Shirtpocket notes: Miscellaneous auto news and comments



Winter is fast approaching (on the calendar; disregard the white stuff on your leaves), yet the auto industry has been generating lots of news lately. Some updates, comments and contradictions follow.

While General Motors has filled the news cycle with plant closings and model discontinuation news — looking to eliminate thousands of jobs and six car models — the automaker has also been working behind the scenes in Washington to extend electric vehicle subsidies. Proposing to eliminate the Chevy Cruze and Chevy Volt may make some sense during the current crossover craze, but voters (taxpayers) are also recalling that barely nine years ago, they were on the hook for keeping GM alive with significant loans and incentives. Many are finding these announcements difficult to swallow — especially since GM did not announce any plant closings in Mexico. UAW members can be forgiven the heartburn they are feeling, emotionally, at the holidays too.

One of the models GM is eliminating is Chevy’s full-size Impala sedan — as well as two large Cadillac sedans. The Impala holds a special place within GM. In the early 1960s, the Impala was far and away the best-selling vehicle — not just car — in America. In fact, in 1965 Chevy sold over 1 million new Impalas, including over 240,000 SS coupes, accounting for over 1/8 of all new vehicle sales that year. Compare that to today’s top-selling Ford F-series lineup. That is some major clout and brand recognition that has frittered away over the past few decades as consumer tastes have dramatically shifted.

By contrast to GM’s decision, eliminating three auto plants in the United States, VW, BMW, Mercedes, Volvo, Toyota, Subaru and Hyundai are all working on expansions of their current U.S. assembly production. Without leveraged union contracts, outdated buildings and labor restrictions, the import automakers pay their workers more than UAW plants and avoid the overhead costs facing GM, Ford and FCA for their years of faulty negotiations on benefit plans.

Slipping by the mainstream news recently was the admission by Tesla CEO Elon Musk that the fledging EV automaker was only days from bankruptcy in September when assembly woes on the new Model 3 almost put the company under. Tesla’s premium brand foes (Audi, Mercedes, BMW and Volvo) will certainly remember that, as they are currently mounting their own EV assault on Tesla’s limited market share.

With auto show season kicking off in Los Angeles recently, there is marked optimism about multiple new models.

Jeep, one of the hottest brands in the market right now, announced that it, finally, will build the long-anticipated pickup version of the Wrangler. Starting next fall, you will be able to buy a Jeep Gladiator crew-cab pickup with the latest powertrains used in the Wrangler. Jeep did not announce pricing, however production estimates indicate an anticipated annual volume of 80,000 units initially.

Jeep teased the Gladiator in 2005 at the Boston Auto Show and elsewhere, yet production constraints at the Toledo plant curtailed plans to build this profit-generating machine. The Toledo plant has been completely rebuilt, so now Jeep has the capacity for more units. Look for a potential Ram midsize pickup version in two years.

Other new cars debuting soon include an all-new Toyota RAV4 in December, the 12th-generation Corolla in the spring, plus a Prius with AWD. Kia has electrified versions of a new Soul plus its Niro crossover, while Subaru is promoting a plug-in hybrid version of its popular Crosstrek. Subaru has a partnership deal with Toyota, so look for more electric vehicle/hybrid presentations in the coming months.

Ford is bringing back the Bronco as a compact-class crossover partner to its off-road mashing Raptor, while the midsize Ranger pickup will come stateside by summer. Hyundai has a new three-row SUV in the Chevy Tahoe mode called the Palisade, while BMW has joined the full-size SUV ranks with its new X7, which will be built in South Carolina. Whether any autoworkers from closing GM plants in Ohio and Michigan make the trek to sunny South Carolina remains to be seen.

Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.