Five Thoughts about the Auto Industry for April 29, 2011

The week has flown by, and the warmer rains have taken away almost all of the remaining snow in my neck of the woods.  I am looking forward to some top-down motoring in the coming months, but in the meantime, here are five stories from the auto industry that caught my eye over the course of the last seven days.

1 – Ford Flex Sticking Around?

In 2010 Ford made it fairly clear that the Ford Flex (and most likely its Lincoln MKT stable mate) were not long for this world.  Although I have personally always enjoyed the surf wagon styling of the Flex and found it to be an attractive SUV alternative – particularly when fitted with twin-turbo EcoBoost power and all-wheel drive – sales figures show that I am apparently in the minority.

It appears, however, that the Flex has been given a reprieve, as evidenced by spy shots published by The Automotive News this week which showed a face-lifted edition of the crossover being put through its paces.  Rumor now has it that the updated Flex will debut as a 2013 model and hang around until at least 2015.  This is excellent news for lovers of ultra-square automotive designs everywhere (of which I am one).

2 – Chrysler To Repay U.S. Government Loans

According to Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne, Chrysler is finally healthy enough to repay the $7.53 billion in loans from both the U.S. and Canada that saw it through the global recession in 2009.  Marchionne says that the funds will be back in government hands by the middle of the year, and that Fiat would also be increasing its stake in Chrysler from 30 percent to 45 percent, adding fresh capital to the company’s coffers.

3 – 2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco Offers eAssist Hybrid System

This is really last week’s news, but I neglected to include it in my five thoughts for April 22.  I covered the Malibu with eAssist for, and the more I think about it, the better the idea of a mild hybrid Malibu sounds.  The sedan is already competitive with the Camry and the Accord, but as I said in my article, if Chevrolet manages to keep the price below that of the Toyota Camry Hybrid and deliver 38-mpg on the highway, then it could be looking at substantial growth amongst hybrid buyers.

While I like the Volt, it’s vehicles like the Malibu eAssist that offer the greatest potential for General Motors to leverage its hybrid technology investment.

4 – Mitsubishi Kills the Eclipse and the Endeavor

Everyone knew it was coming, but now it’s official:  the Mitsubishi Eclipse and the Mitsubishi Endeavor will cease production this August as the Japanese automaker focuses its Illinois plant on the Outlander Sport.  There was once a time when the Eclipse was a legitimate sport compact competitor, but like most vehicles in the Mitsubishi lineup it has suffered from years of neglect. I myself have always loved the mid-90’s DSM version of the coupe and convertible, with the former offering a formidable performance platform thanks to its all-wheel drive and turbocharged engine.

Inexplicably, the Galant has been granted a stay of execution – a mid-size sedan that has not been redesigned since 2003 and which languishes behind every other entry in a very competitive segment.  Mitsubishi is in the middle of a sea change that will determine the future of the company’s participation in the U.S. market, and new products which will most likely focus on fuel economy are just over the horizon.

5 – Mercedes Joins BMW with Teen Driving School Offering

I’m going to be honest:  I learned almost nothing in the provincially-mandated driving school I attended as a 16-year old other than the rules of the road and how to obey them.  I was taught absolutely no car control, not shown how to drive safely in rainy or snowy weather nor educated on how to handle emergency situations.  It wasn’t until I started autocrossing that I actually received instruction on proper driving technique and began to learn skills that would have been extremely useful when I was a beginner behind the wheel.

Mercedes-Benz is now joining BMW in offering a Teen Driving school, which is set up to provide the younger set with the skills that could very well save their lives one day out on the highway.  BMW pioneered this concept by partnering with Tire Rack for its Street Survival program, and it boggles my mind that it has taken so long for another manufacturer to get on board with the idea of teen driving safety.  When are Ford, Dodge, Chrysler or Chevrolet going to engage first-time drivers with similar programs?

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