Hope always springs eternal and nowhere is that sentiment more prevalent than in the auto industry. The hopes of many marketers and auto executives hinge on how successful each year’s new models are. In the spring, with a new outlook for everyone, anxious hands are wringing in boardrooms (boredrooms?) around the globe.
Let’s take a look back at where the auto industry was in the springs of 2005-2006 as I purge my files of old press releases and assorted tidbits covering what’s hot — and what’s not. Take note of where these products are today.
At General Motors, promising new vehicles filled the pipeline as numerous new models sprung forth from the General’s multiple divisions, only a year after GM helped the country’s economy jump-start from the devastating effect of triple hurricanes.
Saturn (remember them?) had the new Euro-bred Aura sedan, which promptly fell on its face, plus the value-priced Sky convertible. There was also the Saturn Vue Green Line Hybrid getting all kinds of favorable press and carrying the dreams of environmentalists convinced that battery-powered cars would make us energy-free. One writer even called the Vue “elegant.” Really? Hidden behind the scenes was the development of a fully electric SUV, the Chevy Sequel. Looking much like today’s new Trax, the Sequel may still be in a GM test-lab, somewhere.
These short-lived offerings were offset by more excitement at Saab, where the attractive new 9-3X wagon prototype debuted in Europe and Anglo-drivers salivated over the latest offering from Trollhatten.
Countering the Saturn’s Green emphasis was the powerful Hummer H3, the “compact” SUV based on GM’s small pickup chassis. USA Today said the new Hummer “made a statement.” Yes, it did.
GM also teased us with spy photos of the pending new Camaro, seen in the “Transformer” movies as BumbleBee, while the next generation Suburban, wearing heavily boxed corners and a commanding stance, joined the Tahoe in taunting SUV buyers to wait one more year for this groundbreaking truck. Meanwhile, Chevy dealers stopped taking orders on the much admired, but slow selling, SSR hot-rod pickup.
That didn’t stop performance fans from flocking to Chevy dealers for the remodeled Corvette Z06, $65,000, and then with 505-hp. Chevy dealers continued to sell the unique Avalanche pickup — a truck with no competitors.
In Dearborn, Ford management was looking for someone, anyone, to run the company and jump-start product planning in addition to sales. The Explorer, long a solid bread and butter vehicle, as well as the Taurus sedan, were both down on their luck with sharply declining sales and only the F-series pickup was keeping Ford in the black — barely. Pushed by regulators to develop more Flex-Fuel vehicles — remember those bare-knuckled efforts — these trucks and cars never generated either the elevated mileage or driving benefits promised.
Pundits claimed that the new Lincoln MKZ could be the “zowie car” that would jump-start the luxury brand’s stagnant sales. Instead, Lincoln sales moved further backward, and then the brand killed off the historic Town Car.
The Wall Street Journal said that the domestic auto industry was at a crossroads; stalled by history, labor issues, and legacy debts, the Big Three faced some serious pending challenges. How prescient that proved to be only two years later when the economy collapsed over mortgage malfeasance.
Over at Chrysler, or as it was known then, Daimler/Chrysler, one side was thriving and the other was, well, not so much. Mercedes had the new ML series, built in Alabama, growing and then available with a new diesel engine, plus the R-Wagon, a three-row minivan-like crossover debuted. C-class sales were swimming upstream.
Chrysler debuted the new four-door Jeep Wrangler Unlimited plus the Chrysler Aspen full-size SUV. The former is still a hot seller. The latter sold for just two years.
From Germany, the cars just kept getting better and better as the three luxury marquees started to dominate the premium sales charts here just as they did in the rest of the world. BMW unveiled the new 645i coupe and convertible, starting at $70,000, while the stunning A5/S5 coupe ($10,000 less) arrived from Audi and instantly sent hearts aflutter. Both cars were available with stunningly smooth high-performance V-8 engines and AWD. BMW also teased the new 335i coupe, a derivative of the M3, but with more balance and poise. The BMW was faster than a Mustang GT and promised better fuel economy and greater handling prowess. All of these coupes are still on sale.
BMW also revealed that it was planning on producing a fleet of hydrogen-fueled V-12 powered 750 sedans.
From Asia, Kia told us that they were targeting Chevrolet as the Korean brand was going to reposition its vehicles for America. Mazda introduced the CX7 mid-size crossover, a nimble five-passenger wagon that handled and drove more like a Miata than a station wagon, while the compact MazdaSpeed 3 Sportwagon claimed the title of world’s fastest front wheel drive car. Sadly, both models have not recently come down for breakfast.
At Subaru, yet to start its rapid climb up the sales charts due to a decidedly ho-hum lineup, the six-cylinder powered Tribeca debuted. Critics were not kind to the Tribeca.
Honda showed us its Ridgeline pickup, with the clever dual-action tailgate and in-bed trunk, while archrival Toyota started production of its first, true full-size pickup, the Texas-built Tundra. The new FJ Cruiser arrived from Toyota, along with the hybrid Camry, plus a dramatic eight-speed automatic transmission in the latest Lexus LX460 sedan. Toyota claimed that buyers would consume 60,000 hybrid Camry’s a year. See below.
With oil prices dropping through the summer, alternative fuel automakers gulped as hybrid car sales plummeted. Hardest hit was Honda, as all three of the maker’s hybrid-powered cars saw sharp sales drops. Prius sales slowed and the promise of that Green Line Saturn Vue showed that the marketplace is a cruel place and any view into the future is fraught with lots of risk.