Neither Ford nor General Motors can afford to lose the European engineers and designers who create many of the automakers' best and most important vehicles, but a yawning difference in their approaches to the troubled continent became obvious this month.
Ford mounted a brassy campaign to convince its customers, dealers and employees that great design, new vehicles and advanced technology will lead them out of the slow-motion crisis that threatens the future of European automaking.
Before an audience of thousands in Amsterdam -- and a handful of us on U.S. time watching a grainy early-morning webcast in Dearborn, Mich. -- Ford's top global leaders pulled the wraps off a brace of important new cars, trucks and technologies. Ford grabbed a solo turn in the spotlight three weeks before the flood of new vehicles that will be unveiled at the Paris auto show, which opens Europe's new car season with press days starting Sept. 27.
In a bonanza of news, Ford revealed details about its face-lifted Fiesta subcompact; its all-new midsize Mondeo sedan, wagon and hatchback (Fusion in the U.S.) and several key trucks for business customers.
The automaker also artfully dodged the tough and obvious question every European automaker faces: How many plants will it close and jobs will it shed in the continent's inevitable, overdue restructuring?
There's plenty of strife and struggle in Ford of Europe's future, but on Sept. 6 at least, it was all sunshine, new vehicles, happy talk about how Americans love Ford's new technologies. (Pay no attention to what Consumer Reports says about MyFordTouch, frulein.)
GM, meanwhile, found itself on the defensive on the Eastern and Western fronts. A dodgy report in an influential German newsmagazine accused GM of intentionally sabotaging its Opel brand to prop up Buick and its Chinese partners. Across the Atlantic, Wall Street's Morgan Stanley said GM should ditch Opel, a brand it's owned for more than 80 years. Morgan Stanley said Opel has lost $16 billion since 2000, with no end in sight.
Opel countered the flood of bad news with photos of a couple of cars it will unveil in Paris: the Cascada compact convertible and Adam minicar.
"Ford laid out a solid plan in terms of how it's going to grow the revenue side" of its struggling European operation, Michelle Krebs, Edmunds.com senior analyst, said. "Ford is exporting the lessons they learned" turning their American business around. "They didn't address their problems with European costs and capacity, but there's clearly work going on behind the scenes, and the support of their dealers was obvious."
Ford's simple message: We're all in this together. Look at what worked in the USA, because we're going to do the same thing here, in way that understands and respects European tastes.
GM's handling of Opel, by contrast, has played directly into the hands of German conspiracy theorists and demagogues. It opened the door for Volkswagen, which has seized every opportunity to undermine Opel, long its most formidable domestic rival.
After years of supposed crisis management, "There's no clear plan for Opel," Krebs said. "It seems to be a confusing quagmire."
Without strong European operations, neither GM nor Ford will remain a leading global automaker. But a key difference between the two, shown in the lead-up to Paris, is that Ford acknowledges that reality.
GM, meanwhile, let outside critics and internal factions make Opel look like the problem rather than part of the solution to its global challenges. GM needs to open the windows and show the world -- particularly Opel's own employees, owners and dealers -- that the brand matters and there's a plan for its future.
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