Last Saturday, Thomas Friedman finally gave up on Detroit. Not the city, but the American auto industry headquartered there. Me too. I give up. How in their right minds can they throw this away:
Customer satisfaction - isn't that what building and maintaining a brand is all about? I've written about Saturn before, and having owned two of them during stints in Washington, I was proud that the American car industry was capable of making such nice, affordable, and environmentally-sound cars. But just like it showed when killing the electric car, Detroit's penchant for self-inflicted wounds is undiminished by the current economic crisis.
*Business Week wrote about the brand last week in "Saturn Seeks Another Carmaker as GM Casts It Aside," by Tom Krisher:
GM started Saturn in 1990 as a small-car answer to Japanese automakers
and billed it as a "different kind of car company." Its new factory in
Spring Hill, Tenn., had more flexible work rules than traditional GM
plants and more autonomy for those who built the cars...
"More flexible work rules" may be interpreted as lower wages and fewer benefits than GM's other United Auto Workers (UAW) employees. A lot of good that appears to have done the Saturn workers. Note to the UAW negotiators: GM used their Saturn "autonomy" to make the brand so inconspicuous that they're now getting rid of it. Trading away their wages and benefits appears to have purchased the Saturn workers absolutely zero employment stability.
Automotive writer Steven Cole Smith in the Orlando Sentinel put his finger on the problem:
Too bad... the Saturn products are caught up in GM's financial crisis. There has long been the philosophy in the auto business that if you build good products, you will succeed. Saturn's woes suggest that is no longer a given.
Enter BYD. Well, perhaps not (they didn't return Business Week's calls about possible interest in Saturn). This Chinese company has its own product lineup of plug-in electric hybrids, which transformed the normally staid BBC business commentator Peter Day into an enthusiast - and he's apparently not alone:
In September  there was a remarkable endorsement of BYD when even as global stock markets were plunging, the canniest American investor of them all, Warren Buffet of Omaha, Nebraska, paid $230 million for a 10% stake in the Chinese company.
Mr Buffett is a quite notorious investor for the long-term, not the quick buck, so he must recognise something in those initials BYD.
I'm sorry that the American automotive dream has long since appeared to have gotten outsourced, but hell, that's what happens when Japanese and now apparently Chinese car makers successfully pick up on ideas that American car makers ignore.
President Obama believes that "the nation that invented the automobile cannot walk away from it." Perhaps. But unless and until Detroit stops shooting itself in the foot pedal, Americans will drive away from GM dealerships in droves. I wish Saturn well. Maybe it will be "adopted" by a wiser investor than its soon-to-be-former owner, where people like "Mr. Horsepower" are finally leaving.
Maybe when Detroit lionizes a "Ms. Fuel Efficiency" we'll know things have changed.