Five Thoughts about the Auto Industry for May 20, 2011

Just a couple of weeks are left in May and some interesting tidbits have been coming out of the auto business before the summer season swings into action.  Let’s take a quick look at five thoughts about the auto industry for the week of May 20, 2011.

1 – A Unibody Ram Pickup Based on the Dodge Grand Caravan?

It’s generally not a good idea to base future product plans on models from competitors that no one is really interested in.  This makes it difficult to understand why Dodge is contemplating building a unibody Ram pickup that would borrow the underpinnings of the Grand Caravan minivan.  The truck world already has a unibody pickup – the Honda Ridgeline – which has failed to set the world on fire in terms of sales during its more than five year production run.  16,142 examples were sold in 2010.

Why aren’t truck buyers interested in a unibody truck?  It all boils down to capability.  Fuel mileage for the Ridgeline isn’t particularly impressive, and it can’t tow or haul at the same level as a traditional full or mid-size pickup.  Unless the front-wheel drive Ram “minivan-pickup” can offer a substantial fuel savings or match the utility of traditional trucks, Dodge could have trouble meeting its sales projections of 20,000 vehicles per year.

2 – Nissan Offering Refund to Juke Owners

Most of the time, when a company makes a mistake it’s best to own up to it as soon as possible and try to make things right with consumers.  This is exactly what Nissan is doing after it became public that the automaker had whiffed on the exact size of the fuel tank found in front-wheel drive editions of the Nissan Juke compact crossover.  Marketing materials referred to both all-wheel drive and front-wheel drive versions as having a 13.2-gallon tank, when the former was actually outfitted with a tank that was a few gallons smaller.

The upshot for Juke owners who feel short-changed by their fuel tank inadequacy is a $400 compensatory check from Nissan, along with a letter of apology.  4,000 owners will be hearing from Nissan over the course of the next few weeks.

3 – Pickup Truck Sales At 30-Year Low

According to Wards Auto, pickup truck sales in the U.S. for the current year are chugging along more slowly than ever before, comprising just 12.6 percent of passenger vehicle sales so far in 2011.  Although high fuel prices would seem to be the likely culprit, these sales figures are in contrast to the almost 50 percent market share that trucks enjoy in neighboring Canada, where gasoline is considerably more expensive.  Other issues such as a weak construction industry and continued unemployment would seem to better explain sluggish pickup sales.

Can great deals on full-size inventory that has been sitting on the lot for weeks and weeks be just around the corner for those in a position to buy a truck right now?

4 – Skip a Car Payment?  BUZZZZZZZZZ!

Rocky Mountain Tracking has created the ultimate in electronic nagging: a buzzer that goes off every five minutes inside an automobile if the owner forgets to make their monthly payment on time.  Far more annoying than the “click to register” shareware reminders we have all grown used to dealing with on our PCs, and perhaps even worse than the “would you like to take a survey?” pop-up windows that are spreading like wildfire across the Web, the “Smart Tracker” is poised to be deployed as a weapon by used car dealers everywhere anxious to protect their liquidity.

5 – BMW Introduces “Left Turn Assistant.”

Electronic driving aides such as traction control and stability control definitely save lives, but there is a point at which computer intrusion into the cockpit begins to replace basic skills that every licensed vehicle operator should have.  That threshold has been reached by BMW with the announcement of its “Left Turn Assistant” technology that uses laser scanners and automatic braking in order to prevent collisions while turning left.

Yes, you read that correctly:  it would appear that BMW no longer trusts even basic human judgment behind the wheel.  While in some cases this attitude towards driver carelessness might be warranted, this type of technology contributes more to eroding the vigilance of those out on the road than it does to protecting their safety.  Why learn the rules of the road when a computer will do it all for you?  Given the relatively weak state of driver education in North America, this would seem to be a dangerous attitude to encourage on the part of the luxury car company.

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