Okay, kids, gather ’round. Professor Deadlift is about to give you a little lesson in automotive economics.
You see, I’ve worked out the real reason behind the sharp decline in new car sales over the last year or two. It’s groundbreaking new research, and I’m sure it’ll be all over CNN any day now, but you get to hear it here first. Aren’t you the lucky thing? Imagine how impressed your friends will be! Okay, listen carefully.
Everything that’s gone wrong in the past few years can be traced to one cause. Just one.
It’s the keys.
That’s right, kids, it’s those stupid huge plastic-and-chrome keys that some carmakers are obsessed with now. You think I’m kidding, but bear with me.
There’s a certain level of tradition that’s been carried down for years and years in the little metal keys, and there’s something satisfying about holding that little metal blade in your hand. Car guys will know exactly what I’m talking about, particularly anyone who has spent a great deal of time or money rebuilding an old classic. There is something so pleasant, so fulfilling about slotting that little metal key into the dash and turning it. You feel that bit of resistance, that mechanical connection, and you’re rewarded with a bit of a kickback, and then the roar of an engine. You feel a part of your car. You bond with it. You have that little moment, that bit of alone time, just you and the vehicle. It’s a very intimate moment, and it’s a powerful connection.
So what do we get now? Well, Aston Martin has their Emotional Control Device. No, dead serious, that’s what they call it, I couldn’t make this shit up. It’s a little plexiglass box that you slot into a notch in the dash. Once that’s done, your LCD screen lights up with some slogan. It’s either “Power, Beauty, Soul”, or “Sex, Drugs, Rock-n-Roll”, but I can’t remember which. You tap the big “START” button, and the engine comes to life.
Now, I’m not complaining. Aston Martin gets the concept. There has to be a process, a procedure, to allow you a moment to connect with your car. But with the Aston, you might as well be starting the Starship Enterprise. It’s too detached a process, you don’t feel connected to the powertrain in the same way as a little metal key. Still, I give Aston high marks for making a real effort; most cars that are somewhere between an old Valiant and a new Vanquish, they just don’t get it. Let’s look at Mercedes as an example.
When you fire up a Merc, you put this little laser key-thing into a slot in the dash. You snick it over two notches, and lights spring to life on your dash board. You release it, it slides back one more notch, and apparently you’re ready to drive. There’s no sound, no feedback, no indication other than the annoying beeps of the computer. How are you supposed to be emotionally attached to a car that doesn’t talk to you? And now the exact same keys are being used in Chrysler products. Coincidence that both Mercedes and Chrysler have seen dramatic declines in sales? I think not. In fact, Jaguar, Toyota, Ford, GM, Nissan, and BMW (among others) have all switched at least some of their cars to some variation on a Bluetooth key that allows you to just step inside your car and push a button to start it. Strangely, all of these car-makers are posting huge sales declines.
So who’s the exception? You guessed it. The Volkswagen group, who have a wonderful switchblade key that makes you want to flip it open and drive your car. It is a solid, pleasant, emotionally-connected device that connects you directly with your car, while still keeping your pockets safe from being ripped by a sharp metal object. They have, without exception, the best key on the market today. And for the last two years, their sales have stayed steady (and sometimes improved), while the rest of the industry has tanked.
And while we’re on the subject, let’s talk for just a moment about these new electronic keys. I had one of the new Cadillac keys for a while, and it drove me absolutely nuts. I use my car key as my multi-tool. It opens paint cans, cleans gunk from around windows, scrapes old stickers off of glass. I have a cabinet in my basement that sticks, and I’ve always used my key to open it. When I had the Cadillac key, I was trapped. I couldn’t get into the cabinet! Not that it mattered, as that’s where I kept my paint cans, and the Caddy key wouldn’t have opened them either.
So. Automakers. Take it from your Uncle Butch. If you want to get yourselves out of this giant mess you’re in, and start selling cars again? Fix your keys. The rest will fall into place. I recommend using a 1963 Chevy Impala’s key as an inspiration.
Honestly, they should be paying me for this kind of advice.