Monday, December 22, 2008

Saving Detroit

By Lawrence Ulrich of MSN autos

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.

2009 Chevrolet Corvette Coupe (© General Motors) Click picture to enlarge
2009 Chevrolet Corvette Coupe

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.

Cadillac CTS

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.

Chevrolet Corvette

2009 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 (© General Motors) Click picture to enlarge
2009 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1

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.

GMC Acadia

2007 GMC Acadia Click picture to enlarge
2007 GMC Acadia

Chevrolet Malibu

2008 Chevrolet Malibu (© General Motors) Click picture to enlarge
2008 Chevrolet Malibu

The redesigned Malibu and its near-twin, the Saturn Aura, pulled off a rare feat: each winning the North American Car of the Year award back-to-back. These marvelous midsizes are straight-up competitors to the Honda Accord and are superior to the Toyota Camry in refined handling, passenger comfort and interior design. If you’re shopping for a family sedan, take the Malibu for a spin and prepare to be surprised.

Ford F-150

2009 Ford F-150 Platinum (© Ford Motor Company) Click picture to enlarge
2009 Ford F-150 Platinum

Honestly, all three domestic pickups — the new-for-’09 Ford F-150 and Dodge Ram, and the Chevy Silverado — could tow and haul their way to a spot on this list. (This is cowboy country after all.) But we’ll single out the F-150 for its best-in-class V8 fuel economy, classy interior and big-load capability.


Pontiac G8

2008 Pontiac G8 GT (© General Motors) Click picture to enlarge
2008 Pontiac G8 GT

The G8 might be America’s most criminally overlooked car. Hailing from Down Under, a remake of a Holden from GM’s Aussie division, the G8 GT is a true budget BMW, a 361-horsepower V8 sport sedan for barely 30 grand. Yet the handsome G8 is equally at home ferrying the groceries and kids. Starting at around $28,000, the V6 model puts out a healthy 256 horsepower with a reasonable 25 highway mpg.

Dodge Challenger

2009 Dodge Challenger SRT8 (© Chrysler LLC) Click picture to enlarge
2009 Dodge Challenger SRT8

The Challenger may not be the perfect car for the times. But few cars draw a crowd like this menacing blast from the muscle-car past. The V6 version offers the best mileage and the lowest price — barely $21,000 to start — but street racers may look at you sideways. The SRT8 is a bellowing monster with 425 horsepower but a major fuel appetite. The R/T trim, with its 370-horsepower V8, is the smart way to split the difference.

Chrysler Town & Country

2008 Chrysler Town & Country Click picture to enlarge
2008 Chrysler Town & Country

Is the Chrysler the best minivan on the market? No — the Honda Odyssey handles better and is more refined inside. But Chrysler, which saved its bacon once before by inventing the minivan in the ‘80s, still makes a fine family hauler with features you can’t find in the competition. Those include Sirius satellite TV and second-row seats that pivot to face a pop-up table, making the Town & Country a tailgater’s dream.

Ford Flex

Looking like the love child of a Range Rover and MINI Cooper, the boxy Flex nails the formula for the modern family crossover: three big rows, an interior as quiet as a luxury sedan and a Ford/Microsoft voice-controlled Sync infotainment system. The Ford’s V6 powertrain gets the job done efficiently, delivering a family-friendly 24 highway mpg.

Ford Escape Hybrid

2009 Ford Escape Hybrid (© Ford Motor Company) Click picture to enlarge
2009 Ford Escape Hybrid

Who says Detroit can’t do a hybrid? The Escape and its Mercury Mariner partner are by far the most fuel-efficient crossovers on the market, achieving 34/31 mpg in city/highway driving. Modestly redesigned for ’09, the Escape is stronger, quieter and more comfortable inside.

One More to Watch For

Ford Fusion Hybrid
Fuel-crunched buyers should mark their calendars for spring, when the $27,995 Ford Fusion sedan steps into the ring against the Toyota Camry Hybrid. But it shouldn’t be much of a battle: The Fusion will easily whip the Toyota’s fuel economy, with an expected Environmental Protection Agency rating of at least 39 mpg city and 37 highway. Why Ford CEO Alan Mulally didn’t drive a Fusion Hybrid straight from Detroit and onto the Senate floor is beyond us.

A Michigan native raised and forged in Detroit and a former auto critic at the Detroit Free Press, Lawrence Ulrich now lives in Brooklyn, New York. His reviews and features appear regularly in The New York Times, Robb Report, Popular Science and Travel + Leisure Golf.

For commentary on the latest auto industry trends or in-depth analysis of developments affecting consumers, turn to MSN Autos’ Industry Insider for the real story behind the facts and figures. Written by respected veterans in the field, Industry Insider delivers expertise and insight that helps make sense of the automotive world.

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