One of the great joys of working in the auto industry is always the last week of December. That’s when Americans by the hundreds of thousands rush in to buy a new vehicle before the next year begins. Yet over the past decade what was already the industry’s most incredible sales week has gone on steroids: Friday, Jan. 2, Classic Chevrolet sold around 140 new vehicles that day alone, for 763 new and 1,100 total retail sales including used cars. Over in the eastern part of the Metroplex, Sewell Lexus of Dallas sold 700 new cars for the month and 1,127 total new and used. True, most don’t sell such numbers, but overall it was again an extremely enjoyable week to be in the auto industry.
Then again, every December is followed by a January, when the pace of new car sales slows to one appropriate to the winter season — with only two annual exceptions to date. It seemed that a number of local dealers back in 1999 and 2000 sold as many new cars in January as they had in December.
I specifically remember those two years because at the time our area had America’s largest Honda dealership, and it seemed to sell 600 new cars a month no matter what. It wasn’t that period’s oil market collapse that finally changed that store’s volumes; actually, cheap oil propelled their sales. That store dropped way out of nationwide first place because the high-tech North Dallas corridor collapsed after the Dotcom bust.
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Replacing the fond but fading memories of last month’s sales are the new dreams of what the industry might quickly become: Only days after the new year begins, the North American Auto Show unveils everything that is new and, we hope, coming to our local dealers’ lots in the near future. But who would have ever thought that the showstopper in Detroit this year would be a Buick?
That’s right, the most stunning luxury sedan ever to come out of the design studios of General Motors sported a Buick nameplate on the back.
One can almost imagine the inter-divisional battles that this vehicle will incite. For the new Buick Avenir is not just a car that could theoretically steal sales from Cadillac; Mercedes, BMW, Audi, Lexus and any other luxury manufacturer in the world are also vulnerable. My first thought, like so many first thoughts about GM’s decisions over the past few years, was that someone at GM had messed up badly on this one: What the Avenir should have been is the new Cadillac flagship luxury sedan, because it would change the world’s perception of that brand.
Now, internal battles over who gets what cars have been the norm at GM over the past 35 years, except during Bob Lutz’s seven years overseeing design. So it would be a fair assumption that Cadillac’s new General Manager, Johan DeNysschen, probably isn’t happy that Buick received this wildly positive response to its concept — especially when his job may depend on convincing the public to reserve such acceptance for his own division’s upcoming flagship sedan.
It should be noted that Buick made a point of putting the new Avenir on the exact same CT-6 chassis that the future Cadillac will use.
Then again, this is simply a concept car at this point, and there’s no guarantee that once it goes into production it will look like the vehicle shown in Detroit. The only circumstance that gives us hope that the Buick Avenir will happen is that Buick is huge in China, making this vehicle more likely to achieve a reasonable overall sales volume worldwide.
But that wasn’t GM’s only surprise at the Detroit Show. No, the company also showed off its Chevy Bolt all-electric car, which GM claims will have a 200-mile range and sell for $30,000. The suggestion was that this would pre-empt Tesla’s upcoming “all-electric car for the masses” by having a similar range and price structure.
The good news is that, in spite of lackluster sales of most electric cars — much of which is happening because many automakers want these vehicles to fail — the Bolt effectively more than doubles the range of today’s electrics. Therein also lies the problem.
The real-world range of most electrics today is at best slightly overstated, just as the original prices promised for these vehicles came in nowhere near projections. Few remember that when GM first said it would build the Chevrolet Volt, the car’s predicted range was much higher than the 35 miles it actually gets on pure electric power. The Volt’s claimed price structure went from $25,000 to $30,000, then to $35,000 — but the original model ended up costing even more than that.
Further, Fiat, Honda and Toyota, but a few of the manufacturers doing it, restricted their all-electric cars’ sales to the West Coast, almost ensuring that abnormally low volumes would cause them to fail. But Nissan took its all-electric Leaf nationwide — and hit another sales record in 2014.
So, the second the new Chevy Bolt was introduced, here came Nissan, saying that’s no big deal. The new Leaf coming out in two years, says Nissan, will have double the range, possibly more, and a price structure similar to the current model’s. Nissan is the only manufacturer besides Tesla to have wavered not one iota from its commitment to all-electric cars.
Oh, and during the show BMW announced that its Super Bowl ad next month will showcase its own all-electric car, the i3.
Of course there was the obligatory hype about self-driving cars, but Google also made a massive admission about the future: These cars will not be totally crash-proof. Chris Urmson, head of Google’s efforts to create a self-driving vehicle, was quoted in the Wall Street Journal on Jan. 15 as saying, “There will be failures of these vehicles. We need to get to the point where we accept that.”
Really? I’m fairly sure that’s the one and only thing the public is not going to accept in a self-driving car.
At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Mercedes unveiled its vision of the future; and in its self-driving cars the driver and passenger seats swivel completely around to where all four passengers can converse. This implies that the Benz is so safe driving itself down the road, potentially at freeway speeds, that one needn’t bother keeping one’s eyes on the road.
Now comes the statement that not only are these vehicles quite capable of being in an accident, but the sooner we all accept that proposition, the better off we’ll be.
Oh, and someone else pointed out that self-driving cars don’t work in the snow, because their lasers and cameras can’t function properly.
The last tidbit on self-driving cars is that the current electronic setup to make them a reality costs around $75,000 per vehicle. Meaning that if this system were installed on the always exceptional Honda Accord LX, that car might retail for around $97,000. Not exactly a small price to pay for having your car drive you to the supermarket in your golden years.
Google and others haven’t revealed what makes them believe they will reduce that $75,000 cost within five years to an amount that most can afford.
To add icing to the cake, a new Ford GT Supercar and the new Acura NSX were introduced; and yet this year’s Detroit Auto Show still belonged to a Buick luxury sedan. This just goes to show that, no matter what happens in technology, fuel efficiency or any of the other automotive issues we claim are important, a truly great design wins out every time.
© Ed Wallace 2015
Ed Wallace is a recipient of the Gerald R. Loeb Award for business journalism. He hosts Wheels, 8:00 to 1:00 Saturdays on 570 KLIF AM. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; read all of Ed’s work at www.insideautomotive.com.