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2004, what a trip it was

Detroit axed popular models. Oprah gave cars away. And look for brollies on Bentleys.

January 05, 2005|Jim Mateja | Chicago Tribune

As the new year begins, a review of 2004 proves how wacky the auto industry really is.

Consider:

* The much-maligned Pontiac Aztek sport-utility vehicle outsells the high-performance Pontiac GTO. So General Motors adds a higher output V-8 to the GTO for 2005 -- and discontinues Aztek after the 2005 model year.

* Consumer Reports magazine's annual reliability study finds the Buick Regal is more reliable than the Toyota Camry, the industry's top-selling car in 2003. After celebrating for an hour and a half, Buick drops Regal for an all-new LaCrosse mid-sized sedan for '05.

* A national consumer survey finds that 64% of motorists demand that their vehicle have a cup holder -- to hold the cellphone.

* Jim Farley, head of Toyota's youth-oriented Scion division, says the boxy xB wagon is his top seller despite Toyota executives nearly vetoing it when they, after being shown the prototype, asked: "When do the clowns come out of it?"

* After gas prices top $2 a gallon in May, inventor Ron Meritt chooses eBay to sell the Meritt International Pollution Free Alternative Fuel Motor Conversion Kit that would allow any engine to run on tap water. A week and 60 bids later, Meritt sells world energy dominance for $30,300.

* Rather than offering rebates or discount financing, luxury automaker Bentley attracts buyers by making the optional umbrellas standard equipment.

* Toyota says consumers who didn't buy the Meritt conversion kit have to wait three, no, six, er, make that eight months to take delivery of the gas/electric Prius.

* To steal some of Toyota's thunder, GM and DaimlerChrysler say they'll join forces to produce hybrids -- in the '07 model year.

* Legendary Oldsmobile halts production, but not before raising prices one last time.

* Influential J.D. Power and Associates releases its annual dependability study of owner satisfaction after three years. It rates the Chevrolet Prizm, Cadillac Eldorado, Buick Century and Chrysler Concorde among the most dependable in the industry -- but fails to note that each has been discontinued.

* Based on worldwide production figures, demand for Japanese cars is highest in the U.S. and Europe, lowest in Japan.

* Chrysler Group Chief Executive Dieter Zetsche says he knew the 2005 Hemi V-8 powered Chrysler 300C was a hit after rapper Snoop Dogg called his office insisting that he had to have one. (Zetsche then called his son to learn who Snoop Dogg was.)

* Humiliated after having to rename its exotic GT40 sports car the GT when it found another company owned the original name, Ford tries to save face by calling its 2006 mid-sized sedan Futura. It switches to Fusion after finding Pep Boys owns Futura for its tires.

* Ford Chairman Bill Ford, who hasn't taken a salary since he stepped in after the ouster of Jacques Nasser in 2001, is awarded a $1.5 million bonus. He turns that down, too, so the money can fund the education of employees' kids.

* Wolfgang Bernhard, chief operating officer of Chrysler Group, is promoted to head the prestigious Mercedes-Benz operations. But rather than being handed the keys to the executive latrine, he instead gets a pink slip for reportedly irritating DaimlerChrysler board members. Bernhard then joins Volkswagen.

* Oprah gives away 276 cars to audience members, who break into tears when they learn the vehicles are new Pontiac G6 sedans, not leftover Azteks.

* The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety comes up with a whiplash rating for cars -- not because whiplash is life-threatening but because whiplash claims cost the insurance industry about $7 billion annually.

* Illinois passes a law that fines motorists $75 for loitering in the left lane on expressways and interstates and preventing others from passing. No tickets have been written, but it's the thought that counts.

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