Steering Away from the Pack

With everybody thinking and writing about the car industry these days, it’s hard to stand out from the pack. But the Timeses of Los Angeles and New York do just that today with good angles, both of which, coincidentally, come from the City of Angels.

The NYT reports on a stagnant “sea” of cars at the Port of Long Beach, imported and not wanted by customers and, therefore, dealers.

And for the first time, Mercedes-Benz, Toyota, and Nissan have each asked to lease space from the port for these orphan vehicles. They are turning dozens of acres of the nation’s second-largest container port into a parking lot, creating a vivid picture of a paralyzed auto business and an economy in peril.

“This is one way to look at the economy,” Art Wong, a spokesman for the port, said of the cars. “And it scares you to death.”

The NYT deftly weaves in good context on how this fits into the larger economy:

The backlog at the port is just part of a broader rise in the nation’s inventories, which were up 5.5 percent in September from a year earlier, according to the Commerce Department. The car industry has been hurt particularly, with sales down nearly 15 percent this year.

It’s good to point out that Detroit isn’t alone in not selling cars these days. Check out the slideshow, too.

Meanwhile, the LAT looks at today’s auto show there, which GM and Chrysler are skipping, but which Ford is driving at full speed ahead. Most of the reporting has focused on the perilous states of the former two because of their deal talks, and this is a good excuse for a look at Ford, whose plan the LAT says:

… is risky because it is tying up billions of dollars in future product at a time when low consumer confidence and frozen credit markets have made for the worst new-car sales in this country in 17 years. If Ford can’t pay its bills, a garage full of promising new cars is useless.

With appropriate skepticism, the LAT describes Ford whistling in the wind:

Even as General Motors Corp. and Chrysler have scrapped plans to introduce any vehicles at the L.A. event, Ford is unveiling no fewer than six: the Ford Fusion, Fusion hybrid, Mercury Milan, Milan hybrid, Lincoln MKZ and the 2010 Mustang.

That’s a big number of introductions for any show, even in a good year for auto companies, which 2008 most decidedly is not: Ford’s sales are down 18.2% through October, worse than the industry as a whole, compared with last year.

What’s more, Ford is considering as many as five more product launches at the Detroit auto show in January, and company executives describe a product pipeline that’s jammed through 2010. Ford even opened a new shift at its F-150 plant in Dearborn, Mich., this month to pump out big quantities of the redesigned pickup.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.