Car Guy

Dead Pool 2014

Car makers on their last legs.

By 12.5.13

Bob Keefer (Flikr Creative Commons)
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I keep reading stories about how healthy the car industry is. If that’s true, how come so many car brands have croaked recently? Since ’08 at least seven have gone wheels up: Saab, Saturn, Suzuki, Mercury, Pontiac, Isuzu, and Hummer. That’s more dead brands in the space of six years than kicked the bucket during the 30 years prior.

And I suspect it’s not over yet.

There are several brands — some of them big names — looking a bit green around the gills lately. It would not surprise me to see any of the following go for that ride on the white canoe:

* Scion (2004-?)
Toyota’s youth-focused small car spin-off brand is in need of the crash cart, stat.

It’s three weeks away from 2014 and there is nothing new in the pipeline. The 2014s will be the same as the 2013s — and those were pretty much the same as the ’12s… which were the same as… well, you see where this is headed. The only car in the entire Scion lineup that’s not going on four years old without much more than trim tweaking here and there is the FR-S sports car — and it’s a Subaru in Scion drag.

Sales peaked in ’06 — and as of 2012, Scion (all models) accounted for a meager 0.3 percent of all Toyota sales in the U.S. That is perilously close to Flounder from Animals House’s “zero point zero” GPA. The writing may already be on the corporate wall. Toyota corporate has told all Toyota dealerships that currently sell (and service) Scions that they can drop the brand without penalty.

Cue the music: The time has come to say sayonara

* Volvo (1927-?)
For decades Volvo had something no other brand had — a sterling (and proactive) reputation for putting safety über alles. Today’s Volvos are safe, too. The problem is — so are everyone else’s cars. The industry that used to resist wet nursing, idiot-proofing, and government-snuggling has now embraced those things lustily. But where does that leave Volvo? Its cars are safe … and?

Volvo has not been able to re-create itself as a premium brand, or sexy brand. It’s still the safety brand — and that’s no longer a cornered market.

Even the Swedes have abandoned ship. Volvo is now owned by the Chinese — and they don’t seem to be interested in doing much to resuscitate the brand. Other than a mild refresh of the mid-sized/mid-priced S60, there’s a stillness in the air that forebodes a wake. The flagship S80 is ancient — dating back to 2007. The C30 coupe — also about the same vintage — never caught on with buyers, despite being a neat little car.

There is a new V60 wagon on deck — for 2015. But it may be too late — and not enough — to keep the hounds at bay. Volvo’s total U.S. sales are now well below six figures (around 60,000 so far this year, down from 139,000 in 2004) and that’s a blood-letting that can’t be maintained indefinitely.

For some perspective, Toyota sells about 400,000 Camrys annually.

A cold wind blows…

Mitsubishi (1970-?)
I suspect — I would bet — that Mitsubishi will be the Suzuki of 2014. One more year on life support and then — kaput.

There are interesting parallels — the main one being that in both cases, building cars is a secondary business for these companies. Mitsubishi heavy industries makes industrial equipment — and electronics — and lots of other stuff in between. Its car operation has always been relatively small potatoes and thus, even if the cars go away, the brand is in no real danger. Similarly, Suzuki is one of the major players in the motorcycle world — but never managed to translate that success to the four-wheeled world.

Mitsubishi Motors has been losing money since 2007 — so it’s pretty startling they’re still around at all. They never really recovered from the epic debacle of the "0-0-0" marketing campaign, which basically tossed the keys to new cars to people who had no ability to pay for them, or even intention to do so. A tsunami of year-old, often thrashed (and heavily depreciated) repos ensued. Pockets emptied of operating capital for new model development, the brand’s rep soiled by the much worse-than-average depreciation rates — Mitsubishi Motors has been dead in the water ever since.

There is the possibility of a last-moment resurrection, though. Mitsu has a neat little three-cylinder subcompact on the market that’s just the ticket for these economically awful times. If people notice it, they might just buy it. Mitsubishi Motors President Osamu Masuko told Automotive News in November that the company might “break even this year.”

In which case, there just might be Mitsubishis next year.

Smart Car (2008-?)
Sometimes, The End is welcomed. As when there’s no hope — just ongoing suffering.

This car is not fixable. It is too small, too expensive (almost $14k to start), too impractical, too slow, and too fuel-inefficient to ever be more than an accessory for the stupid rich — and the simply stupid. Those were the people who bought a first-year Smart Car. Parent company Mercedes-Benz has had a tough time attracting new prospects ever since. Last year, a mere 10,009 found homes — well below the target of 16,000.

None of this ought to be a surprise. The car’s only objective merit is that it can be parked almost anywhere a moped will fit. But a moped gets three times the gas mileage, is speedier — and costs about a fourth what you’d pay to own a Smart Car.

And of course, the moped’s less embarrassing to own.

The needle can’t come soon enough.

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About the Author

Eric Peters is an automotive columnist and author of Automotive Atrocities: The Cars You Love to Hate (Motor Books International) and a new book, Road Hogs.