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Designing for bankruptcy

Filed in: games, Thu, Mar 2 2006 07:16 PT

Shock of shocks: no American car company has a vehicle listed in Consumer Reports’ 2006 Top Picks. My new Civic bounced the Ford Focus, which was the only American car on the 2005 list.

I did a lot of test driving and research before we picked the Civic. Even though I heard almost exclusively bad things about American cars, I still gave the Ford dealership a shot, driving the 2006 Focus and Five Hundred. Simply put, they sucked out loud: poor performance, cheap materials, and often goofy design choices throughout. The Focus was shockingly disappointing: I had a battery-powered go-kart when I was 6 that had nicer interior trim. Seriously. Better acceleration, too. By contrast, my Civic has a solid feel, good pickup for a 4-cylinder, and the layout of the controls is clean and usable.

The auto industry is a tricky business: it takes years for a product to get to market, due to safety testing and supply chain issues, so you need a crystal ball to determine some of the things you’ll need to please buyers. But when I see stories about 10,000 layoffs here and 30,000 layoffs there, I know that it isn’t solely an issue of high labor costs, as the automakers often claim (hell, Hondas are manufactured in the US, too). In fact, I’d say that most of it is that American manufacturers haven’t gotten the religion when it comes to simple, utilitarian design principles, and as a result they’ve been getting crushed by Japanese and European competitors for the last 20 years.

It’s not like they haven’t proven they could do it. My last new car was a 2000 Mercury Cougar, and I still miss it. The interior was well-constructed. The dashboard display had four dials and a mileage display. The air conditioning system had two knobs. The stereo had no more buttons than were necessary. I never fumbled for a control when I needed it, from the day I rolled it off the lot. What made the car great for me to drive was that it let me do what I wanted without any cognitive friction, and otherwise got out of the way. If they could make more mass-market cars that did that, and fewer of the monstrosities they have on the market today, then maybe, just maybe, American car companies won’t be blazing a trail to obsolescence.

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