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Calling out the other guys

"Our noble competitors" is how automakers traditionally referred to rival manufacturers in speeches of the past, just before plunging in the knife.

Or at worst, an executive might cast aspersions on competitors by alluding to them only as "certain other automakers who shall remain nameless," no matter how specific and obvious the allusion was.

But these are different times. It's the age of the nasty Web site commentand reality TV shows during which people pull off each other's wigs.

So maybe it wasn't terribly jarring to hear industry execs calling out the competition a bit more freely this week during the Detroit auto show.

"For every one customer that leaves and migrates to Lexus, four migrate from Lexus and come to us," quipped Mercedes-Benz USA CEO Steve Cannon.

BMW's new North American chief, Ludwig Willisch, scoffed at the Cadillac ATS and Lincoln MKZ concept, saying they aren't real competitors.

"We don't produce trucks, nor taxis or buses," Willisch told a gathering of the Society of Automotive Analysts on Sunday. "We don't produce sofas on wheels -- and we don't take mass-market vehicles and rebadge them as premium."

Then it was Ford's turn.

"There … seems to be a contest over who can add the most vehicles to their lines and build the most extravagant dealerships," Ford marketing chief Jim Farley said Tuesday in unveiling the MKZ concept on Lincoln's gleaming new stand as BMW, Audi, Mercedes and Lexus logos flashed before journalists.

"It's as if some luxury brands have become big-box retailers, efficient but soulless ... leaving their clients feeling like a number, not a name," Farley added.

BMW North American chief Ludwig Willisch: "We don't produce sofas on wheels -- and we don't take mass-market vehicles and rebadge them as premium." Photo credit: BLOOMBERG

Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne, normally a refined European, spoke of the tough image the Ram pickup enjoys.

"It's really a butch vehicle," he commented, but then gratuitously noted to the media, "which I wouldn't say about Ford's pickups."

As if.

But Marchionne saved his worst calling out for a fellow European.

"The complexity of this business is such that mass becomes key. Not a la Toyota but, unfortunately, as much as I hate doing this, a la Volkswagen.

"As much as I despise that place for a variety of other reasons," the executive mused about VW, winding up for a big old backhand, "as much as I don't necessarily agree with the way in which they run their business, they have done a great job in managing mass. They don't always get it right."


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