COLUMNS: Noise Vibration and Harshness: Media and The Big Three

May 12, 2009
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It only stood to reason that the news media, after spending years erroneously explaining how our major corporations were doing a fantastic job, would fail to predict their own collapse, along with the meltdown of the American economy. And on the way to misperceiving the rest of the world's subsequent economic decline, we ought not be surprised that the smug business publications and cable TV screamers have also fumbled the facts underpinning the American auto industry's ongoing brush with extinction.
Friends, we don't have all the answers here at Automobile Magazine, but I think I speak for my colleagues when I say we know one thing about the auto industry, a point the general media consistently gets backward: the problem today is not that General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler don't make good cars.
They make fine cars . . . and some not-so-fine ones. But a key misassumption is that cars have to be great to succeed. Exceptions are meant to prove rules, but in this case, the exceptions - the sheer number of bad cars that have sold well - disprove the rule. Three words: Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme. In 1982 and 1983, it was the best-selling car in America. But not the best.
I digress. People don't have money now, and those who do mostly aren't buying cars. This is largely because banks suddenly stopped lending money to buy new cars, which in the world of automotive retail was the precise moment an errant connecting rod punched a hole in the side of the metaphorical engine block. The race was over.
Yes, Detroit builds some not-so-thrifty cars. That was a problem when gas was expensive, before credit dried up. Not that anyone would notice now, since gas is practically free again. But with few exceptions the media, who missed the story of American makers' questionable judgments for almost the entire second half of the twentieth century, only got around to telling the story of the industry's 1990s wrong-turn - SUVs - fifteen years late, or around the time the domestic industry actually started making good cars again.
I thought about this the other day while driving the Chevrolet Cobalt XFE. This high-mileage version of Chevy's home-built price leader is shockingly all right (unlike the cheaper, Korean-built Aveo, which is OK, but just). The Cobalt's structure is taut, its interior materials decent. Especially surprising, the newest Ecotec 2.2-liter engine is torquey, rorty, and more muscular than any GM four I can remember, ever, and smooth to boot. The manual transmission is excellent. If you'd blindfolded me and told me I was driving a Volkswagen, I'd have believed you and expounded on its sublime new gearbox. At least until we crashed because I was blindfolded.
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Lest one get carried away, its chassis is still set up for comparison with unrefrigerated Jell-O. Even before highway speed is reached, uncertain body control, witless steering, and classic understeer rein in confidence. Low-ball, low-rolling-resistance all-season tires, the bane of driving enthusiasts everywhere, exacerbate matters, as you explore the limits of adhesion while driving straight.
That said, the XFE's EPA-combined 30 mpg nips at the heels of the smaller, 31-mpg Honda Fit, as does its low price ($15,710 before giveaways). I'd have said the trip computer was rigged, because you just don't imagine 155 horses, 2780 pounds, city driving, and 30-plus-mpg fuel economy in the same sentence.
The Cobalt XFE is but a few aftermarket purchases away from being a really good car. Best of all, GM finally has a small-car drivetrain for North America that's up to scratch. So key, yet still maybe not enough to save the company.
Although we might wish it weren't so, there's no law that says the losers in the current downturn can't be American. And, frankly, there's a lot about Detroit that can't go forward, if it is to go forward at all. But the media pile-on fails to reflect what's actually right and wrong in Detroit, and it affects the outcome by unfairly dragging down decent cars.
Bad things happen to good people. We know that. But if you believe in karma, you might observe that bad things sometimes happen to bad people, too. Could it be true for that fine legal fiction, the corporate person? Is there corporate karma? So much in the Big Three's past is ignoble: Fighting unions, mass transit, environmental and safety regulations. Sticking up for leaded gasoline, Freon, and bad gas mileage, to name a few infractions. Are the Big Three finally receiving their karmic due?
Maybe if they'd started to build good, safe, fuel-efficient cars without argument, things would be different. But, like the rest of us, they believed it when the media said they were doing great, even when they weren't.

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