By on August 6, 2012

An Automotive News article on the second anniversary of GM CEO Dan Akerson’s tenure sheds some light on the genesis of the Chevrolet Malibu Eco, and the puzzling decision to stagger the launch of the new mid-size sedan.

AN’s Mike Colias reports that

Last year Akerson asked his executive team to accelerate by six months the planned launch of the redesigned Chevrolet Malibu. He got a cool response. The base engine wouldn’t be ready in time for the launch Akerson sought. Debuting with a different powertrain would be costly and potentially delay the launch of higher-volume models, Akerson was warned.

“He was told that it was a mistake,” one a former executive said. “But he couldn’t understand why it would take so long.”

His team dutifully fast-tracked the launch by fitting the car with a readily available 2.4-liter engine paired with a mild hybrid system to create the Malibu Eco. Since its January debut, though, sales have been tepid as GM sold down discounted versions of the outgoing 2012 model.

While a delayed launch would have seen the Malibu going head to head against the all-new Fusion and Accord (while letting the new Altima get a jump on the competition), there’s no doubt that the Malibu Eco has gotten a cool response of its own. Reading Mary Walton’s Car has made me give second thought to armchair criticism of new car launches, but while the DN101 Taurus was supposed to be a world-beater, the Malibu appears to be fraught with compromises needed for international sale, and the victim of a mis-managed rollout.

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32 Comments on “Automotive News Sheds Light On Akerson’s Role In The 2013 Chevrolet Malibu Launch...”

  • avatar

    Yup, Akerson’s just upholding a sacred, long held GM tradition: Launch a car with a tepid, outdated drivetrain. GM did it with Fiero and many others, guaranteeing that the model will be saddled with a negative reputation for the rest of its model life. Good to see that long held traditions are not abandoned! I guess we should be thankful that the Malibu isn’t launched with the Iron Duke!

    • 0 avatar

      The same thing that doomed the 92′ STS and Caddy’s resurgence, the STS was revolutionary in design, had everything required to compete with the Germans, but the Northstar was 6 months behind schedule, did they hold off the release for 6 months? No, they just stuck the old 4.9 in and all of the doctors and lawyers that bought the 92′, were back their preferred German brands by the next year (always wondered how so many teachers at my high school had one year old caddy’s in 93′) and the STS never recovered.

      • 0 avatar
        George B

        rnc wrote “…the STS was revolutionary in design, had everything required to compete with the Germans, but the Northstar was 6 months behind schedule,…”

        I totally disagree. In the real world where most customers don’t get GM employee pricing, the Cadillac STS never had a chance to compete with the Germans. GM could have launched the STS with a perfectly fine LS Corvette engine, but is would still be front wheel drive with a big front overhang and side profile proportions no more prestigious than a rental Impala. Audi has shown it’s possible to compete at the top with a FWD platform, but they designed a transmission to move the wheels forward and their styling hides much of the FWD overhang.

  • avatar

    A man with little manufacturing experience who lobbied his way into the job makes an executive decision that doesn’t make sense? Wow…

    Seriously, it is easy for us all to second guess this. I am sure he had some reasons, valid or imagined, for doing this. But I will be surprised if his actions catch up to him anytime soon. Meanwhile, New GM will be suffering through his tenure.

    • 0 avatar

      “A man with little manufacturing experience who lobbied his way into the job makes an executive decision that doesn’t make sense? Wow… Seriously, it is easy for us all to second guess this. I am sure he had some reasons, valid or imagined, for doing this. But I will be surprised if his actions catch up to him anytime soon. Meanwhile, New GM will be suffering through his tenure.”

      We had the same experience when a manufacturing manager was transferred in to take over our plant. He truly had no idea what our market was like and didn’t know that you can’t run a custom, one-off business the same way as a standardized, mass-market business. It wasn’t that what he did was wrong as much as it was wrong for us & our customers.

      My completely uneducated guess is that Akerson believed being first to market was essential, and he was in denial about the development schedule of the engine(s). I expect that if GM could have gotten the engines ready in time, the car would have been a success, but Akerson’s denial caused him to completely miscalculate the downside risk of his decision. This is not the first time that we’ve seen unfinished (and thus poor) products get released because of arbitrary, yet hard, business deadlines.

  • avatar

    According to a GM employee I spoke with recently, Akerson also made a number of changes to the Corvette.

    This person was not directly involved with the Corvette, so his information was second hand and could be inaccurate. I certainly hope so, as Akerson has no business second-guessing the team that has lived and breathed the car.

    • 0 avatar

      This did also happen at the old GM. I knew someone at the locomotive division who was so upset he couldn’t spit, this after a Detroit exec had scolded the plant management and manufacturing engineers for not running the operation like a car plant. The exec had no concept of project work and that each build lot of was customized for each railroad.

  • avatar

    According to Forbes, “Akerson, in charge since 2010, has a reputation as an iron-fisted leader, a former Naval officer who demands high performance from his deputies.”

    Translated into undiplomatic English, that would mean that Akerson has a ‘tude and likes to pull rank on his “team”.

    I don’t know for sure whether Forbes is correct, but this article in Automotive News would support that position.

    Akerson set a target that wasn’t achievable, despite having received advice that had counseled him against it. By not listening to that advice, he harmed the company, but is unlikely to take responsibility for inflicting that harm.

    This is a good example of how “accountability” in the corporate world often manifests itself, i.e. the blame is pushed downward by those who caused the problem in the first place. The bad ideas come from one place, while the price for those bad ideas is paid from another.

    This might provide some insights into why Ewanick was not only fired, but badmouthed. Perhaps unlike the folks who went along for the ride with Akerson’s Malibu launch plan, Ewanick may have clashed with him about something, which would have caused personal offense.

    • 0 avatar

      Funny thing is that Akerson probably thinks that he is in full Steve Jobs mode… and now GM is just like Apple.

      • 0 avatar

        “Funny thing is that Akerson probably thinks that he is in full Steve Jobs mode”

        What isn’t so funny is that the average grunt seems to believe that the Steve Jobs style of management is usually desirable.

        That sort of despotism rarely works well; if anything, it usually backfires, because it breeds a culture of yes men who learn to survive by keeping their mouths shut.

        Apple was an exception to the rule, because Jobs had a rare knack for appealing styling and user friendly design that is atypical within his industry. (Having second mover advantage in the music download business didn’t hurt, either.) There is no reason for most companies to emulate that management style, and a lot more compelling reasons for them to avoid it.

  • avatar

    When one is beholding to the government, this is what you wind up with, CAFE standards notwithstanding. GM must be rueing the day!

    As we were shopping for my 2004 Impala replacement, we looked at a Malibu, which I always thought of as a very nice car, but with a 4 cyl. and a big, extra battery taking up trunk volume, we went with the last W-Body Impala, and I’m happy we did.

    I don’t understand what advantage the Eco does, as the review on TTAC wasn’t positive, which I felt was quite objective.

    For the record, I briefly considered a new Camry, but as long as GM is building a car I can like, and based on the previous 8 years, I can’t wrap my arms around a Toyota or any other make. An emotional decision? You’d better believe it! But – my new Impala has a Cadillac engine, so how can that be bad? It runs like a jet fighter!

    MPG’s? jury’s still out on that one…uh, uh, uh…don’t touch that dial – stay tuned.

    • 0 avatar

      Zackman: I may be one of the few people who’s actually DRIVEN the Malibu Eco, at least as an average citizen. If I were still living (and commuting) in Atlanta, this car would be high on my list because one spends so much time creeping or stopped in traffic. Of course if your commute doesn’t involve very slow or stopped traffic, the benefit isn’t as great.

      With the new BAS system, it’s practically transparent; in my (very brief) time with the car, I didn’t notice any unusual behavior. If I hadn’t known in advance the car was a mild hybrid, I never could tell.

      Alas, living in a mid-sized town in the midwest, I rarely encounter big city traffic. I don’t think I need the capability that it offers. Of course, if gasoline prices shoot through the roof or there’s some major upheaval in our lifestyle, then it may make more sense. In the meantime, I’m waiting for the turbo SS version… :)

      • 0 avatar

        “Of course if your commute doesn’t involve very slow or stopped traffic, the benefit isn’t as great.”

        On the contrary geozinger, I also have driven the Malibu Eco on a few occasions and was most impressed with the highway mileage that I confirmed at 36.6 mpg. One of the other advantages, as I am sure you experienced was the “boost” that the eAssist system provides to the 2.4l 4cyl to the point of feeling like a 6cyl.

        I do agree that the hybrid system is very transparent. I have driven almost every automaker’s start/stop system and GM has the smoothest transition by far.

        For performance and practicality take a look at the current Regal GS. I am currently driving one and can’t get fun to drive grin off my face…

      • 0 avatar

        Nice ECO, bad ECO, it doesn’t matter. Longevity of these hybrid systems just plain scares me away (and it takes a long time to get payback on the up-front cost—if ever).

        In a world where $90/hour mechanics are hit or miss at fixing things, or say “it’s in-spec,” or “they all do that,” I’ll take the conventional gas engine, thank you.

    • 0 avatar

      So you did end up with a new Impala, eh Zman? Good to hear, and glad you’re enjoying the 3.6. I wish to someday own a car with that engine, too!

  • avatar

    I just lived through a few years of this sort of heck. When sales and engineering/production are in balance, things tend to work. Too often, sales rules engineering (though the converse is just as bad), to the detriment of the product.

    However, it’s easy to put the blame on a single individual… but all along, the sales side of the company knows it’s the wrong decision as well, but too often again, their short term incentives aren’t aligned with the product guys. That’s why I’ve always said that foundation of management is that corporate culture comes first.

  • avatar

    No doubt the roll-out has been mis-managed. Any impact on Malibu sales will take some time to showup. However this is just one launch, albeit of a large volume car, with other recent launches being successful – Cruze, Sonic and Equinox. The new Impala seems like it will launch with all the powertrains in place and no staggered launch planned.

    • 0 avatar

      And the XTS and ATS as well…

      • 0 avatar

        True, although you can criticize the base ATS engine.

        I was just thinking back and when the previous generation 3 series came out in 2006 it was the 325 and 330. One model year later the engines got updated and became the 328 and 335. So BMW were not completely lined up. That is different to having two models out (the new one and the soon to be dead one) at the same time. But it does show that engineering is not always completely aligned.

      • 0 avatar

        Mike978, BMW almost never debuts a new 3 series with a new set of engines. I understand what you’re saying, but BMW is a bad example because what you see from them was planned at least 6 months in advance.

        Akerson, on the other hand, strikes me as a moron.

  • avatar

    Contrast Akerson’s move to Marchionne’s, when he made the gut decision last April to delay the Alfa-Romeo Giulia’s launch (seemingly indefinitely) because he wasn’t satisfied with the designs.

    He said: “The pencil went wrong and I don’t think it’s an Alfa”

    “The Giulia is so critical. If we butcher that one, we are done in North America.”

    “If we take the badge off and can’t tell that’s an Alfa, that’s a concern.”

    I’m not a fan of everything Sergio says or does, but when it comes to cars that mean a lot to the company – delaying is preferable to rushing.

    Launching the Malibu early has gotten Chevy nowhere. Launching only the mediocre Eco hardly means Chevy’s ‘done in North America’…

    …but when spokesman Tim Allen opens the newest wave of Chevy ads airing during the Olympics with “Great companies – companies that make great things”…I look at the Eco and all its compromises and shortcomings, and can’t help but chuckle at the line…THAT’s a concern.

    Of course, if customers don’t like their Ecos, they can always send them back.

    • 0 avatar

      Yeah,I thought the same thing except substitute Toyoda for Marchionne

      • 0 avatar
        Athos Nobile

        The Giulia has been delayed for several years already, and again and again and again. And IIRC the 159 was killed last year (adding insult to injury). So I don’t think Marchione vs Akerson is an apples to apples comparison.

        At some point Alfa will have to put the product out, otherwise it will fade into irrelevance.

        What has Toyoda delayed? Everything that has been “offered/promised” is out: 86, Prius C/V/PHEV, Lexus (various), EV RAV4

    • 0 avatar

      That’s similar to what Hyundai’s Chairman Chung did as well with the Genesis sedan.

      The initial design of the Genesis was penned by an outside design firm and all the tooling was done for production, but Chung wasn’t happy with the design (didn’t know why it got to that point) and ordered a redesign, even it meant the cost of the prior tooling had to be written off.

      Akerson just doesn’t seem to be a ‘car guy.”

  • avatar

    Also in the same article:
    “And yet, in many ways GM is in better shape than it has been in decades. Last year it delivered a record net profit of $7.6 billion. Its $2.49 billion in net profit for the first half of this year edged that of rival Ford Motor Co.

    Some GM insiders praise Akerson’s quick trigger on decisions as an antidote to the plodding ways of the old GM.”

    I am glad you gave the link to the article so I could read the whole thing.

  • avatar

    It’s pretty obvious why he wanted to accelerate the launch.

    When the new ‘bu came out as an ’08 it was given praise for being vastly better than the disaster it replaced, the interior quality was nothing seen from GM in a bread and butter sedan, and the V6 version was almost fun to drive. They had come darn close to catching up. Faint praise but given how far behind they were A for effort.

    I remember when I drove my first rental ‘bu a 4-banger LTZ Spring edition – everyone in my group (work) was really impressed. We were surprised at a number of thing, but I did feel it was light on power.

    Had a ‘bu in 11 as a rental for a week. Wow, the car had not aged well at all.

    That’s why I’m guessing that Ackerson wanted to speed up the launch by six months. But he should have listened to his engineers on this one – the side-by-side sale of the ’12 ‘bu and the ’13 ‘bu with huge amounts of cash on the hood of what is the better of the two is definitely a big fat slice of the “old” GM.

  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    What number were we up to in the GM Deathwatch series?

  • avatar

    The silver lining is that perhaps many people bought the outgoing model since the new one wasn’t much of an improvement (and a lot more expensive), essentially clearing out all of last year’s inventory.

  • avatar

    The flipside of “too big to fail” is “too incompetent to succeed.”

  • avatar

    It’s been several years since I read Walton’s “Car”, but IIRC Toyota decontented the Camry and cut the price, so that made it difficult for the new Taurus. But I remember that members of the Taurus team were dealt with harshly even though they hit the targets of cost and time. An example of being punished for doing the job assigned.

    I suppose a CEO with a quick trigger finger will get it right some of the time, but it’s a bad process. Given his utter lack of experience and even knowledge of the car business, Akerson should be a humble guy at this stage. If you don’t believe in your team, change the team. From what I read of Akerson, he’s got an ego that far outweighs his ability. Enough signs are out there for the board to be seeking an alternative.

  • avatar
    el scotto

    I just Googled Ackerson. Naval Academy and London School of Economics graduate. MCI, Nextel, and XO Communications stand out. He went from cell phones to vehicles. The irony of you should be operating one but not the other really sticks out.

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