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January 26, 2007

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Your Essay today has been on my mind for months. GM, do they want to go bankrupt? At this years Detroit Autoshow the foreign car companies are displaying high mileage cars and GM's big debut, a pickup truck. When all the little companies that supply GM parts go backrupt it will be the people of the United States paying for their retirement.

This article is as insulting as it is wrong. I do appreciate the fact that Mr. Lessneberry has offered at least one sentence (okay, only one sentence) acknowledgeing the role of UAW contracts in the problems of the U.S. auto industry.
But for Mr. Lessenberry to recite tired old bromides about American cars being poorly designed and built is really beneath the normally high quality of automotive writing that can be found in the metro Detroit area.
Mr. Lessenberry is fond of ridiculing the Detroit newspapers, but they could teach him quite a bit about automotive journalism.
Mr. Lessenberry might have mentioned higher U.S. steel prices under protective U.S. tariffs. He might have written more about U.S. automaker health care costs.
But I suspect that while Mr. Lessenberry feels the need to leaven his largely scripted liberal viewpoints with observtions about frankly inexplicable activities on the part of some unions and regulators, the real message he wants to get across is that greedy corporate types are responible for all of our social ills.
Mr. Lessenberry doesn't go so far as to root for GM, Ford and D-C to fail; he knows that if that happened, they wouldn't be here to pay taxes and fund state government. Thanks, Mr. Lessenberry. I'm sure the automakers are thrilled to have your support.
And, note to Mr. DeVries -- At this year's auto show (its proper name is the North American International Auto Show), one of the most exciting displays, by all accounts, was the "Chevy Volt" display, featuring one of the mosre exciting designs for an electrical vehicle in many years. And with regard to pickup trucks, I didn't think that it was so bad that Chevy won the Truck of the Year award. In doing so, it beat the competition from Toyota. (So GM isn't so dumb after all, eh?) And, one of the main reasons that all of the GM large trucks were so exciting was the continued rollout, begun last year, of the fuel-saving V-8 engine that GM has featured, in which 2 or 4 cylinders are turned off by a computer, based on performance needs.
See what interesting news there is to be found when someone isn't repeating the same old liberal jargon?

Too bad Mr. Lessenberry didn't notice the Lansing built GMC Acadia, Saturn Outlook, and Buick Enclave at the car show. These vehicles lead the competition in the crossover/vehicle segment in mileage, amenities and have a lower price to boot! Their 5 star safety rating is a comfort too.

By building two new facilities in the past 5 years, General Motors has returned to their roots; Lansing, Michigan. Lansing has led the way in quality, efficiency and the spirit of cooperation between the UAW and Management. The great automobile building tradition which spans over 100 years is alive and well in Lansing!

Our Chevy Impala gets over 30 MPG HWY. At 116,000 miles its going great! Our 1999 Bonneville gets 28 HWY and is going strong at 178,000.

You have limited knowledge of the auto industry and you need to get your facts straight. What car company re-called more cars than it built last year? Ford? GM? wrong - Toyota. What car company builds more cars that get over 30mpg than any other car company? Toyota? Honda? Wrong - GM. What car company was the only car company to build a compleately electric car and sell it? Toyota? Honda? Wrong - GM.

Toyota's quality is slipping at the same time GM is rising - but that dosent make for good press.

Anyone watching the recent Super Bowl XLI, featuring its usual gluttonous menu of over-the-top advertisements, must have been struck by the ads for the new Toyota Tundra pick-up truck.
The truck represents Toyota's major -- and expensive -- effort to grab part of the U.S. light truck market. "Light truck" in this context means big, heavy, powerful, loaded pickup trucks. The kind that make many liberal commentators shreik in disgust at the 'paleolithic Detroit car makers.'

In Toyota's Super Bowl ads, they lifted a page out of the Detroit manual. They placed their new truck in all kinds of absurdist power demonstrations; in the middle of a desert, on a giant ramp towing ten tons, loaded with 2 tons of bags labeled "manure" in the back bed, or braking on the edge of a canyon.
These were the kinds of ads that caused media elitists to ridicule Detroit. The kind of ads that WORKED and sold lots of powerful, tough trucks to guys who watched football games.
So much for Toyota as the wizard corporation that was running circles around Detroit by building smart small cars that Detroit just didn't know how to design or manufacture...
Actually, maybe Toyota IS as smart as they say. Building the kinds of pickups that American buyers want.

“What Ever it Costs”: A Response to Jack Lessenberry’s 1/26/07 Essay: “Fuel Efficient Cars”

By David L. Roberts, PhD, Extension Specialist, Michigan State University

As a scientist at Michigan State University, I try to avoid going along with prevailing perceptions and make every effort to examine facts. Consistent with this manner, I questioned the accepted diagnoses of the Ash problem in southeast Michigan in the early 2000’s. By challenging prevailing perceptions through critical analysis, to everyone else’s dismay, my research uncovered the Emerald Ash Borer, an invasive insect from Asia that will cause billions of dollars in environmental and economic hardship for Americans.

As Jack often describes himself, I too am a “middle aged white guy” with what many would probably consider a liberal bend. I appreciate and agree with most of Jack’s editorials/opinions except when automobiles are the subject.

On 1/26/07, Jack stated that he had no sympathy for the Detroit automakers because “the Japanese are eating our lunch”; they are making cars that are “more reliable, more exciting and more fuel-efficient”. According to Jack, cars built by firms in other countries are also “smarter” and “safer”. Jack has persistently adhered to these stereotypes in many of his essays, and they simply are not based on fact.

For years, we’ve been hearing that Detroit has been narrowing the quality and reliability gap. If one peruses quality/reliability data, automobiles from all countries/companies of origins are variable, and these differences are probably in reality largely insignificant because quality and reliability are often about perceptions. And I submit that this quality gap was never so large to suggest that all American cars are junk and all Japanese cars are perfect, a perception that Jack and many others like to advance even with today’s cars. In recent years, American cars occasionally rate near the top or in many cases better than many of their competitors. Last year, it was announced (J.D. Power?) that quality improvements for Japanese cars had stagnated while American cars continued to make steady gains, a very positive statement about Detroit automakers, which Jack and others chose to ignore.

While Jack has often provided some very negative commentary about his experience with American automobiles, let me relate an example of mine. A friend of mine was experiencing some problems with her Honda CRV at around 100,000 miles. After three or four trips to the dealer and about $500 in expenses, the vehicle continued to run rough and the check engine light continued to come on. Finally, the dealership diagnosed the problem as a faulty engine and indicated that the engine needed to be rebuilt. The service manager said that Corporate Honda admitted they had had a problem with these SUVs. Purportedly, according to the Honda service manager, Honda Corp asked if my friend was a good customer. The service manager related that my friend was a “good customer”-clearly spin and untrue because my friend had not bought the Honda at this dealer nor had the car ever been serviced there. Because of the “good customer status”, Corporate Honda agreed to rebuild the engine free of charge (probably valued at $2000-3,000). But wait there’s more; the dealer would also replace a couple of fuel injectors free of charge and reduce the costs on some other repairs that were needed. Clearly, Honda Corp was going to great lengths to make my friend happy with her Honda, even though the vehicle was 65,000 miles off warranty. With curiosity, I scrutinized Consumer Reports to compare her Honda with my Jeeps. Her Honda was rated highest in most categories, including the engine, while my Jeeps were rated lower at about average, some categories better or worse than others. This story was not unusual because several of my other friends with Japanese cars have related similar experiences, and I have previously examined information in Consumer Reports with similar outcomes. From my experience with Jeep products, I would be surprised, actually appalled, if any of my Jeeps exhibited major engine (4.0 in line six cylinder) problems below 200,000 miles. Most have well over 100,000 miles, some over 200,000 miles without any major engine problems. If my friend had to actually pay for the repair costs to her Honda, which she really should have, she would probably have a whole different perspective about Japanese automobiles. Japanese vehicles will go forever....provided you keep repairing them.

In 2005 (or 2006?) we heard that Mitsubishi had been “hiding defects for decades”. Later, I heard on NPR that Mitsubishi had 100’s of recalls due to these hidden defects, disproving Jack’s statement that “the Japanese are eating our lunch by….”. How does an auto manufacturer hide defects for decades and why isn’t anyone like Jack questioning these practices? While many may say that my friend’s experience with her Honda is simply good customer relations, critical analyses indicate that some companies try to cover up major problems while literally trying to buy customer loyalty and silence….clearly this Honda problem, admitted to by corporate headquarters, did not show up in Consumer Reports. “Hidden warranties” are supposedly illegal. Could anyone imagine GM Executives proposing a plan to stockholders to forgo dividends and profits for the next decade while they “buy” customer loyalty by fixing problems on their cars free of charge for the first 150,000 to 200,000 miles, long after the original factory warranty has expired? It isn’t going to happen; nor should we as consumers expect it.

In regards to fuel economy, on a class/model by class/model comparison, GM, Ford and Chrysler actually compare quite favorably to their foreign competition. For example, a half-ton model Toyota pickup or SUV does not necessarily achieve better fuel economy than a Ford or Chevy. In fact, the American manufacturers often achieve better fuel economy. Who would have thought 30 years ago that a current 2006-7 full size Chevy Impala, Pontiac Bonneville or Buick Park Avenue could attain 32-34 highway mpg (according to many owners) when these models with 455 cubic inch V-8s could barely achieve 10-12 mpg back in the 1960’s and 70’s? These current figures compare quite favorably to the smaller Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. It is my understanding that the Detroit Automakers cannot make money building small fuel efficient cars; I suspect this is true to some extent given the advantages of their competitors (discussed below). Even so, due to CAFÉ regulations, Detroit Automakers build small fuel-efficient cars, but consumers may not be buying them in sufficient quantities because of the erroneous perceptions continually advanced by Jack and others that American cars are junk.

It’s ironic that while Jack and others continually criticize the Detroit automakers’ fuel economy, the Japanese automakers are continually introducing larger and heavier gas guzzlers, taking market share from the American manufacturers’ big trucks and SUV. The Sierra Club picketed against and recommended boycotting Ford for producing the Excursion; I don’t hear any complaints about the large Japanese products such as Titan, Landcruiser, Sequoia and Armada, none of which evoke fuel efficiency or concern for the environment. Jack continually exhibits disdain for the Hummer; if I’m not mistaken, the newer incarnations of the Hummer actually achieve better fuel economy than some of the large Japanese products. I’ve always believed that if GM and Ford didn’t build the Hummer or Excursion, the Japanese would…and they are.

When considering the Japanese hybrid cars, it is my understanding that the Japanese Government funded the research to develop hybrid technology. If so, when will the American government and U.S citizens fund research on technology for our industries so that they may be more competitive in the global economy? Incidentally, the EPA recently announced that it was planning to reevaluate their fuel economy testing procedures because consumers weren’t getting the fuel economy that EPA claims they should. According to a recent news article, many cars’ and SUVs’ EPA mpg ratings will fall by 5-10%, but the greatest mpg adjustments will be made to hybrids which will be rated on average a whopping 30% less.

Jack’s comments about Detroit’s competitors offering more exciting products, mentioning the Aztec and Hummer, again are quite biased and misleading. There are many exciting products in the American offerings: the Pontiac Solstice, the new Jeep Compass (30mpg), Dodge Caliber, Chrysler 300, Ford Escape Hybrid (>30pmg), Ford Fusion (>30 mpg), Chevy HHR (30 mpg), Ford Mustang, the Corvette, to name a few. Jack’s implications that American autos are not exciting may be designed to further destroy Detroit’s credibility and should merit little meaningful discussion.

In previous essays, Jack said something like, “If I was Rick Wagner…”., as if to attribute the whole problem to a CEO or the “the big, bad American corporation”. The problems with the American auto industry are far more complex than Jack implies. I believe, and there is ample evidence to support my belief, that Detroit is quite disadvantaged when compared to competitors. Detroit’s competitors generally do not have Unions or contentious suppliers to contend with. Furthermore, according to many experts, there is currency manipulation and trade barriers in Asia and other areas to make our products less competitive. Also, these old American companies have much higher costs in healthcare and retirement benefits not only due to the large number of retirees being supported, but also because the Japanese Government (taxpayers) pays for Japanese autoworkers’ healthcare in Japan. Add in fickle consumers who, depending on the price of gas at the moment, would prefer to purchase a large Ford F150 instead of a Focus. It seems to me, it is not fair to continually criticize our companies for quality and fuel economy issues, etc. if we first do not demand equality in the marketplace. Every American, whether they own a Chevy or a Honda, should demand a level playing field regardless of various perceptions Jack and others continually exaggerate. Whether we admit it or not, Detroit’s woes are symbolic of Michigan’s and America’s problems. With our humongous trade deficits, our huge national debt, our credit card debt, our low savings (negative savings this year) and our propensity for gluttony, I suppose its easy to blame all of that on Detroit. In reality, I can’t think of many American corporations (except possibly auto), producing quality products, hiring legal Americans that are even beginning to successfully compete with our foreign competitors. We’d better figure out why.

Jack seems to be carrying on a one-man tirade against American Industry. Even a friend of mine who has bought Hondas and listens to NPR recently related that Jack seems “to have it out for American cars”. In another essay on NPR, Jack related how his wife, an attorney, preferred to buy American because her father worked for one of the companies. He further related that her purchase of American autos stopped when an auto salesperson advised her to bring her husband in to purchase a car. I’m disappointed that Jack’s wife had this unfortunate encounter, which would clearly not be consistent with Detroit Automakers’ policy. But, I am equally disappointed that her reaction was to abandon the entire American industry and its 1000’s of employees because of this isolated incident. Stereotyping women as inferior or incapable consumers is wrong. But, stereotyping the entire American auto industry as sexists and producers of gas guzzling, low quality, unexciting, planet destroying vehicles is also wrong. The world would be a much better place if all of us would exhibit a little more tolerance and understanding for our human mistakes.

Unfortunately, Jack is not alone in his crusade against American industry. Occasionally, Jack consults with Mickey Maynard of the New York Times, as if to enhance his rationale for stereotyping. Ms. Maynard also asserts the same stereotypes, and I can’t recall ever hearing her say anything positive about Detroit automakers. Last year on the Diane Rehm show, Ms. Maynard, in her usual fashion, tried to convey her typical generalizations (Japanese autos are higher quality and achieve better fuel economy, etc.); other experts on the panel quickly challenged her with facts and figures to the contrary, in my opinion, discrediting her. Frankly, I am suspicious of anyone who continually criticizes one entity or another, and I wonder about their real agenda.

I like many of Jack’s essays; he frequently brings up many important issues such as education and inner city decline, which he claims we must fix, “whatever the costs”. But his concern with Michigan, its people and its economy is incongruent with his continuing tirades against the Detroit automakers. Jack seems to subscribe to the philosophy that the “floggings will continue until morale improves”. Rather, we should be rewarding Detroit for what it is doing right, exs. recognizing their continual quality improvements and purchasing their fuel efficient vehicles. Given the facts (probably insignificant), my penalty for owning American cars is not excessive even if (God forbid) I must make an extra trip to the dealer or pay on average an extra $14 per year in repair. And let’s also consider, Detroit automakers cannot save the planet by themselves. It will take the collective efforts of Government, Industry and Responsible Consumers, especially those buying Toyota Sequoias and living in 8000 square foot homes because they really want to be associated with the upper and not the middle class.

Jack began his 1/26/07 essay by stating he doesn’t have a lot of sympathy for Detroit’s automakers. Who are the Detroit automakers? It’s easy to vilify “Detroit Automakers” as some nebulous entity in outer space. But remember Detroit Automakers include 100,000’s of workers on the line, secretaries, dealership mechanics, salespeople, engineers, accountants, suppliers, etc.. Sometimes they are even our neighbors and relatives who are trying to eke out a living just like you and me. What is most remarkable of all is that despite all of these stereotypes that Jack and others doggedly perpetuate, Detroit still makes some of the finest automobiles the world has ever seen. Detroit automakers, when compared to our Federal Government’s mistakes and inefficiency, represent shinning beacons. Remember “whatever it costs”, is something I can bear if 10,000’s more Michiganders/Americans are employed and they contribute to our tax base, are able to support healthcare, and can help provide an education for our children and future generations. Unlike Jack, I have a lot of sympathy for that Detroit black kid, whose father was laid-off from GM last year, because many consumers believed Jack’s erroneous perceptions and refused to buy an American car. Instead of going to college, that kid may now be on the street, breaking and entering, cultivating a livelihood of crime in some gang. Yeah, owning an American brand car is a “burden” I’m willing to share, “whatever it costs”.

In life, there are many things whose soul purpose is to impress. Marble facades, acres of gardens, thousand dollar suits, light displays, our society is and has always been full of such things. One of the most obvious examples of this idea is the limousine.

"... While Jack has often provided some very negative commentary about his experience with American automobiles, let me relate an example of mine. A friend of mine was experiencing some problems with her Honda CRV at around 100,000 miles. After three or four trips to the dealer and about $500 in expenses, the vehicle continued to run rough and the check engine light continued to come on. Finally, the dealership diagnosed the problem as a faulty engine and indicated that the engine needed to be rebuilt. The service manager said that Corporate Honda admitted they had had a problem with these SUVs. Purportedly, according to the Honda service manager, Honda Corp asked if my friend was a good customer. The service manager related that my friend was a “good customer”-clearly spin and untrue because my friend had not bought the Honda at this dealer nor had the car ever been serviced there. Because of the “good customer status”, Corporate Honda agreed to rebuild the engine free of charge (probably valued at $2000-3,000). But wait there’s more; the dealer would also replace a couple of fuel injectors free of charge and reduce the costs on some other repairs that were needed. Clearly, Honda Corp was going to great lengths to make my friend happy with her Honda, even though the vehicle was 65,000 miles off warranty."

You've certainly sold me on Honda. I can 't imagine GM or Ford rebuilding the engine 65K miles out of warranty.

They did precisely the same thing with a Honda I had which lost its transmision at 53,000 miles!

In todays market what truly determines if a car is American or foreign. The Chevy Avero is made in Korea. You have some Toyata's made in the US. Whic car is American built?

I have nothing against the Big 3 of the US. Not that they make bad cars, just none that excite my enough to want to buy them.

Yes I do own a American car, or was is made in Mexico or Canada or parts from all three, or assembled wherever. Will have to check it out.

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