King, knight, bishop 

Marketers search for automotive "home team"

Marketers search for automotive "home team"

By Marc Stengel

It’s all a game anyway, right? This whole best-selling car of the year business, if you really think about it, is just a frothy marketing imbroglio intended to tap into the year-end Bowl Game psyche and to give everyone the automotive equivalent of a home team to root for.

For ’97, the story line goes something like this: Ford’s fabled Taurus sees the moment of its greatness flicker in the face of Toyota Camry’s slow, steady march up the field. But, what ho! Honda executes a delayed but brilliant flanking maneuver, made necessary by the midyear makeover of its self-confident Accord—just when Toyota experiences production snafus at its old Kentucky home, no less. Hurriedly, Toyota dispenses with any pretense of all-American patriotism and commandeers every possible cargo vessel in its Japanese ports to bear foreign-made Camrys stateside. By Nov. 30, it’s Camry by a whisker with 352,902 sold; Accord’s tally is 346,716—a mere 6,000 units, or 1.75 percent, ’twixt the twain.

As you read this, December’s deed will be done, and either Toyota is wearing the crown for the first time ever, or Accord has regained the reign that Ford usurped five years ago. (Ford Motor Co., meanwhile, weeps crocodile tears in smug satisfaction that the combined sales of its fraternal-twin Taurus and Sable models have outpaced the winner by some 90,000 units, or almost 25 percent. A case of Japanese automakers having their cake while Ford was eating its lunch, perhaps?)

Aside from inspiring certain year-end sales incentives meant to ensnare impulsive consumers, what does all this best-sellerism accomplish? Two things, actually. The obvious effect is to crown the sales winner and runners-up with halos of plaudits, which in turn lead to test drives and, hopefully, to transactions. More fundamentally, from an industry perspective at least, a benchmark is established beside which other, less vaunted contenders can be measured and, occasionally, shine.

Honda Accord LX

There is simply no gainsaying Honda in its single-minded determination to build THE car that Americans want at THE price they want to afford. Like water polishing a rock in a stream, Honda has slowly, patiently smoothed over any conceivable rough edges of its flagship sedan to produce a monument to competence.

The ’98 Accord is the sixth generation of this storied car. Everything works. Every important interior convenience is accounted for, within reach and without frills. With its 2.3-liter four-cylinder, the Accord LX is the mid-level model of the line, wearing an as-tested sticker price of $19,414. Decorum informs the styling of both exterior and interior. The car’s shape is calm, stately, Zen-like in simplicity. The car’s five-passenger seating is spacious, supportive, tastefully upholstered without ostentation. Trunk space is 14.1 cubic feet of boxy hugeness. The LX’s 150-horsepower, low-emission vehicle (LEV) engine is atmospherically correct and impressively fuel-efficient with EPA ratings of 25 miles-per-gallon/city, 31/highway.

The car’s four-wheel independent, double-wishbone suspension is stable, predictable. The operation of its five-speed manual shifter is predictable too, maybe a bit notchy. Kings are customarily a bit notchy, of course. They are correct, formal, not given to an easy casualness. The longevity and success of their reigns depend on a competence of action and demeanor that earns respect and eschews flamboyance. Long live Accord, once and future King of Sales.

Mazda 626 ES-V6

Now, let’s get out of this stuffy penguin suit and have some fun, shall we? Slap back that sunroof in Mazda’s spanking-new 626 ES sport sedan. Goose that twin-cam V6 up through redline in all five slick-shifting gears. Feel that 170 front-drive horsepower clawing at the steering wheel as you wrestle to control a dash of torque steer. Toss the sporty, capsule-shaped lozenge of a sport sedan through the twisties at the fairly accessible limits of its strut-type independent suspension.

Note the implications here: Mazda’s new-for-’98 626 isn’t quite the engineering equal of Honda’s Accord. The suspension is a little less sophisticated, a little quicker to reach its max. The front-drive transaxle is a little more raucous, a little more willy-nilly in its acceleration feel. The leather interior is, on the contrary, quite a bit nicer. Sumptuous even, maybe extravagant. So, too, the $24,445 price tag—although it does account for an upscale V6. The stereo radio/cassette/CD is a sinful sound garden, pure and simple.

The Mazda does, however, overlook thoughtful responsibilities in a way that Accord never could: It won’t warn you if you leave your parking lamps or headlights on, for example. When you need to defrost the front windscreen of the 626, you have to set vents, temperature, and compressor, or you’ll wind up with a foggy, humid mess inside. Not so with the Honda: Because the compressor is also your dehumidifier, the Accord links it irrevocably with the defrost vent selector. Of course.

But the Mazda 626 is such fun, so gallant, so devil-may-care. Let others reign while there are switchbacks to skirmish, jousts to tilt, ladies to woo. A grand imperfectibility can still be glorious—a tantalizing expression of joie de vivre, a swaggering bravado that leaves competence to its cautious ministrations and dull duties.

Chevrolet Prizm LSi

Tsk, tsk, tsk. Such willful extravagance. Such heedless abandon. If it isn’t sinful to enjoy one’s car and driving so much, it should be. Why, if nothing else, just think of the money you’d save slipping behind the wheel of an all-new Chevrolet (née Geo) Prizm LSi. The LSi is the more expensive of two Prizm models in Chevy’s line; it bears the $14,614 base price. Goodies add up: sunroof here ($675), alloy wheels and ABS there ($335 + $645)—even a lowly tachometer is a line-item at $70. Air conditioning, sporty suspension bits, radio/CD, and power windows are a part of an option package for just $550. Best of all, there are optional, independently operating side airbags for $295 that represent a “first” in the subcompact car category. All told, the total for the Prizm LSi tested here tallies $17,748. So much for the accretive power of our All-American obsession with à la carte options.

But wait. Can a car designed by Toyota and built side-by-side the Corolla in that company’s California “transplant” factory really be all-American? No real matter, of course. Even in Prizm garb, this car is free to define its own, solid character. An updated, 1.8-liter, 120-horsepower engine mates to a rubbery but smooth-shifting 5-speed. “NVH enhancements” have noticeably dampened noise, vibration, and harshness and, therefore, interior noise. Performance is zesty, nimble even, especially when the driver is alone in the car. Five can sit inside, but the rear bench becomes a pew if three squeeze onto it. Interior appointments incline toward the Puritan: Fabric upholstery is a tier below the Accord’s, and frilly amenities are, well, to be prayed for. But waste-not-want-not fuel economy rates an excellent 31 MPG/city and 37 MPG/highway.

Of course, the Prizm is a compact amidst these other two midsize sedans. But it is a worshipful alternative just the same. What with Honda’s magisterial Accord and Mazda’s swashbuckling 626, Chevrolet’s Prizm provides a humbler but no less worthy option for traveling the long-and-winding road in a straight-and-narrow manner.

Off the floor

Dealer of distinction

Beaman Automotive has been awarded the “Leaders of Distinction” award for 1997 by the Pontiac/GMC Division of General Motors. The honor, presented in Carlsbad, Calif., by Pontiac/GMC general manager Roy Roberts, recognizes the Beaman dealership’s ranking among the top 5 percent of the nation’s 3600 Pontiac/GMC dealers in terms of customer satisfaction, sales volume, and profitability.

“In all honesty,” says Lee Beaman, president of the dealer group, “I’d like to say that we attribute our success to putting the customer first; but the fact is, we put our employees first, and it’s the customers who benefit most from that decision.” Beaman has won Leaders of Distinction recognition from Pontiac and GMC for 25 of the last 26 years. Throughout the U.S., only four other dealers have achieved a similar record.

Let’s get crankin’

We’re working harder and longer to buy our cars, according to the National Auto Dealers Association (NADA). With the average price of a new vehicle now exacting $22,321 of a family’s hard-earned pay, that family must now work 26.4 weeks to foot the bill. NADA calculates that the car-cost burden has grown 2.8 percent for the year; since 1972, when the average new vehicle supposedly required 17 weeks of income to buy, the burden has grown 55 percent more onerous.

Depressed yet? Maybe a little longer perspective can shorten the disappointment. If the $22,000 Toyota Camry is reasonably typical of the average car in 1997, one might propose the $500 Ford Model T as the average buy of 1917. Considering general inflation over the last 80 years, a $500 purchase in ’17 would equate to $6,500 today, since the ’17 dollar held about 13 times the buying power of our current pale facsimile.

A look at the typical window sticker in a modern dealership would explain a lot about the nearly $16,000 discrepancy between these two cars. For openers, you might take a look at pricing for air-conditioning, anti-lock power brakes, automatic transmission, air bags, stereo, a clean-burning engine with over four times the power, and so forth. (These “fancy add-ons” don’t even account for what we now take for granted in the way of self-starting key ignitions, fully enclosed interiors—even steel instead of wooden wheels.)

We may be working harder and longer for our cars; but they, in turn, are working harder and longer for us too. And if you’re still not convinced, just try hand-cranking a ’17 Model T on a frosty cold morning. A few extra weeks of salary making might suddenly seem easy by comparison.

Dealer news and other views are invited via fax at (615) 385-2930 or by e-mail to Autosuggestive@compuserve.com.

We may be working harder and longer for our cars; but they, in turn, are working harder and longer for us too. And if you’re still not convinced, just try hand-cranking a ’17 Model T on a frosty cold morning. A few extra weeks of salary making might suddenly seem easy by comparison.

Dealer news and other views are invited via fax at (615) 385-2930 or by e-mail to Autosuggestive@compuserve.com.

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