Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Little Zipcar Deal Dwarfs the Big Jaguar Sale

We often measure change by large events, such as Ford's sale last week of its Jaguar and Land Rover luxury brands to the Tata Group, a wealthy Indian conglomerate.

But such measurements can be misleading.

The sale of Jaguar and Land Rover to Tata is not the seminal event some in the media have portrayed it to be. Instead, examined in its particulars -- Ford's unloading of those brands for $2.3 billion, less than half of what it paid to acquire them in 1989 -- is little more than a desperate correction of a mistake that never should have been made in the first place.

Ford bought Jaguar and Land Rover to regain some of the prestige it had lost by failing to build desirable, high-quality cars wearing Ford, Lincoln and Mercury badges. It was a waste of money, a pursuit as useless as trying to buy friendship. Now, Ford plans to use the money it gets from the Tata deal to do what it should have been doing all along: designing and manufacturing superior quality, must-have, Ford-branded cars and trucks.

It is important to note that development. But it is also important to point out that Ford's deal with Tata, expected to be finalized by the end of the quarter, is not nearly as significant as something else that occurred last week: the merger of Zipcar and Flexcar, the nation's leading urban car-sharing providers.

The Zipcar-Flexcar deal, which could help reduce the number of cars and trucks crowding America's roads while simultaneously boosting the fuel efficiency of the vehicles using them, points to the future of the automobile industry.

The resale of Jaguar and Land Rover is in many ways a continuation of the past, the purchase of prestige stemming from an age when fuel was plentiful and relatively cheap, when luxury meant the exclusion of most things practical, when horsepower ruled.

In short, here's betting that Tata will have more success with its super-cheap, super-efficient Nano city car and that automobile's future derivatives than it will have with keeping fuel-consumptive Jaguars and Land Rovers afloat in an era of $100-per-barrel and higher oil costs.

A Nano-like car, should it ever make it to the Western Hemisphere, would fit in perfectly with Cambridge, Mass.-based Zipcar and D.C.-based Flexcar, now merged singly under the Zipcar banner.

The newly expanded Zipcar will bring car-sharing to 26 of the United States as well as to jurisdictions in Canada and London.

The merged company now has 180,000 international members -- consumers using the service -- who will have access to 5,000 vehicles, many of them representing the best fuel efficiency available, in the Zipcar fleet.

Simple math breaks that down to 36 people per Zipcar.

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