Saturday, March 23, 2013

My Generation

To Buy or Not To Buy and the Disappointment of Global Marketing

By Rick Tavel© 3-20-13 all rights reserved


Here’s the dilemma.  Though it certainly isn’t unique to me, I know some of you either have wrestled with or are currently wrestling with the same conundrum.  It often happens when a new generation of our favorite car comes to market.  It’s the developmental strategy that the Corvette has adhered to from the very first generation that complicates our decision – the strategy that requires each generation to be completely developed and improved before introducing a new generation and changing the outward appearance and styling of the car.   That strategy has been responsible for bringing us some of the greatest automobiles in history, especially those during the final build years of a generation.  It’s not a surprise, just look back at each generation and in almost every case (the C3 may be the exception because of government regulations which affected engine performance) the models produced during the end of the generation are the most revered and coveted.  The ’61 and ’62, the ’66 and ’67, the ’95 and ’96, the ’03 and ’04, were the best performing and highest quality cars of the generation.  It is during those last years that the ultimate iterations of the generation are produced.  And now we come to the end of the C6 generation, arguably some of the most potent production Corvettes ever when appropriately optioned, and as is the tradition, timed just before the introduction of the new C7.  Thus herein lies the basis for my dilemma.  As Hamlet lamented: “To buy or not to buy!  That is the question! Whether ’tis nobler to choose the fully developed, high horsepower,  traditional  C6  427 convertible or suffer the untested and potential problems which sometimes plagues first year models like the C7.”

 The answer is not as simple as it may appear on the surface, particularly in light of the fact that this Corvette will likely be my Corvette for some time to come. So it is important that the decision be correct.  But the decision is quite complex because once I commit I will live with it.  I like to hold on to my Corvettes.   That’s not to say that I never sell one of my cars, I have and I will again, but it is difficult and usually only the result of limited garage space. 

I still have my 2000 C5 and love it as much or more than my C6.  They are like old friends and the idea of getting rid of one is no less traumatic than Hamlet lamenting his dastardly deed.   The decision is affected not only by rational considerations, such as reliability, comfort, proven performance and technology, but also by emotional and psychological factors like styling – traditional vs. modern,  popularity - commonness vs. exclusivity,  and perhaps one of the biggest but least important considerations, what subliminal  message does the car send about me.   And even that consideration is muddied by my ever-changing perception of who I really am.  OMG!  Maybe it’s time for another appointment with my analyst.  “Who am I today” is a problem for him to figure out, I have enough on my mind!

 So my dilemma all boils down to this, do I buy a new 2013 427 Convertible or do I sign up for the 2014 C7. The immediacy of getting the car is not a big issue unless we are talking about more than a year but the predictions are sometime in the third quarter for the C7 coupe and the fourth quarter for the C7 Convertible.  After all I already have two Corvettes at my disposal and enjoy both of them.  So whether I take possession of the car in a month or eight months is not a big consideration.  But by then,  I won’t be able to get my hands on a “new” 427 convertible without paying a high premium.   As a result I will have to make the call on the C6 before I get to even sit in or drive the new C7.  “Not the best way to make a decision,” you say.  And I say, “you are right but what other choice do I have?”   “Sit on it, wait it out, until the C7 is available,” says you.  “But then I will not be able to get my hands on a new C6 427, at less than an astronomic price which I refuse to pay,” says me, “and I really do not want to buy a used one.”    Logical, right?

 Okay.  Here is where I am on this.  If I loved the new C7 styling I would take the risk of not being able to find a new C6 427 vert in favor of being able to evaluate the C7 first hand.  There would be other benefits to waiting as well. If I ended up choosing the C7 then I could actually pick the colors and options I wanted.  But waiting would only be an option if I really loved the styling of the new generation.  And therein lays the problem, I don’t love it, not the coupe anyway, and I’m not sure if it’s infatuation or the beginnings of love with the C7 convertible.  I was more than impressed with the C7 convertible unveiled at the Geneva Motor Show.  But I definitely don’t love the new C7 coupe, at least not from what I have seen, but remember my vision has been limited to photographs only.  Understand it isn’t like I hate it, except maybe for the rear fascia and unfortunately that same defect plagues the new convertible as well.  But the coupe just leaves me flat, it evokes no passion in me.  But other than the rear and very few other styling miscues, the convertible appears “cleaner”, less “gadgety”, and I simply think the convertible is a far better looking car.  And I actually do love the interior in both the convertible and the coupe.  The interior of the car, in my estimation, is clearly a “walk off home run”.   So much so it almost makes me overlook the other problems I have with the car.  Maybe in time the car will ‘grow on me” or maybe when I actually see and drive the car I will be able to over look some of the styling “f-ups”.  In fact I hope it does because I really want to love this car.   But at this stage there are some issues that keep me from being able to commit to it, and maybe even preventing me from waiting to see it in person.
Perhaps my biggest concern about the C7 is the cluttered styling and I am not just talking about the rear of the car.   I’m talking about the black “B” pillar, the rear quarter windows and the black intake/vent trim scattered all over the body. All of those black trimmed vents and intakes reminds me of a high style “rice burner”.    It looks to me as if the car has given up some of its “Corvette” roots to try and be “something” it is not.  What is that nebulous “something” that the C7 is trying to be,  that “something” which apparently has infringed on the unique Corvette character and personality?  It is the attempt by the designers to make the Corvette a “Global” car.  Understand that it is not my contention that the C7 has totally lost its inimitability, its individuality,  but rather the stylists of the new generation Corvette have compromised it, under the pressure inside GM to make the Corvette a “global” product.  And that is the crux of the problem – how do you make the purely American Corvette a Global Car without compromising or giving up some of its purely American characteristics?   Characteristics that have made the Corvette so appealing?

Believe me, I understand the importance of competing and doing business in a global economy. I was a business executive for thirty five years and I understand the pressures and the squeeze on profitability.  I understand the need to broaden and expand a product’s market.   And I understand the importance of the global market for GM.  Two out of three products will be sold in other countries.  And GM is committed to turning the Corvette into a “global car”, clearly demonstrated by the unveiling of the C7 convertible at the Geneva Motor Show.  But the Corvette is accepted in other markets in its current uniquely American configuration.  So the need for GM to compromise its American styling is unnecessary.  And realistically the success of GM certainly does not rest on selling a few more Corvettes overseas, it doesn’t flicker the needle. 

Already GM has one of the best selections of outstanding global automobiles in the world.  And it is with those products, not the Corvette, that GM will succeed or fail, with cars like the Chevy Cruze which sold over 775.000 units last year and the new Cadillac ATS, recently crowned “North American Car of the Year”.  To put it in perspective, Chevrolet built and sold fewer than 14,000 Corvettes in 2012 while Toyota sold more than 65,000 of its “global” Prius in the state of California alone.  But the Corvette is admittedly Chevrolet’s Halo car, formerly the Heartbeat of Chevrolet and America, and it didn’t become the King of the Hill by compromising the styling to satisfy other countries, just to be labeled a “global car” and sell a few hundred more units,  for God’s sake.   But the new mantra at GM is “Global”, even to the point of replacing “Runs Deep” with “Finding New Roads”.  And in the corporate world you either get on the bandwagon or you’ll be finding new roads.

 I never thought the GM designers would need to be reminded that first and foremost the Corvette is an AMERICAN CAR and that is big part of its appeal.  There is no objection in selling the car worldwide but let’s keep things in perspective, do not compromise the car’s design by modifying or changing its unique character and personality.  It works for Harley Davidson.  They wouldn’t compromise the unique Harley characteristics just for the sake of trying to broaden its appeal for a global market.  In fact bikers in other countries buy it because of what it is, 100% American.   What has defined the Corvette has been its American performance and styling.   Trying to redesign the Corvette to be “everything to the global masses” will kill it, as surely as Hamlet murdered the king.

First,  great cars have their own unique personalities and characteristics;  personalities and traits that become attached to the car and acquired over time, some performance based and others from certain consistent styling cues and design styles.  Think of any great sports car and immediately some of these personality traits and characteristics will come to mind.  For example the Aston Martin has a very unique personality which in many ways mirrors its British heritage: classic styling, the very best materials (especially leather and wood), an impressive racing heritage and uncompromised quality.  In short: traditional British elegance and exclusivity.  Ferrari emits its own distinctly Italian roots: cutting edge styling, twelve cylinder engine, exquisite engine sounds, outstanding performance, unparalleled race heritage, and sexy styling.   Neither of these legendary sports cars compromises its roots but rather capitalize on them.  It’s those intrinsic qualities that give each car its very distinct “character”.

 Admittedly these acquired traits and personalities are not as pronounced in Asian cars as they are in European and American cars.  Possibly this is the result of inconsistent and rapidly changing styling cues used from one model to another and the warp speed evolving technology which is quickly incorporated into Asian cars.   For example, there is very little which ties the new 370 Z to the original 240 Z.  Even Nissan design boss, Shiro Nakamura, admits that the new Z isn’t anything like the original  Z car.  He also alludes to the new cars on the drawing board being more reflective of the past Z-cars.  He recognizes the importance of getting the “Z” back to its roots. 
Not a bad plan, but trying to recapture the characteristics which gave a car its “roots” is not an easy process, especially since consistency is a key ingredient to establishing the important flavor that give it “roots”.  Once individual, unique styling and performance characteristics are abandoned they are almost impossible to recapture in the short term, especially in the mind of the enthusiast.
There is a bigger reason that most Asian cars do not have unique personalities which define them.  It is because Asian cars are the very definition of a “globally marketed product” and global products are, from the start, designed to appeal to a world-wide mass market.  As a result any individuality is engineered out.  By trying to design for a global market every trait has to be compromised, it’s the cost of trying to appeal to the “average” customer. And as anyone in business can tell you, designing and building to “average” improves, leverages poor products up, but  conversely hurts and leverages great products down.  It certainly is no accident that it is often difficult to tell one Asian model from another.  If it’s not what the global masses want then it’s not designed in the car and if it is what the masses want then it will be engineered in - come hell or high water. 

What better example of trying to be all things to all people than redesigning the once popular RX7 sports car into a Mazda RX8 four door sports coupe!  It didn’t work and it didn’t sell.  The "global" RX8 was a dismal failure and now Mazda is looking to revive the heritage of the original RX7 two door sports car.  The RX9 will be the reincarnated version of the RX7.  Mazda hopes to be able to recapture many of the RX7 enthusiasts who "left the fold" when the four door concept was introduced.  Note in the new RX9 rendering how much more closely the new car resembles the original RX7 rather than the RX8 it replaces. Mazda, like Nissan, realizes the mistake they made and is trying to recapture its roots.


 Simply put, the Corvette, more than any other car, is all-American.  It’s designed and built in America to satisfy American tastes.  Critics in other countries traditionally have viewed the car as ostentatious, overweight and “overpowered” by big thirsty engines.  Regardless, the car was built for what American enthusiasts wanted.  Even Corvette’s marketing and advertising has reflected its American heritage alluding to and portraying national values, pastimes, and interests. 
When you got your first Corvette it was tantamount to marrying Miss America! And the first time you drove the Corvette was like the first time….never mind!

So let’s try and understand just what characteristics the new C7 is missing or has changed.  Though it is difficult to define the Corvette’s styling, though revolutionary, is no longer uniquely American and reflective of “Corvette”.  Until the C7 there was no question that each generation of Corvette was purely an American car, it was unmistakable.  Put any generation Corvette next to another sports car and you knew it was American, a Corvette.  But I believe the pressure to make the Corvette appeal to a “global market” has compromised the look of the car from a purely “American sports car” to just a “sports car”, albeit an impressive one.   Not globalizing or ruining the Corvette that Mazda did when they redesigned the RX7 into the RX8 but if you look there are signs.  The point is the car could have been designed and built anywhere.   If we hadn’t known a new generation Corvette was being developed, when we saw the car’s styling for the first time had we been told it was a “Toyota” or “Mazda” concept car we wouldn’t have questioned it except for the emblems and the V8 engine.  And if you look at the RX9 rendering in many ways it resembles a Corvette even more than the C7.  The forever sensuous body curves have given way to more angular lines.  There is even a “B” pillar and rear quarter window for God’s sake.  And there is more than a small similarity from the “B” pillar and quarter window to the 1970 Datsun 240Z. What is next a back seat, four doors maybe?   That is clearly why I like the convertible version of the car so much better, no top, no ”B” pillar and no black colored rear hip vents.  Unless the price is unrealistically high I predict the convertible will be the most popular C7 style.

 And I refuse to beat a dead horse and discuss the rear fascia.  All I will say is the problem goes beyond the tail lights.  The rear fascia resembles a Camaro’s with a bad body kit tacked on to it.   It was a serious mistake to dump the traditional round classic tail lights.  They were one of those styling cues which helped define the car.  Even the designers at Ferrari, who recently unveiled the new “La Ferrari” supercar, which costs about $1.3 million and is already completely sold out,  retained the traditional round Ferrari tail lights in an otherwise overdone rear fascia.   The designers at Ferrari knew that once important, unique styling and performance cues are abandoned part of the car’s individuality is lost.

 Beyond the “B” pillar, the rear fascia, and the “over-angular” styling there is a matter of the black trimmed “B” pillar post and the numerous vents and scoops all over the body.  At least all of the air intakes, vents and scoops are functional but there are too many and not making them body color interferes with the flow of the design.   The black contrast simply cheapens the car and makes one wonder if all the black stuff weren’t just J.C. Whitney add-ons.  Again, maybe one off the things that helped the convertible was the cyber gray color which camouflaged the black trim. There is a rumor that Chevrolet is considering offering them in body color as an extra cost option which would definitely help improve the look.  But come on GM we aren’t talking economy car here - make them body color at no cost.   I mean with all that black trim what’s next - a flat black hood or black plasti-dipped body panels ? 
The fact that the convertible C7 does not have the rear hip vents is a huge improvement that cleans-up and enhances the look and flow of the rear fenders.  If the convertible has found an alternative way to cool the transmission and limited slip differential, then why couldn’t the designers apply the same design enhancement to the coupe, especially if it improves the styling?

 So that is my take on the new “globally inspired” Corvette.  Understand, I haven’t given up on it.  As I said before, I want to love it but I’m not in love, not yet.  And then there is the traditional, proven, beautiful, performance-based 427  C6, which will only be available for consideration for a few more months.  You can see my dilemma and I am still slogging my way through the quagmire of pros and cons. Further complicating the issue, I have found a cyber gray C6 427 convertible for about the same price I anticipate the C7 base convertible selling for – a fully optioned 427 for the same price as the C7 - that is hard to pass up!   But at least one thing has come out of all this, one thing has been resolved, the decision is now between the C6 427 convertible and the C7 convertible.  I certainly won’t forego the C6 427 convertible for the new C7 coupe.  Ideally I would love to be able to actually see and sit in the new C7 in the next few weeks and have additional information on prices, options, performance specs and availability on the C7 vert.  That would go a long way to helping me make the decision.  Who knows maybe the marketing wizards at Chevrolet would do something really innovative, like inviting all current owners of the C5 and C6 Corvette to a special viewing where a potential buyer could actually be able to inspect one.  And rather than make it just a considerate PR move to help retain their long-time loyal customers, they might just want to have some blank production orders on hand so they can sell a few cars, even if it is to their traditional American customers.       



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