In their darker moments, Big 3 executives joke that California is becoming an export market. That's understandable.
In the first five months of this year in California, Toyota and Lexus outsold General Motors - ALL of General Motors: Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, GMC, Hummer, Oldsmobile, Pontiac, Saab and Saturn. The Chrysler group lost nearly a point of market share there.
One reason is that the Big 3's general neglect of passenger cars has hit them particularly hard in California. Many families that are proud to drive a Ford F-150 wouldn't be caught dead in a Ford Taurus.
If they solve the riddle of the California market, GM, Ford and Chrysler can go a long way toward solving their problems in the entire country. But executives must change their thinking. Offering high-performance versions of the tired Chevrolet Cavalier, aimed at young tuners in Los Angeles, is the kind of too-little too-late strategy that won't cut it.
To its credit, GM displayed some nifty out-of-the-box thinking two weeks ago. It showed how an S10 pickup with four electric motors mounted on the wheels could outrace a Chevrolet Camaro. Cars equipped with wheel-mounted motors and gasoline-electric hybrid powertrains would get excellent gasoline mileage, and they would be fun to drive. Advanced powertrains are just the jolt that Californians - and perhaps all Americans - need to think differently about GM.
Meanwhile, in March, Chrysler named Patricia Romero, 33, a native Californian who is fluent in Spanish, as its California marketing manager.
Fresh thinking from California natives is important. But executives must listen to what they say, and that may be the biggest obstacle. Every few years GM, Ford or Chrysler trots out a new California initiative saying, "This time we really mean it." Even if Romero figures out how to solve Chrysler's problems in California, she'll need resources to make it happen.
No, California is not an export market for the Big 3. But unless they develop a sense of urgency to solve the California problem, it might as well be.