Saturday, November 06, 2010

[Cars] Autodestruct

Autodestruct: Via the very best auto website in the world, The Truth About Cars, this quote from the Honda CEO nails it: "During the 10 or so years (until the collapse of General Motors), the automobile industry was in a sort of bubble. In that period, carmakers could enjoy sales growth even if they only kept doing the same old things unthinkingly."

It's an oblique way of saying that year-to-year improvements are so small that, when coupled with broadly superior quality and reduced free capital, there is a severely reduced compulsion to buy a new car. When I bought my Camry nine years ago, I bitched about a couple of rattles (which were barely perceptible to others) and how it really wasn't any more fantastic than my previous nine year old Camry. Yet now, nine years on, it has exactly the same two rattles and no others. In fact, apart from the wear and tear on the driver's side foot well, a missing coin cup, and new wheel bearings (ouchie in the wallet), it is exactly the car I bought new, 130,000 miles on. It is still quiet, to the point that I notice it when I have spent a week in a rental. It always starts and stops and heats and cools, with aplomb. Zero electrical issues. Key fob still works. I don't think I have ever opened the hood (not that I'd know what to do if I did). What exactly would I get at this point by buying a new Camry? 15 extra horsepower that I wouldn't notice? Perhaps a bit more quiet, but not that much. For this I should pony up 25 large?

The Honda guy has it right. Cars are now durable goods not consumables, at least with respect to Toyota, Honda, Ford, GM, and maybe a couple of others. Those firms need to rethink everything from market positioning to customer support to revenue models.

As dispassionate and mildly disappointed I was with my Camry when I bought it, it has come to grow on me. I fully expect to keep it another five years, and I'm happy with that. Any longer and it may turn out to be the last car I ever buy, which is a sobering thought.