March 27, 2009 10:26 AM ET | Rick Newman |
I’m not a member of President Obama’s automotive task force, which is overseeing the bailout of General Motors and Chrysler. But in a way, we’re all on the task force, since these two automakers are staying afloat thanks to taxpayer funding that could reach $40 billion or more this year.
So I’m going to give Detroit some advice. Not about labor contracts or debt refinancing or global alliances, but just about cars. It’s true that the quality of American-made cars has improved in recent years. But that’s not enough. If the folks running the Detroit Three—including Ford, which hasn’t asked for a bailout but still might—drove the latest offerings from the competition, they’d realize there are lots of innovations they’re missing out on. (See a slideshow.) Here are some of the top cars from which the Detroit automakers can learn:
Volkswagen Tiguan ($24,300): Like the Fit, this stylish crossover reveals something that the Europeans and Japanese know but Detroit doesn’t: Small vehicles can be just as cool as big ones. Cooler, maybe. The Tiguan is everything people are looking for these days: practical, fun, and modestly sized. It’s a lot sportier than a Saturn Vue or Ford Escape. Instead of skimping with cheap parts and a slapdash interior—criticisms that dog Saturn and Ford—Volkswagen gave the Tiguan upscale touches that help justify a price that can easily crest $30,000 with options. That leaves an opening for Detroit to match the flair, for less.
Audi A4 ($32,700): The most common complaint about Audis is that they’re overpriced—precisely the kind of problem an automaker wants to have. The A4 isn’t bodacious like the Cadillac CTS. It lacks the S-curve chops of the BMW 3 series and the regal parentage of the Mercedes C Class. Yet strong engineering, slick interiors, and edgy design cues like the “eyeliner” LED lights that accentuate the headlamps have made the A4 a top-shelf alternative to more commonplace luxury sedans. Domestic lines like Buick and Lincoln, meanwhile, can only lure customers from the German and Japanese luxury makes by offering lower prices.
Volkswagen GTI ($23,230): It’s not just a muscle car, it’s a poor man’s race car, with taut handling, amped-up brakes, and a sizzling 200-horsepower, turbocharged, four-cylinder engine that might provide more thrill per dollar than any other car on the road. Detroit muscle cars tend to be all about the engine, which is unfortunate, since big V-8s are falling out of favor. The Chevy Cobalt SS is a GTI imitator, but it’s based on a middling economy car and isn’t nearly as refined. Keep trying.
Subaru Forester ($19,995): Car reviewers find this crossover a bit frumpy—but they love to recommend it for their parents, because it’s one of the most practical, unpretentious vehicles you can buy. The high, stodgy roofline provides great visibility whether you’re a tall or short driver. There’s lots of cargo space for the price. You could pay more for a Chevrolet Equinox or Jeep Liberty, but you’d probably end up wondering why. GM and Chrysler should ask themselves the same question.