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Detroit's slowly shifting to efficient cars

Ford Expedition SUVs go through the assembly line at the Ford Michigan Truck Plant in Wayne, Michigan. Ford is investing $75 million to prepare the plant to convert to small-vehicle production, planned for 2010.

TEXT OF STORY

KAI RYSSDAL: By all indicators, four bucks a gallon was about the point where American drivers cried uncle. More of us are riding bikes to work or taking mass transit. Sixty-five is the pre-set on cruise control for some, instead of 75 or 80. And it works. Gasoline demand has been down a couple of percent for the past several months. But for all the talk about smaller, more fuel-efficient models, it's taken a while for Detroit to catch up to the rest of us.

Marketplace's Steve Henn reports the Big Three automakers are just now taking some simple steps to improve the mileage of the cars they sell.


STEVE HENN: Lou King is the general manager of a Ford dealership in suburban Washington, D.C. When customers walk into her showroom, gas mileage is on their mind and gas prices are only part of the reason.

LOU KING: It's a social trend as well. I think that people want to be viewed as green.

But for Ford, GM and Chrysler, that's not easy. Mike Quincy follows the industry for Consumer Reports.

Mike Quincy: For the past 15 years the American public has wanted to buy big trucks.

The Big Three delivered, investing billions in plants that build gas guzzlers. Quincy says retooling the industry will take years.

So in the meantime GM, Ford and Chrysler are tweaking their existing models. They're changing tires, adjusting transmissions and exhaust valves in hopes of getting one or maybe two more miles per gallon. Sam Winegarden runs engine engineering at GM.

Sam Winegarden: Some of those things can be rolled out pretty quickly.

But Winegarden says other changes in the works, like building big engines that burn less gas, take longer. But you have to wonder, why'd they wait so long to do the little stuff?

Quincy from Consumer Reports says there is no good answer but changing course in the auto industry has always been tough.

QUINCY: It's like a huge aircraft carrier. It doesn't stop on a dime. It doesn't turn on a dime.

And it burns lots of gas.

In Washington, I'm Steve Henn for Marketplace.

About the author

Steve Henn was Marketplace’s technology and innovation reporter for the entire portfolio of Marketplace programs until December 2011.
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Same old big-three bashing.

I disagree with the story premise and all your comments (except Bill C.)

While GM, Ford and Chrysler are working as hard as they can to move away from trucks, Toyota and Nissan are building big new plants to tap the same truck market. How smart is that?

They are supposed to be the experts in small cars? Then why are all their U.S. cars so much bigger than the cars they sell in Japan?

Trucks are gas guzzlers? They are TRUCKS, designed to haul. They can only be compared to other trucks and the Japanese trucks are the least fuel efficient. We sell lots of them because they are used in construction. I have a brother in construction who trades in a pickup every three years with 150,000 miles on it. That's where most of the trucks go, and that's why there will always be a truck market, even though it shrinks as the suburbanites pull out.

The Americans are the acknowledged leaders in light truck construction and for some reason that bothers people.

The Asians build good cars but so do the Americans. By any useful measure the American cars are as good as the Japanese, but there is a bias against them. Look at the price point for vehicles which are built in the same plant with both a Japanese- and an American-branded version name and you have proof*.

All the manufacturers are making adjustments (read "compromises") in tuning in the name of fuel economy. Nothing's free, but fuel economy just got a little more important so now the customers won't mind the compromises.

Bottom line, we'll build all the cars you will buy from us. So step up and put your money down. Don't blame us because you mistakenly think (and the press promotes or ignores) that our our cars are junk even though our trucks are great.

*over the years various virtually identical vehicles have been built in the same plant and sold with both Japanese and American nameplates. The vehicles with Japanese brand names sell for higher prices and retain their value longer, though mechanically identical to their American twin.

"Turning an aircraft carrier" is a standard excuse industry uses for thier lack of foresight. Top executives compensation is based on meeting the numbers for the next quarter or two. To take money out of ad bugets and invest it into research means lower profits in the short term. Lower profits mean smaller bonuses. Coporate executives are so richly compenstated that all they have to do is work for two or three years and they're set for life. What happens after they leave doesn't matter to them.

I know this was really a filler piece, but I thought you could have taken it in several better directions. You could have pointed out that all auto companies with the notable exception of Honda face reduced sales this year (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/26/business/26honda.html?_r=1&ref=automob...) or provide context for the CAFE ratings of M-B, BMW, or those large Toyota SUVs I see everywhere. Trust me – it wasn't just Detroit that fed at the SUV trough.

Another direction would have expanded on what I suspect was good material from Sam Weingarden at GM. You summarized it with: "They're changing tires, adjusting transmissions and exhaust valves in hopes of getting one or maybe two more miles per gallon."

You could have asked him about this news release from the Department of Energy highlighting some more of the 'little things' GM is doing in its V8 full size lineup:
"Meanwhile, GM is launching "XFE" versions of its full-size pickups and sport utility vehicles. FE stands for "Xtra Fuel Economy," and the vehicles include a number of mechanical, aerodynamic, and mass-reducing enhancements to deliver a 5% increase in highway fuel economy and a more than 7% improvement in city fuel economy. They are powered by a 5.3-liter FlexFuel V-8 engine, built with a cylinder block and heads made from lightweight aluminum, matched to a six-speed automatic transmission. The vehicles also feature lightweight aluminum wheels, low-rolling-resistance tires, and aluminum lower control arms on their suspensions."

I don’t drive an SUV, I find them ungainly and inefficient. I drive a Scion tC and a 10 year old Infiniti that still gets 35 mpg on the highway. For years I have looked longingly at the exciting, smaller cars sold in Europe and Asia by Ford, GM, and other manufacturers. What I wouldn’t give for a Ford Cosworth isn’t worth thinking about. Nevertheless, let’s acknowledge that Ford and GM are redesigning existing factories to produce smaller cars, that plenty of manufacturers were caught flat-footed by the rapid change in the marketplace.

Finally, an acknowledgement of the importance of the domestic auto industry to the US economy that can’t be filled by plants airdropped from abroad. I think the board of GM is the biggest bunch of wastrels since WorldCom, but losing this industrial capacity is nearly unfathomable.

But Winegarden says other changes in the works, like building big engines that burn less gas, take longer. But you have to wonder, why'd they wait so long to do the little stuff?

Quincy from Consumer Reports says there is no good answer but changing course in the auto industry has always been tough.

QUINCY: It's like a huge aircraft carrier. It doesn't stop on a dime. It doesn't turn on a dime.

You know...I consider Marketplace pretty hip. I've been listening for a long time and I like the show a lot. It's current, a bit cynical, funny. So why do I hear accepted as an answer to the question, "why'd they wait so long to do the little stuff?", a pat and endlessly repeated nothing response like, "It's like a huge aircraft carrier"?

Is that the 5,000th time some industry insider has uttered those words to sum up an industry that has been mismanaged into the ground? Do you know how many aircraft carriers and tankers and destroyers and cruise ships and other gigantic whatnots have actually turned around in the last 5-10 years? Tens of thousands? Hundreds of thousands? Millions? I have no idea but it's a whole lot more times than the auto industry has turned around which ain't even once. It's a ridiculous non answer and there is a correct answer and Marketplace knows what it is.

The arrogant CEO's who hang out at the 19th tee basking in their own glory and equating themselves with the tuff and mighty gas guzzling dinosaurs they have been building don't have a clue how to do anything else.

The managers of American car companies are a total waste of money and the blame for the downfall of a great American industry that could have been a great contributor to a variety of much needed solutions in the fields of fuels, transportation, engineering and others is instead struggling for survival. There's been no planning for small stuff. There's been no planning for big stuff. There's just been an arrogant head in the sand attitude that hubris and bigness would always trump planning and smart engineering.

Enough of this "turning the aircraft carrier" baloney. If you're willing to accept that as an answer don't bother asking the question. You know as well as I that they could have turned all sorts of ways but have instead decided to keep it steady as she goes. Right into the rocks.

Thanks,

Jay Blackburn
Santa Rosa, CA

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