(Photograph by John M. Heller/Getty Images)
Funnyman, car guy and host of both NBC's upcoming Top Gear USA and The Adam Carolla Show on KLSX radio in Los Angeles, Adam Carolla tells PM in no uncertain terms that the years of poor product coming from GM and the rest of Detroit brought these companies to the brink. —Ben Stewart
Popular Mechanics: So do you support the idea of bailing out the auto industry?
Adam Carolla: Every car guy or maybe even every American is torn because we hate to see these marques we've grown up with go away. But the thing about American car companies is that they have been making a subpar product for a lot of years.
Remember when the Japanese crept into the market? Instead of reacting, we all had a laugh about it. We blinked our eyes and they had the lion's share of the market. Somewhere around the early '80s, we started to realize we were getting our butts kicked by these little efficient Japanese cars. So we needed to start focusing on smaller, more fuel-efficient cars, and quality. We kind of got our act together. Then we started cruising again with Hummers and Denalis. We took our eye off the ball.
When you take a look at many American cars today, these aren't bad products. They're just not as good as Audi, Volkswagen, Mercedes or Lexus—the list goes on and on. When you see some of the stuff that Pontiac in particular has been doing for the last 20 years—it's insulting. And the interiors especially are insulting. I gotta say, every time I see one of those Pontiacs, I just want to throw up in my mouth.
Even Vettes, up until about 10 minutes ago, were sort of laughable from an interior standpoint. Really, an '89 Jetta had a nicer interior than an '04 Vette. The buttons were too big, the gauges looked bad, the finish wasn't great. Let's face it: The product wasn't there and they've had plenty of opportunities to correct it.
I don't understand it. We can build the greatest fighter planes on the planet. It's not like technology is the problem. There is no reason why there should be this kind of separation between Europe, Japan and us.
Everyone wants to make the product issue about price. But I had a MINI Cooper S for a couple years. That car was sturdy and it looked good. It was smart, it was fast and it was fun. And that's a relatively inexpensive car.
But what about some of the new muscle cars like the new Camaro and Challenger that Detroit is building? Those are exciting, right?
I'm not into American muscle myself. I never really fully understood it. I mean, I understand the big horsepower, but I never really got into the leaf-spring suspension and the live rear axle and the iron block and the pushrods. I take a look at those Mopars that everyone goes nuts for at the auctions. I see the bad pistol grip handle with the fake wood on it, and the fake wood steering wheel, and all the vinyl and plastic. I'm not turned on by it, so I'm not what you call a "muscle head."
So, all the American companies can think to do these days is reintroduce the Camaro, Challenger and Mustang? They're literally looking in their rearview mirror when Europe and Japan are looking through the windshield. I'm waiting for a day in the future when Chrysler or Ford pulls the sheet off something at an auto show, and it's a horse. Not a Mustang, not a Pinto, it's actually a horse. They'll go so retro, it's actually a living horse.
These companies should be looking forward. I don't know what happened with GM. I know 10 years ago GM had an electric car, and they took them all back and put them in a crusher. So should we bail out the company that crushed the first modern working electric car? I don't think so. Now they have a new plug-in electric car called the Volt. What happened to the one from 10 years ago and what have they been doing for the last 10 years? For me, it is sort of tough love time.
So you think for the most part, product is the problem. What about the UAW and legacy costs?
If it's gonna cost you $2000 more to produce every Pontiac than it does every Prius, and everyone wants the Prius, you've got a serious problem on your hands. The only way to remedy this deficit is to create some kick-ass product that people simply cannot get enough of. But they're not creating those products.
Do you think many Americans feel like they were so burned by bad product over the past 20 years that they can't trust the Detroit automakers again? Can good products today draw buyers back into our domestic car dealerships?
I think people have a really short memory. And that's good when it comes to cars. Look, not so long after WWII, everyone across the U.S. was driving a Japanese car. If the product is there, we have a short memory. I think Ford, Pontiac, Chrysler, GM—these guys are one good car away from success. We're not prejudiced against American cars. We're prejudiced against a history of subpar products.
Here's what Americans will do. If it's a coin toss between buying American or buying foreign, we'll buy American every time. If it just comes down to the exact same product at the exact same price, we'll buy an American car because we're patriotic. We'll do the right thing, but not if it costs more and not if it's a subpar product. What the American Big Three have forced us to do is start being unpatriotic, so we ended up buying cars from other manufacturers.
Anyone who has driven a BMW 3 Series knows what I'm talking about. The second the Americans come out with a car that really is better than that BMW, the Audi A4 or the Prius—then we're back. There is a whole new generation turning 16 and getting a new set of car keys every day. We'd like to do the right thing. We'd like to buy American cars, just not with the current product. But they could turn things around.
Remember Audi's problems? Audi was a joke 10 years ago. How bad was Audi? Audi in the mid-1990s was just about gone. I can remember in the mid-'90s, if someone told me they were thinking about getting a used Audi, I would have punched them. Now I think they make some of the most exciting products—all the way across the brand. Audi was dead. And Audi picked themselves up from the ashes. How? Started making good cars. Well, I think that's your answer.