cruiser.
The boot is on the small side (260 litres originally, and expanded to 320 after the redesign of its corners and the change from a full-size spare wheel to a temporary one). However, by folding the second row of seats it became cavernous enough for me to bring all my belongings and move from one city to another – except my books and my mattress, of course.
Fuel economy was good, fit and finish was above par (at least among compact SUVs offered in Brazil) and I quite like the jerry can taillights.
Having lived in Chicago most of my life, its been interesting to have Euro interests in refined design and engineering meet up with American achievements of a different sort. The landscape her pin the midwest forecloses many of the smaller more nimble answers (the roads are too long, too straight to be any fun) but there is still a passionate group of car buffs, focusing on either German or Italian cars. That said, respect has grown for American engineering – a friend is restoring an Avanti, has been deep into Packards. I saw four Hudsons in Montana just the other week, one an unrestored 1951. Lovely. Its a very very big country, lots of different things to appreciate. And some not so lovely.
Hi Geoff. We were hugely impressed by Chicago. The architecture in the centre is, of course, very imposing, but what we hadn’t expected was the amount of greenery, even in the downtown area. Most streets have wide sidewalks with beautifully planted and maintained beds separating pedestrians from the roadway. Many residential streets are also lined with mature trees, all of which makes the city feel elegant and very people-friendly. It feels less intense and frenetic than New York, more relaxed. It is also very well maintained, with no litter on the streets.
The parks that line the lake shore are magnificent, and Lake Michigan really confounds your senses. It’s so large (not much smaller than Ireland, apparently) that it extends to the horizon, so looks like it could be a sea or ocean, not an inland fresh water lake. The museums and galleries are also excellent.
Chicago isn’t a city most Europeans would put top of their list when visiting the US, but it really is well worth seeing.
In comparison to that Ram, I wondered what is the current smallest car offered in the USA: it will soon be the Mitsubishi Mirage, once Chevrolet Spark is discontinued this year. Mirage sales in the US were 22741 in the US in 2021: its second-best performance in that market. It’s a modest number, but average sales have hovered around 22k since 2015 – as it’s a refreshed version of a car launched in 2012, with rivals falling away, it probably keeps on ticking-over reasonably enough.
Very interesting, thank you Daniel. I think of Chicago as being quite industrial and with a harsh climate – it looks like I’m wrong on both counts, I’m pleased to say.
I don’t know if you sampled some Goose Island IPA while you were there – it is (or was) one of my favourite drinks.
I like the Charger sedan and, indeed, the Jeep – including its colour. It’s got a pleasant ‘Tonka Toy’ air about it. As has been noted elsewhere at DTW, a vehicle’s context can heavily influence one’s impression of it.
I think you were perhaps a bit harsh on Volkswagen – they have quite a strong 4×4 heritage going back to the Iltis and beyond; and the Touareg, which is a decent vehicle, has been around for 20 years, now. That said, I agree that they have a slightly odd approach to the US market which looks a bit patronizing, although I’m sure it’s not meant to be.
Hi Charles. I don’t think the Atlas is inauthentic because it’s a 4×4, but rather because it’s trying to look ‘American’ or rather VW’s idea of American, which is a bit brash, so rather patronising, as you say.
By the way, you’re right about Chicago’s climate: it can be bitterly cold in winter and very hot and humid in high summer. May or September are good months to visit, when it’s more temperate.
Don’t tell anyone but global warming has eased our winters, so that only every other year is it really harsh and full of snow. And yes, a lot of green in the summer. But its a confounding city – some parts are so pleasant, other parts are very very hard. Its a very big small town, unlike NYC in many ways. Glad you enjoyed your time – next time here – give a holler.
9 years ago I did a trip to the US, rental cars included Chrysler 200 (declined the offered Mustang convertible due to lack of trunk space) from LA to SF & surrounding areas, Mazda CX7 at Denver, Focus at Vegas and a Corolla from St Louis-Detroit (also bicycles in SF & over the Golden Gate bridge). Had a couple of brief tiredness-induced wrong-side-of-the-road incidents; both times no other cars in sight! At least at the start, and none within half a mile.
Not that I really looked, but I don’t think full-size pickups are really offered as rentals? Might go onto the long list of things to try for next time (aka one day). We didn’t rent the Mustang but did do the supercar track experience at Vegas.
I dare say the Charger you saw was a rental car – private sales of the V6 must be miniscule! Did the big Ram have a 5th-wheel hitch? Many are used solely for that.
I think the domestic makes retreating from conventional sedans is as much re-directing their new model spending into more profitable segments. I’m not so sure about the “cut your way to profit” (eg GM globally), apart from anything else brand loyalty and even volume for dealer service departments is not something to abandon.
I can’t stress enough just how much of the American automotive landscape is driven by regulation, especially regulation of the “worse is better” variety. Up until a few decades ago, America had both the strictest environmental and safety standards in the world and a culture of beating the system.
As I think I’ve discussed here before, the half-ton truck is a creature of regulation – a vehicle of sufficient weight and capacity can be classified as a commercial vehicle, which exempts it from a variety of environmental and safety standards, and allows for extremely favorable tax treatment. Since we all have garages over here, vans are out – any van I can stand up in won’t fit in my garage, and any van that fits in my garage is too cramped to work in.
The result is that when someone comes to check my water meter or other simple utility tasks, he does it in a nineteen foot long F150. Given their legendary durability (check out US classifieds sites for people selling trucks with 300k+ miles, running great), when it comes time for the telephone company to sell off their off-lease trucks, someone like me will buy it.
I’ve driven half tons for most of my life. As perverse as it may sound, they consistently have the lowest TCO of any vehicle I own (I also drive them sparingly, as I think it’s wasteful to drive the truck unless I am doing truck things – but living where I do with the lifestyle I have, that’s actually quite common)
The crossover is another creature of American regulation. This absurd duck-billed rhinoceros of the American landscape came about in the 1990s, when Subaru realized that their incredibly inefficient 4WD Legacy sedan could, if lifted one inch, be re-categorized as a “light truck”, at which point it became a very efficient light truck, earning them CAFE credits.
American manufacturers have jumped on this, resulting in the “footprint” rule of emissions – the larger the car, the more it’s allowed to emit, thus incentivizing manufacturers to build cars exactly at the footprint boundaries. For more absurdity, there are the “breakover” requirements.
And that’s why American manufacturers don’t build decent sedans anymore. Our drives are long and flat, everyone has to drive, so we have a lot of incompetent and fearful drivers, and we are incredibly wealthy (median household income for a two-income family is in the $120k/yr range). Why build a compact, well-handling sedan when you can simply raise the suspension by an inch or two, slap some plastic cladding on it, and have a line out the door to buy them at $60k (84 month financing, of course)
The Camry is an interesting holdover – average buyer for them is 60+. Many boomers fell in love with Camrys and Accords back when they were obviously superior to the American cars of the 80s, and have been buying one every few years out of inertia. Nobody younger than that buys them though.
So here we are now, with environmental regulations that perversely incentivize larger/taller cars, and a populace predisposed to thing that larger/taller cars are “safer”. I don’t know what the endpoint of this can be, as it’s completely unsustainable
I’m sad to read of the demise of Local Motors. I’d hoped the idea would succeed and become ubiquitous. Big manufacturers are in trouble and for good reason. Local Motors was a superior approach.
I did like their vehicle. It looked good.
Here is a Greek off-roader/supercar hybrid.
Yes. The Challenger is the pick of the bunch. It looks right and goes well Even the budget V-6 version is OK. Still, get the hemi (supercharged). You will not ever regret it. I promise!
Daniel; You probably would’ve had a better handling experience back in the ’80s if your rental had been the similar-but-different Pontiac Grand Am with more “sports sedan” suspension tuning. Those N-bodies marked the return of GM trying to put some distinction between their divisions, and the Pontiac outsold the Buick-Oldsmobile versions combined.
I’m not surprised at all that the Renegade (an aging model relative to its’ competitive segment) was outsold handily by the Charger which is both the last traditional American sedan (along with its’ platform-mate 300) and is one of a bare handful of models (all midsize or larger) used by police fleets, the Ford Explorer and Chevy Tahoe being the others currently listed.
Speaking of working vehicles, those huge dually pickups are mainly made for towing. They’re just that much more unwieldy than the single-rear-wheel models that there’s a solid market for those too, often with V8 gasoline engines (diesel’s consistently more expensive here and the purchase price difference can be upwards of $10,000 in favor of gas). Having worked in grocery receiving I personally know several bread-route drivers, a position that’s become “independent-contractor”ed sometime in the ’00s, who reject the traditional step-van in favor of a 250(0) gas SRW pickup pulling a utility trailer – personal car and work vehicle in one unit with one payment.
Hi nlpnt. Thanks for the additional info. Interestingly, there didn’t appear to be a tow hitch fitted to the RAM I saw, but perhaps it’s got a detachable tow ball?
The interior decor of the Buick was certainly chosen to suit the tastes of the ‘more mature’ driver. I couldn’t believe that anyone was still selling a car with a strip speedometer in 1990. The seats were like armchairs, very soft, but no lateral support whatsoever. Driving it on the twistier sections of the Pacific Coast Highway was s bit unnerving, as the steering wheel seemed to have only the vaguest relationship with the front wheels!
You were looking in the wrong place. It will have a “fifth wheel” or “gooseneck” connection in the truck bed, over the rear axle. It’s similar to the way that transport trucks connect with trailers.
“Dually” trucks are used for towing large loads. They are only superficially similar to regular pickup trucks.
Hi Bernard. Aha, that could be the explanation, although I didn’t notice anything mounted to the floor, only the pristine load bay liner.
Thank you for the article. Any Cadillac? In a fantasy game I would go for a sedan. Chicago should be wonderful. Like Nyc but more US oriented.
Hi Marco. Thanks for your kind words, and glad you enjoyed the piece. Yes, Chicago is delightful, a proper great American city.
Regarding Cadillac, you prompted me to take a look at the company’s US website and I’m crestfallen to see they no longer offer any sedans, just five models, all crossovers or SUVs. One has to go to Asia to buy a new Cadillac sedan. Here’s a fine looking CT6:
How what proportion of Cadillac buyers REALLY need the versatility of an SUV or crossover, I wonder?
Hi Daniel, i thought ct5 and ct4 were still available. Ct6 is not bad if you have a driver. I wonder what are the smallest car that someone can buy in the us. I remember that there was in the past the chance to buy our yaris and the ford focus, fiesta i am not sure.
Hi Marco. I believe it’s the Chevrolet Spark (144 inches long) followed by the Mini Hatch (151 inches long). I don’t think the Spark will be in production for much longer though.