By on February 16, 2009

Now that GM’s Car Czar is slinking off into the sunset before his bankruptcy-proof pension becomes a bone of contention (“I’ll have to check with my accountant about that”), the man of Maximum is shooting off his mouth in the great Lutzian style. “My personal favorite would be to see Saturn survive and prosper,” GM’s vice chairman told Automotive News [sub], “But frankly, the reality is that that is probably not going to be the outcome.” Does this sound a bit like finding out you were dumped via a batch e-mail? AN somehow managed to find a doomed Saturn dealer (as they all are, now) who didn’t use expletives when hearing of the multimillion-dollars-per-year executive’s casual execution of the Rethink brand. “That really seals our fate,” said Lasser, owner of Saturn of Denville, Saturn of Mount Olive and Saturn of Livingston. “I think they knew this fact months ago, and they never shared it with us.” So who killed the non-electrifying cars?

Bob says . . . [Ed. paraphrasing?] “hell if I know.”

“We spent a huge bundle of money in giving Saturn an absolutely no-excuses product lineup, top to bottom. They had a better and fresher lineup than any GM division, and the sales just never materialized . . .

Lutz doesn’t fault dealers: “We have some very excellent Saturn dealers who’ve made a commitment to the brand.”

Lutz said he isn’t sure why Saturn has not done better.

“The fact is,” he said, “we don’t have the time or the resources to take 10 years to figure it out and possibly turn it around.”

That’s our Bob! Non-commital waffling and “it wazzunt me” accountability all the way to the end. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. The media may love the Czar, but history will not be kind to this man. Meanwhile, Saturn dealers get the shaft.

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33 Comments on “GM Car Czar Maximum Bob Lutz: Saturn Must Die...”


  • avatar
    ca36gtp

    Gee, might have something to do with the fact that the entire Opel-ization idea was done so half-assed. Almost all the cars brought over were ones that already existed.

    The Aura XR was a G6 GTP in an ugly fake-chrome dress but with some slightly nicer underwear, and was made even more irrelevant with the Malibu LTZ’s introduction. The Sky was a Solstice, not an Opel. When something unique in the Astra finally came along, they charged too much and didn’t offer the higher-spec powertrains. When the Insignia came along, GM hummed and hawed about bringing it over.

    The Outlook and Vue were pointless rebadges that didn’t help at all.

    When is GM finally going to release that a bunch of reskinned existing models is NOT a “better and fresher lineup”?

    This is why Saturn needs to die, and Pontiac needs to be completely rebuilt from the ground up. Someone buying a Pontiac/Saturn Malibu over an actual Malibu isn’t making GM any money.

    For that matter, GMC should die as well. The country doesn’t need 4 different brands selling Chevrolet’s.

  • avatar

    More proof that it takes decades to re-invent a brand with world-car synergies, and that the original concept shouldn’t have been messed with in the first place.

    Nice job, Bob. You obviously didn’t learn from the Merkur incident. Or if you did, that wasn’t your problem, either.

  • avatar
    Blunozer

    They could have easily saved Oldsmobile (and Pontiac) with all the money they threw at Saturn over the last few years.

    The only thing worth keeping from Saturn now is their touchy-feely dealer experience, something you would think would have trickled down by now.

    I will say though, the Sky does look great, too bad about that trunk.

  • avatar
    John Horner

    Every product in Saturn’s lineup is 100% Lutz’ doing. Gosh, and he hasn’t a clue why every new Saturn product has flopped. Anyone who green lighted the Saturn Relay is an idiot, period.

  • avatar
    jaje

    Saturn was a success in its early years – low end, unique cars that were not rebadges, no hassle sales approach, and many early adopter customers were fanatics selling the brand for free. Then came the rebadges based off rental Chevy’s, the need for power over frugality and lightness, the loss of plastic body panels, minivans, SUVs, etc.

    GM destroyed Saturn by bringing it into the fold and under Wagoner and Lutz – sealed its fate with their incompetence.

  • avatar
    cjclaymore

    The Saturn dealer near my office closed its doors on Friday with no warning. They just didn’t open for business, and had a sign posted on the door. Parts that we have ordered from them are not going to arrive. Looks like the massacre of Saturn has already begun.

  • avatar
    Jason

    ca36gtp : “The Sky was a Solstice, not an Opel.”

    Argh. The Sky is an Opel GT. The Solstice is the one that was somewhat-remade and is a child design of the Sky / Opel.

    Your point might be better made if your examples don’t point out the exact opposite.

  • avatar

    RF – this is a slow pitch down the middle for your branding crusade. Stuffing Saturn with a bunch of “me too” products will never make a runaway success, especially if the buying public has resigned the brand to, well, just that… “me too”.

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    “We spent a huge bundle of money in giving Saturn an absolutely no-excuses product lineup, top to bottom. They had a better and fresher lineup than any GM division, and the sales just never materialized…

    Yes, and you told no one about it, or if you did, you promptly sold a Chevy with the same features at a better price.

    The Marketing of Saturn-as-Opel-West was atrocious. That would be Mark La Neve—again—proving that yes, GM has top executives even worse than Rick Wagoner.

    Bob’s attitude here is also telling: it’s the same “Blame the customer for not appreciating our brilliance” that’s typified GM since the Corvair. Yes, Bob, you gave Saturn good product, perhaps the best at GM, but it wasn’t marketed well, it was undercut internally and—most importantly—it wasn’t appreciably better than it’s competitors (well, competitors other than Chevrolet) at Honda, Mazda or VW.

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    The only thing worth keeping from Saturn now is their touchy-feely dealer experience, something you would think would have trickled down by now.

    The established, and very sick, rank-and-file management at GM has a vested interest in seeing Saturn fail. It was Roger Smith’s holistically successful attempt to prove that GM was doing things wrong, and there’s a lot of people who would dearly like to see every aspect of it fail.

  • avatar
    akear

    It was putz’s idea to bring Opels over as Saturns. Now that strategy has failed Putz prepares to leave GM. Has any of Putz’s vehicle even broke the 200,000 annual sales mark at GM.

  • avatar
    DweezilSFV

    What was the rebadge of a rental Chevy? If you mean the ION, the ION came first, the Cobalt 2 years later. The L series was based on an Opel Vectra. The VUE spawned the Equinox/Torrent.The Aura was based on the G6 and then only by 60%. Rebadges have been the Relay,Sky,Outlook and Astra.

  • avatar
    jpcavanaugh

    To give Lutz just a bit of credit, the Aura is one of the most appealing new home-grown GM vehicles in years. Ditto the Outlook. And Lutz’ attitude that “give them some decent product and the things ought to sell” is understandible. Had they axed Buick and Pontiac and GMC versions of the same vehicles, sales surely would have been better. GM simply no longer has the market share to build 3 and 4 versions of the same car anymore, and expect any of them to sell decently, even when they are pretty good vehicles.

    Second point. Saturn’s current predicament is proof of the brain-deadedness of GM upper management. Go back to 2000. Oldsmobile is a full-line division that in the not-too-distant past had been the number 3 selling brand in the USA. Saturn is a niche brand selling a couple of unique models through a unique sales experience. What do they do? They spend a billion dollars killing Oldsmobile. Then they allow Saturn to morph (or is the word metastisize) into the new Oldsmobile, filling it with a full line of me-too product. A unit that I understand sells far less than Olds did. I wonder if a toilet needs to be cleaned after a billion dollars has been flushed through it.

  • avatar

    The original Saturn concept was successful in attracting people looking for an appliance, people who buy cars because they need them, not because they are car enthusiasts. GM failed to update the original Saturns on a rapid enough cycle to attract more appliancemobile shoppers and when they finally decided to give Saturn dealers a decent line up of cars there was no real brand identity left. The Aura, Sky, Outlook and Astra could conceivably be a solid basis for a brand. They’re all at least decent cars. Unfortunately for Saturn dealers, only the Astra is unique in North America. From a product standpoint, Saturn has no reason to exist.

    GM gave Oldsmobile some of its best products as Olds was circling the drain.

    I think everything is based on good product as the foundation but good product alone isn’t enough. You need good marketing and branding as well. If a company has no purpose other than just selling you more of a relatively generic product.

    If GM is going to let Saturn die, they would be better off selling or licensing the brand. While the current economic mess will delay the introduction of Chinese and Indian cars in North America, I think it’s safe to say that they will eventually be here. There are 400 Saturn dealers and buying the Saturn brand makes sense from a dealer and distribution point of view if you’re trying to enter the US market. It also gives you a brand name that is much more recognizable in the US than Changfeng or Chery. Since closing Saturn will cost GM money to buy out dealers and avoid state franchise law headaches, it makes more sense to sell or license the brand for $1.

    The irony of brands is that once they are established and recognized, they never really die.

    While some automotive brands are archaic, it’s not out of the realm of possibility for someone to revive brands like Studebaker, Willys and Packard. While the names mean nothing as brands to contemporary consumers, those names still have a have recognition factor. Mahindra is banking on the sturdy reputation of their tractors to help them sell small pickups here but it might make more sense to license or buy the Willys brand name from Chrysler.

    Consider Studebaker. I think if you secured the rights to the name and to the Avanti name, you could probably revive the Studebaker brand with continuation models of the ’53 coupe and the Avanti.

    Hell, Zap’s even claims to be trying to revive the Detroit Electric Car brand.

    Like I said, it’s hard to completely kill a brand, at least in terms of name recognition.

  • avatar
    ca36gtp

    Argh. The Sky is an Opel GT. The Solstice is the one that was somewhat-remade and is a child design of the Sky / Opel.

    No, the GT was born from the Solstice. The Sky was then made using mostly GT styling. But the Solstice was the original model.

  • avatar
    BDB

    “GM gave Oldsmobile some of its best products as Olds was circling the drain.”

    I was thinking the exact same thing. Saturn is the new Oldsmobile, isn’t it? I wonder why GM gives their divisions really good cars just as their about to die?

    The Saturn lineup certainly has better cars than Pontiac or Buick.

    I love the way the Sky looks but is the trunk really much of a problem? I mean any worse than the trunk in the Miata?

  • avatar
    John Horner

    “Yes, Bob, you gave Saturn good product, perhaps the best at GM, but it wasn’t marketed well”

    Best? No way. Aura is outdone by Malibu, Sky and Solstice are equivalently almost done, Astra is a hatchet job, Outlook = Acadia w/o discounts, and so on. Oh yeah, and sales of the Saturn Vue tumbled down after they stopped using Honda V-6 engines.

    All of Saturn’s products overlap those of one or more other GM brands, so what is the point?

    RIP: Different Kind of Car Company.

  • avatar

    The only Opel Saturn actually sells is the Astra. They simply adopted Opel’s styling at Saturn. The VUE is also sold by Opel as the Antara but it’s a Daewoo rebadge.

    Bob is right though, GM doesn’t have ten years to figure out what went wrong or start all over again with Saturn. They have to cut their losses on it (and the rest of their noncore brands) and move on with Chevrolet and Cadillac.

    What really killed Saturn was pricing all the new products out of the range that people were willing to pay for Saturns. An ION and the cars before it were very very affordable. The Astra costs thousands more even with spiffs. That’s a hard pill to swallow for a brand with Saturn’s image and for traditional Saturn customers.

  • avatar
    akear

    Captain Rick keeps hitting the same iceberg.

  • avatar
    racebeer

    Sorry Jason …. you are the one who needs to get the facts straight. The Solstice was introduced as a show car at the 2004 NAIAC and was similar to the 2002 Concept car. It was the first one out of the chute. The Sky and later Opel GT were the outgrowth of the Solstice program … not the other way around.

  • avatar
    jkross22

    Jeezuss, Lutz is a tool.

    I don’t get why GM doesn’t just sell Saturn at a bargain basement price to Fiat or a Chinese mfg. Let someone else captain the ship and see where it can go.

    I’ve gotta believe it would be considerably cheaper doing that than shuttering the division (in terms of legal battles with state franchise laws).

  • avatar
    ca36gtp

    I think slimming down to Chevrolet-Buick-Pontiac-Cadillac would be workable, with Chevrolet, Buick, and Cadillac being major brands and Pontiac being a lower-volume sports brand.

  • avatar
    George B

    I wonder how much Saturn’s non-negotiable price system hurt them when competing GM divisions were willing and able to adjust price down to make the sale happen. Did Chevrolet dealers undercut Saturn on price when buyers cross shopped the Aura and Malibu for example? I prefer the styling of several Saturn models over equivalent cars from other GM divisions, but not by enough to buy a Saturn at the list price.

  • avatar
    mpvue

    I have a friend at a saturn store which is a sister store to a GMC/buick store. I thought they would lose Outlook sales to the GMC store, but it’s the other way around. you can get an Outlook still cheaper than an Acadia.
    Lutz is right, they don’t have 10 yrs to figure out what went wrong. if they couldn’t figure out why Saturn didn’t turn a profit in its 1st decade, they won’t figure it out now.
    people never really figured out Saturn, and with the constantly changing lame marketing concepts and vanilla flavored product, it’s no wonder.

  • avatar
    DweezilSFV

    The Solstice/Sky/GT is also sold as a Daewoo G2X in Korea

  • avatar
    dougjp

    I wanted an Astra, but they wouldn’t bring one over that had a motor in it. Like the 2.0T already existing in Europe. Is that too new an idea in the marketplace for Bob? Is it too obvious an idea of how to launch a new model into a market to make a splash (ie; VW brought over the new design GTI with 2.0T first before the ‘mainstream’ versions of the re-design)? Or is it my fault I didn’t buy what I didn’t want (Yup, Bob’s answer)!

  • avatar
    Theodore

    BDB :
    February 16th, 2009 at 11:57 am

    I love the way the Sky looks but is the trunk really much of a problem? I mean any worse than the trunk in the Miata?

    The Miata’s trunk is small, but it has one, and the top doesn’t consume space there when it’s down (even in the power hardtop versions.) The Sky has virtually no trunk when the top is up, and none at all when the top is down. The Sky is dead sexy and I wanted one, but the trunk was a big part of the reason I bought a Miata.

  • avatar
    BDB

    Thanks for the info Theodor.

    I have a Miata and have never seen a Sky close up in person, but it looks much bigger than the Miata in pics. It’s downright ridiculous if they couldn’t get a better trunk than the Miata!

    Since I bought it as my primary warm weather car no trunk would have been a deal-breaker.

  • avatar
    Theodore

    The Sky is about four inches longer and four inches wider than the Miata. It looks bigger than that. The high doors make it feel smaller though; you’re much more enclosed in the Sky than the Miata.

    I’ve driven both the Solstice and the Sky and liked both of them, I really did, but no trunk plus a kludge of a top meant the Miata won. I’m not sure why they designed the top and trunk the way they did, but I’d like to know.

  • avatar
    Bunter1

    Hi BDB-more Miata vs. Solstice thoughts.

    The top operation/trunk problem is certainly the biggest problem but there are plenty more.

    The Solstice/Sky have had awful ratings on their reliability in CR’s survey, the Miata rates pretty well.
    The GM roadsters are also carrying about 400 extra pounds which makes them slower and thirstier.

    The only real selling points they have are looks and domstic origin.
    Add in the admission by GM that they lose around 10K bucks per car. Essentially they subsidized the sales from day one.
    Priced for profit they would be in 370Z and S2000 territory and GXP would have to fight the Z4 and be creeping into Boxster and (gasp) ‘Vette stomping ground. Brilliant.

    For me these are the definative “Lutz-mobiles”.
    A lot of show and fluff, not much substance, disasterous buisness model.

    Theodore- I bet Lutz insisted on the sleek cover over the top and the sweeping sail panels on the top itself at the cost of every other considerstion. My opinion anyway.

    Regards,

    Bunter

    Disclosure: I’m also a Miata owner (’92).

  • avatar
    BDB

    Mine is an ’03, bought used in ’06 (that’s why I never tried out the Solstice/Sky, I wanted to buy used). Good thing I didn’t given the reliability scores! I’ve had close to zero problems with the Miata.

  • avatar
    rodster205

    RF, I think you are to blame (or to thank!) for MB retiring now. That accountant quote was the best ever, and apparently he did check with his accountant and realized he had better get with it while he still could. I honestly believe he never thought about it until you brought it up.

  • avatar
    davejay

    “When something unique in the Astra finally came along, they charged too much and didn’t offer the higher-spec powertrains.”

    Hear, hear! I drove one. I loved it. I even considered the 24-hour clock as a plus. My wife hated it, but I didn’t care. I was ready to buy it, but couldn’t get past three issues:

    - A little too slow
    - A little too expensive
    - No iPod support (not even an audio jack)

    Then I stumbled across the Nissan Versa, which was just as slow, but a bit cheaper and came with an audio jack *and* an iPod connection. So I bought that.


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