Extra laps: A recap of developing auto news

@FortuneMagazine August 23, 2011: 1:34 PM ET

FORTUNE -- The buildup surrounding the new joint venture between Ford and Toyota reminded me of an old adage: Big corporate events always sound best on the day they are announced.

After that, it is often downhill.

Recall the hullabaloo 30 years ago that accompanied another joint venture involving Toyota (TM). This one was with GM, then the most powerful auto company in the world; the two companies agreed to build small cars together at an auto plant in Fremont, Calif. that became known as NUUMI.

GM (GM, Fortune 500) didn't learn a thing from the deal, lost money on the cars it made there, and walked away in 2009 in bankruptcy. Toyota went on to displace it as the world's largest auto company.

With that in mind, here is an update on some more recent corporate events:

Audi fires its big guns

With the launch this fall of the A6, Audi concludes its latest round of new model introductions. As I wrote last spring, its momentum has been impressive. For the first seven months of this year, sales have risen 16% versus 11% for Mercedes-Benz and 13% for BMW, its two main rivals. Sales of Audi's flagship, the A8, have jumped eightfold since being redesigned a year ago.

The A6, which I drove last week, should enable Audi to remain at cruising speed. Unlike the mid-range cars of its competitors, the A6 has an identity all its own. It doesn't feel like a stripped A8 or a bloated A4, although it contains the best attributes of each: the A4's sporty character combined with the posh presence of an A8.

Audi is the first manufacturer to offer a factory-installed hot spot in its cars, and the A6 redefines the notion of the connected car by providing it with real-time traffic and weather information along with a Google Earth view of the landscape displayed as the background to the navigation system map. A back seat passenger can use it to stream a movie onto an iPad.

This kind of useful technology pays off big in luxury car marketing, and with a base price of $49,900 (as-tested: $61,530), the A6 should enable Audi to maintain its momentum or even accelerate.

Honda's marketing mess

The auto industry has been buzzing about Honda's apparent loss of understanding of the U.S. market, a failure dramatized by Consumer Reports' failure to recommend the best-selling Civic for the first time in years. Earlier in August, I commented on Honda's apparent insensitivity to customer needs.

Now Honda has made the surprising but understandable decision to hire a former Chrysler executive as its marketing officer. It's surprising because Honda is one of the most insular companies and rarely goes outside to hire top executives; understandable because who better to understand the American customer than an American marketing executive?

In reporting on the announcement, Automotive News shed some light on the disarray at Honda. The Japanese carmaker separates product development, product planning and marketing from auto sales. In other words, the people who are closest to the customer don't get a seat at the planning table.

V-8 engines: Decline and fall

Recently I posted a death notice for most V-8 engines on the grounds of rising gasoline prices and growing concerns about climate change. The comment was directed at Detroit, but the latest obituary comes from Toyota.

The company revealed that it is dropping the V-8 option from the 2013 version of its flagship sport sedan, the Lexus GS. The stated reason was that V-8s represented only 10% of all GS sales. But when you discover that the only alternative to the standard V-6 is a V-6 hybrid, you understand in which direction the industry is headed: better fuel economy and less torque.

Taxi turmoil

Nissan was pumped when its modified van won a competition to be named New York City's official taxi beginning in 2013. But as I wrote in May, the checkered history of other high-visibility transit projects should give it cause for concern.

Then came news that Ford's Transit Connect van has been certified for taxi use in the meantime. Ford (F, Fortune 500) is the 800-pound gorilla of the taxi business. Its Crown Victoria was a stalwart of the city's yellow cab fleets for years, and the Transit Connect is approved in other big cities like Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago. With scale economies on its side, Transit Connect might generate enough public support in New York to overturn Nissan's exclusive arrangement. After all, the city not long ago changed its mind on a far more important issue to its citizenry: term limits.

Saab's crack-up

The failure of Saab's new owners to gain take-off speed isn't unexpected, but it pains car lovers everywhere who admired Saabs for their individuality and pluckiness. Now comes word that some of its dealers are ready to throw in the towel. CEO Victor Muller still hopes to finance the company until mid-October when a Chinese distribution deal kicks in, but in today's economic environment nobody is holding their breath. To top of page

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