Morning in America

2011 Grand Cherokee

If you haven't driven the 2011 Grand Cherokee, you haven't driven an American car.

There are fewer compelling reasons to buy a Japanese car than at any point since the early 1970s.

March’s devastating earthquake, ensuing tsnumai, and surreal nuclear meltdown in Japan are all beginning to have real and lasting impact on the automotive industry there and here. Parts are becoming scarce. We just heard from one customer that certain paint colors on Ford products are backordered because the supplier is Japanese, but that’s third party hearsay, and I wouldn’t bank on it as fact.

But even before then, the Japanese auto industry was in dire straits. Toyota had major issues thanks to what was once considered its halo car, the Prius hybrid. The Tacoma – a vehicle that was once synonymous with quality and longevity – was being crushed at a rate of thousands a week with frame rust that rendered running trucks with low mileage completely unusable.

Even more shocking, in a way, was the December 6, 2010 cover story in Automotive News: “The Threat to Honda’s Mojo: Year of opportunity goes in reverse for brand.” It was a scathing indictment. After decades of grand slams, home runs and standup doubles, Honda found itself whiffing at the plate. The Crosstour, for example, is a fine automobile, but its styling is nearly as reviled as that of the Pontiac Aztec. Just under 26,000 had found owners by the end of 2010, a dismal failure in comparison to Toyota’s Venza which had sold 43,000 units. The hybrid Insight found itself subjected to rebates and special offers. The Odyssey minivan was plagued with transmission and steering rack issues. The CR-Z hybrid — which was billed as the return of the car that built Honda’s reputation for beating Europe at its own game, the CRX – was stillborn, with just 4,300 sold, and over 3,000 in inventory, a wide gulf from the expected 15,000 units a year.

This last two years should be a reality check for the Japanese auto industry. For the better part of 20 years, Japan was an automotive Field of Dreams, with customers coming simply because they were building it. For customers like my 80 year old mother, there wasn’t even a consideration. When it was time to turn the old car in, only a Japanese car would do.

That mentality completely ignored that throughout the late 1990s and 2000s, American car companies were building better and better cars all the time. By mid-decade, Ford and GM, at least, were building cars that not only competed with Japan, but in many cases, beat it soundly. Japan had fallen for the same lure of the full-size truck that America did, only Toyota and Nissan weren’t building trucks as good as the Americans could. And while pundits were still pointing and laughing at GM and Ford for building full-size trucks and SUVs, a lot of the refinement and engineering that went into those trucks was beginning to filter down into the passenger car line. Look no further than the 2008 Chevy Malibu to see the improvement in design, quality and engineering inside, that came directly from the truck division.

Nevertheless, American car companies still had a bad reputation. Every time I mention that I drive a Buick (I have two now, actually, a 1996 Roadmaster and a 1968 Riviera. I’m probably one of six families in America with two Buicks in the driveway), the standard response is “I don’t buy American cars because in 1980, my aunt Sally bought a Citation and it was a shitbox.”

American car companies built lousy cars in 1980. But guess what: So did everybody else. Only I see a lot more 1980 Olds Omegas still running around than I do 1980 CVCCs, because the Honda products couldn’t make it through half a New England winter. The Honda might have had a more refined engine, but rust quickly took hold, to the point that I haven’t laid eyes on a daily driven Japanese product from the early 1980s in New England in at least 15 years.

Korea built shittier cars 25 years ago, but for some reason, we’re willing to give Hyundai and Kia a pass. The early Excels literally fell apart on the showroom floor in the late 1980s, but in recent years, American consumers have bought into the brand, at first because they offered a great warranty, and now because they actually build a compelling product.

Now is the time to shake off the blinders and look at American brands. The products are great, offering innovative features, excellent fuel economy and outstanding quality, nearly across the board. No matter what the stooge from the Detroit News had to say, Chrysler’s products have come a long way from just a few years ago. The 200 is a nice car, the 300’s even better, the Charger (which I hated) is truly an awesome vehicle, and the Grand Cherokee and Dodge Durango will completely change your opinion not only of Chrysler, but of the American car industry in general.

My challenge stands, as it did a half-dozen years ago when I started noticing how good American products had become: Drive one. Then tell me how much better the Japanese counterpart is.

About Craig Fitzgerald

Craig Fitzgerald is an automotive writer, photographer and editor with credits in Hemmings Motor New, the Boston Globe, Forbes, the Washington Post, Esquire and
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Morning in America

  1. Charlie Brown says:

    I cant wait to buy one of these new American vehicles, used. I dont make much money, last year slightly less than $20,000, and a great many people make less than I do. When did $20,000 (ish) become the defacto starting rate for new cars. Sure you can find a Honda Fit or a Ford Fiesta for $15,000 if you look really really hard but I would wager that you wouldn’t want to drive it for the next 10 years. I mean, shit man, the Ford Ranger has an MSRP of $18,040 for the base model. FOR A RANGER!!! A top of the line 4×4 Jeep Grand Cherokee has an MSRP hovering around $50,000. At $50,000 you are no longer just competing with the Japanese, but with the Europeans as well. You know as well as i do that some cars just have a presence, for lack of a better word, to them that makes you want to own them. For you and I they look like Roadmaster wagons, late 70’s Camaros and Trans Ams, and of course the El Camino. For others a Ford will never be as desirable as something that has a roundel on it, and a Chrysler product will never be as good as something with four rings on its grille. So while I dont doubt that many would enjoy the drive in a well made and appointed American car, some people ( many people) wouldnt ever give it a second thought.

    Now why would you sell the Pontiac?

    • yankeedriver says:

      Charlie, there’s a whole rant in me about the price of a modern car, but I’m going to leave that for another time.

      Regarding the price of a Grand Cherokee vs. a European counterpart: you’re wrong there. A Grand Cherokee Overland is easily competitive with a BMW X5, a Land Rover LR4 or a Mercedes-Benz ML350. But the price difference is anywhere from 20 to 30 percent lower for the Grand Cherokee.

      Comparing the Japanese brands, you can get Toyotas and Nissans cheaper, but they’re nowhere near as capable, and nowhere near as premium. In the Overland trim, the GC competes with Lexus and Infiniti, and both of those vehicles are 10% more expensive and don’t offer anywhere near the capabilities.

      People paid a premium for Harley Davidsons for a lot of years, versus bikes that offered a lot more technological advancement. I don’t know why a large portion of the country wouldn’t do the same for an American car if it offers what they’re looking for.

      If you don’t think the American brands have “presence” I really don’t think you’ve been inside one in the last five or six years.

      My feeling during the period when trucks and SUVs were going nuts was that for American brands to really compete, they had to build bread and butter sedans as well as they did trucks and SUVs for anyone to really take notice. They didn’t at the time. Now they do. There really is no compelling reason to choose a Toyota Camry over something like a Ford Fusion or a Chevy Malibu. The Ford and Chevy are better cars.

      • Charlie Brown says:

        Yankee Driver, the only “American” cars that I have been in recently are an Impala that was decent and not much more, a Lincoln Town Car (rental), a Pontiac Gran Prix, and a Ford Mustang GT500. The Mustang was the newest car and it is an ’09, the others were of the 2006-2008 model years. I can not imaging you or I thinking that these were the best cars in their class(es). I am sure things have changed wrt interior feel. design, and quality (at least I hope they have) but even the $40,000+ mustang has uncomfortable seats made from what might be the cheapest leather outside of a flea market.

        Im probably sounding really down on American cars, but really I just want more from them. I want to want them. I always have and always will love Cadillac (hell I named my dog after a Caddy), but even the well loved CTS seems chintzy in comparison with its competitors. That being said I would drive a DeVille (DTS is the name now) from here to eternity if I could, but that is because it is big and comfortable and a Cadillac more that any inherent virtues it has.

        The nicest car I have ever been in, well the car I would buy tomorrow if I had all the money in the world at my disposal would be an Audi Q7. Now of course i would still want all the shitty redneck cars I love, but the Audi is a hell of a nice ride. That is what an Escalade and Navigator should be, and i think that even at the same price they wouldn’t be the same car. GM and Ford feel the need to re-use shitty components just because they already have them. I want my American cars to innovate and truly be better and not just compete.

        That being said I saw a new Explorer the other day, and it looked really really good from the outside. But for $35,000 to $45,000 would an Explorer be my first choice?

  2. G P says:

    Craig — Buyers absolutely should take off the blinders and look around! This is a golden age for the auto industry — it is really hard to find a bad car now, in any price category, from any manufacturer. Have you driven a Ford lately?

    The interesting turn, though, is that the world market is compressing. From the European Ford Fiesta-slash-Mazda 2 to the American-built BMWs to Chinese-sourced Ford Mustang transmissions to Indian-owned Jaguars, there can no longer be a useful distinction made based on national origin, other than some mythic identity claim or heritage. They’re all American cars on the 4th of July, and we’re all Irish on St. Paddy’s day.

    All the more reason that buyers should expand their horizons.

    • yankeedriver says:

      G P:

      I agree with you on the compressing world thing, but for the better part of 25 years, we were told that Americans somehow didn’t possess the knowledge to screw a car together like they could in Europe or Japan. I think you can see now that that’s complete hogwash.

      What’s also hogwash, though, is that it takes the UAW to put a car together. You don’t have to go any further than than the Hyundai, BMW and Mercedes plants to figure that out. Once American workers get a good process in place, they can put cars together as well as anybody in the world.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s