The American automakers this week looked down, scuffed their collective shoe on the floor and finally admitted that, um, the days of cheap gas really are in the past.
The only surprise here is the length of Detroit??™s fantastic journey through the land of denial. It included countless sunny proclamations that all would be well with a product mix that relies heavily on hefty profit margins from beefy pickups and sport utilities, and sub rosa attacks on the algorithms used to compute the value of hybrid technology.
It was Chrysler chief executive Thomas W. LaSorda who nailed the bill of particulars on the church door, letting it slip that internal marketing analysis puts the price of gas in the $3 to $4 range for the auto industry??™s foreseeable future??”the next decade.
Every bit as shocked as Claude Rains??™ Captain Renault, the New York Times checked in with Ford??™s marketing guru, George Pipas, who confirmed that the Big Oval also expects gas prices to remain ???high, volatile and unpredictable.???
It??™s impossible to state how big a deal this is. It takes three to five years to design, engineer and tool up factories to build a new product. Chrysler at the moment has 75 percent of its product mix in Jeeps, light trucks and minivans. It would be easier to flip a 180 with an oil tanker on State Line Avenue than to turn Chrysler??™s ship.
Sadly, the entire American fleet is stuck in the harbor on this one. Anchored to their big-iron strategy, the big three are watching sales??”and market share??”nosedive this year while Honda, Nissan and especially Toyota set new sales records with lighter, sophisticated cars.
While Detroit fiddles with even developing hybrid gas-electric cars, Honda and Toyota have had them on the American street for half a decade. Not only do they sell everyone they build, but every iteration is exponentially better than the one it preceded.
Case in point, the 2007 Toyota Camry Hybrid, which has to be the best $25,900 car in the history of the universe.
We recently drove one for a week, in which we put on nearly 500 miles, added not one drop of gasoline to the 17.1-gallon tank and thoroughly enjoyed every mile we drove.