At Witz' End: Other Views on Detroit
I guess, like so many Americans, he was unaware, or didn't care, that hundreds of thousands of good, smart, incredibly dedicated and hard-working non-union designers, engineers, researchers, marketers, purchasing, finance and human resources folks also owe their livelihoods to what's left of our domestic industry. And that millions more who are toiling at suppliers, dealers and surrounding small businesses depend on it to feed, clothe and shelter their kids.
The Big Three companies are not all the same, none today remotely resembles the negative caricatures in some peoples' minds, and the UAW has been only one small part of their high-US-business-cost problem. Clearly, such pinheads whose views of "Detroit" remain stubbornly stuck in the 1980s – including auto-ignorant politicians, Wall Street gurus and non-automotive media – need to pry open their minds to what knowledgeable observers are saying:
"GM is probably the strongest of the three right now," manufacturing expert Ron Harbour ("The Harbour Report"), told me nearly two years ago, well before 2008's $4 gas killed profitable products and Washington's economic meltdown and the credit freeze stopped auto sales virtually cold. "They really get it and have made very significant improvement. Ford has done pretty well. They're right in there. And Chrysler has worked hard to catch up fast."
Click past the jump for a sampling of what leading automotive media and others who actually know these companies, their leaders and their products are saying today.
"The Detroit Three automakers do create cars people want," writes Autoweek Editor and Associate Publisher Dutch Mandel. "Their cars are fuel efficient; GM's fleet, for example, has more vehicles that attain 30 mpg than any other automaker – and they make more hybrid models than Toyota. As for their quality, it is unparalleled; Ford products sit atop one quality study after another."
"The independent J.D. Power Initial Quality Study scored Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, Ford, GMC, Mercury, Pontiac and Lincoln brands' overall quality as high or higher than that of Acura, Audi, BMW, Honda, Nissan, Scion, Volkswagen and Volvo," offers Detroit Free Press auto writer Mark Phelan in a column challenging "myths" about the Detroit Three. "Power rated the Chevrolet Malibu the highest-quality midsize sedan. Both the Malibu and Ford Fusion scored better than the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry.
"All of the Detroit Three build midsize sedans the Environmental Protection Agency rates at 29-33 miles per gallon on the highway. The most fuel-efficient Chevrolet Malibu gets 33 mpg on the highway, two mpg better than the best Honda Accord. The most fuel-efficient Ford Focus has the same highway fuel economy ratings as the most efficient Toyota Corolla. The most fuel-efficient Chevrolet Cobalt has the same city fuel economy and better highway fuel economy than the most efficient non-hybrid Honda Civic."
"Detroit's problem isn't poor products or lack of products," adds Warren Brown of the Washington Post. "It's a national government still wedded to the debilitating siren song of cheap gasoline. It's a nationally collapsed financial system. And it's governmental hypocrisy - our willingness to pour tax dollars into foreign enterprises, most of them not unionized, while griping about doing the same for homegrown, unionized manufacturers largely responsible for building America's middle class."
Detroit Free Press columnist Mitch Albom takes on the hypocritical, mostly southern Republican senators who refused Detroit life-saving loans: "History will show that when America was on its knees, a handful of lawmakers tried to cut off its feet. And blame the workers. How suddenly did the workers - a small percentage of a car's cost - become justification for crushing an industry? And when did Detroit become the symbol of economic dysfunction? Are you kidding? Have you looked in the mirror lately, Washington? Who is more dysfunctional in business than YOU? Who blows more money? Who wastes more trillions on favors, payback and pork? When was the last time a U.S. senator resigned over a failed policy? Yet you want to fire [GM CEO] Rick Wagoner?
"At our nation's most uncertain hour, you senators stood ready to plunge hundreds of thousands of American families into oblivion. Leave them unemployed, with no health care, on public assistance. And you were willing to put our nation's security at risk -- by squashing the manufacturing base we must have in times of war. And why? So you could stand on some phony principle? Crush a union? Play to your base?"
Business Week's Ed Wallace sings a similar tune: "By refusing to bail out General Motors and Chrysler, Republicans see a way to end the last vestiges of unionism in America and the unions' longtime backing of the Democratic party -- a political base the Democrats will fight tooth and claw to save. If these individuals bring down the American economy by destroying Detroit, they'll simply walk away from the disaster saying, 'It was the other guy's fault.' Somewhere along the way this debate seems to have overlooked the fact that Detroit...is still a viable economic engine, providing jobs to millions and creating some of the world's best cars.
"Other industrialized countries around the world will be stepping in to ensure that their own automobile industries will still be working when whatever financial downturn we are looking at is finally over.... In the rest of the world, elected officials understand serious downturns in the economy and that the automotive industry is cyclical in nature. As for Congress, shame on you for playing politics when so many jobs and, in many ways, the future of American manufacturing is at stake."
WardsAuto.com's Steve Finlay defends favored Detroit scapegoat Wagoner: "It may shock certain members of Congress and other self-anointed 'experts' on the U.S. car industry, but General Motors CEO Richard Wagoner is one of the best auto executives around. He is just about everything his critics say he isn't, and vice versa. Under Wagoner, GM has made huge strides in vehicle quality. Its plants have been cited for major productivity improvements. It has repaired dealer relations that were damaged before Wagoner took the helm. And GM has become a leader in key global markets, such as China, Latin America and Russia. He has instilled a spirit of teamwork within GM. His managerial style is like the coach of a team, rather than the imperious leader of a global business.
"Wagoner has a global perspective, in part, because of management jobs he's held outside the U.S. during his 31-year GM career. We're seeing attempts to transmogrify an able auto executive into someone who should be fired for incompetency. The people trying to do this are the ones who seem truly incompetent."
Financial columnist Ben Stein puts a potential Detroit collapse into perspective: "To allow our largest heavy industrial component to fail at this delicate moment is suicidal. To put a couple of million more Americans into unemployment is just not sensible. There are millions of Americans hard at work making great American-made cars and trucks. Why not keep them on the job? And why are we so angry at the car companies' executives? They get miserable pay by Wall Street standards and have much harder jobs.... And what about the retirees? They get the benefits they were promised. If those can be taken away, then whose benefits are safe? And do you think it will be cheaper if the government takes on those costs directly?"
Detroit Science Center President and CEO Kevin Prihod praises Detroit's cadre of dedicated scientists and engineers in a Detroit News editorial: "Engineers from General Motors, Ford and Chrysler are leading the world in the development of battery technology, fuel cells, vehicle safety technology and sophisticated on-board microprocessing that puts NASA and Boeing to shame. American automotive process engineers have enhanced basic Japanese production techniques and quality systems to create the country's most integrated high volume production network of assembly plants and multi-tiered suppliers.
"Yesterday's 'Arsenal of Democracy' is truly today's 'Arsenal of Technology'.... While the great engineering minds of Silicon Valley fret over packing more songs into an iPod or downloading television shows faster, the engineers and scientists of the automotive industry are searching for the technology to reduce America's reliance on foreign oil and the world's consumption of fossil fuels."
We welcome your comments on this topic, but I recommend bringing contradicting facts and figures, not tired, old misperceptions and uninformed opinion, to credibly disagree with such acknowledged experts. And while we're debating, can't we all get behind America's critically important auto industry, enlighten ourselves about their current products, forgive their long-ago mistakes and hope they'll survive for the good of the country ... and all of our jobs?
Award-winning automotive writer Gary Witzenburg has been writing about automobiles, auto people and the auto industry for 21 years. A former auto engineer, race driver and advanced technology vehicle development manager, his work has appeared in a wide variety of national magazines including The Robb Report, Playboy, Popular Mechanics, Car and Driver, Road & Track, Motor Trend, Autoweek and Automobile Quarterly and has authored eight automotive books. He is currently contributing regularly to Kelley Blue Book (www.kbb.com), AutoMedia.com, Ward's Auto World and Motor Trend's Truck Trend and is a North American Car and Truck of the Year juror.
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