Sunday, February 15, 2009

Some (gasp) not-terrible news from the domestic automobile industry?

It's been a tough year for car makers, and not just the Big Three, either. Every company has seen sales plummet by record margins. Could we be at the beginning of the end phase of this market contraction? Some industry people seem to think so, but it is unclear if this is an attempt at some moral-inflating spin or something real. There are some hard data to look at, cited in the linked article-- the renewed strength in the used-car market (indicating credit is slowly becoming more available), and that the rate of decline in sales, seasonally adjusted, seems to be at a plateau (not that you want to maintain a 40% deficit in sales, but at least it's not growing...)

This could be good news for the Big Three, even though GM recently lost the number one slot in domestic sales to Toyota. Ford, which has been forging through without the same level of goverment support its rivals have needed, has another reason to look to the future-- the reviews for the 2010 hybrid incarnation of its increasingly popular Ford Fusion are pretty favorable.

Car and Driver (certainly not a honk for the domestic auto industry)rated the 2010 hybrid Fusion higher than Toyota's hybrid Camry and the industry standard Prius. With better gas mileage than the hybrid Camry, and comprable to the Prius, the review reports that the Fusion's engineering is smoother and drives better. Also lauded is its "information delivery system"-- a console-based dashboard system that "teaches" you how to maximize the mileage you get. Driving a hybrid for maximum gas mileage is a different kind of driving, and the learning curve is often steep.

Along with the much-anticipated plug-in hybrid Chevy Volt, there are at least a few bright spots in the future. Of course, gas prices will have a lot to do with what happens with these vehicles (sales for the stalwart Prius have been in free-fall for months); at least Ford and Chevy have a fighting chance to have some sales activity when gas prices spike again. Also, Ford's hybrid batteries will use nickel metal hydride instead of lithium, which seems like a better situation-- though I am certainly not expert. The environmental problems associated with lithium (as well as shortages) seems to be a important topic.

Now, the bad news-- the Ford Fusion Hybrid is slated to be assembled in a non-union plant in Mexico. It's a shame that a Ford is taking a small, somewhat progressive step in their product, but not in the realm of labor. Think of the jobs that would be created or saved by building a new factory or re-tooling one that is slated for closing.