[Cars] How I Feel About The Manufacturers

I’ve now been asked the same question three times, so I guess it’s time for an answer.

“What are your top five manufacturers, and what are your bottom five?”

And I figured that’d be an easy answer. But, it’s actually not. Partly because, there’s not an awful lot more than ten “every day” manufacturers. You obviously have to drop the ultra-luxury and exotic brands, because, well, obviously, right? If they don’t make a car under $100,000, they’re not really in the ballpark of the people who’re asking me. These are guys like Aston Martin, Lambourghini, Ferrari, Bentley, and the like. “Not for mere mortals”.

But then, I kept thinking, well, obviously, BMW makes great cars, so they’ll be in the top five. But will they? I mean, yeah, they make some fantastic, desirable, useful vehicles (Give me a 335ix wagon? I’m HAPPY), but the vast majority of people in North America still can’t afford ’em. I took a 335ix Coupe for a test drive a few years back, and the price tag on it was $58,750. I looked at an X3 as the “top end” of the compact SUV market, and the price starts at $44,000. That means, for me, when someone asks me who my “top” and “bottom” five manufacturers are, I can’t include these guys (Or Audi, or Mercedes, or Jaguar, or even Caddilac, for that matter), because no one who’s asking the question can realistically afford them. The premium cost offsets the brilliance of the design and quality.

So, I tend to answer the question in terms of “what are your top (and bottom) five MAINSTREAM manufacturers?” That’s a little bit of a more significant question. So, who exists in that group?

Chevrolet, Toyota, Scion, Buick, Ford, Kia, Hyundai, Dodge, Mazda, Nissan, Honda, Subaru, Mitsubishi, Acura. Those are the main ones. And, yes, I know some of those are sub-brands of others. But that’s actually ok. If a sub-brand is selling better, more realistic products, with a better community and service staff surrounding it, they shouldn’t get lumped in with the parent organization. there’s also the issue, really confusing things, that some companies do a particular style of vehicle really well, but fall down elsewhere. Should they as a brand be penalized for that? Well, if you’re in the market for the thing they don’t do well? totally. But not as much as others, maybe.

To the list!

The Bottom Five:

These are, in my mind, the bottom of the barrel. The guys who’ve paid little to no attention to what the customer bases want, that haven’t paid attention to the manner in which the industry is moving, and often, are too expensive for what you get. There’s a couple of tough calls here, for me, because I like SOME of their products, but as a whole, they’re just not competing with the top five.

1] Dodge/Chrysler. I’m sorry. I just … I can’t. Dodge has a couple of good products (fewer since “RAM Truck” became a brand) like the Dodge Caravan (still a class leader) and the full-size, RWD platforms (Charger and 300). But as a whole, they’re just making… crap. Uninspired styling, historically some of the worst transmissions in the industry, crappy fuel economy, and “trim levels” that ensure you have to spend an extra ten to fifteen thousand dollars to get a single feature that you want. It’s absolutely ridiculous. And I could let a lot of that go, if their prices were dramatically lower than they are, but their MSRP’s are squarely inline with their competitors. Their products, however, are not. They’re the worst, final example of platform marketing: rebadging the same products for ‘upscale’ brands and charging more money. I’d include Fiat and the ludicrously priced Fiat 500 in here too. Nothing appears to be changing at Dodge, except I think you might see more “FIAT” marquees over the dealerships in the next five years, than Dodge ones.

2] Mitsubishi. Despite a potentially great line-up, and the best warranty in Canada (10 years), they’re lackluster products with a near-premium MSRP. I test drove a 2010 Lancer and it was the noisiest, most clattering new engine I’ve ever been introduced to. The fit and finish was lackluster at best, the materials cheap. And if the price was competitive, I could have lived with it, but $25k for a compact runabout? Crazy. Beyond that, that 10-year warranty may not be worth a lot if they go out of business. Mitsubishi sold something like 1100 Galants last year (the mid-size sedan that is the life-blood of any car company). that’s less than Chevy sold Corvettes, I believe. I’m not sure that Mitsubishi will remain in North America much longer.

3] Toyota. I know. They’re well built, have a great reputation, and fantastic resale. The reality is though, they’re not built better than anything else on the market from the guys who’re paying attention, the resale is based on that belief that there’s something special about them, and, honestly, they’re expensive. What you can buy from Toyota for twenty-seven grand, you can buy from most of the competitors for twenty to twenty-two. on top of that, I find Toyota to build some of the least inspiring vehicles on the market. Nothing makes you excited for Toyota. They are the definition of beige engineering. There’s nothing wrong with them, but nothing makes you look out your window and go “yeah. lets go for a drive today” when you see your car.

4] Nissan. All CVT, all the time. Click the link if you don’t know what a Constantly Variable Transmission is. I just can’t stand that that’s the only option: I hate the way they feel, shift, and sound. Nissan has also started following Toyota down the road to beige. While they do have the GT-R ($110,000) and 370z ($50,000), they’re their only ‘fun’ vehicles. Once upon a time, there were real, affordable, performance variants of their sedans (Sentra SE-R, Altima SE-R, the Maxima, and others). Now, the -R models are basically a trim package where they exist at all. The only real performance being sold by Nissan come under the Infiniti banner, and are well out of the reach of most of us. And I know, performance isn’t what everyone is buying, but for the money you spend on a Nissan, you can get the equivelent elsewhere (especially in terms of full-size and mid-size sendans, SUV’s, and minivans) for thousands less. I used to be a huge fan of Nissan: I almost bought a 2002 Altima SE-R MT. These days, not so much. That said, I’ll buy a Nissan before I buy a Toyota, Dodge, Buick, or Mitsubishi.

5] Buick. For all that Buick is trying to shed it’s geriatric consumer base, they still make big, floating couches for old folks. And, they make ’em expensive, too. For all that expense, most of the lineup are rebadged Chevy’s or Opel’s.

The Top Five:

1] Kia. Given that they’re the little sister of Hyundai, and I love my own Hyundai (and my moms, and @mightdogking’s, and my brothers and… you get the idea), that Kia is on the list is not surprising. They share chassis and engine technology with Hyundai, and both of those have made dramatic strides in the last ten years. Kia, however, has a couple of advantages over Hyundai. They still sell a minivan, and they have their own microvan. In other words, where Hyundai has the “Genesis” lineup, Kia opts for more new-family oriented fare. As a whole, I like Kia’s styling a whole lot as well. The vehicles all come loaded as base models,

2] Hyundai. The company that gave us the Excel and Pony has come a long way. They’re industry-competative, and actively beat Honda in quality and fit’n’finish. When the 2012 Civic was release, the constant refrain from reviewers was “why buy this when you can buy an Elantra for less, with a better warranty?”. Hyundai has championed the hatchback in North America (Elantra Touring, Elantra GT) and has a vehicle that is competitive or class-leading in almost every class of vehicles now. Their warranty is excellent, and the only complaints about dealer and service seem to be at the dealership level, not corporate. THey’re no longer the bargain basement prices people think, but at the same time, they have the fit, finish, design, fuel economy, and yes, even desirability to make them serious contenders. My entire family now drives Hyundai. That’s pretty impressive, given the number of *ahem* enthusiasts in the family.

3] Ford. Ford has come a long, long way. Like Hyundai, GM, and Kia, Ford was one of the industry whipping boys, putting out lacklustre vehicles, and leaving their “good stuff” in Europe. That’s all changed in the last few years. The Fiesta (sub-compact), Focus (compact), Fusion (mid-size), Taurus (full-size), Escape (compact SUV), and Flex (SU-Van) are all brilliant, distinctive vehicles with excellent drivetrains. MySync has become an industry leading infotainment interface, and now that they’re looking at licensing it out, may become an industry standard. Ford’s hybrid systems are, while not as good as the numbers imply, still one of, if not the, best on the market. And, they’re leading the domestic charge to turbo/small displacement engines to improve fuel economy in ‘normal’ cars. On top of that, the Mustang is the single best bang-for-the-buck performance car on the market (yes, including my Genesis Coupe). They’re aggressively competitive in terms of warranty, and financing. I used to despise Ford (you would too, if you’d spent any time in an ’88 Tempo), but now, they’re definitely one of my go-to manufacturers.

4] Subaru. The only Japanese manufacturer on my top-five list. And, it’s because they still make interesting cars. I’ve lambasted them recently for dropping the Legacy wagon, and Legacy Outback, in favour of the purely-SUV 2012 Outback, but they’re still a fairly special, niche company. They’re the only manufacturer that’s almost exclusively AWD (and their own particular variant of AWD, which is definitely better than anything else out there), to their design of chassis and engine for the media-darling BRZ coupe (FR-S from Scion in another skin), to their wanton and ridiculous use of 260-300hp turbo four-cylinder engines in compact AWD chassis (the WRX, and WRX-STI) as well as the phenomenal workhorse of the Forester, they’re definitely injecting some actual LIFE into driving a car, unlike Toyota, or Honda. The only reason they don’t rate higher on the list is that they’re, as a result of that AWD hardware, a couple of grand more expensive than their competition.

5] Chevrolet. I never thought I’d put Chevy on a “top” list again. Back in the small-block-with-rear-wheel-drive in everything days I loved chevy. More recently, less so. But the last few years, since they came out of the aid package from various governments, they’ve gotten their shit together. The Cruze is a fantastic compact car, and thoroughly affordable. The Orlando hits compact SUV/microvan market hard, and looks like a solid contender. The Malibu and Impala are fantastic, well-polished examples of mid- and full-size sedans, respectively, and reasonably priced. They’re not all the way there yet: the Equinox compact SUV is excellent, but way too expensive compared to its competition. The Volt is a well designed, stylish, compact electric/range-extended hybrid. And the corvette, of course, is a truly world class supercar (for those who happen to have a hundred grand to throw around). I’ve not spent any time with the new sub-compact and electric, but if they stay true to what I have seen? Chevrolet may yet have a future.

Keep in mind, in all of this, i’m not an expert. I’m an automotive fanboy who loves all things cars, and thinks that cars should be made for people, not pocketbooks or beancounters. I still believe you can have a practical, reliable, fun to drive car, that you can afford. And I think a bunch of these guys are making exactly that.

What I’m saying is, your mileage may vary with this list.

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