“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.