Hooniverse Asks: Is the American Auto Industry Losing its Identity?

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The debate over whether the U.S. should look to other nations as models of social structures like health care, income equality, or quality of life measures is exigent and heated. Some argue that the U.S. is exceptional and adopting those foreign practices would only serve to diminish us, make us less special. Others claim that there’s nothing the U.S. can’t do and that we are only hindering our progress by adopting that sort of NIMBY philosophy.
At one time, the U.S. auto industry was an island unto itself. American cars were always the most brash, expansive and easily identified as representative of their nation of origin. Even when foreign cars started to gain inroads in the American psyche, U.S.-based manufacturers responded with competing models that still were uniquely American. That however, has all changed in the last decade or so. Globalization has taken over auto manufacturing and car makers are generally making models that will sell anywhere, not tailored just for certain markets.
That has meant the loss of iconic American vehicles like the Ford Econoline, which the company has replaced with the European model, the Transit. Likewise, all of Ford’s small product is shared across the globe, and cars like the Fiesta, Focus, and Fusion express little difference whether in the U.S., France, or Israel. Fiat is following a similar path in turning Chrysler and Jeep into a true global brand. These efforts seem to dilute the qualities of American cars, making them less unique. Do you see that happening on a broad scale? Is the American auto industry losing its identity?
Image: TheThrottle

31 Comments

  1. Hasn’t the American customer chosen an identity that isn’t out of touch with the traditional values you ascribe above?
    https://media.ford.com/content/fordmedia/fna/us/en/news/2014/01/13/all-new-ford-f-150-redefines-full-size-trucks.img.png/1389595953252.jpg
    It’s not a car, but when gas prices, development ressources and buyer’s habits collude to even make FCA stop producing the 200 – a reasonably efficient, not ungainly compact – there’s probably a development happening in the market that points in a different direction than in the rest of the world. I’m a fan of Karl Polanyi who basically found that many social phenomena swing like a pendulum. Right now, it might appear that the American car market is in full motion towards Europeanization. The pendulum will swing back again. FCA’s bet on low gas prices and the resulting, sorry, crazy development strategy might be an indicator of just that happening.

    1. The 200 was tainted because the first generation was a mildly updated Sebring. The Sebring was known for being absolutely terrible. They couldn’t really shake that off with the second generation.

        1. Yeah, the last generation 200 was on the same platform as the Dart, which is also dead. They’re switching to making more crossovers.
          Still, the first generation of the 200 was probably what made it stillborn.
          http://images.hgmsites.net/sml/2010-chrysler-sebring-4-door-sedan-touring-angular-front-exterior-view_100304537_s.jpg
          http://media.caranddriver.com/images/10q4/368263/2011-chrysler-200-review-car-and-driver-photo-373528-s-429×262.jpg

  2. I’d say that the industry is constantly evolving. There’s nothing wrong with taking a page from the book of European brands. I say this because for decades, Asian and European car companies took elements of things that worked in our automotive industry and in some cases, improved upon those elements.
    I do wish that our automotive industry embraced non-sealed beam headlights sooner like our European counterparts. I can’t stand a lot of American cars from the 70s because of those fugly sealed beams!

  3. Nope. We still have the F-150, Silverado and Ram is its own entire brand now. If Ford ever replaces the F-150 with the truck-bedded Transit, then we can say the US auto industry is lost.
    More important to most of us is the converse of your question. Does sharing platforms across continents make the US auto industry better? For eons, the automotive press and gearheads in general have bemoaned the cars we don’t get in the US — most recently being the 2nd generation Focus that was a Europe Only Affair. With the Big 3ish going to more global platforms, we should see more and (hopefully) better chassis coming from our homegrown automakers.

    1. I don’t think you were missing all that much on the 2nd Gen focus to be honest, all round better I’m sure, but it seemed to have lost much of the first gen cars charm in standard form.

  4. Everything is more globally homogenized, not just cars. There are Burger Kings in Barcelona and an Ikea store in Kansas. You can buy an authentic Cuban grilled sandwich in Portland and Cincinnati-style spaghetti in Anchorage. I ordered aftermarket turn signals from Singapore and the special 6-volt, wedge-base bulbs I need to make them work with my Honda 125 from an Ebay seller in Armenia. I get new music recommendations via iTunes from a DJ who splits his time between the UK and Miami. There is no “local flavor” anymore, which is both good and bad. The bad is that no matter where you go, it’s largely the same culture. The good is that in the past, you were grossly unaware of most of that cultural diversity in the world, outside your own slice of it.

    1. My hope is that, for cars, the vast cost savings from economies of scale will trickle down to customers. And with more advanced manufacturing methods, there is a chance that car design enters a new era of excitement (I think we’re pretty much into that already), but also individual modifications. Just look at how many sort of different cars the former small manufacturer BMW splooshes out.

    2. Psst, hey, I think the neighbor kids are walking across your lawn again. You better go yell at them to get off it.

    3. I’m in agreement with you. The paradox of multiculturalism is that it breeds homogeneity the longer it exists. Both individual and cultural identities eventually get lost in the multicultural stream. Sweden, in particular, comes to mind.

      1. The cool thing I see is that separate cultures are still evolving, only they’re now they are what we call subcultures — diverging along intellectual and social lines, rather than geographical. For example, if you look at the manual gearbox post from the other day, I was struck by how many of those who frequent Hooniverse are either partially or completely auto-free, and yet in the overall take rate for manuals in North America is a single-digit percentage. If we all happened to live on a particular island, people would say that automatics aren’t popular in that culture.
        As another example, my wife has no idea who the Saucy Minx is.

    4. You see this homogenization even within the borders of Europe, never mind between continents, especially in that most European of segments, Golf sized hatchbacks. Back in the 90s, there was more differentiation. If you wanted something with a solid quality feel, you bought the German VW Golf, the safe default choice. If you wanted a bit of brio and spirit, you could have an Alfa 145 or maybe a Fiat Tipo. If you valued ride and handling above all else, you went french, either the Peugeot 306 or its Citroen ZX twin. If you wanted something foolproof and unbreakable and didn’t mind it being dull, you bought a Toyota Corolla. Wanted something with chrome badge on the front and kid yourself it was posh, there was always a Rover 200. If you were a completely undiscerning pleb who just bought all their cars in life from the same local dealer you might have ended up in the utterly unremarkable 4th/5th gen Ford Escort or Opel Astra.
      It funnily enough, the last Escort that changed everything. Ford realised that loyalty would only go so far, and the replacement had to be not simply better, but absolutely exceptional, and the 1st gen Focus was a revelation. It was well built, it was reliable, it rode and handled well, it was fun to drive. It perhaps didn’t do any of these single things better (like for like, a Peugeot 306 is still a more engaging drive for example) but it was the breadth of talent that marked it out rather than picking a USP and running with it.
      Since then every car in that segment has to be a bit like that, which is why it feels so homogenized. Like homogenized milk, it’s no longer a case of the cream being obviously seperate, but mixed through the whole thing. Every cars a bit good in every department to a greater or lesser extent. The average bar is higher but nothing stands out and endears itself for a memorable trait.
      I think that’s spread across the entire industry now. We expect our SUVs to handle like a hot hatch. We expect our Luxury cars to be able to turn in sub 10 minute ring times, we expect economy cars to have sub 10 second 0-60 times. Nothings really focused anymore, perhaps making the Focus name rather ironic.

      1. Your reply reminded me of the original slogan Toyota sold the RAV4 under in the UK: it was something along the lines of, ‘it’s a 4×4 that handles just like your old GTI!’ They had to pull that one after people put that to the test and found out that a more appropriate slogan would have been, ‘it’s a 4×4 that goes through a hedge just like your old GTI, only at much lower speeds.’
        That said, I think you’ve hit the nail firmly on the head re: homogenisation: all it does is create cars that are jacks of all trades and masters of none. A good example of this is the current Jeep lineup, where 4×4 practicality has been traded for image and trading on the successes of the name in the past.

  5. Regular passenger cars manufactured by the big 3 are no longer as American as they used to be, but the trucks, muscle cars, and vipers are as American as ever.

  6. You could argue that Tesla is a reboot of our brash, expansive American identity V2.0.
    Honorable mention goes to Cadillac for the new CT6 🙂
    Off Topic – The infiltration of world platform vehicles becoming a fixture in the US will not come without it’s growing pains. Try to obtain a part for one of these fleet vehicles and you will understand what I mean when I say manufactures put the cart in front of the horse (They are selling vehicles and there is little if any support for parts and or service)

    1. The part situation has a bright and a dark future:
      the bright side is that a part is available across the globe, no need to skim yard sales for that rare and rotten trim peace. More cars are built, and an aftermarket will grow. I buy many Ford Focus mk.I bits on ebay from the Mediterranean, USA, Germany and UK, they are cheap plastic copies of cheap plastic bits anyway. Shared platforms and badge engineering are proven concepts in a similar direction, only improving availability of both parts and knowledge.
      The dark future is that due to the expected production volume, some pieces can be extremely complicated and hence, too complex for a “second market” company to copy at an attractive price point – side mirrors of recent cars come to my mind, with their housing agitation (parking flip-up feature, does this have a name?), dead-spot sensors and warning lights, indicator and lighting function in addition to the classic tilt and heat functions. There, you are bound to kneel down and pay whatever the OEM deems fit – and only as long as the parts availability is relevant for the 2nd hand cars’ value.
      Which future it is may depend on the manufacturers platform roadmap, marketing philosophy, and eventually, commercial success of the actual car.

      1. Fantastic reply. The points you raise fly over most heads because they have never reconditioned an automobile.
        I recently purchased a used mirror assembly for a 2009 Audi S6. Painful.

  7. I have mixed feelings about this. I remember as a kid going to France from the US and being totally knocked out by the diffence in the car culture (early 60’s). So I think I miss the diversity in design philosophies from country to country. But globalization was inevitable and in some ways that’s good. I still miss seeing the differences between a Vauxhall and an Opel and a Holden.

  8. I think America has just outsourced the models they’ve never been interested in making in the first place. Instead of having an indifferently designed Pinto we’ve got a Fiesta, instead of the Econoline barely changing for decades now it’s the Transit because Europe actually feels like designing a new van. That’s probably for the best.

    1. I just learned about this at the Springfield museums, 2 weekends ago when it was too cold to do much else. It’s so sad that there can’t be regional auto, moto, and bicycle manufacturing like there used to be.

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