2011 Fiat 500 launch event at the 2010 Los Angeles Auto Show, November 2010Enlarge Photo
Detroit pride is back.
Domestic brands are winning quality awards, and matching or beating import labels on consumer satisfaction indices.
If you watch television, you've likely seen the spinoffs of the widely discussed, utterly illogical feel-good Chrysler 200 ad featuring Eminem with the "Imported From Detroit" tagline.
Following bankruptcy and the government rescue of two out of three native automakers, Detroit feels resurgent.
But one market, far from Detroit's stronghold in the upper Midwest, may determine domestic carmakers' ultimate competitiveness.The future of America
Eminem in Chrysler's Super Bowl XLV adEnlarge Photo
It's a place sometimes viewed as confusing, un-American, full of foreign cultures, home of "fruits and nuts," and packed with politicians who impose illogical regulations requiring things like lower emissions and better vehicle safety.
In some ways, it's the future of the United States of America writ large, by far our most global state.
Detroit's cars: invisible in the Golden State
It's also where most automotive trends have arisen. And it's a crucial market for all automakers, but especially Detroit, whose cars have largely vanished from the roads in many of the affluent, trend-setting communities that count.
An article in today's Detroit News points out that at long last, GM, Ford, and Chrysler are starting to make headway in selling cars to Californians.
Los Angeles SmogEnlarge Photo
They've always sold trucks, of course; in 2006, two-thirds of all the Fords sold in the Golden State were F-Series pickup trucks and Explorer sport utilities--plus Mustangs. Today, that number is down to one-third.
But why is California important? Simply because its residents buy fewer trucks and more small cars.
California = the rest of the world
In other words, in the vehicles it buys, Californians behave more like the rest of the world--Europe, Asia, and China--than like other parts of the U.S.
(The metaphor can't be pushed too hard; in Beverley Hills, the BMW 3-Series is the de facto mass-market compact Toyota Corolla equivalent. That's probably true nowhere else in the world.)
2011 Chevrolet Cruze Eco Quick Drive and Live PhotosEnlarge Photo
So to compete in California requires the same skills as competing globally.
Ford and General Motors are furthest along, selling compact cars--like the 2011 Chevrolet Cruze and the 2012 Ford Focus--developed for worldwide sales.
The 2011 Cruze is a far better car than its crude, unlikable Cobalt predecessor. Don Johnson, General Motors' vice president for U.S. sales, says it's "far outselling" the Cobalt in California.
"We were irrelevant in California," Johnson told Detroit News reporter David Shepardson. "We're becoming more relevant."
2012 Ford Focus Five-DoorEnlarge Photo
Similarly, Ford expects its 2012 Focus to follow in the successful footsteps of its 2011 Fiesta subcompact, which sells well in California.
Ford executives have long said that the U.S. market will shift slowly to smaller cars, and they're planning their products accordingly.
The weakest of the Detroit Three in California is Chrysler, which right now has only the 2011 Fiat 500 minicar to offer.
Its Caliber subcompact is uncompetitive, and it will take a year or more for its replacement, a 40-mpg compact sedan, to reach dealerships.
Volt electrifies red carpets
Meanwhile, the Toyota Prius hybrid--darling of movie stars and studio executives alike (and widely lampooned by sources as diverse as Larry David and South Park)--may be replaced on the red carpet by plug-in vehicles like the 2011 Chevrolet Volt or the 2011 Nissan Leaf.
Dennis Haysbert with 2011 Chevy Volt at Global Green Pre-Oscar Party, Feb 2011Enlarge Photo
That means a domestic car (not truck) gets the imprimatur of Hollywood fashion. Which may be superficial, but it's free P.R. worth millions of marketing dollars.
Support U.S. workers: Cheer California
So for those who care about the future of domestic auto companies, we suggest: Cheer their success in California.
Because if they can appeal to the those oft-reviled "coastal elites"--the Californians who lead most automotive trends, the ones who don't have a clue where their local Chevy or Ford or Chrysler dealer is because they've never even thought about buying one--then they have a better chance of surviving, even thriving.