If anyone could use a hug right now, it’s the three automakers from Detroit. Thankfully, it just came from outgoing President George W. Bush in the form of a $13.4 billion loan, drawn from the $700-billion financial rescue fund. Of the sanctioned amount, General Motors will get $9.4 billion while $4 billion will be given to Chrysler LLC, according to the U.S. government. Another $4 billion will be made available to Chrysler and GM in February as well. Now, the Big Three have until March 31 to get their acts together, or else.
Sounds a little harsh, well tough love is about all the automakers can expect — and should expect — from the American people and lawmakers in Washington, D.C. these days. When you’ve been leaking market share for decades, your business model is cracked like an old engine block, and you’re asking taxpayers to bail you out with billions they can’t spare right now, some skepticism is in order.
But the question still remains: Do they deserve this reprieve?
And then I slip behind the wheel of the 2009 Corvette ZR1 and blast down the Las Vegas Strip. This $105,000 land rocket is fast and formidable enough to make most Ferraris and Porsches quiver like schoolgirls; it has a top speed of 205 mph and is as nimble as a gazelle. And as I leave the glitzy hotels behind for the speedy straight-aways of the desert outside Las Vegas, I realize if Detroit’s tormentors spent even five minutes in this magnificent machine they’d know the truth: The Big Three can still build a world-class car — at least when they put their minds to it.
Now before you scoff and say, “What’s a 638-horsepower sports car got to do with anything?” consider this: The point is not that the Corvette is the solution to GM’s problems. The point is that if Detroit can build a sports car that’s a sales sensation and acclaimed the world over, there’s no reason it can’t do the same with economy cars, luxury cars, hybrids, you name it. That is, if they survive long enough to get their collective acts together.
The ‘Vette isn’t the only car that runs roughshod over the notion that nobody wants the Big Three’s wares. If that were true, then GM wouldn’t have outsold Toyota by 1.2 million cars in the U.S. in 2007. Yet, if one or more of these companies does fade away, America will miss out on some worthwhile machines.
We’ve assembled a list of the Detroit cars most worth saving. The list is revealing, spotlighting the strengths and weaknesses of the Big Three. Our terrific 10 includes a pickup truck, a minivan and two crossover utility vehicles. Yes, Detroit still knows how to build a great truck.
Yet no current Detroit compact car makes our list. (The German-built Saturn Astra comes closest.) And when it comes to the smallest subcompacts, GM, Ford and Chrysler don’t even offer one, so that entire category is one big “incomplete.” For GM and Ford, the cavalry is coming beginning in 2010, with pint-sized cars that are both critical and sales hits in Europe and Asia. GM is slated to start selling the plug-in Chevy Volt Hybrid in late 2009. But those cars can’t get here soon enough.
I’m convinced that most Americans want to see Detroit survive. And many buyers would be willing to give the Big Three another chance. But Detroit has to earn their trust, and not just by revamping the way it does business. Consistently creating great products remains the biggest challenge for the hometown team. Big strides have already been made in quality, technology and, yes, even fuel economy. If you don’t believe it, take a spin in one of these cars. If every Motown model were as good as these, Americans would be handing over cash instead of being asked for a handout.
I’ve driven the standard CTS on the Nürburgring track in Germany, and the insane CTS-V (sport version) at a road course in New York’s Catskills. That’s fitting, because the CTS is not only America’s best luxury sedan but a car that can hang with any of the big names on Germany’s autobahn. The supercharged 556-horsepower CTS-V is the giant killer, but everyday buyers should check out the more modestly priced 304-horsepower V6 version.
From the roughly $50,000 430-horsepower standard model to the 505-horsepower Z06 to the supercharged ZR1, the Corvette is inarguably the bang-for-the-buck sports car champ. And while driving a ‘Vette is like saddling up a cruise missile, the Chevy also delivers surprisingly practical luggage space and decent fuel economy, easily reaching 25 mpg on a highway cruise. If every American car had the ‘Vette’s can-do spirit, the industry would be slapping the competition silly.