Thursday, 7 June 2012

Say Farewell To These Well-Known Cars

One of the things that makes Toyota, Honda, BMW and Mercedes-Benz so efficient and successful in the auto industry is their ability to refresh the same cars year after year, decade after decade.

BMW is out with an all-new 3 Series, it's sixth, a car that has been called the same thing for 37 years. This fall, Honda will introduce its ninth Accord, which it has been selling for 36 years. Having that kind of consistency and commitment to a brand name is worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

How so? Auto companies launching a new car that has an all new name say that it can cost hundreds of millions to start to establish a new name in the consumer minds. Dodge is amidst a launch of an all new Dodge Dart, a name it hasn't used in the U.S. since 1976, but its residual awareness, say Chrysler officials, is worth maybe $100 million-plus versus starting from scratch with a new name.

Some old established names and cars have not been so fortunate. In 2012, we are seeing a couple of old, familiar, even ubiquitous vehicles, head off to the automobile cemetery. And we are also seeing the passing of a few Johnny-come-lately vehicles that just didn't have staying power-- vehicles with new names that fell on their fenders with the public, and the companies that designed and marketed them are cutting their losses.


Chevrolet HHR

MSRP: $18,720 - $19,720
Invoice: $17,971 - $18,931
Fuel Economy: 22 city/32 highway

The HHR was developed by General Motors after it saw how many PT Cruisers Chrysler was selling. The HHR had an unmistakable retro look. But by the time it came out in 2006, the love affair with the PT Cruiser was over, and the HHR seemed to be bought only by consumers who remember watching Milton Berle and Lucille Ball on prime-time network TV.

It didn't help that the HHR was built on one of GM's more forgettable engineering platforms, the same one that underpinned the unremarkable and highly forgettable Chevy Cobalt sedan. Chevy priced it right--starting below $16,000 for a base price. But to keep it that low, it had to use a lot of cheapish plastic bits and pieces in the interior.

It was inspired by the 1949 Chevy Suburban. The designer of the vehicle was Bryan Nesbitt, who was recruited to GM after he made a name for himself at Chrysler designing, among other models, the PT Cruiser.

The HHR quickly became a fixture at rental car counters. GM stopped making HHRs a year ago, but there are a few 2011 models still around. As a low-mileage used car, it can be a solid value, especially for a college student or new grad who wants the utility space that the design offers.

Jeep Compass and Patriot

Jeep Compass
MSRP: $19,295 - $26,045
Invoice: $18,967 - $25,051
Fuel Economy: 23 city/29 highway

Jeep Patriot
MSRP: $15,995 - $25,330
Invoice: $15,805 - $24,327
Fuel Economy: 23 city/29 highway

Since these are both Jeeps, we thought we would deal with them together. Back in 2003, Chrysler's German owners were trying to decide on a design for a new car-based Jeep that would be priced below the then-entry-level Jeep Liberty. One was a boxy design that looked very much like a Jeep, the Patriot. The other was a more rounded, almost Asian looking design, the Compass. The company decided to build both rather than choose.

The two Jeeps share a platform with the Dodge Caliber. All three vehicles suffered greatly from being finished while former owner Daimler was winding down its investment in Chrysler. The company cheapened the interiors, wheels, brakes, tires on the cars. If they could cut pennies out of these cars in costs, they did…anywhere they could.

To make matters worse, the engines were;t fuel efficient, so these small Jeeps always came out last against competitors measured by fuel economy.

Chrysler's new owners, Fiat, put a lot of quality investment into upgrading the Compass and Patriot, and both deserve to be checked out by consumers in search of good values before they head out of town on the last train. They will be replaced by an all-new Jeep that will be introduced in 2013.

Buick Lucerne

MSRP: $29,730 - $44,460
Invoice: $28,541 - $42,682
Fuel Economy: 17 city/27 highway

The last of these large cars are dribbling off dealer lots as leftover 2011 models.

The car launched in the 2006 model year as a replacement to the old Park Avenue and LeSabre--two cars that were the unofficial "Official Cars of the AARP."  It was built on the old Pontiac Bonneville engineering platform.

The Lucerne was far preferable to the cars it replaced. Though the platform was not new, the execution was far better. It wasn't as swishy and numb a ride as its Buick predacessors, and the interior was greatly improved beyond GM's older large cars.

Buick kept adding new features and gizmos to try and attract younger buyers: lane departure warning, Bluetooth connectivity for smart-phones, flex-fuel engine. But it was one of those cars with a fading customer base: a large sedan with V6 and V8 engines. To see an owner younger than 70 years old was a novelty.

Mitsubishi Eclipse

MSRP: $19,499 - $29,089
Invoice: $18,875 - $27,861
Fuel Economy: 20 city/28 highway

The Mitsubishi Eclipse is going away after 22 years on the market. What is surprising is that all of Mitsubishi isn't folding its tent in the U.S. The company sold fewer than 80,000 cars in 2011, and seems lost in the hyper competitive U.S. market.

The Eclipse was made in Mitsubishi's Normal, Ill. plant. That facility is being re-tooled to build there 2013 Mitsubishi Outlander CUV and it has begun kicking out i-MiEv electric cars, part of what seems like the company's last push to see if it has a viable business in the U.S.

At one point, Mitsubishi sold a convertible version of the car. And through a partnership with Chrysler, the Michigan-based automaker sold similar versions of the car as the Eagle Talon and Plymouth Laser. All in all, there were four distinct versions of the Eclipse over its more than two decades on sale.

The Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor and Taxi

Fuel Economy: 16 city/24 highway

There is hardly a more ubiquitous car in every city in America as the Ford Crown Victoria. For decades, the car was the favorite of police forces and taxi fleets. If you didn't get a ride in one, you surely have ridden in the other.

What made it so popular? It was a design that dated back to the early 1970s called body-on-frame. This distinguished it from the "unibody" cars that came into vogue in the late 70s through today. Bumpers and other pieces of the Crown Vics could be replaced more easily and cheaply than on unibody cars. And because police and cab fleets began favoring them so long ago, there have been depots of spare parts built up and maintained around them.

But that old car is far from fuel efficient. And toughening fuel economy regulations forced Ford to discontinue building them last year and the last of the new ones are trickling out to buyers.

Ford stopped selling the Ford Crown Vic to retail customers in 2008, and its twin, the Mercury Marquis, went off sale when Ford folded the whole Mercury brand in 2010. The Crown Vic, and Lincoln Town Car stopped being built about a year ago. Both cars enjoyed a loyal, but aging, customer base that wanted the old fashioned car with the old fashioned fuel economy and big V8 engine option. Ford is trying to win over both those lovers of big cars and police departments with today's Ford Taurus. But with the price-tag of the Taurus after fees and features crowding $35,000, it's got many buyers wishing for a  comeback of the old Crown Vic.

Ford Ranger

MSRP: $18,160 - $26,070
Invoice: $17,187 - $24,204
Fuel Economy: 22 city/27 highway

The second car AOL Autos Editor-in-Chief David Kiley owned was a 1983 Ford Ranger. "It was great. I used it for part of my college commuting, and it came in handy when I did carpentry work over the summer to earn some money." Indeed, the Ranger was an ideal pickup for tradesmen who did not need the size, nor fuel thirst of a full-size pickup. From a practical standpoint, getting ones tools and supplies out of the bed of a Ranger was, and is, much easier than a Ford F Series pick up truck.

But the market for compact pickups has gone steadily down for years as Ford, Chevy, Ram, and more recently Toyota and Nissan, have flooded the market with deeply discounted full-sized pickups. By the time a buyer factors in rebates and 0-percent financing on the big pickup, the price is practically right on top of a Ranger, Dodge Dakota or Toyota Tacoma.

So, the 2012 model year is the last for Ranger. The last of them, first launched in '83, has already rolled off the line at a plant in Minnesota. Dodge has followed suit by eliminating the Dakota. Perhaps the saddest note of all in this is the closure of Ford's Twin Cities plant, which produced Fords for nearly 100 years.

Ford hopes that prospective Ranger customers will look to the entry-level Ford F-150 with its 3.7-liter V6 for pickup truck needs.

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