Although new car sales these days seem good only in comparison with the pitiful totals of 2008 and 2009, people are saying that the auto industry is back. Credit has loosened, profits are up, people are kicking tires again, and, as any journalist who's recently been to an auto show or a press launch can tell you, the car companies' somber moods have lifted.
Back in 2009, things were so bad that attendees at the media days of the Detroit auto show were hard-pressed to find a complimentary club soda, much less the hot- and cold-running booze showers that had been standard fitment on all but the lowliest carmakers' stands for time immemorial. These simple indicators of industry health -- free-flowing liquor and copious snacks -- were cited by several of my colleagues as auguring good times ahead.
It's true, several of this year's events so far have felt like the day Prohibition ended, but I'm less certain. Just because big smiles, private chefs, and executive bonuses are fashionable again doesn't prove that recovery is upon us. American corporations are not only world renowned for rewarding their officers excessively, they're also famous for rewarding them prematurely, the way many parents these days feel compelled to praise their children when they get a C+ in math or accidentally poison the cat without killing it.
Frankly, if I could mortgage everything I own and then get billions from the government, walking away from my debts, suppliers, and workers while generally squeezing the hell out of every account payable because of the tough times abroad in the land, my business would be looking pretty good right now, too. At least, for a while. And you can bet your "reload" stock option that I'd be bonusing myself to the max, even if it took more zesty rebates than Silvio Berlusconi has ethical lapses.
Not that there aren't reasons to be optimistic. I'm encouraged, for one, by the brewing fuel-mileage wars. Unlike the horsepower wars of the last twenty years, which have as much to do with real life as the twenty-sixth century, interspecies combat of a StarCraft video game, this is a competition that actually matters. That's because higher fuel prices are as much a given in this life as epic oil-company profits and John Boehner's twenty-sixth century, all-season, interspecies tan. I mean, 40-mpg Ford Focuses and Hyundai Elantras, 41-mpg Honda Civics, and 42-mpg Chevy Cruzes? Let this game play on -- I love it. Pity Fiat, whose 500 musters a mere 38-mpg EPA highway rating. Better than a Honda Fit's 35 or a Toyota Yaris's 36 but not good enough, because nowadays forty is the new thirty; presumably, Sergio Marchionne has canceled all bunga bunga festivities for the duration, until someone in engineering can find a solution.
Some things about the post-crash auto industry haven't changed. My parents recently decided to redeploy their low-mileage 2004 BMW 325xi wagon. (Hello, Ike Clemente Kitman, licensed driver at last.) Encouraged to return to their small-car roots by their serial love affair with Mini Coopers and possessed of their demographic set's understandable fixation on low monthly payments, they went shopping in New Jersey with a list devised by their son, the one who's driven everything.
First up was a trip to the Subaru dealer for a look at the Impreza hatchback. Looks like everything else, they told me later. I disagree heartily (I think it's handsome) but understood the horror of these former owners of three Subaru wagons when they finally got around to focusing on the new Outback. You should read my column more often, I suggested.
Next they repaired to the Mazda dealer on Route 46, where they'd been instructed to look closely at the Mazda 2 and 3. They wanted four doors, to spare their increasingly octogenarian friends the indignity of clambering into the back of their two-door Mini, but they were unable to drive either car because both demonstrators were dead. While sitting in a Mazda 2 that wouldn't start, they were given too much time to consider the budget feel of its interior plastics, and before long it was sayonara for good. The salesman, who'd left my parents to find some jumper cables but didn't come back, never followed up.
Discouraged, the folks alighted at the Ford store in Englewood, New Jersey, for a look at the Fiesta. The salesman told them it was theirs to lease at $195 per month, but when they looked unimpressed, he told them if they were already leasing a car he could do it for $175. Intrigued, they headed to the door promising to call back, and he shouted after them that he could probably do $150, with a mere $700 in money down required.
We liked that price so much that I called him Friday afternoon (the following day) to do the deal. I spent half an hour on the phone, assuring him that we were ready to lease a Fiesta hatch with the cold-weather package, an automatic transmission, and four snows on steel rims. But he said he couldn't give me a final price until he spoke to his parts department on Monday to find out what winter tires cost. He never called. On Monday night I called him and he said the parts department hadn't gotten back to him.
I explained that we were anxious to close the deal. Tuesday he called and said the price was $195 a month, after all -- he was now (erroneously) asserting that the cold-weather package was available only with Sync. Plus there'd be another $1700 for the winter tires and rims, which seemed pretty pricey since Tire Rack will ship a set to my house for as low as $513 plus tax. I asked for total charges, with the tires factored in or out of the lease. When I still hadn't heard back that night, I called and got another guy, who insisted that $195, without snows, was as low as they'd go. He couldn't figure a price with the snows until the following day, and the cash down was not $700 but more like $1600.
Five days after my parents had reluctantly decided to buy a Fiesta -- face it, the move downmarket is not always easy -- we still had only a ballpark price that was worse than the one they'd first been quoted. At which point they decided not to get a second car after all. Although this experience beat the General Motors-era Saab dealer, who responded to my Internet query nine months after I'd put it in, or the Volkswagen dealer, who took only three, it was hardly a monument to modern customer service. Maybe the auto industry is back, after all.
Illustration: Tim Marrs