U.S. auto giants race to go small

In the rush to efficient cars, Detroit is losing out to Asian brands.

Ann Hermes
Rolling out: Honda employee George Muriuki explained the features on a 2008 Honda Accord to Cynthia White and Muhammed Ahmad in a Boston showroom on Monday.
SOURCE: Ward's Automotive Group/Rich Clabaugh–STAFF

The auto industry is rushing to adapt to the world of $4-per-gallon gasoline, but the effort is a costly one that could tax America's homegrown carmakers most of all.

From Honda to Ford, all the automakers are ramping up production and design of high-mileage small cars and gas-electric hybrids. But consumers shouldn't hold their breath for hot deals on 50-mile-per-gallon vehicles.

The challenge: Product line make-overs can't be accomplished overnight, and a deep slump in current sales is burning through the cash available for investment.

In the past few days, Ford Motor Co. has announced production cutbacks for its light trucks, General Motors has unveiled big incentives to unload showroom inventory, and even Toyota has warned that it may have to scale back its sales target for the year.

In this climate of an overall sales decline, the US brand names are the hardest hit: For the first year ever, they may account for less than half the nation's car sales.

"That is certainly possible," says Tom Libby, an analyst at J.D. Power in Detroit. "In May we saw a dramatic shift in the marketplace."

For months now, high gas prices have been pushing consumers toward smaller cars and from sport-utility vehicles toward so-called crossovers, which offer SUV amenities on a lighter frame.

In May, it became clear that this could be a crossover year in other ways as well. If sales patterns for that month continue for the rest of the year, it's possible that Asian brand names alone could outsell Detroit-based Ford, GM, and Chrysler.

It's also possible that Toyota could capture the top spot in global car sales from GM.

Moreover, May marked what could be a crossover moment in consumer preferences. Car sales moved decisively higher than light-truck and SUV sales – which plunged after months of slowly cooling.

"It seemed to us that we reached a tipping point where customers began shifting away from these vehicles at an accelerated rate," Ford chief executive Alan Mulally said in a recent conference call with analysts.

As if the pressure from consumers isn't strong enough, new automotive technology is rising on the Washington political agenda for environmental and energy reasons. Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, proposed Monday that $300 million in federal prize money go to whoever can develop a leapfrog improvement in electric-car batteries.

Even as large and small companies push for breakthroughs, automakers' near-term plans are fairly straightforward: Emphasize the most fuel-efficient cars they can produce now.

"It is very important ... for all manufacturers to have hybrids in their lineups," says Mike Omotoso, another analyst at J.D. Power.

Here are some of the product-line shifts under way at major automakers:

•Honda announced a month ago that it will launch a new gas-electric hybrid model, like Toyota's Prius, in 2009. It also plans new hybrid versions of the Civic and Fit, and is ramping up production of the gas-only Fit. A key Honda goal, according to news reports: keeping the extra cost of the hybrids below $2,000 per car.

•GM is pushing to launch its new Chevrolet Volt by 2010, a plug-in hybrid to compete against hybrids whose batteries are charged while in motion. "An extended range electric vehicle like the Volt will cost about two cents a mile for electricity from the grid," GM executive Troy Clarke said this month. A new fuel-efficient compact car will launch with Ohio-based production. One GM specialty: "Mild hybrids" that boost mileage by a little less than rivals but at a lower price.

•Ford said last week that it is adding a third shift at a Kansas City plant making its Escape hybrid and Mercury Mariner hybrid. And it said the European Ford Focus and Fiesta, next-generation small cars, will begin production in North America in 2010.

•Toyota is also ramping up its hybrid production – including plans for a plug-in model. The Prius and hybrid Camry have made Toyota No. 1 in the industry's hybrid sales, with 1.4 million customers as of March.

Another fuel-saving option for consumers is diesel. Mr. Omotoso says diesel's fuel economy can be nearly one-third better, but the fuel's price has also been approaching $5 per gallon. Volkswagen's 2009 diesel Jetta is one option for consumers.

Flashier advances, such as fuel-cell vehicles, may not be available on a mass scale anytime soon, analysts warn.

The marketplace is sending a big signal to carmakers. It's just that developing new products takes time. And it takes money that is suddenly in shorter supply as sales fall.

"Everything has shifted faster than probably everyone predicted," says Karl Brauer, editor in chief at Edmunds.com. "Ford had a definite turnaround plan. I think that is starting to get heavily compromised by what's going on."

Honda, by contrast, appears to be bearing up the best in the current climate. One reason: Its lineup is not heavy on trucks, which have been a drag on profits not just for the US Big Three but also for Toyota.

"Hybrids will keep getting more popular," predicts John Wolkonowicz, an auto analyst at Global Insight in Lexington, Mass.

But even as carmakers roll out new models and put pickup trucks on sale, it's not necessarily an easy time for consumers. Some sticker prices are actually going up, as automakers adjust to higher costs for things like steel. And the new hybrid technologies come at a cost.

"You're not going to save any money on any of this," Mr. Wolkonowicz says. "This whole situation is simply going to cost consumers money."

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