Dropping the Tops on Convertibles

Say what you will about the ubiquitous SUV, the quintessential American car is a shiny convertible, preferably in red, and nothing, it seems, can disrupt Americans' love affair with drop-top driving. Over the years, safety concerns and fuel economy issues have clouded the future of motoring under the sun, but as we ease into a new millennium, the skies have parted, and the convertible has remained an American icon.

A look at some statistics tells part of the tale. In both 2001 and 2002, total convertible registrations for the U.S. topped the 300,000 mark, the first two years in the last 30 that convertible sales were over 300,000 units. Last year's sales of 302,320 convertibles represented a drop of 2.7 percent from 2001, but convertibles made up a larger percentage of the total passenger car market last year, accounting for 3.8 percent of total passenger car registrations in 2002 compared with 3.6 percent in 2001.

While 3.8 percent doesn't seem like much, convertibles have an effect that belies their numbers. Many manufacturers use convertibles as "image vehicles," cars that create a positive aura for the brand. From the Mercedes-Benz SL to the Ford Mustang, convertibles are used to spice up what otherwise might be a mundane image. That fact is not lost on R.L. Polk & Company, the industry's statistical caretaker.

"Convertibles continue to be an important and growing part of the automotive market in the U.S.," said Lonnie Miller, director of analytical solutions at R. L. Polk & Co. "Car companies use them to build showroom traffic, evolve brand image and attract new buyers into a franchise."

Just as a good-looking convertible can stop traffic on the street, it can also build traffic in the dealership. Because of that, the American market has seen an influx of new convertibles like the Audi A4, the BMW Z4, the Ford Thunderbird, and the New Beetle Convertible, all designed not only to sell, but also to attract buyers to the entire model line.

"The growing number of new convertible offerings gives evidence of the strategic importance they play both for consumers and manufacturers," Miller said.

After a lull, Polk reports the convertible market in the U.S. has been very healthy since the mid-1990s. The Mazda Miata helped lead the charge way back in 1989, and since its introduction a number of marques have added drop-top models. Some, like the Mercedes SL and the Lexus SC 430 have gone the Ford Skyliner route with steel tops that disappear instead of the standard folding fabric, but all bring a joy to driving that a closed car just doesn't offer.

What was the top-selling convertible in 2002? Well, don't be embarrassed if you didn't know it was the Chrysler Sebring, which regained the title as the top-selling ragtop in 2002 after a two-year hiatus, with 43,809 registrations. The Ford Mustang, which had been in first place, came in second in 2002 with 42,418 registrations, but Ford could take some solace in the fact its Thunderbird jumped to third place from its introductory level of 22nd in 2001 with 19,356 registrations. Rounding out the top 10 convertibles in 2002 were the Mitsubishi Eclipse (15,887 units), Lexus SC 430 (14,925), Mazda Miata (14,089), Mercedes SL (12,415), Chevrolet Corvette (11,959), Porsche Boxster (10,300), and Honda S2000 (9,728).

While it might be natural to assume that sunshine cities garner the biggest chunk of convertible sales, the facts don't back that up. Though Los Angeles leads cities in convertible registrations, cold-weather cities like New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Detroit are all among the top 10. Other top 10 cities for convertibles include San Francisco-Oakland, Miami-Ft. Lauderdale, Orlando, and Washington, D.C. But when you look a bit closer, smaller cities in sunny climes boast the highest concentration of convertibles among their overall vehicle mix.

By that measure, the convertible capital of the U.S. is the Ft. Myers-Naples area on Florida's beautiful west coast where 7.3 percent of the cars on the road are convertibles. Palm Springs (7.1 percent), Monterey/Salinas (6.3 percent), San Diego (5.6 percent), and Santa Barbara-San Marcos (5.5 percent) fill out the top places on the list. Oddly, Bend, Oregon, in what many consider the rainy Northwest, is also in the top 10.

A convertible fan since his days in Italy, auto journalist Tom Ripley studies the industry and the human condition from his home in Villeperce, France.

Best Vehicle Values: Overall

If you think the "cost" of your vehicle is the price of your vehicle, you've got a big lesson to learn. The vehicle that costs the least to buy isn't always the best value in its segment, because other costs in addition to purchase price are important in determining the overall value equation. So as you consider the purchase of a new vehicle, to get the most for your money, you should look at several factors in addition to price in determining what vehicle might be the best one for you.

If you don't have an advanced degree in cost analysis, you will be glad to learn that IntelliChoice, a Primedia company that earns its keep poring over ownership and leasing cost data, has done much of that work for you. IntelliChoice's value calculation accounts for the price of a vehicle and the accumulated costs of depreciation, maintenance, repairs, fuel, fees, financing, and insurance. The value measurement analyzes data compiled on more than 1,000 car, truck, and SUV models and projects what these costs will be for the upcoming five-year ownership cycle.

This all sounds mighty scientific, but a couple of caveats are in order: first, Intellichoice's value calculations are based on the aforementioned five-year ownership cycle. If you plan to keep your car, say, eight years, the value calculation can be significantly skewed. A second caveat: over the course of five years the predominant "cost" for most vehicles is depreciation, and Intellichoice estimates depreciation since it can't see into the future to obtain actual used-vehicle price transaction data for cars that are currently new. (If they could, that skill alone would make them a pot of money.) Because of this, if Intellichoice depreciation estimates prove to be wrong, the company's value estimates will be wrong as well.

Based on their analyses, IntelliChoice bestows the Best Overall Value of the Year awards to recognize cars, trucks and SUVs that will cost significantly less to own and operate than their peers. The Best Car Value under $24,000 is the Honda Civic DX Sedan, while the Best Car Value over $24,000 is the Toyota Avalon XLS Sedan. Both cars parlay relatively low purchase price, high resale value and low maintenance and insurance costs to take the titles.

Toyota wins another award with the Toyota Tacoma Xtracab 2WD, the Best Truck Value under $26,000. A domestic model does the trick as the Best Truck Value over $26,000 -- Ford F150 XL Flareside SuperCab 4WD. Toyota seems to solidly rule SUV top values. The Best Sport Utility Value under $30,000 is the Toyota RAV4 2WD, and the Best Sport Utility Value over $30,000 is the Lexus RX 300 2WD. Interesting, too, that two-wheel-drive SUVs are better values than four-wheel-drive versions.

In addition to the six category winners, IntelliChoice also recognized the following vehicles as class winners:

Subcompact ClassHonda Civic Coupe
Compact Class under $17,000Honda Civic Sedan
Compact Class over $17,000Toyota Prius Sedan
Midsize Class under $21,000Honda Accord Sedan
Midsize Class over $21,000Honda Accord Sedan
Large ClassToyota Avalon
Near Luxury ClassLexus ES 300
Luxury ClassMercedes-Benz E-Class
Small Wagon ClassVolkswagen Jetta
Midsize/Large Wagon ClassSubaru Legacy
Base Sport ClassMercedes-Benz SLK230
Sport ClassChevrolet Corvette

Sport Utilities:
Compact Sport Utility Class under $20,000Toyota RAV4
Compact Sport Utility Class over $20,000Subaru Forester
Intermediate Sport Utility Class under $30,000Toyota Highlander
Intermediate Sport Utility Class over $30,000Lexus RX 300
Full-Size Sport Utility Class under $40,000Toyota Sequoia
Full-Size Sport Utility Class over $40,000Toyota Land Cruiser

Compact Pickup Class 2WDToyota Tacoma
Compact Pickup Class 4WDToyota Tacoma
Full-Size Pickup Class 1/2 Ton 2WDToyota Tundra
Full-Size Pickup Class 1/2 Ton 4WDToyota Tundra
Full-Size Pickup Class 3/4 Ton 2WDChevrolet Silverado C2500
Full-Size Pickup Class 3/4 Ton 4WDChevrolet Silverado K2500
Full-Size Pickup Class One Ton 2WDFord F350 Crew Cab
Full-Size Pickup Class One Ton 4WDFord F350 Crew Cab

Minivan Class under $26,000Honda Odyssey
Minivan Class over $26,000Toyota Sienna
Full-Size Van ClassFord E350 Wagon

Boston native Tom Ripley now reports on the world's automotive industry and the human condition from his home in Villeperce, France.

Delighting Their Owners

Sometimes it is hard enough to satisfy a car buyer, but now auto manufacturers have a new target to shoot for -- delighting their buyers. San Diego-based research firm Strategic Vision has determined that satisfying new vehicle owners is not enough, so it has announced its new Total Delight Index (TDI) to help automotive product planners design delightful vehicles that will bring the commitment and loyalty their brands need in a competitive marketplace.

What the research firm has discovered is that satisfying customers -- even satisfying them completely, according to their own responses -- does not guarantee that those customers will return to that brand to purchase another vehicle.

"'Satisfaction,' even 'completely satisfied,' meant the manufacturer merely had fulfilled the basic contract with the customer," said Dr. Darrel Edwards, Strategic Vision president. "Satisfaction thus became the midpoint of our delight index. Delight is a more positive and more emotional response than simply excellent. You can create an excellent vehicle without delighting the customer. When you do delight your customer, you create a strong emotional response that commits the customer to the product, brand or manufacturer. That leads to loyalty, when the customer chooses the brand whenever possible."

In layman's terms "automotive delight" translates to drivers that love their cars. They don't just find their vehicles to be perfectly acceptable transportation; they relate to their vehicles on an emotional level and often feel their vehicles express who they are.

A sample of the "most delightful list" will give a feel for the vehicles that provoke this emotional response. The highest scorer on the index was the 2002 BMW 7 Series, and the BMW 3 Series and BMW X5 sport utility vehicle also led their segments, as did the BMW-built Mini Cooper. Honda also had four segment leaders in TDI: the Insight hybrid-powered car that led the small car segment, Accord Coupe, Odyssey minivan and CR-V small sport utility. Toyota showed its muscle in truck categories, with the Sequoia large SUV, Tacoma compact pickup and Tundra full-size pickup heading their classes.

Among domestics, the retrostyle Chrysler PT Cruiser was the most delightful compact car, according to those who bought it. Among the other segment leaders from the domestic manufacturers, though, were two vehicles that apparently appeal to rugged individualists. The Oldsmobile Aurora and Pontiac Firebird are about to be phased out as is the complete Oldsmobile division, but their owners still express undying affection for their vehicles. Tellingly, Ford Motor Company had no vehicles that led their segments in TDI.

"The auto industry talks a lot about 'delighting your customers,'" said Daniel Gorrell, Strategic Vision vice president and partner-in-charge, automotive, "but nobody had created a means of explicitly measuring this facet. Creating delight is critical to all manufacturers forced to intensively compete in a crowded market place. For some, creating delight is crucial or they face the risk of losing market share or even going out of business."

The index was calculated from the responses of more than 76,665 buyers of new 2002-model vehicles who made their purchases between October 2001 and March of 2002. They had at least 90 days to experience their vehicles before they were surveyed.

The top two delight leaders in their segments and their respective TDI scores were:
Small Car Honda Insight 593; Suzuki Aerio 569
Compact Car Chrysler PT Cruiser 587; Volkswagen Jetta 560
Mid-Size Car Volkswagen Passat 651; Nissan Altima 620
Larger Car Oldsmobile Aurora 515; Chrysler Concorde 485
Small Specialty
(less than $25k)
Mini Cooper 705; Volkswagen New Beetle 697
Mid-Specialty Car Honda Accord Coupe 601; Mercury Cougar 578
Near-Luxury Car BMW 3 Series 695; Lexus ES 300 686
Luxury Car BMW 7 Series 775; BMW 5 Series 764
(less than $30,000)
Pontiac Firebird 638; Chevrolet Camaro 577
Audi TT 760; Lexus SC 430 751
Minivan Honda Odyssey 458; Kia Sedona 452
Small SUV Honda CR-V 542; Hyundai Santa Fe 536
Medium SUV Land Rover Discovery Series II 537; GMC Envoy
Large SUV Toyota Sequoia 602; Ford Excursion 559
Luxury SUV BMW X5 710; Cadillac Escalade 681; Lexus RX 300
Compact Pickup Toyota Tacoma 464; Dodge Dakota 459
Full-Size Pickup Toyota Tundra 581; Dodge Ram 1500 570

Dispatches from the Auto Show Front

The slogan for this year's auto show circuit should be "over the top." As in the World War I version of "charge," and as in the more commonly used connotation of the term these days, "outrageous." Because today's car companies are aggressively trying to outdo the competition, and they are doing it in all kinds of wild, wacky, and truly outrageous ways.

The first thing you must know about today's auto industry is that selling vehicles is no picnic. In a Keynesian sense (Economics 101) there are just too many car companies with way too much production capacity for the automotive appetites of the world's consumers. That means the many car manufacturers must battle tooth-and-claw for any gains in sales they achieve, and, further, that any gains come almost exclusively at the expense of someone else. There are no "win-wins" here, bucko. Toyota's gain is General Motors' loss. An inroad by Honda sends negative ripples through Mazda and Subaru. For every Mini that gets sold, there's a Volkswagen that probably didn't. You get the picture.

So against this backdrop, the car companies of the world are trying to win our favor by grabbing publicity, and the cheapest and most effective way to grab publicity, save murdering a celebrity, is to create something way out there. Hence, the concept vehicles that created buzz at the Los Angeles and Detroit auto shows this past week are over-the-top even for an industry that has marketed chrome and tailfins for three generations. Hey, folks, some of this stuff is positively wacked.

If you need an example, take the Dodge Tomahawk. Please. It tells you something about the state of the auto industry that the vehicle creating the most buzz at the North American International (Detroit) Auto Show isn't a car at all, but a motorcycle. And it tells you something more that most of the press breathlessly reports that the V-10-powered bike has a "top speed of 300 miles per hour." Hey, in its press release, DaimlerChrysler claims the strange machine has a "potential top speed of nearly 400 miles per hour." Or maybe it's a million. I, for one, want to be there when an intrepid rider takes this little billet of steel across the 300-mph barrier. That should be very entertaining, indeed.

Technically, one could call the Tomahawk a four-wheel vehicle, since it has paired front and rear wheels tacked onto the 500-horsepower 505 cubic inch V-10 engine that normally resides under the hood of a Viper. But otherwise this baby makes a Harley-Davidson soft-tail look like it is made by Fisher-Price. Thankfully, no one in the press asked about production plans for this piece of industrial sculpture, because you can bet there aren't any and won't be any. Ever.

If you are the type who actually likes to see autos at an auto show, you will be more pleased with the other major item of interest in Detroit, the Cadillac Sixteen. But sweet, it definitely isn't. While we applaud Cadillac's attempt to return to its roots of greatness, we simultaneously deplore the fact that they are doing that with a concept car that smacks of Clenet or latter-day Stutz. Again, the only phrase that really fits is over-the-top.

You want wretched excess? How about the Cadillac Sixteen's 32-valve V-16 engine that displaces 13.6 liters and produces 1000 horsepower and 1000 pound-feet of torque. Quick math tells you that the engine features a mundane two-valves per cylinder, but it doesn't skimp on other technical trickery. Like the ill-fated Cadillac 4-6-8 engine of a generation ago, the engine features fuel-saving "Displacement on Demand" technology, which shuts down half of the cylinders during most driving conditions and automatically and "seamlessly" reactivates them for more demanding conditions, such as brisk acceleration or when the driver needs the engine's full power. Essentially, in most conditions you have one eight-cylinder engine in operation and one in reserve, kind of like having a lifeboat in the trunk.

While designed to echo the classic Cadillacs of the Twenties and Thirties, one can't help but see the Sixteen as a parody of Cadillacs of old and of itself. And, sadly, that seems a microcosm of the American industry in these troubled times. From all appearances, the glory days of the U.S. car industry are in the past, and until the Big Three companies can invent a future for themselves that doesn't involve putting their history into a fun-house mirror, that's the way things are going to stay.

Managing editor of Driving Today, Jack R. Nerad writes frequently on design issues.

Good for the Long Haul?

If you are looking for long-term dependability in your next car model, you can't do better than Lexus. According to the esteemed research firm J.D. Power and Associates, the Toyota-owned Japanese luxury brand ranks highest in long-term dependability for the eighth consecutive year in the firm's Vehicle Dependability Index (VDI) Study. In fact, all of the top five ranking nameplates in the study are Japanese brands, with Infiniti, Acura, Honda, and Toyota following Lexus, respectively.

The Vehicle Dependability Index Study, now in its 13th year, is a particularly telling piece of research, because it monitors the number and type of problems owners have with their four- to five-year-old vehicles, tracking problems toward the end of the typical new-car ownership period. The study covers 137 specific problem areas in nine categories and is based this year on survey responses from more than 30,000 original owners of 1998 model-year vehicles.

One of the most interesting findings of the study is the surprising reliability of the top-ranking four- to five-year-old vehicles. At 159 problems per 100 vehicles (PP100), the average four- to five-year-old Lexus has fewer problems than the average 1998 model-year vehicle did when it was new (176 PP100). Lexus owners report the smallest increase in problems of any nameplate, as measured at 90 days of ownership versus the four- to five-year mark.

"Lexus vehicles certainly benefit from their consistency in long-term dependability," said Brian Walters, director of product research at J.D. Power and Associates. "VDI measures vehicle problems at a critical stage, when many owners are considering replacing their vehicles. The perception of strong long-term dependability can translate into both high resale value and strong owner loyalty to the nameplate. More than one-half of new-vehicle buyers indicate that long-term durability is an important consideration when choosing which make of vehicle to purchase."

Because of those factors, it is not hard to see why Japanese nameplate cars are doing well in the American marketplace. Among the 15 nameplates scoring above industry average in the 2002 VDI, eight are Japanese brands (Lexus, Infiniti, Acura, Honda, Toyota, Subaru, Nissan, and Mazda); four are domestic (Buick, Cadillac, Lincoln, and Mercury); and three are European (Porsche, Jaguar, and BMW).

The industry as a whole registered improved vehicle dependability by 27 problems per 100 vehicles in 2002 -- a seven percent gain over 2001. Interestingly, industry-level new-vehicle quality, as measured by the J.D. Power and Associates Initial Quality Study (IQS), has also shown an annual average improvement of just under seven percent over the past four years.