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Detroit cars, California consumers don't mix
BY SARAH A. WEBSTER
FREE PRESS BUSINESS WRITER

Long before the Detroit Pistons put Los Angeles fans on the edge of their seats -- giving Tinseltown's bling-bling set an unexpected run for its money -- Californians have been down on the Motor City's working-class cars and trucks.

It's an unfortunate falling out. Detroit seems like an obvious yang to California's yin. After all, the roots of the Car State's carefree, top-down, cruise-the-highway culture are all-American.

But for about 40 years now, Californians have been turning up their noses at Detroit vehicles, writing regulations that give auto executives headaches and buying enough imports to boil UAW members' blood.

Though Detroit's automakers captured 63 percent of the light-vehicle market nationwide last year, they had only 50 percent of that market in California, where Toyota is the most popular brand, according to data from R.L. Polk & Co. of Southfield.

Cars and trucks made by GM, Ford and DaimlerChrysler are even less popular if you exclude sales to rental companies, which don't bring as much revenue or prestige to car companies as showroom sales.

This meager performance is despite a strong rebound for some Detroit brands in California, especially GM's Cadillac, where the Escalade has taken on a king-of-the-hill status among actors, rap stars and tall athletes -- Shaq in particular.

For Detroit, it's a painful disconnect.

One out of every 10 vehicles sold in the United States is sold in California. So if Detroit's automakers are going to boost their share of the market for the long term, automotive experts say they're going to have to patch their public relations wounds on the West Coast, build up their brand images and prove that their vehicles are worth the money.

"It's at the top in terms of states, and where you have to win, just like a presidential election," said Paul Ballew, GM's executive director of global market and industry analysis.

"This is Toyota country," acknowledged Leo Bunnin, a GM dealer in California. Bunnin dumped his import Nissan, Infiniti, Kia and Volkswagen showrooms a few years ago to start peddling Cadillac, GMC, Saturn, Buick and Pontiac vehicles, which he thinks are making a comeback.

"We're giving them a showdown now," he said.
What went wrong

Image-conscious Californians don't reject Detroit vehicles simply because they love driving around in higher-end brands like Mercedes-Benz and BMW -- although that's definitely part of the story.

"Image is so important in California -- you have no idea," Bunnin said.

The highway-happy, carefree California actually used to love Detroit, and Motown loved it back.

But the Japanese crashed that love affair in the 1960s, showing California drivers, who typically spend hours on the congested highways every day, that their cars and trucks could be affordable, efficient and reliable.

Now it's hard to pry Californians out of those reliable Toyotas and Hondas.

"Toyotas and Hondas have done a better job for them than Fords and Chevys have," explained Jim Hossack, a senior consultant for AutoPacific Inc., which is headquartered in the Los Angeles area.

California's tough push for fuel and environmental regulations -- far more fierce than federal efforts -- hasn't helped Detroit's cause either.

Whether deserved or not, Japanese automakers, who are accustomed to tight emissions rules in their own country and have had hybrid vehicles on the market for years now, have more successfully buffered their environmental image. Having Hollywood stars like Harrison Ford and Cameron Diaz arrive at the Academy Awards last year in Toyota Prius hybrids probably didn't hurt.

Detroit has dutifully tried to regain credibility and restore the love affair with Californians.

Over the years, automakers have put design studios on the West Coast, trying to tap into the trend-setting California culture. They have papered California with news releases about their environmentally friendly accomplishments and goals. GM and Chrysler even dropped their lawsuit challenging California's zero-emission vehicle mandate, which required that they build millions of vehicles that emit practically nothing but clean air.

But if Detroit truly wants to win back the hearts and minds of Californians, the answer may lie less in fuel economy, emissions politics and image than in long-term quality, reliability and durability.

Although GM, DaimlerChrysler and Ford are still below the industry average in J.D. Powers and Associates' initial quality study, which evaluates customer satisfaction after 90 days of ownership, Detroit's automakers have made some important gains in long-term performance. As a group, they have passed European automakers in vehicle dependability..

Despite this shift, domestic automakers' image remains stuck in the pre-1980s for many drivers.

"There's an image challenge for us nationwide," Ballew said, "and it's a little greater in California."



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