2014’s auto industry winners and losers

October 13, 2014, 1:22 PM UTC
Chrysler's January Sales Up 8 Percent, Lead By Jeep And Ram Trucks
CORTE MADERA, CA - FEBRUARY 03: The Jeep logo is visible on a brand new Jeep at Chrysler Jeep Dodge Ram Marin on February 3, 2014 in Corte Madera, California. Chrysler Group LLC reported an 8 percent increase in January sales led by a high demand for the new Jeep Cherokee. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Photograph by Justin Sullivan—Getty Images

CEOs

Winner

Despite GM’s ongoing woes, almost nobody has an unkind word for CEO Mary Barra, including TIME and Fortune. Even Barra’s 2025 strategy for consolidating platforms, a goal GM (GM) has sought since the 1980s, has gotten favorable notice. Let’s see what happens when the new wears off. As Barra undoubtedly knows, strategy talk is cheap at GM; it is the execution that counts.

Loser

A German court revived criminal charges against former Porsche CEO Wendelin Wiedeking and ex-CFO Holger Haerter involving a failed 2008 takeover of Volkswagen AG. Wiedeking was hailed as a genius after Porsche’s turnaround in the 1990s. But the court said Porsche’s board may have approved the deal seven months before the company announced its intentions, making the two men guilty of market manipulation under German law.

Executives

Winners

Before he left Audi of America in 2012, Johan de Nysschen made many of the decisions on marketing, distribution, and product content that have made Audi one of the hottest luxury brands. Of course, today’s management is taking the bows, but autos are a long lead-time business, and it was de Nysschen who laid the groundwork for 2014’s success.

Losers

Now at Cadillac (GM), which he joined in July, de Nysschen has been assailed by traditionalists for his decision to change the brand’s alpha-numeric naming structure and to move its global headquarters from Detroit to New York City. Clearly peeved, de Nysschen went on Facebook to strike back at every “armchair marketing expert” and blasted GM retirees who called the New York move “the dumbest idea since the Cimarron. ” DeNysschen wondered sarcastically whether any of them “had a hand in creating that masterful monument to product substance.”

Investors

Winner

Despite a big hit in September when Ford (F) warned that operating profits would come in $1 billion less than forecast, its shares are down only 5.9% this year. It might be doing even better were it not for investor worries about losses in Europe and South America as well as customer reception for the new aluminum pickup truck.

Loser

GM shares have yet to recover from the recall crisis earlier this year and have lost nearly a fifth of their value since January 1. “General Motors looks like it is struggling to get its act together,” wrote one commentator on Seeking Alpha. “We continue to want nothing to do with the company.”

Brands

Winners

Jeep added 1.2 points of share this year thanks to the incremental lift from the new Cherokee and it will get another boost in 2015 from the Fiat-based Renegade.

Losers

Ford division lost .9 points while it waits for sales from new pickup truck and sporty car models to kick in.

Segments

Winners

Stable and falling gas prices have stripped the pretense from American buying habits: Given a choice, they prefer trucks. In September, sales of the Chevrolet Silverado pickup rose 54% and the Dodge Ram 30%. Overall, for the first nine months of 2015, truck sales climbed 10%.

Losers

In an overall industry up 6% in 2014, car sales rose only 1%, according to Automotive News. Some segments actually lost ground. In the absence of noteworthy new models, full-size cars like the Toyota Avalon (TM) were down 6%.

Plants

Winner

Ford will hire more than 1,000 people for its Oakville, Canada assembly plant in preparation for the launch of its 2015 Edge crossover. The hiring is something of a mixed economic blessing: Ford is getting $140 million in government subsidies, and about half of the new jobs will come at the expense of outside suppliers who had previously performed them

Loser

FCA CEO Sergio Marchionne cast doubt on the future of Chrysler’s historic Toledo plant, where Jeeps have been built since 1941. Marchionne said the body-on-frame plant would require an expensive overhaul that would make it uneconomic to build the 2017 Wrangler with its unibody construction.

Dealers

Winners

All those investors in AutoNation, Penske Automotive, Group 1 and other publicly owned dealer groups who saw their holdings take a nice upward bounce after Warren Buffett disclosed he had purchased the Van Tuyl Group, the fifth-largest U.S. auto retailer. The speed-up of consolidation following Buffett’s deal should make help stockholders lock in those gains.

Losers

All those remaining mom-and-pop dealers who will be going up against yet another smart operator in Buffett with scale efficiencies and greater access to capital. Small stores will find it hard to compete against the giants’ automated processes, standardized business practices, and national brands armed mostly with superior knowledge of the local market.

Year-end awards

Winners

Ford, General Motors, Toyota, and Volkswagen Group each placed three entries on the short list for North American Car and Truck of the year honors. The awards, voted by a jury of 50 automotive journalists (of which I was a charter member), have gained in importance in recent years and are fiercely contested.

Losers

GM, Toyota, VW, and every other automaker on the short list, none of whom stands a chance this year against Ford. Its entries are Mustang and F-150, both of which have been redesigned for 2015 and are adored by the motoring press. You could skip the voting and engrave the winners’ trophies today with the names of these two hometown favorites.

Historic echoes

Winner

Detlev von Platen, CEO of Porsche Cars North America, was channeling former GM CEO Roger Smith at the Paris auto show recently. When asked whether Porsche would develop a more affordable entry-level car, von Platen replied, “Our entry model is our pre-owned program.” His comment recalled Smith’s memorable advice to American consumers in 1988 when asked how they should react to low-priced Japanese imports. Said Smith: They should “buy a used Buick” ”

Loser

Was Mary Barra channeling former boss, GM CEO Jack Smith, when she announced a global profit goal of 9-10% percent early next decade in her 2025 strategy announcement? Back in the early 1990s, Smith set a five percent profit margin goal and maintained it until his term ended in 2000. Note to Barra: GM never came close to reaching the target, and Smith’s successor quietly dropped it.