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Sunday, September 14, 2008 

Vol. 4 No. 8

The Flex Phenomena - Part I
Or How I Spent My Summer Vacation…

So the most popular topic in the automotive press now seems to be, once again, “Detroit Bashing” – blaming the current sales/financial automotive crisis that most all manufacturers (except Honda) are now experiencing on their own myopic vision of truck/SUV weighted product offerings, which also is accompanied by those same reviewers extrapolating the data point line for consumer tastes motivated by cheap gas out to eternity. Even industry heavy trade magazines and newspapers have jumped on the bandwagon, with the esteemed trade industry bible Automotive News running successive editorials espousing home company guilt, with Jason Stein’s (the Automotive News Europe Publisher) “A Missed Opportunity” article (July 14, 2008) about GM misreading the market for small cars, and then Kevin Smith’s (August 4, 2008) “Comment” with an essay entitled, “Detroit’s Truck Trauma is Self Inflicted.”

There is certainly some truth in these observations about missing the mark on product line up, but it’s hardly a domestic malady (anyone notice Toyota’s massive investment in large trucks, with the launch of the Tundra and a couple of plants to build them in the US to boot, all launched just about when the market began to collapse?) More importantly, there are exceptions, that is to say, some Detroit manufacturer product introductions that show amazing daring concept and foresight, given that today’s product launch is, in fact, a manifestation of a couple of years of planning - yet I don’t see a lot of ink devoted to these products. In particular I’ve been personally immersed in the product, marketing and retailer roll out of the Flex, Ford’s brand new daring design (read “polarizing”) Crossover. I’m convinced it’s a “game changer” but, while that may be a debatable point, what is irrefutable is that this is an innovative vehicle that proves incorrect Kevin Smith’s assertion that Detroit did not pursue “breakthrough” products for Crossovers in recent year because “they would naturally cannibalize their huge investments in truck-platform SUVs.”

Ford Introduces…The Flex – “Polarizing” Precedes Popular?

While it may be true that not all “polarizing” vehicles introduced in the last quarter century or so where “category killers,” I think it is true that all real game changing vehicles that became high volume world class sales icons did start out with ground breaking style and design, that, invariably, was not immediately recognized by automotive writers and the public as volume winners. Think of the minivan when Lee Iacocca first introduced it for Chrysler Corporation in 1984 (I rememberit very well, geez am I getting old), it was called by the critics a “box on wheels” and not in a complimentary way. A whole new vehicle genre was created with this Chrysler icon, that remained strong for over twenty years, until the “soccer mom” stigma now seems to have fully overpowered the utilitarian features that made the minivan a sales favorite.

More related to Ford Motor Company, how many readers remember when the first Ford
Taurus was introduced in 1986? Again, I remember it very well, and, contrary to some opinion it was hardly an immediate run away sensation. It was called the “Robo Cop” car, the “bubble car” one prominent newspaper review called it a “pregnant roller skate” – it became a runaway best seller for its vehicle class, but it had to first get noticed, and the first reaction was not all unanimously positive to say the least.

Finally, I was a Chrysler dealer (unfortunately not a Dodge store) when the innovative and controversial newly designed Dodge Ram truck was introduced in 1994, and again, even though the introduction of that truck alone boosted Chrysler’s share of the domestic truck market to previously unprecedented levels, it was not an immediate, “I love it” reaction from the critics or the public… I recall one reviewer that called it, not in a “glowing” way, a “mini Mack truck.” Explaining this “polarizing precedes popular” phenomena best though, I think ironically enough was Bob Lutz’s with his comments at the time (back when he was Chrysler’s top design/operations guy, when he said something like (I’m paraphrasing here, it’s been a while…), up until that point, they always built the truck design that the most people “liked” in focus
groups..but also up until that time, the people that liked those designs never seemed to have really “bought” them in quantity…when that radical truck design was introduced, people either vehemently hated it or strongly loved it, and he reasoned that those that loved it would actually go buy it when it was introduced. They did and still do, and for its “radical” design it would seem.

Who knows whether this will happen with the Flex, but I’m telling you after a first-hand observation and product feature study, the Flex has all of the right vehicle “best in class,” category exclusives, etc. to become, from a functional point of view, a runaway best seller in the crossover market. This opinion, by the way, seems to be shared by just about every vehicle review I’ve read - you can see for yourself the best compendium of all of the reviews on the Flex, in newspapers, magazines, blogs, etc. in the Review Section of the new FlexFans.org site (created by the CarsDiva, see her blog on the Flex as well).

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I think the new Ford Flex will be a winner.

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