One of my favorite movies is the 1986 "Heartbreak Ridge," starring Clint Eastwood as an old-school Marine who has to make efficient fighting men out of a bunch of misfits.
Mr. Eastwood's character, Gunnery Sgt. Tom Highway's mantra is that a Marine, to survive in combat, must "adapt, improvise, overcome."
Gunny Highway would be proud of the automotive industry in its handling of the minivan/pickup/sport- utility vehicle explosion. The industry is adapting, improvising and overcoming like no Marine has since D-Day.
I, myself, had been having trouble coming to grips with the public's hunger for trucks for some time.
As a guy who always pined for the creature comforts and the smooth ride offered by luxury cars, I just couldn't imagine why anyone would want to trade in those things for a bumpy ride and room to carry sheets of plywood. How many times a year does the average driver need to haul plywood?
Consumers, clearly, are driving the light-truck trend and the industry is adapting to meet their needs, improvising by being creative in the design studio and overcoming people with attitudes like my own.
In the '80s, people took to minivans because they could transport the family and its "stuff" from place to place without having to use a station wagon, which had become uncool. Now, every manufacturer offers at least one minivan.
In the '90s, people decided they wanted to be able to haul sheets of plywood - or move furniture or even a load of dirt - if the need ever arose.
Consumers, of course, wouldn't exchange driving comfort and convenience for load-hauling capability, so pickup interiors started to take on features once reserved for luxury cars. Today, many trucks come with air conditioning, stereos and power seats, locks and windows as standard equipment.
While pickups gained in popularity, minivans became sort of station wagon-like on the cool-o-meter, so SUVs caught on.
Now, there are pickups and SUVs of every shape and size. There even are SUVs with pickup beds and pickups with SUV interiors.
In the SUV segment, the top-of-the line models have smooth-enough rides and enough creature comforts to satisfy even my craving for luxury.
That's what I call adapting, improvising and overcoming.
Let's look at one of the newest SUVs - the 2001 Ford Escape. Its standard equipment includes air conditioning, AM/FM stereo with a CD player, power windows, mirrors and locks, tilt steering wheel, remote keyless entry and a roof rack. Not long ago, these were luxury-car features exclusively.
Optional equipment on the Escape includes leather seats and a leather-wrapped steering wheel, moonroof, privacy glass and an in-dash 6-CD changer. Perhaps the most amazing thing about the Escape is that a fully loaded model will cost in the neighborhood of $25,000. That's a lot of luxurious content, on a small truck, for a little more than the average price of a vehicle these days.
"We have seen people who want more from their vehicles, more flexibility to accommodate the different things they do in their lives," says Stu Smith, brand manager for the Ford Escape. "We expect 70% of our buyers to come from cars. These folks want more flexibility than cars provide.
"And they're looking for this purchase to do more for them in the future than their needs are today," he adds, referring to younger couples who may be planning to start a family soon after they buy their vehicle.
I may be slow, but I'm starting to like SUVs, except when I'm driving behind one in my car.
And it's a very good thing that the industry adapted, improvised and overcame faster than I was in this matter.
Semper Fi, Mr. Eastwood!
Tim Keenan is senior editor of Ward's Dealer Business. He can be reached at [email protected]rtec.com
Car dealerships nationally have been feeling the pressures of a more informed buying public which eschews the high-pressure selling techniques of days past.
The availability of car buying and leasing information on the Internet, coupled with competition by dealers with each other, their manufacturers, and auto superstores, has literally put the consumer in the drivers seat.
The Internet especially has shrunk the car-buying world.
According to a study by Agoura Hills, CA-based marketing firm J.D. Power and Associates, 25% of all new-vehicle buyers use the Internet to arm themselves with vehicle product and pricing information when shopping.
These buyers "are younger, aggressive, more affluent and will put in the time and effort to make sure they obtain the right vehicle at the right price," the study says.
Internet shoppers often know more about the vehicle they want to purchase than dealership salespeople, says the study.
"There is no question that the consumer is much more in tune with the actual cost of the vehicle" and is better able to negotiate a price, says Bill Barrett, director of dealer and regional programs for the Polk Co. research firm in Southfield, MI.
With lower dealer profit margins and higher distribution and other costs, Mr. Barrett says dealership owners who don't hit certain sales volume "have to divest themselves or consolidate into larger" automotive groups.
Given these pressures, there are a variety of experts in the auto industry who preach the "art of the deal." One such individual is Paul Cummings, president of Chattanooga-based Training Strategies, Inc., which trains auto salespeople for a living.
Mr. Cummings tells his students that shoppers often ask friends where they got a good deal, check prices through a myriad of car buying services, or shop dealership sites with the click of a computer mouse.
More importantly, they avoid overbearing salespeople bent on a sale.