x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Looking around the bend in motoring

What can we expect in the automotive industry next year? David Booth spreads some good cheer and fervent opinions on the future of the car industry in 2011.

Sergio Marchionne, CEO of Chrysler Group, right, tours a Chrysler plant in Toledo, Ohio, in August. Marchionne, also the head of Fiat, has his work cut out for him in finding success with Chrysler in 2011.
Sergio Marchionne, CEO of Chrysler Group, right, tours a Chrysler plant in Toledo, Ohio, in August. Marchionne, also the head of Fiat, has his work cut out for him in finding success with Chrysler in 2011.

I think the great sage Bill Murray had it wrong. The whole Scrooged denouement shouldn't have been about Christmas Eve, but New Year's. His whole "for a couple of hours out of the whole year, we are the people that we always hoped we would be" schtick is far more apropos of New Year's than Noel. For one thing, on New Year's Eve, many of us are with friends (whom we generally like) or strangers (whom we may even like more) while at Christmas we're with family (I'll let you fill in your own weird-uncle-inspired screed here). Besides, by New Year's, we're reveling in the home furnishings we've bought for ourselves at the after-Christmas sales rather than worrying about the full-pop debt we incurred buying gifts for others. No wonder New Year's Eve is a time of optimism and resolution; there are parties, we're with strangers we love and we're so very, very thankful that Christmas only comes round once a year.

It is in this spirit of beatific celebration that I bring you my predictions, nay my heartfelt wishes, for 2011. Call it my metaphorical "taking an old blanket out of the closet" for the homeless. Perhaps this is just my way of making sandwiches for the indigent. Indeed, the desire to help an old lady cross the street is starting to feel overwhelming. Next thing you know, I'll be volunteering at a soup kitchen and spontaneously carolling at roadside bus stops.

It is in just this spirit of heartfelt good cheer that I hope Toyota gets its mojo back. Yes, the world's most prolific automaker had got a little too big for its breeches, some might even say arrogant. But it's important to remember that, behind all that unnecessary obfuscation and misguided denial, there is a really excellent car company. Of all the non-luxury brands, for instance, Toyota has the best "survival rate" - as in more old cars still on the road - over the last 25 years. Camrys may not be enjoying the greatest of reputations now, but my dear old papa loved his 1998 LE with a fervour that made my mum jealous.


The repair may have already begun. Toyota, eager to put "hidden" problems behind them, now reels off another nationwide recall if a car so much as smells bad. Yes, its recently-announced Star Safety system - which makes anti-lock brakes, traction control, vehicle stability control, brake assist and electronic brake force distribution standard on all its cars sold in North America - is about 18 months too late to counteract its public relations debacle, but Toyota is now the only automaker that can claim this safety advantage. So, here's to hoping they continue their good deeds and perhaps speed up the rebuilding process.

I also hope that Chrysler really does get its act together. Recent refreshes - the Charger, Durango, and Grand Cherokee - have been greeted with praise from the motoring press, which proves, if nothing else, Mr. Murray's contention that we really do love the underdog. Nonetheless, there are road-blocks ahead. Though its problems are often lumped in with fellow bankruptee General Motors, the Fiat-owned company's problems are actually completely different. While GM's malaise was largely the result of a huge band of capable engineers hamstrung by a bureaucratic hierarchy, Chrysler's management is both eager and capable; they just may not have enough horses to pull off the turnaround. With the culling of staff in recent years, Chrysler may not have enough engineers and designers to produce an entire lineup of standout cars. Surely, Fiat's expertise will ease the burden, but they know nothing of full-sized pickups and minivans, not to mention ginourmous gangsta sedans like the 300. Here's to hoping that the company's propellor heads can put in enough overtime to keep up the good work.

You know, Bill's right; once you get into this "miracle of giving" thing you do want more of it. So, as long as we're dreaming in Technicolour, here's to hoping that Volvo gets managed with a softer touch than it's had over the last five years. It's been a very bad spell indeed for the once-proud Swedish automaker. First, Ford ran roughshod over its design, then it gutted its product portfolio and then, finally, when it knew it would be unloading the entire mess to somebody else, it virtually starved the poor Swedes to death.

In normal happenstances, being sold to the Chinese might be seen in a negative light, but with a forward-thinking plan that brims with expansion, methinks Volvo personnel are happier. Oh, there was that minor kerfuffle a few months ago when their new Chinese minders dressed down senior management for proposing the wrongs cars, but that's just everyone getting to know one another. Hopefully.

And, oh heck, as long as we're getting seriously teary-eyed for all things Scandinavian, let's even hope for a positive outcome for Saab. Discarded like so much trash by General Motors, the once proud, innovative and, of course, quirky automaker has had a terrible run of it lately; feeding on cast-off GM technology, mainstream styling that hardly fit its iconoclast image and, even in its recovery, the ignominy of having one of its main investors rejected for Mafioso-like connections. The road ahead will not be easy for any miniscule automaker and, while the pragmatist in me thinks the best thing would be to let the marque die an honourable death, by the time the big ball drops in the middle of New York's Time Square, I'll probably be pledging to send them a charitable contribution.

A more personal wish - think Mr. Murray's Kama Sutran pledge to the ever comely Karen Allen - is that BMW keeps on truckin' along with its design turnaround. The first decade of this new millenium was not kind to BMW. The styling was dodgy, the electronics complicated and the company seemed to have lost its moorings. The end (again, hopefully) of this horrible recession once again sees the company penning alluring shapes. The 3 Series Coupe is positively Penelope Cruzish, the 135i is my favourite mainstream automobile and the X3 is finally the dashing SAV it always promised to be. Even the motorrad division is firing on all cylinders; its S1000RR has dominated superbiking for the last 18 months and the motorcycle side is unleashing a six-cylinder sport-tourer that is the talk of the town. Now, if we could just get rid of iDrive … .

I'm also praying that Audi can keep up its incredible momentum. Considering its once-tarnished reputation (the term "unintended acceleration" was originated for Audi's late 1980s woes), its resurgence of late is remarkable; almost everything it touches turns golden. Its styling is the best Europe has to offer, its diesels are the best on the planet and its interiors the envy of all other luxury automakers. Throw in an R8 that is quite literally the sexiest car on the planet (and, yes, I cam comparing it with Ferrari, Lamborghini and the like) and you have a rebirth seemingly scripted in Hollywood. Now comes word that the famed Quattro may be resurrected, surely the answer to many a fervent Christmas wish by Audi fans the world over.

On a more general note, I'm also hoping that automakers will curb this headlong rush into all things electronic. Please save me from steering wheels that buzz when I wander a little too close to roadway paint stripes, keyless go ignition switches that do nothing more than solve the onerous task of having to turn a key in an ignition switch and those silly blinking blind spot warning flashers designed for people too lazy to perform a simple shoulder check. Factor in onboard computers, navigation systems and those infotainment systems seemingly designed to be a distraction (at a time when cell phones are being banned for doing exactly the same thing) and we have the truly scary prospect of Bill Gates taking over the design of our cars. Electronic proliferation is a lot like New Year's Eve partying; it's important to know when to stop.

My most fervent wish, however, is to all the wide-eyed environmentalists out there who are seemingly demanding that we stake our entire automotive future on the pure (and I use that adjective advisedly as I am a big fan of plug-in hybrids and range extenders) electric vehicle. A little pragmatism might be in order. Certainly, current conditions - the relatively low price of fuel in North America and the Gulf region, the extremely disappointing sales of mainstream hybrids and the poor economy - do not point to a consumer ready to fork over big dollars for a car they can't leave town with.

Yes, our environment deserves better than we are doing. Yes, we must wean ourselves off the big fuel hogs. There's also no doubt automakers must come up with practical alternatives to the current state of internal combustion engines. But, all those who are demanding that only a pure-as-the-driven-snow EV is a true and righteous solution to our automotive emissions problems are starting to sound a bit like America's crazed Tea Partiers; willing to sacrifice all vestiges of common sense so long as they maintain their self-righteous purity. Dogma may make for interesting politics; it makes for terrible automobiles.