By on May 14, 2012

“On a clear day,” John Z once famously wrote, “you can see General Motors.” The day has yet to come, however, when the works of GM will be made plain to the mortal man. Consider, if you will, the bizarre story of the “Theta” platform in the United States. It’s a huge success; the Equinox and Cadillac SRX (which, we are assumed, is totes different from the Equinox, but we will will discuss that contention below) combined for about a quarter-million sales in 2011. It’s a perfect example of the way GM is supposed to work nowadays: there are two platform variants with very little visual similarity combining to provide high volume in one model and high profit in another. Theta is NAFTA-friendly, with the cheapie being made in Ontario and the luxury model in Mexico. The two models are generally well-reviewed. The obscurity, stupidity, and thrown-darts decision-making which used to characterize the General are nowhere to be seen. What’s to criticize, even here at TTAC, where we typically cast a jaundiced eye on the RenCen fire drill?

Well, there is the minor issue of a third Theta, which is as perfect an example of GM’s undiminished ability to screw things up as the other Thetas are of the company’s ability to get things right.

What is the Theta platform anyway? The more one reads about it, the less clear things become. It was engineered by Daewoo and badge-engineered by Opel — or is it the other way ’round? How much of a difference is there between Theta, which underpinned the original Vue and Equinox, and Theta II, which is the current Equinox, and Theta Premium, which is the basis of the SRX? Where did the second-generation Saturn Vue fit into all of this?

The Vue-2 was supposedly developed by Opel to be the Opel Antara, after which it was brought to the United States with as few changes as possible. It predated the SRX but GM sources claim there are significant differences between it and the SRX. Take a look at these two shots and tell me you can’t just see the common bones. You don’t need to be Sajeev Mehta to recognize “hard points” under the skin on this pair:

Supposedly the major difference between the Vue and the SRX was the “premium wheelbase” of the latter. The new Equinox, however, has an even longer wheelbase. Who’s premium now?

In its first and only full year on sale at Saturn dealerships, the Vue-2 knocked out 86,000 units or thereabouts. That’s not small volume, and it would be reasonable to assume that GM would like to hold on to some of that volume. It’s also reasonable to assume that one years’ worth of Vue sales didn’t pay the bills on bringing that vehicle. What to do?

Here’s what they did: the Vue returned for 2012 as the “Chevrolet Captiva Sport”. You’ve probably seen a few of them prowling around. Don’t confuse this with the Chevrolet Captiva sold elsewhere in the world, which is a Daewoo Theta aimed at, and assembled in, developing markets. This is just a re-animated Saturn Vue. They look exactly like Saturn Vues, with the exception of Chevrolet badging. The few reviews and/or news stories I have seen about the 2012 “Captiva Sport” have a surprising number of comments from 2008 Vue owners who would like to buy another one.

Unless their last names are “Avis” or “Budget”, however, they won’t have any luck. The Captiva is a fleet-only model designed to keep the Mexican SRX/Captiva plant humming. If you reserve an “SUV” from a GM-affiliated rental company, odds are you will be receiving a Captiva.

What’s good about this idea? Well, it keeps Mexico working, which is important to GM. It also keeps Equinoxes out of fleets, which is good because four-cylinder Equinoxes have been thin on the ground at dealers for some time now. When my brother went to buy his Equinox last year, he had to do some serious looking around. V-6 models and unpopular option combos were about all you could get without waiting.

What’s bad about this idea? Once again, GM is selling an old vehicle through fleets. This doesn’t help the brand’s image, and it ensures that a lot of people have their first “GM experience” in an obsolete car. The Captiva is five years old and hasn’t been revamped even slightly.

Since the Captiva isn’t sold in dealers, even if people do enjoy a Captiva rental, they can’t convert it into Chevrolet ownership. Instead, they will be shown an Equinox, which isn’t really the same vehicle, doesn’t drive the same, and isn’t priced to the same value standard as the outgoing Vue. The same is true for those Vue owners who would like to get something similar. It’s Equinox or nothing for these buyers, who are then forced to watch a parade of Captivas leaving the airport every afternoon.

What will the resale value of ex-fleet Captivas be? Will they sit next to Equinoxes at used-car lots? Will parts be widely available? Will GMAC finance them at attractive rates? What will it cost GM in the long run to keep Mexico humming at full chat?

Short-term thinking at the expense of long-term benefit is, of course, the truest hallmark of GM. It’s outlasted the soft-square seatbelt buckles, the Rallye steel wheels, and the formal roofline. Nothing says “GM” like chasing today’s dollar. It’s tempting, and depressing, to think that it will ever be so.

In the meantime, TTACers on the lookout for a nice, solid pre-owned SUV might want to check out the Captiva when it appears at the auctions. It’s not as “Premium” as an SRX, and it’s not as, um, “2″ as an Equinox, but it will be dirt-cheap and rather satisfying for the price. In fact, from a certain point of VUE, it might even be CAPTIVAting. Chuckle.

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47 Comments on “Chevrolet Ignores A Captiva Audience; Cadillac Gets SRXy...”


  • avatar
    Secret Hi5

    Is this piece a set-up for an article on the Chevy Trax?

    (I almost picked a Captiva at the rental lot, but decided on a Nissan Maxima instead. TTAC should review a Captiva just for giggles.)

  • avatar
    Russycle

    Quite the dilemma. That plant in Mexico represents significant sunk costs. In the good old days, GM could have walked away, took the hit, and barely noticed it. But those days are gone, and they wouldn’t have done that anyway, because old GM would never leave a penny lying on the ground.

    So what’s job 1? Generate as much profit as possible to get out of the bankruptcy shadow, or rebuild the GM brand into something people actually want? I’m not sure myself what it should be, but it looks like they’re going for option 1.

  • avatar
    mike978

    I have heard several points of view about fleet sales on TTAC. Quite a few people think selling to fleets, especially daily rental fleets, is not an image booster and should be avoided (quite a few complaints when allegedly around 45% of Focus sales last year were fleet).
    So having the fleet only Captiva does protect the Equinox, which does seem to be doing very well – so maybe it is working.

    Secret – I just saw on Edmunds the article about the Trax. Maybe the Captiva is a one year thing before the Trax comes over. Time will tell.

    Won`t the Captiva be updated as the Antara gets updated?

    • 0 avatar
      Les

      I think the main theme of the complaint about fleet sails is when a major automotive manufacturing concern builds a significant chunk of it’s business model around fleet sales to the detriment of the product going out to individual owners.

  • avatar
    moedaman

    What makes you think that these cars will sold in NA when their time is over? I bet they get shipped overseas. It’s been done before with dirt cheap lease vehicles.

  • avatar
    BobAsh

    Well, I haven’t driven the Captiva yet (and I kind of hope I never will), but I spent a week with Antara aka Vue-2 aka Captiva Sport, which is said to be “sister model” to the Captiva and it is shit. It’s ugly, cramped, slow, thirsty as hell, it doesn’t handle and it rides like s**t.

    From what I heard from my colleagues who have driven both, the Captiva is even bigger piece of crap than Antara.

    Why would anyone regret such a turd not being sold in US?

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    You’re leaving out the other Thetas: the GMC Equinox (the name escapes me and I’m too lazy to look it up) and the never-was-that-could’ve-been-a-has-been Saab 9-4x.

    That said, I’m surprised they’re not selling this as a Pontia… er, Buick. That would have been de rigeur for GM.

    • 0 avatar
      Mark MacInnis

      That’d be the GMC Terrain. Known in certain cirles as the GMC Drain…..as in what it does to the owner’s bank account….

    • 0 avatar
      FromaBuick6

      I read this article waiting for Jack to mention the Terrain. Even then I still forgot about the 9-4x; I actually saw one of those things at my local Kroger last fall.

      Ripping GM for making three redundant Theta variants when there were actually five (six if you split hairs on the Captiva/Vue and seven if you count the stillborn Buick version) makes this all the more hilarious. GM continues to learn nothing from its myriad mistakes.

    • 0 avatar
      ajla

      The Suzuki XL7 was also a Theta.

  • avatar
    Conslaw

    I reserved a “large” car at Hertz at Las Vegas last month. Their example “large” car is a Chevrolet Impala. When I got to the counter, they initially tried to give me an Altima, which I didn’t want because the trunk wasn’t big enough. Then the lady said they had a Chevrolet Captiva. Huh? I said. Then I remembered reading that it was a Saturn Vue with Chevy grill & badges. By the time she put the info in the computer, the Captiva was gone, and I ended up with a Mazda5. The Mazda5 was probably at least as nice as the Captiva.

    At autotrader.com, a new Captiva Sport will cost you $24k and change. Slightly used ones are mostly going for $22k and change. To buy new, you probably have to do some paperwork claiming you are a fleet buyer, similar to the wink, wink, nod, nod paperwork you need to buy a “police only” Caprice.

  • avatar
    Bancho

    Nice timely article Jack. I’d been seeing these things in the Seattle area recently and was never able to get a good look at them. I knew it was the old Vue but with a Chevy badge. I figured they were just some Canada only version until I read this article.

    • 0 avatar
      threeer

      Same here…I thought they were from up North and wasn’t paying any attention to the tell-tale Rental Barcode giveaway. I was surprised to see any at all. While a sale is a sale, this seems a tad odd…then again, maybe GM is planning on providing “fleet-only” production for old vehicle lines. What next, Corsicas running around again??

      • 0 avatar
        bkmurph

        @threeer, No more Corsicas, but your thinking isn’t so far-fetched. The first two generations of the FWD Malibu each remained in production for fleets as the ‘Chevrolet Classic’ when the subsequent generation became available for retail customers. According to Wikipedia, the trend will continue with the Epsilon Malibu soldiering on for fleet sales and the Epsilon II going to retail customers.

  • avatar
    28-cars-later

    This dilemma reminds me of the branding issues Jack discussed in his Panther article a few weeks back. He touched on an interesting point, Ford is trying to move its name upscale (with some success) and ‘working’ Ford models such a Ranger and Panther needed to die due to this. But what if those models could continue as another brand, a fleet only type of brand which wouldn’t interfere with the marketing of the parent brand. If there’s one thing GM had in spades, it was dead brands walking. Why not revive one of those name for a fleet only brand of whatever discontinued platforms the General can profit on with minimal changes? Saturn as a rental only brand perhaps, and as someone said earlier ship the cars overseas when the leases end? Do I need to ensure I took my meds this morning? What do you think?

    • 0 avatar
      Secret Hi5

      Fleet buyers do consider resale value, so a formerly-dead brand vehicle would be less appealing (with assumption that such vehicles have low resale value).

      • 0 avatar
        28-cars-later

        What if they didn’t have the option to purchase and could only lease, thereby eliminating the resale issue? You lease for X amount over X period and return them.

      • 0 avatar
        KalapanaBlack

        The way rental fleets work is you either buy the car outright and take the RISK, or you sign onto a guaranteed repurchase program guided by the manufacturer. If the latter occurs, GM would be left holding a VERY hefty bill for the depreciated value of the vehicles at the end of the fleet lease. If they didn’t offer a competitive gauranteed repurchase figure, no fleets would sign on for those models. Conversely, if GM dumped it into the fleets’ hands and offered them as risk-only, nobody would sign on to take the depreciation hit themselves.

        Therefore, neither scenario would really work out for GM using a dead brand. They are stuck.

        FYI, I’ve actually been in a few Captivas. They did actually update a few random (small) things. The interior’s overall design has been massaged (climate and radio are slightly different, seat and dash materials are updated to Cruze-esque, the gauges are different, the parking brake is electronic push-button instead of old-style lever, the turn signal and wiper stalks are newer GM stock), and the exterior paintwork has been changed a bit (more lower body parts are painted than in even the higher-trim Vues I was in during the body’s past life). Now you know!

        Still the same crappy-sounding, absurdly weak Ecotec hamster wheel chugging away pointlessly against 4200 lbs.

  • avatar
    FreedMike

    And thus goes today’s “find something, anything, to trash GM for” post…

  • avatar
    asapuntz

    > the cheapie being made in Ontario and the luxury model in Mexico

    Assuming Mexico is the lower-cost facility, I would have thought it would be better to have the high-volume lower-profit model made there?

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      You’d think, right?

    • 0 avatar
      tresmonos

      Mexico yields aren’t as cheap as you’d think: (it still is cheap, don’t get me wrong) a lot of tooling goes to the way side in favor of head count.

      Regardless, this model is an excellent way to thwart law suits from suppliers and to pump rental fleets with non ‘core product.’ It’s hard to keep a plant on hold for future commitments when you have a model life cycle sucked out of it via bankruptcy. Ford has been a culprit of this, pumping out Taurii while they conducted studies on whether to shut Atlanta assembly down or hold it for another product. The Panther ended it’s life as a ‘fleet only’ model, as well.

  • avatar
    Conslaw

    To defend GM: If GM have the tooling on the shelf, the excess production capacity, and ready demand for vehicles that will otherwise be bought from my competitors, why not crank out l0-20,000 units a year? I suspect Chevrolet will sell more Captiva Sports this year than Acura sells RLs.

  • avatar
    philadlj

    Re the “Chevy Trax” – it’s a variant of the Opel Mokka and Buick Encore that’ll be unveiled at the Paris Motor Show.

    http://www.autoblog.com/2012/05/14/chevrolet-trax-crossover-headed-to-paris-not-bound-for-u-s/

    The US will get the Buick Encore, but NOT the Trax. Chevy is probably worried it would sap Equinox (or Encore) sales – the same problem they have with selling the Trailblazer in the U.S.

    Personally, it makes more sense as a Chevy than a BUICK, but what do I know?

  • avatar
    fincar1

    One of my friends knows a guy who buys cars in bulk from rental fleets and resells them. Maybe I ought to see if I can meet that guy and talk to him. That’s a part of the car market I don’t know anything about.

  • avatar
    dcdriver

    I saw a few of these in Orlando last month. I recognized it as the Vue and the Chevy badges had me confused. It looked nice though. So I decided to google it and there is tons of chatter out there about the Captiva Sport, a lot of people who rented one love it and wish they could buy it.

  • avatar
    Hank

    Ah, so that’s why I keep seeing Captivas in NY. I wondered what the deal was.

    • 0 avatar
      MRF 95 T-Bird

      Same here I’ve seen at least 3 here in NYC this past week alone. I figured they brought it back or just fleet only. I’m surprised they did not just do a Buick version so they could have a small CUV.

  • avatar
    dcars

    I wonder how many Vue Owners actually would want to pay for a new/old Vue? They would be much better off to buy the new “Nox.”

    • 0 avatar
      dcdriver

      The Vue/Captiva Sport is actually smaller that the Equinox. It’s about 7 inches shorter in length.

      GM made the Equinox, Terrain and SRX larger than most/all of the other “compact” CUV’s so there actually is room for a smaller CUV in their lineup. Something like the new Maxda CX-5.

  • avatar
    Speed3

    Several points. First, I don’t think its really fair to say the SRX is basically the same as the old Saturn Vue. Yes they share a lot of common parts, but there are substantial differences (engine, transmission, every interior and exterior part). Yes they look similar, but if they are the same vehicle in your eyes, I’d love to hear your opinion how different the Lexus ES is from the Toyota Camry.

    Second, I think in this case GM just REALLY wanted to squeeze all the possible money out of the development costs. They already tried pushing this vehicle as a Buick, remember the Vuick revolt anybody? In other circumstances, GM just dropped decent vehicles and cut their losses (remember the Olds Aurora? Of course you don’t but it could have been a decent Buick or Chevy).

  • avatar
    ajla

    The Vue XR was the best Theta GM ever built.
    FACT.

  • avatar
    APaGttH

    I just spent 627 miles in a Captiva, most of it behind its incredibly oversized and awkward feeling tiller.

    PROS: Roomy – damn amazing headroom in particular, great forward visibility, whisper quiet interior, great highway ride, and surprisingly good handling for a midsize CUV on the twisties – no not BMW/Porsche good but good, not a half-bad sounding stereo, was able to setup Bluetooth with no owner’s manual – very intuitive

    CONS: Outdated Playskool plastic interior, instrumentation so cheap that GM didn’t even bother to worry about LED diffusion patterns, horrible oversized awkward feeling steering wheel, uncomfortable seating lacking lumbar support, mediocre fuel economy yes I get it’s a V6, gearing programmed to be so biased to fuel economy to make driving an overall miserable experience while not helping, non-existent rear visibility (although I could say that about a lot of other vehicles)

    We hated it. Penalty box on wheels. I completely agree that someone reading about the new “GM” climbing behind the wheel of a Captiva would get the right wrong impression. (yes I meant to write the right wrong impression)

    • 0 avatar
      mike978

      Sounds like some simple fixes to make it competitive – improve the interior, change the steering wheel and reprogram the transmission. Not that difficult. At least it seems to have a fair few positives – still no Mazda CX5 though.

  • avatar
    Maintainer

    Does this mean that Cadillac is becoming the Mercury? Lincoln?

    I can’t defend this. This is not Cadillac. It’s not where Cadillac needs to be and won’t be the path to it’s future.

    Mr. Baruth, I bow out. Cadillac needs a modern 66 CDV or something “CAFE Continuum” style.

  • avatar
    BobAsh

    Well, I haven’t driven the Captiva yet (and I kind of hope I never will), but I spent a week with Antara aka Vue-2 aka Captiva Sport, which is said to be “sister model” to the Captiva and it is shit. It’s ugly, cramped, slow, thirsty as hell, it doesn’t handle and it rides like s**t.

    From what I heard from my colleagues who have driven both, the Captiva is even bigger piece of crap than Antara.

    Why would anyone regret such a turd not being sold in US?

  • avatar
    geozinger

    Hmmm. I wonder where I could get one.

    My wife loved the old Saturn Vue, she mentions it every time we see one. I wasn’t so thrilled about them myself, but I’m not thrilled about SUV’s in general, either.

    At least this way I could get her something that she liked/likes, and off my back at the same time…

  • avatar
    doctor olds

    These Toyotas are all built on the same platform:
    Lexus RX 330; Toyota Avalon, Camry, Camry Hybrid, Sienna, Venza


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