The authors of weekly columns usually face the same year-end choice: Either summarize the events of the past year (while offering Olympian insights) or bravely predict the turn of events in the year to come. While I will not shirk my duty at this hallowed moment, I will choose a different course.
Commentary about 1987 -- including such dismal moments as the mugging of the Audi 5000 by CBS, the shameful buyout of H. Ross Perot by General Motors and the death of Henry Ford II -- would only lead to depression without providing insight. And I haven't the vaguest idea what 1988 will bring. Nevertheless, a number of questions nag at me. Rather than pronounce, I will publicly puzzle, and ask some questions that may be answered next year:
How many manufacturers will follow Fiat's retreat and in 1988 give up selling cars in the United States? The worldwide production of automobiles already vastly exceeds the supply of protential buyers. There are more than 40 different companies, ranging in size from midgets like Bitter and Avanti to giants like Ford, Nissan and Chevrolet, selling automobiles on these shores. They offer more than 200 different cars, light trucks and vans, each in numerous permutations. The core market -- machinery costing $10,000 to $20,000 -- is glutted. Which manufacturers will survive 1988 is the question that haunts the business.
If Audi goes, can Buick be far behind? Audi is still smarting from the slings and arrows of the "unintended acceleration" witch hunt and is saddled with its new 80/90 line, which is stumbling out of the starting gate. In October, Audi's 435 dealerships sold fewer than 300 model 80 and 90 autos. Audis are still popular in Europe: The company could simply flee home. And what about Buick? Rumors are swirling in Detroit that General Motors might scrap the venerable brand, the mainstay of its upper-middle-class lineup since the beginning of the corporation. Buick has been hurt by competition from its own GM brothers -- Oldsmobile from below, Cadillac above. When the GM hierarchy decided two decades ago to make all three brands share the same chassis and drive-trains, it prevented each from maintaining a meaningful position in terms of image and price. General Motors dumped La Salle in 1940 and almost dumped Pontiac in 1954.
Will Lee Iacocca be crowing about Chrysler a year from now? Despite booming sales of its wonderful mini-vans, the company is loaded with hard-to-sell cars that are gussied-up clones of the Aries-Reliant K-Cars, a 10-year-old design. Chrysler has not offered a domestically built replacement engine or chassis for the noisy, crude K-cars, leaving its well-styled new models like the LeBaron coupe and Chrysler convertible subject to criticism that they are merely good-looking Plymouth Reliants. And despite increases in quality, the fit and finish of Chrysler products do not equal that of Ford, much less the better imports.
How much further can Ford go with its jellybean look? Although Ford thrives on its lean, aware management and radically improved products, there is a danger that its dazzling aerodynamic styling could become a cliche'. The new Continental looks alarmingly like the Taurus. There is only so much that can be done with aerodynamics before cars begin to look like bullets out of the same clip.
When will Congress figure out that people who can afford Mercedes-Benzes can afford to pay more taxes? What's wrong with a luxury tax on a $50,000 automobile? What's wrong with higher gasoline taxes, or taxes on engine displacement? Wouldn't they wreak havoc on the deficit, cool our national ardor to waste petroleum and make it less important for us to protect shipping in the Strait of Hormuz?
Have the great West German carmakers priced themselves out of further growth? Sales have sagged for such expensive machines as the Mercedes- Benz 560 SELs, and the Porsche 928s and 911s. (Although BMW's new $68,000 750iL V-12 is a runaway best-seller.) But the West German firms are really in trouble with their entry-level automobiles. The Mercedes 190s are dead in the water, as are the 944 and 924 Porsches and the 3-series BMWs. Here, content versus price fares badly against Japanese alternatives such as the Honda Acura and Nissan Maxima.
Will the safety crazies finally admit that the 65-mph speed limit works? New data indicates that fatalities are down in most western states where the new limit is in effect, while a number of eastern states where the old double-nickel remains have shown increases in deaths.
Will big dealers dictate car design? Now that Wal-Mart and Sears are eyeing the automobile retail market (and several mega-dealers are considering merging to become massive public corporations), can we be on the verge of a major revolution in the way cars are sold? ::