In 2009, auto industry saw successes, failures and oddities

Now that 2009 has come to a close, it's time to acknowledge the things that went right, the surprising disappointments and the stuff that just didn't make sense. Mark Phelan, Detroit Free Press

Deserving of kudos

Chrysler's five-year business plan: Sales are falling like a lead balance sheet, and the company won't even hold a news conference to generate buzz at the coming Detroit auto show, but Chrysler's marathon November briefing convinced many skeptical analysts. The plan to more than double worldwide sales to 2.8 million a year and generate consistent profits got a warm reception.

2010 Ford Fusion: The 2010 Fusion raised Ford's midsize car from one among many good sedans to a multi-award-winning best in class. A 41-mpg-rated hybrid model, new engines and transmissions in all models, exquisite design tweaks and sophisticated new features make the 2010 Ford Fusion a triumph. Want blind-spot alert? Fusion's got it; a $49,750 Mercedes-Benz C350 Sport doesn't.

GM-Opel: Let's stay together. General Motors' new board of directors, led by chairman Ed Whitacre and auto-industry ace Steven Girsky, overruled management and vetoed the sale of GM's vital European unit. You can't be a global automaker without a strong presence in Europe, and Opel's engineering center develops vehicles and power trains key to GM's success in the United States.

nKia Soul: The funky little hatchback made Kia cool, giving the second brand from Korean giant Hyundai Automotive a shot of excitement and style. Small, fun and inexpensive, with quirky features like interior lights that flash in time with your music, the Soul easily outdid the Nissan Cube and Scion xB to become the hip new boxy design.

The Obama administration: The administration's determination to keep the U.S. auto industry alive was a marvel of focus and efficiency. Financial aid and expertly managed bankruptcies allowed GM and Chrysler to eliminate billions of dollars in legacy costs, rework their contracts and shed excess dealers, problems that had become crippling through decades of mismanagement. Now GM and Chrysler must earn their survival by building great vehicles and selling them at competitive prices.

Some disappointments

mHonda Insight: The original Insight was America's first hybrid in 1999. Honda revived the name this year, but the new car's Prius-lite styling and unspectacular fuel economy left buyers cold. You can't out-Prius Toyota, but Honda tried and failed.

GM quality reports: Quality doesn't cost. It pays. GM still is struggling with that lesson, and poor showings in independent quality surveys undermine the value and sales of marvelous vehicles from Chevrolet and Cadillac. Building quality into the engineering process was Mark Reuss' priority when he was briefly GM's top engineer. You can bet it's still there now that he's running GM North America.

Lexus: Toyota's Lexus luxury brand had high expectations entering 2009, but its new vehicles fell short. The all-new RX 350 crossover — Lexus' bestselling vehicle and the sales leader in its segment — failed to make even the 10-vehicle list of semifinalists for North American Truck of the Year, while upstart competitors like the Audi Q5, Cadillac SRX and Volvo XC60 did. The touted HS 250h hybrid was criticized as too small, too expensive and not fuel-efficient enough.

Toyota recalls: Now put the other foot in your mouth. In November, Toyota's top U.S. sales executive, Bob Carter, declared that floor mats and floor mats alone are to blame for the automaker's sudden acceleration problem and that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration agreed with Toyota on that. The normally diplomatic NHTSA went ballistic, calling the claim "inaccurate and misleading," the problem "very dangerous" and concluding that "this matter is not closed."

The problem affecting 4.3 million Toyota and Lexus vehicles was joined by Toyota's reluctant recall of some Tundra pickups for rusting frames and a separate NHTSA investigation into reports that some Toyota vehicles stall at highway speed.

In 2009, auto industry saw successes, failures and oddities 01/07/10 [Last modified: Thursday, January 7, 2010 3:30am]

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