Of this and that:
The phrase "Big 3," fraying badly since Chrysler Corp. was bought by Daimler-Benz in 1998, will become even rattier as Toyota closes the gap between its U.S. sales and those of the Chrysler group. (Through seven months, the Chrysler group leads Toyota/Lexus/Scion in U.S. share by just 2.2 points, 13.2 percent to 11.0 percent. A year ago, the lead was 3.1 points.)
Not to worry. English is adaptable. Here's a term used by folks at some Japanese automakers who work with the domestics on political matters in Washington: "the big 2 plus 1."
Volkswagen's falling U.S. sales are in some sense a choice by Gerd Klauss, the president of Volkswagen of America, and his colleagues. The VW honchos don't want to join the American incentive orgy to pump up sales of their aging iron.
They don't want to dent the brand values. They'll accept lower sales rather than impose 0 percent financing or other dramatic price cuts.
Applause and cheers. No bargain basement here.
Except ... VW occupies a lonely segment in America. Call it the VW segment. Volkswagens have a little more cachet than the mass-market Japanese brands. VWs are German and proud. But VW is clearly not in a league with BMW and Mercedes-Benz.
Everything is on sale in America, as incentivemeisters at General Motors point out. If Volkswagen chooses not to participate in the seamy discount side of the auto industry, it risks becoming a marginal U.S. player, as it was in the late 1980s and early 1990s. We'll see.
Some technologies give such obvious customer benefit that everybody adopts them quickly. The remote unlocking key fob was one such technology. Once you click one, you never want to jam a key into a car door again. So buyers pay for it, even though it's an expensive feature.
Other technologies should be re-examined. The locked-tight fuel-filler door, which keeps intruders away from your gas cap, was popularized during the energy crises of the 1970s. When gasoline is rationed, you don't want people stealing your gasoline.
But this is 2003, and a lock on the fuel door is mostly an annoyance. I was recently driving the magnificent new Jaguar XJ Vanden Plas. Beautiful, comfortable, opulent, powerful. Then came time to fill it up. I pushed the fuel-door button. The door remained as tightly locked as a chastity belt. I pushed a bunch of buttons (including the mostly useless "valet" mode button) on and off. Nothing. I drove on, hoping to get home on the fumes.
I finally ripped out the carpeting on the side of the trunk, gripped the awkward auxiliary handle and pulled and pulled and pried the door and finally got it opened.
The experience soured my attitude toward the $73,000 car.
And what did Jaguar get for the complexity of a locking fuel door that can go wrong? Not much.
The head of a highly successful imported luxury brand of vehicles came up to me at the 1999 Detroit auto show. Cadillac was showing the Evoq concept, the first of the slab-sided cars whose first production example was the CTS sedan. "Cadillac isn't
really serious about this awful design thing, is it?" he asked. "We want Cadillac to succeed. This will kill them."
I shared his concern. It was ugly. My worries were confirmed when I saw the first CTS on the street. I thought the John Smith/Wayne Cherry initiative was bold and wrong.
Fast-forward to today. Cadillac's sales are growing, and its image is hot among the young and rich. The dream of rejoining the world's leading luxury brands is no longer laughable. I even like the CTS.
That is another reason to be careful about snap judgments about somebody's design direction.
China is hotter than any market I've ever seen, up another 60 percent this year. Ford Motor Co. and GM are herding their suppliers to China to exploit the low wages and improving infrastructure. It's a gold rush.
But as Bernd Pischetsrieder, chairman of Volkswagen AG, reminded people this summer at the Automotive News Europe Congress in Paris, it's dangerous to project that kind of growth forever.
I was discussing a possible China venture with an Asia-based executive when I stumbled on my own enthusiasm. "I've never seen anything so hot," I said. Then, thinking, I continued: "Well, actually, yes I have. The Internet."