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The 2013 Mini Cooper exhibit is displayed at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Monday, Jan. 9, 2012. (Paul Sancya/AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
The 2013 Mini Cooper exhibit is displayed at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Monday, Jan. 9, 2012. (Paul Sancya/AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Driving It Home

Detroit: Looking for substance behind the hype Add to ...

When I was my 17-year-old son’s age I was elbow-deep in grease most weekends, rolling around on my dad’s garage floor fixing my car.

In those days, a car, any car, generally broke down pretty early in its life. But at least garage mechanics like me – even novice ones like me, with the help of my very handy dad – could fix them. My ’62 Chevy Nova was a 14-year-old stealth street rod with a small-block V-8 under the hood. It needed plenty of care and attention. By the time I had graduated from high school this old car was almost an antique, the only kind that a broke teenager like me could afford.

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Back then, built-in obsolescence was the auto industry’s ace in the hole. Five years, 100,000 miles – whatever came first signalled the end of the useful life of a typical car. Thus, the car companies could count on a huge whack of the fleet turning over every five years and those buyers were mostly excited to move on from the aging, unreliable and rusting rattle-trap in the driveway.

Here we are in 2012 and increased vehicle longevity is one of the biggest challenges facing the auto industry. This week’s Detroit auto show will be a showcase of new designs and technologies and it’s a smashing way to start the New Year. The reality, though, is that most of you don’t really need to trade in our ride for something new. You might want to, but you don’t need to.

As auto analyst Dennis DesRosiers put it in a recent note to clients, “The quality improvements in light vehicles over the past two decades has resulted in a radical increase in survival rates of light vehicles in Canada. Some 43.2 per cent of passenger cars now last at least 15 years (in 2000 it was only 28.1 per cent) and some 60.1 per cent of light trucks last at least 15 years (in 2000 it was only 53.9 per cent).”

That sort of real-world longevity puts added pressure on auto makers to conjure up new models with extraordinarily compelling looks and features. How else to entice buyers who can and do expect a long life for their ride.

On top of that, auto consumers are not easy to please. Toothpaste companies may be able to slap the “New and Improved” label on yesterday’s same whitening formula and expect a surge of interest, but car companies have it tougher. The typical car buyer today isn’t easily fooled and has access to mountains of data through the Internet to make sure the new, new thing really is new.

So as the first of two press days begins this Monday morning in Detroit, I’ll be looking for substance behind all the hype, knowing that readers and viewers are pretty tough to fool. What seems clear is that the world’s car companies are embracing small cars and “green” technologies. In particular, car companies are trying to figure out how to make small vehicles beautiful, sexy, exciting and valuable to North American buyers who still generally equate big with luxurious and small with cheap and not always cheerful.

Whatever they show, expect it to last 15 years once it’s yours. A far cry from my teenage years. More to come from Detroit.

Follow on Twitter: @catocarguy

 

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