Wednesday, April 22, 2009

American cars

This last weekend, I went car-shopping with some friends who were legitimately in the market (as opposed to just kicking tires). Their lease was coming up on their prior car, and they didn’t want to buy it, so they were going to need to replace it.

They had determined that they were going to give the American car manufacturers every chance to earn their business. Both have driven American cars for years, though her last car was a Toyota 4Runner. Still, they were determined to be as “fair” as possible.

They had identified the Mercury Mariner as a possibility (Mercury version of Ford Escape), so we took one for a spin.

Houston’s streets are legendary for their roughness. Face it, the city is broke and has a lot of street surface to maintain, on land that is in a constant state of flux. In this last weekend’s rains, for example, a huge sinkhole opened in Kingwood. The streets are rough.

One of the roughest is near my house, and near the car dealership---Dairy Ashford Rd. Dairy Ashford presents everything you would want in a test track---bumps, ruts, expansion joints, washboard surfaces, bad asphalt patches, lots of traffic, stoplights, the works.

We took the Mariner on Dairy Ashford---and it failed miserably. We determined that Ford SUV’s ride "rough". We collected our teeth and moved on.

The Ford Edge (like many other crossovers) was just too tight a fit for my 6’3 inch friend. His arm hit the pillar, there wasn’t enough headroom, etc. If you’re tiny, this might be a nice vehicle, but if you’re “full-sized” (a market the American manufacturers have always proudly served), this isn’t the vehicle for you.

The Ford/Mercury dealer staff was nice and friendly, though, and genuinely wanted to sell us a car.

On to General Motors. The much-vaunted Buick Enclave was again too tight a fit. Chevrolet Traverse was nice, but had a cheesy interior. The GMC Acadia (same car, different interior) was nice, but sadly, the interior lacked quality and refinement (ok, the door handles were cheesy, there was a noticeable squeak, the controls felt tinny). The Tahoe and Yukon were just huge, and their interiors likewise were cheesy.

During all this, we were struck (amazed and dumbfounded, actually) by the attitude of the dealer and staff. First, the salesguy (despite being told that the car was FOR the lady, with the gentleman an occasional driver) alternated between ignoring her entirely, talking down to her, or pooh-poohing every word that came out of her mouth. This is 2009!

The other thing the General Motors dealer did that was infuriating: they still had that smug, “Aren’t you lucky we might deign to consider selling your worthless asses one of our fabulous General Motors vehicles?” attitude. All of the General Motors dealers we visited had this attitude. Um, hello, boys---YOUR COMPANY IS BANKRUPT AND BEING KEPT AFLOAT BY THE US TAXPAYER! You might try a little less ARROGANCE! At least the Ford and Chrysler dealers seemed glad to see us….

Ahh, Chrysler, my personal favourite. I’ve owned a lot of Chrysler products over the years, have two currently, and frankly was pushing the couple to look at the Chrysler Aspen. I had tested an Aspen in Malvern, and wanted it badly; they’re almost half price now because of the lack of demand.

Sadly, we were all shocked at the Aspen’s shortcomings. Cheesy (detect a pattern? All the American cars had CRAPPY interiors) interior, bouncy, rough ride---as someone said, “Welcome to 1991”.

Frankly, while my friends were doing other things, I looked at the current versions of my cars: the Chrysler Sebring convertible and the Chrysler Town and Country. My Sebring is an ‘02 and my T&C is an ‘04. There is NO comparison between the interiors in MY OLD cars and the new ones---the new ones were a definite step down. I would not buy the new versions of these cars, which saddens me.

By contrast, ALL of the Japanese brands were better than the BEST American brand. The Subaru Forester was a nifty vehicle, so was the Toyota Rav4.


They bought a Honda Pilot. I’ve not been a huge Honda fan in the past, but if I were in the market for a car right now, that’s the one I’d buy. It was shockingly nice. Great ride (front and rear seats), impressive power and handling, great gas mileage, solid, quiet, comfortable, ROOMY, thoughtfully designed interior, quality throughout. The Pilot (an SUV) had better ride and handling than the General Motors CROSSOVERS (car chassis, should be vastly superior to an SUV).

I can’t say enough nice things about the Pilot. Honda REALLY did their homework; it’s a home run. And $10,000 cheaper than the Buick or GMC products.

The point of all this: Geez, America. Is THIS the best you can do? The General Motors cars were cheesy, cheap (but very high-dollar) crap and the dealers acted like they were magnanimously doing us a huge favour by showing them to us. Ford was the best of the “Big 3”, but was easily 10 years behind the Japanese products. Chrysler was 20 years behind.

GM, Ford, Chrysler: maybe it really IS time for you to ride off into the sunset.


My friend read this post and sent me an email with his suggestions. He had in mind that I would re-write them, but he did a great job, so here's his email:

Several things

-we chose foreign over domestic EVEN THOUGH domestic had 0% APR for 60+ months

-We would have bought the Mariner if we simply planned to sit in our driveway in it. It was luxury at a reasonable price. Leather, comfortable seats, stylish, didn't look cheesy, and appropriate if you want the feel and ride of a truck. But it failed the second we started driving it because of the smoothness or lack thereof of the drive.

-Merc Mariner was practically being given away. 2008 model brand new for 20,000 (before haggle time). We paid in the 30s for what we got.

"Floaty" - That is the best way I know to describe the ride in the GMC Acadia. It was lower to the ground, but it felt like the car was floating on the tire (more from a responsive side, not a comfort side)

Most of the vehicles had LOTS of sway in the maneuvering. You turn the wheel, then the wheels turn, and then the cab of the vehicle wakes up and decides it better turn too (a second later).

(Note: the "swing and sway" aspect of almost everything we drove can't be overstated. If it was truck-based, the ride was rough and every bump translated directly to the passengers. If car-based, the ride was "floaty"--not really comfortable, didn't feel "solid". Kind of like the old 60's and 70's cars in a way--far too disconnected from the road. In turns, practically every domestic we drove had a LOT of sway---you felt like you were going to roll over at any minute.)

Emphasize that I researched the hell out of everything out there.

Maybe talk about the Pilot being a Tahoe in correct proportions.

(Note: He has a Tahoe, which he has driven for 8 years and 200,000 miles. The Pilot is shorter, smaller--fits in his parking deck at work much better than the 'hoe--but still roomy and comfortable; it is a Tahoe in a more compact, manageable package.)

We are interstate warriors. That car will live on Katy freeway.
High enough to see ahead in traffic
It won't be going off-road
Headroom even with the sunroof (Nissan FAILED miserably with all their models in this category)

(Note: his head wasn't even close to the ceiling, even with the sunroof---I've never seen that much headroom in a compact vehicle)

The Honda Pilot even had fewer options to choose from, they just included everything you needed in the 2 or 3 different kinds they offered. Do you want leather or not? Okay, do you want a nav system? Okay, do you want a Rear Entertainment System? - Do you want 2 or 4WD? Okay, those are the only differences between their lineup of Pilots. Those 5 questions. Less is more.

You may want to mention the Bizarre Dodge/Jeep products on the market. Swing and a MISS.

(Note: Dodge/Jeep; I forgot to mention that. The Jeep Liberty has a BIZARRE feature: the roof is a cross between a "convertible" roof and a "sunroof". The car has the full box frame greenhouse, but the "sunroof" is the full size of the roof--it goes to within about 4 inches of the doorframes, front and rear---and is a convertible roof; it's a soft top that folds up like my convertible's does. This makes it noisy and leak-prone. At least with my noisy, leak-prone convertible, it's a helluva lot of fun when the top's down (FREEDOM, baby!). This thing combines NONE of the fun with ALL of the problems. Just weird. Who would want such a thing? The Dodge Caliber has this weird pulley system instead of a transmission. It makes strange noises and the driving of it is just weird. What was wrong with a good ol Mopar transmission?).

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