O'Connor: Buy U.S. cars? What a concept!
Here in Motor Town, everyone who hasn't been laid off by an automaker is
abuzz about the upcoming North American International Auto Show, which
means literally dozens of Detroiters are thrilled.
The highlight of the auto show is the concept vehicles, which are cars
that will never be bought because they will never be built. This effort
occupies a huge segment of the domestic auto industry devoted to beating
foreign automakers in the vitally important field of creating pointless
That's why I was taken aback when my phone rang yesterday. It was a
mystic voice purporting to represent the American car-buying public:
American Car-Buying Public: "Mr. O'Connor, we have an important message
for the auto guys in Detroit."
Detroit's Tallest Personal Finance Columnist (me): "Is it about our
stunning new lineup of concept cars?"
ACBP: "Concept cars? No, but we do have a concept to share. It's that
average household spending on car payments, gas, auto repairs and all
that is more than 17percent of our spending. That's more than we shell
out for food andhealth care combined, and second only to rent and mortgages.
"Buying a car is a huge expense for us, so we take it seriously. And we
are buying a serious amount of Camrys."
Me: "Right you are. The Toyota Camry has been the most popular passenger
car in the United States for several years. You folks bought more than
418,000 just last year."
ACBP: "Well has anyone in your town noticed?"
Me: "Sure -- especially now that Toyota has passed No. 2 Ford and is
poised to beat GM as the world's leading automaker."
ACBP: "And when are they giving us a car like the Camry?"
Me: "Listen, American Car-Buying Public, it's not that easy. You
consumers want vehicles that are bold, exciting and sexy, cars that
reflect the endless optimism of the American Zeitgeist."
Me: " No, Zeitgeist, refers to the intellectual, moral and cultural
climate of modern life."
ACBP: "Unless the Zeitgeist gets 30 miles per gallon, you can keep it.
Look: Gas is over $3. We drive 15,000 miles a year. We spend a lot of
time in our cars and a lot of money on 'em. Can't you just give us what
Me: "And that is?"
ACBP: "A stinkin' Camry! Have you got rust in your ears!? We want a
reasonably priced car that starts right up, doesn't break down or cost a
fortune to maintain, runs trouble-free and doesn't fall apart in the
driveway before trade-in time. It should have nice seats, a decent
radio, A/C and some cup holders.
"To us, a car is just a transportation appliance -- it's a big toaster
Me: "C'mon, what personal statement does a Camry make?"
ACBP: "That we want to get to work on time in the morning!
"Look, no one ever bought a Camry to impress a girl. Instead, we take
the girl to a nice restaurant with all the money we save by not buying a
$40,000 hot-to-trot overpowered V-8 behemoth that drags our payments out
for seven years and guzzles gas like frat boys swill Pabst."
Me: " Are you trying to tell me that people don't love their cars?"
ACBP: "People don't love cars any more than they love their washing
machines. People like the freedom cars represent in the same way they
like not having to pound their underpants on rocks in the river. Our
feelings about the actual machine involved falls between 'useful
convenience' and 'necessary evil.' Put it all together, and it spells
Me: "Dull, dull, dull. Don't you remember that old Detroit slogan? 'We
ACBP: "If we want excitement, we get in the Camry and go bungee-jumping.
Believe us, when we turn the key, excitement is the last thing we want.
Otherwise, we'd still be buying Pintos."
Me: "So you don't think cars are a subconscious expression of your
ACBP: "Only people in Detroit think a buying a car is like taking Dr.
Sigmund Freud to a fashion show. You know what used to be hot in
fashion? Nehru jackets. Leisure suits. Parachute pants. You know, sort
of like Trans Ams and PT Cruisers."
Me: "So what's the Camry?"
ACBP: "Pleated Dockers."
Me: "Ouch. If that's what you want, American Car-Buying Public, I'll
pass it on to our automakers: You just want reliable, comfortable,
value-priced transportation. But what about something other than the Camry?"
ACBP: "The Honda Accord?"
Me: "Um I was thinking about the Chevy Malibu, Dodge Avenger or Ford
ACBP: "In seven or eight years when it's time to trade in all these
Camrys, if Consumer Reports still likes any of those cars and the resale
value isn't down the sewer, we can consider it. But we'd need a reason
Me: "American Car-Buying Public, you're all heart. So you promise that
someday you might buy American again?"
ACBP: "Oh, what the heck. Sure, we'll think about it."
Me: "Now that's a new concept!"