How violent is the sea change for Detroit? In May, Ford's F-150, which hadn't been outsold by a car since October 1991, skydived to fifth spot behind a couple of Hondas (Civic and Accord) and two Toyotas (Corolla and Camry). The Civic is now the best-selling car in America, with 53,299 sold in May alone. By contrast, Chrysler sales are off 25 percent, and as I sit down to write, Dodge has just announced plans to darken its Ram facility in Saltillo, Mexico, for what it said would be only two weeks.
We'll see about that.
Clearly this is not just a down year, it's a total paradigm shift. Honestly, it's hard to think about cars in the same way anymore. Cars that seemed like pretty good ideas - say, Pontiac's six-cylinder G8, headed in the right direction with 25-mpg EPA highway mileage - suddenly seem less inspired with only 17-mpg city. Cars that appeared bad ideas before now seem like the worst ideas ever. The Hummer brand, for instance, is on target to sell fewer than 35,000 units this year, or about twelve percent the number of Oldsmobiles GM was selling when it decided to shut that venerable brand to concentrate on . . . Hummer.
Mercifully for our domestic makers, they're not the only ones whose affection for American gluttony is reflected in suddenly ridiculous products and plans. Audi has been talking about setting up a factory in the States. But instead of building the A3, the second-highest-mileage model in its lineup, Audi talked about building large SUVs, possibly to share with Volkswagen. It goes without saying that VW has been given a golden opportunity by the oil potentates - not to sell Americans more crap-mileage, me-too SUVs, but rather a production version of its tempting Up! show car, the one with the two-cylinder, rear-mounted engine that promises to be both highway-ready and incredibly green. It would be perfect for marketing to Americans at a semipremium price, with currency-exchange woes excised if the car is built in the United States. Porsche, reclaiming the old formula, should conjure something wondrous based on it.
The point is, the peace following the war that the carmakers have lost doesn't have to be a bad thing. Let the new game begin.