Downsizing vehicles, American style

NORTH AMERICAN TRUCK OF THE YEAR: Big truck, but smaller Pentastar V6 shows the way for the future.
NORTH AMERICAN TRUCK OF THE YEAR: Big truck, but smaller Pentastar V6 shows the way for the future.

With the Cadillac ATS and Dodge Ram 1500 winning their respective North American Car of the Year and Truck of the Year titles at the Detroit Auto Show last week, it's worth noting how the more things change the more things stay the same.

After years in which Japanese and non-US branded cars have taken the two titles, having two such iconic all-American marques at the top of the voting tree pleased the American public and local journalists alike.

The new rear or all-wheel-drive Caddy is a 3-series BMW-sized car, mainly supplied with four-cylinder engines but with six-cylinder options. It has been getting rave reviews for its performance and chassis dynamics, as well as many plaudits for its interior execution and quality.

CADILLAC ATS: North American Car of the Year.
CADILLAC ATS: North American Car of the Year.

This is a far cry from the great marque's previous four-cylinder offering, the Cimmaron, which did the brand no favours at all and sold in very small numbers in the 80s. From what I hear from colleagues in the US and Canada, it's probably the best four-cylinder car designed in the US in recent years.

The Dodge Ram is a traditional US truck: huge, bluff-fronted, offering huge load capacity and the usual no-compromise look that's also offered by GM's and Ford's big work trucks. Actually we should drop the "Dodge" bit now, as Fiat/Chrysler chief Sergio Marchionne wants the Ram brand to be out on its own, as the Dodge moniker is to be applied to non-truck products from now on.

The good thing about the Ram 1500 as it's known, is that its marketers don't really crow about grunty hemi engines any more, with the literal star of the truck's powertrain being the relatively small 3.6-litre Pentastar V6 - less than half the size of some previous power units used by earlier Ram models.

In New Zealand, the unit is available in everything from the Jeep Wrangler, and Grand Cherokee 4x4s, to the Dodge Journey people mover and Chrysler's recently refreshed 300C sedan.

It has transformed them all, and while an engine this size doesn't really represent down-sizing on this side of the Pacific, in truckland middle-America, it's a hugely popular move, and a good response to GM's fitment of hybrid power to some of its trucks and Ford's use of its EcoBoost units in the F-150.

Big Aussie cars on borrowed time

In their time they've become the best value rear-driven large cars in the world. The Ford Falcon and Holden Commodore have over the past 35 years leapfrogged each other for better equipment, safety, performance and sales, with most favourite car tables in Australia and occasionally in New Zealand at one time going to one of the models; big tough cars built for a big tough country.

It's all changing now, as fewer and fewer people want them. In New Zealand and Australia, the favourite cars are respectively the midsized Toyota Corolla and Mazda3 models, with the Commodore being outsold here by Holden's own Captiva, while over the Tasman the big GM six is beaten by the Holden Cruze - a car similar in size to the Mazda and Toyota and which is at least built in Adelaide.

A big rethink is obviously needed if there's to be any kind of car industry in Australia. It simply doesn't make sense to carry on building big sixes and eights when most of the driving population is migrating to SUVs and hatchbacks. The Commodore sells about 15,000 units in Australia now, which is less than a third of the sales it enjoyed as recently as the 90s.

At the Detroit Auto Show which ends tomorrow, journalists heard in a collective interview roughly what Holden is up to with the CEO of GM's Australian arm, Mike Devereux, saying that the next model, or VF Commodore is guaranteed a production run only until late 2016.

He did add however: "We have a current plan to put a second [vehicle type] into the plant before 2017." The popular belief is that the second vehicle type will be the next-generation Captiva III, which in current Korean-built Series II form has proven a huge success, especially in New Zealand.

With 27 per cent of the Australian market consisting of SUVs, headed only by small cars, the Commodore's future does not look good, and this is despite Holden doing much work on low consumption Ecotec and LPG-fuelled versions. In fact, Holden's V6 engine plant which at one time supplied to Cadillac, Alfa Romeo, Buick, Saab, Opel and Vauxhall as well as itself, is looking at the future of 320 of its workers as the world downsizes its engines and cuts its cylinder numbers.

Ford has been quite plain about its Falcon's future and for years has said that its large car will be phased out at the same time the Commodore is, in less than four years. The introduction of the excellent and superfrugal EcoBoost four-cylinder Falcon hasn't been enough to stem the decay in the car's sales, while even sales of the Territory, once the biggest-selling SUV in Australia are ebbing, despite that segment's growth.

It's possible that post-2016, the Falcon and Territory will exist as rebadged US-sourced Taurus and Explorer models, both of which have been reborn in recent years as far more attractive and efficient cars. Smaller Fords are likely to come from plants in Thailand, Europe and possibly South Africa as the decision was made some years ago to let Thailand have Focus III production, when at one time it looked like Geelong would be building it for Australian and export consumption.

Meanwhile Toyota, Australia's biggest carmaker and exporter has also voiced its concerns about the future. It has been said that the Altona plant in Melbourne could be set up anywhere in the Pacific basin should Toyota decide to move it. It, along with GM and Ford, has long voiced concerns about decreased margins as Australian tariffs become smaller.

There are a few good points in this hard time for the Australian carmakers. Toyota Australia has started exporting its new locally built four-cylinder engines to Thailand and Malaysia for the first time, while US and Canadian lawmakers do like what they're getting in the form of law enforcement versions of the Holden Commodore and Statesman models, and they'll be waiting with bated breath when it comes to the prospects of the Chevrolet SS, which is a Holden Commodore built to American tastes.

The Press