Bad Things. Small Packages.

When you aren’t the first choice— or even the second—for a vast number of people, building vehicles that mimic the competition is a losing strategy.

When you aren’t the first choice— or even the second—for a vast number of people, building vehicles that mimic the competition is a losing strategy. Why would I want to buy a carbon copy of the original when I can buy the real thing? When an established manufacturer offers customers a clone it is tantamount to conceding defeat; it fairly screams: “I’m not good enough!” (Up-and-coming OEMs, on the other hand, build copies of market leading vehicles to establish their credentials with wary customers.) Established automakers hoping to be truly competitive have to innovate. And innovation is pretty thin at the moment, especially in the small car ranks.

When was the last time Detroit built a small car that was truly innovative? True, Chevrolet had the Corvair, a stylish VW clone with a sub par rear axle design—back in 1960. Ford came close with the stillborn Redwing V4, a.k.a. Ford of Germany’s Taunus. Chrysler stayed out of the market until a lack of money and the twin fuel crises forced it to import cars from Mitsubishi. Later it developed the Omni and Horizon twins, then stayed too late at the party with the same design. Ford’s Pinto and Chevy’s Vega were shrunken rear-drive cars with dubious technology and suspect quality that never sent the imports back to the other side of the Pacific. Nor did their successors. In fact, the domestic OEMs have produced some incredibly pathetic small cars over the years because they approached the small car market as a necessary evil, not an opportunity for long-term success. (Save the letters. Pontiac’s Vibe is a Toyota. Ford’s Focus development stopped at “good enough.” PT Cruiser development hasn’t kept up with its promise.)

Small cars are the perfect crucible for developing the tools necessary to create class leading products. The cost restraints are extreme. Quality has to be equal to or better than the very best. And customers don’t expect (or often get) a heck of a lot in terms of style, performance, utility, or fun. Often they buy these cars because they have to, not because they want to. Not competing in this market, or leaving it to a sister division or foreign subsidiary eventually leads to atrophy throughout the organization. Yet Detroit deals with these vehicles as rolling CAFE canisters with no other purpose than to let more V8-powered SUVs and pickups roll out the door. It’s terribly shortsighted. Entry-level cars need not be penalty boxes when they have the ability to be windows into the corporate soul, must-have toys, and—oh yes—exceptional vehicles.

For if, as the old saying goes, a kiss can betray your intentions, then small cars can display the deepest character traits of your company and the vehicles it builds. If you can’t understand the sheer joy and glee to be had behind the wheel of a small car (it’s akin to the feelings you get in a well-developed elemental sports car), or the delightful utility to be found in so small a package (it’s similar to getting more than you expected into your luggage without straining the zipper), or the goofy fun such a car can impart (it’s like a really great first date), then you have no business in this business. You will never produce truly innovative and memorable products, or even those that consistently meet or exceed the customer’s needs. And your whole product line will suffer. Pretty soon, copying the leaders will be all you are capable of doing, and the inevitable slide toward mediocrity, irrelevance, and disaster will accelerate.