Brand Breakdown

By Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 26, 2006

As recently as a generation ago, brand loyalty meant something for U.S. car buyers. You were a Ford man or a Plymouth family.

The first car for legions of young men was a Chevy. As Americans increased in age and wealth, they climbed the General Motors Corp. status ladder, up through the Pontiac, Buick, Oldsmobile and, ultimately, Cadillac brands.

But today, consumers have a broader range of choices, as foreign automakers have poured vehicles into the U.S. market. Further, three decades of disappointment with the quality of U.S. vehicles has combined with Detroit's on-again, off-again commitment to building innovative passenger cars. The result: Brand loyalty has continued to slip away.

With that, a run of job cuts, plant closings and model-line paring has emanated from Detroit automakers, the most recent coming last week.

The Big Three have confused car buyers by inundating them with poorly defined brands and too many models. And, compared with their Japanese rivals, U.S. automakers have often shown less interest in upgrading cars after their high-profile rollouts, analysts say.

By contrast, for instance, the Toyota Camry has gone through five redesigns since its 1982 rollout as an economy sedan; America's top-selling car received continuous horsepower upgrades and now has features found on higher-priced luxury vehicles.

As the reliability and sex appeal of certain brand names have waned, Detroit automakers have had to rely more heavily on incentive-laden pricing to lure customers.

GM has tried hard in recent years to recoup some brand loyalty but has had difficulty in wooing customers back. Once at more than 50 percent, GM's market share now stands at 24 percent.

In a recent J.D. Power and Associates survey tracking owners who had traded in their vehicle for one of the same brand, U.S. brands occupied seven of the 10 slots that showed the greatest drop-off in brand loyalty between 2004 and 2005. Four of the top five gainers were Japanese; Jeep was the lone American.

This year -- as Ford and GM close all or part of 26 factories and terminate several models -- car buyers will watch as a blur of familiar and obscure names begin exiting the market, replaced by a raft of new and retooled models.

All told, the world's automakers will introduce 23 new and 27 redesigned models to the United States this year. Hello to the Honda Fit subcompact, Saturn Aura sedan, Volkswagen Eos ragtop and new SUVs from Dodge, Mercedes-Benz and Jeep.

Goodbye to the Lincoln LS, which caught the eye of enthusiasts such as information-technology manager Ron Browne at the end of 1999, when car magazines began hailing the new luxury performance sedan as an "American BMW." Motor Trend magazine named the LS Car of the Year at its debut.

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