Traverse City Record-Eagle

March 17, 2013

Three cars could save Detroit

By Derek Price CNHI News Service
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — I’ve always wanted to learn German for two reasons.

One, it would slightly increase my chances of becoming a test driver for Porsche, giving me a shot at the coolest job on the planet. And two, I’d love to read what the Berlin newspapers wrote in 1945.

I imagine their front pages were downright silly, with Americans and British advancing from the west and Russians closing in from the east, all while Hitler insisted that things were just peachy. Allied shells falling in the Berlin suburbs might have been reported as victory celebrations by the Nazis, who were firing their Panzers in triumph as the Third Reich grew stronger. That’s the ticket.

We saw the same thing when Americans sent troops into Iraq for their most recent spat with Saddam. “Baghdad Bob,” as Iraq’s information minister came to be known, said things like “There are no American infidels in Baghdad. Never!” and “They’re coming to surrender or be burned in their tanks.

Suuuure

Today you see the same happy-go-lucky drivel coming out of press offices in Detroit. Chrysler is hemorrhaging money as it sits on the auction block, Ford is losing eleventy quadrillion dollars per day, and General Motors has slashed its workforce down to two old ladies and a janitor. But to read their press releases, you’d think they were all doing perfectly fine.

If this were World War II, Detroit would be sipping sherry in a bunker with Eva Braun while Toyota and Honda marched right to their doorstep. It’s pathetic.

Thankfully, there’s still hope for the American brands. Yes, they’re burdened with health-care costs that would bankrupt most nations and, yes, they have some hourly workers who are paid like they live in Windsor Castle. But with the right products, they all still have the potential to mount another blitzkrieg.

Here are three cars that could help Detroit launch its counter-attack:

FORD INTERCEPTOR

For too long, American companies have tried to make their cars more like the Japanese. That can be a good thing when it comes to quality and longevity. But mimicking the style of a Japanese sedan? Well, let’s just say there’s a reason Tokyo isn’t the fashion capital of the world.

Chrysler has regained some much-needed American machismo with cars like the 300C, and Ford could do the same thing if it decides to produce the Interceptor.

This concept car, which was introduced earlier this year, looks dark, foreboding and muscular, exactly the opposite of the weird, angry-toaster styling you see on Japanese cars.

Chrysler’s gangster-styled 300 is a major hit, and not only because it can come with Hemi power. It’s roomy, drives exceptionally well and looks like nothing else on the road.

Ford could use a similar weapon in its arsenal, helping to revive a unique American design philosophy that’s been missing since the ‘80s. It also could help wean Ford off its dependence on trucks and SUVs for profit, something that can’t be counted on with wildly fluctuating gas prices.

An all-American car with an all-American look. To me, that’s what Ford should mean.

DODGE DEMON

OK, I’ll admit a two-seat roadster will never sell enough to keep a car company afloat. But in this case, it just might help the Chrysler group’s reputation enough to bring more buyers into the showroom to look at their practical cars.

Take Mazda. This Japanese company doesn’t sell a whole lot of Miatas, but that puny little sports car has come to embody the spirit of the whole company. It creates a halo effect with the public, so anyone who wants something fun to drive and affordable naturally thinks “Mazda.” When you’re behind the wheel of a Mazda 6, for example, you can sense a tiny bit of Miata DNA.

Dodge has a halo car already - the Viper - which every 14-year-old boy worships on a billboard-size poster in his bedroom. The problem is that when these boys grow up, they realize the Viper costs more than NASA’s annual budget, so they stop fantasizing about it. If they didn’t, they’d go batty.

Dodge, and Chrysler for that matter, could use a fun to drive roadster that looks cool and can actually be affordable. If it inherits a bit of the Viper’s scary performance, that’s even better.

CHEVY VOLT

A lot of car companies have started building gas-electric hybrids, but it’s not just to make a profit. They want to look like environmental do-gooders.

Chevrolet has one-upped the Greenpeace crowd this year by introducing the Volt, a concept car that can travel up to 40 miles on electricity alone - enough for most commutes and trips to the grocery store. For longer trips, it also includes a 1-liter, turbocharged gasoline engine to extend the range up to 640 miles.

But this car isn’t intended just to make Al Gore grin. With a cool, sports-car-inspired body, it also looks like a cutting-edge car should.

The Toyota Prius, for example, is a great car for green liberals, but it looks incredibly nerdy - even with Hollywood stars behind the wheel. It’s the automotive equivalent of wearing your pants up to your chest and carrying a pocket protector. And its performance is merely mediocre, so if you don’t care about saving the polar bears, there’s no reason to buy the thing and lots of reasons to avoid it.

The Volt is significant for its styling as much as its tree-hugger efficiency. It looks in some ways like a classic sports car, with giant wheels and taut lines that make it seem agile and fun. It’s sexy.

And that alone could make hybrids more appealing for the masses.