By Marty Padgett
The year 2011 will not go down in history as the happiest year for the auto industry. From March's destructive earthquake and tsunami in Japan, to the year-long Saab saga that's ending sadly, it's been a difficult, sometimes tragic, year for the people who work in the auto industry.
There is something to tuck into the time capsule for future generations, however. Japan is recovering; U.S. car sales are on the rebound, slowly but surely. We've driven some fantastic new machines this year, and the 2012 Detroit Auto Show next month is sure to count a few more great new entries. Does that count as hope? We think it does.
While we look forward to better cars and better car news in 2012, here's a look back at the past twelve months, for the biggest stories of the past year.
Saab fades into history
Some say that the end began in 2000, when GM took full control of the Swedish automaker; others point the blame to the 1980s-era 9000 sedan, or even earlier. Some argue Saab never really had a place in the automotive world that Volvo couldn't fill. Whatever the cause, Saab's long struggle ended this week when it put itself into bankruptcy, after all attempts to find more financing failed. The small miracle of Saab, if there was one, was how long it lasted on parts-bin pieces. The 9000 made platform-sharing reality before it was typical; some of us think the 2011 Saab 9-5 was the best version of that GM-based architecture. But after its 900 Turbo in the 1980s, Saab entirely depended on sharing -- something no brand can live with. In the end, Saab couldn't even afford to build momentum, much less a new lineup of cars.
Bailouts are the new gay marriage
If you thought the saga of GM and Chrysler in bankruptcy would end with an Italian white knight and an IPO, you're probably an optimist. With the campaign for the 2012 election cycle already well underway, the "bailout" loans are the new gay marriage -- a wedge issue with lots of nuanced positions available for the taking. Leading the opposition for the GOP: former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who took the hard-line position in a 2008 New York Times op-ed, "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt". Romney, and to a lesser extent his colleagues from Paul to Gingrich to Bachmann, have come out strongly against the federally backed loans, which took full form under President Obama, but were initiated under the Bush administration. The White House now suggests a loss of as much as $14 billion from the loans, but says it prevented a domestic auto industry implosion. No matter which candidates end up going head to head, it's likely that GM and Chrysler will be on the ballot, too.
Alabama law threatens "Detroit South"
Alabama won the war for transplant automakers, but will it lose the peace on a technicality? Since 1995, the state has used generous tax incentives to attract automakers to build assembly plants inside its borders. The state now counts Mercedes-Benz, Honda, Hyundai and Toyota as corporate citizens. However, the state's tough new immigration laws are having an unfortunate side effect: execs from those companies are being pulled over and asked for identification, even detained. Earlier this year, a Mercedes-Benz executive was arrested and briefly jailed in Tuscaloosa for not having his driver's license in his possession when he was pulled over during a traffic stop. A few weeks later, a Japanese Honda employee was stopped at a traffic checkpoint and was detained, though news reports indicated he produced a passport, a U.S. work permit, and a valid international driver's license. Alabama state officials admit there's a problem with their new statutes, which were written to address a perceived lack of federal oversight of illegal immigration -- but with a policing question that's only easily answered by unconstitutional profiling, the legislature has a thorny task ahead of it.
Fiat 500 fumbles out of the gate
An Italian pedigree, ads by J-Lo -- what could go wrong with the launch of the Fiat 500? Plenty, from the plan to require dealers to build new stores, to the idea that Americans would go for something even smaller than a Fiesta, to the notion that a new 500 alone could refurbish the damaged brand. To cap off the Fiat 500's slow sales launch, the car recently earned a three-star crash-test rating. Far shy of its 50,000-unit sales goal, with no second model waiting in the wings, Fiat is about where pundits expected it to be -- a diversion when Chrysler's turnaround is in full swing.
Electric, hybrid car sales still lag
History has officially been made, and now that the first electric and extended-range electric vehicles are on sale, the sales numbers aren't exactly encouraging. Through eleven months this year, Nissan has sold 8,720 Leafs (including 18 in December of 2010) and Chevy has sold 6,142 Volts (including 326 last December). Both are significantly below initial original projections, with a few complications factoring in -- the Leaf, with the March earthquake in Japan, and the Volt with a production changeover at its Hamtramck plant. While GM leadership may want to boost Volt production, and while the Leaf's ambitious global business plan includes more related EVs and factories around the world, the facts are sobering. Even in a healthy global economy, electric cars were going to be a tough pitch. In today's changing economic climate, electric vehicles will need generous incentives for the foreseeable future, to convert the doubters, if they're ever to become a mass-market success story.
Gas pains: 40 mpg* is the new 30, or is it?
The headlong downsizing of the nation's new-car fleet is underway, and gas mileage numbers are on the rise. From the Ford Focus to the Chevy Cruze, big automakers are trumpeting their gas mileage, and none is advertising it more than Hyundai. The South Korean carmaker says it sells more cars with 40-mpg EPA ratings than anyone, and it's tweaking its competition by pointing out the asterisks they use to denote the special 40-mpg editions in their fleets. The flurry of airborne asterisks that dropped on crowds at the 2011 New York auto show made a vivid point, but it may have started a less savory chain reaction. Other automakers have questioned whether they should continue to certify their own ratings, or if the EPA should test all cars instead. Consumer Watchdog has called for the EPA to re-test the 2011 Hyundai Elantra, saying many owners report far lower gas mileage than its 29/40/33-mpg rating. On its behalf, Hyundai points out evidence that its real-word mileage compares favorably with its EPA ratings.
Ford plans ahead for the post-Mulally era
Ford is the healthiest of the American car companies. Getting the lion's share of the credit: CEO Alan Mulally, who has shorn the company down to size and rationalized how, where, and why it builds cars. But this year, the usual background noise -- lots of debt to retire from a 2007 flirt with disaster -- has been joined by the buggy launch of MyFord Touch and the PowerShift automatic. Ask anyone at Ford, and those are things that can easily be fixed. But can it fix other problems later, when Mulally isn't around? This year, Detroiters have begun to wonder openly how Ford will manage the hand-off, and whether the "Mulally miracle" will keep its momentum. Ford has the deepest bench in Detroit, and though it only says it has a succession plan in mind, other reports say the field's already been narrowed to four, with President of the Americas Mark Fields in the lead. Other in-house candidates are in place, and one obvious name from outside the company also has surfaced. That name? John Krafcik, who's led Hyundai to record sales in the U.S., and came to Hyundai from -- where else? -- Ford.
New Honda Civic misses many targets, all best-of lists
Honda may have right to expect the usual warm welcome for its new 2012 Civic. After all, the Civic's been one of the most lauded cars in history, with dozens of best-of wins under its belt and a standing reservation on most car of the year nominee lists. Not so this year: the revamped model line has better fuel economy, but a notably thrifty interior, a less refined engine and unimproved handling, major mishaps in a day of Elantras, Focuses and Cruzes. The list of publications that have unfriended the Civic run the gamut from The Car Connection, where it receives a 6.8 out of 10, to Car and Driver, which says simply, "the thrill is gone," to Consumer Reports, which no longer puts the Civic on its Recommended list. Civic sales are down this year, but Honda's doubled down on a new production line in Indiana -- and is now rushing a 2013 update to fix the Civic's major competitive disadvantages.
Mother nature wrecks lives, takes Japan's auto industry offline
As we wrote back in March, when a 9.0-magnitude earthquake struck eastern Japan and created a tsunami that killed more than 15,000 people, it's almost crass to talk about the lingering damage to the auto industry in the wake of the tremendous human loss. It's time to assess the lasting effects, however, since all the major Japanese automakers are now back online. Toyota and Honda sales were down sharply all summer, from parts shortages that were later amplified by flooding in Thailand, another source of components. For Toyota, the earthquake followed on the heels of its major recalls of 2009 and 2010, and came just as sales were beginning to revive. Have they lost customers permanently to Korea and Detroit? Japan may never be the same, but at least its standard-bearing industry is now back up to speed, and back in the sales battle in America.
Voltgate: will it kill GM's halo car, or will it just go away?
General Motors has patiently nursed the Chevy Volt to life, but at every turn, some dingo wants to eat its baby. First shown as a concept car back in 2007, the extended-range electric Volt came to life in 2008 as a production-ready vehicle. Then GM went bankrupt, and got federal loans to stay in business and to build the Volt. That's all it took for the innovative green car to become a potent weapon, one used by politicians and media alike to beat up on post-bankruptcy GM. For every Car of the Year award it's won, the Chevrolet Volt has earned its share of scars and bruises, from post-crash fires in private hands and at the NHTSA, to lumpy production numbers that have turned its sales picture murky. Matt Drudge's idiotic, uninformed war against the Volt hasn't helped much, and neither has the Volt's uncomfortable seat at the center of the 2012 presidential campaign. On one level, the biggest car news story of 2011 is just a car, after all -- but on so many other levels, it's part of a narrative that could exhaust GM's ability to sell itself as reborn, and reimagined.
This story originally appeared at The Car Connection