Feature Story

SIX-WEEK UPDATE NUMBER FIVE

by Bob Hagin

August 1, 1997

Six weeks has passed since our last Autoworld Update. As usual, many things have happened during that time and while they were all interesting, these are the happenings that caught my journalistic eye:

GENERAL MOTORS BRINGS BACK REAR-WHEEL DRIVE - Actually The General never really abandoned the concept of having vehicles with a motor up front driving the rear wheels, but aside from trucks, the Camaro/ Firebird clones and the Corvette, almost everything out of GM-USA is front-wheel drive. When the Chevy Caprice, Cad Fleetwood, Olds 98 and Buick Roadmaster were sent to pasture last year, we all lifted a toast to Ford as the last builder of "traditional" American behemoth cruisers. But GM is determined to be a major player in the international luxury car market in a couple of years and has learned that when Europeans think luxury car, they think Mercedes E-Class, BMW 7-Series, Lexus LS400 and Infiniti Q45 - all front-engine/rear-drive. To get into that world-wide carriage-trade game, GM planners are considering a new rear-drive platform for an updated Cadillac Eldorado as well as an all-new Buick and the German-built Cadillac Catera V6 which has so far been a poor seller. The aging Camaro/Firebird "ponies" are also likely candidates for a more modern rear-drive General Motors platform since their sales have dropped over 20 percent in the first five months of '97. There are even rumors that shortly after the turn of the century, only one of these two-seaters (Camaro/Firebird) will remain, the most likely survivor being the Camaro.

CHRYSLER DEALERS GO INTO MOBILE SERVICE - Mobile auto service is a hot item in the auto repair business. Many of my colleagues and former students have eschewed the trials and tribulations of setting up shop in a fixed location to operate out of converted vans, pickups and school busses. Some members of the repair establishment look down their noses at these "flying squad" mechanics but now even the Chrysler Corporation has gotten into the game. The factory recently completed a pilot program with 16 dealerships that featured Dodge cargo vans outfitted with special bins, tools, work space and such to allow specially-selected in-house dealership mechanics to perform certain recall repairs, accessory installations, air conditioner servicing, etc. "Specially- selected" means that the technician isn't a grouch and can get along with people. Chrysler prepared the vans with special paint and graphics at the factory and for $30,000, the dealers bought mobile billboards as well as a device that frees up a stall in the shop for more labor- intensive heavy jobs. According to Bob Kleso, Chrysler's manager of customer satisfaction marketing, the dealers who participated expected to only gain good will from the rolling repair shop, but found that they made money on the vans too. Kleso told me that another 100 Advanced Customer One dealerships are going on line with the program as soon as more vans are ready.

IACOCCA UPDATE - Since being on the losing team in an unfriendly power-play to regain control of Chrysler, ex-chairman Lee Iacocca has been crossed off the Christmas card lists of the auto industry. While the news of his corporate death has been exaggerated (to paraphrase Mark Twain), his latest vehicular endeavor is less that monumental. Iacocca has formed EV (as in Electric Vehicle) Global Motors Co. in Los Angeles to produce two-and-three wheelers that run on electric motors. Judging by the lack of public acceptance of the General Motors electric four-wheeler in its Los Angeles testing area, Iacocca must be aware of something that the rest of us don't know. "I believe the time is right for electric transportation," Iacocca is quoted as saying, but it's questionable if a battery-powered tricycle is the form that electric transportation will take. If memory serves, Malcolm Bricklin recently learned that the hard way.

TOYOTA TERCEL BITES THE DUST - MAYBE - So how long has Toyota been in the econobox business? Its little $1600 Corolla two-door really started it off in '69 (I had a couple) and Toyota got into the cheap front-drive world with the Corolla Tercel of '80. The Tercel is still the bottom-of-the-line in the Toyota family, but that will soon change. For '98, the made-in-Japan Tercel will be shipped here in drastically reduced numbers (by 80 percent, according to reports) and the reason doesn't have much to do with its popularity. Toyota's American Camry plant is running full-speed to try to meet the domestic demand for the mid-sized sedan and the company would ship in more Japanese-built Camrys, but it's import quota is very strict. The answer is obvious: bringing in fewer low-priced Tercels (as well as it's Paseo coupe sibling) will allow more higher-profit Camrys to be shipped over. The plan also calls for discontinuing the Tercel/Paseo line in the U.S. completely in '99.

Six weeks passes fast in the auto world. Stay tuned and we'll see what happens next.

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