That's because I live in New York City, the Black Hole of Calcutta for automakers. Driving in New York doesn't leave you feeling relaxed; it leaves you feeling like you've returned from a bombing raid. Like most New Yorkers (I'll borrow an old license-plate slogan from the Sunshine State) I'm just happy to arrive alive. I usually get out of the car feeling like I've aged 20 years, added 20 pounds and abused another lumbar disk.
Also, since I live in New York, the appropriate emotion for driving is rage. I get enraged at other drivers. I hate them. I become a savage. I'm the type who, if I've been waiting patiently in the off-ramp lane to, say, the Brooklyn Bridge -- which can be a harrowing mile-long queue -- I'll risk ramming the guy in front of me to keep someone from squeezing in. Ambulance? Wait your turn. Give the guy a sedative.
So it is that with a car, meaning a press car these days, I don't care how nice the hand-stitching looks, how good the fit and finish is, how bitchin' the sound system is, how smoothly the engine torques, how well the designers understand psychology and ergonomics.
What I tend to remember most with a new vehicle -- because I'm usually enraged -- are the screw-ups: the poor navigation system, the weird pause while accelerating, the befuddling arrangement of controls on the dash, or complicated dials that make me think, "maybe I'm too stupid for this vehicle." If the vehicle is a luxury make, such experiences are deadly. It doesn't matter how nicely the important things may have been executed, if there is one problem -- a chintzy panel, a design flaw, even a minor one -- the mind tends to run it to the top of list. It's the pebble in the shoe.
I have driven a lot of vehicles, and almost all of them have had a pebble in the shoe. The relatively few cars or trucks that just seemed not only to get everything right, but to have anticipated what the driver might not have even considered an issue have usually been imports. Until recently, experience in this department had made me biased toward Toyota, Honda, Nissan, the Korean brothers, and European lux marques. They had always been the guys who came up with the cool "Wow, who would have thought of it?" solution.
The last few domestic cars I've driven, however, are changing my thinking. Cars like the Ford Flex, Fusion, Camaro, Lacrosse and the Lincoln MKZ suggest that the domestics have finally begun to get ahead of consumers in the car department.
Lincoln's MKZ is perhaps the biggest surprise because it comes from a brand I had kind of relegated to an automotive nursing home. The Ford luxury brand had become an oxymoron to me, and a dim shadow even of Cadillac and Buick -- especially in cars. Ford's luxury flagship? The Town Car. "Just drop me off here, sir."
I had actually borrowed the MKZ specifically to test the Sync platform, Ford's Microsoft-driven telematics program. But to my great surprise, I was so blown away by the rest of the vehicle that I didn't even get around to Sync. I still don't know how it works.
But forget about me; the most telling comments were from others. Particularly my dad -- even more of a curmudgeon than I am when it comes to cars. His taste for cars is like my taste for food: four wheels, used and Japanese. The last time he drove a domestic was in 1965, when we (accidentally) drove our Falcon into Lake Ella. But even he -- who thinks Ford is a division of Dodge -- was enamored of the vehicle. "I like this car," he said. From my father, that's a ringing endorsement.
I agree with Paula. The medium 3 have some of the worst adds on the planet. Ditto their websites. A notable exception was the web-only Dodge Ram Challenge reality show. As good as some of their cars are now, I suspect the next generation will be even better. The question is, will their ads remain lame? Companies tend to get the advertising they deserve.
Karl, I wrote a post today about your blog. You might find my observations interesting. http://automotivetraveler.com/jump/1383. You might very well have confirmed that Ford has finally turned the corner, not so much by their marketing efforts, but I suspect that your perception of their products has taken a decided turn for the better.
I invite you to leave a comment on my blog with your observations.
Editorial Director, automotivetraveler.com
Editor, Chevy Enthusiast
Thanks, Paula, I think they actually have been trying to turn around those kinds of things, but it's principally been on the ford divisional side. I'm guessing Lincoln will get a lot more attention this year. The most innovative communications coming out of Dearborn have been in the digital realm, I think, particularly with events meant to drive conversations online. Whether that works or not is probably not easy to judge, or maybe it is, since pundits have, for years, been extolling the virtules of the Web for ROI. I guess we'll see...