Last week, while discussing the joys of driving an Oldsmobile Touring Sedan, I suggested that the full-sized GM front-drivers had severely damaged the company’s ability to compete in the luxury market. Some readers suggested that despite my pessimism I was being too kind to the big C-bodies from Cadillac, Oldsmobile, and Buick, to which I can only say: Go drive a good example of an Electra Park Avenue from the era and tell me you don’t think it’s a great freeway cruiser. No, it wasn’t equal to the W124 300E, but it was a lot cheaper to buy, operate, and repair–while offering S-class room everywhere from the front seat to the trunk.
On the other hand, more than a couple of commenters said that I was completely wrong about the long-term effects of GM’s front-wheel-drive program. “The Eighties C-bodies sold like hotcakes, and so did the LeSabre/Bonneville/Eighty-Eight that followed! You’re crazy if you think they did any damage to GM’s long-term prospects!” Which leads to an interesting question: Can a car do well in showrooms and still hurt its brand?
I could answer this question in mega-sarcastic fashion: “If you don’t think the FWD Oldsmobiles hurt the brand, you should go to an Olds dealership and buy a new one!” But that’s a cheap shot, even if there’s a kernel of truth in it. Let’s take a serious moment instead to consider whether a hot-selling car can do long-term damage to the company that builds it. I’m going to respond in the affirmative. First I’ll give you historical examples, then I’ll talk about a few cars that I think are doing that kind of damage right now in 2018.
1980 Chevrolet Citation
Hard to believe it now, but in its first year, the front-drive Chevrolet Citation . No passenger vehicle without a truck bed has done those kind of numbers since… well, since the Eighties. It’s easy to see why the Citation was successful. It was an absolute packaging miracle. A Citation hatchback is like a Saab 900 with even more space for people. It got great mileage, which was still important in 1980. It was legitimately comfortable for five people. The X-11 variants, with their 2.8-liter V-6, four-speed manual, and F41 suspension, were a hoot to drive.
So what went wrong? Well, there was that GM didn’t fix ahead of time. That hurt people’s faith in the car; by 1983, sales were down to 92,184. But there was another issue: build quality. The Citations were slapped together. If you had a four-year-old Citation and your neighbor had a four-year-old Honda Accord, it was easy to see that the Accord was a better-built car. In the long run, GM sold almost 1.7 million Citations–to people who then vowed to buy a Honda Accord.
1995-1998 Ford Explorer
In 1995, when Ford was pulling out all the stops to make sure the Taurus was the “best-selling passenger car,” they tactfully failed to mention that the Explorer was out-selling both the Taurus and its major competition, the Toyota Camry. Unfortunately, there were some shortcuts taken with the suspension. Ford chose to of the standard-equipment tires to compensate. . When the word got out, customers responded by staying away from the then-current Explorer, which shared nothing but a nameplate with the old truck. Nowadays, the Explorer sells at about the same level as the Grand Cherokee or the Highlander, which is to say up to a quarter-million units per year less than it did twenty years ago.
When the all-new S-Class Benz debuted in 1999, the car magazines were thrilled at its sleek looks, futuristic features, and stellar roadholding. Compared to the stodgy, overweight W140 that had preceded it, the W220 was a rocketship, flying out of showrooms as quickly as it flew down the Autobahn. It was also for many of its owners. The plastics degraded, the wood peeled, the leather wore out. I have to think it was mostly a matter of materials choices, because the CL coupes didn’t suffer from the same issues despite being mechanically similar. All of them had problems with their new-for-W220 “COMAND” interfaces. Don’t get me started on the Motorola Timeport phones that were often sold with the cars, for stratospheric prices.
The hassle of owning the W220-gen cars, along with their relatively quick descent to the buy-here-pay-here lots, made a lot of opportunities for Audi and Lexus. By 2005, the buyers were staying away in droves, to the point that M-B brought back a six-cylinder entry-level short-wheelbase model so the dealers wouldn’t gripe about sales volume. That same year, BMW set an all-time US-market record for 7-Series sales, and Audi saw a big bump in the A8 as well. When the W221 appeared in 2006, it nearly doubled the previous year’s delivery figures, but the damage had already been done: 7-Series and A8 sales compared to those of the S-Class never fell back to their pre-W220 levels.
Which brings us back to the FWD full-sizers from GM. Yes, they sold remarkably well in the early years, mostly because the vast majority of existing owners were in the habit of buying whatever Buick, Cadillac, or Oldsmobile was in the showrooms at any given time. As the years went on, however, those owners became disenchanted with the performance and (more importantly) the prestige of these modestly-sized front-drivers, so they went looking elsewhere.
That Oldsmobile I drove last week? It was still on the market, effectively unchanged, when the Lexus LS400 came out. The sticker for the Touring Sedan trim level was $26,800. A new LS400 was advertised at $35,000, even if very few of the cars in dealer inventory were equipped that way. Would you have paid thirty percent more to get a V-8, rear-wheel-drive, blackout gauges, and Toyota reliability? A lot of people did–and they never looked back. Should we even discuss the fact that a well-equipped FWD Cadillac deVille could cost $32k at the time? Yes, plenty of people bought the Cadillac over the Lexus. Was there a long-term effect? Go take a look at real-world transaction prices for a Cadillac XTS and a Lexus LS500, and you’ll see.
If I’ve convinced you of my core assertion here, namely that a car can sell like hotcakes while stabbing its brand in the eye like a hot poker, then the next reasonable question is: Are there any cars on the market that are doing the same thing to their brands right now? Without the benefit of hindsight, it’s impossible to say for sure.
Which is not to say that I don’t have some ideas. Those two-liter turbo entry-luxury sedans that cost big money but moan like European diesel microcars in the drive-thru? What about all the blobular Me-Too-Iguana compact crossovers that really shouldn’t be wearing any brand besides WalMart, let alone a selection of premium German and Japanese luxury badges? How about a few of those worst-in-class full-sized pickups that are older than the iPhone 4? All of those products are still selling remarkably well, but virtually all of them will end up changing what people think of the brands behind them. Last year, Porsche sold more trucks than it did sports cars. Does that matter in the long run? It would be a good question to ask an Oldsmobile dealer, wouldn’t it?