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Auto Watchers Underwhelmed by U.S. Designs


Next, we're going to report on the style of some of the cars burning all that oil. General Motors and Ford may have a hit with their employee discount sales, but analysts say the automakers still face problems because critics consider their cars too boring. One example is the Ford Freestyle, a cross between a station wagon and an SUV. It was introduced with fanfare last year, but it's already in danger of being dropped, as NPR's Jack Speer reports.

JACK SPEER reporting:

When Ford began production of the Freestyle in August of last year, it had high hopes for the vehicle. It was billed as a crossover model, and Ford launched it with a highly visible ad campaign.

(Soundbite of Ford commercial)

Unidentified Man: It combines the things you love about car with the stuff you need from an SUV--the totally new Ford Freestyle.

SPEER: But after only a short time on the market, the road ahead for the Freestyle already looks bumpy. Ford had projected it would sell 100,000 Freestyles a year. So far, the number-two automaker has sold only about half that many. Automotive News recently reported Ford will stop building its current version of the Freestyle in 2007. Ford won't confirm that, saying only that the Freestyle name will continue, though perhaps not on the current vehicle. Jim Hall is with AutoPacific Inc., a consulting firm that specializes in automotive marketing.

Mr. JIM HALL (AutoPacific Inc.): The competition in the market really is absolutely fierce. The case of the Freestyle, they launched a new vehicle with a new name in a showroom that was crowded with vehicles that to customers may have seemed more alike than they actually were. But customer perception is everything.

SPEER: And it's not just the Freestyle that is piling up on dealer lots. With the exception of a few popular models like the new Mustang and Chrysler's striking 300, customers have largely ignored many of the current offerings from Detroit.

Mr. GERALD MEYERS (University of Michigan Business School): Dull, pedestrian, underwhelming. I guess that gives you an idea of how I feel about them.

SPEER: Gerald Meyers is a former auto industry executive who helped to revitalize the Jeep brand 30 years ago. He teaches at the University of Michigan's Business School. He says what's lacking in many of today's vehicles is a sense of style.

Mr. MEYERS: Automobile design is a fashion industry. The customer doesn't know what he or she wants until she sees it. All kinds of efforts have been made to forecast, and you have to throw your eyeballs out over the hill and say, `What is he or she going to want three years from now?'

SPEER: There are only a handful of automotive designers working today who can claim to have had a hit. Tom Matano is one of them. Matano is the director of industrial design at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, and back in the late '80s, he led the design team that made a splash with the Mazda Miata.

Mr. TOM MATANO (Academy of Art University): It's almost hit and miss, in a way. Only thing we did on the Miata is that make sure the statement is pure and simple, so one look, would understand what it is.

SPEER: But he says it's more difficult now. The market today is much more fragmented.

Mr. MATANO: Used to be a sedan's for working and other type of vehicle for pleasure, the wagon for the family outing and stuff. That was a simple formula up until '70s. That whole thing is destroyed now.

SPEER: And among the industry analysts there is an interesting split. The financial types say Ford and General Motors have to get their health care costs under control. The marketing types all talk about the need to inspire the customer with more daring design. Ford does appear to be moving in that direction. The automaker recently appointed Freeman Thomas as its new North American design chief. Thomas worked for Chrysler and helped create the 300.

Sales at the major US automakers have been up in recent months, but industry watchers say that has more to do with aggressive discounting than building cars and trucks that excite consumers. They say the real test comes over the next several months as they roll out their 2006 models.

Jack Speer, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jack Speer
Jack Speer is a newscaster at NPR in Washington, DC. In this role he reports, writes, edits, and produces live hourly updates which air during NPR programming.