Touring the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, AutoNation Inc. CEO and President Michael Jackson checks out a red Mercedes CLS 55 AMG. “I've already placed my order for one, only it will be in black,” he says, admiring the sleek auto.
It's no surprise he drives a Mercedes. He started his career in a Mercedes-Benz dealership service department, then became owner of the dealership, then president of Mercedes-Benz North America. Although he now heads the nation's largest dealership chain with 373 franchises, Mercedes still is his brand of choice.
Walking the auto show floor, Jackson praises some brands that were accused of lacking luster in recent years.
“It's good to see General Motors commit to Saturn again,” he says. “It's a great brand that has been starved for product.”
Although AutoNation does not have a Saturn franchise, Jackson believes the newly unveiled Sky roadster and Aura concept midsize sedan will revitalize the brand. “Extremely attractive products,” he says.
Jackson, a self-described car enthusiast, also praises the Toyota Avalon sedan, which he says, has come a long way.
He explains, “That car was as plain vanilla as you could get. But the third-generation Avalon is an elegant sedan. It is the most Americanized product Toyota has designed.”
“An interior that is absolutely gorgeous, a ride that is smooth and an exterior that grabs the attention — all for $26,000.”
He asks himself two questions when evaluating new vehicles. First: Would I drive it? “Then I try to determine how this vehicle will resound in the marketplace.”
Jackson does a complete analysis from the concept to production, evaluating the exterior and interior designs, engines and drivetrains. He considers price points and auto makers' volume projections.
“Look at the Mustang,” he says. “Of course, it's a no-brainer now, but it wasn't always.”
Ford's first concept failed to excite him and others. But designers listened to feedback. “They got it right with the final production — the design, the drivetrain and the price point — it's all right,” he says.
Jackson stops to admire the Ford Fusion. “Ford has a wonderful emblem in the Blue Oval,” he says. “But it did not establish a clear face of a Ford sedan that has a strong brand identity. The Fusion does that. You look at this vehicle and you see a brand.”
Checking out Honda's new Ridgeline pickup truck, Jackson predicts it will be a hit. “But it will be a hit in the context of Honda having no expectations to take someone from the Ford F-150,” he explains. “For people attracted to attributes of the Honda brand and who also want the versatility of a pickup, this vehicle is perfect.”
Another vehicle that intrigues him is the unveiled Dodge Charger performance car. He calls it polarizing, “but in a good way.”
He adds: “You have to pull it off the right way. The Pontiac Aztek was polarizing, but the number of people who liked it was miniscule. You've got to get just the right equation.”
The Charger is another example of the Chrysler Group fighting back with bold and exciting products, he says. “People have so many choices today. You've got to give people a reason, other than incentives, to take the money out of their pockets.”
Jackson has high hopes in 2005, but cautions that the industry needs to be realistic.
“We'll probably end up in the high 16 million, maybe 17 million in sales, but I think there is a lot of volatility in that,” he says. “People need to get used to that.”
Also, the days of retailers being able to carry excess inventory are over.
“The extremely low interest rates allowed retailers to carry lots of inventory,” he says. “But that party is over.”