autoevolution

2011 Auto Industry Wrap Up

We’ll be taking a look back at the best and the worst the automotive industry had to offer. It’s going to be hard to sum it up in just a few words, but I’d say that from an actual product point of view, 2011 was the year of the leak and tease in terms of new cars. Just about every important car to be shown this year was found this embarrassing predicament, with some already fully spec detailed by the time an official press release was available.
A few brochure scans and official images released onto the internet ahead of schedule aren’t going to hurt any automaker, but the industry itself has been hit by scandals, natural disasters and some reversals at the top. Yes, we're talking about Toyota, which had triple its normal share of bad luck.

It’s been a really busy year for the global automotive industry, and probably the biggest piece of good news is that despite the setbacks, things are taking a turn for the better. Like a steam train, the system is picking up steam and lifting itself off the bottom, so people are starting to fall in love with cars again.


RENAULT SPY SCANDAL

One of the biggest corporate blunders this year was the spy scandal at French automaker Renault. It started with the firing of three senior officers in January, as they were accused of leaking very important information about the development of electric cars in exchange for payments into their foreign bank accounts. The rest of the European car industry found it puzzling, since there weren’t any real secrets to be revealed. BMW’s head of sales even reportedly said: “We know what they do on electric vehicles. There isn’t a lot of knowledge that’s hot and confidential.”

The French government then investigated and found that the accusations were false. There were no secret bank accounts, and the scandal ends with a very public apology from CEO Carlos Ghosn and the reappointment of Renault COO Patrick Pelata, the man who was the driving force behind the scandal, to a different position.


CHEVY VOLT BATTERY FIRE DEBACLE

Yes, I know that this story just recently broke out, but it's firmly rooted in the first months of the year. To say that the Chevy Volt is one of GM’s most important cars in a long time can’t really be called an overstatement. Yes, it’s not selling as well as was expected, but the General had some previous experience making EVs and they sounded convinced that people really needed the range extender that other automakers don’t offer. With a new and relatively untested idea behind it, the last thing they needed was some sort of PR nightmare, but they got one.

The car was crash tested in March and was given a clean bill of health, but apparently the fact that it could catch fire was known for a while.The fire started as the crash-tested car was stored in a parking lot, but it was so severe that other cars around also came ablaze. But the public wasn’t informed until November, and some members of the US government are asking why.

When informed of the fire, GM issued a statement saying the Volt "is safe and does not present undue risk as part of normal operation or immediately after a severe crash." But NHTSA tests found that under controlled conditions, there was indeed a problem as one test battery did catch fire, while another one started fuming and emitting spark. No real life fires have been reported so far, but with not that many on the road, this might not be conclusive.

SUZUKI VOLKSWAGEN PARTNERSHIP GOES BAD

Volkswagen and Suzuki are currently in the middle of not only a legal battle but one of harsh and very public statements. The two companies started their partnership in 2009, as Suzuki needed tech it couldn’t really develop on its own, while VW needed access to the Asian markets. But the romance came to an end in September, when VW accused its Japanese partner of breaching the contract after it signed a deal with Fiat for supply of diesel engines for the cars its builds in Hungary. But at the same time, Suzuki accused VW of not wanting to share its more advanced technologies.

A war of bitter words soon started and it was clear it wasn’t going to work, so Suzuki asked VW to give back the 19.9 percent stake in the Japanese company. But the German firm has said Suzuki has "no legal foundation" to force it to sell its shares. So what was Suzuki’s answer? Going to court, obviously!

"Suzuki Motor Corporation is today commencing arbitration proceedings in London with the ICC International Court of Arbitration, in order to compel Volkswagen AG to dispose of its Suzuki shares to Suzuki or Suzuki's designated third party," the Japanese carmaker.


JAPAN AUTO INDUSTRY HIT BY MASSIVE EARTHQUAKE AND TSUNAMI


If production facilities are working perfectly in sync with parts deliveries, it all starts to look like a bit like one of those complicated but efficient skeleton watches you can see through. But shake that watch to pieces and add some water over it and the whole thing brakes down.

That’s basically the best way to describe what happened in 2011 with the Japanese auto industry when a massive earthquake, followed by a tsunami wave created havoc in the country, halting the manufacturing sector of major automakers including Toyota and Honda.

However, the effects were not limited to the domestic market, as this revealed flaws in the global supply chain as factories in North America and across the world had to be temporarily shut down over parts shortages. Even Ford and General Motors had to show their weaknesses, due to missing components and even paint.

Considering the scale of the disaster, it’s surprising that it only took six months for Toyota and Honda to recover, but this has opened opportunities for their rivals. Honda was struck again by bad reviews for the new Civic and production was also affected by Thailand flooding that almost delayed the new CR-V crossover. Toyota meanwhile has to play catch-up now, as the world’s largest automaker for three years running will likely slip to third place after GM and VW at the end of 2011.


FIAT RETURNS TO THE US WITH THE 500

The last time a Fiat was sold in the States was almost 27 years ago, but Fiat Group CEO Sergio Marchionne knew he had an opportunity to make the most of the Chrysler tie-up, and he thus introduced the 500 range to US customers.

The CEO is not known for doing things in small, but the sales prediction of 50,000 units per year is now widely considered to have been too ambitious. This is also partly due to the inadequate dealer network at the model’s launch, and also due to the marketing side of things.

Jenifer Lopez did not prove to be the Fiat equivalent of Eminem for Chrysler, and fans quickly judged the ads to be not much help in actually creating brand identity and a connection to the Italian image.

This and other factors added up, and one major casualty of this was brand boss Laura Souve, who lost her job.

Fiat Group has since gotten a better grip on what consumers want, a fact clearly shown by the upcoming Dodge Dart compact sedan that’s supposed to do 40 mpg. More European cars are also going to make the trip across the pond, culminating with Alfa Romeo’s return to the US in 2013.

FORD STRIKES GOLD WITH V6 PICKUP

The Ford F-150 is practically synonymous with the word pickup and has been so for a while now, so the Blue Oval had no reason to gamble. But they did so in offering the new EcoBoost direct-injection twin-turbo V6 engine.

The marketing specialists quickly realized that the V8 was king, but it had to go if they were to reduce fuel consumption. So a campaign promoting the the durability of the turbocharged engine was used and it did the trick in combination with other stunts like using the truck to run the Baja race.

The gamble payed off in a big way, with 100,000 trucks having already been delivered so far in 2011. According to Doug Scott, marketing manager for the F-Series pickups, the last time they sold that many V6 pickups was in 1985. In fact, demand has been so great that they’ve even had to increased production.


JAGUAR C-X16 CONCEPT BLOWS OUR MINDS

It’s hard to explain emotions with just words, but we’ll have to try and explain which concept car made us tick this year and why. It has to be sporty, cool and revolutionary in its design. Kia’s GT almost made the cut as the top design, but the way that the production version of the C-X16 promises to stick it to the germans won us over.

The C-X16 is described as a production concept that will serve as the prototype for a future Jaguar two-seater, most likely to be called the XE. The looks speak for themselves, so we’re going to focus on what’s under the bonnet.

The drivetrain comprises of a prototype hybrid system combining a 3.0-liter supercharged V6 engine with 380 horsepower and electric motor and generator that has been integrated into an eight-speed automatic transmission. This adds another 95 horsepower for when you need that extra boost.


WHAT’S THE WORST CAR OF THE YEAR?

Well, it can only be something so comical that it makes you wonder how nobody stopped it from going into production. Yes, its the the Nissan Murano CrossCabriolet, widely considered the most disliked 2011 car.

Nissan has been doing a pretty good job overall, and they have a good read on what consumers want. There might indeed be a market for such a vehicle, but somewhere between the conception and the first piece of sheetmetal, they got it terribly wrong, and it ended up looking exactly how i would imagine Barbie’s car looks.

From a relatively masculine SUV platform, they skipped way past metrosexual and unisex and straight into feminine. It’s got pastel colors, a high seating position, sluggish response and not enough (or non at all) off-roading capability.

Nissan might have been on to something in the beginning with this one, since crossover coupes are the new IT product. If the CrossCabriolet had been a success, they would have probably also chopped the Juke. Aren’t you glad they didn’t?

SAAB FILES FOR BANKRUPTCY

We don’t want to become famous as the Debby Downers of the automotive press, when all the press a carmaker is getting focuses on the negative aspects, bankruptcy is just around the cornet. The 74-year old brand is standing on its last legs after filing for bankruptcy with the District Court in Vonersborg, Sweden on December 19th.

"After having received the recent position of GM on the contemplated transaction with Saab Automobile, Youngman informed Saab Automobile that the funding to continue and complete the reorganization of Saab Automobile could not be concluded," Swedish Automobile said in a statement. "The Board of Saab Automobile subsequently decided that the company without further funding will be insolvent and that filing bankruptcy is in the best interests of its creditors."

Even though it wasn’t the biggest success, the Swedish company was stable under GM’s tutoring until it had to be cut loose under GM’s restructuring program. It was subsequently bought by Dutch exotic car maker Spyker. There might still be a slim chance of it being reborn as a brand new company if the brand rights are bought, but the European market is already clouded as is.


TOYOTA PROMISES TO BRING THE FUN BACK

Among the last interesting vehicles revealed in 2011 was the brand new Toyota GT 86 sports coupe, developed in partnership with Subaru. There are much faster and more powerful vehicles that have been revealed this year, including the new BMW M5, but we suspect the Toyobaru will provide more smiles, since budged fun motoring has been decaying slowly but surely until this arrived.

Even though it only has 200 hp, every freshman out there will want one, and since it’s only supposed to cost about $25,000, chances are he’ll have money left over for an aftermarket exhaust.

But that’s not the whole story here. Toyota will use the sports coupe to promote its new-found fun outlook on life. Everybody knows they make hybrids, but automotive soul has been completely missing for a while now. We suspect every racing team, tuner, boy race and poser will want one of these next year.


WHAT’S COMING IN 2012

Next year will by no means be a smooth ride for the auto industry, but we should not despair. People are increasingly finding themselves in need of mobility, especially in developing markets like India or China. The premium market will still show the biggest demand there, as the boom era isn’t yet finished.

However, it’s my belief that what the struggling European market needs are some practical and back to basics cars and a return to Euro-chic. Practical vehicles like compact SUV and estates will still sell well, and I’m rooting for the new Peugeot 208 hatch, which has become smaller and lighter to adapt. 2012 is also the your of the Paris Motor Show, where I suspect PSA and Renault-Nissan will reinvent themselves.

As for America, “it’s steady as she goes,” since most forecasts show another year of increases. All major brands there are striving to also become global, with the Cadillac ATS, Chevy Malibu and Ford Escape being the cars to watch out for.

 
 
 
 
 

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