In an in-your-face era, the gloves come off at auto show
In more genteel times, automakers referred to rivals in speeches as "our noble competitors," or some other saccharine term -- just before plunging in a very subtle knife. Or, at worst, an exec might cast aspersions by alluding to competitors only as "certain other automakers who shall remain nameless," no matter how specific and obvious the allusion was.
But these are in-your-face times -- the age of nasty Web site comments and reality TV shows during which people yank off each other's wigs. So maybe it wasn't surprising to hear industry execs calling out the competition a bit more freely at this year's Detroit auto show.
"For every one customer that leaves and migrates to Lexus, four migrate from Lexus and come to us," said Mercedes-Benz USA CEO Steve Cannon.
Ford took a couple of shots. There "seems to be a contest over who can add the most vehicles to their lines and build the most extravagant dealerships," marketing chief Jim Farley said in unveiling the Lincoln MKZ concept -- as Audi, BMW, Lexus and Mercedes 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."
Ford took another shot, this time at Japanese rivals, in unveiling the redesigned Fusion. As suspenseful, digital music thrummed in a darkened auditorium, a voice reminded journalists of the recent woes of the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord. After the recession, the voice boomed, "Camry and Accord never recovered. They saw further sales and share losses more than a year before the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. ... This slide has continued even with triple-digit increases in incentive spending. What's driving this?"
Better offerings from rivals, the voice suggested, adding: "Now these consumers say they're looking for products they say they can be proud to own. Forty-three percent of customers who turn in a car and buy a mid-sized sedan say they just want something different." (Like a Fusion.)
But Ford took one in the chops, too. Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne, normally a refined European, spoke of the tough image he said the Ram pickup enjoys. "It's really a butch vehicle," he commented, but then gratuitously noted to reporters, "which I wouldn't say about Ford's pickups."