For the first time in decades, Japanese automakers arrive in Detroit on the defensive after their worst year since first storming American streets in the 1960s. Here’s how this year’s Detroit Auto Show is like a Pearl Harbor in reverse.
We’re not expecting Detroit’s amateur marksmen to literally knock Zeros from the skies, and assuming Toyota has a grip on its sudden acceleration problems the only crashing in Cobo Hall will come from reporters forced to work at 5 a.m. But the Japanese air of invincibility — the confidence that the quality, value and styling of their models would always best whatever Detroit could rev in any given year — has disappeared in a cloud of beige.
In the past year, Ford regained its place as the second-largest U.S. automaker from Toyota; the top three fastest-growing brands belonged to General Motors, and even Chrysler — a company once left for dead — gained U.S. market share and closed the gap with Honda, despite having a dearth of new models versus its well-stocked Japanese competitors.
There are those of us who still remember the reveal of the Pontiac Aztek, the parade of never-built Lincoln concepts that overshadowed anything Lincoln sold, and the tall glass of lukewarm dishwater that was the Chrysler Sebring. The carpocalypse scoured the lameness away; from the Chevy Volt to the just-revealed super-sexy-for-an-electric Ford Focus Electric to the revised Jeep Grand Cherokee, there are no easy targets left in Motown.
Photo: Screenshot from CNN
It’d be easy to blame it on the fallout from just the Toyota recalls, and any company has to expect some setbacks after paying the U.S. government $48.8 million for ignoring safety problems and having its CEO expose Americans to the Japanese term for “crying while retaining manliness.” But it runs far beyond Toyota; other Japanese companies also stumbled; as a group, they shed 1.7 percentage points of the U.S. market, a sharp reversal after more than a decade of steady growth.
The troubles start at home. In Japan, a never-ending recession has left carmakers begging for subsidies to keep sales going, while the Japanese yen gained in value versus the dollar, shaving off hundreds of millions of dollars in profit that Toyota, Honda, Nissan and others used to haul back home. Several have warned that they will move production out of Japan — as Nissan will do for the Rouge — if the government doesn’t provide further aid.
For Toyota, the recall also jarred its fans from the dream state typically found only inside Apple stores. It used to excel on quality; now Detroit and Korean automakers have closed the gap. Toyota has its hybrid mantle, but lags behind General Motors, Ford, Hyundai, Nissan and others in battery tech and rollouts. It even burned political goodwill by closing a California plant staffed by UAW workers building Corollas only to restart construction on a Mississippi plant which will use non-union employees building Corollas.
The new Prius MPV set to be unveiled today illustrates Toyota’s troubles. There’s an unmet demand in America for a hybrid-powered people mover that isn’t an SUV. Toyota could have built a six or seven-passenger Prius and won back some customers. Instead, the new model won’t add any extra seats or new features; just a slightly taller roof on the old model, for when Costco runs specials on Jointritis.
Toyota’s not alone in losing the plot. Since the hybrid Insight was parked on the Detroit auto show floor two years ago, Honda hasn’t had an outright hit. Thanks to the Insight, Honda’s hybrid sales actually fell this year. The CR-Z was supposed to make up for the Insight’s shortcomings, but only highlighted them instead. And the Crosstour has proven the limits of styling drawn from natural shapes like hunchbacks and goiters.
Ford took a beating when it gutted the Taurus with the “symphony of ovals” design in 1996. Yet Honda has taken only a fraction of that blowback for kneecapping Acura with the “keen edge” design, even though styling now ranks as the top reason people don’t buy Acuras. While European automakers and Cadillac push ahead with powerful rear-wheel-drive luxury vehicles, Honda only allows its V10 supercar to race; it’s vowed to come back, but the timing isn’t certain.
Only two Japanese automakers, Nissan and Subaru, managed to grow their share among U.S. customers during 2010. Mazda held steady, while Mitsubishi and Suzuki dealers could do away with gimmicks like inflatable gorillas on their roofs and direct customers to follow the circling buzzards.
Even when the Japanese come back — and they will come back — they’ll find a far harder task. Europeans have their game on in the luxury market, while Hyundai and Kia look like the unbeatable duo now on value, enough so that Car & Driver shunned the diamond-quality Lexus LS460 for the Diamondelle-in-the-rough Hyundai Equus.
And after two big bankruptcies and the worst human relations error in Boeing corporate history, Detroit has its defenses up, with GM, Ford and Chrysler’s stands full of new models and few weak points. It’s been a long struggle, but Detroit’s Victory Garden finally bore fruit.
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