Updated on 4/2/09: An earlier version of this story was published before the Obama administration outlined the terms of its auto-bailout plan.
The global financial crisis is suffocating the Detroit automakers, but the problems at General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler have been festering for years—even when the mighty "Big Three" were earning billions. Aging factories, inflexible unions, arrogant executives and shoddy quality have all damaged Detroit. Now, with panicky consumers fleeing showrooms, catastrophe looms: GM and Chrysler need a multibillion-dollar government bailout to survive, and both could be in bankruptcy by summer if they don't meet tough government demands. Ford hasn't asked for a bailout—yet—but it's bleeding cash and racing the clock to turn itself around.
There will be plenty of business-school case studies analyzing all the automakers' wrong turns. But, as they say in the industry, it all comes down to product. So here are 10 cars that help explain the demise of Detroit (For a slideshow, click here):
Ford Pinto. This ill-fated subcompact came to epitomize the arrogance of Big Auto. Ford hurried the Pinto to market in the early 1970s to battle cheap imports like the Volkswagen Beetle that were selling for less than $2,000. Initial sales were strong, but quality problems emerged. Then came the infamous safety problems with exploding fuel tanks, which Ford refused to acknowledge. Message: The customer comes last. "The problems for the domestics really started in the '70s when they were offering cars like the Pinto up against higher-tech, better-built Toyota Corollas and Honda Civics," says Jack Nerad of Kelley Blue Book.
Chevrolet Cavalier. GM sold millions of Cavaliers in the 1980s—and decided the thrifty car was so successful the company didn't need to update it for more than a decade. To milk the model, GM even added some lipstick and high heels and tried to peddle the upgrade as the Cadillac Cimarron—a legendary flop. Honda and Toyota, meanwhile, were updating their competing models every four or five years, and grabbing market share with each quality improvement. A new Cavalier came out in the mid 1990s—then languished for another decade, while GM put most of its money into big trucks and SUVs. GM has since improved its small cars. "But they have to be miles better than the imports for Americans to forget how bad their small cars used to be," says Jamie Page Deaton of U.S. News's Rankings and Reviews car-ranking site. Even if they are better, many Americans wonder why they should give Detroit a second—or third—chance.
Chevrolet Astro. While Chrysler, Toyota, and Honda were refining their minivans in the 1990s and coming up with innovations like hideaway seats and electric sliding doors, GM was offering an old, truck-based van gussied up with carpeting and cupholders. "It showed GM's repeated failure to market competitive products based on styling and packaging," says Tom Libby of J. D. Power & Associates. The Astro drove like a bread truck, and consumers noticed. It also earned the worst safety ratings in its class. Before long, GM was effectively out of the minivan segment. No biggie—those were just mainstream American families the automaker decided to ignore.
Ford Taurus. Try to explain this logic: After its 1986 debut, the Taurus became a perennial bestseller. So for the next 20 years, Ford let quality decline and neglected the family sedan, while pouring love and money into trucks and SUVs. By early this decade, the Taurus had become a dowdy, rental-lot staple. So Ford simply retired the Taurus in 2006 and replaced it with the 500 sedan—which went on to set records as one of the most short-lived models ever. A year later, Ford revived the Taurus name and applied it to a bastardized 500. But by then, the damage was done.
Ford Explorer. This breakout vehicle helped launch SUVs and drove record profits at Ford in the 1990s, as Americans flocked to big utilities that could take them off-road if they ever got adventurous. It also blinded Ford to the future. "Executives could not see beyond the green piling up at their feet," says David Magee, author of How Toyota Became No. 1. "The Explorer helped create an addiction that lasted 15 years." GM and Chrysler followed right behind, with SUVs like the Chevy Trailblazer and the Dodge Durango—lockstep moves that reveal how the Detroit automakers focused on each other rather than the broader marketplace.
Jaguar X-Type. Ford bought the British luxury brand Jaguar in 1990, when all three Detroit automakers were seeking ways to expand their global reach. Eventually, Ford decided to build an entry-level Jaguar starting at around $30,000 for people looking to move up from, say, a Mercury Marquis. The down-market move "represented everything that Jaguar is not," says Libby of J. D. Power. The X-Type was built on an ordinary sedan platform from elsewhere in Ford's lineup, and the front-wheel-drive system underwhelmed enthusiasts used to rear-drive European makes. Jag purists were horrified, and aspiring luxury buyers shunned the X-Type in favor of BMWs, Lexuses, and Acuras. After fumbling the luxury brand for nearly two decades, Ford sold Jaguar to an Indian conglomerate in 2008.
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Hummer H2. It sure seemed cool back in 2003, when gas was less than $2 per gallon. And it sure seems gaudy now. This supersized SUV clearly had a heyday, but it also helped paint parent company GM as an enviro-hostile corporation that sold only gas guzzlers. Sales collapsed as gas prices rose toward $4 a gallon in mid-2008, and GM has been trying to sell the division for six months—with no takers, so far. "GM wanted to make Hummer a signature company brand," says Magee. "Instead, it showed the company was out of touch with the needs of the 21st century."
Toyota Prius. While GM was spending $1 billion to build up the Hummer franchise, Toyota was spending $1 billion to develop a high-mileage hybrid—even though gas prices were still low. After the Prius debuted in the United States in 2000, GM execs seized yet another opportunity to display their intimate knowledge of American consumers, arguing that hybrids didn't make economic sense and that only environmentalists would buy them. Today, Toyota can barely keep up with demand for the Prius, and it has plans to start building them in the United States. GM, meanwhile, is scrambling to rush hybrids and other high-mileage cars into dealerships—far too late.
Chrysler Sebring. Did Chrysler engineers set out to build the world's most boring car? Of course not. Yet Chrysler still produces this blandmobile to keep assembly lines running and maintain a presence, however weak, in the sedan market. In the new Darwinian auto industry, this model seems destined for extinction, since the only way to sell marginal cars is with steep discounts, which money-losing automakers can no longer afford. In fact, if Chrysler ends up being carved into pieces and sold to competitors, as many analysts expect, most of its passenger-car lineup could get the axe, since there's little to distinguish it. Besides—what's a sebring, anyway?
Jeep Compass. Quick, what's the difference between the Jeep Compass, the Jeep Liberty, and the Jeep Patriot? The bosses at Chrysler, which owns Jeep, could explain, but the real answer is that Chrysler has oversaturated its strongest brand lineup in a desperate attempt to boost sales. "The Compass is not needed," says James Bell of Intellichoice.com. "Just the Liberty, please." The Compass has the same mechanical underpinnings as the Dodge Caliber, which helps illustrate one of Detroit's favorite tricks: Create multiple versions of every product under a bunch of different brand names, hoping that if buyers shun one, they'll take a more favorable view of another. Message to Detroit: Consumers aren't that stupid. Give them a bit more credit, and you might have a future.