Management changes, backpedaling, and a new sales contender. Some automakers had a great 2012, and some would like to move on to 2013.

By Alex Taylor III
December 27, 2012

Naughty and nice

Tracking the year 2012 in autos reveals an unusual number of straightaways that were transformed into hairpins and switchbacks by human folly. Yes, stuff happens, but some stuff is more avoidable than others. Here are some notable instances where drivers behind the wheel failed to negotiate the curves — and a couple of instances where, thank goodness, they did.


Cloudy crystal ball dept. #1

In 2010, CEO Carlos Ghosn predicted Nissan would be selling 500,000 Leafs worldwide by 2014. He has a lot of ground to make up. In November, Ghosn conceded that sales of the all-electric Leaf would not reach its far more modest U.S. goal of just 20,000 in 2012. In fact, it will struggle to match its 2011 total of 9,674.


Cloudy crystal ball dept. #2

In early 2010, Fiat-Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne said Alfa Romeo would be relaunched in the U.S market by late 2012, with a mid-size sedan, a sport wagon, and a crossover. By September, 2011, officials were saying that plans for all three models had been scrapped; the Alfa brand would be reintroduced to the U.S. in 2013, not 2012; and the first model to reach these shores would be the 4C sports car. But delays continue to pile up: This fall, Marchionne told dealers that Alfa’s return would be further postponed, and the first car would not be arriving until 2014.


Most disliked car of 2011 redeemed

Although customers didn’t seem to mind, reviewers panned the 2012 Honda Civic (above) for its bland styling, cheesy interior, and indifferent handling, so Honda promised a change. “We take feedback seriously, regardless of who it’s from, and we will act accordingly quickly,” John Mendel, American Honda executive vice president, said at the time. They did. Honda bumped up its planned mid-cycle refresh ahead by a year, redesigning the Civic inside and out, adding standard features and improving driving dynamics. Wrote an admiring reviewer for Motor Trend: “Honda appears to have gotten its groove back.”


Most disliked car of 2012

Chevy’s Malibu Eco was the hands-down leader at midyear for most-disliked honors, winning near-universal criticism for its lack of interior space, poor fuel economy, and high price. With sales weak, General Motors GM CEO Dan Akerson has revealed to Automotive News that Malibu, too, would receive an earlier-than-scheduled facelift. No details were announced, and Akerson kept his enthusiasm about the redo in check. “I think it’s a good car. It’ll do OK.”


Biggest sales surprise: The good kind

Last year, Chrysler sold fewer then 20,000 Fiat 500s — about half as many as expected. So far this year, it has sold more than 36,000 of the tiny cars. What changed? Fiat canceled a controversial ad campaign starring Jennifer Lopez, redirected a marketing campaign aimed mostly at women, and added the high-performance Abarth version with 60% more horsepower. Coming in 2013 is another model variant, the 500L — that’s “L” for large — that will have four doors instead of two.


Biggest sales surprise: Not-so-good kind

Launched this spring, Dodge’s Dart has stumbled coming out of the gate. Sales fell in November from the month before, and Chrysler has accumulated a 112-day supply. Reviewers found little in the Dart to recommend to buyers shopping for a compact car. Not to worry, Chrysler says, it is a problem about choices: “We just haven’t figured out what configurations our customers want,” a spokesperson said. But with 40,000 unsold Darts on the ground at the beginning of December, Dart needs a Fiat-style reboot. It hopes to get one when a super-slick R/T model with a bigger engine arrives in the new year.


Bad news for Detroit

For some time, Toyota TM has been the largest selling retail brand in America. In November, Toyota became the second-best-selling brand overall (fleet sales included) beating Chevrolet by 87 units. Sales of Camry, Toyota’s best-selling model, enjoyed their best month in five years, while sales of the Silverado pickup, Chevy’s most popular model, plunged when Chevy declined to match incentives offered by competitors. Left with huge inventories of unsold trucks, a 139-day supply, Chevy belatedly put some more cash on the hood in December.


More bad news for Detroit

ALG, formerly Automobile Lease Guide, identified the 2013 models in each of 22 — count ’em, 22 — segments that are forecast to retain the highest percentage of their sticker price after three years of ownership. Not a single one came from the Detroit Three. Honda and Acura were the winning mainstream and premium brands, while Toyota had the highest number of top-ranked models. It even swept the pickup category, formerly an all-American segment, with Tundra beating out Ford F-150, Silverado, and Dodge Ram.


Most surprising management change

Stefan Jacoby (left), the hard-charging CEO of Volvo Cars, was driven out of the company after clashing with his board of directors over strategic direction. His troubles are said to have begun when Hans-Olov Olsson (right), who was Volvo’s CEO from 2000 to 2005, rejoined the company as vice chairman in 2010. The German-born Jacoby was replaced by another Swede, Hakan Samuelsson.


Least surprising management changes

The CEO wheel at struggling Fisker Automotive made three full turns: founder Henrik Fisker (left) gave way to factory expert and ex-Chrysler executive Tom LaSorda (center) in February, and LaSorda, in turn, gave way to GM’s former hybrid car guru Tony Posawatz (right) in August. Fisker is two years late getting its plug-in Karma into production, and the car has been plagued with electrical problems. It is out trying to raise money to stay in business.


Hypermiling, lap #1

Hyundai/Kia admitted in November that it overstated the mileage ratings on 900,000 2011-13 vehicles. Six models that it previously rated at 40 miles per gallon, including the 2013 Accent, Veloster, and Elantra, have been reclassified at 37 or 38 mpg. Hyundai is compensating affected owners by picking up the tab for the additional lifetime fuel costs associated with the rating adjustment — plus a 15% premium. Its total bill could top $100 million.


Hypermiling, lap #2

In December, Consumer Reports and some independent reviewers found that Ford’s Fusion and C-Max hybrids can’t match their mpg claims either. Instead of the 47 mpg Ford F claimed, the Fusion got 39 mpg in real-world testing, and the C-Max got 37 mpg. Ford’s response, in part: “Driving styles, driving conditions, and other factors can cause mileage to vary.” The EPA said it would investigate, and Ford could face civil penalties if it was found to have misstated claims.

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