Auto Outlook: Datsun is back; Honda hybrid and bailout politics

Auto Outlook: Datsun is back; Honda hybrid and bailout politics
Carlos Ghosn, President of Nissan Motor Co., Ltd attends a press conference in Tokyo, Japan on October 19, 2009. Ghosen Tuesday announced Nissan would revive the venerable Datsun brand in 2014 for entry-level cars in emerging markets of Indonesia, India and Russia. UPI/Keizo Mori | License Photo

"Baby Boomer" car lovers can only smile when someone mentions the Datsun brand, which was phased out by Nissan, Japan's No. 2 automaker, in the 1980s.

Think three words: stylish, affordable and reliable.


The sporty, stick-shift 240Z coupe immediately comes to mind, before it morphed into the heavier 280Z editions with automatic transmissions that were not nearly as much fun to drive. For others it's the Datsun Sunny, an entry level four-cylinder subcompact spirited enough to attract youthful speed racers.

After 31 years, Nissan Motor Co. Chief Executive Officer Carlos Ghosen announced Datsun's return as an entry-level brand in 2014 in the fast-growing emerging markets of Indonesia, India and Russia. Unfortunately, Datsun won't be sold in the U.S. market.

My first new car was a 1971 Datsun 1200 (the designation coming from rounding up the 1,177-cubic centimeter engine's displacement) that I drove from Chicago to New Haven, Conn., when gas cost 36 cents a gallon. Some motorcycle engines have more displacement.

At $4.50 a gallon for regular unleaded at my local gas station, a roundtrip to the mall seems to cost as much as that college road trip.

The company says Datsun will be aimed at "up and coming" successful people who are optimistic about the future, but those aspiring customers are too young to have even heard of the brand.


"Datsun is part of our company's heritage and will now become part of our growth," Ghosen said in Jakarta. He said he hopes revitalized Datsun vehicles selling for $5,000 to $6,000 will boost the company's global market share to 8 percent from the current 5.8 percent in five years, The Wall Street Journal said.

My '71 Datsun cost less than $3,500 new with an AM-FM radio. A VW Beetle cost about the same.

"What we see is an opportunity in the emerging markets to grow at lower price points," said Simon Sproule, Nissan vice president for global marketing communications. "The relaunch of Datsun allows us to better explore those new marketplaces."

While details of the new Datsuns were not revealed, the Journal said the cars would not be re-badged versions of models sold in China by Nissan partners like Renault. Nissan will remain the company's bread-and-butter brand with Infiniti the automaker's luxury flagship.

If done right, Datsun, like Toyota's Scion, should bring more than nostalgia to the road.

Honda class-action settlement

Checks may soon be in the mail to about 460,000 people who bought or leased 2003 to 2009 model year Honda Civic Hybrids.

A San Diego federal judge this month gave final approval to a class-action settlement brought on behalf of car owners and lessees who said their hybrid vehicles were not as fuel-efficient as advertised and battery life never lived up to the hype.


Some claimed their Civic Hybrids averaged about 30 mpg instead of the 50 mph claimed by Honda in its literature. Others said a software upgrade intended to extend battery life actually made the car sluggish and reduced mileage.

"It just doesn't want to go sometimes, and you never know when," Kathy Wood, a substitute teacher in Sacramento told the San Diego Union-Tribune. "I'm livid. It's not a really reliable car. It should be. I paid a fortune for it."

Some fully-loaded Civic Hybrids cost nearly $30,000.

The settlement may reach more than $461.3 million, minus lawyer's fees, of course. That would entitle each member of the class to a $100 cash payment and a rebate certificate for $500 or $1,000, the Union-Tribune said.

Owners and lessees who had additional problems after the software upgrade may receive $100 more in cash and an additional $500 rebate. Altogether the settlement would amount to a small down payment on another vehicle.

About 1,700 Honda owners did not join the class-action lawsuit and many said they were satisfied with the performance of their hybrids.

Honda is appealing a $9,867 judgment to Heather Peters, the Los Angeles lawyer who took her case to small-claims court in January and won. Peters, who represents two other Honda owners, says the class-action settlement is unfair to other Honda Civic Hybrid owners.


Bailout politics

It's no secret the Obama administration is proud of its decision to invest $60 billion to bail out General Motors and Chrysler three years ago.

President Barack Obama has visited auto plants and union conventions around the country touting the dramatic comeback of GM and Chrysler -- which received $85 billion to restructure in planned bankruptcies and are now posting big profits.

Vice President Joe Biden saved the toughest criticism of the naysayers for a speech at a United Auto Workers hall in Toledo, Ohio, earlier this month, calling auto bailout opponents "dead wrong" and lambasted Republicans for turning their backs on U.S. workers.

Obama has said the bailout saved more than 1 million good-paying American jobs at auto companies and parts makers, many in rust-belt communities shaken by the economic downturn.

"(The president) made the tough call. And the verdict is in," said Biden. "President Obama was right and his critics dead wrong."

In 2008, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney wrote a guest editorial, "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt," in which he said the private sector should provide financing to a bankrupt GM and Chrysler. Not willing to let GM fail on his watch, former President George W. Bush gave the industry $25 billion in loans before he left office.


"Any honest expert will tell you in 2009 no one was lining up to lend General Motors or Chrysler any money -- or for that matter to lend money to anybody," said Biden, adding that included Bain Capital, Romney's venture capital firm.

In an indirect response, a Romney spokeswoman told The Detroit News: "President Obama has devastated the middle class by failing to live up to his promises of fixing unemployment, lowering gas prices, decreasing health care costs and addressing the unsustainable federal debt."

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and fellow conservative former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum also opposed the auto industry bailout, which Santorum has called a payoff to special interests.

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who declined to enter the GOP presidential primary race, has criticized the U.S. Energy Department recently for turning down loans to two start-up companies with automotive operations in Indiana.

Carbon Motors Corp., which wants to build fuel-efficient police cars, and Bright Automotive both failed to win loans from the government's five-year-old Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing program to spur automotive retooling.

"I think that after the obvious problems and scandals, the administration is incredibility gun-shy and (in) no mistakes mode," Daniels said in an interview with the Detroit News in Indianapolis.


In February, Bright Automotive, which had about 60 employees in Michigan and Indiana, said it was shutting down operations after being rejected for low-interest federal loans.

'Made in Detroit'

An agreement between Chrysler Group and Pure Detroit over the right use the slogan "Imported from Detroit" is headed to arbitration.

The Detroit News said both sides agreed to a Tuesday mediation session to attempt to settle a year-old lawsuit filed by Pure Detroit, a T-shirt company that contends Chrysler's iconic "Imported From Detroit" campaign, that began with a two-minute Super Bowl commercial featuring rapper Eminem, amounts to false advertising because Chrysler builds its cars in Canada and other places.

Pure Detroit says the Chrysler 200 is assembled in Sterling Heights, Mich., and the Chrysler 300 and Town & Country van are built in Canada.

Chrysler has donated money from Web site sales of clothing and other merchandise bearing the "Imported From Detroit" logo to area charities. Pure Detroit claims even those items are not made in Motown.

Car shows

Journalists and car buffs can plan to head to Detroit a week later for the 2013 North American International Auto Show.

Organizers of the influential car show have scheduled the press preview for Jan. 14-15 and the public show Jan. 19-26, a week later than this year's show.


"Each year our dates move up one day on the calendar, so every five or six years, we need to make an adjustment and push the show back one week, NAIAS Chairman Jim Seavitt said in a release. "We do have to keep some distance between the holidays and our opening and many people have expressed appreciation for that."

The media preview for the 2013 Chicago Auto Show, the nation's largest car show, is Feb. 6-7 and the public show runs for 10 days Feb. 8-17.

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