CHICAGO—The Hyundai phenomenon ranks as one of the most impressive business turnarounds of the past quarter century. The company went from being both a punch line and punching bag to slugging it out for supremacy in the United States market.
It’s a symbol of how far the company has come that the compact Elantra sedan was voted North American Car of the Year for 2011, and Hyundai was No. 6 in US car and light truck sales last year. If you combined Hyundai and sibling Kia’s sales last year, they’d have been No. 4 overall behind Ford, Chevrolet, and Toyota, all of whom have pickup trucks as significant parts of their sales portfolios.
George Washington’s Birthday, which used to be celebrated on Feb. 22, was synonymous with automotive open houses in the Greater Boston area as far back as any living driver can remember.
Most people credit Peter Fuller with creating the festive occasion. In those days, his Cadillac-Oldsmobile dealership across from the Boston University Bridge anchored Boston’s automobile row, which stretched up and down Commonwealth avenue.
Actually the tradition had begun a generation or more earlier when Fuller’s father, car dealer and later Massachusetts Governor Alvan T. Fuller, hosted “Washington’s Birthday Open Houses.”
Times—and the dates—have changed. Since 1971, we’ve celebrated Presidents’ Day as the third Monday of the month, making it a three-day weekend and an even bigger sales festival at dealerships are all over the area. Other areas of the country have adopted the tradition, but local dealers feel theirs is the bigger event.
Most of you who are reading this follow the automotive world at least to some extent.
You see the trends: more variations of hybrids, smaller and more efficient gasoline engines, turbochargers, diesels, and electric vehicles. You read about not only the “connected” vehicle but also the research that seems to be leading us to the autonomous “driverless vehicle.”
One thing seems certain: As Village Automotive Group president Ray Ciccolo told me two years ago during the depths of the economic recession: “It will be the automotive industry that drives recovery.”
In the “Old Days,” that industry was big enough domestically to get the job done on its own. Now, with global supply chains and more efficient plans, it probably can’t do it all, but it’s trying hard.
Back at the turn of the century—and that still seems like a strange term—there were 17.3 million vehicle sales annual in the United States. That number dropped to 10.4 million in 2009, rising to 11.6 million last year and to above 12.5 million in 2011, a number that analysts expect would have been higher had it not been for the tsunami and earthquake in Japan and floods in Thailand. Those events seriously curtailed production by Toyota, Honda, and to a lesser degree, Nissan.
The most optimistic forecast for 2012 is for sales to top 14 million units here at home. Scott Corwin and Brian Collie, partners at Booz & Company, a Global management consulting firm, says that consumers will continue to have a big say in the recovery.
The Econoline deserves a better epitaph than this month’s impersonal news release from Ford, one that arrived on Dec. 7 (the 70th anniversary of Pearl Harbor).
The news was that “Ford will migrate its commercial vans around the world to a common, global platform in 2013, when Kansas City begins producing the full-size Transit for North America.”
In other words: Goodbye, Econoline.
We’ll let its successor, the Transit, already the best-selling van in Europe, write its own success (or otherwise) story in coming years.
Sure, the film "Back to the Future" catapulted the Delorean into tongue-in-cheek superstardom. But think about the final scene in which the central character, Marty McFly, returns to 1985 to find his life changed infinitely for the better. The dream vehicle he finds parked in his driveway? A four-wheel drive Toyota pickup.
Useful, fun, cool, inexpensive: these words described the small pickup truck market in the United States circa 1985. These trucks were ubiquitous throughout the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, providing cheap transportation for first-time new-car buyers, good gas mileage for those who didn't feel the need to purchase a full-size truck, and like Marty McFly's truck, trendy transport for those willing to lay out the money for a fully loaded four-wheel drive. Kids either jacked them up with full suspension lifts, or slammed them to the ground with hydraulics. They were hotter than a three-dollar pistol, and it seemed like they'd be that way forever.
Two and a half decades later, fuel prices are on the rise, the economy continues to sputter along, and yet the entry level vehicles that manufacturers once provided are now gone from the marketplace. Not a single manufacturer builds a small pickup truck for sale in the United States. Trucks that singlehandedly built brands like Toyota, Nissan, Isuzu and Mitsubishi are missing in action. A cruise around the show floor at the New York Auto Show reveals the Jeep Wrangler with a new JK8 Independence kit — an accessory available through Jeep dealers that transforms the SUV into a compact pickup truck — as the only thing even remotely close on the horizon.FULL ENTRY
For a time, Americans were turning in their new cars at a breakneck pace. Cheap financing, good deals, a strong used car market, and a robust economy meant that we could justify keeping a car for less time than a traditional lease, and only see a modest increase in our monthly payment, if any increase at all.
Those days are apparently over, at least for the short term.FULL ENTRY
It takes a lot for an Internet banner ad to grab your eyes, even for a nanosecond. But after spotting one of Hyundai's new "Snap Out of It" banners on Boston.com earlier this week, I actually stopped and clicked the replay button.
"Compact car fuel efficiency has barely improved since the eighties," shouts an all-caps headline for the 2011 Elantra. The ad fades to a supposed 1980s-era compact on the left (thanks to an astute reader, it's more like a 1970s Corolla), a "Mad Men"-like mugshot from the 1960s on the right, and a 14-mile-per-gallon highway rating and a happy-faced, dancing gas pump in the middle. It ends with a cutout of the new Elantra by a large, boldface "40 mpg."
Now, I may have been present for only half of the eighties, but the number of Honda CRXs and Volkswagen Rabbits back then could have filled every Wal-Mart parking lot in the country today. While it's true that most compact cars fell below the 40-mile-per-gallon barrier in the 1980s — the best-selling Chrysler K cars, Chevrolet Cavalier, Toyota Corolla, even the first Hyundai Excel — diesel Rabbits did 43 mpg while manual CRXs pegged 47 (both at current adjusted EPA figures). And whatever older car Hyundai pictured certainly wasn't thirsty enough to score a 14.FULL ENTRY
Toyota USA president Jim Lentz was at the 2011 Automotive News World Congress last Sunday, discussing his improved outlook for Toyota's fortunes in 2011. But during the course of his speech, he brought up a challenge Toyota faces in the years to come.
"We have to face the growing reality that today young people don't seem to be as interested in cars as previous generations," said Lentz. "Many young people care more about buying the latest smart phone or gaming console than getting their driver's license."
But Lentz, along with the media, is completely missing the point. As an example, MSNBC ran a story in November that suggests a lot of the same ideas that Lentz's speech parroted: Kids aren't interested in cars. "A confluence of events," reads the article, "is pushing some teens and twentysomethings to opt out of what has traditionally been considered an American rite of passage: Owning a car."
It cites a lot of statistics that have been thrown around in similar articles in recent years, from automotive research firms such as AutoPacific and CNW. The percentage of new cars sold to 21- to 34-year-olds hit a high of 38 percent in 1985, but is down to around 27 percent today. In 2008, 82 percent of 20- to 24-year-olds had their driver's license. In 1994, that figure was at 87 percent. Percent of total miles driven by 21- to 30-year-olds sits at 14 percent, down from 21 percent in 1995.
So clearly, there's something causing that potentially massive purchasing block known as Gen Y — with an expected annual income of $3.4 trillion by 2018, according to a 2009 Javelin Strategy Research study — to either not drive as much, or not drive at all. But all of the research firms and auto manufacturers have completely missed the point: It's the economy, stupid.FULL ENTRY
About Boston Overdrive
|Clifford Atiyeh is an automotive writer and car enthusiast . He has spent his entire life driving cars he doesn't own.
In the garage: 1995 21-speed Iron Horse, 2002 Jeep Wrangler X (by association)
|Bill Griffith is a veteran Boston Globe reporter, having reviewed cars for more than 10 years and serving as assistant sports editor for 25 years. He was also the paper's sports media columnist.
In the garage: 2006 Subaru Baja
|John Paul is public affairs manager for AAA Southern New England, a certified mechanic, and a Globe columnist. He hosts a weekly radio show on WROL.
In the garage: Hyundai Sante Fe, Chrysler PT Cruiser convertible
|Craig Fitzgerald has been writing about cars, motorcycles, and the automotive industry since 1999. He is the former editor of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car.
In the garage: 1968 Buick Riviera, 1996 Buick Roadmaster, 1974 Honda CB450
|Keith Griffin is president of the New England Motor Press Association and edits the used car section on About.com. He also writes for the Hartford Business Journal and various weekly newspapers in Connecticut.
In the garage: Mazda 5, Dodge Neon
|George Kennedy is a senior writer for WheelsTV in Acton, which produces video reviews for Yahoo, MSN, and other auto websites.
In the garage: Lifted 1999 Jeep Cherokee