The Ann Arbor Chronicle » Rob Cleveland it's like being there Wed, 26 Nov 2014 18:59:03 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Column: On the Road Sun, 28 Mar 2010 14:13:37 +0000 Rob Cleveland Rob Cleveland

Rob Cleveland

Growing up, luxury vehicles for me essentially included anything brought over from the European continent – from the classics like Mercedes-Benz and BMW to Audi, Saab and even the short-lived Peugeot 505 sedan (although looking back on it the Peugeot might have been a bit of a reach). A generation before, it was Cadillac and Lincoln marques that were held up as aspirational vehicles, with stories of people working their entire lives to finally afford a Cadillac in the driveway.

So when a colleague brought in the new Hyundai Genesis sedan to our Ann Arbor shop and described it as an early Lexus LS, I just had to see if this newest introduction to the luxury sedan segment was really as advertised.

Hyundai began making noises about entering into the luxury stratosphere just a couple of years ago, accompanied by chortles from the media and perhaps even from consumers too. No more. The Genesis won North American Car of the Year in 2009 – an award compiled from automotive media voting on dozens of new models from multiple pricing segments.

The car has been reviewed to death in other publications so I won’t say much more than it checks all of the boxes for a luxury sedan: quiet, smooth ride, luxurious interior ensconced in leather, a full spate of electronic gear. The catch – a $40,000 price tag versus $50,000 and up for other comparable sedans of this size and equipment level. The Mercedes-Benz E-Class, the BMW 5-series and Lexus GS are targeted rivals in this segment.

Hyundai plans to introduce another luxury model even above the Genesis later this year, the Equus. It will go up against the big flagships: Mercedes S-Class, Lexus LS450 and BMW 7-series. And if their pricing strategy holds, this model too is likely to come in under the high price tags seen in this segment. Rumors have it pegged at $60,000 but the company has yet to confirm pricing and it’s not clear if that is with or without heated tilting seats and TV screens … in the back.

This rollout strategy is nothing new. Lexus debuted in the American market with pricing well below its competitors, and sustained those prices for several years until Americans were willing to give the tires a kick. In fact, the prices were so low compared to the competition that Toyota was accused of “dumping” vehicles on the market in order to gain market share.

Now it’s Hyundai’s turn. And the question is whether or not consumers are willing to see the brand in a new light. Instead of an inexpensive transportation option with a legacy of quality issues (issues that more recently have been resolved just to note), Hyundai is asking buyers to see the Genesis and its larger kin Equus as luxury vehicles with equal gravitas as a Mercedes, but at a lower cost.

Hyundai isn’t the only one pushing this paradigm. Buick has recently set its sights on Lexus, positioning its Buick Lacrosse squarely against the Lexus ES model. The model is comparable in almost every way – from equipment to design and appointment – but comes in well below the cost of the ES. In fact the loaded Lacrosse can be had for slightly less than the base Lexus ES. Some auto reviews insist that the Lacrosse is even superior to the ES model, leaving only the brand itself to differentiate the two models.

Cadillac too is trying a sort of renaissance, pushing more aggressive design and more youthful advertising into its brand in an effort to tamp down a median buying age that at one point was so high that the company stopped releasing the figure for some time.

In the wake of last year’s economic pub crawl into the gutter, and the hangover that still ensues, perhaps these new, or renewed brands have a better chance of getting noticed than ever before. As they make their value proposition, cost-conscious consumers may drop their prejudices towards luxury staples of years past, and give these new and revised brands a more serious look.

By the way, consumers may want to do that sooner rather than later. As some of these new efforts gain market share, automakers are likely to push their pricing strategies up, opting to compete head-to-head and taking a bigger margin on each unit sold.

Meanwhile, car shoppers looking in or at least around the luxury sedan segment have many more options than ever before and will likely be surprised at how far their dollars will go … as long as they can see the car behind the badge.

About the author: Rob Cleveland is CEO of ICON Creative Technologies Group and a co-owner of Grange Kitchen and Bar in Ann Arbor.

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Column: On the Road Mon, 15 Feb 2010 15:01:27 +0000 Rob Cleveland Rob Cleveland

Rob Cleveland

Toyota is something of an instant Greek tragedy as of late. Having displaced General Motors as the world’s biggest automaker, the gods of conveyance quickly punished the Japanese automaker for hubris and success, leaving the company wandering dazed and confused in the loneliest place on earth … at number one.

But the story is more than technical problems resulting in Toyota’s largest U.S. recall ever.

It also is about Toyota’s culture and how their approach to communications during this crisis exacerbated an already difficult situation.

The facts, as they appear now, anyway, seem to indicate that Toyota had a clear understanding of the defects for many months and had ample time to respond to the acceleration issue, with serious investigations underway as early as last August following a crash killing four people. The problem originally was blamed on the design of the floor mat and the matter seemed to be closed, at least in Toyota’s eyes.

This initial milestone was the first in a series of missteps driven by the company’s culture. Although Toyota is famous for its “andon cord” – a cord next to the assembly line that lets anyone stop production if they see a problem – the Japanese corporate culture is very top down. When a supervisor, or someone with significant authority, renders a decision, it rarely is challenged from people below.

That management approach may have precluded engineers and other managers from offering other points of view: points that became increasingly relevant as other theories about the acceleration began to manifest.

Gas pedals in contemporary vehicles typically do not have the kind of mechanical links to the throttle compared with older models. Instead they rely on sensors and software to not only provide direction to the engine’s throttle control, but also tactile feedback to the driver’s foot.

When a second theory began to surface around a malfunction of the pedal sensor itself in early January, Toyota was caught flatfooted and there was no communication whatever to the public.

Instead, the media picked up the story first: an incredible blunder. Had Toyota come out in front of the story, the media would have picked up the facts both from Toyota and other sources, but instead they ran with what they had – speculation and theory from “experts” in the field.

This information vacuum was driven from the top down too. Toyota President Akio Toyoda, grandson of the company’s founder Kiichiro Toyoda, made only a passing comment to a Swiss journalist before calling a hasty but belated press conference a week later to apologize for the problems. In a stark illustration of Toyota’s problem, Japanese journalists chastised Toyoda for calling the press conference with little advance warning, and then saying nothing of any substance except his expression of regret. That kind of aggressive journalism is very rare in Japan where the media and large corporations share a relationship more described as cooperation than investigation.

Here culture again played a role. Japanese companies in particular are very deliberate in their message – there is no such thing as improvisation. Announcements and directives are carefully vetted weeks before delivery. Nothing is left to chance. The president of Toyota did not come out with a clear message for the media and for customers about a solution to the problem because they simply were not ready (unlike American media responses thrown together so quickly that they often forego proper grammar.)

Jim Lentz, president and CEO of Toyota Motor Sales, did make an attempt at reeling back in the story by appearing on the Today Show with host Matt Lauer, one of several TV and radio stops made that day in an effort to quell the rising frenzy. No luck. For a guy covering sextuplets and travel destinations, Mr. Lauer deftly put the thumbscrews to Mr. Lentz, whose answers rang more as coached than genuine.

And it kept coming. The last lesson of a crisis with this magnitude is that there always are aftershocks.

The first of these aftershocks came from U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. In an interview, LaHood suggested that Toyota owners should consider not driving their cars. In the context of the interview, the comment was offhanded; clearly not a prescription or a remedy being endorsed by the federal government. LaHood later retracted his comment, offering further clarification. But the damage was done and out of the interview, the media focused on the sound bite that made the biggest headline.

Next came the revelation that the antilock braking system on the Prius was under a recall too, adding another log on the fire and threatening one of Toyota’s most valuable and successful models from a brand perspective.

Had Toyota’s voice been out in front of the discussion, these corollary issues would have been muted, but because the media was driving the bus, each problem amplified the original acceleration problem. Even with no direct link between the Prius brakes and the larger throttle problem, the media made the connection declaring a wider, more systemic breakdown at Toyota.

And that is unlikely. Toyota has led the approach to – and results in – quality for decades. It would be irresponsible to marginalize these quality issues in the light of the fatalities that resulted. But there have been much larger recalls. Ford’s 1996 recall for a faulty ignition switch still ranks at the top of the list, and the Firestone tire debacle also ranks as one of the most publicized recall episodes in automotive history. But in these cases, Ford was out in front of each issue. Bill Ford himself was on the television attempting to reassure customers during the tire recall that the company was taking every measure to resolve the problem quickly and safely.

And GM. Having walked over hot coals last summer through their bankruptcy to emerge not only intact from a brand perspective but actually gaining ground in the public eye is the result of herculean efforts from their communications machine. The value of the results probably can be quantified with some clever math. And I would bet they are in the billions.

Toyota does now have a “mea culpa” marketing program running in an attempt to repair the damage. But the story still is resonating on the front page of newspapers and the lead in news broadcasts. The longer the story stays current, the harder it will be for dealers to get cars off of their lots. As a result, Toyota now is trying to run with big cash incentives to get buyers back. Just ask General Motors how that strategy plays out in the long run.

Is it fair to penalize Toyota for not having experience with recalls? Probably not. But Toyota is the largest car company in the world today (for the moment) and even if the excuse is having gotten it right for the last 50 years, a company of this size and scope has to have all of its disciplines executing at the highest level to stay that way.

It’s time for Toyota to learn once again from a pivotal moment in their brand’s history, and create a culture that allows the company to open up clear and frank dialogue with its customers and from people at the execution level, not executive. It will be an absolute must if they plan to hold on to that number one spot … that is, if they want it anymore.

About the author: Rob Cleveland is CEO of ICON Creative Technologies Group and a co-owner of Grange Kitchen and Bar in Ann Arbor.

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Column: On the Road Sat, 23 Jan 2010 02:30:21 +0000 Rob Cleveland Rob Cleveland

Rob Cleveland

The media days preceding the 2010 North American International Auto Show in downtown Detroit kicked off to a pace that indicated far more optimism than the subdued, wake of an auto show that ran in 2009. At last year’s show, little did we know what was in store for us in the coming months – GM and Chrysler filing for bankruptcy, the lowest vehicle sales in 25 years – and it isn’t likely 2010 will be any less entertaining.

Optimism, though, seems to permeate through the show this year. Ford Motor Co., the only domestic automaker not to take bailout loans from the government, swept the North American car and truck of the year for the 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid and 2010 Ford Transit Connect. Only two other automakers have taken the double header in the 17-year history of the award.

And GM’s chairman and CEO Ed Whitacre told reporters at the show that the federal government “had made a great investment” in effectively purchasing GM, and that he expected some $6.7 billion in loans to be paid back this year.

There still are sobering issues to deal with, though, and product will trump any good intentions as the year winds on.

For the Detroit show, GM unveiled two concepts: the Buick Regal GS concept car and GMC Granite concept crossover. Concepts are meant to show GM’s design direction on new product moving forward, but the final production models are what sells.

And Ford clearly has struck a positive cord with its new 2012 Focus due to go on sale early next year. If Americans are going to start buying compact cars from domestic automakers, this is it. The Focus has been referred to as “stunning” by some automotive pundits and I’m not inclined to argue. Ford says it is using a new 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine with direct gasoline injection with its Ecoboost system to boost performance while cutting fuel consumption. The combination of outstanding design and competitive fuel economy is likely to win some converts from foreign competitors like Toyota and Honda who have dominated the compact car segment for decades.

Chrysler Battles Back … Slowly

And then there is Chrysler. Still a mystery with its plot yet to unfold, Fiat executives who are now squarely entrenched in the day-to-day activities opted not to hold a press conference largely because the Chrysler stand did not have any significant new product. Executives insist the first big wave of new activity will come from Chrysler later this year. It remains to be seen if that will be soon enough.

That didn’t mean the Chrysler stand was empty – far from it. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi spoke to reporters from the Chrysler stand, effectively confirming the government’s decision to step in on GM and Chrysler, and saying she was returning to Washington D.C. “with great optimism.” It wasn’t clear if Ms. Pelosi ever finds herself behind the wheel of a vehicle, or has any real grasp of the auto market and the possible roadblocks ahead to recovery, but like a veteran politician her spin was upbeat and completely void of any facts.

Another politician arguably more in tune with the trials of the auto business also visited the stand. Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm took a few minutes to chat with Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne and grabbed some photo opportunities.

But Chrysler made the most news off the show floor at a dinner during the Automotive News World Congress at the Marriott, where no less than three different individuals heckled Marchionne for a range of perceived transgressions, from a plant closing in Italy to a car-hauling deal gone sideways with the Teamsters, to a woman who blamed the company for the untimely demise of her spouse. Benvenuto a Detroit.

Other carmakers were more subdued – in particular the Japanese and Koreans, who are likely to wait until other auto shows later this year to unveil major product, given the immense focus on Ford, GM and Chrysler this year in Detroit. But they were far from silent. Honda introduced a new hybrid, the 2011 CR-Z two-door hatchback, designed to give a little zing into the otherwise staid hybrid sedan market. And Toyota looks like it may be expanding its hybrid/Prius line with the introduction of a FT-CH hybrid concept that, if or when in production, would come in under the current Prius as an entry-level variant.

From Germany, with Love

The Teutonic automakers appear to be embracing the concept of electric vehicles, despite their continued push to sell more diesels here and their long history of selling exceptional diesel powertrains all over Europe. BMW announced the ActiveE, an electric-powered vehicle based on its one series, following suit with BMW Group’s MINI-E introduction last year (BMW Group owns the MINI brand). The vehicle will use lithium-ion batteries and BMW says it has a cruising range of 100 miles.

And Audi rolled out the E-Tron “Detroit Concept,” which is a smaller variant of its E-Tron concept rolled out in Frankfurt last year. Nomenclature aside, the concept sports two electric motors to drive the rear wheels, putting out 204 horsepower. The car also is listed as putting out 1,995 foot-pounds of torque, representing more of a mathematical interpretation of a torque curve rather than the possibility of snapping your neck in two at every traffic light. But Audi insists these EVs will be rolling into production in 2012, getting 150 miles on a single charge.

If 2009 is remembered as a disaster for the auto industry, perhaps 2010 will mark the beginning of the recovery from that disaster, with the byproduct being a better industry with new, innovative models that reduce the auto industry’s footprint on the environment.

Or it will be the year where the industry misses real opportunities to change for the better, and the status quo simply comes back as sales volume rises. If that’s the case, we can expect another catastrophe somewhere down the line.

Editor’s note: The 2010 North American International Auto Show runs through Sunday at Cobo Center in Detroit.

About the author: Rob Cleveland is CEO of ICON Creative Technologies Group and a co-owner of Grange Kitchen and Bar in Ann Arbor.

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Column: On the Road Sat, 12 Dec 2009 22:34:27 +0000 Rob Cleveland Rob Cleveland

Rob Cleveland

Toyota’s Prius arguably is one of the most notable, and most recognized hybrids in the marketplace today. It’s seen as a symbol of an emerging trend here in the U.S. that embraces environmental responsibility and stewardship. In its draft, the Toyota brand has built a green, eco-friendly image that has often mitigated criticism of the company’s other pickups and SUVs with considerably poorer gas mileage.

A decade from now, though, I predict the Prius will be less known for its short-term contribution to the Toyota brand or CO2 reduction, and better known for galvanizing hybrid technology in the U.S. marketplace, catalyzing the introduction of dozens of other hybrid vehicles by nearly every car company selling here.

With roughly 21 hybrid models in showrooms right now, and other 20-plus models planned for production in the next four years, its legacy will have far more impact than any one vehicle with a 50-mpg rating.

A Changing Market, But Hybrid Sales Still Low

Some forget that the Prius wasn’t the first hybrid vehicle in the U.S. market. Honda’s Insight was the first to debut here in 1999, with the Prius following a year later. But Toyota’s hybrid proved to be the perfect combination: styling unique enough to set it apart as a new type of vehicle, but close enough to a typical compact 4-door to make it far more practical and usable versus the 2-seater Insight.

That combination of design and functionality allowed the Prius to become a moral statement for some in the face of global warming’s increasing celebrity. For others, it was an opportunity to hedge against the cost of vehicle ownership – an experiment in thrift against the rising tide of oil and gasoline prices.

Now hybrids are nearly ubiquitous – especially in green-leaning cities like Ann Arbor. Even those holdouts that insisted hybrids were likely a fad are rolling out hybrid powertrains that offer modest to major fuel economy ratings.

Sadly, hybrid sales still represent just 2% of total vehicles sold so far this year: approximately 240,00 were sold through October 2009 (Prius represented almost half, at 118,290) versus 8.6 million total vehicle units in the same time period. By comparison, Ford Motor Co. sold 334,922 F-150 pickup trucks alone in the same time period.

But between 2010 and 2013, there could be another 20-plus models released by manufacturers in a broad range of categories and price ranges. With more models to choose from, the sales numbers may improve as the economy’s pall lifts and people, once again, are willing to pay a premium for environmental advocacy.

And while the free market dictates that, one day, Prius will lose its diminutive crown as king of the hybrids to a competitor, all that come after it will have to recognize that the Prius sits at the trunk of this genealogy tree and pay homage to Toyota’s combination of product genius and uncanny market timing.

The Coming Lineup

Beginning in 2010 and looking forward, here are a few hybrid highlights to watch:

  • Honda. Although Insight and Civic hybrid sales are only a fraction of the Toyota Prius sales, the Honda brand, year in year out, has stood more for innovation and creativity than volume (except for the Accord, of course). And so the Honda Fit Hybrid is next on the company slate, expected to debut late next year. Rumors have its mpg rating posted in the high sixties – a remarkable achievement but not entirely unexpected given the Fit’s size.
  • BMW X6 and 7 Series. BMW calls their hybrid powertrain “ActiveHybrid” in an effort to differentiate between the thrifty but sluggish performance of hybrids like the Prius and Insight, and the main focus of BMW’s brand – the driving experience. Nonetheless, the ActiveHybrid is expected to provide 20% better fuel economy than comparable performance internal combustion engines, giving BMW owners an eco-option without compromising driving performance. The X6 is being rolled out now, and the 7-series will debut next spring.
  • Porsche Cayenne/VW Touareg. If you’re not sure how to pronounce these two SUVs, you’re not alone. I’m not even sure the spelling is correct. But the Porsche and VW hybrid versions of these SUVs will debut in 2010 and 2011, respectively. While the individual marques go out of their way to differentiate the two models, they share much of the same underpinnings. In a spate of Teutonic SUV offerings due next year, German manufacturers are beginning to play catch up to Japanese and American OEMs who have had hybrids out in this category for some time.
  • Audi Q5 Hybrid. Not to be left behind, Audi reportedly will launch a hybrid version of its Q5 SUV. The announcement comes as a surprise to hybridophiles who expected Audi’s first hybrid to be their bigger Q7. The dilemma could stem from the fact that Audi, like most German manufacturers, also is pushing diesel powertrains in some of its models (also offering great fuel economy performance, by the way) and offering a Q7 in both diesel and hybrid versions is likely to make heads spin at the dealership.
  • Mercedes ML Hybrid. That didn’t stop Mercedes Benz from offering its ML-class SUV in three versions: gas (petrol for the euro crowd), diesel or hybrid. The gasoline engine gets 15 mpg, the diesel 18 mpg and the hybrid 21 mpg. How’s that for progress? The ML is on sale now.
  • Hyundai Sonata. It was a great year for Hyundai, despite the recession, as buyers looked for cars with good value but lower stickers. The company’s first hybrid, the Sonata, will test Hyundai’s value/price formula since it will undoubtedly sell for more than the gasoline version. It remains to be seen if the translation can be made from a Toyota hybrid to a Hyundai with the same conquest rate as traditional gasoline engines.
  • Buick Crossover Hybrid. As GM continues to massage its Buick brand, a hybrid is expected to debut in 2011, likely in the form of a crossover or small sport-utility vehicle. GM had slated the Saturn Vue to be its hybrid candidate in this class, but the brand didn’t make the bankruptcy cut. Some reports have this vehicle pegged to hit as much as 70 mpg if it is fitted with some of the same technology and powertrain configuration as the Chevrolet Volt.
  • Superclass. If you’re looking to execute conspicuous consumption and then throw environmental superiority on top of it, in a couple of years, your options will grow substantially. Porsche is expected to launch a hybrid version of its new luxury 4-door sedan, the Panamera. Infiniti has a hybrid version of its M sports sedan reportedly in the works, and a new company, Fisker, will produce a plug-in hybrid sedan called the Karma coming in at around $90,000. These models might be a bridge too far for some tree huggers, but now even the rich Sneetches can have environmental stars on their bellies.

Some Final Thoughts

Many of these vehicles still are based on the same hybrid powertrain concepts pioneered by the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight. On the horizon: the plug in hybrid (PHEV), offering more range on electric power and thus even lower fuel consumption.

Still, there is some controversy about hybrids: whether or not they get the fuel economy they report in real commuter driving cycles, whether or not owners really recoup the premium they pay for a hybrid over the life of a vehicle.

But with so many hybrids coming into the market, consumers appear to be telling focus groups that they just don’t care. That means hybrids have likely graduated from a fad borne in bad economic times and environmental handwringing into a long-term option for carbuyers. So years from now, you may get to tell those bored grandkids (from the back seat of their hovercraft) about the Toyota Prius, the car that started it all.

About the author: Rob Cleveland is CEO of ICON Creative Technologies Group and a co-owner of Grange Kitchen and Bar in Ann Arbor.

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Column: On the Road Sun, 08 Nov 2009 15:11:54 +0000 Rob Cleveland Rob Cleveland

Rob Cleveland

When I talk to out-of-state relatives, they begin the conversation with the same pity-laden inquiry: “So how’s it going out there?” By “out there” they mean the state with the worst unemployment figures, rampant foreclosures, corrupt former mayors, headline-grabbing corporate meltdowns and enough clinical depression to put a squeeze on the country’s Zoloft supply.

Michigan’s slide into unwanted notoriety has been led by the collapse of the domestic automobile industry – once an engine for the economy, and now a drag both here at home and across the nation.

But unlike last winter (and spring, and summer), the news is looking a little brighter lately. Mind you, I’m not declaring “Mission Accomplished,” but the collective headlines that came out just this week could mean the auto industry, and by association the state of Michigan, could be on the mend.

Some Positive Signs at Ford, GM

The brightest news this week: Ford Motor Co., the only domestic manufacturer that opted not to take loans from the federal government, posted a near-$1 billion profit for the third quarter, built in part from a profit of $357 million from its North American operations. That is the first profit Ford has seen from its domestic unit since 2005.

Ford’s turnaround is tenuous, though. It still is sitting on a mountain of debt: more than $23 billion. That’s the equivalent of getting a job after a year of unemployment, and only now being able to face up to the maxed-out credit cards and home equity loans. And while Ford has some decent product out now, it is going to find it difficult to sustain a pipeline competing with other companies who shed their liabilities through bankruptcy, and now can devote more dollars to new cars and trucks.

It beats getting poked in the eye, though, and CEO Alan Mulally is predicting a return to annual profitability in 2011. Just one more year…

Meanwhile, east of Dearborn at the RenCen, the surviving General Motors crew is crawling to shore after the ship went down this summer. The public ire over billions of dollars in federal loans has apparently abated and they are buying GM cars again, up 4% versus October 2008 and up 13% over September 2009.

Perhaps more telling than sales, though, was GM’s decision to keep its European car unit, Opel, after a protracted effort to sell it to Magna – a giant Canadian parts supplier – and a consortium of Russian investors. The decision to keep Opel can only be based on optimism from the executive suites and a bullish forecast for the coming year.

In calling off the deal, GM managed to outrage both the German and Russian governments who had their own agendas and expectations built into the buyout. At least the taxpayers are getting some entertainment out of the federal loans, if nothing else just now.

What’s Up with Chrysler?

And then there is the plucky Chrysler that just won’t say die. In an all-out corporate marathon, Fiat/Chrysler-boss Sergio Marchionne took six long hours to outline the next, long five years that will pave the way to a Chrysler revival, largely on the backs of Fiat production platforms.

If the plan holds true, Fiat will do more for Chrysler in just two years, in terms of product sharing, than Daimler did for Chrysler during its entire ownership tenure. And Americans may, once again, be able to buy Fiats and Alfa Romeos at local Chrysler dealerships.

There are plenty of industry analysts and home-schooled amateurs who are writing Chrysler and Fiat off. Marchionne reminded the audience that the same dire predictions were made about Fiat before he took the helm there, and the company wound up turning a record profit in 2008.

Mind you, 2009 isn’t looking nearly as hot for Fiat but no one is lighting cigars with hundred dollar bills these days. If someone is going to try and revive the clinically dead Chrysler, it might as well be someone who has been through it all before.

The Road Ahead for Michigan

The slow and painful return of these three companies could mean better times ahead for Michigan. But that shouldn’t mean Michigan should give up its efforts to bring diversity to its business base. Foregoing efforts to bring other high-tech companies and industries into Michigan would mean that we’re back here a decade from now when the automobile industry takes another bad turn. And anyone who thinks the Big Three will ever have the same headcount it did five years ago is delusional.

Conservative groups are calling for elimination of tax breaks and subsidies to attract businesses here to Michigan. They claim it is a waste of time, and that those expenditures haven’t lived up to the forecasts for new jobs. That’s precisely the same short-term thinking that has put Michigan at the head of the pack when it comes to economic blight. Spending tax dollars to attract new businesses like high-tech software firms and new industries like the film business is a long-term investment: it won’t bring in jobs overnight but it beats the heck out of doing nothing and then whining about it when there are no results.

We can all hope and believe that the auto industry will come back. But Michigan needs to plan with the expectation that it might not. In the best-case scenario, more car jobs return to Michigan on top of jobs from other industries. Maybe then, the pity permeating over the telephone lines when out-of-state friends and family call may begin to dissipate.

About the author: Rob Cleveland is CEO of ICON Creative Technologies Group and a co-owner of Grange Kitchen and Bar in Ann Arbor.

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Column: On the Road Sun, 16 Aug 2009 15:13:32 +0000 Rob Cleveland Rob Cleveland

Rob Cleveland

One thing is certain in the automobile business. When you start peeling back the onion on the performance claims and quality ratings made by and for all of the automobile manufacturers, you better have a bottle of ibuprofen at the ready. General Motors’ recent announcement that the Chevrolet Volt will get 230 miles per gallon (mpg) certainly is no exception.

First, some disclosure for your reference. I have been a big fan of GM’s efforts to create its hybrid electric vehicle and felt for some time that the car could be a positive step forward for transportation in general. I’ve been a strong supporter of GM’s many efforts in alternative transportation, from hydrogen to ethanol, as well. There are plenty of detractors around these programs – and some of the criticism is warranted. But for a company so maligned by the public as being out of date, I’ve always felt GM got a bad rap seeing how they are doing at least as much as any other car company to find solutions that take petroleum out of the transportation equation.

With that said, I found myself scratching my head trying to absorb this latest news out from GM. In principle at least, it seemed as if the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had just given the Volt a 230 mpg fuel economy rating, more than 10 times the average fuel economy of other cars on the road. Fantastic or fantastical?

One can be excused for having pitched one’s eyes in that too familiar arc with an element of pessimism upon hearing this. In the midst of a political, fiscal and public relations nightmare, GM manages to pull this arrow out of its R&D quiver, hitting a bulls-eye with the news media. Let the conspiracy theories begin: the EPA, the federal government agency charged with developing rules for fuel ratings, just created the rule that calculates the Volt fuel economy at 230 mpg – more than 10 times the average vehicle on the road today. And GM’s principle owner, at 60%, is … the federal government.

Or just maybe we’re witness to something genuinely revolutionary – an opportunity for those who have been railing about automobiles for years to climb off of their green dais built of cork and mud into – gulp – a Chevrolet. Perhaps after all of the chatter and hype, the American public is finally getting what it has been clamoring for, and GM is really capable of changing with the times after all.

Being in a university town, hopefully more than a few folks here will wonder what exactly is behind GM’s lofty number. Well, that is where it get’s fun. My breakdown is below but I’m hopeful that people with more alphabet soup after their last name will weigh in on the comment lines.

Get Out Your Calculators

Here is some background to provide the proper context for the subsequent calculations. The EPA is chartered with coming up with the formulas and testing procedures that dictate how car companies will calculate fuel ratings to their cars. This isn’t just an exercise. Automakers can incur heavy fines if they can’t demonstrate that their fleets meet the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) benchmarks mandated by the government.

For the Volt, and other electric vehicles, the EPA calculates the rating, in part, based on how many kilowatt hours (kWh) are used to go 100 miles. GM says the Volt will use about 25 kWh.

So with that, let’s do some math. To do this I offer you no less than four calculations and ratings.

For the first number we have my math, which I would call the “simple” formula, seeing that it took me 10 minutes to come up with it.

If it costs about 11 cents on the average for a kilowatt-hour (the national average), to go 100 miles using 25 kWh would cost approximately $2.75. Compare that to a car getting 20 mpg – about the average for cars and light-duty trucks on the road right now. Using a national average of $2.60 per gallon of gasoline (visit to see your region), the same mileage costs $13 on our benchmark “pretend” gasoline vehicle. So the straight math tells us that the gasoline equivalent is about 4.7 times as much, putting our “simple” calculation for the Volt at about 95 miles per gallon. Not bad, but not anywhere close to 230 mpg. Yes, this calculation is imperfect, as it does not take into account whether or not the car ran all-electric or in both electric then gasoline modes. And of course as the price of gasoline fluctuates and the benchmark vehicle changes, so does the answer. But it is a simple start.

Of course, the EPA doesn’t like things to be that simple, otherwise I could just run the whole place myself with a laptop and a Twitter feed. Instead, they have conducted studies on the driving patterns of about 80,000 people and, based on those driving patterns, concluded that the average Joe (or plumber or six-pack drinker) is driving in a particular way. These “driving cycles” are used in coming up with the mileage.

The EPA takes these driving cycles – there are different ones for different scenarios like city and highway, by the way – and calculates the fuel efficiency of the Volt over a cycle, assuming one starts out with a full charge on the battery pack.

A Little More Complicated

Now we explore the second number, 230 mpg. The cycle is roughly 50 miles, and the fully charged Volt goes 40 miles on its initial battery charge, and then consumes a fifth of a gallon of gasoline to go the remaining 10 miles.

The very simple math – no more complicated than the scenario above – says that if the car made it 50 miles on one-fifth of a gallon … guess what? The car will go 250 miles per one gallon (250 mpg). The test cycle itself isn’t quite 50 miles, and there are some inefficiencies one needs to build into any powertrain system versus the theoretical world, so in the end, 230 mpg was probably a safe bet and one GM was willing to stand by, assuming everyone is inclined to take this approach at face value.

But hang on – what about all of the “fuel” that goes into that first charge of the battery pack? Surely we can’t ignore that. Seeing that electricity isn’t free at the moment, and has its own inherent energy capacity, what is the mileage relative to gasoline (if you’re not a fan of math or making life more complex than it needs to be, skip ahead six or seven paragraphs.)

And so we have the third number.

Gasoline has an energy density of 114,000 BTU/gallon. A kilowatt hour has 3,400 BTUs/kWh, so it takes 33.59 kWh to equal one gallon of gasoline (which, by the way, is why gasoline has been so popular).

This puts the conversion factor at 33,590 from watt hours to gasoline. Unfortunately, the EPA gets 33,705 so I will use their number instead, since I am using the calculator on my Mac.

Now take the fuel economy in terms of watt hours to go 1 mile (remember GM says 25 kWh to go 100 miles, so 250 watt hours to go 1 mile) and divide that into the conversion factor: 33,705/250(wh/mile) = 134.8 mpg. So in electric mode, the Volt is getting 135 mpg – much closer to my “simple” calculation result.

Of course, now this completely ignores the gas mileage that ensues after 40 miles when the onboard gasoline-driven recharger kicks in to top off the batteries. It does this when the battery is at 30% capacity and tries to keep things above that line until you can recharge.

Here GM provides us with our fourth and final number. When the engine is on, the Chevy Volt is getting 62 mpg – about 12 mpg better than a Prius, but nowhere close to the jaw-dropping 230 mpg previously stated.

What to Believe?

Deciding which answer to believe is complicated in itself. After all, it is the EPA’s own rating formula that provided the 230 mpg and GM is unlikely to make such a dramatic claim without some way to use the EPA as a backstop for the media’s fastball pitches. On the other hand, it doesn’t stand to reason that the car can get 135 mpg in electric mode, 62 mpg in gasoline/electric mode and somehow walk away with 230 mpg.

My only thought is that the EPA’s complete model for fuel economy calculations is so complex and so outdated that trying to assign a fuel economy rating in miles per gallon to an electric vehicle is like trying to publish a web page with a Heidelberg four-color offset press.

This is likely to get even more complicated as the EPA considers rules that will provide ratings for electric-only modes and composite modes (sort of the city/highway equivalent). And the EPA already is running for cover, having issued this statement the day after GM’s 230-mpg revelation: ”EPA has not tested a Chevy Volt and therefore cannot confirm the fuel economy values claimed by GM.”

To make matters worse, Nissan just unveiled its Leaf all-electric vehicle – no onboard recharger fueled with gasoline. The company says it can go 100 miles on a single charge (of course, when you run out, you better be close to a wall socket).

Taking the EPA’s formula using the LA4 driving cycle, Nissan calculated that the Leaf – a four-door sedan much like the Volt – gets 367 mpg, trumping the Volt by a wide margin (apparently Americans can’t even make fuel efficient cars fuel efficient.) Note that the 367 miles per gallon rating is for a car without a drop of gasoline, never mind a gallon, on board.

Luckily for GM, Nissan and the EPA, the public isn’t likely to dive too deeply into the calculus. NBC’s Today Show swallowed the fuel economy rating whole, with no mention of how GM or the EPA arrived at the number. CNN ran the 230 mpg number in their endless news cycle without any reflection on the calculation. As far as the news media seems to be concerned, if the government says it’s true, it must be true. Great.

What the public is more likely to listen to will be the sticker price on these new EVs. GM has floated that the Volt will come out around $40,000. Just by comparison, a 2010 Mercedes Benz C-Class, roughly the same size as the Volt, comes in just over $35,000 nicely loaded.

And therein lies the rub – whether it is flying cars, high-speed rails, or electric vehicles. Worse than not getting what we want can be getting what we want. And now the bill for what we all asked for incessantly – incredibly high fuel economy in a four-door sedan – appears to be coming due.

In truth, I hope the calculation proves to be true through some far more complex equation that takes into account the vagaries of regenerative braking and the leftover 30% battery capacity after the driving cycle is finished. I wish I could explain the number just so I could be more preachy and tell GM’s critics  to kiss Rick Wagoner’s posterior (some folks in the Senate get first pucker), as the Volt was conceived under his watch. Having a vehicle that provided 10 times the fuel economy of today’s average car would solve an extraordinary set of seemingly intractable problems, from Middle East oil imports to climate change and the environment.

But for the public to buy into the hype, the car companies had better be sure they all are speaking from the same playbook. In principle, that’s the EPA’s job, but in fact we don’t buy cars from the EPA (well, sort of, if you think about it). It’s up to GM, Nissan and the half dozen other manufacturers planning all-electric or hybrid electric vehicle production in the next few years to give car buyers something solid that really justifies the added cost of owning an EV.

About the author: Rob Cleveland is CEO of ICON Creative Technologies Group and a co-owner of Grange Kitchen and Bar in Ann Arbor.

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Column: On the Road Sat, 04 Apr 2009 08:33:55 +0000 Rob Cleveland Rob Cleveland

Rob Cleveland

I held back submitting this monthly column until the end of March to see what latest theatrics would wash over the auto industry. I wasn’t disappointed. The Obama administration looked over the homework submitted by GM and Chrysler – homework designed to demonstrate how they were going to get out of their collective messes – and sent them back to detention to do it over again.

On top of it all, long-time CEO at GM Rick Wagoner was summarily dismissed, as if one lone auto executive had been responsible for creating an unworkable fiscal structure and a corporate culture developed over decades of booms and busts in the auto business. And just for good measure, the government is insisting that Chrysler and Fiat hook up – something they were bound to do anyway – making this requirement the equivalent of forcing children to eat dessert.

Those inside the industry recognized the Obama administration’s reply for what it is – political theatre. Only 16% of Americans polled believe the auto industry should get additional loans, making any decision to give GM and Chrysler more money…toxic. Obama had to scold the two companies, and chastise them for not being aggressive enough in their restructuring plan to show that the money he is bound to give them came after careful review and critique. And Wagoner? Bob Lutz, GM’s vice-chairman, called it throwing the virgin into the volcano to appease the gods a few months ago. I’m having trouble picturing Mr. Wagoner in a hula skirt, but the analogy fits.

Despite all of the pronouncements and lecture, something major is missing from the activity. It is an opportunity not just to save GM and Chrysler, but also to change the fundamental landscape of the auto industry and our energy consumption patterns across America. Sound too far-fetched, too grandiose? Well so does universal health care and rebuilding our education system, but I expect the Obama administration to handle these problems too.

Government’s job is not to try and decide how many employees GM should have, or whether or not a tie in with Fiat is a good idea. Government’s job should be to instigate fundamental change. As part of the loan package, the Obama administration could require GM and Chrysler to roll out their production-ready electric vehicles in 2010, offering the first real step towards a fundamental shift in how Americans get around and what they consume in order to do it.

Are these cars ready? GM and Chrysler both have pre-production models that have been driven by hundreds of people, including the hypercritical automotive press. The general consensus is that they are as good as any pre-production model can be. GM and Chrysler are not exactly bullish on how profitable the vehicles will be once they are in showrooms, but it seems pretty clear that they’re not making money on their gas-powered cars and trucks anyway, so why not at least lose money on something that shifts the environmental burden and the energy focus to the electricity industry.

If this kind of authoritarian mandate sounds too socialist, you’re close, because the Chinese are doing exactly this. The New York Times reports that Chinese leaders are planning to pour vast government resources into the development of electric vehicle technology and EV production. This comes from the very top down, meaning they have the means and the political will to actually pull off this grandiose plan.

Make no mistake; the Chinese aren’t doing it to save the planet from global warming or pollution (much of the new electricity demand in China will likely come from coal or nuclear power plants). Instead, they are eliminating a massive liability – their dependence on foreign oil. Most of China’s oil comes in from the Middle East, and must take a long sea route to show up in Chinese ports. The U.S. has a pretty big navy. Actually, it is considered the best and the biggest in the world. So the math isn’t hard. Either the Chinese government builds a massive navy that can go head to head with the U.S. to guarantee its energy security, or it reduces oil imports to negligible volumes by developing technology solutions that also could also be exported around the world, making the Chinese government even more money.

Meanwhile, back in Washington D.C. and Detroit, government is fretting over details about projected U.S. vehicle market volume (not even Nostradamus knows where that is going) and standalone viability casting a wafer-thin veneer over the obvious political subterfuge. I’m not advocating communism by any stretch, but if the executive branch is going to make a decision about the car companies unilaterally anyway, why not step up and make a decision to promote real and resounding change that will live on for generations.

Call it a silver lining, lemonade out of lemons, making the best of a bad situation. Whatever the label, the ideal confluence of events is upon us: needy car companies, a president who has made energy efficiency a keystone of his administration and a genuine shift in consumption patterns made by the American public that are more sensitive to the environment.

Change. Hopefully it won’t just be a tidy campaign slogan. If it is, you can bet the Republican Party – the authors of this miserable state of affairs – will be using exactly the same theme to rebuke the incumbent in 2012, blaming him for the failure of our manufacturing base, and the lack of progress in reducing our dependence on foreign oil. My hope is that President Obama realizes the opportunity in front of him and acts in a way that realizes those lofty goals he now is obliged to execute. 

About the author: Rob Cleveland is CEO of ICON Creative Technologies Group and a co-owner of Vinology Restaurant in Ann Arbor.

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Column: On the Road Mon, 23 Feb 2009 14:45:39 +0000 Rob Cleveland Rob Cleveland

Rob Cleveland

In the continuing saga that is the U.S. automobile industry, we got introduced to a new character in the Chrysler soap opera. Just 15 months after Chrysler’s bitter divorce from Teutonic spouse Daimler AG, it has taken on a new partner: the tall, dark and very Italian automaker Fiat SpA.

Fresh with $4 billion in federal loans and in line to receive another $3 billion, Chrysler has the critics wagging their fingers at this new union like a group of English church ladies passing judgment on the town widow dating just after her spouse expired and her life insurance kicked in. (For a picture of what an English church lady looks like, Google U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J.)

I disagree with Sen. Menedez and his clucking brood. While the federal loans are coming directly out of the tax bucket, they also came with stipulations. Chief among them was that Chrysler fashions a recovery plan that would keep the company viable. Any analyst worth their hefty hourly fees will tell you that Chrysler needed some partnership or merger with another company – its cupboards nearly bare with no products in the pipeline.

Clearly Ford and General Motors are in no position to take on Chrysler’s liabilities, and nearly every automaker is trimming back its U.S. operations. So the last thing anyone already trying to sell cars in the U.S. needs is, you know, more cars. Not having an MBA personally, perhaps someone with more secondary education than me can make a more compound argument to the contrary, but I would imagine that already having more of something no one wants makes getting even more of it a bad business move.

Luckily, Fiat has no sales in the U.S. after limping out of the market in the ’80s due to low volume and a reputation for some of the most high maintenance automobiles on the road.

Make no mistake. If Fiat, or another car company was coming to America with the promise of new hope and new jobs, the federal and state governments would be ripping open their wallets promising billions of dollars in tax abatements (not loans but outright cash) just to get those companies in the door, as they have done in Alabama, Tennessee, South Carolina and in nearly every occasion where automakers have set up shop in the last five years. Fiat just is getting their stipend a different way. When major industries come into a market, the first thing you will see is an outstretched hand, palm up.

Fiat may not be generating brand new jobs south of the Mason-Dixon line, but by offering Chrysler a lifeline, and looking towards retooling existing Chrysler facilities, they are preserving quite a few manufacturing jobs here up North already on the bubble. These days, that is about as good a deal as the American taxpayer is going to get – better than our TARP funds being used to buy “commodes” with gold inlay at Merrill Lynch. (As a side note, if GM’s CEO Rick Wagoner spent $35,000 to buy a toilet by another name for his office, he’d be in jail right now. Count on it.)

With this tie in, Chrysler has immediate access to Fiat’s engines, transmissions and vehicle platforms, giving Chrysler a battery of new cars to bring to the U.S. without spending billions in R&D, design and development costs. Recent press says that as many as seven new vehicles could hit showrooms in two years, with a combination of Fiat and Chrysler-badged products.

Of course Fiat gets something too: access to a U.S. dealer network. Right now Fiat sells about 450,000 units worldwide – they need to sell over 550,000 to stay in the game long term. The deal opens up Chrysler’s dealerships to Fiat and its Alfa Romeo division, creating a nearly instant new market for Fiat for the stroke of a pen.

And that’s where the real value lies – both to the U.S. economy and to the American public.

Few people are sympathetic to car dealerships, largely perhaps due to the oftentimes heavy handed tactics used to sell cars. Or perhaps your experience was an inept warranty repair. In any case, car salesmen, and the dealerships they work for are well down on the list of people we think about when times are tough.

But dealers nationwide are a key component for local economies. They pay sizeable taxes to municipalities, employ not just salespeople, but also the technicians, accountants and support staff that keeps the place going. And many of them have active philanthropic programs inside of the community. I know, the tears still aren’t flowing profusely, but if all of Chrysler’s 3,300 dealerships were to fail nationwide, the impact would be as severe as any of the layoffs announced to date, with as many as 60,000 people going out of work. And it would affect far more towns and cities than any other collapse.

More selfishly, consumers will have more choice, not less. Granted there are plenty of car companies already out there, and we’re in little danger of seeing an automotive monopoly, but new competition, and new options keeps all of the manufacturers hungry. That drives down cost, and guarantees innovation not just for luxury cars, but across the price spectrum. Just compare any ’09 model with an ’05 in terms of infotainment, safety and performance, and the change is dramatic. That’s not the automakers being nice guys. That’s competition.

And finally, to all of those Fiat owners of days gone by, “fix it again Tony (Fiat)” is probably a well-known jab and stories about pushing a Fiat 124 Sport Spyder to the repair shop are worn like a badge of honor.

Fiat’s quality has reportedly improved as they embrace the same quality control tactics now used universally around the world. But if they can’t get it right, no one will be faster, or more vocal, in pointing it out to them than the American consumer.

In terms of product itself, Fiat’s lineup features several small vehicles – a segment that is in high demand (or were when gas prices hit $4 a gallon). The Punto and Bravo both are great looking cars, in my opinion. And Fiat’s 500, a retro design rolled out in 1957 and reintroduced again in 2007 is rumored to be on the “fast track” at Chrysler, with a possible introduction in as few as 18 months.

So dust off the “Learn Italian in 30 days” tapes, get out your Walkman, put on your parachute pants and start tuning up your linguistic skills. It just might get you a discount at the local Chrysler dealership sometime soon.

About the author: Rob Cleveland is CEO of ICON Creative Technologies Group and a co-owner of Vinology Restaurant in Ann Arbor. 

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Column: On The Road Sat, 24 Jan 2009 14:47:23 +0000 Rob Cleveland Rob Cleveland

Rob Cleveland

If you’re one of the many Prius owners in Ann Arbor and enjoy lording your environmental sensitivity over other drivers on the road, look in the rear-view mirror. The Big Three are unveiling new concepts and new plans to put some of the most environmentally sensitive vehicles out to market, meaning Prius owners may have to trade in for a Chevy, Ford or a Chrysler if they want to continue to hold the automotive moral high ground.

New model announcements made at this year’s Detroit Auto Show (also known as the North American International Auto Show in deference no doubt to the NAFTA agreement so loved by the UAW) were prolific, despite a pall created in the wake of December’s brutal and sometimes embarrassing executive testimony in Washington D.C. Most of the green news generated came out of General Motors, Ford and Chrysler, who all tried their best to put on a positive face as U.S. auto sales continue their free-fall.

GM arguably is the furthest along in new tree-hugger-technologies with its Chevrolet Volt – an all-electric vehicle designed to run only on advanced lithium-ion batteries powering an electric motor. Hybrids, on the other hand, employ both electricity from batteries and an internal combustion engine coupled to the wheels, using different modes depending on the power demand. The Volt does burn gas, but only to gin up some electricity via an onboard generator if you exceed the vehicle’s 40-mile range and find your orange extension cord just won’t reach to the shoulder of M-14 from home. (Note that GM says 40 miles is the typical commute for Americans, so send a memo around at work asking where you can plug in your new EV and watch the executive team start wringing their hands about utility costs. It will be fun.)

GM has been talking about the Volt for a while now, insisting it will be available next year in showrooms – if the company can make it through 2009, of course. At this year’s auto show, GM had a spate of related announcements, from partnerships with Korean-owned LG Chemical for battery cell technology to a new facility for battery pack manufacture in southeast Michigan. GM also announced a cooperative agreement with local star battery expert Ann Marie Sastry from the University of Michigan to train engineers to enhance their automotive lithium-ion battery knowledge. And GM unveiled a new Cadillac concept based on the all-electric Volt, the Converj. Despite the underwhelming name choice, the vehicle itself was a hit at the show.

If GM manages to get through the next 12 months and can actually bring these vehicles to market, only the most hypocritical senators and hybrid owners will shun what is an evolutionary change in automotive technology, after years of berating GM for only producing gas guzzlers. Costwise, GM says the Volt’s gasoline equivalent is about eight cents a gallon, provided you don’t dip into that onboard generator. But wait, there’s more: zero emissions. If you have a problem with air quality standards after the Volt hits showrooms, you’ll have to take it up with DTE Energy and anyone else producing electricity from coal or natural gas, not Detroit.

Of course, batteries are the new flavor of the month in the auto business, after brief courtships with hydrogen and then ethanol before the economy went off the rails. Plans for a hydrogen infrastructure or an ethanol economy will have to be put on hold as few people are looking to put money into even their 401(k), let alone trying to ramp up a new ethanol distillery. Luckily, not all of the eco-tech unveiled this year represents such a radical and expensive departure.

Ford’s new Lincoln C concept vehicle, a confusing attempt to luxury-up an entry for the box-truck-crossover market made hip by Toyota’s popular Xion XB, isn’t likely to win best in show for design. Underneath the hood, however, lies Ford’s true inspiration – a gasoline-burning 1.6-liter turbo-driven “EcoBoost” engine with a dual-clutch six-speed transmission and stop/start technology that cuts the engine when you are idling, waiting for that intolerable light to change. All of that boosts the engine performance to 43 mpg. If just 20 percent of American cars and trucks hit this fuel economy standard, President Obama could send a note to both Iran and Venezuela saying “Thanks, but we’re good on oil just now.” With that out of the way, let’s talk foreign policy.

Ford also says it is working on an all-electric vehicle, although they haven’t announced which vehicle specifically they might use and even in the best of circumstances, that car probably won’t materialize until at least 2012.

Even the diminutive Chrysler still is barking about its electric vehicles, insisting – however unconvincingly – that it will be first to market with an EV. Sadly, as Chrysler leans against the ropes and suffers the twin body blows of a cash crisis and consumers who “just say no” to spending, the company’s new 200C concept electric is not only battery driven with a generator on board like the Volt, but also one of the design highlights of the show with the potential to make a great midsize sedan regardless of what is under the hood. It would be grand indeed to see this perennial underdog rally in its darkest hour to bring this electric to market, if for no other reason then to let Bob Nardelli, Chrysler’s CEO, drive it to Washington D.C. and double park in front of the Capitol Building. Let the Capitol Police service tow it away and they’ll have enough PR to sell 50,000 units in the first year. America loves a comeback. Just ask Kurt Warner.

Dyed in the wool importophiles still want to insist that the Big Three are lagging in quality, a perception built up over decades, with the production of each scrappy car shedding parts like dandruff over its brief life to 70,000 miles. But the latest JD Powers surveys have many domestic models at the top of the quality scale now, and even the hardliners at Consumer Reports, who for years have trounced the Big Three in their reviews, have a domestic vehicle in their 2008 Top 10 for the first time since 2005. Big Three executives have been talking for some time about “closing the quality gap.” According to the data, that might just have happened.

Sadly, the drop in gasoline prices, coupled with the incredibly short memory demonstrated by most American consumers, could take some of the zing out of the all-electric car market. The good news: oil companies and oil-producing countries are greedy and thus gasoline isn’t likely to stay cheap. How ironic that GM now may be hoping gas prices actually go up.

So while “Buy American” is a fairly hollow rallying cry these days, with GM’s recent investments back into Michigan, and the possibility of an all-electric in showrooms next year, tomorrow’s Prius may look like today’s domestic sport-ute. We the people already own some of GM and Chrysler anyway and people are talking about the importance of buying local these days. So if things go to plan, look for me in my new Chevy Volt next year…pulled along by my high horse when I can’t even afford to pay the electricity bill.

About the author: Rob Cleveland is CEO of ICON Creative Technologies Group and a co-owner of Vinology Restaurant in Ann Arbor.

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