Like expectant parents, the people who develop cars and trucks go through a long and stressful gestation period, and then they produce their babies.
At General Motors and Ford Motor Co., they've been producing quite a few babies - new vehicles with more refinement, less noise, better packages.
And now the American public is telling them that their babies are well, not exactly ugly. While the parents hope to hear how beautiful the little critter is, the American consumer peeks into the crib and says, "Yeah, it's a baby, all right."
Nice, but no cigar
That is a matter of supreme seriousness for the hundreds of thousands of people whose jobs ride on the fortunes of GM and Ford. Only the new products can stop the catastrophic slide in market share of America's Big 2.
But the slide is picking up speed: Through two months of 2005, GM was down 1.8 points of U.S. market share to a shocking 25 percent, and Ford Division dropped almost a point to just 16 percent.
The new cars are nice. They're refined. But they're not giving any Toyota driver a reason to switch to the domestic.
For Bob Lutz, a towering figure in the late 20th century auto industry, it's maddening. For 3½ years, he has led GM's vehicle development. And GM is putting out cars with many excellent attributes: the little Chevrolet Cobalt, a fine-driving car with world-class quietness in a compact and an interior of such quality and refinement that you can imagine yourself in a Lexus; a Buick LaCrosse with Lexus levels of ride and quiet; a handsome Pontiac G6.
And the needle moves not at all.
At Ford, the legendary but dog-eared Taurus is being replaced with several vehicles: the large Five Hundred sedan, which combines sedan styling with high, SUV-like seating and a big passenger compartment; the Freestyle, which looks like a mild SUV and has the seating of a minivan and the ride of a car; and soon the Mazda-based Fusion.
And still, the needle doesn't move.
I'm reminded of how a colleague, now with an auto company, described the second-generation Chevrolet Lumina: "It's a competent appliance."
The Chevy Cobalt is a fine-driving car with a refined interior and world-class quietness for a compact. But for General Motors, it doesn't move the needle.
They are commodities, and Ford and GM will never get good pricing or higher volume with commodities in a market that holds so many fantastic competitors.
The Big 2 can probably hold on to most of their existing customers, but they won't conquer new ones. And, drip-drip-drip, the share fades.
Commodities vs. Bentleys
By contrast with the commodities, look at the Ford Escape Hybrid. The company can't make enough to meet demand. Its technology and patina of greenness inspire lust in some Americans. And the beautifully retro-redesigned Mustang inspires another kind of lust.
I'm sure the product folks at Ford and GM are tired of being compared with the Chrysler group, where the audacious Chrysler 300 and Dodge Magnum have turned fortunes around.
So here's a new one: The Bentley Flying Spur.
That car, from Volkswagen AG, was one of the hits of this month's Geneva auto show. And it's based on a flop, the VW Phaeton.
Why is the Phaeton a flop at $70,000 and the Flying Spur an anticipated hit at $170,000?
Sure, the VW brand can't sustain an expensive luxury car, just as Buick can't yet compete on brand values with Lexus and Cadillac can't compete with BMW.
But look at the design. The Phaeton is a mechanically swell, aesthetically dull sedan. Its platform mate from Bentley is beautiful and dramatic. It's not a commodity. It will probably move the needle.
Meanwhile, the Big 2 have to give owners of Toyotas and Hondas a dramatic reason to switch.
Until that happens, Detroit's Big 2 will painfully feel the drip-drip-drip of lost market share as their competent new cars strain to hold on to existing owners.
You may e-mail Peter Brown at [email protected]