Cycle of Death: Auto Manufacturers Bread and Butter.

Over time things change. Change is inevitable. Foresight is often derived from hindsight, calculated from observable results. Repetition is the proof of reality, the science of predictable results.

Peoples cars, world cars, small affordable, decent quality cars. Bread and butter. The cheap, decent quality vehicle is the basic nutritional feed for big car companies. Consistently repeating, each manufacturer trying to grow their momentum and market share seem to default to this easy equation: Build an affordable, alright quality, basic transportation vehicle. Like wild fire, like automotive convenience stores, these affordable offerings poor out of the factories right into customers hands with a mere brief stop at a dealership. Availability and reliability seem to have a major affect on who’s new beater cups the most bottoms on the roads.

These bread and butter cars help companies grow strong. The Volkswagen Beetle, heck even their Rabbit/Golf. Toyota’s Publica/Corolla line. Chevrolet’s Nova and Malibu, Fords Mustang, Hyundai’s Accent. Each major company has it’s affordable offerings. These are great cars for their purpose; mobilizing the public without great expense on their wallet initially at purchase as well as during operation. It’s this formula of bread and butter that grows a companies roots, planting them firm in peoples awareness and loyalty to the brand. Trust.

The formula is extremely simple. Cheap price, small size, low weight, minimal fuel consumption. Luxury isn’t much a consideration, rather the best experience for the lowest price. It’s easy to see which cars, looking back, offered this by measuring brand size and loyalty currently. It’s often easy to track it further, not just by model name, but specific generations of these vehicles timelines. Go ahead, pick a major brand, see if you can guess their bread and butter car.

Customers tend to remain loyal for life or at least a great period of it. Many people return to the brand they enjoyed if not the same model moniker. However, there’s an observable and problematic pattern many manufacturers fall into. As the customers seem to grow, so do their beloved breed of vehicle.

It seems as each generation of a bread and butter car gains interest, the bigger, heavier, more luxurious, less reliable and less affordable they become. What once was a small, bottom of the barrel, ultra-economy-car slowly becomes a bloated pseudo luxury blob. The once small niche market aim of the vehicle is ruined, like a magazine, as it becomes more ‘general interest’. The magic, the beauty, and the unique identifiers of these lowly offerings, wash away to become basically a characterless appliance of an automobile. The personality and relatability of model is washed out, less vibrant than before.

It’s a cycle, it happens to all bread and butter cars. What once was a ‘You get what you get’ offering becomes a ‘we’ll build whatever you ask for’. Money doesn’t breed a good automobile, need does. It’s this loss of utility, this loss of pure function masked as fashion that heart and real comfort disappears. Another car couch amongst other motorized comfort chairs. It’s these ‘have to deal with’ little problems that drives users to learn and bond with their cars, build trust and brand loyalty. All lost with the generalization of the next generation.

Automotive companies seem to die, lose momentum when another offering doesn’t slip into this place. You need something to follow this formula. It’s great to offer some super high quality cars, but a majority of the population just needs a cheap car to get around town in. A good user experience matched with a low price, and minimal impact on the world is the best combination of health for a company.

A few years ago many of the major American manufacturers crashed, most not offering a reliable cheap car. They may have offered cheap cars, but these brands did not retain an image of reliability. Toyota and Honda are the big names currently, but soon they too will begin to lose momentum, as they too continue to swell their cars, shying away from cheap bread and butter cars. They both have a few vehicles which try to offer this idea, but don’t quite make it. Hyundai’s momentum continues to improve, and it’s simply from their affordable and okay reliable vehicles. If China manages to break the market here in North America with something reliable, it too should catch wild fire.

I came across a graphic on Micks Garage demonstrating exactly my point, as well as highlighting a change we’ll be seeing in new cars to come.

The weight is interesting to note. Here’s a vehicle, the Volkswagen Rabbit/Golf who’s origins were the epitome of bread and butter cars. It’s intention was to replace another peoples car, the Volkswagen beetle. This golf began life as a plain people transporter. Small size, affordable, decently reliable, and that’s about it. It was easily available nearly world wide, well supplied. As we follow the chart, ignoring the mis-information about their Turbo Diesel (which was introduced in the first generation Rabbit), you’ll notice the weight increases with each generation. Also increasing is the dimensions of the vehicle as well. The original formula, which was of great success, starting to water down and generalize.

What’s interesting to note, is that the number of units sold, decreases as well. This is important to observe! As the car becomes more ‘general interest’, as it’s luxury, price and mass increase, the desirability and ultimately sales decrease. The reality is, that no matter what consumers say in focus groups and design discussions, their true voice lay in the way they vote with their money.

A separate observation can be made of the above chart. An interesting one to note. Fuel economy has become so crucial, that manufacturers are starting to break their cycle, reducing weight. The science of fuel economy is simply that, low weight = better economy. Reducing friction, weight and drag are utmost important. The opportunity for a bread and butter car is never better than now. Mazda’s 2, is the only current offering that tips on tongue.

The same can be said about the beloved Corolla. Equally true is the Nissan Sentra, Mazda 3 Series, and so on. Slowly, further and further the focus moves away from an ultra basic, dependable people transporter, the less momentum and sales a company receives. The cycle of a manufacturers death.

Dear manufacturers,

If you are getting hungry, low on nutrition, start with your bread and butter.


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