[Read Part One here]
Like many American car buyers, I place reliability near the top of my “must have” list. Over on GM’s FastLane blog, I told GM they’d conquer [some] Toyota and Honda customers when the American automaker’s ten-year-old cars offered the same service as ten-year-old Toyotas and Hondas. Truth be told, New GM may not HAVE ten years. So it’s no surprise that they tried to wow me with tail fins and technology. When the speeches finally ended in the Proving Ground auditorium, I was invited to sample New GM in the “now.” Our PR handlers gave us a quick safety talk (don’t do anything stupid, obey the traffic wardens) and turned us loose.
GM’s Milford Proving Ground had two test tracks: “performance” and “city.” The urban track was the less popular of the two. I used it almost exclusively; I wanted to do as much driving and as little waiting as possible. The course was a mix of coned paths across extremely large parking lots and stretches of some of the Proving Grounds road system. It included a short slalom and some S-curves, so you could exercise the vehicles a bit.
My original intent: test only cars I might actually buy. Ordinarily, that would be the Chevrolet Aveo, Cobalt or Malibu. For some reason, the Aveo and Cobalt didn’t get invited to the event. Someone else grabbed the Malibu first, so I headed for the Buick LaCrosse.
A friendly-looking woman wearing slacks and a polo shirt stood alongside the Buick sedan. It was Jeanne Merchant, the LaCrosse’s Vehicle Line Director. I didn’t waste her time.
“Can I drive it?” I asked.
If GM fails, I’m not going to shed a tear for Bob Lutz or Fritz Henderson. I’m going to hold them responsible for the automaker’s destruction. But there are hundreds if not thousands of other GM employees whose lives are more like mine, and I’m sympathetic to their plight. Even so, mismanaged businesses fail. It’s never pretty, but it’s a fact of life. The people who work for the competition have to eat, too.
Merchant’s sense of pride gave me reason to hope for GM’s troops. She was completely confident I was going to like the Buick LaCrosse.
I’d read Dan Neil’s review, favorably comparing the LaCrosse to a Lexus. I’m not qualified to judge the Buick against a Lexus; I drive a derivative of the 1996 Corolla. But the LaCrosse has a lot of inherent appeal; it’s nicely appointed with an extremely attractive interior. It provides comfortable seats, an equally comfortable ride and handles well enough for its intended mission.
The 3.0-liter engine offers sufficient power to move the car along without drama. Even with the 3.6-liter engine (sampled later), it’s no sports sedan; but as a quiet cruiser, it succeeds. If Buick can get people to try the LaCrosse, many of them are going to like it.
I was not nearly as impressed by the Chevrolet Malibu. First, cars in my price range are never as impressive as cars above it. Second, the Toyota Camry is a better car.
The four-cylinder Camry is eager to get up and go, whereas the Malibu must be prodded into action. Equally important, the Camry quickly finds the right gear in every situation, where the Malibu can be caught out. The Camry’s handling isn’t anything to write home about, but it’s competent and straightforward. The Malibu I tested had more engine vibration and less poise.
I often hear people claim the Malibu is better looking than the Camry. I’m willing to bet that most of those people prefer the Malibu’s design because they want a reason to prefer a Chevy to a Toyota. Ditto the “appliance” condemnation of the Camry. The Malibu has four doors, a modest size engine and front wheel-drive. It’s the same kind of appliance as the Camry, only not as good.
Cadillac CTS Sport Wagon
The Aveo and Cobalt were unavailable so . . . why not?
Driving a CTS Sport Wagon is miles better than riding in the back of a CTS. Halfway through the course, I asked my GM handler if I could do a U-turn and go through the slalom again. The Sport Wagon offers easily controllable balance through the corners. It’s attractive, comfortable and goes like hell. What’s not to love?
On reflection, I don’t think the CTS Sports Wagon handles much better than the mid-90s BMW 3-Series I drove last year. That car felt much more nimble, with far better fuel economy. Of course, the CTS is a bigger machine and this one is bigger still, but I suppose that a contemporary, similarly-priced BMW wagon would be equally impressive.
On the positive side, the CTS Sport Wagon offers some practical features, such as a roof rack that completely disappears and rails with adjustable tie-down D rings in the wayback. I found myself wondering: if a CTS wagon is such a great idea, where’s my Cobalt or Malibu wagon?
I’m not the target market for a diesel automobile. If I have to take another three-day trip to Philmont with eight Scouts, three other adults and a trailer, I’d be happy to rent a fifteen passenger, diesel-powered passenger van. Otherwise, forget it. In fact, I can’t even remember if the vehicle was badged Chevy or GMC.
The van was about 7500 pounds, empty. My speed kept falling off. The oil burner had enough power, but the noise punished me for seeking higher rpm. The dynamics were predictably truck-like. The good news: GM says it’s now offering a 6.0-liter clean diesel engine with a urea-based system (not presented). I wrassled the van back to its parking spot, thanked the GM rep and went to look for something more my speed.
Most of the Tweeters missed this one as well; they were “busy” queueing-up for the Cadillac CTS-V, and the Chevrolet Camaros and the Corvettes. The Cruze was parked by itself, with a lonely-looking Mike Danowski standing by it.
“Can I drive it?”
Mike looked apologetic. “I’m sorry, no.”
“Can I get in and look around?”
The Cruze has an excellent interior. If the two-tone seats aren’t leather, they’re an excellent facsimile. The Cruze’s cabin is bright and airy, with good sight lines and readily managed controls. The Cruze has a lot of zing, which a the highly competent Corolla LE lacks. If the Chevy offers good performance and class-compliant fuel economy, prospective Corolla buyers may be tempted.
That’s a lot of ifs. Still, the Corolla has left the door open, a little. The 1.8-liter Corolla LE’s four-speed automatic could sure use another gear. Even if the Cruze offers a fifth gear, winning a Camry loyalist to a new Chevy is the definition of a tough sell.
The Cruze was GM’s only small car at the event, and it wasn’t driveable. GM had made no real effort to win me over with small cars.
Saturn Vue PHEV Hybrid (Soon to be the Buick Something PHEV Hybrid)
My friend Dave drove this proto-Buick. Dave doesn’t believe in CO2-induced Global Warming. He couldn’t care less how much CO2 is blown out the tailpipe. To Dave, hybrids are irrelevant.
When Dave mashed the pedal flat to the floor, the tester’s electric motor and the gas engine woke up and the vehicle leaped ahead. “Dave, the point of a hybrid is to save gas by allowing the gas and electric engines to cooperate and work appropriately with each other and . . . Oh, never mind.” As Dave hustled the gas – electric Vue through the S-curves, the vehicle managed to stay on battery power for at least a short time.
GM representative Carol Johnson admitted that the hybrid soon-to-be Buick CUV’s weight was an issue, along with battery cost. She indicated that GM would get some of the cargo room back, but the vehicle would lose its spare tire. Dave’s lead foot aside . . .
“Why have you got a V6 up there?”
Johnson said GM management believed that the vehicle’s cost, brand and market indicated a need for accelerative performance.
“But it’s the fuel economy that sells these things,” I countered. “Toyota sold 19,000 Priuses last month. It doesn’t have excellent performance.”
Carol looked at me, “I know.”
Of course she does.
HCCI Test Vehicle
The Tweeters also ignored GM’s Homogeneous Charge Compression Ignition (HCCI) vehicle. It was parked near the Cruze, so I thought it was also a static display. Engineer Vijay Ramappan was happy to find someone curious about the technology. The last I knew, HCCI didn’t work.
“Can I drive it?”
The car was equipped with a fire extinguisher. “Are we going to need that?” Dave asked. Vijay shook his head. “That’s just a safety regulation.”
Vijay’s laptop was wired into the car. An LCD display perched atop the center stack showed the engine’s operating zone. Danger! Checking the throttle’s effect on the display’s dots is far more interesting than watching the road ahead.
The HCCI car has the oomph of a regular 2.4-liter engine, perhaps bit more. There’s a tiny bit of diesel clatter and a very slight shudder at certain times. I attributed the sensation to the shift from spark to compression and back, but it might have been the transmission.
Vijay says GM’s put about 15,000 miles on the HCCI powerplant. He admitted that high-pressure fuel delivery and cylinder pressure sensors added to the engine’s expense. Unsurprisingly, he thought volume could drive costs down. Fuel economy would be significantly increased and the engine cost should eventually compare favorably with diesels. And you don’t have to use diesel; the HCCI powerplant should run well on E-85.
“Will you beat everybody else to market?” I asked.
Vijay frowned, just for a moment. “We don’t know. I think so.” He listed a few of the major manufacturers, what he knew about their programs and whether or not they seemed to be making announcements. Most of the others have been quiet, which could be a hopeful sign for GM. [ED: Or a sign that they don't consider the technology commercially viable.] A new technology or capability can help sell a car to alienated customers.
Yukon Two-Mode Hybrid
Dave drove again and flogged the thing mercilessly. I couldn’t see the dash all that well from my seat, so I don’t know whether or not he was able to degrade fuel economy into the gallons-per-mile range. He was certainly trying his best.
The Yukon Hybrid was car-like and comfortable—and expensive. It’s over $50,000, roughly $15,000 more than a base Yukon and much more than an Acadia, which gets better highway fuel economy. Product Manager Tom Hughes revealed that GM sold about 600 two-mode hybrids last month.
Despite their failure in the marketplace, GM appears to be digging in. They claim they aren’t going to abandon the large-vehicle hybrid market. Hughes says improvements are on their way. A lower price would be the most useful improvement of all.
I appreciated the opportunity to talk to GM about their products. As the automaker can’t prove their new vehicles’ decadal reliability, or drop the price so low that reliability doesn’t matter, the junket was a suitable Plan B to put their products back on my menu. But was this junket simply a charm offensive aimed at eliminating the so-called “perception gap” or something more?
I talked to TTAC’s publisher about this. Farago assured me that GM employees (and auto industry types in general) are good people who always do their best. “No one wakes up in the morning and says, ‘I’m going to build a crap car,'” Farago said. “But GM’s culture is working against them. Most of their employees can’t even see it happening.”
Jeanne Merchant, Mike Danowski, Vijay Ramappan and their GM colleagues all had pride in their vehicles. After careful thought, I don’t think it’s misplaced. The real question: is it enough? It’s early days, but has New GM done enough to win over customers from rival brands? More to the point, did they win me over?
[Read Part 3 on Monday]