The theme that’s emerged most clearly from my interview with Bob Lutz was, somewhat counterintuitively, compromise. Every vehicle that’s developed and built is the product of nearly countless compromises, on everything from performance to efficiency, and from weight and materials to cost. The question isn’t so much if you compromise when developing a new car, but how you compromise… as was demonstrated in our last Lutzian anecdote. And even during my interview, as the conversation bounced from GM to Chrysler, from mass-market products to niche halo cars, I was thrilled that this issue kept coming up. Why? Because this theme played perfectly into the question that was at the top of my list of prepared questions. After all, there has been a mystery haunting GM followers for some time now… a mystery that I’d never seen a journalist ever ask about. And there I was, sitting with one of the few people who was even capable of fully answering it. So I just waited for a pause, opened my mouth and asked:
Why do GM cars weigh more than other cars?
I had no idea what kind of answer to expect… but I definitely wasn’t expecting the answer I got.
To be perfectly honest, I half-expected an angry denial or a brush-off… possibly even a signal that the interview was over. In the car world, weight is extremely important to engineering cultures and enthusiasts alike. The former see low weights as the achievement of engineering excellence in the abstract, while enthusiasts enjoy a low mass vehicle’s inherent advantages in handling, acceleration and efficiency. Ever since Colin Chapman built Lotus around the philosophy “simplify and add lightness,” curb weight has been the measure to look at for in-the-know-enthusiasts. And there I was asking a guy who was still informally advising GM, and would be officially back at the company a week later, why his cars were fatties.
Of course he couldn’t exactly deny the fact. Chevy, for example, won’t let you use its online “competitive comparison” system to compare weights, but if you go through the comparisons by hand you’ll find the weight of every GM car is at least a little heavier than the competition. Sometimes the extra weight isn’t much: for example, a base, four-cylinder Camry weighs 3,307 lbs to the four-pot Malibu’s 3,421. But go to the C-segment and you’ll find that a Cruze with automatic transmission weighs 3,102 to the Corolla’s 2,800 and the Civic’s 2,672. Similarly, a base Equinox is four hundred pounds heavier than a comparable CR-V. No wonder then, that Chevy struggled so long with fuel economy and the perception that it “couldn’t make a good small car.”
But if Lutz thought through all this before answering, he didn’t let it show. There was only the briefest pause as he considered the question, before the answer came:
Um, I’ll take part of the blame for that…
I said look guys, these vehicles are going to be robust, strong, I want a great ride, an absence of any noise, vibration and harshness, I want these things to be super-silent. So the guys put in heavy-duty components… also, Ed Welburne and I like big wheels, and the minute you say the minimum wheel size is 18 inches, you’ve automatically bought yourself an extra 50 lbs of weight. We willingly and knowingly made decisions in favor of design and appearance and noise, vibration and harshness… all the things that make a vehicle feel substantial. You know, everybody cries and moans that the Buick Enclave is 400 lbs too heavy, but it’s the last thing on the customer’s list. They don’t worry if it’s 400 lbs overweight or not, they love the way it rides and drives.
And, you know, we did a lot of programs very fast, so there wasn’t always time to go back and say “gee, could we make this part out of something else?” So I will cheerfully admit that making weight reduction targets was my lowest priority… and it shows. But other than the automotive press, nobody cares about it.
And there you have it: if Lutz were simply a “car guy” in the mold of the most fanatical enthusiasts, there’s no way he would have run GM’s product development that way. But, beneath his “true-believer,” “engineers-first,” “car-guys-versus-bean-counters” image, Lutz is still a corporate executive first… a species more closely related to the “bean counters” than the “car guys” we all know from outside of the industry. For all the passion he puts into his cars, he’s not developing them for himself. And for all of his public contempt for finance and “running a business by the numbers,” he’s always got an eye on what the majority of car buyers, not the aficionados, are looking for. In fact, it’s quite likely that most self-identified “car guys” who don’t work inside the industry would argue that Lutz’s priorities are as anti-car-guy as possible. After all, how can you truly claim to love a car in which you’ve concentrated all of its compromises into extra weight, the enemy of fun and efficiency? Since when do “car guys” trade hundreds of pounds of extra weight for a quieter ride?
Lutz didn’t provide too much more insight into this issue, sticking with his assertion that consumers simply don’t care about extra weight. And if asked in the abstract, it’s hard to imagine many “average consumers” placing “low weight” high on a list of priorities. But it’s clear that Lutz’s absolute emphasis on ride and refinement won’t last at GM, because weight simply isn’t abstract. Even if consumers don’t care about its effects on handling, as gas prices rise, they’re starting to care more about its effects on efficiency. And Hyundai certainly doesn’t seem to have compromised style, the all-important priority in the Lutz approach to product development, in order to bring down weight and achieve leading fuel economy. So, is weight reduction going to become more important for GM? According to Lutz
Is it something that is being addressed? The answer is “you bet it is,” because it’s going to be harder to make fuel economy regulations with a heavy car. The guys are already doubling back on it. In the next generations they’ll get the weight out and hopefully still maintain the structural rigidity.
And on that note, Lutz whip-cracks back into “car guy” mode, singing the praises of beaming and torsional rigidity, saying “if you get that right, you’re 90% of the way to a great car.” Then, as I’m still struggling to remember a time when someone said “I love this car, but next time I’m going to buy one with more beaming rigidity,” the subject shifts again to CAFE regulation. I’m hardly an experienced interviewer, and my head is still spinning trying to make sense of what I’ve just heard, so the conversation flows on. I’m still not sure I understand why GM’s cars had to be so much heavier, but at least I know who to blame for it… if anyone actually cares.