I stopped counting the marketing presentations I’ve attended that included a slide with the alleged Henry Ford quote regarding the folly of soliciting customer opinion: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
Those words (which likely didn't come from Henry), are perpetually employed as justification for “risk”. And, ironically, they are often used to support a product or strategy that represents almost no actual risk.
So, quick—what’s the most recent production vehicle you can name that was a risk? We’ll solicit online and email responses to see if there’s any consensus, but I’m going to take my own shot here and say there hasn’t been one since the Great Recession began—with the possible exception of the aluminum-bodied Ford F-Series.
Before the recession, the auto industry already was evolving into an intensely risk-averse mindset. But the recession’s jolt may have wiped away whatever possibilities remain for a single person or gut-feel group within an OEM to win approval of a seat-of-the-pants product proposal.
Risk-aversion thoughts red-lined to this page when we got a look at some of the spectacular concepts Fiat Chrysler Automobile’s Jeep brand trotted out for its annual Easter Jeep Safari in Moab, UT. Most who attended the media reveal of Jeep’s seven concept vehicles believed Jeep truly outdid itself for the Easter Safari’s 50th anniversary. The vehicle that impressed most and seemed so ripe for production was the Comanche concept, a small pickup based on FCA’s global unibody structure used for the successful Jeep Renegade.
Sticking with the concept’s soft top would be a low-volume death sentence, of course. But with a hardtop and a few other concessions to production necessities, the single-cab Comanche appears to be the genuinely “compact” truck many industry watchers, including me, believe is the missing link that closes the loop on the American consumers’ current lust for all things pickup. The Comanche could sell, and in real volume.
Then the Henry Ford moment: While Jeep brand boss Mike Manley gave the boilerplate "we'll see" reply about production potential, some Jeep sources were conceding, in effect, “Management would never let us make it without four doors.” That's code for "more expensive and less risky."
Four-door pickups are the family car of this generation. They have driven the Detroit 3's titanic post-recession profitability, and I understand why nobody wants to mess with that. But why put the brakes on expanding and exploiting the pickup segment in the same fashion as, say, crossover vehicles? Honda HR-Vs generate less margin and make less profit than Pilots, but that hasn't stopped Honda, or other automakers, from expanding downward to take advantage of the public’s infatuation with crossovers.
For those who argue there is absolutely no potential profit in a small pickup, ask General Motors about moving down: GM has a sales hit with its new midsize pickups all the experts said wouldn’t be good business. GM salespeople tell me the Chevy Colorado and GMC Canyon sell themselves to customers who plainly say the footprint of full-size pickups has become too gargantuan, and their sticker prices too inflated.
At a time when the expanding roster of B-segment “urban” crossovers (actually suitable for only two occupants) are the hot ticket, a small urban pickup with two doors effectively addresses the same “need"—and the white-hot Jeep badge and its "street cred" should seal the deal.
Or forget the marketing arguments. What happened to the product flexibility, investment efficiency and speed-to-market global platforms are supposed to impart? It's time for FCA to make good on that big talk, take some risk, and green-light a product that extends the reach of pickups into the lower segments.
Rather than ponder Henry Ford’s mythical advice about consumer opinion, I’d look at the Comanche in light of a more-pertinent and genuine Henry quote: “The competitor to be feared is one who never bothers about you at all—but goes on making his own business better all the time.”
Bill Visnic, Editorial Director