By on February 23, 2010

It was bound to happen.  Combine the irresistible force of the Datsun 240 Z with the charming demeanor of TTAC’s “LeMons Racing Experience” (LRE) team captain, Troy Hogan, and we were bound to win something.  And that point was the February 2010 running of the 24 Hours of LeMons in Houston.

We didn’t win the race, unless in 28th place counts as winning. But this time we got a prize, the highly coveted Index of Effluency now rests on our mantle:  and it is the top prize in LeMon Land. To quote judge Murilee Martin,it is “the pinnacle of all LeMons awards….(given) to the team that accomplishes the most with the crappiest car.”  While we always had the latter, the former is the textbook definition of “added perk.” And our new paint job (fashioned from the Paul Newman-era BRE racing livery) certainly looks trophy-worthy. The $1500 worth of nickels didn’t hurt either, even if we shouldn’t put them on the roof of the car for photography.

(Read More…)

By on August 18, 2009

While driving the Buick LaCrosse, I asked Line Director Jeanne Merchant a question: what could she tell me about reliability that would persuade me, a satisfied Toyota owner, to jump ship? Merchant gave a pretty good answer, but I was busy trying not to run over traffic cones. In a subsequent phone interview, Merchant said reliability starts early in the process. From design to component testing, from durability tests to audits and feedback, from computer modeling to real world testing, they make sure every part of the car and all its systems are built right and performing to specification. And they take it very, very seriously. “The LaCrosse is very personal to me,” Merchant said. “I’ve worked with it for years. Everybody else involved feels the same way. And the same goes for the other product lines.” Process and passion. Is it enough?

After hanging-out with the front line troops, I believe GM’s employees are fully committed to product excellence. But the product, manufacturing and service providers all depend on GM’s top management for critical support in delivering customer satisfaction and value. They’ve got to have top management support to make the hard decisions to put customer satisfaction and value first—even if it’s going to cost GM some money.

I asked two of the product managers, “Does Bob Lutz help you build better cars?” The first one I asked was taken aback. There was a moment of silence. He swallowed, started to speak, stopped and then, slowly, said, “Y-e-s.” I waited a minute. He didn’t elaborate.

The second manager I asked leaned back in his seat, tipped his head to the side, looked thoughtfully at me for a moment and then said, “Yes and no.” Apparently, there are things the troops want and don’t want in the vehicle. And then there are things top management wants and doesn’t want. Two guesses who wins that debate.

Lutz is just the most visible and outspoken GM executive. But he’s symbolic of GM’s top down management style. CEO Fritz Henderson told us the New GM would put the customer first. But the morning’s events left me with the overwhelming impression that nothing has changed at GM, and nothing is likely to change. The good people at the sharp end must still bend their will to executives; heavy hitters with a tin ear for the advice given by the people who really know how to make great cars.

Did GM Win Me Over?

To get an actual sale from me would be tough. I want a very quiet car with exceptional fuel economy and good interior room at a good price. I want a decade of reliable, trouble-free motoring, because that’s what I have now and it’s worth a lot of money to me to keep it. Dave wants the same things, too.

GM employees were only happy to address these issues. But finding a way to reassure me that GM is on track for Prius-beating answers was not an official part of the days’ events.

Dave is a very focused guy. His benchmark is Hyundai’s 10/100 warranty. He won’t have to worry about his two cars for quite some years after they’re paid off and he likes it that way. He mentioned this requirement to GM people at the track or whenever the opportunity presented itself.

He sat beside me through Lutz’ talk and heard Lutz say, “I get letters telling me, ‘you should offer a 100 thousand mile warranty.’ I tell them, ‘We have a [five year] 100 thousand mile warranty!’” I actually heard Dave snort. Maybe I don’t know Dave as well as I think I do, but I’d bet his decision didn’t take very long. “No 10/100? Well, thanks for the rides. Be seein’ ya.”

GM didn’t win Dave over.

The people I talked to at the Proving Ground made a very favorable impression on me. Most of the cars made a very favorable impression on me. I liked the LaCrosse quite a bit. I liked the Cruze interior very much, and I’m sorry the car couldn’t be driven. In a world without a Prius, I would be the target market for that car. Yes, I’d rate the Malibu “not as good” as the Camry, but it’s still pretty good. There are cars in the GM lineup that appeal to me.

If GM had flown me from the Twin Cities to Detroit at lunchtime, brought me straight to the Proving Ground and walked me right out to the cars, GM would have won. But GM brought me to Detroit twenty-one hours early and exposed me to GM’s top management.

Lutz seemed convinced that five years coverage is as good as 10. He wanted me believe that GM is a victim of a “perception gap”— when we know that GM is actually a victim of its own reputation and many years of failing to put the customer first. The party line is that GM quality is right up there with the leaders, but GM won’t back the cars as though they believe it. Henderson didn’t add anything concrete.

GM failed to provide a compelling reason to believe that GM products will deliver the 10 year reliability that I, and millions of other motorists, expect. They could have shown me some engineering excellence up close and personal. See? This is where we beat the competition. This is the difference between us and them. They didn’t.

The message I received from my junket: GM’s top management doesn’t think they have to deliver the goods on customer satisfaction. They believe I can be manipulated into believing whatever they want me to believe about GM, and that the appearance of caring for the customer is more important than the care the customer actually receives.

GM didn’t win me over, and, frankly, I feel pretty bad about it.

While I was on the phone with Jeanne Merchant and Randy Fox, Randy asked a couple of leading questions. I told them how the story was going to end. I explained my lack of confidence in GM’s top management. I didn’t feel that they would leap on an opportunity to fully resolve—and learn from—a customer satisfaction problem. I asked Merchant what she thought about that.

What’s most painful to me is the feeling that we’ve let the customers down. I’ve been involved in recalls and they’re painful but we do the right thing. I keep pushing until we do the right thing.

No wonder the real journalists drink. You meet some great people on these junkets, but if you pay attention, the story just doesn’t go their way. Maybe GM will call in a crack re-write team. Meanwhile, no sale.

By on August 15, 2009

[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.

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.

“Sure!”

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.

Chevrolet Malibu

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?

Clean Diesel

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.

Cruze Control

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?”

“Absolutely!”

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?”

“Sure!”

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.

Greenhorn?

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]

By on August 14, 2009

A few weeks ago, I received this from GM Communications: “I’ve noticed some of your comments on our Fastlane blog. We are looking for passionate and influential consumers to participate in an upcoming showcase on August 10, 2010 [sic], in Detroit, MI. Would you be interested in a GM-hosted opportunity like this to learn more about our future vehicles and company?” I was more than a little surprised; my FastLane posts are generally uncomplimentary regarding GM’s products and business decisions. “Do they know we own three Toyotas?” my wife asked. “And we gave a fourth to our daughter, who’s happily driving it at 150 thousand miles?” “I think that’s part of it; they want to know what it will take to win me over.” “They could try building cars that are as reliable as Toyotas.” “I’ve suggested that.” “Don’t you dare bring home a GM car,” she warned.

I asked my long-time Scouting buddy Dave to come along. Dave recently bought his second Hyundai; he’s as pleased as punch with it. He looked at me warily. “They’re not going to expect us to buy a car, are they?” “Oh, no, certainly not. They’re probably interested in what they can do to win you over, though.” “They could offer a ten year, 100 thousand mile warranty, like Hyundai,” Dave suggested. “Until then, no sale.”

We flew to Detroit on August 9th, courtesy of GM. A company rep met us at the airport and whisked us to the GM Heritage Center via Cadillac CTS. This was also my first ride ever in a CTS—possibly my first ride in any Cadillac since I’d driven my grandfather’s ’68 Sedan de Ville back in 1971 or so. I remember taking a girl on a date in the de Ville. When I pulled up in front of her house she actually said, “Oh my, a Cadillac!”

The CTS’ rear seat didn’t have enough legroom. A fairly short writer named Sean Kennedy occupied the passenger seat in front of me. When I asked him to move his seat up, he fumbled around for power-controls on the right of the seat for a few minutes. He eventually discovered the standard, manual lever under the front lip of the seat, and moved his chair forward enough for me to be comfortable.

When I got home, I looked at the Lexus web site; power seats appear to be standard on an ES350. It also looks like they come standard on a Camry XLE. Is manual seat adjustment a problem for Caddy’s supposed BMW beater? The CTS’ rear-seat passengers get cup holders in the flip-down armrest. Dave and I placed a pair of water bottles inside. They kept threatening to fall over and out of the cup holder. Again, no biggie?

The CTS rides smoothly (if illegally) at 80. I guess Cadillac thinks stiff leather is somehow sporting; I prefer soft skins. The CTS roofline was a bit of an issue: I couldn’t see out of the windows without craning my neck (I’m just over 6′3″). The next day, I asked a GM’er who works in interior design about passenger visibility. He acknowledged the tradeoff between ergonomics and style. Anyway, the more important question: would someone say, “Oh, my! A Cadillac!” I’m not so sure.

Heritage

From an architectural point of view, GM Heritage Center is slightly above warehouse grade. But the cars put Dave and me in Car Guy Heaven. The selection seems geared towards the Boomer demographic and just a tad later. The collection showcased a number of GM concept cars, including some of those early fighter-aircraft inspired Firebird concepts—the type of machines I ogled in Popular Science convinced they’d one day hit the road.

Dave and I wandered around, identifying cars from our personal history. “My aunt had one of those. My Dad had one of those.” “I had one of those, it died at 20K miles.” That too.

I located a couple of Cadillacs similar to my grandfather’s ’68, and Oldsmobiles similar to his and my parents’ ’64. We admired the 442s and Goats of various vintages. Yes! A Judge! In orange! Note: I was fourteen when that car was unleashed, and I loved the look. And I’m still buying a Prius when we need a new car. Times have changed, and so have I.

Tweet This

After a time, we ceased wandering and started scarfing. GM had scattered the space with buffet tables. As we refilled our tanks, I tried to get a feel for my fellow junketers.

On the ride over, Kennedy told me he’d tested the CTS-V at GM’s invitation in upstate New York. The Brooklynite claimed to have written for Elle and New York magazines. Aside from Dave and me, our feeding table was populated exclusively by women, who didn’t seem to be “into” cars. The most automotive-engaged of the bunch had recently purchased a CTS, replacing a MINI Cooper. She advised Christine Somebody from GM to “spread some of that CTS mojo to the rest of your cars.”

In fact, we were surrounding by Social Media types: Tweeters and Facebookers charged with spreading the GM message “virally.” I’m no stranger to computers and networks. I’ve worked in Information Technology for quite a long time. I can manage servers, set up a LAN, repair PCs, do anything you like with SQL databases, write useful programs in several different languages, etc. But I don’t bother to keep up with what the kids are doing. So I checked out some of the Twittering that resulted from this event.

None of what I discovered was “Tweeted” by children, but you wouldn’t know it from reading it. Self-editing doesn’t really figure; the group tends to communicate without inhibition, without any idea of sentence structure or coherent composition (call it “puddle of consciousness”). So it’s no surprise that some of the Tweeters in attendance didn’t have a lot of inhibitions about the things they said in person, either.

Social Media may be “hip,” but I doubt it’s as influential as GM and other large corporations believe. The effective lifespan of a Tweet or Facebook entry—should we admit that it contains editorial value—is measured in minutes. The lifetime of information on social media matches the lifetime of fads, not the lifetime of most of the things we need in our lives. And certainly not cars.

Anyway, Tom Pyden welcomed us. I made some illegible notes, something about “Proud Past/Bright Future.” And then it was off to bed.

At breakfast, I met a fellow FastLane commentator: “edvard.” His daily driver is a 14-year-old Toyota Tacoma. Although he likes the idea of the Chevy Volt, I think he’s going to be a tough sell for New GM.

Our first stop: GM’s Design Center, close to the Marriott. We started in the auditorium. Chris Preuss, due to replace Steve Harris as GM VP of Communications, told us who we were and why we were there. Yep, there was a lot of mutual love between GM and the new Social Media.

It’s the Perception Gap, Stupid

Then, to my delight, Bob Lutz appeared, introduced as GM’s “Chief Creative Officer.”

Lutz launched into an attack on the “perception gap,” identifying the “crappy state of journalism” as one of its causes. The room ate it up. Lutz also played the humility card, stating that the New GM had many people to thank, starting with the U.S. and Canadian taxpayers.

At about that time, I began to wonder when, exactly, GM was going to start to try to win me over. I consider GM’s insistent talk of the “perception gap” an insult to my intelligence. I know what value I’m getting from my Toyotas. I know what value my friends and neighbors did not get from their GM cars. My experience, my neighbor’s experience, Consumer Report’s evaluations and resale values all point one way: GM’s cars, for quite some time, have not been as anywhere near as good as the competition.

GM’s 2009’s may be just as good as the competition, or better, but we won’t know for ten years. Meanwhile, all this “perception gap” talk just digs the hole deeper. It makes me wonder if GM is still thinking they can win me over with tailfins, by blowing smoke.

At least Lutz admitted that “earlier models” had interiors that looked like they were made from “solidified lava.” But that’s all changed! “Why?” I wondered silently, “Is there a shortage of lava?” Lutz also revealed that he’s as happy as a clam about the New GM and its nice tidy balance sheet and its consequent new ability to compete and un-retired because the opportunities were now so much better for GM.

Amongst other things, Lutz failed to mention the fact that New GM’s nice tidy balance sheet came courtesy of a whole lot of people who got thrown under the bus. And he was one of the drivers.

We still don’t know the full extent of the collateral damage. TTAC recently reported that GM has abandoned its obligations to Olds dealers, who were receiving annual payments as compensation for closing down. New GM has also shifted its environmental cleanup obligations to Old GM.

Lutz addressed the “Government Motors” meme. According to Lutz, the Presidential Task Force on Automobiles (PTFOA) is letting GM run the business to make money so that the taxpayer can get the taxpayer’s money back. This makes quite a bit of sense and, frankly, I believe it.

Lutz implied that the PTFOA and the new Board of Directors were at least partially ignorant about what GM was really like. According to Lutz, the new Board was completely unaware that GM absolutely rocks on fuel economy. The Cobalt XFE (available only with a manual transmission) beats the rest of the class on the EPA tests.

Just don’t look too closely at the EPA web site because you’ll find that the XFE actual fuel economy reports don’t measure up to its EPA test scores. And at least some of the competition routinely beats their EPA test scores. And never mind the Prius or Yaris or any of those profitable small Toyotas against which GM doesn’t even compete.

Naturally, someone asked Lutz about global warming. Lutz was delighted to have the opportunity to call it a “crock of shit” without actually using the word “shit.” Happily enough, he’d just told a joke about “shit” that involved a clueless politician giving a speech and Native Americans whose word for “shit” was “hoya.” The audience had laughed at this joke, which I found astonishing; the joke is as old as elected office itself.

Lutz’ calling global warming a “crock of hoya” would be somewhat more credible if his lengthy answer hadn’t involved several “facts” which I know to be wrong. Why he bothers defending himself on this topic, or even discusses it, is an open question.

Someone (not a Tweeter) asked Lutz if GM was generating the necessary cash flow to survive at the current U.S. annual new car selling rate (SAAR). Bearing in mind that the Old Guard at GM claimed they were OK right to the bitter end, I’m taking Lutz’ “at 10 million, we’d like to break even” with a grain of salt. He also proffered that, at an 11 – 11.5 million SAAR and a consistent market share, New GM would be “comfortably profitable.”

New GM’s first income statement should be interesting.

Ed Welburn Lifts the Skirt

After Lutz rallied the troops, we visited the “Design Salons” for GM’s four remaining brands, starting with Cadillac.

I’ve gotten used to Cadillac’s “Art & Science” design language. While I’m not its biggest fan, I admire the way that the designers are applying it across Cadillac’s product line. Cadillacs look distinctive and resemble each other in key ways. I think this is important for a brand, and I think Cadillac is getting it right.

There were no particular surprises in the design salon, but we did get a chance to admire the cars and a couple of clay models. Dave burst out, “Those are made of clay?” I’d never seen clay models either; they are amazingly lifelike. Just don’t grab the door handles . . . they come right off.

Our next stop: GMC. For the most part, I am not a big fan of GMC. The new Terrain is, in my opinion, ugly. I know this sort of thing is highly subjective, but GMC’s adding design cues to an Equinox-sized vehicle to give it Yukon-sized visual dominance. The end result is grotesque. GM had better hope the Terrain sells on the surprisingly good fuel economy it shares with the Equinox.

GMC also showed us a clay model of a possible smaller GMC CUV, which was much more attractive than the Terrain (no pointless bulges over the wheel wells, for example). There was no mention of the vehicle’s proposed drivetrain. One of the GMC reps said they could squeeze 40 mpg out a [presumably four-cylinder] direct injection engine. In theory, that’s significantly better than a Toyota RAV4.

I had a question about the CUV’s doors. “Why bother if these won’t last past the concept stage? You never do suicide doors.” The GM rep patiently pointed out that GM has occasionally delivered rearward-opening doors on certain vehicles, like the Saturn 3-door coupe and some extended-cab trucks. Which is true but . . . I can’t recall any vehicle since the ’60’s Lincolns that had full-size suicide doors intended to be operated independently of the fronts.

Although I am not a big fan of the bulbous Buick Enclave, I generally like the brand’s design. The new LaCrosse’s v-curve body line reminds me of our ’57 Buick; an evocative touch. Buick had two extremely attractive clay models: another, smaller CUV and a new smaller sedan. The latter will most likely sit on GM’s Global Midsize Platform (they no longer call platforms by the Greek letters).

The Chevy Salon was set apart in a small, domed building. The Bow-Tie brand says they’ll offer a new Corvette Grand Sport (more than a regular Corvette, less than a Z06), a convertible Camaro (which looks far better than the hardtop, at least when the roof is stowed), Spark, Orlando, Cruze and new Malibu.

We saw a clay model likely to become the 2012 Malibu. It was an improvement in some ways, but the front-end profile looks more Camry than ever. You can’t win over airflow, I guess. Some described the new ’Bu as beautiful; it didn’t do that much for me. As the current Malibu was introduced in 2008, perhaps drivetrain changes are driving the redesign.

Ed Welburn spoke briefly about “The Lab”: GM’s interactive method for revealing design ideas to customers. I wonder if it’s practical and whether web-based customer data will lead to better cars. There’s often a lot of vocal web or enthusiast support for vehicle proposals, that may or may not survive and thrive in the marketplace. I’d be concerned that “The Lab” will get a lot of intense feedback from a skewed segment of the market: un- or under-employed people with nothing better to do.

Ed then revealed three new Cadillac designs: a midsize sedan, a new, small coupe and the fullsize XTS, the replacement for the DTS and STS.

The XTS was a disappointment. At the Heritage Center, I’d encountered a ’68 Fleetwood Brougham limousine in shiny black. That was an imposing car. When it rolled by, you knew somebody filthy rich or very important was in it. The XTS didn’t hit me that way, partly due to the graphite paint job.

Sure, it’s attractive. Yes, it’s an extension of Art & Science. Anyone who likes the current Cadillac look will not be disappointed. But there’s not enough “oomph.” Perhaps it doesn’t matter; I’m never likely to be wealthy enough to buy the modern-day equivalent of a Fleetwood Brougham limousine. In fact, few will ever be. Or should be.

When I returned to the Twin Cities, I found a DTS in taxi service in a garish paint job. How far the mighty have fallen! The XTS can hardly do worse. Memo to GM: Please ensure I can see out the back windows.

Chevy Volt

We headed over to Pre Production Operations (PPO), where GM’s assembling Volts in small batches to test the build processes, components, etc. One of the managers and one of the union reps (Local 160) greeted us at the door. They exuded an air of real cooperation, and I was glad of it.

I like unions. I think they add necessary balance to the workplace. But union organization and the management reaction to it often leads to contention, strife, poor relationships and, for lack of a better phrase, gross inefficiency. If they have that at the Volt PPO facility, they keep it capped. Maybe the shock of bankruptcy has brought about a new era of cooperation. Maybe this plant has always been different. Or maybe the old relationships between GM and the union were never as bad as we thought. In any event, I liked the atmosphere in this building.

There were quite a few Volts in various stages of assembly, all in primer gray metal and black plastic. The dark gray interior stack was attractive. The engine compartment looked fairly normal. Where the car and battery came together, it was obvious the car is different. Otherwise, the Chevy Volt looked like a fairly normal compact car.

Many attendees wanted to know the Volt’s fuel economy after the battery goes flat, how much gas it holds, total range, etc. GM was very evasive. There didn’t seem to be any fuel tanks in view, so I couldn’t make my own estimate.

During the walk-around, we met both Andrew Farah and Frank Weber. I could have sworn I heard Farah mention “400 miles range.” But Weber recently answered the question, “Can I go from Detroit to Chicago on one tank of gas?” with “I don’t know the precise distance but it it’s 300 miles, you should be OK.”  So the Volt’s range is still anybody’s guess.

If the Volt has, as the Detroit News recently reported, an eight gallon tank, if the car goes 350 miles, the “charge sustaining mode” fuel economy is going to be a disappointing 39 mpg.

I started asking Weber questions about the differential and the tradeoff between that and two motors, but the group was moving on and our guide encouraged me to keep up. I moved along, thinking GM wasn’t real keen on tough questions about the Volt.

The Culture Worriers

We headed for the proving ground. Time to drive! Well . . . Not quite. Our handlers herded us into the building, where we cooled our heels until Chris Preuss and GM CEO Fritz Henderson spoke. I took very few notes, but I know that Fritz said that “since bankruptcy, we must think every day about our customers.” And “It’s all about the cars.” They’ve cracked the code!

Henderson repeated an early pronouncement on the Volt: “The biggest problem with the Volt is what to do with old gas in the gas tank.” I suppose if you’re CEO of a giant company, the idea of $40K for a compact car may not be a problem for you. But, trust me: price is the Volt’s biggest problem.

Henderson also promised that “We’re changing the culture of the company”—as if saying it enough times will makes it come true.

Up to this point, the GM Product Technology Event was largely a matter of endurance, with a little bit of wining and dining. The presentations were occasionally interesting and a little enlightening. Equally often, they were boring, uninteresting, vacuous and/or annoying. We saw some pretty cars in the Salons, but that only carries the program so far. Some won’t make it to market, some will change radically before they do. The Salons are an exercise in “maybe” and “maybe” won’t win me over.
In the afternoon, things changed, radically, for the better.
[Part Two is here.]
By on August 11, 2009

After being trapped six weeks in a 1971 time warp, I had the controls of the Curbside Classics time machine all set for the mid-eighties. But once again, fate interceded. Running some errands, I had my first encounter with no less than two 2010 Camaros. Then, on the way home, something called out to me as I tooled down Franklin Boulevard. I found it parked behind the old boarded-up Chevy dealer, and it had an important message for you and me: “beauty is not in the eye of the beholder; it’s in the object itself.” (Read More…)

By on July 13, 2009

Back in the late ‘90s, Hollywood unleashed a barrage of light-hearted, cookie-cutter teen movies. The gist: quasi-geek exists just outside the fringe of the high school “in crowd.” He’s intrinsically smart, casually cool, but socially a bit awkward. He’s followed by legions of adoring and affable nerds, cast in the shadows of the popular conformists. Inevitably, our geek has his eyes on the prettiest girl in school and a thirst for leaping the social chasm to popularity. Predictably, this is accomplished through a bit of dumb luck, by selling his soul through transformational makeover, and by alienating those who supported him. Allow me to introduce the latest geek-turned-sellout: the 2010 Subaru Outback.

By on June 14, 2009

It was November 1989. After a long into-the-evening meeting with Volkswagen execs in Wolfsburg, after the usual after-meeting festivities and after a very short night, I sat groggily behind the wheel of my Audi V8 (as it was called at the time) and headed back to Düsseldorf. Little did I know that what happened that night would gain me the company of sixty near-naked women. Others would gain even more . . .

I planned to hit the Königslutter exit of the Hannover-Berlin Autobahn with the usual élan. That road was not well travelled. Königslutter was the last exit in the free West. Next stop: The Iron Curtain. The death strip. Built to keep East Germans in East Germany.

I intended to make a high speed right turn and go west. Next stop: Düsseldorf. Two hours and forty-five minutes on an empty Autobahn. (These days, six hours is not uncommon.)

I executed the turn. Then, I faced the unbelievable. (Read More…)

By on March 20, 2009

Although it’s not exactly the riddle of the Sphinx (answer: man), many of our Best and Brightest have wondered why GM can’t make a decent car interior. Even before GM Car Czar Bob Lutz assumed the throne (since abdicated), the American automaker has admitted that they need to step up their game within its vehicles. And yet, in the main, the fit and finish of GM interiors still doesn’t make the grade. Obviously, there’s a whole host of contributing factors—from supplier contracts to union work rules. A GM insider recently contacted TTAC to provide an important piece of that particular puzzle. Agent X reveals one of the main reasons GM’s interiors failed to match the competition: the executives didn’t know there was a problem. Still don’t. Here’s why . . .

(Read More…)

By on February 19, 2009

Breathe. Remember this when you drive the Cadillac CTS-V. No matter what happens, continue to breathe, lest you fall victim to what us aviators call G-LOCing, or G-Force Loss-of-Consciousness. Steady, rhythmic breaths will help your body cope with the stresses induced by a four-door sedan capable of hurtling your fragile, carbon based body into speeds that challenge the Theory of Relativity. Entering hyperspace, where the gravity wells of passing stars actually start to affect the navigation system of the CTS-V, you might forget this simple fact, pass out, and crash the American built sports sedan that beats its German competitors into submission.

By on February 14, 2009

A mainstream carmaker has no business building niche products. Literally. For one thing, they’re hardly ever profitable. For another, even when they are, their profits are relatively insignificant. And most importantly, “halo cars” are four-wheeled glass and steel versions of Dumbo’s magic feather. They lead manufacturers to mistake cause with effect: if we build this, we must be good. In fact, any automaker that focuses its creative, financial and corporate resources on a halo car risks forgetting how to do what it did to get those resources in the first place—and an eventual plummet towards the circus floor. The Chevrolet Corvette may be only one of GM’s magic feathers, but it’s the most famous and, therefore, visible. GM should kill it, STAT.

Next week, GM’s heads head back to the bailout buffet. They’ll try to convince your elected representatives to provide another heaping helping of taxpayer bucks (a.k.a. federal loans). Both the company and its camp followers [sic] will, once again, concentrate on the numbers: union wages and benefits, bondholder debt-for-equity swaps, VEBA payments, the old SAAR, the projected SAAR, the car SAAR, who’s SAARy now, etc. And why not? As a Harvard MBA, General Motors lifer and former CFO, GM CEO Rick Wagoner never met a balance sheet he couldn’t dress-up for a party—even if it’s a freaker’s ball.

Which brings us back to the ‘Vette: the freaker’s ball pace car. The Chevrolet Corvette is a singular machine, a modern throwback that offers more bang for the buck than Marietta’s Bullet Stop. An enthusiast who buys one is beyond reproach, in the same sense that a homeowner who restores a Victorian pile deserves nothing by kudos. And? The Corvette is a brand anomaly; it’s as much a Chevy as a Cayenne is a Porsche, only less so. Again, the Corvette is awesome machine in and of itself. But out and outside of itself, it makes no sense.

Do Chevrolet products need a personality? Of course not. The Malibu is the proper template. It’s a car. Good mileage, reasonable price, adequate comfort, reliable (fingers crossed), not ugly. Value. While pistonheads worship at the temple of Bowling Green, Chevy buyers are busy bowling. They’re working class people who can’t afford a sports car, never mind one that costs $50K+. The new ‘Bu and old Impala are their best case scenario.

The only possible defense for this great landing at the wrong airport: symbolic value. “America’s sports car” and all that. Which is why Wagoner should announce its termination.

“Ladies and gentlemen, as you know, General Motor’s future hangs by a thread. The decisions we make today mean life or death for this great American enterprise. We take our responsibility seriously. GM can not—will not—shy away from the unpleasant parts of this monumental task.

“We have therefore decided to re-examine our entire brand and product portfolio, to decide which brands and vehicles can help us survive, and which vehicles and brands we must abandon to ensure our survival.

“It is with great regret that I must announce that General Motors will no longer build the Chevrolet Corvette.

“We here at General Motors are proud of the fine men and women who have designed and built this vehicle for generations of appreciative enthusiasts. But General Motors must leave no stone unturned in our pursuit of profitability. We must address our problems and shortcomings with unflinching honesty, and do whatever it takes to correct them.

“As part of this process, we are refocusing the Chevrolet brand. Chevy will now offer a limited range of entry-level automobiles. Each one of the brand’s three models will provide class-leading quality, comfort, fuel economy and value.

“The Corvette is a world class sports car. But it does not fit our mission-critical effort to restore Chevrolet, and thus GM, to profitability. We take our obligation to repay the generosity of the American taxpayer seriously. If we must sacrifice the Chevrolet Corvette to satisfy our obligations, we will do it.

“At some point in the near future, as soon as we can, the Corvette will rejoin GM’s fleet as a Cadillac. It will be a different car, with the same goal: to give enthusiasts the world’s best and most thrilling sports car, bar none. An all-American product.

“For those of you disappointed by this news, I’d like to point out that we are redoubling our efforts to deliver the plug-in Chevrolet Volt, a hybrid vehicle that will reinvent the way Americans drive. It’s a new kind of product that will help us refocus Chevy on what made the brand America’s most popular car brand.

“I thank you for your time and understanding. Rest assured that as painful as this is, the Corvette’s sacrifice will be GM’s gain.”

Recent Comments

New Car Research

Get a Free Dealer Quote

Staff

  • Contributing Writers

  • Jack Baruth, United States
  • Brendan McAleer, Canada
  • Marcelo De Vasconcellos, Brazil
  • Vojta Dobes, Czech Republic
  • Matthias Gasnier, Australia
  • W. Christian 'Mental' Ward, Abu Dhabi
  • Mark Stevenson, Canada
  • Cameron Aubernon, United States
  • J Emerson, United States