By Alisdair Suttie 18 April 2012
Wednesday 18 April 2012. Fleet Voice Column.
Why have so many North American cars floundered, flopped and failed in the UK? It can’t just be the left-hand drive thing as many USA-made motors now come with the steering wheel on the right and proper side.
Is it just down to some of the more challenging styling that we’ve seen over the years that has left us with a knee-jerk dislike of all things Stars and Stripes? Let’s face it, any country that can produce the Hummer H3 should have gone to Specsavers.
Or is it we just don’t get American cars, their cheaper plastics and throwaway obsolescence that sees many USA models updated with minor revisions for every new year? We’re not going to keep traipsing back to the dealer every 12 months to replace our perfectly good car with a new one just because our colonial cousins have been duped into overly-rampant consumerism (well, most of us in dear old Blighty won’t).
I ask the question after spending a week with a Chrysler Delta [left]. This is a curious beast as it’s an Italian car designed and built with a Lancia badge, but for some reason it’s been deemed better for UK consumption if it has a Chrysler logo on the bonnet.
This leads to many other questions, which we won’t get bogged down in here, other than to ask two things: is Lancia still a step too far for British buyers and does Fiat/Chrysler think we’d prefer a Yanked-up Lancia instead?
Clearly, the investment to re-establish Lancia in the UK as a viable luxury-cum-sporting brand in the UK is prohibitive. It’s especially so when Fiat already has Alfa Romeo doing the same job with its own unique products such as the very pretty Mito and Giulietta.
So, the reason must be Fiat and Chrysler already have a network of Chrysler dealers and it saves cash to punt the Delta through them instead. There’s also the Ypsilon small car, so this thinking makes even more sense, and you can also knock out a few Grand Voyagers too.
It still makes me wonder why Chrysler has won out over Lancia? This is more of a corporate ponderance as I think the Delta is an ungainly car whichever badge is on its snout. At least with Lancia, there’s a European heritage that can be identified with and, let’s face it, Lancia has bashed out a few less than handsome cars in its time and still got away with it.
Broadening the debate back out from Lancia and Chrysler, American cars still suffer from a poor perceived reputation in the UK. Head to the Continent and you see far more USA-produced models, though they tend to be some of the quirkier machines.
Is the average European’s taste so far removed from that of an American? Well, there’s the obvious penchant in the USA for pick-up trucks, with the Ford F150 ranking as the world’s best-selling vehicle. If you’ve ever been unfortunate enough to drive one of these redneck specials, you’ll appreciate the comfort, quiet and safety of even the most basic Euro hatch.
However, Americans still cannot get enough of the F150 and its ilk. Don’t believe me? Well, SUV sales have been climbing in the USA for the past 18 months. This is reckoned by economists to be partly due to the American public regaining their feel-good factor after a period of recession, and what better way to celebrate than buying a big ol’ 4x4?
It’s also thought to be due in some measure to Americans simply wanting their large SUVs back instead of feeling pressured into something more politically correct. Then there’s the cost of fuel in the USA, which might be expensive by their standards but is still half the price of fuel in the UK.
This accounts for some of the UK’s resistance to cars born in the USA. First thing they do when they hit the ground is head for a petrol pump and have a good, long guzzle. Go for a drive and you’ll be repeating this process many times in a lot of American metal.
There are those Yankee diesel dandies, however, that avoid all of this. Funnily enough, it’s the cars that celebrate their American roots more than any others that pull off the best sales in the UK.
The Chrysler 300C [left] completely bucked the trend thanks to its gangster looks and appeal. Its big chrome grille gave it just the right amount of sassy attitude that we couldn’t get enough of it, helped by it using a decent chassis and engine from a Mercedes E-Class.
Then there’s Jeep, another company that’s now included in the Fiat fold. You just don’t get more US of A than a Jeep and it’s a company that has never, and never will, abandon its heritage.
Jeep even comes up with new concept vehicles to tickle the fancy of the faithful for every year’s Moab Jeep extravaganza every Easter.
Take a look at any of these concepts and you’ll see they are usually bigger, louder, prouder versions of what Jeep already builds. And they’re all the better for it.
If Jeep and the Chrysler 300C can do it, why has Cadillac failed to generate sales in the UK? What has undermined the Corvette to all but a handful of the converted? And Tesla is not exactly lighting up the sales charts with its electric sports car, so why not?
Simply put, there are just too many other better cars on sale already from more established car makers based here in Europe or the UK. Britain is sports car central, so Tesla was always going to get a bloody nose when shoving its snout into our backyard. There’s also the small point that Tesla based its car on the Lotus Elise that costs around a third of the American’s price and has the distinct advantage of not needing to be recharged or cart around heavy batteries.
As for Cadillac, its larger cars have been challenging in the looks department in the same way we’d describe Gerard Depardieu as a character actor. The more harmonious small Caddies have had the misfortune to be based on ageing Saab platforms and come up against the likes of the Audi A4, BMW 3 Series and Mercedes C-Class. This was a battle the CTS was never going to win. As for the Escalade and other premium-badged US SUVs, why buy one of these when there’s a perfectly good Range Rover dealer down the road?
All of the above is by no means the complete answer to why we in the UK have shunned most American efforts to tempt us into their cars. What I can categorically state is the Chrysler Delta is a reasonable car but one that will not upset the established class leaders, no matter where it’s made or what badge is on its prow.
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