I am confused. Not that this is an unusual situation. Contemplating the relationship of string theory to quantum mechanics, or the implications of the revised Federal tax code or the ambiguous statements made by a women's stiletto heels often leaves me scratching my head in confusion. But typically, when it comes to cars, I can figure things out pretty well on my own. What has gotten me flummoxed, however, is something that is near and dear to your heart and mine: What exactly is a European car?
Before such things as "Global Economies" and "World Cars," it used to be pretty simple. American cars were big and comfortable and came from the USA. Japanese cars were small and tinny and boring but cheap and came from Japan. European cars were cars that came from Europe. They were small and charismatic, handled well and were made from high-quality materials. These were stereotypes, of course, but like many stereotypes they were ones whose origins were rooted in truth.
There were exceptions. Rolls-Royce built cars in the U.S. between the wars, Henry Ford built his Model T in England and Volvo began assembling sedans in Nova Scotia in 1963. For a time, Buick dealers sold German Opels, but nobody at Buick was wearing lederhosen and drinking weiss beer. Even when Volkswagen began building Rabbits in Pennsylvania and Beetles in Mexico, we were all willing to look beyond where the cars were built and consider them, in spirit, as cars that came from Europe. After all, European cars had a certain cachet, a sense of being beyond the ordinary, and by extension so were the people who owned and drove them.
I blame the Germans. First, they decided that they needed to compete with Lexus, which was proving better at building European cars than the Europeans. Next, they sent their engineers back to the labs and production lines and put the marketing guys in charge of product planning. As a result, German car design has become driven by a me-too mentality, which has given us sport-utes from BMW, Mercedes-Benz and even Porsche. The German companies then went on a buying spree, purchasing other car companies, big and small, to build their empires.
Not to be left out, Ford Motor Company, and to a lesser extent General Motors, followed along, buying up some of our most cherished European car companies. As economic and market pressures came to bear, things began to change. The lines began to blur. Exactly what is a European car?
Ford FocusThe Ford Focus is a fine small car in the best of Ford of Europe traditions. It has become a popular seller worldwide, is the basis for Ford's World Rally Championship program, and has developed a very strong following among the sport compact tuner crowd. The Focus is manufactured in Ford plants in Germany, Spain, Mexico, Argentina, Russia and Wayne, Mich., USA.
The Saarlouis plant in Germany produces about 370,000 Focus cars per year, 71% of which are exported to 80 countries. The Wayne plant builds about 180,000 Focus models per year, and an additional 50,000 per year come from the plant in Mexico. Soon, production in Mexico will be transferred to the Michigan plant, where all U.S.-bound Focus models will be built. Most of us think of the Focus as being as American as apple pie. But the numbers don't lie. Just based upon its German production (let alone Spain and Russia, which is technically part of Europe), maybe we have it wrong. Is the Ford Focus a European car?
Saab 9-2XThere is a market emerging for premium compact cars-Acura RSX, Audi A3, Mercedes-Benz A-Class and Volvo S40- but Saab's smallest car, the 9-3, is too big to play in this group. General Motors' corporate cousin Subaru, however, has the all-wheel-drive WRX, which is selling well and building popularity for the Japanese brand. Enter the Saab 9-2X, a Subaru WRX hatchback with a new nose, tail and interior. Mechanically it is nearly identical to the Subaru, with only slight changes in suspension tuning. Functionally, it is a very good car and, ironically, given Saab's long history of providing superb cars for inclement weather, it is the first Saab with all-wheel drive. The 9-2X comes from Japan, but to us Saabs have always been European cars. Is the Saab 9-2X a European car?
Mercedes-Benz M-ClassIt is built in a Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance, Ala., but its engine and driveline come as a package from Germany. Most of the plant's other suppliers are U.S. based, and it is a vehicle that was primarily designed for the U.S. market. The M-Class sport utility vehicle is a Mercedes-Benz but one with a strongly American flavor. Is it a European car?
Volvo S40The new Volvo S40 is a terrific looking car, a continuation of the departure from Volvo's traditional boxy style toward a world look that is both tasteful and dynamic. The new S40 was designed in Sweden but shares its platform with the second-generation Ford Focus (not yet in the U.S.) and the Mazda3. A Volvo with a Japanese chassis? Is this a European car?
BMW X3, X5, Z4BMW has been building sport utility vehicles and sports cars at its South Carolina plant for several years. The cars are built by U.S. workers on U.S. soil, with most of the parts coming from U.S.-based suppliers. It would be hard to argue that these BMWs, however, aren't anything but a European car in the finest tradition.
Maybe It's Something ElseThese are just a few examples of the reasons why I am so confused about European cars. Is the Chrysler Crossfire, a restyled version of the Mercedes-Benz SLK, really an American car? Is the Jaguar X-Type nothing more than a Ford Mondeo (which is at least a European Ford), and would a Lincoln based upon the same chassis then also be a European car? See what I mean about the lines becoming blurry?
Then it hit me. Maybe being tarred with the European car brush is more than simply a matter of where cars are designed or built. Maybe it comes back to that original definition from years ago, the one that said European cars are special. Something about the way they drive and ride, the way they hold the road, the way they meet expectations beyond simple transportation makes them into something more. Or at least something different than American or Japanese cars.
Saab put its name on the WRX, and the Swedish engineers felt the need to upgrade the interior and revise the suspension. Did this make it, at least in spirit, a European car? Probably not. But did it help the otherwise excellent WRX meet the expectations of a whole group of new-to-Saab buyers? Probably. I would be proud to welcome the Ford Focus into the fold as a European car, regardless of where it happens to be manufactured. To me, its ride and handling dynamics and driving involvement meet the criteria that are also met by the best of the European marques. It is a European car, even if we in the U.S. think of it as something that comes from the local Ford dealer. And that is the crux of it. European cars are like art and pornography: I don't know what they are, but I know them when I drive them.
The Way of the WorldRegardless of what I think, or the editors of our magazine think or even what you as car enthusiasts think, car companies will continue to globalize their industry. They have to, as it is the only way they can make the kinds of profits shareholders expect. Fluctuations in world currencies, market trends and the need to be faster to market with better products will continue to drive it and, in reality, few really care where the cars come from as long as they meet their needs. But we care. We publish a magazine called european car, and we will continue to celebrate European cars that delight us by exceeding our expectations in the same way that they always have, no matter where in the world they may come from.